Reliving the siege of Fort Erie

Among the War of 1812 re-enactments, there's one event that, year after year for almost four decades, has been considered the one not-to-be-missed: the siege of Fort Erie. 

And finally, after all these years, I fulfilled a life wish and made it to Fort Erie. What's more, I checked off another item on the bucket list, taking up a musket and fighting alongside the Canadian Volunteers.

The re-enactment commemorates the longest and bloodiest battle of the war. Both sides had previously abandoned the fort -- for the first two years, no one had seemed to think it was particularly important. That is, until July 1814.  

When the American army pulled back from the fierce fighting at Lundy's Lane, the shored up the defences at Fort Erie and throughout August and September 1814, both sides pounded at each other, suffering significant casualties, and gaining no advantage.  

Commemorating the siege draws re-enactors from hundreds of miles around. They set up camp -- the American army on the lake-ward side, where they get the benefit of the cooling breezes, the Crown army further inland.

Near to the British camp, sutlers set up their tents to sell supplies and artefacts to re-enactors and the public.

Visitors can also take advantage of public presentations about life during the War of 1812.  Here's a surgeon giving a demonstration on battlefield medicine.

A tradition has evolved among the re-enactors.  On a Friday night, officers and men from both sides gather together in a spirit of fellowship to toast one another with port.  As the most junior of the re-enactors, it was my job to toast the King.

How do re-enactors spend time in camp? There's drills and training. And careful attention must be payed to keeping weapons clean.

Some take the opportunity to give quick history lessons to visitors.

For others, camp time is just right for a quiet smoke -- with an 1812-style pipe.

 

There's also music. Some of these guys have been getting together for years.

But they're willing to let newcomers join in.

Much of camp life centres around meals.

Not all the food is from the period. But the pickled eggs were -- and they were the topic of many jokes this weekend.

And of course there's the cleaning up after meals.

And there's lots of time for swapping stories and telling jokes.

Re-enactors aren't adverse to having technology on hand, especially when tourists are not around.

And some have even found Pokemon on the battlefields of Fort Erie.

But the reason most come out is to re-fight long ago battles and keep alive the memory of those who have fought there before.

At the Fort Erie, the program was built around the re-enactment of three major engagements. The first was the combined battles of Chippewa and Lundy's Lane.

 Photo credit: Lisa Brown. US 23rd

Photo credit: Lisa Brown. US 23rd

These were pitched battles in open fields, dense forests, and a graveyard at night, but for the purposes of the re-enactment, the field outside Fort Erie served as a space where the tactics could be demonstrated. For this re-enactment, I had the role of the pennant bearer of the Canadian Volunteers.

 

The show that makes Fort Erie a favourite with re-enactors and visitors alike, however, is the staging of General Drummond's night-time assault on the fort. The American artillery takes its stations on the bastions.

Light infantry including the Canadian Volunteers prepare to take their position in the field.  

Regular infantry takes positions on the ramparts.

Those to young to fight look for a place from where they can watch the action.

General Scott Finlay finds this a good vantage point too.

And many on the ramparts want to record the action.

The artillery duel begins.

The Crown forces advance.

The defenders open fire.

The redcoats keep coming, steadily in formation.

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The American defenders keep things hot.

But the redcoats charge with their ladders.

The defenders are undaunted.

But they're too few in numbers to prevent the British from storming the ramparts and taking the guns.

It looks like they're going to sweep over the defences.

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But then, the unexpected happens.  A powder magazine explodes.

For the attackers, the impact is devastating -- in a flash, some 900 Crown soldiers killed or wounded.

That powder explosion brought to an end General Drummond's night-time assault, but for the re-enactors, the fun lasted for a few more hours.  As night fell, the staff of Fort Erie provided guided lantern tours to visitors.  The re-enactors staged various scenes that would have taken place 202 years ago.  In one room, American soldiers beat Crown prisoners to obtain information. In another, British and American generals try to negotiate better terms -- stop bayoneting the wounded!  In another room, a surgeon removes a leg from a screaming patient, and in a fourth room, widows who have lost their husbands desperately try to find someone to marry -- or they will be booted out from camp.  Terrific fun.  Well performed.  It gave a real sense of the type of scenes that likely took place.  But, sorry, I wasn't going to spoil the mood with a photo flash!

The next day, the third battle was staged:  a sortie by American forces that succeeded in capturing British guns, but when the Crown counter-attacked, the Americans were badly mauled.

The Canadian Volunteers participated in this action and they had one new recruit armed with a musket rather than a pennant.

After the battle, it was time to pack up and head home.

Many thanks to the Canadian Volunteers, and its commander, Major Philip Edwards for welcoming me, kitting me out, and letting me join in the action.  The men and women, boys and girls who re-enact the Volunteers are keeping alive the memory of those Canadians who joined the other side:  who fought for the Americans in the name of liberty.