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Restoring park homage to soldiers from long-ago war; Two special willows are being returned to 1812 burial site

It was the summer of 1812 and the start of a three-year war between the British Empire and the United States.

The Niagara Frontier was a main front, where battles were fought on land, lakes and rivers. Entire villages on both sides -- Lewiston, Youngstown and present-day Niagara-on-the-Lake -- were destroyed.

Months after the conflict began, 300 ill-prepared American soldiers encamped here in Buffalo perished during a harsh winter. And for the most part, the names of the soldiers buried there are not known, said Thomas Herrera-Mishler, president and CEO of Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy.

The men are memorialized by a boulder and plaque located in the middle of the golf course in Delaware Park, but what has been missing are the two trees that distinguished the burial site. The trees died and were removed nearly 100 years ago.

At 11 a.m. today, a dedication ceremony will mark the return of the trees: two new weeping willows, one on each side of the burial mound. The ceremony is a prelude to the official kickoff to the War of 1812 Bicentennial Commemoration Celebration on July 6. Subsequent celebrations will continue until 2015, much in the way the War of 1812 lasted for three years, officials said.

Back in 1812, after the 300 men were defeated in an attempt to cross the Niagara River into Queenston to lay siege to Canada, they fell back to what later became known as the Flint Hill Encampment. It covered the area from what is now Forest Lawn to Jewett Parkway and Main Street. It also included much of what is now Delaware Park.

The soldiers were not ready for the arrival of the harsh winter that lay ahead.

According to letters, when they arrived at the camp, they were short of blankets and complained of poor sanitation conditions that led to maladies such as dysentery, diarrhea and typhoid.

The had inadequate tents. Many had only summer linen uniforms, and the lack of appropriate clothing -- coats, socks and boots -- added to the misery of the demoralized group.

Food was scarce, and when it did arrive, it was often spoiled.

"It must have been dreadful conditions," Herrera-Mishler said.

The soldiers initially were buried in rocky, shallow graves because of the frozen ground and naturally hard soil. Graves often were no more than a foot deep. In the spring of 1813, Dr. Daniel Chapin, who owned the land and lived nearby, exhumed the 300 bodies and reburied them in a mass grave in the present spot in the meadow where the ground was sandy and easy to dig.

To mark the burial site, Chapin planted a willow tree at each end of the burial mound. The trees lasted until about 1920, said Otis N. Glover, chairman of the bicentennial commemoration and celebration committee. The boulder and memorial brass marker straddled by the trees were dedicated by the Buffalo Historical Society on July 4, 1896.

On Memorial Day, a second marker called "Tomb of the Unknowns" in honor of the fallen soldiers will be unveiled on Buffalo Zoo property near Ring Road and the zoo's bison exhibit. That marker will be highly visible to runners and walkers using Ring Road, and also will offer a view of the original marker and restored trees at the actual burial site.

At 15 to 20 feet tall, the new yellow willows straddling the original marker were donated by philanthropist and restaurateur Russell Salvatore and will grow to about 150 feet, Glover said.

"In the 19th century, weeping willows were very much a symbol of mourning," Herrera-Mishler said. "It's so symbolic that the conservancy, thanks to Russell Salvatore, has been able to replant the trees in honor of those men."

Buffalo Mayor Byron W. Brown, State Sen. Mark J. Grisanti and Marta Moszczenska, counsel general of Canada, will participate in today's ceremony, which is open to the public.

For information on sponsorship or events for the War of 1812 Bicentennial Commemoration Celebration, contact Glover at the Olmsted Conservancy, 838-1249, Ext. 22.