On the 24th of June, 1813 an incident occurred which has been described as “the most brilliant episode of the war,” known as the Battle of Beaver Dams.
There are two accounts of it, one written at the time by a correspondent of the Montreal Gazette, and published in the columns of the issue of that paper of July 6th, 1813, and one written by James FitzGibbon in later years for the information of his grandchildren.
The duty of striking a preparatory blow, this surprise and capture of FitzGibbon, was entrusted to Lieut.-Colonel Boerstler and a force of upwards of five hundred men.
According to Mary FitzGibbon, the natural confidence of success which the comparative strength of the two forces gave the Americans was eventually the cause of their defeat. At the Beaver Dam, some of the junior officers with Lieut.-Colonel Boerstler were overheard discussing his plans, and a woman undertook the difficult task of attempting to reach and warn FitzGibbon. [This was posted on June 29th in brief detail; however, Mary FitzGibbon’s retelling is far more interesting.]
James Secord, formerly an officer in the Lincoln militia, had been wounded at Queenston Heights. Too crippled for further service, he had settled on a grant of land in the Niagara district, in that part of the peninsula at the time in the hands of the Americans. A couple of their officers coming into Secord’s house to demand food, had stayed long enough, and talked loud enough, to allow his young wife to learn the danger threatening FitzGibbon and his handful of brave men. Her husband was incapable by reason of his lameness, but she could be fleet of foot and strong in purpose. From the moment she obtained her husband's consent to go, until she reached FitzGibbon, her courage never failed.
Putting everything in order, even setting the breakfast table ready, that the appearance of her presence might deceive any chance visitor to the house, and learning the particulars of the best route to follow, so as to avoid the enemy's pickets as much as possible, she set out at dawn. Clad only in a short flannel skirt and cotton jacket, without shoes or stockings, her milking stool in one hand, her pail in the other, she drove one of the cows close to the American lines. While ostensibly making every effort to stay the animal's progress, she at the same time gave it a sly prod to keep it moving.
Accosted by the picket, who questioned her anxiety to milk the cow so early, and chaffed her for her apparent inability to overtake it, laughing at her fruitless efforts to bring the creature to a stand, Laura merely grumbled at it for being “contrary.” The scantiness of the woman's clothing, and her well-simulated wrath at the animal's antics, quite deceived the man, who let her pass without further protest.
The moment she was out of his sight, Laura Secord drove the cow on more quickly, following the course of a small ravine which concealed her from both sight and hearing. A mile away, she hid the pail and stool under the bushes, first milking the cow sufficiently to prevent her returning too soon to the clearing. She then set out on her long tramp through the woods.
The 23rd of June, the morning was hot and close, and through the lower lands the flies were plentiful. The underbrush in the forest was tangled and dense, making the tree-clad slopes more difficult to climb. The fear of encountering outlying pickets, or wandering bands of marauding Americans, who would stay or question her, led her to avoid even the slightly marked tracks, and took her a long way round. Her first stopping place was the mill on the little stream not far from St. David’s. Her friends there, a widow and a lad, endeavoured to dissuade her from attempting to reach FitzGibbon, and added much to the terrors of the way by exaggerated descriptions of the fierceness and cruelties of the Indians, who then infested the woods. But Laura had set out with a definite object, and she meant to accomplish it at all risks. She knew the enemy was to march the next day, and she must reach De Cou’s, where FitzGibbon was, before them. The last half of her journey was even more trying than the first. She knew nothing of the way; there were so many paths and “blazed” tracks through the woods, that she several times took a wrong one. When almost despairing of reaching her destination, she came to an opening in the forest and at the same time encountered a party of the dreaded Indians.
One, who appeared to be their chief, sprang to his feet and accosted her. Terrified, she was at first unable to speak, but reassured by the obedience of the others to a sign from their chief, she soon recovered sufficiently to try and explain by signs that she wished to be taken to FitzGibbon. Repeating the name and pointing to the knife in the chief's belt, she at last made him understand that many “Big-Knives” (Indian name for Americans) were coming. With an expressive “Ugh” of satisfaction and intelligence, the Indian turned, and led the way through the beaver meadows to De Cou’s.
[3-FitzGibbon & Secord]
“Thus,” wrote James FitzGibbon, “did a young, delicate woman brave the terrors of the forest in a time of such desultory warfare that the dangers were increased tenfold, to do her duty to her country, and by timely warning save much bloodshed and disaster.”
The following paper was signed by FitzGibbon:
“I do hereby certify that Mrs. Secord, wife of James Secord, of Chippewa, Esq., did, in the month of June, 1813, walk from her house, near the village of St. David's, to De Cou's house in Thorold by a circuitous route of about twenty miles, partly through the woods, to acquaint me that the enemy intended to attempt, by surprise, to capture a detachment of the 49th Regiment, then under my command, she having obtained such knowledge from good authority, as the event proved. Mrs. Secord was a person of slight and delicate frame, and made the effort in weather excessively warm, and I dreaded at the time that she must suffer in health in consequence of fatigue and anxiety, she having been exposed to danger from the enemy, through whose lines of communication she had to pass. The attempt was made on my detachment by the enemy; and his detachment, consisting of upwards of 500 men and a field-piece and 50 dragoons, were captured in consequence.
“I write this certificate in a moment of much hurry and from memory, and it is therefore thus brief.
“(Signed) James FitzGibbon,
“Formerly Lieutenant 49th Regiment.”
Sending her to a farm beyond De Cou's to be cared for, where, as she graphically expressed it, she “slept right off,” FitzGibbon repeated her tidings to the chief, and remained on guard himself all night.
[4- Site of the Battle of Beaver Dam - Looking across the frozen Welland Canal at the knoll on which the British commander, Lieutenant James FitzGibbon observed the fight in the gully. Today it is occupied by homes in Thorold, Ontario.]
In the meantime the American detachment had lain over at Queenston, and in the early morning of the 24th continued their march to Beaver Dam.
They had not gone far before they came upon Kerr and his Indians, in number between two and three hundred, chiefly Mohawks and Caughnawagas from the Grand River and the St. Lawrence. Kerr and young Brant saw at once that their force was too small to oppose the American advance, so resorted to Indian tactics to retard and harass the enemy. They threw themselves upon the rear and flank of the enemy, and opened a desultory fire. The Americans, throwing out sharpshooters in reply, still advanced.
The track was narrow and rough, the forest on either side forming a safe shelter for the Indians, who were neither to be shaken off nor repulsed. Their yells, echoing their rifles, rang on the national conscience, and the many sensational stories told of their savage treatment of prisoners had the usual effect on nerve and brain.
About 7 o'clock, FitzGibbon heard firing in the direction of Queenston. Taking a cornet of dragoons, who happened to be at De Cou's, with him, he sallied out to reconnoitre, and soon discovered the enemy. They had retired from the road and taken up a position on a rising ground in the centre of a field of wheat. The firing had nearly ceased, the Indians having to creep through the standing corn to get within range, and the guns of the Americans replying only to the spot where the smoke was seen to rise from the concealed rifle.
The Americans being about fourteen miles from Fort George and several of their men lying killed on the road before him, FitzGibbon suspected that they probably believed themselves in desperate circumstances. He sent the cornet back to bring up his men. Addressing a few animated words to them, he then led them at the double across the open in front of the American position, about 150 yards distant, to the wood between it and Fort George, as if to cut off their retreat, so disposing his men as to give the appearance of greater numbers.
A discharge of grape from the enemy's guns passed through his ranks and cut up the turf, but did no further damage. The desired ground was occupied without losing a man.
Upon discovery of the enemy, FitzGibbon had sent a despatch to Colonel De Haren, who was in command of a detachment of about two hundred men, as he believed about a mile from his own post, but who he afterwards learned had retreated to a distance of seven miles. While anxiously expecting the arrival of De Haren, FitzGibbon heard that the enemy were expecting reinforcements. The Indians were dropping off, and fearing to lose such a prize, he determined to “come the old soldier over them and demand their instant surrender.” Tying a white handkerchief to his sword he advanced. His bugler sounded the “Cease firing,” which to his surprise and satisfaction the Indians obeyed.
An American officer advanced to meet him, also bearing a flag.
FitzGibbon informed him that it was principally from a desire to avoid unnecessary bloodshed that he demanded the surrender of the American force to the British now opposing their advance, and wished the officer to recommend the necessity of such action strongly to the general in command. Colonel Boerstler's reply to this was, “That he was not accustomed to surrender to any army he had not even seen.”
Upon this, FitzGibbon represented that “if such was his (Colonel Boerstler's) determination, he would request his (FitzGibbon's) superior officer to grant permission for any officer Colonel Boerstler might depute for the duty, to inspect the British force, and see for himself the advisability of not risking a battle or the rancor of the Indians.”
FitzGibbon then retired, ostensibly to obtain this permission. Upon reaching his men he found that Captain Hall, of Chippewa, with about twenty dragoons, had joined them, he having been attracted by the firing. Requesting Captain Hall to represent the mythical “superior officer,” “receive the request and refuse it,” FitzGibbon returned to the American officer who awaited the reply. Colonel Boerstler then requested to be given until sundown to consider and decide. To this FitzGibbon replied promptly in the negative, “I cannot possibly grant such a request. I could not control the Indians for such a length of time,” and taking out his watch, he added, “I cannot give your general more than five minutes in which to decide whether to surrender or not.”
During the negotiations which followed concerning the conditions of surrender, FitzGibbon heard the name of Colonel Chapin constantly repeated. While delighted at the success of his stratagem, FitzGibbon endeavored to keep all appearance of satisfaction out of his manner. When the condition that “the volunteers and militiamen should be allowed to return to the United States on parole,” was advanced by Capt. McDowell, the officer who acted for Colonel Boerstler, FitzGibbon asked if the volunteers mentioned were not Chapin and his mounted men. Upon receiving an answer in the affirmative, he said: “The conduct of that person and his troop has been so bad among our country people, plundering their houses and otherwise behaving ill, that I do not think him deserving of the honors of war.” Pausing a moment as if to consider, he added: “But as I am aware that the Americans accuse us of stimulating the Indians to destroy you, whereas we have ever used our best endeavour, and almost always successfully, to protect you, therefore, rather than give you cause to think so upon this occasion, I agree to that condition as well as the others.”
“Then, sir,” replied Captain McDowell, “if you will send an officer to superintend the details of the surrender, we will be ready to receive you, and we shall depend upon you as a British officer to protect our men from the Indians.”
“I can only give you this assurance,” he replied, “the Indians must take my life before they shall attack you.”
FitzGibbon went at once to the chiefs, and repeating his promise made to the American officer to them in French, begged of them to do nothing to interfere with its fulfilment. They agreed at once, shaking hands with FitzGibbon in token of their faith. At this moment, most unexpectedly, Major De Haren appeared, galloping into the open and accompanied by a colonel of militia.
“I would have given all I ever possessed,” says FitzGibbon, “that they had been twenty miles distant, fearing that they would rob me of at least some of the credit of the capture. It became important to let Major De Haren know what had been already done, and I requested him to stop and hear it from me, but he most cavalierly replied, 'You need not be alarmed, Mr. FitzGibbon, you shall have all the credit for this affair which you deserve.'
“ 'I desire merely, sir, to make known to you what has been done, that you may proceed accordingly;' but he would not stop his horse, and Colonel Boerstler, seeing us approach, rode forward to meet us. I introduced them to each other, and then Major De Haren began offering certain conditions to Colonel Boerstler, upon which he would accept his surrender.
“In an instant I saw myself on the point of being robbed of my prize, and stepping quickly to the head of Major De Haren's horse, on the near side, and laying my left arm and elbow on its neck and my head upon my arm, my face towards Major De Haren so that my voice might reach his ear only, I said in a low but most imperative tone,' Not another word, sir; not another word; these men are my prisoners.' Then stepping back, I asked in a loud, firm voice, 'Shall I proceed to disarm the American troops?' And he could not help answering, 'You may.'
“The American troops fell in at once in answer to my command, and Major Taylor, Colonel Boerstler's second in command, asked me how I would have the men formed, in file or in column.
“ 'In file, if you please,' I replied, for I wished to keep their ranks broken as much as possible, and dreaded every moment that Major De Haren, in conversation with Colonel Boerstler, would, by some blunder, ruin all. The moment, therefore, that I saw eight or ten files formed, I gave the order, 'American troops, Right face — Quick march,' that I might drive Colonel Boerstler and Major De Haren before me, and prevent their conversing together further during the crisis.
“As we approached near where our men were formed, I stepped up to Major De Haren and asked, 'Shall the American troops ground their arms here?”
“'No,' he answered in a harsh tone, 'let them march through between our men and ground their arms on the other side.'
“Filled with indignation at this great folly, I thought, almost audibly, 'What, sir, and when they see our handful of men, will they ground their arms at your bidding?' but said, in an impressive tone, 'Do you think it prudent to march them through with arms in their hands in the presence of the Indians?'
“Before he could reply, Colonel Boerstler, holding out his hand, exclaimed, 'For God's sake, sir, do what this officer bids you!' 'Do so,' said De Haren.
“ 'Americans, Halt! — Front! — Ground your arms!'
"The order was obeyed promptly. Then the Indians sprang forward from their hiding-places and ran towards the prisoners, who in terror began to seize their arms again. The moment was critical. I sprang upon a stump of a tree and shouted, 'Americans, don't touch your arms! Not a hair of your head shall be hurt,' adding, 'Remember, I am here' — a bombastic speech, but I knew I could rely on the promise given me by the chiefs. The Americans stood still, and the Indians went among them, taking possession of such articles of arms and accoutrements as pleased them, especially the pistols of the dragoons, but in all other respects with perfect forbearance and propriety.
"After the arms were grounded, and the prisoners saw that the Indians were so orderly, I ordered, 'Right face — Quick march!' and marched them away from their arms. All being now safe, I mounted my horse and rode forward to Major De Haren, and asked him if he had any special order for me. For the first time that day he spoke civilly to me, and requested me to ride on and join Colonel Boerstler and his friend, Dr. Young, and conduct them to De Cou's house.”
The kindly intercourse between FitzGibbon and the men he had so recently captured, during this memorable ride, and until they were sent on to Quebec, was attributed to the natural courtesy with which a true soldier and gentleman would treat a fallen foe. FitzGibbon made them feel that they were more the victims of circumstance than responsible for defeat.
The following are the articles of capitulation made between Captain McDowell, on the part of Lieut-Colonel Boerstler of the United States Army, and Lieutenant FitzGibbon, although signed by Major De Haren, of His Britannic Majesty's Canadian Regiment, on the part of Lieut.-Colonel Bishop, commanding the advance of the British, respecting the surrender of the force under the command of Lieut.-Colonel Boerstler. It is taken from the original document, now in the Canadian Archives.
"First. That Lieut.-Colonel Boerstler and the force under his command shall surrender prisoners of war.
"Second. That the officers shall retain their horses, arms and baggage.
"Third. That the non-commissioned officers and soldiers shall lay down their arms at the head of the British column and become prisoners of war.
"Fourth. That the militia and the volunteers with Lieut.-Colonel Boerstler shall be permitted to return to the United States on parole.
"Captain of the U. S. Light Artillery.
" C. G. Boerstler,
" Lieut-Colonel Commanding Detach't U.S. Army.
" B. W. De Haren,
"Major Canadian Regiment."
The number captured were 25 officers and 519 non-commissioned officers and men, of whom 50 were dragoons, including 30 mounted militiamen; also one 12-pounder, one 6-pounder, two ammunition cars, and the colours of the 14th Regiment United States army.
The Indians killed and wounded 56 men. Colonel Boerstler was also wounded.
FitzGibbon's force consisted of 46 muskets, a cornet of dragoons, and his own cool effrontery, his reinforcement a captain of the dragoons (Provincial), a sergeant, corporal and 12 dragoons — "the first of our dragoons ever seen in that quarter, and their arrival had an excellent effect upon the negotiations."
Sir George Prevost, wrote with his own hand to James FitzGibbon a letter of thanks, “His Royal Highness the Prince Regent was graciously pleased to bestow a company upon me for this service, and the commander of the forces”.
A Veteran of 1812: The Life of James Fitzgibbon by Mary Agnes Fitzgibbon (1894), p.78-79.
The Illustrated History of Canada, Edited by Graig Brown, Key Porter Books, 2007, p.209
Photo Credits: -wikipedia, -ilmo joe CC=nc-sa-flickr.