By Debra J. Groom
The Americans looked doomed from the start.
About 1,300 British troops stormed into Oswego May 5, 1814 – 200 years ago this Monday. They were met by a mere 300 Americans.
The British had 222 cannons and other weapons. The Americans had a lowly five cannon and their muskets.
The Battle of Oswego, May 5-6, one of the later battles in the War of 1812, did not go well for the young Americans again fighting the British just 38 years after the start of the Revolutionary War.
But they fought hard, fought valiantly. They did all they could to keep the British out of Oswego. Men died right at the flagpole inside Fort Ontario trying to keep the British away from the American flag.
Paul Lear, manager of the Fort Ontario State Historic Site and an expert on the battle, said while the Americans lost the battle, they did keep the British from attaining their goal.
“The British wanted two things,” Lear said. “They wanted to disrupt the flow of military parts and equipment to Sackets Harbor where the USS Superior and Mohawk were under construction. If they seized cannons, ropes, riggings and ammunition coming through the pipeline they could slow the ship construction and maintain their advantage on Lake Ontario.”
“They also needed food,” Lear said. “They were desperate for food.”
Earlier in the spring, some of the British military hierarchy thought perhaps the best target for an attack would be Sackets Harbor, the large U.S. military bastion on Lake Ontario (it was the U.S. Naval headquarters during the War of 1812) where much of the American shipbuilding was taking place.
But, after thinking about two earlier attacks of Sackets there that did not go well for the British, Commodore James Yeo and Maj. Gen. Gordon Drummond decided to bypass Sackets for Oswego – “an objective of lesser proportions,” said Lear, quoting Yeo and Drummond’s superior, Gen. George Prevost.
So the plan was to attack Oswego.
Lear said Oswego was important during the War of 1812 because shipments of food stuffs, military equipment and ship parts came through Oswego before heading to Sackets Harbor.
Shipments would come from New York City up the Hudson to Albany, over land to Schenectady, onto boats at the Mohawk River to Rome and then Wood Creek. The shipment then would move across Oneida Lake and down the river to Oswego Falls (now Fulton).
Then the material would be moved around the falls and rapids and then back onto the river to Oswego, where it would move onto Lake Ontario for the short trip north to Sackets.
Lear said the British knew attacking Oswego would allow them to cut off these shipments without being hit by a huge military presence like that at Sackets Harbor.
The village of Oswego at the time was the home to about 200 people, most involved in the forwarding or shipping trade, Lear said. “The best salt at the time came from Salina (outside Syracuse),” Lear said, noting Oswego was a prime spot for receiving salt before it was shipped elsewhere.
The village was split in two by the Oswego River – just like today’s city. But there was no Utica Street or Bridge Street bridges – to get from one side of the village to the other, people had to take a ferry.
There were only a couple hundred military men at Oswego at the time and the British knew this. Fort Ontario also was a mess, having fallen into near complete disrepair after being discarded in 1796.
Lear said U.S. Lt. Col. George Mitchell of the 3rd U.S. Artillery, who was in the Niagara Territory, was told to march with 300 men to Oswego to protect supplies and naval shipment being brought through the village. From April 23 through April 30, Mitchell and his men march from Batavia to Oswego.
Upon arrival, Mitchell finds the dilapidated Fort Ontario and five cannons. “He had almost nothing to work with,” Lear said.
On May 5, guards at Fort Ontario see a fleet of ships out in Oswego Harbor.
“The alarm guns go off. Mitchell sounds an alert for the militia to turn out,” Lear said. About 200 or so from surrounding areas such as Hannibal, Sterling and Scriba show up.
The British are getting ready to come ashore when they are hit with something all Oswegonians then and now are used to – a storm.
Lear said the storm actually was a blessing for Mitchell and the Americans. While the British waited in their ships for better weather, the Americans had time to hide much of the equipment, ship parts and food they knew the British wanted in the woods around the village.
Mitchell also set up a large grouping of tents on the west side of the village to give the illusion of more American troops being on hand than there really were.
But Mitchell knew that once the storm passed, the attack would begin in earnest. He was right. Yeo and Drummond loaded men onto smaller boats heading to the shore near where the Fort Ontario post cemetery is today.
Since the water is shallow, the boats had to stop off shore and the British soldiers and sailors had to jump in the water to head to shore. Lear said they tried to keep their weapons dry, but every once in a while they would step into a deeper pocket while walking to shore and go in over their heads.
“The lakeshore became a mass of sodden, red-coated Royal Marines and De Wattevilles (Swiss soldiers) and green-jacketed Glengarries (Canadian Scots) struggling ashore, streaming with water, shaking themselves, and checking their cartridge boxes to determine how much of their ammunition was ruined,” writes Robert Malcomson in his book “Lords of the Lake.”
“Mitchell brought 80 soldiers and 20 sailors down to engage the British line where he got off six or seven crisp volleys,” Lear said. “The other 100 men left the ditch and marched out to join Mitchell’s line when he was about halfway back up the slope, so he wouldn’t get flanked on the right or south side.”
Then the British begin firing back – at least those with guns that still worked.
As the British moved up the hill and closer to the fort, some Americans retreated to the woods.
Others keep fighting. British are coming from different directions and eventually Mitchell realizes the Americans are being overrun. He orders a retreat.
Lear said while the Americans were told to “defend the supplies and water route and not the fort and village,” the soldiers didn’t want the fort and flag to fall. A few Americans “nailed the flag to the pole and stayed by their guns,” Lear said.
“Royal Marine Lt. John Hewett and a burly sergeant were in the van of the raisers as they fought their way toward the lofty flag pole in the center of the fort,” Malcomson writes in “Lords of the Lake.” “Hewett leapt up to the foot rests and scaled the pole, drawing the fire of insulted Americans who succeeded in hitting him several times.”
“Unfazed, Hewett tore the massive Stars and Stripes flag from the nails that held it aloft and it fluttered to the ground to the cheers and huzzahs of his comrades,” Malcomson writes in his book.
Lear said one American, who already had been shot and was on the ground inside the fort, tried to stop Hewett only to be run through with a bayonet.
In all, the Battle of Oswego lasted a mere 16 minutes, Lear said. The Americans retreated, many to Oswego Falls, which is now Fulton. They took many wounded with them.
Lear said the most perplexing thing about the battle is trying to come up with an exact number of casualties. It seems everyone has different numbers. Lear said his research has found the Americans suffered 18 dead by May 30, many dying weeks after the battle from “horrible wounds.”
The British had 90 killed or wounded. They also captured some ship goods, equipment and food, but not the amount they thought they would find.
According to Malcomson’s book, Mitchell and Master Commandant Melancthon Taylor Woolsey thought the British would continue their surge down the Oswego River to Oswego Falls (Fulton) and then to Three Rivers where more goods were stored.
But the British got back on their ships after the Battle of Oswego and headed back to Kingston.
While the British had the upper hand in Oswego, they would meet their match at the end of May in Sandy Creek.
Woolsey’s troops, with help from militia and Oneida Indians, would ambush them there on May 30 in the Battle of Big Sandy Creek, keeping them from capturing any more goods on the way to Sacket’s Harbor.
For more information
To hear a brief talk about the Battle of Oswego, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WhqJTmB2o28
To hear a brief talk about the Battle of Big Sandy Creek, go to https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kawjMd2Ucj0