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War of 1812: Success on Lake Erie, Failure Elsewhere



War of 1812: Success on Lake Erie, Failure Elsewhere

Gen. William Henry Harrison

Photograph Source: Public Domain

1812: Surprises at Sea & Ineptitude on Land | War of 1812: 101 | 1814: Advances in the North & A Capital Burned

Victory in the Northwest

As Perry was constructing his fleet through the first part of 1813, Harrison was on the defensive in western Ohio. Constructing a major base at Fort Meigs, he repelled an attack led by Major General Henry Proctor and Tecumseh in May. A second attack was turned back in July as well as one against Fort Stephenson (August 1). Building his army, Harrison was ready to go on the offensive in September following Perry's victory on the lake. Moving forward with his Army of the Northwest, Harrison sent 1,000 mounted troops overland to Detroit while the bulk of his infantry was transported there by Perry's fleet. Recognizing the danger of his situation, Proctor abandoned Detroit, Fort Malden, and Amherstburg and began retreating east (Map).

Retaking Detroit, Harrison began pursuing the retreating British. With Tecumseh arguing against falling back, Proctor finally turned to make a stand along the Thames River near Moraviantown. Approaching on October 5, Harrison assaulted Proctor's position during the Battle of the Thames. In the fighting, the British position was shattered and Tecumseh killed. Overwhelmed, Proctor and a few of his men fled while the majority were captured by Harrison's army. One of the few clear cut American victories of the conflict, the Battle of the Thames effectively won the war in the Northwest for the United States. With Tecumseh dead, the threat of Native American attacks subsided and Harrison concluded an armistice with several tribes at Detroit.

Burning a Capital

In preparation for the main American push at Lake Ontario, Major General Henry Dearborn was ordered to position 3,000 men at Buffalo for a strike against Forts Erie and George as well as 4,000 men at Sackets Harbor. This second force was to attack Kingston at the upper outlet of the lake. Success on both fronts would sever the lake from Lake Erie and the St. Lawrence River. At Sackets Harbor, Chauncey had rapidly constructed a fleet that had wrested naval superiority away from his British counterpart, Captain Sir James Yeo. The two naval officers would conduct a building war for the remainder of the conflict. Though several naval engagements were fought, neither was willing to risk their fleet in a decisive action. Meeting at Sackets Harbor, Dearborn and Chauncey began to have misgivings about the Kingston operation despite the fact that the objective was only thirty miles away. While Chauncey fretted about possible ice around Kingston, Dearborn was concerned about the size of the British garrison.

Instead of striking at Kingston, the two commanders instead elected to conduct a raid against York, Ontario (present-day Toronto). Though of minimal strategic value, York was the capital of Upper Canada and Chauncey had intelligence that two brigs were under construction there. Departing on April 25, Chauncey's ships carried Dearborn's troops across the lake to York. Under the direct control of Brigadier General Zebulon Pike, these troops landed on April 27. Opposed by forces under Major General Roger Sheaffe, Pike succeeded in taking the town after a sharp fight. As the British retreated, they detonated their powder magazine killing numerous Americans including Pike. In the wake of the fighting, American troops began looting the town and burned the Parliament Building. After occupying the town for a week, Chauncey and Dearborn withdrew. While a victory, the attack on York did little to alter the strategic outlook on the lake and behavior of the American forces would influence British actions the following year.

Triumph and Defeat Along the Niagara

Following the York operation, Secretary of War John Armstrong chastised Dearborn for failing to accomplish anything of strategic value and blamed him for Pike's death. In response, Dearborn and Chauncey began shifting troops south for an assault on Fort George in late May. Alerted to this fact, Yeo and the Governor General of Canada, Lieutenant General Sir George Prevost, made immediate plans to attack Sackets Harbor while American forces were occupied along the Niagara. Departing Kingston, they landed outside of the town on May 29 and moved to destroy the shipyard and Fort Tompkins. These operations were quickly disrupted by a mixed regular and militia force led by Brigadier General Jacob Brown of the New York militia. Surrounding the British beachhead, his men poured heavy fire into Prevost's troops and compelled them to withdraw. For his part in the defense, Brown was offered a brigadier general's commission in the regular army.

At the other end of the lake, Dearborn and Chauncey moved forward with their attack on Fort George. Again delegating operational command, this time to Colonel Winfield Scott, Dearborn watched as American troops conducted an early morning amphibious assault on May 27. This was supported by a force of dragoons crossing the Niagara River upstream at Queenston which was tasked with cutting off the British line of retreat to Fort Erie. Clashing with Brigadier General John Vincent's troops outside of the fort, the Americans succeeded in driving off the British with the aid of naval gunfire support from Chauncey's ships. Forced to surrender the fort and with the route south blocked, Vincent abandoned his posts on the Canadian side of the river and retreated west. As a result, American troops crossed the river and occupied Fort Erie (Map).

1812: Surprises at Sea & Ineptitude on Land | War of 1812: 101 | 1814: Advances in the North & A Capital Burned

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