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The Battle of Ogdensburg A disturbance of peace, Febrarury 22, 1813.

Taking advantage of a frozen river and American complacency, the British and Canadian troops mounted a surprise attack. The clash distrupted commerce on both sides of the border.

The St. Lawrence River Vally runs from Montreal west down to the Thousands Islands and Lake Ontario. The St. Lawrence River had been and still is the primary water highway into the heart of the North American Continent. Because of the river's importance, the French and later the British established strong fortification at both the eastern and western ends of the valley at Montreal and Kingston.

LEFT: The Glengarry Light Infantry Fencibles were a locally raised militia, a battalion of Scottish immigrants and Canadians that were raised to bolster the defence of the Canadas. Their commander, Lieutenant Colonel "Red George" Macdonnell, was in overall command of the British raid that captured Ogdensburg from the surprised American defenders, (courtesy new york history blog)

FRONT COVER INSET: Glengarry Light Infantry re-enactors march forward to take position against their American enemy, (ginny hurley, laughing devil photography)

During the War of 1812, this important border region saw, for the most part, very little fighting - except for some minor raiding: the Battle of Ogdensburg in 1812 and 1813, and the Battle of Cryslers' Farm in the fall of 1813. This vulnerable supply line was relatively peaceful and did not suffer the privations that the Niagara and Detroit border regions suffered during the war.

Throughout the war, the population of the St. Lawrence Valley was content to exist with a live and let live attitude with their American, British, and Canadian neighbours. Like all border communities prior to the War of 1812, the border was a line drawn on a map that was more fiction than reality. Communities interacted with each other and carried on trade both legal and illegal. Smuggling seems to have been one of the past times of this area. The Upper and Lower Canadian side of the river had more established communities, having been settled earlier by the French and later in 1783/1784 by disbanded American Loyalist regiments. These regiments included the King's Royal Regiment of New York, Jessup's Corp, Peter's Corp, as well as disbanded German troops from regiments like the Brunswick Light Infantry. On the south side of the river, the Americans were relative late-comers, settling their side of the river in the 1790s and 1800s.

The view of Prescott, Ontario, from the Ogdensburg harbour. Most inhabitants of border towns could not avoid the war due to their location. However, life on both sides of the border remained largely unchanged during the War of 1812, as many Canadians and Americans maintained their friendships and continued to trade despite the conflict, (PAINTING


These close community connections, as well as the strong political connections of Americans David Parish and Judge Nathan Ford, kept American military forces away from the Valley, for the most part. Both men had "private interests" along the St. Lawrence and wanted them protected at all costs. This suited British Governor General Sir George Prevost just fine as he had only 500 men guarding the valley in 1812. By 1814, this would grow to just over 5,000 troops to protect this vital waterway.

Apart from being the main supply line for the British Army in Upper Canada, the St. Lawrence River Valley was also the main smuggling route for the Americans. While American sailors and troops went on half rations along the Niagara frontier, American farmers, and in some cases American militia officers, sold beef, grain, potatoes, timber and intelligence to the British Commis-sariat for hard cash. All with the approval of American border judges, sheriffs, and customs agents who got their share of the take. In more than one case, local American judge's ordered the arrest of U.S. federal Marshalls and regular American military officers when they tried to interfere with this illegal trade while letting the smugglers go free.

This happy live and let live existence threatened to come to an end with the posting of Major Benjamin Forsyth and his First American Rifle Regiment to the town of Ogdensburg in late 1812. Forsyth and his Rifle Regiment did not have a good reputation in the American Army nor with the Canadians he was about to be set upon. Forsyth and his men tended to follow the old adage, "if it's not nailed down it's mine." Followed by, "if you aren't loyal to the United States you are the enemy." Needless to say he and his men saw the "laissez-faire" attitude of the American citizens they were sent to "protect" as treasonable. In Forsyth's view, this made them traitors and therefore, equal targets to the British and Canadians on the Upper Canadian side of the river.

Forsyth's men made a number of raids along the Upper Canadian side of the St. Lawrence, sniped at British troops and captured boat loads of supplies. On October 3, 1812, British troops and Canadian militia made an abortive attack on Ogdensburg but were driven off. After this attack Forsyth and his men continued their raiding along the valley.

"Red George" Macdonnell sending the Canadians across a frozen St. Lawrence River to capture Ogdensburg in February 1813. (PARKS CANADA)

In February 1813, Prevost was making an inspection of troops as well as reviewing the military and civil situation in Upper Canada, taking with him several detachments of reinforcements. On February 21, he passed through the town of Prescott which is across the river from Ogdensburg. While there, Prevost appointed Lt. Colonel "Red George" Macdonnell, the fiery commander of the Glengarry Light Infantry Fencibles, as commandant of British and Canadian troops stationed in and around the town.

Tired of Forsyth's raiding, Macdonnell requested orders to attack Ogdensburg and destroy the American officer's command. Prevost, ever mindful of the vulnerability of his slender supply lines and careful to husband his troops, instructed Macdonnell that he could only attack if the Americans weakened their garrison. The newly appointed commander, however, had other ideas and waited for Prevost to leave before putting his plan in motion.

The next day started out much the same as any other day. The British garrison marched down to the ice on the river and spent the morning at drill. This was something that the citizens of Prescott and Ogdensburg were use to seeing and thought nothing of it.

Slowly, the troops--made up of The Glengarry Light Infantry, 70 militia, 120 men of the (King's) [] of Foot, 30 Royal Newfoundland Fencibles, supported by flank companies of the local militia and light artillery--began to "drill" their way across the frozen St. Lawrence River. By the time it dawned on the Americans what the British were doing, Macdonnell's troops were charging across the frozen river towards Ogdensburg. The British and Canadian soldiers soon came under heavy fire of American artillery under the command of Adjutant Daniel W. Church of Colonel Benedict's Regiment and Lt. Baird of Forsyth's Rifles, as they fought their way through waist-high snow drifts.

One interesting story that comes out of this battle is that of the Fencibles' Roman Catholic Regimental chaplain, the equally fiery Bishop Alexander Macdonell. Along with the Regimental Presbyterian minister's swinging a heavy bible, Macdonnelln is reputed to have accompanied the attack, wielding a crucifix and threatening immediate excommunication to any lagging soldier. Macdonell later became the first Roman Catholic Bishop of Kingston, Upper Canada, in 1826.

A portrait of The Most Reverend Alexander Macdonnell (1762-1840), the first Catholic bishop of Upper Canada. Bishop Macdonnell raised the Glengarry Light Infantry Fencibles regiment in 1812. Many of those who signed up had served with the bishop in his Glengarry Fencibles regiment in Scotland and immigrated to Upper Canada after it was disbanded.


With the British surrounding the town and threatening to cut off the Americans' line of retreat, Forsyth's men and the artillery gun crews put up tough resistance until both Church and Baird were wounded, and the American military were forced to retreat towards Sackets Harbor.

Once in control of Ogdensburg, the British and Canadians were in no mood to play nice. They carried off captured artillery and military stores as well as burned a number of boats and schooners frozen into the ice, and looted private property, although it was said many of these goods were later returned to their owners.

For their part and to support America's war effort, Judge Ford, whose home was in Ogdensburg, and the citizens of the town sent a petition to President James Madison demanding that no further troops be stationed in or around Ogdensburg for the duration of the war. Consequently, life between Prescott and Ogdensburg went back to normal with American smugglers selling to the British for hard cash. As for the British, Prevost kept a weary eye on the valley and strengthened his garrison at Prescott with the construction of fortifications, which became known as Fort Wellington.

Things did not remain totally peaceful however. In November 1813, U.S. Army Gen James Wilkinson descended the St. Lawrence River in an attempt to capture Montreal as part of the Saint Lawrence Campaign. Fearing the guns at Fort Wellington, Wilkinson's men and supplies were transferred to land and marched around Ogdensburg. The plan was to meet MGen Wade Hampton's force for a joint attack, but confusion and supply shortages led to a change of plans.

As for Forsyth, after his retreat to Sackets Harbor, he and his men were able to take part in the battle and looting of York on April 27,1813, and the Battle of Fort George on May 25-27,1813. However, American MGen. Henry Dearborn was so embarrassed by Forsyth's actions, as well as worried about British threats of reprisal, that he transferred Forsyth and his men to the border area between Lower Canada (Quebec) and New York, where he was killed at the Battle of Odelltown in June 1814. It is interesting to note that on word of Forsyth's death, he was the least mourned American officer in the U.S. military, though the people of his home state of North Carolina regarded him as a hero and named Forsyth County after him. In addition, the State Assembly paid for his son's education and presented him with a jewelled sword. There is a street named after him on Manhattan's Lower East Side.

With the construction of the St. Lawrence Waterway in the 1950s, much has changed along the St. Lawrence River Valley. A number of the small towns that followed the old course of the river, as well as most of the battlefield site at Crysler's Farm, are now underwater, and the border between Canada and the United States is now solidly defined. To this day, many communities along the river still have that easygoing live-and-let-live attitude.
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Author:Harley, Michael
Publication:Esprit de Corps
Geographic Code:1CQUE
Date:Mar 1, 2014
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