The Siege of Fort Erie was one of the last engagements between British and American forces during the Niagara campaign of 1814, in which the Americans made a successful defense of the fort against the British before abandoning it on November 5, 1814.
After the bloody Battle of Lundy's Lane, the American forces now under the command of Eleazer Ripley (Brown had been severely wounded at Lundy's Lane), withdrew to their base at Fort Erie. Once the American army reached the fort, command was given to Brigadier General Edmund P. Gaines. The British under the command of Gordon Drummond followed slowly behind but reached the fort on August 4. The Americans had captured Fort Erie on July 3, 1814 and had made significant improvements to the defenses since then.
On August 13,
the British opened fire with 6 guns, which they expected to be able to breach the curtains. Their preparation continued into the next day, when Brig. Gen. Sir Gordon Drummond issued his attack orders. His strongest column, with 1,300 men, was to strike the southern tip of the camp, anchored on Snake Hill. Another column, with 550 men, was to storm the curtain between Fort Erie and the shoreline at the northernmost extremity.
Old Fort Erie formed the elbow there, where the works turned from north to east and ran to the water's edge. About 200 men were told to attack the long defensive mound, running from the old fort on the north to Snake Hill on the south. All British columns, totaling 2,100 men, were to strike simultaneously, while a reserve of about 1,000 men waited for an opening.
On August 14, the columns began to march to their points of departure at 4:00 P.M.
There were not any flints in the shoulder arms; the men were to rely on their bayonets. Shortly afetr 2:00 A.M., a brief artillery preperation illuminated the night. gaines, who had been expecting the attack, peered anxiously into the dark and saw the columns moving into position by the light of the cannon fire. As the artillery fire stopped, the attack columns began to move. On Snake Hill, 250 men and 6 cannon fought back the British attack. A few men attempted to wade along the unfortified shore and come in, but they were captured.
The first attack, led by Lt. Col. Victor Fisher was to flank the south end of the defenses. The second attack, led by Drummond's nephew Lt. Col. William Drummond, was to attack in the center against the fort. The third attack, led by Lt. Col. Hercules Scott, was to attack the north end of the defenses. The first attack was met with heavy fire from the defenders and the attacker broke and fled. Lieutenant Colonel Scott was killed early on in his attack and his troops became disorganized and made no headway. Lieutenant Colonel Drummond's attack actually breached the fort's defenses and about 100 men captured a battery and turned the guns on the defenders. However a counterattack drove them from the guns. The British clung on to their breach. When an ammunition chest caught fire and Lt. Col. Drummond was killed the British retreated. General Drummond called off the attack after sustaining 366 casualties in this engagement alone. Although this was a serious defeat, Drummond did not raise the siege.
After the violent and bloody Battle of Lundy's Lane, the American forces pull back to the confines of Fort Erie. The British forces followed the Americans back to the Fort along the Niagara River a few days later in an effort to bottle them up and contain them.
During the 2 day march, American and British forces along with Militia and Indians fought many skirmishes along the River Road leading to Fort Erie. The Americans arrived at Fort Erie and began to reinforce it, as well, they built an encampment at the rear of the fort. Gen. Gordon Drummond arrived with his army and sets up his siege lines.
After a week of bombarding the American fortifcations, Drummond was convinced the time had come to attack. A shell had just landed on the American magazine chest. Drummond was confident that it had caused many casualties.
Drummond and the American Brig. Gen. Edmund P. Gaines were like blind men, searching to find out the others strengths and weaknesses. Both of them had miscalculated. Because the British entrenchments were hidden behind a screen of trees, Gaines could only guess at Drummond's force, which he estimated to be 5,000 men. Actually, Drummond has fewer than 3,000 men.
Drummond, on the other hand, was mislead by his spies and informers into believing the Americans have 1,500 troops. In fact, Gaines had almost twice that number. Drummond had made another mistake, the explosion of the magazine has caused only a few casualties. Gaines, shrewedly reading Drummond's mind, was now expecting an immediate British attack.
Drummond planned a simultaneous attack against each of the 3 major gun batteries that protected the corners of the 15-acre encampment.
The camp was surrounded on 3 sides by embankments, ditches, and palisades. Directly ahead, at the near corner, not more than 500 yards from the British lines, Drummond could see the outlines of the old fort, now bristling with cannon. One hundred and fifty yards to the left, on the edge of Lake Erie was a second artillery battery commanded by David Douglass. The 2 are connected by a wall of earth, 7-feet high, 18-feet thick. Half a mile up the lake, and also connected to the fort by an enclosed rampart, was Nathan Towson's battery of 5 guns, perched on a conical mound of sand, 30-feet high, known as Snake Hill and joined to the lake by a double ditch and abatis. If Drummond's plan succeeded, his assault forces would strike all 3 batteries at the same time and sieze the encampment.
At 4:00 P.M., his main force set off. It's task was to attack Towson's battery on Snake Hill. Drummond ordered it to march down the Garrison Road, screened from view by the forest, to rendezvous on the far side of the American encampment, and to attack at 2:00 A.M. the following morning. Drummond ordered the troops to remove their flints from their firelocks and to depend entirely upon the bayonet, identifying the Americans in the dark by their white pantaloons.
The bulk of the 1,000 man force attacking the Towson battery was made up of soldiers from the de Watteville regiment. Their commander, Lt. Col. Victor Fischer, was an able officer; he had under his command a smattering of British regulars from the King's and the 89th.
Drummond considered the attck on Snake Hill to be the key to sucess. If Fischer and his men could capture that end of the encampmet, victory was certain.
Drummond has not bothered to reconnoiter the defenses at Snake Hill, where a vast abatis of tangled roots and sharpened branches could inhibit any assault force. Nor did he intend to soften those defenses with canon fire. He had purposely refrained from bombarding the position in order to conceal his real purpose from Gaines. Secure in his overconfident conviction that the Americans were outnumbered and demoralized, he plunged ahead in the belief that he can conquer by surprise alone.
He had divided his force. While Fischer assaulted the far end of the camp, 2 smaller detachments would attack the near end. The Drummond's nephew, Lt. Col. William Drummond of Keltie, would lead 360 men against the ramparts of the original fort. Lt. Col. Hercules Scott would lead another 700 men against the Douglas battery on the lakeshore and against the embankment that connected it to the old fort.
A picket of 100 Americans, 300 yards away from Snake Hill, heard the British column aproaching and sounded the alarm. Surprise, the essence of Drummond's plan, had not been achieved. Towson's artillery was already in action. The British attackers were illuminated in a sheet of flame, so bright that Snake Hill would shortly be known as Towson's Lighthouse.
Fischer came up against the formidable abatis that the Americans constructed between Snake Hill and the lake - thousands of tree trunks, 4-6 inches in diameter, their branches cut off 3-feet above the base, pointing in all directions and forming an impassable tangle.
Unable to breach this defense, Fischer's Forlorn Hope dashed around the end on the American left and into the lake in the hope of taking the defenders from the rear. Part of the Forlorn Hope does reach the rear of the battery to fight hand to hand with the defenders, but 2 companies of Eleazer Wood's 21st poured a galling fire on those who followed.
Panic seized the men of the de Watteville regiment, struggling in the water. Some, dead or badly wounded, were being swept into the Niagara River by the swift current. Shouting wildly, they broke in confusion, turned tail and plunged directly into the King's regiment. Only the seasoned 89th held fast. The 100 men of the Forlorn Hope who had managed to penetrate the American defenses were killed or captured.
Fischer, meanwhile, was attempting to storm the Towson battery with the rest of his force, only to find that his scaling ladders were too short to reach the parapet. Worse, he could not reply to the heavy fire being poured down on him because, to ensure secrecy, his men had been ordered to remove the flints from their muskets. He charged the parapet 5 times before giving up. His losses were very heavy. Drummond's princible attack had failed. Success now depended entirely on the forces of his nephew and Scott.
Douglass has seen the signal rockets rise from the woods in front of him in answer to those from Fischer's column, but there was yet no hint of an attack on his battery. As the minutes went by, tension start to build. The sound of plodding feet grew louder. Then, as if on a signal, a sheet of fire blazes, and the batteries along the entrenchment from the water to the fort open up in reply.
Douglass was firing his cannon at point blank range, cramming each to the muzzle with round shot, canister, and bags of musket balls-stuffing each barrel so full that he could touch the last piece of wadding with his hand. Scott's column surged forward with scaling ladders, seeking to surmount the breastwork. Again and again the British are repulsed by the heavy American fire. By dawn, it was clear that the attempt had failed. Drummond formed up his men in a deep ravine. Then he led his 350 men in a dash across the open plain to the fort.
The gunners deserted their cannon as the British and Americans struggled hand to hand with pikes, bayonets and spears. Lt. Col. Drummond fell dead, shot through the heart and bayoneted.
The British managed to take control of one side of the fort but were subject to heavy fire from the blockhouse above. The battle seesawed, neither side gave way, until suddenly beneath their feet came a trembling followed by a roar and a huge explosion. The magazine in the north bastion had blown up, either by accident or design.
The Americans were spared, but the British attackers were torn, crushed, mangled. Some, flung from the parapet, died on the bayonets of their commrades in the ditch below. Nothing could stem the panic that followed. Believing the entire fort was mined, the men broke and fled across the plain to the safety of the British trenches.
Drummond underestimated the size of the American force, the strength of it's defenses, and overestimated the effect of his artillery barrage..
The assault had been a disaster. While Drummond accepted responsibility for the failure, he attempted to shift most of the blame to DeWatteville's regiment. The plan nearly succeeded. If the reserve troops had followed up the capture of the bastion, or the detonation of the magazine had not occurred, the British may have been able to pull it off.
Drummond continued to stand his ground, though the siege became an affair of small attacks and counter-attacks, all taking their toll of lives. On September 17, the American troops, once again under the command of Maj. Gen. Jacob Brown, made a full-scale sortie, during which destroyed 2 of Drummond's batteries and the British lost another 600 men.
General George Izard arrived from Plattsburg, New York and being senior officer, assumed command of the American forces. Brown, being more aggressive wished to attack the British with the combined US forces. Izard chose not to attack the British. Instead after a sortie at Cook's Mill he decided to abandon the fort and on November 5 the Americans set mines and demolished it. The British, after surveying the ruins, decided not to rebuild the fort. The siege had been a disaster for the British militarily and personally for Gordon Drummond. After the war Fort Erie existed as only a barracks building until 1823, when it was abandoned completely.