[Tim Compeau narrates] In the summer and fall of 1814, the British and Americans conducted a desperate struggle for control of the Niagara peninsula. The focus of the campaign in August and September was Fort Erie, which guarded the entrance into the Niagara River from Lake Erie. Canada’s History visited with the museum curator and manager Heather Gorman to learn more about this important historic site.
[Heather Gorman] On July 3, 1814, the Americans took over old Fort Erie. There was about 3,500 U.S. troops and a British garrison of about 137 here, so they took it over without much effort. After that, they fought the Battle of Chippewa, the Battle of Lundy’s Lane and in August of 1814, the British followed the Americans back down to Fort Erie. They dug in siege lines and they lay siege to the fort. It was a two-month bloody struggle including two massive assaults.
The first one on August 15th of 1814 when the British tried to retake the fort back from the Americans, it ended tragically with a gunpowder magazine exploding up with 600 pounds of black powder. It took out half of the fort and 350 men instantly. After that, the British continued to bombard the fort until September 16th of 1814.
At that point they decided that they weren’t going to be able to get the fort back; they were running low on supplies, they had no food, everyone was getting very sick from the cold wet summer that they had had, and they decided to pull out of the trenches.
The Americans didn’t know that. On September 17th they launched a full-scale attack into the British siege lines. They took the first two batteries and the British pushed them back from the third, all the way back to the fort.
In that one day of fighting there was about a thousand casualties, total. After that, the British pulled out of the siege lines on September 21st 1814, ending the siege of Fort Erie. The Americans stayed here until November 5th at which point in time they blew up the fort as they went back to the States, and the war ended on December 24th of 1814. So because of that two-month struggle that happened here, Old Fort Erie is Canada’s bloodiest battlefield. Old Fort Erie is a living history site. We offer guided tours as well as self-guided tours throughout the fort.
It starts off with a 13-minute video that we made in connection with WNED on the siege of Fort Erie. Then people take a tour through our siege works that we’ve recreated to tell the British, Canadian and Indigenous story and then they come into the fort where we tell the American story.
After that we do a musket demonstration or a cannon demonstration depending on the time of the day and the weather. We do a skirmish every day through our trench lines and we also have a full interactive museum that people are welcome to wander through on their own.
We host Canada’s, actually North America’s largest annual 1812 re-enactment. It’s the siege of old Fort Erie. We do a massive re-enactment where we blow up the fort with pyrotechnics and afterwards we do lantern tours through the fort where people see what the fort would have been like under attack.
So they wander through, there’s vignettes happening in every room, there’s still explosions going on and people shooting and it’s confusing and dark and it’s really interesting, people just love it.
Probably the best example of this bi-national 200 years of peace comes from Old Fort Erie as well. In 1987, while they were building new homes down the lakeshore road they found 28 U.S. skeletons that were buried during the siege of Fort Erie.
The people didn’t know whose job it was to dig up these bodies. If it was the homeowners, or if it was the Canadian government, or if it was the American government because they were American soldiers… but in the end they decided that the American army was going to pay for half of it and the local Canadian government was going to pay for the other half. They worked together to excavate those 28 soldiers.
They repatriated them back to the States they closed the Peace Bridge and they piped these 28 hearses across and then they were all buried with full military honors in Bath, New York in a military cemetery.
I think it’s just the greatest example of 200 years of friendship.
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