The Burning of Newark
December 10, 1813, Newark, New Jersey
Even with the victories at Chrysler's Farm and Chateauguay, which ended any threat to Quebec and Montreal, the loss by the British at the "Battle of the Thames" left Niagara in a vulnerable state. Sir George Prevost ordered a evacuation of all of Upper Canada, west to Kingston, to relieve the pressure on his meager resources. Fortunately, Maj. Gen. John Vincent, who had resumed command in that theater of operations, felt a withdrawl to Burlington would be good enough.
The Americans were quick to act on this withdrawl and reoccupied the towns of Queenston and Chippawa. Joseph Willcocks and his Canadian Volunteers also wasted little time making the loyalists left behind pay a heavy price. The farms of those who had once been neighbors and friends were looted and burned. Then Willcocks arrested prominent loyalists and had them sent to prisons in the United States.
Col. John Murray convinced Vincent that a small force should be moved back into the peninsula to protect the inhabitants after hearing of the arrests and raids. Subsequently, Murray led a force of 378 regulars of the 8th Regiment and some volunteers, including Merritt's Dragoons, to Forty Mile Creek where a base was set up.
Capt. William H. Merritt led his troop east away from their base camp at Forty Mile Creek. The Indians had been in contact with their pickets the night before but now the Americans were nowhere to be found.
A signal from an advanced scout brought Merrittt forward quickly and the tail end of the American column was sighted moving toward Twenty Mile Creek. He sent his dragoons charging down the road, scattering the American infantry and fighting a sharp engagement with some American cavalry, who quickly withdrew. Some of the infantry tried to fight on, but many quickly surrendered and were taken prisoners of war.
With the Americans in retreat, Murray pushed his force forward to Twenty Mile Creek and then to Twelve Mile Creek. By this time, the Americans had pulled back to Fort George. Their commanding officer, Brig. Gen. George McClure was in a tough position. The enlistment of many of his troops was expiring and his force began shrinking. Willcock's raid had further alienated the local population and when Murray's outposts soundly defeated a probing force sent out by McClure, he decided to withdaw across the Niagara River to the American side and the confines of Fort Niagara.
The sun came up on 10 December 10 to show a cold and blustery day with snow drifting about 2-3 feet in places. Willcocks was beside himself when he heard of the plans to abandon the peninsula. He had at least wrung the order to burn the town from McClure on the pretext of denying shelter to the advancing British troops. The Canadian Volunteers and American Militiamen went door to door warning inhabitants to get out what they could. At dusk, the destruction of the town was to begin.
Women and children stood in the cold and watched their homes and almost everything they owned in the world burn into ashes. Their first concern was to find some shelter. There were 400 refugees who would die of exposure if cover could not be found quickly.
Merritt reported to Murray. The glow in the eastern sky could mean only one thing and with Merritt's dragoons they rode off to investigate.
The troop approached Fort George from the south and carefully reconnoitred the area. The Americans were pulling out and the only troops remaining were the rear guard, which consisted of the Canadian Volunteers. Merritt signaled the charge routing the Americans, killing 2 and taking a number prisoners.
The scene that greeted them in the town was beyond belief. Every building except one was a pile of glowing embers and the streets were littered with furniture that some had been able to save before their homes were torched. People were desperately seeking shelter. Some moved toward the fort and Butlers Barracks, which had been spared for some reason, others built crude shelters against chimneys using half burnt boards as roofing while still other began bone chilling walks to farms in the neighbourhood.
The next day, the sun brought the misery of the town to sight. Many snowdrifts had frozen bodies of women and children who did not find their way to shelter during the night. The mood of the British troops was dark indeed. Every man from Murray to the lowliest private had one thing on his mind; "Vengence!"
For his part in the burning of Newark, McClure was relieved of his command and dismissed from the U.S. Army.