Historic America

St. Lawrence in Flames

In 1813, war raged between Great Britain and America. The Saint Lawrence River, dividing the two powers in North America, became a thoroughfare for bloody conflict.

The War of 1812, fought between the United States and Great Britain between 1812 and 1815, arose from a dispute over maritime trade and U.S. territorial ambitions on British Canada. The war went badly for the U.S., with British troops burning Washington, DC in August 1814. The St. Lawrence River, as the border between the United States and Canada, was a vital waterway that saw dozens of small naval battles as each side sought to control it. Both sides attacked vulnerable supply shipments being ferried up and down the river.

Battle of Ogdensburg

At the mouth of the Oswegatchie River on the south bank of the St. Lawrence River, Ogdensburg was originally a French trading settlement and home to more than 3,000 Iroquois Indians. By 1812, American settlers had built a small village and established trade with British Canadians across the seaway.

With the outbreak of hostilities, Brig. General Jacob Brown used Ogdensburg as a jumping-off point for raids on British shipping. The Americans began building Fort Oswegatchie between what is now Franklin and Elizabeth Streets on Riverside Drive to defend the village.

On the chilly morning of February 22, 1813, the fort was still unfinished. The St. Lawrence River had completely frozen over, and a contingent of 520 British troops hauling several cannon on sleighs, led by Lieutenant Colonel “Red George” MacDonell, advanced across the ice. Ogdensburg was defended by Major Benjamin Forsyth and 250 militia and regulars from the 1st U.S. Rifle Regiment.

Sir George Prevost, Governor General of Canada, gave Lt. Colonel MacDonell permission to make a demonstration on the river across from Ogdensburg, but MacDonell ordered a full-scale attack. MacDonell took 380 men and advanced on the village, while a Captain Jenkins and 140 regulars and militia advanced on the old barracks and ruins of Fort La Presentation, where Forsyth was based.

Captain Jenkins was wounded in both arms, and his men retreated back to the Canadian shore. But they distracted Forsyth’s riflemen long enough for MacDonell’s contingent to overwhelm the small village garrison. American forces abandoned the village and left it under British control until the war’s conclusion. 20 Americans were killed, six wounded, and 70 taken prisoner in the affair. British casualties numbered six killed and 44 wounded.

Battle of Cranberry Creek

In late July 1813, the American Navy learned that several British bateaux loaded with munitions, salt pork, pilot bread, and other supplies, escorted by the Spit Fire, were bound up-river for Fort Henry at Kingston, Ontario. Two privately-armed schooners, the Neptune and Fox, were dispatched from the naval base at Sackets Harbor to intercept them. Major Dimoch of the Forsyth Rifles commanded approximately 72 riflemen and militia on board.

They caught up with the flotilla in Goose Bay on July 20 and sized 15 ships and their cargo. Taking precaution, the Americans ran aground far up stream and Major Dimoch prepared an ambush in the woods at the mouth of Cranberry Creek. He positioned two artillery pieces, six and twelve-pounders, on Reester’s Hill.

It wasn’t long before a British brig and several supporting bateaux appeared. When approximately 250 British soldiers in bateaux pursued the Americans into Cranberry Creek, Major Dimoch sprung his trap. The riflemen felled two tall pines over the mouth of the creek near Island Number Nine to block the exit and opened fire with their cannons and muskets.According to an 1895 account, only seven Americans were killed to 15-20 British in the engagement, with an unknown number wounded.

Battle of Chateauguay

The American effort to capture Montreal in British Canada in 1813 was known as the St. Lawrence Campaign, since it focused on militarily dominating the St. Lawrence River. In September, Maj. Gen. James Wilkinson and 8,000 men departed from Sackets Harbor, New York and advanced east along the river, while Maj. Gen. Wade Hampton and 4,000 men advanced north from Plattsburgh on Lake Champlain.

Hampton advanced along a road following the Châteauguay River’s north bank, while local French Canadians fed intelligence to British Lt. Col. Charles de Salaberry and his men. Salaberry erected barricades across the road and blocked a ford over the river. On October 26, Hampton split his force into two wings, each with 1,000 men. One wing attempted a frontal attack, while the other swung around the river and attacked the ford.

Both attacks were unsuccessful. The Americans stood in line out in the open, while the British Canadians fired from behind breastworks and felled trees (called abatis). Hampton, who had considered withdrawing anyway, didn’t call artillery forward to pound the defensive works. The result was a lopsided defeat, with the Americans losing 23 dead, 33 wounded, and 29 missing to the British Canadian’s 2 dead, 16 wounded, and 4 missing.

Battle of Crysler’s Farm

Meanwhile, Maj. Gen. James Wilkinson continued east along the St. Lawrence River, while British Lt. Col. Joseph Wanton Morrison’s much smaller force of 900 to 1,200 men pursued. Both sides made camp near Morrisburg on November 10. The next morning, battle occurred almost by accident when scouts began firing at each other, making both armies believe an attack was imminent. Morrison had chosen Crysler’s Farm because of its open terrain, while the Americans had to slog through swampy ground to reach the British.

As luck would have it, Maj. Gen. Wilkinson was sick, so Brig. Gen. John Parker Boyd was left in command. He attacked piecemeal, and with only 2,500 men. The American attack quickly faltered over rough terrain and a British counterattack drove them back. The American expeditionary force withdrew, leaving 102 killed, 237 wounded, and 120 captured. The British lost 31 killed and 148 wounded. Maj. Gen. Wilkinson was later accused of negligence during the campaign but was exonerated in a court martial.

It was an embarrassing defeat for the Americans, and this, alongside the defeat at Chateauguay, persuaded them to abandon plans to march on Montreal.

From that moment on, guns fell silent along the St. Lawrence River. The war ended with the signing of the Treaty of Ghent on December 24, 1814, which established peace without any territory changing hands.

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