The War of 1812 Magazine
Issue 16: September 2011
Documents, Artifacts, and Imagery
War on the Ice: The British Attack on Ogdensburg, 21 February 1813
By D.E. Graves
One of the ironies of the War of 1812 is that those who lived in the areas where the heaviest fighting took place had little to do with the origins of the conflict. The war was a direct outcome of the tension between Britain and the United States brought about by the issue of maritime rights but it was largely fought along the border between the republic and British North America. A classic case in point was the settlements on both sides of that stretch of the St. Lawrence River between Kingston and Montreal. Prior to the war these communities had lived peaceably together and had enjoyed good personal and economic relations but war changed all that and these neighbouring communities now found themselves on the front line of a conflict that was none of their doing.
On 21 February 1813 a British and Canadian force under Major George Macdonell stationed at Prescott on the northern bank of the St. Lawrence made a daring attack across 1,800 yards of frozen river against the village of Ogdensburg, NY. This attack was prompted by raids made on the Canadian villages of Brockville and Gananoque made by Captain (later Major) Benjamin Forsyth of the United States Rifle Regiment. Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Pearson, the British commander in the area with headquarters at Prescott, had planned a retaliatory action but was refused permission to carry it out by his superiors. In the event, on the day that Pearson left Prescott for Kingston, his second-in-command, Major George Macdonell of the Glengarry Light Infantry, converted permission to make a "demonstration" into a full scale assault, using Pearson's plan.
The following anonymous account of that attack, almost certainly by an officer of the Stormont Militia Regiment, was first published in the Literary Garland of 7 January 1849 and can now be found in the Archives of Ontario in Toronto in the Miscellaneous Manuscripts. There is no evidence that confirm the identity of the narrator although my suspicion would be that it was Lieutenant Alexander McLean of the 1st Flank Company of the Stormont Militia but that is only a suspicion. Some attempt has been made to identify the other officers involved but this has been hampered by many instances of the same names appearing (probably father and son) - for example, of the eight officers in the two Stormont flank companies, no less than three bore the name Philip Empey.
I have added new paragraphing to improve the narrative flow and I have silently corrected some of the recurring spelling mistakes, the author persisted in spelling lieut. and lieutenant as leuit. and leuitenant, for example.
I am grateful to Dennis Carter-Edwards for bringing this document to my attention.
The Capture of Ogdensburg
From the Literary Garland January 1849
On the 22nd of Feb'y 1813 the town of Ogdensburg was attacked by the British troops from Prescott, and complete success attended the Enterprise.
The attacking force was cheifly [sic] composed of the Militia of the Counties of Stormont, Dundas Glengarry and Leeds. The Actors, in the conflict have now passed away but in order to preserve the memory of those days the following narrative of the affair of Ogdensburg was taken from the lips of an actor in the engagement and published in a magazine January 1849. From the Literary Garland of that date We read as follows:
On the declaration of War, [Major] Genl. [Isaac] Brock then administrator of the Government in Upper Canada addressed the Colonels of Militia in the Eastern and other Districts calling upon them to assemble their regiments, and take the necessary steps to repel invasion. An Act was passed authorizing two companies of Each Battalion to be Embodied and to be styled the Flank Companies of the Battalion. The Stormont regiment furnished its two companies instant[ly]; one was commanded by Captn. Philip Empy [Empey] of Cornwall. The others by Captn. William Morgan of Osnabruck. The strength of these companies was one hundred men each. When the regiment was assembled the entire battalion volunteered for six months service. As soon as it was known that two Companies only were to be formed, Every man manifested the strongest desire to be one of the "two hundred." The Selection was made from the young unmarried men and these companies were known as the "Stormont Flankers."
In the Autumn of 1812 they received orders to move to Prescott. Arriving at their post there was no barracks to Shelter them. Our cabins or Shanties were constructed by them of rough [stones or sods], roofs of plank being furnished by the Commissariat.
Lieutenant [sic] Col. [Robert] Lethbridge was commanding Field [sic] Officer at Prescott. When they arrived on the evening of the 3rd October, he announced to the Militia on Parade his intention to attack Ogdensburg next Morning at daylight ‑- and accordingly on the morning of the 4th the whole force there Embarked in batteaux [sic] at the wharf and proceeded about a mile up the river before pulling accross [sic]. It was an ill managed business for the current carried them down in front of the Enemies [sic] batteries, whilst yet some hundred yards from the Shore and there exposed to the fire of grape and round shot, the batteaux cheifly [sic] pulled by the Militia got into confusion and rowed back to Prescott. This was not a cheering commencement but we lived on hopes of "better luck next time"
Shortly after this there seeming to be no immediate occasion for the services of the "Stormont Flankers" they were permitted to return home. Scarcely had they done so when Lieut Col. [Thomas] Pearson inspecting field officer then on his way to Prescott from Montreal, ordered them back. They found the stone shanties they had erected in the possession of the Leeds Militia and put up with inferior quarters in a large stone house above the village. Col. Pearson succeeded Col. Lethbridge before the winter set in bringing with him as Staff Adjutant Lieut [George] Ridge of the 8th [Foot] (or Kings Regt) a company of this regiment under Captain [James] Eustace, shortly after joined the garrison, which then consisted of a few Artillery men a detachment of the [Royal] Newfoundland [Fencible Infantry] Regt and Militia. Subsequently two companies of the Glengarry Light Infantry [Fencibles] reached the post from Montreal, under the command of Major Macdonell (late of the Kings) on their way up they had successfully attacked and captured Prisoners at Salmon River from a block house of the enemy in retaliation for a coup they [the Americans] had made at St. Regis, where fifty voyageurs had been surprised and made prisoners.
The Ogdensburg Garrison had frequently made raids on the Canadian Shore, annoying the inhabitants. This they had done at Brockville, Ganaoque [Gananoque] and other places. Ogdensburg had been a centre of annoyance, and our men were all anxious to give them a taste of "our quality." Our Militia too were subjected to hard drilling. The Garrison was under Arms Every morning before daylight and remained so until the pickets came in. Lieut Ridge the Staff Adjutant already referred to was a very active office and a capital drill. He selected fifty men from the "Stormont Flankers" and other militia from the Eastern District ‑- these he joined to the detachment of the Newfoundland and had them all out on the ice in front of Prescott every day until they were perfect as light Infantry.
This Continued for some time, when on the 19th February Col. Pearson despatched Major Macdonell with a flag of truce to Ogdensburg remonstrating with the Enemy's Commanding officer against sending merely predatory parties across the river; This officer (a Major Forsythe) [Major Benjamin Forsyth of the U.S. Rifle Regiment] in conversation expressed his desire to meet Col. Pearson with his force on the ice, Major Macdonell gave him to understand that the command at Prescott would shortly devolve upon him and he certainly would have no objection to gratify his wish.
On the 21st [of February] 1814 the command did devolve upon him. On that Evening [Lieutenant-General] Sir George Prevost passed through Prescott on his way to Kingston. Being made acquainted with the wanton local aggressions of the Enemy instructed major Macdonell to "watch his opportunity" and retaliate. Sir George passed on to Kingston but the Major evidently thinking when fighting is the order of the day, no time like the present determined to gratify the Ogdensburg Major without delay but not a syllable was tittered on the Subject. On the night of the 22nd apropos the birthday of Washington everything was still in Prescott, all save the Guards and pickets ‑- there warm under blankets, when about one o'clock a.m. the slumber of several officers was disturbed by an orderly to say they were wanted at the Commandants quarters ‑ on repairing thither, a few brief questions and instructions followed by the order to return to their quarters and have their men out before daylight "without beat of drum" was the result of the nocturnal visit. Accordingly about half past six, the garrison was under Arms.
The force disposable for attack was less than five hundred men. And was divided into two columns, one of these under the command of Captain [John] Jenkins consisted of his Company of Glengarry Light Infantry and two companies of Militia, one from the County of Glengarry commanding by Captain [Alexander] McMillan the other from the county of Dundas under Captain [Michael] Ault ‑- a six pounder gun was attached to this column but there were only two Royal Artillery men with it. The other column consisted of about one hundred men of the 8th Regiment ‑ fifty of the Royal Newfoundland and two hundred Militia, the latter column at the at the hour named was formed in the main street of the village, the former on the road a short distance above the village.
At peep of day the major came to the Parade in the street and by this time Every man knew then intention was "a visit to Ogdensburg." But a short time elapsed after the Majors [Macdonell] appearance before the word was given "Forward" both Columns were in motion and soon on the ice, Jenkins had been directed to push over to the heights, above the old French fort and having established himself on the shore there to dispose his force to attack the enemy or cut of [sic] his retreat if he fled before the left column (which was the main body) under Macdonell himself, which moved towards the lower part of the village of Ogdensburg.
The story ran that the Enemies Sentries seeing so large a force on the ice, gave the alarm that the British were coming over; but the Yankee Major [Forsyth] did not believe the report, observing It is only that fellow Ridge drilling his men (as had been Ridge's daily practice) however a few minutes undeceived him as the columns advanced at a brisk pace, Jenkin's column got in motion first and had a shorter distance to go so that when the Enemy's fire opened he had the full benefit of the guns of the fort. Those on the Green Battery (on the point where the Lighthouse now is), being directed on the main body.
Almost the first Cannon shot upset the six pounder Jenkins had with him, killing the only two royal Artillery men with it ‑- this happened when half way over the river however on went the column and reached the shore, where an unforseen obstacle presented itself, the snow drift on the shore had accumulated, to flounder through it ‑- up to their middle was no easy task and Jenkins gave the Word to keep to the ice along the bank. Owing to this circumstance the men were much more exposed and the plan of operations to some extent defeated for it had been intended that the left column should get across at some distance from the Fort and attack it from above or not attacking intercept the retreat of the Enemy as circumstances might decide.
As it was Jenkins moved directly towards the fort. When within pistol shot of it he was knocked over by a grape shot which shattered his left arm on his legs again in a minute (seeing his men put out by his fall) he shouted never mind me, and ran on a few steps farther when down he went again, the right arm now shattered like its fellow. Rise again, he could not, what with this second mischance and long exposure on so open a surface, as the ice, the men in confusion began to turn back. Lieut Macauley endeavoured to restore confidence but was unsuccessful and the left column found its way back to the British shore all the time under fire of the Enemy's cannon. They carried their gallant young leader with them however.
When they reached their own shore their [sic] stood the late Bishop [Alexander] Macdonell whose courage was equal to his Loyalty ‑- reforming them as they came in and sending them to join the main body by that time on the shore of the other side Jenkins more rapid advance had had the effect of calling most of the Enemy's attention to him, and Major Macdonell observing the left column had more than its share of the flying missiles sent forward. Lieut [Alexander] MacLean (present M.P. for Stormont) of the militia to overtake Lieut Ridge who was at the head of the column with his Newfoundlanders and Selected Militia Men ‑- and direct him to hasten on with all speed to divert some of the Enemy's fire from the right column. The Newfoundlanders had no officer of their own corps with them being under the command of Ridge of the 8th or Kings Regiment. The officers of the half hundred Stormont and Dundas Militia attached to the Newfoundlanders were Lieut[s] [Daniel] Burritt and Peter Fraser.
McLean came up with Ridge just as the advance approached the deep snow bank on the south side of the river And having delivered Major Macdonells orders the men pushed on with all speed but such was the depth of snow that before the men got to the road on shore they were all completely out of wind. It was necessary to call halt for a few minutes the men were got together behind a slaughter house; while in that position, two or three of the enemy's militia armed with rifles came round the corner and were made prisoners.
After taking breath - the advance was resumed. Along the river bank two a breast a fine young fellow of the Dundas Militia and McLean were the leading files. A man issued from a house ahead and taking deliberate aim fired and young Ondereack pitched forward dead, his slayer was soon rolled over in the snow well perforated and the death avenged.
On reaching the street leading to Parish's house, a number of men were seen collected at a corner and it was observed they had three pieces of artillery with them, these had been placed at that point to command different approaches. These they were endeavouring to wheel round upon the advancing British but the snow was so deep and the guns so heavy (two twelve, and one six pounder) they were slow in doing it.
Lieut Ridge was now leading and perceiving their intentions shouted to increase speed, on they rushed like the wind for had the guns been fired they would have cleared the street ‑- and every muscle was strained to reach them. The Enemy seemed daunted by the speed and ardour of the advance for only the six pounder was discharged its contents was only one round shot and its only damage was leaving its mark on McLeans left thigh, the guns were captured, and the on[e] that had not been fired were turned on the retreating Enemy with effect. After which they were spiked by breaking the points of bayonets in the touch holes and hammering them down with the butts of fire locks.
The main body was by this time seen coming up rapidly along the main road and the advance having taken breath pursued the retreating Enemy towards the Black River over a hill near where the Post Office then was under the fire of the Fort and battery East of Parish's store. The Green Battery as one was styled directed its fire on the main body. The advance rushed on with the intention of storming the Battery East of Parish's Store when they observed a company of the Osnabruck Militia from the main body commanded by Capt [William] Morgan advancing to storm it, which they did successfully. The enemy in the Green Battery, perceiving it had fallen into the hands of the British turned their guns upon it and compelled the Osnabruck people to abandon it. Lieut. Empey and a private names [named] Servos [Thomas Servis] has their legs carried away in the battery by round shot.
The main body by this time had come up with the field pieces, and a few shots directed at the Green Battery compelled the enemy to abandon it. Major Macdonell then dispatched an officer to summon the fort but ere he reached it, the enemy was in full retreat, over a distant eminence.
Thus fell Ogdensburg. The total British loss was eight killed and fifty‑two wounded. A large quantity of munitions of war fell into our hands, and eleven pieces of ordinance [ordnance], among them two twelve pounders, inscribed, as having fallen into the hands of the rebels, at the surrender of General Burgoyne, in 1777. Four officers, and seventy men were made prisoners.
There was no further annoyance from Ogdensburg, after this visit. The Magistrates of the place pledging themselves to that effect.
More than half our force engaged was militia and with the exception of about a hundred of the 8th or King's Regt were provincials, ‑- the Glengarry Light Infantry having been raised by Bishop Macdonell, in and around Glengarry U[pper]. C[anada]. As to the Royal Newfoundlanders, their name sufficiently denotes where they were raised. The Militia lost three privates killed and on[e] Captain, three subalterns, and twenty frank and file wounded. The Officers wounded were Captain McDonell, Lieuts. Empey. MacLean and McDund? [McDermid] Col. Wm Fraser of Grenville commanded the Militia force, and the Captains, under him were ‑ McMillan, Duncan Macdonell (Greenfield), Morgan and Empey. Stormont: Jonas Jones, and William Jones, of the County of Leeds; Burritt and William Fraser, of the County of Grenville, George Merkle and John McDonell of the County of Dundas. Major Macdonell's despatch gives an account varying somewhat from the preceding statement.
This, however is not to be wondered at for a combatant can only give what falls under his observation.
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