THE BURNING OF BUFFALO, N.Y.

December 30, 1813

The St. John House was the only structure deliberately spared by the British when they razed Buffalo in retaliation for an incursion by American Forces a few weeks before that had resulted in the burning of a Canadian settlement.

 

Map of The Burning of Buffalo

The remainder of the story may perhaps be better told in the narratives of some of those who actually passed through those days of terror. The "Recollections of William Hodge," Vol IX, Publications of the Buffalo Historical Society, are perhaps the most comprehensive. They were written when he was in his sixty-fourth year, and show that he made that period of Buffalo history an especial study. His "Recollections," in part, read:

"Upon examination of the different historical accounts of the events that took place in our immediate vicinity on the day Buffalo was burned, I fail to find anything of a full and correctly detailed description, but find some statements published in the journals of the day, written evidently by those who knew but little of the actual facts, or certainly they would not have been so incorrect.

"My father and his family were absent from our home but one week. Our house being burned we returned and lived in a house near by, and put up an addition immediately.

"My father kept a public house, or tavern. All battles and events of the war were fully related and discussed in our bar-room, and I, although a boy, heard much of what was said. * * *

"I will endeavor to state as I remember them, and as I heard them many times related, and over and over again repeated during the weeks and months immediately following the day of the burning.

"For some days previous and until the morning of that day, there had been a company of our cavalry stationed at my father's public house on the hill just above Cold Spring. It was a patrol of this company that, between one and two o'clock on the morning of Dec. 30, 1813, first discovered the British on this side."

Mr. Hodge's Account

The next paragraph of Mr. Hodge's account substantially agrees with the account already given of the happenings from one o'clock till dawn of the 30th. Continuing Mr. Hodge's narrative, we learn that:

"Many of our men on the march from the village down to Black Rock had left the ranks and when our force met the enemy, more than half of our militia had deserted and fled through the woods. Those who remained fought well for a time, but very soon broke their ranks and fled, and then ensued a general stampede of our entire force into and through the woods. The enemy continued their march up the Black Rock road, or Niagara Street, meeting with no opposition excepting from the brave Col. Cyrenius Chapin and a few followers who brought to bear on them a small field piece. It was commonly reported after the battle of that morning that the British officers had said that they were on the point of surrendering to our force and if our men had stood their ground and given them one more volley they would have done so.

"These erroneous statements published in many of the eastern newspapers were probably obtained from those who first left the scene of action (if they were in it at all), and the editors of course published the first accounts they could get, which undoubtedly came from those who first ran away.

"There were a number of our neighbors and townsmen in the battle that morning; among them two of my uncles, Loring and Alfred Hodges. After the battle, these two returned to their homes in the vicinity of Cold Spring, and with their father, Benjamin Hodge, Sr., and their brother William Hodge, were the last to leave the neighborhood, and it was not until the flames were doing their destroying work down in the village.

"After our men had broken ranks and commenced to run, there was no such thing as stopping them. They took to the woods in an easterly direction, and when they came out the fields between the Guide Board road and Cold Spring were covered with our 'gallant' soldiery. One man, wounded in the shoulder by a musket ball, came across the fields to the house of the widow Cotton, a near neighbor. While George W. Cotton, her son, was getting off the man's coat to, examine and dress the wound, the cry was so strong that the British and Indians were coming that the wounded man would not wait but ran across the road, and into the woods, following scores of others upon a full run. And yet Mrs. Cotton and her family, and most of the other families in the village, had not as yet left their homes. The fact is that our militia army and most of the officers were far ahead of the inhabitants in fleeing before the enemy that morning; the officers showing and practicing as much cowardice as the men.

The Stand at Cold Spring

"There was a feeble effort to rally the men at the Cold Spring, but they could no more be stopped than a flock of sheep when they once get started to go by you. At Williamsville bridge they succeeded better, some being stopped there, and continuing to keep guard at that place.

"In the Manlius 'Times,' published Jan. 4, 1814, there is an account published, and copied into the appendix of Ketchum's 'History of Buffalo' of the battle of the 30th, the day Buffalo was burned, which contains several errors.

"It states that the skirmish that took place with our militia was when the enemy landed, and lasted several hours; while in truth, our force stationed there being small, retreated almost immediately. Again it says: 'Toward daylight a body of regulars, from 800 to 1,000, with cannon, etc., landed at the mouth of Buffalo Creek, directly above the village.' This is entirely false. Then it says: 'Our men finding themselves attacked on both flanks, immediately retreated, or rather fled through the woods on to the road near Major Miller's' (Cold Spring). As far as the retreating or fleeing is concerned this is true, but when it proceeds with: 'Here Gen. Hall rallied them and conducted them towards Buffalo, where they met the enemy, and considerable hard fighting took place.' This is not true. There was no marching back, no rallying, and no fighting. This must have been written by one who drew largely on his imagination."

General Amos Hall's papers, covering orders, dispatches, and other military records of the period, December 24, 1813, to February 21, 1814, are in print and known; but of the happenings during the most critical part of that period, December 30th and the next few days, nothing can be gathered from the Hall documents, the next published letter after that of December 29th being one dated January 6, 1814, from "Headquarters, Batavia." Officially, it was generally recognized that Major-General Amos Hall did the best that was possible under the complicated situation in which he found himself on the 30th; and if he did permit his men to retreat in a hasty and disorderly manner, he at least had the satisfaction of having them at band later for subsequent fighting. And no aspersion against his personal valor was ever officially made. However, many civilians thought differently.

St.John House

Martha St. John Skinner, daughter of Margaret St. John, the latter a widow who remained in Buffalo throughout the dread period of British and Indian occupation, narrates how, on the morning of the approach of the British:

"Mother was standing in the door and Mr. Seth Grosvenor came along with a white flag on a walking-stick. He said if he could only gather citizens enough to assist him, he could drive the enemy back; as he had sent the contents of that gun among them with the effect of mowing them down."

"Just then some few men on horseback were coming from Court Street and as they came nearer mother walked out to the road. The headmost one drew his rein, and she said to him: 'For mercy sake, do turn back and help Mr. Grosvenor manage that cannon and defend the town; and let General Hall go; he must be an awful coward.' At that he raised his hat, drew rein and his horse set off on a dignified trot, and the rest followed. Mother was soon informed that she had been talking to General Hall himself. She said she did not wish to recall her words, that if she had known him, she would have said more."

Still, such individual impressions are generally based upon an imperfect or incomplete knowledge of the circumstances governing the action; without soldiers the General could do little; and his command had apparently dwindled to nothing by that time.

Continuing the Hodge narrative, where interrupted, we read that:

"From a letter in Ketchum's history dated Jan. 3, 1814, to General Porter at Albany, I quote the following: 'The enemy then (that was after the battle) marched on Buffalo, a detachment taking the road to Granger's mills' (on Scajaquada Creek). This was not so, as none of the enemy went out there that day with the exception of some scouting Indians. Some few Indians did come up the Guide Board road (now North Street) and shot at our people as they were passing on Main Street, wounding one man in the knee, but they did not come up as far as the main road.

"What little Mr. Turner says, in his 'History of the Holland Purchase' in relation to the battle of that day is correct, excepting where he says: 'Looking up Main Street, judge Walden saw a small force approaching, and immediately started to meet it. It proved to be a detachment of forty regular soldiers, under the command of Lieutenant Riddle marching in to save the village,' etc. I think this statement must be without any good foundation, as I never had heard or seen any account of such an event. If it had been a fact I think some of us would have known of it, and it would have been spoken of at that time or immediately after.

"Our family fled from our home late that morning, not until the enemy had arrived in the village. We were on the road all the way to Williamsville and three miles beyond, and nothing was seen or heard of any soldiers going toward Buffalo. The fact is all had their faces turned toward the other way, and seemed to be in a great hurry.

"Another account says: 'The enemy remained on this side until Saturday.' This too is a mistake. They all returned across the river the same day they came (Thursday). It was known afterwards that they said they dared not remain overnight, fearing their retreat would be cut off. These things were spoken of at that time, and I have no doubt were true.

"It is well known that some of the enemy returned the following Saturday and finished their work of destruction by burning the remaining buildings on the outskirts of the village. They also took about thirty citizens as prisoners and carried them over to Canada. On this same Saturday, a half-blood British Indian came on to the main road just above Cold Spring to my father's joiner shop, where some household goods and clothing were stored. He proceeded to make up a bundle of such things as he desired, brought them out and laid them over the fence. He then went to Mr. Hodge's dwelling house, which bad just been set on fire by the enemy, took a brand and crossed the road to set the barn on fire. Just then a company of our horsemen came up from towards Cold Spring and took him prisoner. (He was later shot and killed, the report being that 'he attempted to escape').

Major Miller's Tavern

"The same day, a little before this occurrence, three British Indians came into the back door of Major Miller's tavern at Cold Spring. They found in the house a Mrs. Martin, an inmate of the Major's family. They were about to set fire to the house when Mrs. Martin delayed them by furnishing food, as they seemed to be somewhat hungry. Mrs. Martin had been informed that there would be a company of horsemen there soon, and was desirous of preventing them setting the house on fire until they arrived. They did some galloping up while the Indians were yet eating, who, when they discovered our horsemen, left the house by the same way they came, but in a far greater hurry, and ran across the fields into the woods. This company of horsemen was under the command of Colonel Totman, and had been stationed for the day at Atkins' tavern, the 'Old Homestead,' on Buffalo Plains. * *

"Colonel Totman was shot from his horse and instantly killed, by a British horseman. * * *

"The people living at a distance from the scene of war were more frightened than those who were in the immediate vicinity. This was shown by many families living fifteen to twenty miles from Buffalo, moving away from their homes on the morning the village was burned, and not returning until the following spring, their houses in the meantime being occupied oftentimes by those whose homes in the village had been burned."

Daniel Brayman narrated his remembrances of the burning to his grandson, George D. Emerson, in 1864, and the latter deposited the record with the Buffalo Historical Society. It, in part, reads:

"On the morning of the 30th of December the British * * * crossed over, and took up position near the battery. [After referring to the futile night fighting by Americans. the narrative continues]. This policy continued until the number of men were reduced to about 600. These fought for a while until orders were received from Gen. Hall to retreat, or as the expression was, for each man to take care of himself. They retreated to the woods in their rear, but found them occupied by the Indians. A fierce fight ensued and many were killed and scalped. It was about 10 o'clock p. m., when the fight ended. The enemy did not come up that evening.

"At 8 o'clock I was at the quartermaster's department, but learning that 2,700 rations had been drawn that day, returned home feeling perfectly safe. I saw that day thirteen bodies of the killed lying at Reese's blacksmith shop. It was a bitter cold day, and the bodies were frozen stiff just as the men had died. They were in all conceivable postures. Legs and arms twisted round in all shapes; the gaping wounds, the mangled heads torn by the ruthless scalping knife, all formed a sight horrible to behold."

 

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The British Arrive

"That evening, the 30th, a man came along and reported that the British and Indians were coming. I did not credit the story, and went to bed. The people of Black Rock and Buffalo seemed to think differently, for we could hear all night long the tramp of the fugitives. Wagons and horses were not plenty then and most of the panic-struck ones fled on foot. Before daybreak next morning, Major Miller came to our house, and rousing us up, told us that we must leave that the British were coming to burn the town, and that all the militia had run away. I immediately harnessed nip my team and made preparations to leave. Mrs. Brayman put her bake-kettle with bread in it, some pork and other things, into the

Map of Burning of Buffalo

Street map of the Village of Buffalo Before it was Burnt in 1813

HIGH RESOLUTION MAP IMAGE CLICK HERE 762K

 


"Mother was standing in the door and Mr. Seth Grosvenor came along with a white flag on a walking-stick. He said if he could only gather citizens enough to assist him, he could drive the enemy back; as he had sent the contents of that gun among them with the effect of mowing them down."


wagon. The town was now about deserted, and seeing it was useless to remain we started. We overtook the fugitives this side of Eleven-mile Creek, which we reached a little after sunrise. We went to Henshaw's tavern, but found it deserted, the occupants having left in such haste as even to leave the breakfast dishes on the table. Mrs. Brayman cooked our breakfast here, and in a little while we started on. We could then see the smoke issuing from burning Buffalo. We continued on about three miles, finding empty houses plenty-the panic having been as great if not greater than at Buffalo. We went into one house where the folks had thrown everything into the garden. Butter, lard, pork, feathers from the beds. etc., lay around in sweet confusion. We tried to straighten out matters, but the owners not returning until spring, we remained in the house during the winter.

"In March,1814, we returned to Buffalo. Only one small house, Mrs. St. john's, -had been spared the general destruction. Quite a number had come back before we did and had improvised houses in every manner. Some had built little shanties, while others had merely roofed their cellars."

Only one woman was killed in Buffalo, it seems. A daughter of Mrs. Margaret St. John, one of whose two houses was spared through her personal entreaty and her bravery in remaining in her home throughout the British occupation, testified as follows, regarding the killing of Mrs. Lovejoy:

"My mother said she saw an Indian pulling the curtains down from the window of the Lovejoy house opposite, and saw Mrs. Lovejoy strike his hand with a carving-knife, and saw the Indian raise the hatchet; but as the door closed she could not know certain that he killed her. She did not dare to go and see.

"Soon there came along an advance guard with a cannon, and a British colonel on horseback. He spoke very cross, and said: 'Why are you not away?' Mother said she had lost the opportunity and now she had nowhere to go to, only out in the cold and perish in the snow. He said: 'I have just now seen a very unpleasant sight in the house over the way. The Indians have killed a woman, and I am very sorry any such thing should happen.' 'Well,' said mother, 'I was fearful she would provoke them to kill her.' I spoke to her and said: 'Do not risk your life for property'; she answered: 'When my property goes, my life shall go with it."'

The colonel "set a sentinel" over Mrs. St. John's property, and presumably to protect her also; and for a while both of her houses were spared. On the third day, however, the larger house was destroyed by Indians.

Casualties Sustained

Major-General Hall on January 13, 1814, in a communication to His Excellency D. D. Tompkins, Governor, made the following report of casualties sustained in the fighting of the 30th December:

"I regret to add that our loss in killed on the 30th ult. proves to be greater than I had supposed. On repossessing the ground we found that our dead were yet unburied. There have been already collected about 50 bodies, and probably there are some yet undiscovered in the woods. The cannon were not moved by the enemy (excepting the 6-pounder), nor are they materially injured. The enemy admit their loss in killed and wounded to be 300."

General Hall had apparently previously estimated the American loss at about 3o killed, 4o wounded, and 69 taken prisoner. Among the slain were: Lieutenant-Colonel Boughton, of Avon, and Major William C. Dudley, of Evans. Others were: Job Hoysington, John Roop, Samuel Holmes, John Trisket, James Nesbit, Robert Franklin (colored), and a Mr. Myers, of Buffalo: Robert Hilland, Adam Lawfer, of Black Rock; Jacob Vantine, Jr., of Clarence; Moses Fenno, of Alden; Israel Reed, of Aurora; Newman Baker, Parley Moffat and William Cheesman, of Hamburg and East Hamburg; Peter Hoffman (probably), of Evans; and Calvin Cary, of Boston.

It is of interest here to set down the British account of the burning of Buffalo and Black Rock. It was issued from the Adjutant-General's Office, Headquarters, Quebec, on January 8th, 1814, and reads:

"GENERAL ORDERS.-His Excellency, the Commander of the Forces has the satisfaction of announcing to the Troops that he has received a Despatch from Lieut. General Drummond, reporting the complete success of an attack that was made at day break, on the morning of the 3oth of December, on the Enemy's position at Black Rock, where he was advantageously posted with upwards of 2ooo men, and after a short but severe contest, the Enemy was repulsed in the most gallant manner, and pursued in his retreat to Buffalo, where he attempted to make a stand, but on receiving a few rounds from the British Field Pieces, he abandoned that Post also, and fled with precipitation to the 11 Mile Creek, on Lake Erie, leaving 7 Field Pieces and 4 Schooners and Sloops, with a considerable quantity of Ordnance and other valuable stores, which have fallen into our hands-The Enemy suffered severely, but from the rapidity of his flight, 70 Prisoners only are taken, among whom is Doctor or Lieut. Colonel Chapin.

"The Corps under Major General Riall, consisted of Detachments from the Royal Scots, 8th (or Kings) 41st, and the Flank Companies of the 89th and 100th Regiments, the whole not exceeding 1000 men.

"No British officer has fallen on this occasion: Lieut. Col. Ogilvie 8th (or Kings) and Capt. Fawcett, 100th Grenadiers, were wounded, but it is supposed our loss does not exceed 25 killed and 50 wounded.

"Black Rock and Buffalo were Burnt previous to their evacuation by our Troops, together with all the Public Buildings and the Four Vessels. A considerable quantity of Stores having been sent away before the conflagration."

A day or two after the departure of the British and Indians, "citizens assembled and gathered the dead and laid them in Reese's shop," which smithy and the jail and Mrs. St. john's house were the only structures left standing in Buffalo. "There were over forty dead bodies. It was a ghastly sight, most of the bodies having been stripped, tomahawked and scalped. Those not soon taken away by friends were placed in a large grave in the old Franklin Square burial ground and covered temporarily with boards, so that they might be examined by relatives and taken away. Quiet again settled down over the village."

General Hall made Batavia his headquarters during the work of reorganizing the American army, or, to be more correct, it might be written the State army, for his command was composed mainly of militia units recruited in New York State. On the 10th January, General Hall's aide-de-camp, George Hosmer, wrote: "A detachment of 1,900 men is ordered out, but cannot be expected on the frontier under 10 or 12 days at the shortest." On the 13th, General Hall wrote to the Governor: "I flatter myself that within a few days I may be able to pronounce this frontier safe against any encroachments of the enemy." There was, however, much difficulty in getting the required number of militia, and, according to General Hall's correspondence, much difficulty in preventing desertions. Writing to the Governor, on February 17, 1814, he said:

"I flatter myself that your Excellency will lose no tithe in ordering detachments of troops from other divisions into service to relieve those at present here. On this so momentous a subject it is earnestly hoped that there may be no delay, the whole number now on this frontier do not exceed 1800 men, and the terms of the militia of the 1st detachment called for on the requisition of the War Department will expire as soon as new troops can be got out. * * *

"From recent information, the enemy are undoubtedly in considerable force near this frontier, and adequate security cannot be afforded without considerable addition to the numbers now in service."

Desertions became so dangerous an element that stern measures had to be adopted to combat it. One of the deserters apprehended was deprived of all pay, and made "to march from right to left through the ranks of the Brigade and then from left to right in front of the same with his hat off and hands tied behind him, followed by music playing the Rogue's March; to sit an hour straddle of one of the cannons when the same is mounted with a label pasted on his hat crown in front, with this inscription in large letters, viz: 'I became a Substitute for Speculation and am now punished for desertion,' and at the expiration of the hour to be drummed out of camp." "This was done, March 31st, at 11 o'clock, and was the most ignominious punishment inflicted at all of the many courts-martial in that winter's camp on the Eleven-mile creek."

The majority of the dispossessed and homeless Buffalo families spent the winter in the neighborhood of Williamsville, or Eleven-mile Creek, though some were at Willink, Batavia, and other places until the spring.

Pomeroy's Tavern First Structure Rebuilt

Some of the more venturesome or less fortunate Buffalonians returned in January to the razed Buffalo.

William Hodge and his family returned on the 6th of January, and Landlord Pomeroy soon followed. The latter built the first structure raised over the ashes of the former village, building an inn, which he named the Buffalo Phoenix Hotel. William Hodge built the next. Holden Allen next came, and occupied Mrs. St. John's cottage, the brave widow being invited to pass the winter with friends in Black Rock. There was constant tension, owing to the proximity of the enemy, and the weakness of the American forces. However, Buffalo felt less apprehensive than other places along the border, there being a detachment of regulars stationed in the village. Twice the British crossed the river, but were driven back by the regulars, aided by citizens. And relief measures promptly undertaken in many parts of the country to relieve the destitution and privation of the dispossessed Niagara Frontier families made it possible for the latter to pass through the reconstruction period with less hardship than might have been supposed. Harris's Hill, "fourteen miles from the Buffalo ruins," was, however, "a sort of meeting place for the merchants and other business men" of the former Buffalo; and there for a while the county offices were established.

Excerpted from the book: Hill, Henry Wayland, Ed. Municipality of Buffalo, New York, A History. 1720-1923. Lewis Historical Publishing Company, Inc. New York. Chicago.

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This text is Copyright 2001 all rights reserved by Stephen Powell and buffalonian.com. This electronic text may not be duplicated or used in any manner without written consent of Stephen R. Powell or buffalonian.com

 

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Internet Services Donated by The Blue Moon Internet Corp

This text is Copyright 2001 all rights reserved by Stephen Powell and buffalonian.com. This electronic text may not be duplicated or used in any manner without written consent of Stephen R. Powell or buffalonian.com