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Lewiston boys' attack on warship with mudballs authenticated by letter

Imagine a group of teenage boys playing "war," building a homemade "cannon" out of logs, and rolling some mud into the shape of cannonballs.

And then actually firing them at a foreign warship on the Niagara River during the tense days that led up to the disastrous War of 1812!

For years, a local folk legend has circulated around Lewiston about the boys, their make-believe cannon and their mudballs. Now -- some 200 years later -- the Historical Society of Lewiston says it has evidence that the engagement actually happened and that the fully loaded British schooner reversed course and retreated down the river under "attack" by the mudballs.

A Rochester area historian, Jim Fischer, has come up with a copy of a letter written in 1865 by Alexander Millar, who was 15 years old in 1810 when he led his teenage friends on what has become known as the "mudballer attack."

Fischer gave a copy of the letter to Historical Society President Bruce Sutherland during a ceremony last week at the Barton Hill Hotel and Spa. Fischer, of Hamlin, obtained the letter many years ago from a descendant of the Millar family.

He said it confirmed the role of Alexander Millar as the leader of the teenage warriors who scared off the British -- for a short while, at least. Millar, who lived on River Road, is buried in Lewiston's village cemetery next to First Presbyterian Church at Cayuga and South Fifth streets. His father ran the only store in Lewiston at the time.

As the legend goes, young Millar rounded up about a dozen boys and they built a makeshift fort on the bank of the Niagara River. According to the book "The War of 1812" by Everett Tomlinson, published in 1906, the boys cut down some maple trees, fashioned them into sections about 2 1/2 feet long and bored two-inch-wide holes through their center to make them into 10 "cannons."

The Historical Society said discovery of Millar's letter, written half a century later, proves that the legend is accurate.

According to the story, the boys brought up barrels of clay from the bed of the river, rolled it into shape, left it to dry in the sun and then stacked the balls near their guns -- as they had seen real iron cannonballs stacked at nearby fortifications.

Soon a loaded schooner flying a British flag sailed up the river close to the American shore to avoid the swifter current farther out in the stream.

Tomlinson's book says young Millar ordered his "men" to fire on the ship. As the 10 wooden guns were fired, two of them split apart and two others were dislodged from their mounts. Nevertheless, mudballs splashed into the water all around the vessel and the captain apparently believed he was under attack.

The ship, which appeared to have been headed for Queenston on the Canadian side of the river, reversed course and disappeared toward Lake Ontario.

As the legend is told, British officers later came to Lewiston to complain about the attack. Millar's father is quoted as saying, "We have no soldiers here. These boys made some maple cannon and fired mudballs as a salute. Your schooner ran away from them, that is all."

Some residents consider the mudball attack to have been the first shots fired along the Niagara Frontier in the War of 1812, which had not yet become a real war although tensions between the British and their former colonies in the United States were running high.

American involvement in the war stretched from 1812 to 1815, with a total of 3,860 combatants killed in action, 8,184 wounded and thousands of others dying from diseases or other causes. In the end, neither side won a clear victory and neither side ceded any territory to the other.

email: rbaldwin@buffnews.com