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12:27 pm
Fri December 7, 2012

War of 1812: Part V - Heroes and Villains

This is the bicentennial year of the War of 1812, a war that saw the United States attack Canada for grievances against England.  There was no clear winner, but we have plenty of stories about heroes and villains from that war.  WBFO News contributor Rich Kellman has some of those stories.

Neither side won the War of 1812, but both sides were changed by the War and by the stories we tell ourselves today about the War. “The War of 1812 in many ways is all about myth and misperception,” says Buffalo historian Douglas DeCroix. Consider the heroism of British general Sir Isaac Brock in the Battle of Queenston Heights.  “Isaac Brock was killed early in the battle at the bottom of the hill, not the top of the hill,” says DeCroix.  “He never got to the top of the hill during the battle.”

On the American side, the soldiers were poorly equipped and ill-prepared.  And the officers? “On both sides, the officers were egotistical monsters. There’s no doubt about it,” according to Patrick Kavanaugh, historian at Forest Lawn Cemetery in Buffalo. He cites one American officer in particular. “General Alexander Smyth would march into Buffalo with around 1500 troops.” Smyth was commander of American troops on the Niagara Frontier in the fall of 1812. He was blustery, says Kavanaugh.  Bombastic. Grandiose.  “And he’s delivering all these bombastic proclamations in the late autumn air, such as, ‘I will enter Canada and leave the rest to heaven.’ They’ll follow this guy anywhere.”

General Alexander Smyth, commander of US troops in Buffalo in the fall of 1812
General Alexander Smyth, commander of US troops in Buffalo in the fall of 1812

The troops in Buffalo followed Smyth across the Niagara River to Canada, between Fort Erie and Chippawa. A brief victory was followed by a bloody route of the Americans by the British and Canadians. Smyth orders new troops out of their boats and onto Canadian territory. 

According to Kavanaugh, “They’re saying, ‘What the heck,’ and they sit in their boats for hours. And the Canadians are on the other side, and the British are on the other side of the river looking, and they’re laughing. They’re laughing at us.”

The American troops are demoralized, many of them ill, some without shoes or boots. “The soldiers have now taken out a contract on Smyth’s life,” says Kavanaugh. “They’re shooting at him. They offer a reward, dead or alive.”

Enter General Peter Porter of Black Rock. He insults Smyth, calls him a coward. Smyth demands satisfaction. He challenges Porter to a duel with pistols. “They both got in a boat and they went over to Grand Island,” says Kavanaugh. “They were given their pistols, and they paced off, and they turned and they shot.” 

Peter Buell Porter of Black Rock and Niagara Falls. US military hero and future secretary of war in the cabinet of President John Quincy Adams in 1828
Peter Buell Porter of Black Rock and Niagara Falls. US military hero and future secretary of war in the cabinet of President John Quincy Adams in 1828

Each shot at the other.

“They both missed each other,” says Kavanaugh.

Missed each other. Then what?

“They get in the boat, they go over to Dayton’s Tavern on the American side near where Tonawanda is today, and they drink and dine for the remainder of the evening.”

Drinking and dining, after a duel which both men survived.  Maybe they sang an old English drinking song called To Anacreon in Heaven--but that seems unlikely. But it’s a way to get us to the fact that the song became the tune to which the Star-Spangled Banner was later set. The words of what became the US national anthem were written by Francis Scott Key as he witnessed the bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore by the British during the War of 1812.

A true civic hero right after the War was Buffalonian Seth Grosvesnor. He fought in Buffalo during war, but did much more much later, according to Buffalo Library Coordinator Marguerite Cheman. “After the city burned, he helped rebuild the city.” She says,  “Several  years later after he’d moved away from the city, he donated 40-thousand dollars, which was a huge sum, to Buffalo to develop the Grosvenor Library, and as we all know, Grosvenor Library is part of our library today.”

“Part of the history of the War,” says Kavanaugh, “was the role of women in the War.”     

Seth Grosvenor, civic hero who helped rebuild Buffalo after the War, after which the Grosvenor Library is named
Seth Grosvenor, civic hero who helped rebuild Buffalo after the War, after which the Grosvenor Library is named

In Sagets Harbor near Watertown, there’s the story of one Abby Vaughn. “She was petite and feisty,” says town historian Jeannie Brennan. She says the story goes, that Mrs. Vaughn led a group of women who wrapped cannon balls in old clothes to tighten their fit in the barrels, and helped drive off a British ship. “They shot it back and it did hit their flagship. That sorta, didn’t frighten them, but they did sail back then to Canada.”

And there were the women who lost husbands and children.  Margaret St. John of Buffalo was married with 11 children. “By the time Buffalo is burned on Dember 30th, 1813, she’s a widow with 9 children,” says Kavanaugh. “So she’s lost a husband and two children already to this war.”

Mrs. St. John is buried at her family gravesite at Forest Lawn Cemetery.

As for those colorful, romantic paintings of sailing ships of the Great Lakes, Walter Rybka, senior captain of the rebuilt brig Niagara that visited Buffalo this fall says reality aboard ship in those days was brutal. “Hard work, low pay, a lot of danger, and more danger and more danger,” he says. “And they volunteered.”

You might wonder what happened to General Peter Porter and Alexander Smyth who fought a duel on Grand Island and survived.  Smyth left the war early and returned home to Virginia, where he eventually got elected and re-elected to Congress. Peter Porter of Black Rock and Niagara Falls went on to a career as a brilliant and courageous military leader and a wealthy and powerful businessman. In 1828 he was appointed secretary of war in the cabinet of President John Quincy Adams. He is the Porter whose name is on plaques and street signs all across Western New York.

Neither side won the War, but both sides were changed forever.  “Both nations defined themselves in the 19th century by what they believed happened, or wanted to believe happened in the war of 1812.” says historian Douglas DeCroix. “You get a century of military leadership, you get a century of political leadership, you get a sense of manifest destiny, the era of good feelings, from sea to shining sea—all of these things are direct outcomes of the war of 1812.”

And it happened 200 years ago in the place were we live, on both sides of the border, along the Niagara Frontier.