ALBANY, N.Y. — The War of 1812 battles waged on New York soil aren’t as heralded in American history as those fought during the Revolutionary War at such places as Saratoga. Yet thousands of men died at Niagara, Plattsburgh and other New York locations in a war that began 200 years ago this month.
Two upstate historic sites — Old Fort Niagara and Sackets Harbor Battlefield — are participating in weekend events marking the 200th anniversary of the United States declaring war on Great Britain. The June 18, 1812, declaration began a three-year conflict involving Americans, Britons, Canadians and American Indians. Other events are being held Saturday and Sunday across the river in Ontario, Canada.
The war was fought from the Atlantic Coast to Michigan and from Canada to the Gulf Coast, but much of the fighting occurred along the then-sparsely settled fringes of western and northern New York, and in neighboring Ontario and Quebec. A 25-mile stretch along the Niagara River on both sides of the border, from Fort Niagara to present-day Buffalo, was the scene of numerous battles, skirmishes and raids over a two-year period starting in the fall of 1812.
“It was a real battleground out here,” said Robert Emerson, executive director at Old Fort Niagara, located where the Niagara River empties into Lake Ontario.
Most notable were the battles at Queenston and nearby Lundy’s Lane, both in Ontario, and the British capture of Fort Niagara in December 1813. The Americans’ campaigns in that region were hampered by logistics that required them to haul men and supplies up the Hudson River to the Albany area, and from there 300 miles west to the frontier.
“The roads were wretchedly muddy and rutted so that sending food in by wagons from the east was very expensive,” said Alan Taylor, Pulitzer Prize-winning author of 2010’s “The Civil War of 1812.”
“This meant that often the American forces lacked enough food and other supplies and that undercut morale,” he said in an e-mail.
Sometimes referred to as America’s second war of independence, the War of 1812 broke out over British impressment of American sailors and other issues, not the least of which was the U.S. desire to take over parts of Canada along the shared border with New York. Places such as Buffalo and Sackets Harbor on the eastern end of Lake Ontario became key staging areas for U.S. land and naval operations against British Canada, including several unsuccessful invasions of Ontario and Quebec.
Conditions at the frontier outposts were squalid at best, and downright ghastly in some of the worst places, Sackets Harbor among them. The village and its protected harbor became the main American military base during the war, when it served as the U.S. Navy’s headquarters for the Great Lakes.
It didn’t take long for living conditions to deteriorate for the thousands of soldiers, sailors, shipwrights and others living there. Sanitary discipline broke down, turning the streets and harbor into open sewers that spread diseases such as dysentery through the ranks. Hundreds of soldiers died at Sackets Harbor, but a doctor observed that many were only “slightly buried” within the fortifications because the top soil was so thin and the overworked grave diggers were exhausted.
Several thousand other American troops died in similar fashion or from combat along the Niagara Frontier and at Plattsburgh, where U.S. forces repulsed a British invasion, thanks in large part to the actions of a fleet hastily built along Lake Champlain’s New York and Vermont shores.
A weekend-long Battle of Plattsburgh commemoration is held every year around the anniversary of the clash, Sept. 11, 1814, with re-enactments and living history encampments featured. This year’s event is scheduled for Labor Day weekend.
Saturday’s bicentennial commemoration at Old Fort Niagara will be followed by a War of 1812 encampment on Labor Day weekend, with other events planned over the next three years.
The Sackets Harbor historic site is also kicking off its three-year bicentennial observance this weekend with the dedication of a garden symbolizing nearly two centuries of peaceful relations between the U.S. and Canada. Other events are planned throughout the summer at the Sackets Harbor Battlefield, including an Aug. 3 talk by Taylor, winner of the 1996 Pulitzer for history for “William Cooper’s Town.”
According to Taylor, the War of 1812 taught the U.S. that invading and conquering Canada was far more expensive in money in lives than Americans were willing to pay. As a result, government leaders in Washington and New York “worked hard to keep a peace that has endured for more than 200 years to the immense benefit of both Canadians and Americans,” he said.