Great Britain's increasing "search and seizure" of American
merchant ships had ultimately led to the Embargo Act of 1808, outlawing trade
with Britain and its possessions. Widespread smuggling ensued along the
American and Canadian border, as until this time the Americans in the region
were enjoying a prosperous trade with Canada. The armed brig Oneida and a company of marines were sent to Sackets Harbor in 1809 to enforce the
During the Embargo, Jacob Brown was a well known smuggler who defied the
federal ban on trading with the British. In fact, a road in the area was
nicknamed "Brown's Smugglers Road." Some called him "Potash
Brown" for the potash he had slipped across the border. In his "day
job", however, Brown had been a school teacher and land speculator, and
founded the village of Brownville near Sackets Harbor.
When war broke out, New York Governor Daniel Tompkins commissioned Brown a
Brigadier-General, placing him in charge of the militia along the Northern
Border. While Brown had little formal military training, he had a keen mind and
an instinctive understanding of military strategy. Brown believed that by using
Sackets Harbor as a base for naval operations and Ogdensburgh as a base for
hit-and-run attacks on British convoys, he could weaken the British hold on
Upper and western Canada. One of Brown's first actions was to fortify the naval
base at Sackets Harbor, and to begin building fortifications at Ogdensburgh.
In Ogdensburgh, the American forces decided that since the old French Fort
La Presentation was in ruins, the American troops to be stationed at the village
needed better defenses. The Americans agreed to build a new fort, named Fort
Oswegatchie, between what is now Franklin and Elizabeth Streets on Riverside
Drive to defend the village. Brown urged the governor to strengthen the
Ogdensburgh garrison, convincing him to send Brown, and a Rifle Regiment under
the command of Captain Benjamin Forsyth, to Ogdensburgh where they could more
easily attack British shipping.
While they awaited completion of the new fort, Forsyth's forces were housed
in the old barracks and French Fort on what is now Lighthouse Point. While the
American troops began their campaign to harrass British shipping, Mr. Ramee, a
former engineer for French Emperor Napoleon, directed the construction of the
fort and gun emplacements. Throughout the fall of 1812, work continued on the
fort and cannon emplacements which would be used to ward off enemy attacks.
Unfortunately for the village of Ogdensburgh, by the winter of 1813 Fort
Oswegatchie was still unfinished, unmanned, and undefended. When the British
launched their invasion against the village, British troops landed on the
river's shore a short distance from the unfinished fort. With no American troops
or cannon to harrass their landing, the 500 British deployed through the village
up Franklin Street past the empty fort Oswegatchie into the village. With only
50 American militia defending the village, the British quickly overran the
community, dooming Brown's hope for the village as a base for harrassment of
The mission of Forsyth's First Regiment of Rifles was to provide protection
from the British for the surrounding areas, and to keep watch for military
movement on and along the St. Lawrence River.
While under orders not to commence hostilities against the British, early in
February 1813 Forsyth learned that the enemy had crossed the St. Lawrence River
onto American territory and abducted a number of Americans. They were being
held prisoner and allegedly were treated "with severity" at a local
jail in what is now Brockville Ontario (then called Elizabethtown). Suspecting
that the prisoners might be executed, Forsyth took it upon himself to consider
this adequate reason to take action against the enemy.
"In consequence of this intrusion of the enemy on our soil . . . I left
this place with a part of my rifle company and a party of volunteers for the
purpose of retaking the prisoners and chastising the insolent enemy," wrote
Forsyth. Covered by darkness at about 10:00 pm on the night of February 7,
1813, the party of 200 set out on the 28 mile round trip through ice, snow, and
bitter cold. Reaching Elizabethtown (now Brockville) at about 3:00 am, the
force surrounded the jail, demanded and were given the keys to the cells. Aside
from a single shot from a nearby window wounding one of Forsyth's men, no
resistance was offered. Forsyth freed the 53 prisoners, including one major,
three captains, three lieutenants and one surgeon's mate. He also took several
prominent Canadians hostage, and brought them back to Ogdensburgh, along with
134 muskets, twenty rifles, two casks of fixed ammunition, and some other
Even before this raid the British considered Benjamin Forsyth a sharp thorn
in their side, and a growing danger. His capture of Brockville galvanized the
American side of the border, and badly frightened the Canadian shore of the St.
Lawrence River. The Canadians saw him as the leader of a dangerous band of
maurauders willing to strike anywhere, at any time. The British also accused
Forsyth and his troops of being a pack of thieves who plundered what they
captured. Col. "Red George" MacDonnell saw Forsyth's presence in
Ogdensburg as particularly dangerous.
After Forsyth's raid on Brockville, MacDonnell grew even more angry when he
learned some of Forsyth's troops had also slipped across the ice and stolen
horses from a British farmer. Under a flag of truce, MacDonnell sent his men to
Ogdensburgh to ask for the horses return and the punishment of those
responsible. Forsyth's men denied they were responsible for the theft.
Forsyth ordered the British to return to the safety of Fort Wellington,
suggesting that he would gladly meet their commander, "Red George"
MacDonnell on the river's ice at the earliest opportunity. When MacDonnell
learned of the challenge, he promised himself to give Forsyth his wish.
A few days later, when the Governor General of Canada, Sir George Prevost,
visited Prescott on his way upriver to Kingston, MacDonnell urged him to grant
permission for an invasion of Ogdensburgh. Prevost, a more cautious sort, ruled
against such an attack, telling MacDonnell such a raid would be unwise.
MacDonnell advised Prevost that Forsyth by now probably knew that the Governor
General was in Prescott. Two British soldiers had deserted from Fort Wellington
and knew of Prevost's presence there. MacDonnell suggested to Prevost that
Forsyth and his rifles would probably not be able to resist the chance to
capture the British Governor General of Canada on his trip to Kingston.
Frightened by the idea, Prevost ordered a large force from Fort Wellington to
accompany him to Kingston. But he still would not authorize an attack on
Ogdensburgh. He would only agree to allow MacDonnell to parade his troops on
the ice to distract Forsyth's attention while he made his trip to Kingston. In
his written orders, Prevost told MacDonnell that he could only "attack
Ogdensburgh if the "imbecile conduct of your enemy should offer you an
opportunity for his destruction and that of the shipping, batteries and public
stores." But Prevost warned that he did not want MacDonnell taking any
action that would risk the transport of British supplies through Prescott on its
way to Upper Canada.
MacDonnell, still angered by Forsyth's insults, promised himself to get his
revenge. Rather than just parading his troops, he ordered a full scale attack.
On February 22, coincidentally George Washington's birthday, the British
forces, about 800 strong, launched their attack on Ogdensburgh. Colonel "Red
George" McDonnell, who had long argued that Ogdensburgh's American
stronghold and Major Benjamin Forsyth's Rifle Company posed a serious threat to
the British, had won permission from the British Governor General only to make a
demonstration on the ice. But seizing the opportunity, and stung by the
American attack on Brockville, and Forsyth's insults a few days before when
British officers had asked the American commander to keep his men from embarking
upon raids on the Canadian shore, MacDonnell ordered his men to attack.
Leading a force of 500 men, McDonnell marched upon the village of
Ogdensburgh while Captain Jenkins led a separate force of 300 who where supposed
to attack the Americans from the upstream side of what is now Lighthouse Point
Jenkins' force was originally intended to attack or cut off any retreat from
the fort if the Americans attempted to escape when MacDonnell's larger force
subdued the village, and then attacked the fort from the downstream side of the
point, across the Oswegatchie River's mouth.
British accounts claim that the Americans sighted the two British columns
marching across the ice, but wasted time because Forsyth refused to believe they
were attacking. The British claim Forsyth thought the British troops were only
drilling, a frequent practice on the ice.
Unfortunately for Jenkins, the American Rifle Regiment in the fort did
realize that his force was attacking. Jenkins force, when it was halfway across
the river, not too far from the American cannon at the fort, on the point, and
in other locations around the fort, opened up in full on the approaching British
troops. The first cannonade upset Jenkins only cannon, and killed the only two
artillery men with his force who knew how to fire it. Jenkins force marched on
in the face of the American fire, but when they approached the American shore,
they found the snow had drifted to the point that the British found themselves
wading to their middle. The soldiers were forced to get on the other side of
the drifts, on the exposed shore, where they were easy targets for Forsyth's
riflemen. Jenkins had originally intended to land farther from the fort and
move his force to a point where they could cut off any retreat, but instead,
already under fire, they were forced to directly assault the rifle regiment. As
they began their charge, Jenkins himself was felled by grapeshot which shattered
his left arm. He climbed to his feet, and seeing his men wavering in the face
of the American cannonade and rifle fire, "He was on his legs again in a
minute and seeing his men put out a little by his fall, alive to the influence
of example, or all sense of personal suffering or danger being lost in his ardor
to his duty, he shouted to them, 'Never mind me,' and ran on a few steps
farther, urging his men forward." The American fire then shattered his
right arm, and Jenkins fell again. This time he was unable to rise. His men,
after watching their commander fall, and after being exposed to heavy fire from
the American rifle and cannon shot, lost heart and began to flee before the
fire. They managed to carry the wounded Jenkins with them, but left their dead,
and some of their wounded behind as they ran back to the Canadian shore.
At the Canadian shore, Bishop MacDonnell, a clergyman, formed the men back
into units sent them back across to join Colonel MacDonnell's main force, which
had entered the thinly defended village, thanks largely to Jenkins attack, which
had drawn the bulk of the American fire and attention.
Meanwhile, Colonel "Red George" MacDonnell and his 500 men
attacked the lightly defended village. They made quick time as they marched up
from the river, up Caroline Street to Washington Street. When they reached the
corner of Caroline and Washington, they split into two groups. One group headed
down Washington Street past David Parish's mansion, and then headed up State
Street. The other group marched up Caroline, turning at Ford Street. Near the
corner of Ford and State Streets, some of MacDonnell's men came face to face
with an iron 12 pounder mounted on a wheel carriage which had been taken from
Burgoyne at Saratoga. The cannon had been a trophy from the Revolutionary War.
Captain Giles Kellogg of the Company of Artillery from Schoharie County
commanded the cannon. Kellogg and his men had been sent to Ogdensburgh in late
December to help protect and defend the inhabitants of the northern frontier.
Unfortunately, the Americans had expected the main attack to come from the west,
over the Oswegatchie River Bridge at the end of Ford Street. "Great was
their surprise when they turned and discovered 500 soldiers advancing" upon
them, one survivor of the attack later wrote. Kellogg had to spend precious
time turning their cannon around to face the enemy marching in formation up the
street toward them, wounding and killing some of the Ogdensburgh militia and
Kellogg's Artillery Company manning the cannon. As the British approached,
Kellogg fired his cannon, but the screw used to elevate the cannon broke after
the first shot, disabling it. With this cannon useless, Kellogg and his men
withdrew, heading over the bridge to join Captain Benjamin Forsyth's rifle
regiment a the fort on the west side of the Oswegatchie.
After the British captured Captain Giles Kellogg's artillery position, only
St. Lawrence County Sheriff Joseph York stood between the British forces and
their capture of Ogdensburgh. When Kellogg's men withdrew, Sheriff York and
his men stayed on to face McDonnell's onslaught alone. York and his men
occupied an artillery position located near the corner of State Street and Ford
Street. They manned a brass six pounder, mounted on a wheeled carriage. York
fired at the advancing British, as the invaders fired volleys at them. Two of
York's men, Joseph Kneeland and Mr. Hyde fell mortally wounded. The rest of
York's militia, seeing the cause was lost, turned and fled for their lives
before the withering volleys from the British muskets. York remained alone. A
survivor of the attack wrote that York "disdaining to leave his post at the
moment of danger, resolved to face the enemy alone. While he was engaged in
charging the guns, the soldiers approached with guns levelled, ready for the
order to fire." Then the captain of the British force raised his hand and
turning tto his company, said: "There stands too brave a man to shoot."
York was taken prisoner. The British gathered the cannon they found in the
village, bringing them to the east bank of the Oswegatchie River, near what is
now the U.S. Customs building where they were used to lay seige to Forsyth's
main force across the Oswegatchie at the old French fort.
The village now in hand, MacDonnell then turned his attention to the fort
where Forsyth and his rifles were busily repelling what was left of Jacobs
After its complete success, even Prevost had to praise the wisdom of the
attack. He was so pleased, in fact, he altered MacDonnell's official report to
make it appear that the attack was a direct result of Prevost's own orders to
retaliate for the Brockville raid.
Of course the British would not stand for this intrusion, and promptly
retaliated for Forsyth's raid. Major "Red" George Macdonnel of the
Glengarry Light Infantry choose to strike directly at Forsyth. On the morning
of February 22, 1813, 480 British and Canadian troops crossed the frozen St.
Lawrence River from Prescott to Ogdensburgh. In little more than an hour,
eleven field pieces and all the American ordinance, marine, commissariat and
quartermaster general's stores were taken by the Macdonnel's troops. They also
captured 70 prisoners, including four officers. They also burned two armed
schooners, the Niagara and the Dolphin, along with two large gunboats and the
barracks, while Forsyth and his rifle company retreated to Sackets Harbor increasing that
garrison's strength for the important battle that would take place there in the
Spring of 1813.
The British victory was short-lived, however, as the American forces
successfully defended the border at Sackets
Harbor. The war ended with the Treaty of Ghent on Christmas Eve in 1814,
when the U.S. and Great Britain signed an accord calling for peace without
territorial concessions from either side.