During the War of 1812, known as America’s “Second War of Independence,” the young United States faced its first test as a free and independent nation. Locked in a life and death struggle with the British Empire, small frontier communities along the St. Lawrence River, from Ogdensburg to Sackets Harbor, found themselves on the frontlines.
Great Britain’s increasing “search and seizure” of American merchant ships had ultimately led to the Embargo Act of 1808, outlawing trade with Britain and its possessions. Widespread smuggling ensued along the American and Canadian border, as until this time the Americans in the region were enjoying a prosperous trade with Canada. The armed brig Oneida and a company of marines were sent to Sackets Harbor in 1809 to enforce the Embargo.
During the Embargo, Jacob Brown was a well known smuggler who defied the federal ban on trading with the British. In fact, a road in the area was nicknamed “Brown’s Smugglers Road.” Some called him “Potash Brown” for the potash he had slipped across the border. In his “day job”, however, Brown had been a school teacher and land speculator, and founded the village of Brownville near Sackets Harbor.
When war broke out, New York Governor Daniel Tompkins commissioned Brown a Brigadier-General, placing him in charge of the militia along the Northern Border. While Brown had little formal military training, he had a keen mind and an instinctive understanding of military strategy. Brown believed that by using Sackets Harbor as a base for naval operations and Ogdensburgh as a base for hit-and-run attacks on British convoys, he could weaken the British hold on Upper and western Canada. One of Brown’s first actions was to fortify the naval base at Sackets Harbor, and to begin building fortifications at Ogdensburgh.
In Ogdensburgh, the American forces decided that since the old French Fort La Presentation was in ruins, the American troops to be stationed at the village needed better defenses. The Americans agreed to build a new fort, named Fort Oswegatchie, between what is now Franklin and Elizabeth Streets on Riverside Drive to defend the village. Brown urged the governor to strengthen the Ogdensburgh garrison, convincing him to send Brown, and a Rifle Regiment under the command of Captain Benjamin Forsyth, to Ogdensburgh where they could more easily attack British shipping.
While they awaited completion of the new fort, Forsyth’s forces were housed in the old barracks and French Fort on what is now Lighthouse Point. While the American troops began their campaign to harrass British shipping, Mr. Ramee, a former engineer for French Emperor Napoleon, directed the construction of the fort and gun emplacements. Throughout the fall of 1812, work continued on the fort and cannon emplacements which would be used to ward off enemy attacks. Unfortunately for the village of Ogdensburgh, by the winter of 1813 Fort Oswegatchie was still unfinished, unmanned, and undefended. When the British launched their invasion against the village, British troops landed on the river’s shore a short distance from the unfinished fort. With no American troops or cannon to harrass their landing, the 500 British deployed through the village up Franklin Street past the empty fort Oswegatchie into the village. With only 50 American militia defending the village, the British quickly overran the community, dooming Brown’s hope for the village as a base for harrassment of British shipping.
The mission of Forsyth’s First Regiment of Rifles was to provide protection from the British for the surrounding areas, and to keep watch for military movement on and along the St. Lawrence River.
While under orders not to commence hostilities against the British, early in February 1813 Forsyth learned that the enemy had crossed the St. Lawrence River onto American territory and abducted a number of Americans. They were being held prisoner and allegedly were treated “with severity” at a local jail in what is now Brockville Ontario (then called Elizabethtown). Suspecting that the prisoners might be executed, Forsyth took it upon himself to consider this adequate reason to take action against the enemy.
“In consequence of this intrusion of the enemy on our soil . . . I left this place with a part of my rifle company and a party of volunteers for the purpose of retaking the prisoners and chastising the insolent enemy,” wrote Forsyth. Covered by darkness at about 10:00 pm on the night of February 7, 1813, the party of 200 set out on the 28 mile round trip through ice, snow, and bitter cold. Reaching Elizabethtown (now Brockville) at about 3:00 am, the force surrounded the jail, demanded and were given the keys to the cells. Aside from a single shot from a nearby window wounding one of Forsyth’s men, no resistance was offered. Forsyth freed the 53 prisoners, including one major, three captains, three lieutenants and one surgeon’s mate. He also took several prominent Canadians hostage, and brought them back to Ogdensburgh, along with 134 muskets, twenty rifles, two casks of fixed ammunition, and some other supplies.
Even before this raid the British considered Benjamin Forsyth a sharp thorn in their side, and a growing danger. His capture of Brockville galvanized the American side of the border, and badly frightened the Canadian shore of the St. Lawrence River. The Canadians saw him as the leader of a dangerous band of maurauders willing to strike anywhere, at any time. The British also accused Forsyth and his troops of being a pack of thieves who plundered what they captured. Col. “Red George” MacDonnell saw Forsyth’s presence in Ogdensburg as particularly dangerous.
After Forsyth’s raid on Brockville, MacDonnell grew even more angry when he learned some of Forsyth’s troops had also slipped across the ice and stolen horses from a British farmer. Under a flag of truce, MacDonnell sent his men to Ogdensburgh to ask for the horses return and the punishment of those responsible. Forsyth’s men denied they were responsible for the theft.
Forsyth ordered the British to return to the safety of Fort Wellington, suggesting that he would gladly meet their commander, “Red George” MacDonnell on the river’s ice at the earliest opportunity. When MacDonnell learned of the challenge, he promised himself to give Forsyth his wish.
A few days later, when the Governor General of Canada, Sir George Prevost, visited Prescott on his way upriver to Kingston, MacDonnell urged him to grant permission for an invasion of Ogdensburgh. Prevost, a more cautious sort, ruled against such an attack, telling MacDonnell such a raid would be unwise. MacDonnell advised Prevost that Forsyth by now probably knew that the Governor General was in Prescott. Two British soldiers had deserted from Fort Wellington and knew of Prevost’s presence there. MacDonnell suggested to Prevost that Forsyth and his rifles would probably not be able to resist the chance to capture the British Governor General of Canada on his trip to Kingston. Frightened by the idea, Prevost ordered a large force from Fort Wellington to accompany him to Kingston. But he still would not authorize an attack on Ogdensburgh. He would only agree to allow MacDonnell to parade his troops on the ice to distract Forsyth’s attention while he made his trip to Kingston. In his written orders, Prevost told MacDonnell that he could only “attack Ogdensburgh if the “imbecile conduct of your enemy should offer you an opportunity for his destruction and that of the shipping, batteries and public stores.” But Prevost warned that he did not want MacDonnell taking any action that would risk the transport of British supplies through Prescott on its way to Upper Canada.
MacDonnell, still angered by Forsyth’s insults, promised himself to get his revenge. Rather than just parading his troops, he ordered a full scale attack.
On February 22, coincidentally George Washington’s birthday, the British forces, about 800 strong, launched their attack on Ogdensburgh. Colonel “Red George” McDonnell, who had long argued that Ogdensburgh’s American stronghold and Major Benjamin Forsyth’s Rifle Company posed a serious threat to the British, had won permission from the British Governor General only to make a demonstration on the ice. But seizing the opportunity, and stung by the American attack on Brockville, and Forsyth’s insults a few days before when British officers had asked the American commander to keep his men from embarking upon raids on the Canadian shore, MacDonnell ordered his men to attack.
Leading a force of 500 men, McDonnell marched upon the village of Ogdensburgh while Captain Jenkins led a separate force of 300 who where supposed to attack the Americans from the upstream side of what is now Lighthouse Point
Jenkins’ force was originally intended to attack or cut off any retreat from the fort if the Americans attempted to escape when MacDonnell’s larger force subdued the village, and then attacked the fort from the downstream side of the point, across the Oswegatchie River’s mouth.
British accounts claim that the Americans sighted the two British columns marching across the ice, but wasted time because Forsyth refused to believe they were attacking. The British claim Forsyth thought the British troops were only drilling, a frequent practice on the ice.
Unfortunately for Jenkins, the American Rifle Regiment in the fort did realize that his force was attacking. Jenkins force, when it was halfway across the river, not too far from the American cannon at the fort, on the point, and in other locations around the fort, opened up in full on the approaching British troops. The first cannonade upset Jenkins only cannon, and killed the only two artillery men with his force who knew how to fire it. Jenkins force marched on in the face of the American fire, but when they approached the American shore, they found the snow had drifted to the point that the British found themselves wading to their middle. The soldiers were forced to get on the other side of the drifts, on the exposed shore, where they were easy targets for Forsyth’s riflemen. Jenkins had originally intended to land farther from the fort and move his force to a point where they could cut off any retreat, but instead, already under fire, they were forced to directly assault the rifle regiment. As they began their charge, Jenkins himself was felled by grapeshot which shattered his left arm. He climbed to his feet, and seeing his men wavering in the face of the American cannonade and rifle fire, “He was on his legs again in a minute and seeing his men put out a little by his fall, alive to the influence of example, or all sense of personal suffering or danger being lost in his ardor to his duty, he shouted to them, ‘Never mind me,’ and ran on a few steps farther, urging his men forward.” The American fire then shattered his right arm, and Jenkins fell again. This time he was unable to rise. His men, after watching their commander fall, and after being exposed to heavy fire from the American rifle and cannon shot, lost heart and began to flee before the fire. They managed to carry the wounded Jenkins with them, but left their dead, and some of their wounded behind as they ran back to the Canadian shore.
At the Canadian shore, Bishop MacDonnell, a clergyman, formed the men back into units sent them back across to join Colonel MacDonnell’s main force, which had entered the thinly defended village, thanks largely to Jenkins attack, which had drawn the bulk of the American fire and attention.
Meanwhile, Colonel “Red George” MacDonnell and his 500 men attacked the lightly defended village. They made quick time as they marched up from the river, up Caroline Street to Washington Street. When they reached the corner of Caroline and Washington, they split into two groups. One group headed down Washington Street past David Parish’s mansion, and then headed up State Street. The other group marched up Caroline, turning at Ford Street. Near the corner of Ford and State Streets, some of MacDonnell’s men came face to face with an iron 12 pounder mounted on a wheel carriage which had been taken from Burgoyne at Saratoga. The cannon had been a trophy from the Revolutionary War. Captain Giles Kellogg of the Company of Artillery from Schoharie County commanded the cannon. Kellogg and his men had been sent to Ogdensburgh in late December to help protect and defend the inhabitants of the northern frontier. Unfortunately, the Americans had expected the main attack to come from the west, over the Oswegatchie River Bridge at the end of Ford Street. “Great was their surprise when they turned and discovered 500 soldiers advancing” upon them, one survivor of the attack later wrote. Kellogg had to spend precious time turning their cannon around to face the enemy marching in formation up the street toward them, wounding and killing some of the Ogdensburgh militia and Kellogg’s Artillery Company manning the cannon. As the British approached, Kellogg fired his cannon, but the screw used to elevate the cannon broke after the first shot, disabling it. With this cannon useless, Kellogg and his men withdrew, heading over the bridge to join Captain Benjamin Forsyth’s rifle regiment a the fort on the west side of the Oswegatchie.
After the British captured Captain Giles Kellogg’s artillery position, only St. Lawrence County Sheriff Joseph York stood between the British forces and their capture of Ogdensburgh. When Kellogg’s men withdrew, Sheriff York and his men stayed on to face McDonnell’s onslaught alone. York and his men occupied an artillery position located near the corner of State Street and Ford Street. They manned a brass six pounder, mounted on a wheeled carriage. York fired at the advancing British, as the invaders fired volleys at them. Two of York’s men, Joseph Kneeland and Mr. Hyde fell mortally wounded. The rest of York’s militia, seeing the cause was lost, turned and fled for their lives before the withering volleys from the British muskets. York remained alone. A survivor of the attack wrote that York “disdaining to leave his post at the moment of danger, resolved to face the enemy alone. While he was engaged in charging the guns, the soldiers approached with guns levelled, ready for the order to fire.” Then the captain of the British force raised his hand and turning tto his company, said: “There stands too brave a man to shoot.” York was taken prisoner. The British gathered the cannon they found in the village, bringing them to the east bank of the Oswegatchie River, near what is now the U.S. Customs building where they were used to lay seige to Forsyth’s main force across the Oswegatchie at the old French fort.
The village now in hand, MacDonnell then turned his attention to the fort where Forsyth and his rifles were busily repelling what was left of Jacobs forces.
After its complete success, even Prevost had to praise the wisdom of the attack. He was so pleased, in fact, he altered MacDonnell’s official report to make it appear that the attack was a direct result of Prevost’s own orders to retaliate for the Brockville raid.
Of course the British would not stand for this intrusion, and promptly retaliated for Forsyth’s raid. Major “Red” George Macdonnel of the Glengarry Light Infantry choose to strike directly at Forsyth. On the morning of February 22, 1813, 480 British and Canadian troops crossed the frozen St. Lawrence River from Prescott to Ogdensburgh. In little more than an hour, eleven field pieces and all the American ordinance, marine, commissariat and quartermaster general’s stores were taken by the Macdonnel’s troops. They also captured 70 prisoners, including four officers. They also burned two armed schooners, the Niagara and the Dolphin, along with two large gunboats and the barracks, while Forsyth and his rifle company retreated to Sackets Harbor increasing that garrison’s strength for the important battle that would take place there in the Spring of 1813.
The British victory was short-lived, however, as the American forces successfully defended the border at Sackets Harbor. The war ended with the Treaty of Ghent on Christmas Eve in 1814, when the U.S. and Great Britain signed an accord calling for peace without territorial concessions from either side.