Tuesday, August 13, 2013

Siege of Fort Erie Reenactment

This weekend I had the pleasure of attending the Siege of Fort Erie, an annual reenactment of the 1814 siege held at the site of Old Fort Erie across Lake Erie's eastern end from Buffalo, New York. As usual I was part of the Fort Meigs volunteer group (the Old Northwest Military History Association or ONMHA for short) portraying Captain Daniel S Cushing's Company, 2nd United States Regiment of Artillery. Since the fort itself was defended by men from the 1814 Corps of Artillery (the successor organization to the three regiments of artillery formed in 1812), as well as regular soldiers from Ohio, we had the double honor of representing a regular artillery force from Ohio. We brought along a six-pounder on a field carriage, and formed a section of field artillery with the Michigan Legionary Corps' four-pounder. There were also two smaller guns manned by the 17th United States Infantry (detached) and the people of the USS Ferret, which formed a second static section. All together, we formed a respectable company of artillerists, especially when the garrison's own 12-pounders and 18-pounders chimed in.

 I took my Ipod along, and took as many pictures as I could without risking too much anachronism.

The Fort:

First things first: a plan of the fort itself as it appeared during the siege. Our gun occupied the redan at point A. The original attack took place at the bastion at right [a] (see last weeks' post).

At the time of the battle, the stone fort was incomplete. The two ravelins (at bottom) were separated from the main works by a flat open plain. American soldiers strengthened the defenses as best they could.

The fort as it has been reconstructed today. It was blown up after the Americans successfully defended it in 1814.

Niagara Parks has done a great job in the past few years of improving the vistor experience here. The last time I came out for a reenactment, there was only a small shanty selling tickets, concessions and gifts outside the fort--and one very small restroom. It was replaced with a large visitor center, museum, and a complex of trenches representing the British siege works. They have a new working 18-pounder siege gun, which was extremely impressive. Since the vent was poorly drilled, however, it proved extremely unreliable. 

Rocket launchers. The British were the first to develop modern rocket weapons, and the only major power to use them during the Napoleonic Wars. This was probably because they were so inaccurate as to be mostly useless on a tactical level-- their main impact was Francis Scott Key's mention of the "rocket's red glare" in his poem.

Inside the Walls:
Two barracks buildings, which themselves were loopholed to act as a kind of citadel inside the fort, overlook a small parade ground. The fort's powder magazines were tucked under the bastions, one of which can be seen in the background here. During the night battle, the British overran this bastion, only to be blocked by musketry from the barracks and the alley between them. They turned an 18-pounder around on the bastion to sweep the inside of the fort, only to be swept off themselves when the poweder magazine beneath them erupted. At the end of the siege, this bastion was nothing more than a crater.

Looking from outside the curtain wall, towards the sally port giving the defenders access to the outer works. It was constructed in an L shape to block any cannon fire or assault.

The officer's quarters on the second floor of a barracks. The place was supposed to be pretty unhealthy-- one Captain died of the ague contracted here, and the owners of his deathbed donated it to the fort.

 The British officers of the garrison would have fought off boredom here, in the officer's mess. The American headquarters during the time they occupied the fort was further back along the lake shore in a farmhouse, but would not have been much different.

Enlisted men's quarters. These are typical of the small British garrison. The British soldiers enlisted for 20 or 25 years at a time, and might bring their wives and children to live with them in barracks like these. When the Americans were here quarters would have been much more makeshift. Most of them camped behind a series of earthen traverses like those at Fort Meigs, planned with the help of Meigs' own Major Eleazar D. Wood.

The guard room, with a special platform that allowed men in full kit to grab some sleep. The guard consisted of men posted in a series of individual pickets along the perimeter of the fort, and a "guard" or platoon sized pool of men to relieve them and make regular rounds. When not active, the guard would rest here and keep warm.

The surgery and hospital. Surgeries were done on a table, elevated so that the surgeon's mate could get as good access as possible to the patient. As much light as could be afforded came from the windows and lanterns.

The Camp:
Our camp was behind the fort. The theory of castrametation or setting up military camps was that you should set up the tents so that the unit can form up in a short amount of time. Thus, we place the common tents in front with NCOs at the ends of the line, officers behind them, and cooking flys and lounging areas off behind the "business" portion of the camp.
The fronts of the different regiments' camps form avenues and alleys, a city under canvas.
Looking across the end of the lake to downtown Buffalo, New York.

A Surprise Attack:
For the night battle, we found ourselves stationed on the elevated redan on the curtain wall of the fort. Several smaller guns took station along the ditch outside. We were expecting trouble, so that a company of riflemen was sent out on the plain as a picket. Several companies of infantry lined the walls and outer works. I was loading the cannon, but brought along my musket in case the British got into the fort.

We had a box seat for the ensuing fight. The British line brushed aside our skirmishers and advanced to the edge of the ditch, although our guns tore swaths through their ranks. Then they bashed their way into the fort under a hail of musketry. We had to stop firing our cannon when they were over the ditch and into the interior of the fort, because we couldn't depress the muzzle enough to sweep them off with canister. I took up my musket and joined the men firing from the wall. It was a close and bloody fight. A few of the Brits got into the bastion at far left, but somehow set off the powder magazine and disappeared in an impressive sheet of flame. Others, including Caldwell's Western Rangers, ran afoul of a hornets nest in the ditch and ran screaming, covered in angry bees (or maybe just one guy got stung, I was too busy emptying my cartridge box at them to see very well). It was all over in a few minutes. For once we had the pleasure of seeing the Big Red Machine retreating over a field littered with red coated bodies. The Invasion of Canada was working!


Alas, the higher brass decided that it was strategically pointless to hold on to this part of the Niagara peninsula without controlling Lake Ontario too. So we ended the weekend by blowing up the fort and retreating to Buffalo (after a tedious interview at Customs). But we'll be back...