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The War of 1812 Magazine

Issue 3: June 2006

Documents, Artefacts and Imagery

"Gentlemen, let us set an example!"; An Account of the British Attack on Oswego, 1814.

In May 1814, just as the campaign season in the northern theatre was about to commence, British military and naval forces launched an amphibious assault on the small port and town of Oswego, on the south shore of Lake Ontario. Oswego was the transit point for naval supplies coming from the Atlantic seaboard to the major American naval base at Sacket's Harbour, nearly across the lake from Kingston in Upper Canada. Lieutenant-General Gordon Drummond, commanding the forces in Upper Canada, and Commodore Sir James Lucas Yeo, commanding the Royal Navy on the Great Lakes, had planned this operation to seize vital stores and ordnance and thus delay the American naval construction going on at Sackets Harbor. The attack went it, as described below, and was successful in that Oswego, nearby Fort Ontario, and some supplies were captured. It was unsuccessful in that the delay in landing permitted the outnumbered defenders an opportunity to remove most of the vital war materiel inland and thus save it.

Lieutenant Joseph Mermet was a literary minded officer in De Watteville's Regiment. This nominally Swiss mercenary unit had been brought into the British army some years earlier and after serving in the Mediterranean, had been sent to North America in 1813. Oswego was the unit's first action on that continent and Mermet describes it in a letter written to his friend, Captain Jacques Viger of the Canadian Voltigeurs, then serving at Montreal. The original can be found in the National Library and Archives of Canada, Manuscript Group 24, L8, Viger Papers, Saberdache Bleu, vol 4.

To Captain Viger at Montreal

Kingston, 23 May 1814

I received yesterday, my excellent Viger, your two epistles of the 16th, your polite note of the 19th, the gazettes, and the glorious intelligence of the Herald Extra[1], etc., etc., etc.

How sweet it is to be recognized.

Capture of Oswego

On 2 May [1814], between six and seven o'clock in the evening, the colonel[2] came to my quarters, asked to speak to me in private, shook my hand and said to me, trembling with joy, "We have finally been chosen for an operation." "So much the better; there it is." "Write [these orders down] then."

I accordingly wrote, my dear friend, with my heart pounding, leading in other words, and with my pen [following] in time. The order was: "Colonel Fischer, Adjutant Mermet, Surgeon Millet and six companies (each with seventy-five bayonets), will embark tomorrow in light marching order[3]. It is unecessary to recommend good order to men who have sworn to be faithful to the government they serve and whose laws they obey: honour and obedience are a soldier's guides."

We embarked on the 3rd under the orders of Colonel Fischer:

450 men of De Watteville's Regiment, 500, including officers and non-commissioned officers; Fifty men of [the] Glengarry [Light Infantry Fencibles][4], fifty-eight [including officers and non-commissioned officers]; twenty-eight of [the Royal] artillery, thirty-three, including [officers and non-commissioned officers]; 400 Royal Marines, already on board the squadron: grand total, 991.At nine o'clock at night I boarded the Prince Regent[5] with Colonel Fischer. [Captain] De Bersy, [Lieutenant] De Bersy Jr., [Lieutenant] DeLapierre, and [Lieutenant] V. May, our grenadiers and thirty light infantrymen were on the same ship. [Captain] De Courten, the remainder of the light infantry and [Captain] Harting's company were on the Princess Charlotte[6] . [Captain] Zehender and his company [were] on the Wolfe[7] , [Captain] C. Zehender and his company on the Royal George[8] , [Captain] Steiger and his company on the Moira[9] and Melville[10] , etc., etc.

On the 4th, at four o'clock in the morning, the Prince Regent gave the signal and we set sail. Night came between eight and nine o'clock, and we dropped anchor to the east of the Duck Islands.

On the 5th [of May 1814], at two o'clock in the morning, we set sail again. At eight o'clock Oswego was sighted. [It was] Calm at nine o'clock: at ten a slight breeze; at eleven, calm; at half past eleven a light wind [came] from the north. The enemy fired his artillery.

At half past twelve we dropped anchor a mile and a half from the fort, which the Prince Regent saluted splutteringly with six shots. The fort and the position of the enemy were examined and the order was given to disembark. The brigs and schooners were already advancing beneath the fort, and the [American] artillery was firing without success. The fort mounted only three guns in a battery. The Americans moved onto their glacis and onto the beach; countermarching, they arranged themselves in a single rank.

All was ready: we were in the boats. It was three o'clock. A light wind [then blew] from the south. The disembarkation was suspended [and] the brigs and schooners withdrew along the shore. At five o'clock [it was] calm and hot [and] a cloudy sky. The troops left the boats and re-embarked on board the vessels.

At six o'clock we ate amidst a confusion of shouts, whistles [and] a thousand God-damn[s]. "All hands, all Royal Marines upon deck, God-damn! All foreigners below; God-damn! Out and run; be quick, be quick!" At eight o'clock a storm suddenly blew up: "Very well now." The wind was from the northwest and the enemy coast was left behind. We cruised until four o'clock in the morning of the 6th [May 1814]]. The wind blew from the southeast until nine and from the east at ten. The anchor was redropped before Oswego at eleven.

The Princess Charlotte, the Wolfe and Royal George bombard the fort. The order to disembark is given. The enemy places two more guns in the battery. The[ir] fire is livelier. We are packed into the boats. The fifty men of the Glengarries and most of our light infantry are in a flat[-bottomed] batteau with twenty-four oars. Colonel Fischer, Mermet, De Bersy and his grenadiers, and the light infantry under V. May are in the Cleopatra, gun boat. (What an omen! I think of the battle of Actium). The artillery detachment and our centre companies, commanded by Major De Courten, are in reserve behind the large ships. We row. Three hundred Marines under the orders of Lieutenant-Colonel [James] Malcolm [of the Royal Marines] move with us. The brigs and schooners cover our landing [with gunfire].

We hit the beach. The enemy showers us with his murderous shells and smaller shot -- we answer with the triple cry of victory. "Gentlemen, let us set the example!" We land. Our Hercules [Lieutenant Bersy Jr.] is in the water up to his neck. The ears of Mermet serve him as oars. We arrive on the beach, helping one another; we form. Our pouches are full of water -- what does that matter? We have bayonets!

The Royal Marines form twenty paces to our right. The Glengarries extend themselves into the woods on our left. Colonel Fischer commands: "Forward." The drum beats [and] the two columns advanced at the charge. The enemy, formed on the glacis of the fort, continues to fire. We arrive at the foot of the glacis; the enemy throw themselves in the fort and their fire increases. Although the dead and wounded fell, we continue the charge to the top of the glacis. The enemy flees in disorder: we pursue them at a distance of thirty or forty paces. They run faster; a volley would have decimated them, but our muskets did not fire. The Royal Marines enter the fort and the English flag replaces the American. The trumpet sounds [and] we halt. It is six minutes past one, and it was ten to one when Colonel Fischer commanded "Forward."

Two hundred sailors armed with [boarding] pikes enter the upper town. Our four reserve companies land and occupied the fort [while] the Royal Marines join us to the south of the fort, where we set up our camp. All is peaceful. Our seamen cross the river and pass to the lower town. The dead are buried, among which I count, on the left of the glacis, an officer and twenty-three soldiers of the Americans. The wounded and prisoners are transported to the ships [and] excellent biscuit, good spirits and good meat are distributed. The munitions taken from the enemy are sent to our fleet. All is in movement inside the fort and the two towns, on the river and the beach.

General Drummond, Commodore Sir J. L. Yeo, the deputy adjutant general [Lieutenant-Colonel] John Harvey accompanied all our movements and showed coolness, valour and judgement; they visit our camps; they smile and congratulate us.

It is five o'clock: we dine on the grass of the month of May. De Bersy quarters two suckling pigs. Our light infantry and the Glengarries bring us cheese and cigars [while] our grenadiers find us Malaga and Madeira. Drinks are taken from a coconut or from the hollow of one's hand. What a pleasure! ......

At nine o'clock the boats, magazines and munitions which could not be taken away are set on fire. Private property is respected. At two o'clock in the morning the embarkation begins. The fort is dismantled [and] the barracks burned. At four o'clock everything is on board and the squadron sails for Kingston, where we arrive at eight o'clock the same night (the 7th [of May]).

The 8th May, at six o'clock in the morning, we disembarked [at Kingston]. Such was was our expedition. The objective was achieved -- the destruction of the fort and its magazines and munitions, and above all, the rigging which has been almost destroyed, are the enemy's losses and will give us superiority for this [coming] campaign. The losses of the enemy: from seventy to eighty killed and wounded and from sixty to seventy prisoners. Our losses: twenty killed and sixty wounded.

My friend V. May was mortally wounded while landing. The brave Captain Ledergerw was wounded on the glacis and, despite the loss of his finger and the pain caused by a severe wound he continued the charge with his company. Saying "Gentlemen, let us set the example," young De Bersy was the first to jump into the lake in order to reach the shore. Everyone did their duty with honour. The conduct of the officers and men of the 2nd Battalion Royal Marines was above praise. The merit of General Drummond, Commodore Yeo and Colonel Harvey cannot be described. What harmony! What coolness! What confidence! In addition, what order among the troops! What a success!

The fort of Oswego is taken. Its position was superior, its elevation on the north and west is from fifty to sixty feet above the lake and the river, and on the south and east from twenty to twenty-five feet above the glacis. It was defended by 400 men of the enemy's best troops and from 200 to 300 militia, with five guns, ammunition in abundance, etc., etc., etc. This was nothing more than a surprise assault, my dear Viger, but it succeeded well.

What a beautiful vessel the Prince Regent is. Let us leave aside its guns and its racket. [Imagine] forty-two officers in a cabin, seated at their ease, ... babbling a Franco-Anglo-Italian patois (for all these naval officers have been around the world), and how they [talked] and how they listened, and how they sang -- and how they drank! "Gentlemen, a toast: Colonel Fischer and De Watteville's Regt. -- Colonel Malcolm and [the] 2d B[attalio]n. R[oya]l. Marines! Our success! Gen[era]l. Drummond! Sir James Yeo" etc., etc., etc.


[1] The Herald was a weekly newspaper published between 1811 and 1957. Given the date, Mermet is probably referring to news of the abdication of Napoleon in Europe.

[2] Lieutenant-Colonel Karl Viktor Fischer (1766-1821), commanding officer of De Watteville's Regiment during the War of 1812.

[3] That is, with only cartridge box, bayonet, haversack and canteen, as opposed to full marching order.

[4] Only the light company of the Glengarry Light Infantry Fencibles under Captain Alexander McMillan, participated in this expedition.

[5] HMS Prince Regent, a 56-gun frigate, was launched at Kingston in April 1814, she was the flagship of the Royal Navy Lake Ontario squadron in the spring of 1814.

[6] HMS Princess Charlotte, a 44-gun frigate, was launched at Kingston in April 1814.

[7] HMS Wolfe, 20-gun frigate, was launched at Kingston as HMS Sir George Prevost in May 1813 but was renamed Wolfe later in that year.

[8] HMS Royal George, a 22-gun frigate, was launched in July 1809.

[9] HMS Earl of Moira, a 16-gun brig, was launched at Kingston in 1805.

[10] HMS Lord Melville, a 14-gun brig was launched at Kingston in July 1813.