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Most American history books devote a page at most to the War of 1812. It is often referred to as the forgotten war. However, scholarship on the war has exploded in recent years due to the 200th Anniversary of the beginning of the war in 2012.

The War of 1812 may be a lesser known episode within the larger narrative of American history, but for inhabitants of Buffalo, NY and the surrounding region- the War of 1812 still holds a place of fascination and remembrance.

Join Elizabeth Garner Masarik and Marissa Rhodes as they revisit one of our older History Buffs podcast and discuss the War of 1812 and how the Burning of Buffalo transformed this once frontier town overnight.

War of 1812 and Burning of Buffalo

Drawing of citizens fleeing Buffalo, NY December 30, 1812. Drawn by LeGrand St. John. Courtesy of Buffalo History Museum.

Suggested readings:

Links are affiliate links. This just means that we receive a fraction of the sale of the book. There is no additional cost to you. 

Alan Taylor. < href=””>The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, and Indian Allies. New York: Knopf, 2010.

Carl Benn. Native Memoirs from the War of 1812: Black Hawk and William ApessJohns Hopkins Press. 2013.

Nicole Eustace. 1812 : War and the Passions of Patriotism. University of Pennsylvania Press. 2012.

For a discussion on using rhetoric of rape and sexuality for political means see:
Sharon Block. Rape and Sexual Power in Early America. Chapel Hill : University of North Carolina Press, 2006.

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Full Transcript: The War of 1812 and The Burning of Buffalo

The War of 1812 and The Burning of Buffalo

Elizabeth Garner Masarik & Marissa Rhodes

Elizabeth: Today we are revisiting one of our older History Buffs episodes that we felt deserved a little more love (and better recording equipment). We’re going to be discussing the War of 1812. For some, The War of 1812 is seen as the second war of independence with England.

Marissa: Other people know this war as the one where Francis Scott Key wrote “The Star Spangled Banner” after the Battle of Baltimore.

Elizabeth: Canadians remember this war as the time that the Americans invaded Canada.

Marissa:  For most Americans however… well they don’t know much about the war at all.

Elizabeth: Essentially, the War of 1812 was a war between Britain and the United States between the years of 1812 to 1814.

Marissa: We are exploring a little known episode during the War of 1812, the Burning of Buffalo. Both the Americans and the British used burnings as a tactic to draw out and attack the enemy and terrorize civilian population. Americans burned Canadian towns like York, which is modern-day Toronto,  and the British burned Americans one, including our own Buffalo, NY and the more well-known episode of the burning of Washington D.C. and the White House.

Elizabeth: Alright, now for just a little rundown on the War of 1812, so we can kind of get our bearings in this story – as is with most any war, the War of 1812 sprung from antagonisms stemming back much further than the actual exchange of gunfire. In 1805 war between England and France was raging. Under President Thomas Jefferson, America attempted to remain neutral. However both England and France had declared the other under a blockade which was an attempt to deny its rival free trade with the growing American economy.

Marissa: This subjected any American merchant vessel to assault by both French and British ships. Also, because England was in this harrowing struggle with Napoleon’s France, they needed thousands of sailors to man the Royal Navy. They started impressing men, essentially forcing men onto ships to work in the navy. By the end of 1807 the Royal Navy had impressed 6,000 American sailors. They claimed that the American men were British citizens and deserters from the Royal Navy, which wasn’t true. In one instance, the British actually boarded the American warship the Chesapeake in American waters just off the coast of Maryland!

In 1807 Jefferson persuaded Congress to enact the embargo, which was a ban on all American vessels from sailing to foreign ports. It was an attempt to force both France and Britain to abandon their confrontational stance towards American shipping by denying either side access to America’s market economy. Something both imperial powers wanted access to.

Elizabeth: However, the embargo devastated the American economy and did not produce the desired effect in forcing both countries to allow American shipping to trade unmolested. The Embargo also ticked off a lot of Americans and brought back memories of the Intolerable Acts of 1774 when the British Crown had cut off the port of Boston from trade in order to punish the rowdy English, soon to be American, colonists. The Embargo caused American exports to plummet 80 percent and wrecked havoc on the economies of American port cities.

War of 1812 and the Burning of Buffalo

Birds eye view at the junction of main and tupper. Drawn by LeGrand St. John. Courtesy of Buffalo History Museum.

Marissa: In 1810 president James Madison, Jefferson’s presidential successor,  accepted France’s declaration that they would stop seizing American ships if Britain would do the same, yet Britain continued to attack American merchant vessels. They also increased their impressment of American sailors into the Royal navy.

Elizabeth: As all of this international drama was happening on the high seas, an internal crisis was growing between American western settlers and Native American tribes living east of the Mississippi River. As white settlers poured west over the Appalachian mountains, Native Americans began to be more and more outnumbered. A movement among many Native Americans to revitalize traditional American Indian culture and resist white and federal policies gained momentum. Leaders of this movement was a man named Tecumseh and his brother Tenskwatawa (Ten-sqúat-a-way) also known as the prophet, who argued that resistance to white encroachment was the only way to survive. Tecumseh asked, “Where today are the Pequot? Where are the Narragansett, the Mohican, the Pocanet (Poke-ah-net), and other powerful tribes of our people? They have vanished before the avarice and oppression of the white man, as snow before the summer sun.” These tribes he mentioned had all been extinguished by this point in time, so he’s saying see? See? If we don’t resists we’re going to end up like the others.

Marissa: Tecumseh’s followers began amassing near the joining of the Tippecanoe and Wabash Rivers in Indiana, in a settlement they called Prophetstown. While Techumseh was traveling through the Mississippi valley, building support for the movement, the U.S. sent in military troops under future President William Henry Harrison. Harrison’s army camped near Prophetstown and arranged to meet with Tenskwatawa (Ten-sqúat-a-way)  the following day. Early the next morning, however, warriors from Prophetstown attacked Harrison’s army. Fighting lasted for more than two hours, with Harrison’s army ultimately winning when the Prophetstown warriors’ ammunition ran low. They abandoned Prophetstown and Harrison’s men burned it to the ground, destroying the food supplies stored for the winter. Just as an aside, Harrison got the nickname of Tippecanoe from this battle, which became part of his campaign slogan in the 1840 election. They had a song, Tippecanoe and Tyler too.

Elizabeth: A lot of the American public blamed this violence on what they perceived as British interference in American affairs by financial and munition support for the Native Americans. This fueled even more anti-British fervor during the lead up to the War of 1812. Only six months after the Battle of Tippacanoe, Madison requested that Congress declare war on Britain.

The war vote in Congress split largely along party and regional lines. Northern states where most of the financial and mercantile resources of the country were concentrated, opposed war arguing that international trade was actually improving. The south and the west however were largely in favor of war and their agenda was pushed forward by a faction of mostly western congressmen, known as the “war hawks.” These men couched their appeal for war in a kind of sexulaized, gendered rhetoric. They used euphemisms that Britain was defiling, or raping America and the men of America MUST defend America’s defiled honor against British brute, ie rapey, force. That wasn’t really anything new, the same type of arguments were used during the American Revolution. But it’s interesting to point out how war was often used and justified through the lens of virtue and rape and protecting of the metaphoric female body of the nation.

Also,  it’s interesting to note that we still call politicians “hawks” or “Hawkish” if they are clamoring for war or are pro war in general. John McCain has often been called a hawk. Hillary Clinton was known for being a hawk. And this is where that term comes from. Basically a hawk is the opposite of a dove, the bird of peace.

War of 1812 and the Burning of Buffalo

Burned residence chimneys drawn by LeGrand St. John. Courtesy Buffalo History Museum.

Marissa: But behind the rhetorical flair stood a desire for western expansion into Native American territory and the desire to annex southern Canada. The war vote passed the House by a vote of 79-49 and the Senate by 19-13, the smallest margin of any declaration of war in U.S. history. This was also the first time that America declared war on another country.

By the time the US declared war on Britain in June 1812, Tecumseh’s American Indian confederacy was ready to launch its war against the United States in alliance with the British. Other Native American groups sided with the British as well.

Doubts about American preparedness were soon realized in the Great Lakes Region. An early American attempt to invade Canada wholly failed. Americans were actually pretty surprised that canadian forces did not welcome them with open arms and become part of America. Later, over two thousand American troops had to surrender to British Native American forces at Detroit. State militiamen refused to cross the border into Canada on two separate occasions, stating their military obligations did not extend into foreign lands. American Commodore Perry did win a large naval victory on Lake Erie in September 1813 but as we will soon find out, American outcomes on the northwestern front were pretty dismal.

Elizabeth: The burning of enemy cities was a common tactic of the War of 1812. Our focus on the Burning of Buffalo began  when the New York militia Brigadier General George McClure burned down the British Canadian village of Newark, which is now known as Niagara on the Lake, on December 10, 1813. you gotta realize this is December, up North, it’s friggin cold and snow is on the ground. So when Brigadier General McClure burns down this Canadian village, four hundred unprepared residents were forced out into the snow. Obviously, this really angered the British and so they retaliated, first at Fort Niagara, which is right on the border of America and Canada, then they turned their sights to a smaller town in the area called Lewiston and then villages near Niagara Falls. All of these areas are about 20 to 30 miles north of Buffalo. After the British retaliation, area command was transferred from George McClure to Amos Hall. McClure took most of the ammunition, weapons, and troops and headed east towards another small town, Batavia [N.Y.]. This left the small frontier towns of Buffalo and Black Rocks pretty defenseless.

Marissa: So 19 days after McClure burned the Canadian village of Newark, British troops made their way south into the American town of Black Rock, which is now incorporated into the city of Buffalo due to city sprawl but was a separate village at the time. There were no real soldiers there. There were two thousand militiamen who weren’t very trained and they were just volunteer militiamen. They held out for a few hours against the British attack but they really knew they couldn’t withstand the force of the British and Native American attacks so they actually began to flee towards Buffalo to raise the warning to all their friends and family in the opposite towns. The local newspaper, The Buffalo Gazette, actually got word that the British were on their way so they hauled their printing press out to a local village about 15 miles away (Clarence) and printed from there throughout the duration of the winter. And for a pre-automobile era that is a significant distance. So they weren’t exactly walking to town to see what was going on. They didn’t spend a lot of time in Buffalo. So that’s why there aren’t a lot of first person accounts in the newspapers of the burning at the time. A lot of the information that we have about the burning of buffalo are from recollection from the people who lived through it.

Elizabeth: Right. The Buffalo Historical society, who’s first president I should point out was the former President of the United States, Millard Fillmore (not remembered as being a very good president I might add). But the Buffalo historical society commissioned a lot of essays throughout the second half of the nineteenth century and a few of these were written by survivors of the Burning of Buffalo.

There were quite a few Buffalonians who did not flee when the British and Indian allies came. One of those was a woman by the name of Margaret St. John, who was a widow and remained in Buffalo throughout the ordeal. Her daughter, Martha St. John Skinner wrote about the the morning of the approach of the British. She wrote,

“My mother said she saw an Indian pulling the curtains down from the window of the Lovejoy house opposite, and saw Mrs. Lovejoy strike his hand with a carving-knife, and saw the Indian raise the hatchet; but as the door closed she could not know certain that he killed her. She did not dare to go and see.

“Soon there came along an advance guard with a cannon, and a British colonel on horseback. He spoke very cross, and said: ‘Why are you not away?’ Mother said she had lost the opportunity and now she had nowhere to go to, only out in the cold and perish in the snow. He said: ‘I have just now seen a very unpleasant sight in the house over the way. The Indians have killed a woman, and I am very sorry any such thing should happen.’ ‘Well,’ said mother, ‘I was fearful she would provoke them to kill her.’ I spoke to her and said: ‘Do not risk your life for property’; she answered: ‘When my property goes, my life shall go with it.”‘

The colonel “set a sentinel” over Mrs. St. John’s property, and presumably to protect her also; and for a while both of her houses were spared. On the third day, however, the larger house was destroyed by Indians.

Marissa: Apparently only Margaret St. John’s smaller house, the jail, and the local blacksmith shop were spared. The rest of Buffalo was burned to the ground.

A day or two after the departure of the British and Indians, “citizens assembled and gathered the dead and laid them in Reese’s shop,” which smithy and the jail and Mrs. St. john’s house were the only structures left standing in Buffalo. “There were over forty dead bodies. It was a ghastly sight, most of the bodies having been stripped, tomahawked and scalped. Those not soon taken away by friends were placed in a large grave in the old Franklin Square burial ground and covered temporarily with boards, so that they might be examined by relatives and taken away. Quiet again settled down over the village.” – a side note, those bodies buried in the Franklin square cemetery were later moved to Forest Lawn cemetery, an event that Elizabeth and Sarah talk about in the Rural Cemetery movement episodes in our backlog.

We also have some drawings of the people fleeing Buffalo before the British and Indian troops arrived and of the aftermath. These were drawn after the fact by LeGrand St. John when he was an adult. The pictures are memories from his childhood. Legrand St.John was a child in Buffalo during the War of 1812 and he drew them as an adult about 50 years later. Scenes that he remembered. So they aren’t the work of a child at the time, they are the work of an adult looking back on his childhood fifty years later. The pencil sketches of what he remembered. There are a couple that show people running out of town and a few showing what things looked like afterwards. One shows two rows along a street of chimneys standing upright within the foundations of the burned-out buildings.

Elizabeth: Luckily we also have a really wonderful map that a man named Juba Storrs drew of Buffalo in April 1813, so just a few months before the city burned. Storrs was a shop owner and the map shows all of the businesses and homes that were downtown as of April 1813. This map, along with the first person accounts and the pencil drawings can all be found at the Buffalo History Museum. We will also link to a few images of these things on our website. I think one of the most fascinating things about this episode, in my opinion, is how much of a frontier town Buffalo, NY was in 1813. I mean, you look at these pictures, the sketches of people running from the British and Indians so before the city burned, and it looks like a frontier villiage. The fences are just zig-zagged logs hooked together, the homes look like log cabins, and there are very few fancy or grand looking buildings. This is shocking because just a short time later, the Erie Canal was finished in 1825 and made Buffalo literally one of the biggest and richest and most grand cities in the country. So not only does this story give us a little glimpse into a little-remembered war, it also shows us how RAPIDLY American changed during the Market Revolution period- or the Antebellum period between the Early Republic and the Civil War. The changes were massive!

Marissa: So the burning of Buffalo was a very traumatic experience for the people of the city. Yet many of them came back and started rebuilding right away. They were not so different than the inhabitants of Washington D.C., which was burned by the British in August of 1814. In that ordeal, British Rear Admiral George Cockburn recommended sacking Washington because he believed it was weakly fortified and would be good retaliation for what Britain saw as the “wanton destruction of private property along the north shores of Lake Erie” by American forces.

According to travel accounts, the Capitol building was one of the only buildings in D.C. “worthy to be noticed.” After looting the building, the British set it on fire. It did not easily burn however because it was made out of stone. So British soldiers gathered furniture from the building and heaped in into a pile and set it on fire with rocket powder.  The entire 3,000 volume library of the Library of Congress was destroyed in the fire.

As an aside, after the war, Thomas Jefferson sold his own personal library to the government in order to pay personal debts, re-establishing the Library of Congress and you can see this original library in the Library of Congress building today.

Elizabeth: After burning the Capitol, the troops turned up Pennsylvania Avenue toward the White House. After US government officials and President Madison fled the city, Madison sent word to the First Lady, Dolly Madison, to be ready to leave at a moment’s notice.

She organized the slaves and staff to round up valuables to save and take with them. The First Lady was determined to save official papers and the full-length portrait of George Washington  painted by Gilbert Stuart. There was no time to unscrew it from the wall, so the frame was broken and the canvas on its stretcher carried from the house into the safety of the countryside.  Not until 1817 was it returned to the rebuilt White House.

The First Lady  wrote that she herself cut the picture out of the frame and carried it out of the house and is often credited with the rescue. However, James Madison’s personal slave, the fifteen-year-old boy Paul Jennings, was an eyewitness. He published his memoir in 1865 and wrote: “It has often been stated in print, that when
Mrs. Madison escaped from the White House, she cut out from the frame the large portrait of Washington (now in one of the parlors there), and carried it off. She had no time for doing it. It would have required a ladder to get it down. All she carried off was the silver in her reticule, as the British were thought to be but a few squares off, and were expected any moment.”
Jennings said the people who saved the painting and removed the objects really were the French door keeper and the President’s gardener, McGraw, who took it down and sent it off in a wagon with other valuables.

Marissa: So whoever saved the painting, which we should note was a copy made by the original painter himself,  whether it was Dolly Madison, or Jennings and these two other men, it somehow made it out of the house before the British arrived. When they did they actually ate the dinner that had been laid out earlier for the president and his party and then proceeded to burn the house down.

In an interesting side note, in 2009, President Barack Obama held a ceremony at the White House to honor Jennings for helping to save the Gilbert Stuart painting. A dozen descendants of Jennings came to Washington, to visit the White House and see the painting in person. It is currently housed in the East Room of the White House. 

Elizabeth: Madison and Congress returned to Washington within a few weeks. Reconstruction of the White House started almost immediately and it was finished in time for the 1817 inauguration of President James Monroe.

The war ended in December of 1814 with the Treaty of Ghent. Ships carrying the news did not reach America however before Andrew Jackson fought off a British invasion in January of 1815 and gained fame for his win at the Battle of New Orleans. He rode that fame all the way to the White House in 1828.

At the close of the war, neither Britain nor America ceded any territory to the other.

Native Americans lost the most by losing any British protection they had previously received. Additionally, both friendly and hostile Creek and Cherokee Indians were forced to cede a majority of their land, over 23 million acres, to American forces under the command of Andrew Jackson in the southeast region of the United States

What the war did do was to prove to the world that the new American experiment, remember the country wasn’t even 30 years past the signing of the Constitution- it showed the world that America was here to stay and could survive as an independent nation.

Marissa: We have a great public history project here in the city of Buffalo that highlights some of the events of the War of 1812. A lot of these local archival sources that we’ve mentioned were used to create an informative walking tour throughout downtown Buffalo.

Thank you for listening to this episode of Dig History Podcast. Please feel free to ask questions, leave comments, or suggest future episodes that you would like to hear.


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