The Town PapersOf Niagara Town, Lincoln County
The following story of the sacking of the Town of Niagara following the occupation by the American troops during the War of 1812-14, is extracted from Annals of Niagara by William Kirby, F. R. S. C., 1896. All references to Newark and Niagara are to the town now known as Niagara-on-the-Lake at the mouth of the Niagara River on the south shore of Lake Ontario, and to the Township of Niagara in which it is located. The city of Niagara Falls further south came into being after the time under study. The records in the links to the right are for Niagara Town and those for the Township of Niagara are in another tab.
Sacking the Town and the Reprisals
The town of Newark was well built at that time. It contained upwards of three hundred houses and buildings of all kinds, as well as many large stores, for the town had been the main place for the wholesale trade of western Upper Canada. Much wealth had been accumulated there, and large, elegant residences, some of brick and stone, were to be seen among the plain but comfortable homes of wood—houses which had been built by the government, and occupied afterward by the officials of the district courts and military staffs. There were two churches—St. Mark’s of stone, and St. Andrew’s of wood—both large structures, besides many hotels, workshops of various trades such as carpenters and blacksmiths, and a large brewery. The government house and court house were large, handsome structures. The gaol had been burnt in the bombardment of the town some months previously.
Butler’s barracks stood where they are now. The streets, broad and at right angles, are the same as at this date. King and Queen streets, with Prideaux street, Ridout street and Front street were the principal thoroughfares. The business streets were King, Queen and Prideaux streets. Gate street, what is now Victoria street, Johnson street, Mississaugua, Simcoe and about the ferry were also much built on. The population before the war had been about 1,500—exclusive of the troops in Fort George and Butler’s barracks, which generally amounted to between 600 and 1,000 men. A good public library, founded about 1800, was in the town. The registry office contained all the legal documents of land grants, transfers, wills, and the records of the courts of law.
The British troops under Colonel Murray pressed the enemy every day within narrower limits, until the American advance piquets were only a little outside the town—from McFarlane’s on the River road to Courtland Secord’s on the Lake Road. Winter was drawing near, and the American commander saw clearly that if his army remained in Newark until the river became impassable from floating ice, as always happens for periods during the winter, his army would be entrapped without a chance of escape, and be compelled to surrender. The total defeat of the two expeditions against Montreal had rendered relief of their troops in Newark out of the question. Nothing but a timely withdrawal from the town could save them from the British, now within musket shot of Fort George. The American Secretary of War Armstrong sent pressing orders to General McClure to evacuate the town and Fort George and retire across the river, with instructions to burn the town so that the British would not find quarters in it during the winter. Secretary Armstrong’s instructions to McClure were conveyed in the following words:
Oct. 4th, 1813.
Understanding that the post committed to your charge may render it proper to destroy the town of Newark, you are hereby directed to apprise its inhabitants of this circumstance, and to invite them to remove their effects to some place of greater safety.
I am,John Armstrong
This order was cruel and unnecessary for any military object. In fact it seems to have been directed in a spirit of revenge for defeat rather than anything else. The order, however, was not unacceptable to General McClure, while it filled with pleasure the traitorous breast of Wilcox, his friend and advisor. Some of the American officers saw the sacrifice of honor in such an act, and the retaliation which it would surely draw after it.
Colonel Chapin of the American Army and General McClure had a violent quarrel over order in the sutler’s store of John McCarthy on Queen street, where McLellan’s store now stands. Chapin opposed the burning of the town, but McClure was inexorable. Wilcox, who had his private grudges against the people who scorned his treason and practices, also urged the burning of the town. This was on December 12. The next day was the 13th—a day of ill omen for Newark. A heavy snow had fallen, and the weather was very cold. Word was sent round the town in the morning ordering people to get out of their houses, with their effects, as the town would be burnt in the afternoon.
The order came like the stroke of doom upon the wretched inhabitants, most of whom were women, children and old, feeble men. Some would not believe that such an order would be executed, and failed to remove their furniture into the street. Many did so, and the streets were piled up with furniture and other effects, while the poor people stood or sat among them in the snow. There were probably four hundred people living in the town at this time.
At one o’clock noon the burning party of two or three companies of soldiers marched from Fort George, with torches and lanterns lit, to set the houses on fire as they proceeded through the town. At the head of the burning party rode McClure and Wilcox, and directed the men into different streets, where the houses were fired in rotation. In half an hour the town was a sea of fire. The furniture in the streets was most of it burnt up—government house, the churches, schools, court house, shops, private dwellings—all went up together in fire and smoke.
Colonel Murray’s troops seeing the conflagration rushed forward to save the town and cut off the enemy’s escape across the river. A hot fight took place with the piquets, but Fort George and the barracks had been evacuated, and the troops had got across the river before Murray forced his way into the town. He saved Butler’s barracks, and that was all. The firing of the town was simultaneous in all quarters, and so hastily was it done that the sutlers in the stores, John McCarthy among them, had not time to remove their goods. All were burnt up—the American commissariat and all. Tents for fifteen hundred men were left standing, which they had not time to carry away.
The sufferings of the people thus turned out in the snow, with their houses burned and no provisions or clothing, may be imagined. Some were in sick beds, women in child-birth, men old and helpless—no one was spared—all were left in the street by the flying enemy who, having done this foul, cowardly act, hastened to get over the river to escape the avenging swords of Murray and Harvey, who rushed into the burning town, and got to the head of Queen street with their troops as the last of the fugitives embarked to cross over to Fort Niagara. The people of the country were profoundly touched by the cruelties inflicted upon the inhabitants of the town. They came with sleighs and removed all of them to the farm houses in the townships, where they were tenderly cared for until the hard time was over.
The sight of the smoking ruins of the beautiful town, and the terrible distress of the inhabitants, drew tears from the eyes of many of the rough soldiers of the British troops, and vows of revenge were made, which in a few days were carried out. Butler’s barracks and Fort George were at once re-occupied. The enemy had not damaged the fort much on leaving it, except for spiking and overturning the guns, which were soon set right again. Colonel Murray resolved to follow up the enemy by an attack on Fort Niagara, but had to defer it until the 16th, and then to December 19, until all his boats were got together for crossing the river.
The destruction of the houses and of much private property belonging to the inhabitants was great, and to most of them it was all they had in the world. The Honorable William Dickson had a fine residence well furnished, and with a library of books, lately purchased in England, worth from $4,000 to $5,000. All were committed to the flames. Mrs. Dickson, ill in bed, was set out in the snow, and looked on while her home was consumed. Her husband, one of the foremost gentlemen in Upper Canada, had been seized, and, with a number of loyal Canadians, carried as prisoners over the river and placed in the dungeon of Fort Niagara, where they were found and happily released when the fort was stormed, a week after the burning of the town.
This act of incendiarism of the town did not evoke any feeling in the United States at first. It was when the terrible retaliation followed it, that people in the States began to denounce the administration at Washington as the cause of it. The loss of political support impressed such fears on the war party, that some were found bold enough to denounce their conduct in the war.
St. Mark’s church, full of flour, pork, whiskey and other commissariat stores, was burnt in the general conflagration, also St. Andrew’s church. The Rev. Dr. Addison, rector of St. Mark’s, so long as his home was within the American lines gave his spiritual services to all alike, friends or enemies, in the town. The good minister of St. Andrew’s, Rev. Dr. Burns, escaped their hands (he had fought valiantly in the defence of the town), but Rev. Dr. Addison was taken and sent as a prisoner of war to Flat Bush, N. Y. He was at last, out of very shame, released and allowed to return home. The seizure of loyal civilians, and sending them as prisoners to the United States, was a new and disgraceful feature in warfare, never practice by any nation before.1 It was a general mode of treating the people of Upper Canada who were not in the army but following their occupations at home. The effect of such conduct was not to daunt or neutralize the spirit of the people, but to make them more resolute than ever to oppose the enemy which resorted to such unlawful acts in a national war.
1. Editor’s Note: Kirby’s assertion that civilians were not previously seized and sent to the enemy country is incorrect. History indicates otherwise.