"Attack on Fort Oswego, Lake Ontario, North America." May 6, 1814, Noon. By Captain John Hewett, 2nd Battalion Royal Marines. Etched by Robert Havell, London, England, 1 May 1815. From the Collection of the Public Archives of Canada.
This week marks the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Oswego in the War of 1812. Fort Ontario State Historic Site Superintendent Paul Lear helps us commemorate this historic event with the following passage:
Prelude…During the War of 1812, Oswego, N.Y. was a crucial forwarding point on the waterborne supply route and for army campaigns along northern frontier. Fort Ontario, crumbling and un-garrisoned since 1804, was situated on a steep bluff on the Oswego River to guard warehouses, shipping and a small village of inhabitants. By 1814, the war had become a shipbuilding race with both sides vying for control of Lake Ontario. In April of that year, the Royal Navy was in command of the lake and Oswego was defenseless.
Lt. Colonel George Mitchell and five companies of the 3rd U.S. and Light Artillery Regiments arrived at the fort on April 30 after spies reported the threat of an imminent attack either on Oswego or Sackets Harbor. They were ordered to guard supplies and stores, send what they could upriver to safety and hide what couldn’t be transported in the woods.
It all started when…Shortly after sunrise on May 5, lookouts at Fort Ontario spotted seven ships belonging to the Royal Navy. Although Mitchell had completed most of his orders and stood little chance of victory against overwhelming numbers, he and his officers resolved to resist an attack as long as possible. Mitchell would fight with 290 artillerymen armed with muskets, 200 militiamen and 5 light cannon. The British ships carried 1,000 Royal Marines and troops, 1,000 sailors and 222 heavy cannon. Villagers packed up what belongings they could and fled to the countryside as the fort sounded warnings and the militia came in from the sparsely settled countryside.
Around 1:30 p.m., the British reached Oswego. U.S. Navy Captain Melancthon Woolsey organized the militia to dump cannon and munitions in the river to avoid capture. The British moved in to draw American fire and determine the number and location of their cannons. Around 4 p.m., the weather changed and British troops were ordered back on board ship. As the last men returned aboard, a violent storm struck and the ships scrambled to get away from the treacherous shore. The weather cleared during the night and the fleet returned the next morning.
The battle resumes…On the morning of May 6, three ships returned to the harbor. Despite the disadvantage in numbers, the Americans gave as good as they got. Around 10 a.m., the H.M.S. Prince Regent and Princess Charlotte moved in to cover the troop landings with their massive broadsides. Mitchell gave final orders to his men not to quit their posts until driven away at bayonet point.
About 11 a.m., 200 seamen, 350 Royal Marines, 58 men of the Glengarry Light Infantry Fencible Regiment and 160 Swiss troops of the DeWatteville Regiment approached the shoreline. The naval bombardment that began hours earlier reached a crescendo, with acrid white smoke covering the fort and the sounds of ear-shattering rolling broadsides reaching Kingston, Sackets Harbor, and Syracuse.
As the main landing force grounded east of the fort by Flat Rock, near what is now known as the Fitzgibbons Boilerworks property, men jumped out of boats into cold lake water. When cannon fire from the ships and gunboats slackened as the marines and troops waded ashore, the American militia moved to the edge of the wooded shoreline to pepper them with musketry.
Once on shore, Lt. Colonel Victor Fischer ordered “Forward!” at 11:50 a.m. Outnumbered six to one, Mitchell’s blue line of soldiers and sailors was driven back and slowly retreated up the slope towards the fort, turning and firing as they went. Two British lines with fixed bayonets drove forward, cheering, yelling and firing ragged volleys with many wet and unreliable muskets. Soon, the slope between the fort and present post cemetery was filled with bleeding dead, dying, and wounded men of both sides.
The Royal Marine column charged into the ditch and up the ramparts, taking withering musket fire from the Americans on top. Other marines swept across the parade grounds, driving Americans before them. When Mitchell received word that the enemy was in the fort, he ordered a retreat and his men reluctantly ran from the ditch with the enemy on their heels, escaping capture by mere seconds. As Mitchell halted south of the fort to re-organize, a bugle sounded and the Union Jack was run up the flagpole; it was 12:06 p.m. In exactly sixteen minutes nearly 40 Americans and 90 British officers and men lost their lives or were wounded.
In the aftermath…Retreating south, burning bridges to impede the enemy, the Americans fell back to Oswego Falls, now known as Fulton, to join militia gathering there. The British did not follow and busied themselves raising scuttled schooners, salvaging sunken cannon, loading barrels of food, munitions, and other valuable supplies and stores onto their ships. Finally, they left and sailed for Kingston around 4 a.m. on Saturday, May 7.
For the British, the prize was not worth the cost but another victory helped strengthen their position at the bargaining table in treaty negotiations. In the end, neither side won the War of 1812, which was fought for different reasons by both sides, but the young United States earned worldwide respect as a nation; one that would stand up for its rights, even if it meant taking on the most powerful military in the world.
Fort Ontario State Historic Site, located at 1 E. 4th St. in Oswego, is preserved as a memorial to those who served and continue to serve our great nation, in times of war and of peace, from the French and Indian War to the War in Afghanistan. On Saturday, May 10, at 1:30 p.m., Paul Lear will lead a free walking tour of the site of the 1814 Battle of Oswego beginning in the fort’s tunnel entrance. For details, call Lear at (315) 343-4711 or visit www.fortontario.com.
Here are views from the historic site:
For more information about Oswego County’s fascinating heritage and events, visit our Web site at www.visitoswegocounty.com.