Cannon fire, presentations and re-enactors commemorated the Bicentennial Celebration of the War of 1812 Battle of French Creek on Saturday November 2nd.
The presentation was sponsored by Norm Wagner, Village & Town of Clayton Historian and the Thousand Islands Museum. On hand were members of the War of 1812 reenactment brigade of the Forsythe Rifles from Ogdensburg, NY in full dress uniforms.
The Battle of French Creek was a small victory for the Americans that was part of a war that is now mostly forgotten. It played out in the Thousand Islands when French Creek was used as a staging area for the United States Army in its advance on Montreal, Canada in late 1813. A United States Army in the order of 8,000 soldiers under the command of General James Wilkinson passed down the St. Lawrence River from Sackets Harbor. This was an ill fated mission in an attempt to achieve a decisive victory against the British and end the war in Upper Canada (Ontario).
After victories in the Detroit area and naval engagements on Lake Erie, General John Armstrong, Secretary of the Army, met with his commander General Wilkinson in Sackets Harbor in August of 1813. In a counsel of war, it was decided to capture the British base at Kingston, Ontario and then to move down the St. Lawrence on to Montreal where a second army under the command of Wade Hampton, coming from the Plattsburg area, would join in the operation.
The plan looked possible given the successes the summer before and the fact that the British were in a defensive position. The American Fleet under Admiral Isaac Chauncey controlled Lake Ontario. Its major obstacles were the capability of the American Generals and the ability to transport 8000 soldiers and equipment across the Lake from Sackets Harbor and down the St. Lawrence River in late October and early November.
Mid October the army left Sackets Harbor in over 300 whale boats heading towards its first rendezvous position at Grenadier Island, Lake Ontario. That year snow storms came early and caught the army exposed and unprotected on the Lake. Over ten inches of snow and high winds dispersed the army causing many boats loaded with supplies to be lost. It was November 1st before they regrouped at Grenadier Island, Lake Ontario. In advance of this, General Wilkinson sent a force under General Jacob Brown (Brigadier General in the NY militia and founder of Brownville, NY) to occupy the next staging area at French Creek near present day Clayton, NY. This was a location that Brown was very familiar with, a known smugglers’ rendezvous from the potash trade before the War of 1812. His advance units consisted of Brown’s own brigade, the light artillery, Forsyth’s riflemen, volunteers and gunboats with the artillery and ordnance stores for the campaign.
French Creek was one of the locations that an advance on Kingston could be launched from. The British discovered the forces in French Creek on the 1st of November. They dispatched a squadron of four war ships and several gun boats from their base in Kingston in an attempt to disrupt and destroy the American units at French Creek.
General Brown, anticipating an attack, had Captain Robert McPherson of the light artillery prepare a battery of 18 pounders on a high wooded bluff on the western shore of French Creek (modern day Bartlett Point). From this commanding position the battery effectively engaged the British squadron in a very intensive cannonading for a day. The British were effectively driven back and any landing against the supply boats located at the back of French Creek Bay was prevented. The next day on the morning of the 2nd, the British returned but Captain McPherson had reinforced the battery over the night and added a furnace to heat the cannon balls. The British squadron was severely damage by the “red hot shot” and they withdrew just barely saving one of their major ships. Two American solders were killed in the conflict and were buried at the back of French Creek.
By mid day on the 2nd of November, the rest of Wilkinson’s Army was moving down the St. Lawrence from their base on Grenadier Island. Some of the first detachments arriving were cannonaded by the damaged British Squadron returning to Kingston through the channel north of Long Island (Wolfe Island). To cover the movement of the army in their whale boats, the American fleet under the command of Commodore Chauncey moved down the river to provide protection from any British ships.
By the 3rd of November the American fleet lay in anchor between the end of Long Island (Wolfe Island) and Bartlett’s Point while the army under Wilkinson of over 300 whale boats and gun boats with their supplies and 8000 solders assembled in French Creek and prepared for the next phase of the invasion.
On the 5th of November the British still did not know the American intentions. If the Americans moved against Kingston they would have crossed the River and landed near Gananoque. To interfere with any landing, the British fleet left Kingston and anchored on the north side of Long Island (Wolfe Island), only a few miles from the American squadron. Separating the fleets was shallow water that the American’s largest ship The General Pike could not cross.
With the two Fleets almost gun to gun and a chance to confront the British fleet, the Americans began to buoy a channel to gain access to the British fleet. On the 6th, Wilkinson moved his army out of French Creek. He decided that given the lateness of the season that the Army should move on Montréal. The British, now knowing the intent of the invasion, moved their fleet back to Kingston.
The American fleet fearing that it could be trapped in the River by the British reoccupying the strategic remains of Fort Haldimand on Carleton Island, moved upstream to a position off the head Carleton Island. Today the remains of Fort Haldimand are barely visible. In November 1813, the fort was still a formidable site.
For over a week the American Lake Ontario fleet lay at anchor in front of it. This kept the British Fleet in check at Kingston. Meanwhile Wilkinson’s Army proceeded down river to the Battle at Chryslers’ Farm and their eventual winter encampment at Fort Covington.
The history of the War of 1812 is well documented. Many original letters and government records still exist. The participants were strong characters and personalities. The above information was found in American State Papers of the US Congress, Wilkinson’s Memoirs and British War Office records.
By Dennis McCarthy
Dennis McCarthy retired in 2009 from his professional career in engineering management in the Consumer Electronics and CATV industries. Having traveled to 28 countries in his business profession, he now prefers to spend his time with his wife Kathi living in Cape Vincent, NY and enjoying the Thousand Islands and St. Lawrence River. A certified scuba diver for over 40 years, he made his first dives in the River in 1971. Co-founder of the St Lawrence Historical Foundation [SRHF] in 1993, he helped organize the underwater survey of the Niagara Shoal Wreck which was identified as the French war ship L'Iroquois that sunk in 1761 (St. Lawrence River Historical Foundation Inc. website)
He and his wife Kathi (See Seeing Underwater… October 2011 and Kathi and Dennis McCarthy’s Discoveries …in March 2011.) now spend their time with their long time friend Skip Couch promoting Scuba Diving via the Thousand Islands Area Scuba Divers web site www.tiasd.com and by writing and publishing diving guides and shipwreck books.