Fort Niagara – Historic Landmarks

THIS fortress is in latitude 43 deg. 14 Sec. N. In 1679, a small spot was enclosed by palisades, by M. De Salle, an officer in the service of France. In 1725, the fort was built. In 1759, it was taken by the British, under Sir William Johnson. The capture has been ascribed to treachery, though there is not known to be any existing authority to prove the charge. In 1796, it was surrendered to the United States. On the 19th of December, 1813, it was again taken by the British, by surprise; and in March, 1815, again surrendered to the Americans. This old fort is as much noted for enormity and crime, as for any good ever derived from it by the nation in occupation. While in the hands of the French, there is no doubt of its having been, at times, used as a prison; its close and impregnable dungeons, where light was not admitted, and where remained, for many years after, clear traces, and a part of the ready instruments for execution, or for murder. During the American Revolution it was the headquarters of all that was barbarous, unrelenting, and cruel. There, were congregated the leaders and chiefs of those bands of murderers and miscreants, that carried death and destruction into the remote American settlements. There, civilized Europe revelled with savage America; and ladies of education and refinement mingled in the society of those whose only distinction was to wield the bloody tomahawk and scalping-knife. There, the squaws of the forest were raised to eminence, and the most unholy unions between them and the officers of highest rank, smiled upon and countenanced. There, in their stronghold, like a nest of vultures, securely, for seven years, they sallied forth and preyed upon the distant settlements of the Mohawks and Susquehannas. It was the depot of their plunder; there, they planned their forays, and there they returned to feast, until the hour of action came again.

Fort Niagara is in the State of New York, and stands on a point of land at the mouth of the Niagara River. It is a traditionary story, that the mess-house, which is a very strong building and the largest in the fort, was erected by stratagem. A considerable, though not powerful, body of French troops had arrived at the point. Their force was inferior to the surrounding Indians, of whom they were under some apprehensions. They obtained consent of the Indians to build a wigwam, and induced them, with some of their officers, to engage in an extensive hunt. The materials had been made ready, and, while the Indians were absent, the French built. When the parties returned, at night, they had advanced so far with the work as to cover their faces, and to defend themselves against the savages, in case of an attack. In progress of time, it became a place of considerable strength. It had its bastions, ravines; its ditch and pickets; its curtains and counterscarp; its covered way, drawbridge, raking batteries; its stone towers, laboratory, and magazine ; its mess-house, barracks, bakery and blacksmith shop; and, for worship, a chapel, with a large ancient dial over the door, to mark the hourly course of the sun. It was, indeed, a little city of itself, and for a long period the greatest south of Montreal, or west of Albany. The fortifications originally covered a space of about eight acres. At a few rods from the barrier gate, was the burying ground; it was filled with memorials of the mutability of human life; and over the portals of the entrance was painted, in large and emphatic characters, the word ” REST.”

It is generally believed that some of the distant for-tresses of France were often converted into state prisons, as well as for defensive purposes. There was much about Fort Niagara to establish the belief that it had been used as such. The dungeon of the mess-house, called the black hole, was a strong, dark, and dismal place; and in one corner of the room was fixed the apparatus for strangling such unhappy wretches as fell under the displeasure of the despotic rulers of those days. The walls of this dungeon, from top to bottom, had engraved upon them French names, and mementos in that language. That the prisoners were no common persons was clear, as the letters and emblems were chiselled out in good style. In June, 1812, when an attack was momentarily expected upon the fort by a superior British force, a merchant, resident at Fort Niagara, deposited some valuable articles in this dungeon. He took occasion, one night, to visit it with a light; he examined the walls, and there, among hundreds of French names, he saw his own family name engraved, in large letters. He took no notes, and has no recollection of the other names and memorials; he intended to repeat his visit, and to ex-tend his examination, but other avocations caused the subject to be neglected; and it was not brought to mind again until late years, when all was changed.

In further corroboration that Fort Niagara had witnessed scenes of guilt and foul murder, was the fact that, in 1805, it became necessary to clear out an old sink attached to the mess-house. The bones of a female were found therein, evidently, from the place where discovered, the victim of some atrocious crime.

There were many legendary stories about the fort. In the centre of the mess-house was a well of water, but, it having been poisoned by some of the former occupants, in latter years the water was not used; and it was a story with the soldiers, and believed by the superstitious, that at midnight the headless trunk of a French general officer was often seen sitting on the curb of the old well, where he had been murdered, and his body thrown in; and, according to dreamers and money-diggers, large treasures, both in gold and silver, have been buried in many of the nooks and corners of the old fort. Many applications used to be made to the American officers, to dig for money, and per-sons have been known to come from a considerable distance for that purpose. The requests were, of course, refused.

Of late years, matter of fact has been more strange than romance. William Morgan was kidnapped from the jail in Canandaigua; carried in a post coach, undiscovered and by violence, for more than one hundred miles, through a populous country; the perpetrators, at the time, unsuspected; was lodged in the magazine at Fort Niagara, for three or four days; and then was never more seen. He was the last human victim offered up in these recesses of oppression and blood. What future scenes are to be acted in this useless and ruinous old fort, time will divulge.

In the palmy days of Fort Niagara, before the last war with England, and while in possession of the United States, the commanding officer was the principal man in the surrounding country for many miles, and the lieutenants and under officers, men of considerable importance; but the show and éclat of military command have vanished, and the farmer, the mechanic, and the man of business, fill, independently and respectably, their allotted stations.

0N the morning of the 11th of September, the day of the battle on the Brandywine, the main strength of the American army was posted on the heights east of Chad’s Ford, and commanding that passage of the creek. The brigades of Muhlenberg and Weeden, which composed Greene’s division, occupied a position directly east of the ford; Wayne’s division and Proctor’s artillery were posted upon the brow of an eminence near Chad’s house, immediately above the ford ; and the brigades of Sullivan, Sterling, and Stephen, which formed the right wing, extended some distance up the river, on the left of the main body. At Pyle’s Ford, two miles below, General Armstrong was posted with one thousand Pennsylvania militia, to guard that pass. General Maxwell, with about one thousand light troops, took post on the heights upon the west side of the river, about a mile from Chad’s Ford, to dispute that passage.

At daybreak, the column under Cornwallis moved along the Lancaster road, which, for several miles, ran nearly parallel with the Brandywine. General Howe was with this division. Knyphausen and his command moved for-ward at nine o’clock. A dense fog enshrouded the country, and the scouting parties of both armies often came in close contact before they were aware of their proximity. From behind the walls of the graveyard of the Kennet meeting-house, and also of houses, trees, and clumps of bushes, parties of militia kept up an annoying fire upon the advancing enemy. Knyphausen, however, pushed forward toward Chad’s Ford. He sent a strong advance party to dislodge Maxwell. They met at about ten o’clock, and a severe engagement ensued. Maxwell was driven back to the verge of the stream at the ford, where he was re-enforced. Turning upon his pursuers, he made a furious charge. The ranks of the enemy were thrown into confusion, and fell back upon Knyphausen’s main column. Unable to cope with Maxwell in open battle without bringing a larger force into action, Knyphausen sent a detachment through the woods to make an attack upon his flank. Perceiving this movement, Maxwell retreated across the stream, leaving the whole vast bank of the Brandywine in possession of the enemy.

Knyphausen now brought forward his ordnance, and from the brow of the hill upon the west side of the stream he kept up a strong cannonade upon the Americans, without attempting to cross. The fire was returned with spirit by Proctor’s artillery. Knyphausen did not cross the Brandywine, because he was instructed by Howe to amuse the Americans with feigned efforts to make the passage of the ford, until Cornwallis should cross above, and gain the right and rear of the patriots. This accomplished, Knyphausen was directed to push across Chad’s Ford, when the two divisions of the royal army would make a simultaneous attack. During these manoeuvres of Knyphausen, several detachments of the Americans crossed the river, and boldly attacked his flanking parties and those who were labouring to throw up intrenchments. Captains Porterfield and Waggoner having secured a footing on the western side, General Maxwell recrossed the stream with a considerable force, drove the enemy from the ground, killed about thirty men, and seized a quantity of intrenching tools, with which they were constructing a battery. Knyphausen sent an overwhelming force against them, which soon drove the Americans back to their lines on the east side of the river.

General Sullivan, who commanded the right wing of the Americans, was ordered to guard the fords as high up as Buffington’s, just above the forks of the Brandywine. He sent scouting parties in various directions to observe the movements of the enemy. Colonel Moses Hazen was stationed with a considerable force at Jones’s Ford. Between nine and ten in the morning, Colonel Theodoric Bland, with some light horse, crossed the Brandywine at Jones’s Ford, and discovered a portion of Cornwallis’ division marching toward the west branch, at Trimble’s Ford. Bland despatched a messenger to Sullivan with the information, which was confirmed by another despatch from Colonel Ross (dated at ” Great Valley road at eleven o’clock “), who was in the rear of Cornwallis’ division, informing Sullivan that ” five thousand men, with sixteen or eighteen field pieces, were on the march for Taylor’s and Jefferies’s Fords.” Similar intelligence was sent by Colonel Hazen. These accounts reached Washington, from Sullivan, between eleven and twelve o’clock. The commander-in-chief immediately ordered Sullivan to pass the Brandywine and attack Cornwallis, while he, with the main division, crossed, and engaged Knyphausen at Chad’s Ford. General Greene, of Washington’s division, was ordered to cross the river above the ford and gain Knyphausen’s rear. Before these several movements could be executed, counter intelligence was received by Sullivan from Major Spear, of the militia, posted upon the forks of the Brandywine, who informed him that there was no appearance of an enemy in that quarter. Spear’s information was confirmed by Sergeant Tucker, who had been sent out in that direction expressly to gain information. Relying upon this intelligence, Sullivan halted. He despatched a messenger to Washington with the information, and the meditated attack upon the enemy at Chad’s Ford was abandoned. Greene, who had crossed with his advanced guard, was recalled.

While Washington was thus kept in suspense by conflicting intelligence, Cornwallis gained his coveted advantage. He made a circuitous march of seventeen miles, keeping beyond the American patrols, crossed the west branch of the Brandywine at Trimble’s Ford, and the east branch at Jefferis’s, and gained the heights near the Birmingham meeting-house, within two miles of Sullivan’s right flank, before that general was certain that Howe and Cornwallis had left Kennet Square! This apparent want of vigilance on the part of his patrols drew upon Sullivan the severest censure of the public. Already the failure of an expedition against British posts on Staten Island, under his general command, had biased public opinion against him; and Congress, wherein Sullivan had several active enemies, had directed General Washington to appoint a court to investigate the matter. The disasters which occurred on the Brandywine were charged to Sullivan’s want of vigilance, energy, and skill, and he was held responsible for the defeat of our troops. Even his honourable acquittal, by a court-martial, subsequently, did not altogether remove from the public mind a distrust of his ability as a general officer.

When Sullivan was assured, by a note from Colonel Bland, dated at ” quarter past one o’clock,” that the enemy were in great force on Osborne’s Hill, a little to the right of the Birmingham meeting-house, he despatched a messenger to Washington with the intelligence, and marched immediately to oppose the enemy. His division consisted of his own, Sterling’s, and Stephens’ brigades. Upon the gentle slopes near the Birmingham meeting-house he began to form his line for battle, his left extending toward the Brandywine. It was an advantageous position, for both flanks were covered by thick woods; but, in consequence of the delay in waiting the return of the messenger with orders from the commander-in-chief, the rough and broken character of the ground, and the time occupied by Sullivan in making a wide circuit in bringing his brigade to its assigned place in the line, he was not fully prepared for action when the refreshed and well-formed battalions of the enemy, under Cornwallis, came sweeping on from Osborne’s Hill, and commenced a furious attack. The advanced guard were German troops. On arriving at the Street road, they were fired upon by a company of Americans stationed in an orchard north of Samuel Jones’s brick dwelling-house. The Hessians returned the fire, and the action soon became general. The artillery of both armies opened with terrible effect; and while the Americans maintained their position, the carnage was great. The most indomitable courage was displayed, and for a while the result was doubtful. The Americans, many of them unskilful militia, repelled charge after charge of the well-disciplined infantry, chasseurs, grenadiers, and guards of the enemy, until overwhelming numbers obliged them to yield. The right wing of the Americans, under General Deborre, first gave way, and the left, under Sullivan, soon followed. The latter officer used every exertion to rally the flying troops, but in vain. In broken fragments they fled over the fields toward the main division of the army at Chad’s Ford. The centre division (Stirling’s brigade), in which was General Con-way, with eight hundred men, yet remained firm as a rock in the midst of the wild ocean of carnage. To this division Sullivan now attached himself, and, with Stirling and Lafayette, engaged personally in the hottest of the battle. To this point Cornwallis directed his energies. His artillery made dreadful breaches in their ranks, and strewed the earth with the slain. Resistance was vain, and, when hope no longer encouraged the contending patriots of the centre, they, too, wheeled, and joined their comrades in their flight. Two of Sullivan’s aides were killed; and Lafayette, who had leaped from his horse, and, sword in hand, was endeavouring to rally the yielding patriots, was wounded in the leg by a musket-ball, and fell. Gimat, his aide, helped him on a horse, and he escaped. Despair seized the troops, and every effort to rally them was, for a time, vain. They fled to the woods in the rear, pursued by the victorious enemy. Some of them were rallied half a mile northward of Dilworth, and a brief encounter en-sued between the fugitives and the pursuing party of the left wing of the enemy. The conflict was short, and the Americans again fled. The British right wing got en-tangled in the woods, and did not participate in the subsequent engagement, when Greene checked the pursuers.

On receiving intelligence of the approach of the British, Washington, with Greene’s division of Virginians and Pennsylvanians, pushed forward to the support of Sullivan, leaving General Wayne at Chad’s Ford to oppose the pas-sage of Knyphausen. When the first cannon-peals from the Birmingham meeting-house broke over the country, Greene pressed forward to the support of the right wing. His first brigade, under General Weedon, took the lead, and so rapid was their march that they travelled four miles in forty minutes. Between Dilworth and the meeting-house they met the flying Americans, closely pursued by the British. Greene, by a skillful movement, opened his ranks and received the fugitives, then, closing them again, he covered their retreat and checked the pursuers by a continual fire of artillery. At a narrow defile about a mile from the meeting-house, in the direction of Chester, flanked on each side by woods, he changed his front, faced the enemy, and kept them at bay while the retreating party rested and formed in his rear. Greene defended this pass with great skill and bravery until twilight, when the pursuers encamped for the night. In this defence the brigades of Weedon and Muhlenberg were greatly distinguished, particularly the Tenth Virginia Regiment, under Colonel Stevens, and a Pennsylvania regiment, under Colonel Stewart.

We have observed that the plan of the enemy was to attack the Americans front and rear at the same time, by Cornwallis gaining the right flank of the patriots, and Knyphausen crossing the Brandywine at Chad’s Ford. The firing of heavy guns on the American right was to be the signal for the German general to ford the stream. When the firing commenced at the Birmingham meeting-house, Knyphausen observed the departure of Greene’s division, and the consequent weakening of the defence of the passage of the river. He immediately made a proper disposition of his troops for crossing. Wayne was on the alert, and, the moment Knyphausen’s forces moved forward, he opened upon him a heavy fire of artillery from his intrenchments and the battery near Chad’s house. Although in no condition to oppose nearly one-half of the British army, he stood firm at first, and gallantly confronted the heavy and steadily progressing columns. But on receiving intelligence of the defeat of Sullivan at Birmingham meeting-house, and discovering that a considerable force of the enemy, who had penetrated the woods, were coming out upon his flank, Wayne ordered a retreat. This was accomplished in great disorder, leaving his artillery and munitions of war in the hands of Knyphausen. They retreated, in broken columns and confused fragments, behind the division of General Greene, then gallantly defending the pass near Dilworth, and joined the other defeated troops. The approach of night ended the whole conflict. The Americans retreated to Chester that night, where they rendezvoused, and the next day marched toward Philadelphia, and encamped near Germantown. General Armstrong, who was stationed at Pyle’s Ford, had no opportunity to engage in the action. The British remained upon the field, near Dilworth, Howe taking up his quarters at Gilpin’s, a few miles from Chad’s Ford.

Military men, when considering the battle of Brandywine, have questioned the judgment of Washington in incurring the great risk incident to a disparity in numbers and discipline. The numbers engaged in the action have never been accurately ascertained. The British effective force, on the day of the battle, was probably not less than seventeen thousand men, while that of the Americans did not exceed eleven thousand, and many of these were raw militia. Washington was aware of the expectations of Congress and the whole country, and wisely considered that a defeat in battle would be less depressing upon the minds of the soldiers and the people, than permitting the enemy to march, without opposition, to the capture of Philadelphia, then the political metropolis of America. Influenced by these considerations, he resolved to fight the enemy; and had not conflicting intelligence perplexed and thwarted him in his plans, it is probable that victory would have crowned the American army. The result was disastrous, and many noble patriots slept their last sleep upon the battlefield that night.