Friday, August 1, 2014

His Own People Tried to Shoot Him

Brigadier General George McClure was the most hated man in Buffalo, New York, in the bitter winter of 1813-1814. He complained to his commanding officer that the locals shot at him as he walked down the street. What could he possibly have done to deserve this? For he did deserve it, and worse.

Our story begins at Fort George, on the Canadian side of the Niagara River but occupied by the Americans in the autumn of 1813. Brigadier General McClure was in charge. Most of his troops, however, were militiamen, signed on for a short term of service. Their terms being up in early December, none of them could be persuaded to stay, either for patriotism or for promises of money.

Somehow, McClure claimed, the Canadians got wind of the fact that his militiamen had all gone home. Word came to him that the enemy was on the march. Rather than stick around and try to defend the fort with 60 effective regular troops and 40 militiamen, he gave the order to evacuate the fort. Instead of destroying the fort, however, McClure permitted Colonel Willcocks, a turncoat Canadian with a personal grudge against his countrymen, to burn the nearby village of Newark (now called Niagara-on-the-Lake) and cast the residents—women, children, and the aged—out into the pitiless Canadian winter. Many froze to death when the fires went out.

"The houses were generally vacant long before," McClure whined in a lying letter to the Secretary of War. "This step has not been taken without counsel and is in conformity with the views of Your Excellency disclosed to me in a former communication." With the village all in flames, McClure and his men fled across the river.

In the ditch at the abandoned (but hardly destroyed) Fort George, the Canadians were delighted to find "one long 18 pdr., four 12 pdrs., two 9 pdrs., an immense quantity of shot, with camp equipage for 1500 men." McClure had destroyed the village but left the fort intact.

The wanton burning of civilian homes was considered outrageous on both sides of the border. "The destruction and misery which this dastardly conduct has occasioned is scarcely to be described, women and children being the principal inhabitants have nowhere to place their heads," said the New York Evening Post.

So McClure started it. The Canadians were nothing loath to carry it on, this burning of civilian dwellings, even though their generals shed crocodile tears about the sad necessity of making war on American non-combatants.

The people of Buffalo and the other towns of the Niagara Frontier also blamed McClure. Then the British crossed over and took Fort Niagara in the night, torturing the sentry to find out the password and bayoneting most of the Americans when they let them in. Where was McClure when this was going on? Where was the commander of the fort? You may well ask. As the British advanced on Buffalo, torches in hand, only Colonel Cyrenius Chapin and his militia stayed to defend the town. McClure, hearing that the British were advancing in force, once again gathered his men and marched them out of harm's way.

As he left he denounced the people of Buffalo as a pack of damned rascals who deserved to have their houses burned over their heads. "There is not a greater rascal exists than Chapin, and he is supported by a pack of tories and enemies to our Government," he wrote to Governor Tompkins, in the hope that he would be believed. Naturally they shot at him. Who wouldn't?

Kate Gallison

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