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Erik Brady: The other time the Capitol was attacked, Buffalo was destroyed

Erik Brady: The other time the Capitol was attacked, Buffalo was destroyed

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1813: Battle of Lake Erie (copy)

In 1813, an American naval force commanded by Oliver H. Perry defeated the British in the Battle of Lake Erie during the War of 1812. (Afterward, Perry sent the message, “We have met the enemy and they are ours.”)

When a mob breached the U.S. Capitol in January, news stories dutifully reported that it was the first time such a thing had happened since the British set fire to the building during the War of 1812.

Here is what they rarely noted: The Brits burned Buffalo first.

Buffalo looked very different during the War of 1812. The Village of Buffalo and the Village of Black Rock were separate, growing municipalities. The Village of Buffalo boasted about 180 buildings and a population of roughly 500 people. But on Dec. 30, 1813, the burgeoning communities would be burned to the ground by British troops accompanied by their Native

And that isn’t all. Before that, American forces burned what is now Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ont., setting off the chain of reprisals that would lead to British troops’ setting fire to the White House and the Capitol.

We are reminded of all this just now because today a U.S. House select committee will begin investigating the riot that took place at the Capitol on Jan. 6. For our purposes, though, the dates that matter are Dec. 10 and Dec. 30, 1813, for the conflagrations in our region, and Aug. 24, 1814, for the one in Washington.

The War of 1812 is a conflict that is commonly misunderstood, when it is remembered at all. Suffice to say that the war between the fledgling United States and Great Britain followed a long-simmering dispute over maritime rights. It is sometimes referred to as the second war of American independence, given that it came so soon after the Revolutionary War.

Some of the bloodiest battles were fought along both sides of the Niagara River. Then there was the burning of Niagara, the Tory town we know and love today as Niagara-on-the-Lake. It was known as Newark in the late 1700s, and then as Niagara, and it was the capital of Upper Canada, a province of British North America.

American forces held Fort George, in Niagara, in late 1813. But as winter set in, and with supplies dwindling, they retreated to the U.S. side. But first, Brig. Gen. George McClure, of the New York State militia, gave the fateful order to burn down the town.

Heavy snow fell on Dec. 10, as flames consumed almost every building. Women with infants and children were left to watch in the freezing cold. Lt. Col. John Harvey, Britain’s commanding officer, later wrote: “A number of old and infirm persons were left to perish in the snow — an act which, the season of the year and the circumstances considered, is unexampled in barbarity.”

British troops exacted retribution over the following weeks. First they crossed the river and took Fort Niagara. Then they burned villages and towns along the American side: Youngstown; Lewiston; Manchester, as Niagara Falls was then known; and Black Rock, which was then its own city. On Dec. 30, the British and their Native allies reached Buffalo — and burned almost all of it to the ground.

William Hodge was 10 at the time. When he was 73, he wrote a history of that terrible day. And he placed the blame on Gen. McClure, for beginning the cycle of violence that targeted civilians:

“In the summer campaign of 1813 our army was withdrawn from Canada and upon doing so, our commander, General McClure, after blowing up Fort George, very unwisely and unnecessarily burned Newark, now known as Niagara, Ont. This proceeding greatly enraged the Canadians and they boldly declared they would be revenged by burning some of our villages, and Buffalo especially should be destroyed by fire.”

The British burned all but a handful of buildings in Buffalo. Among those spared was the jail on Washington Street near Eagle Street, a blacksmith shop on Seneca Street — and the home of Margaret St. John, on Main Street just south of Mohawk.

She also owned a nearby inn and begged that it be spared, for it was her only source of income. “We have left you one roof,” an armed officer said, “and that is more than the Americans left for our widows.”

Jeff Z. Klein told the story of Margret St. John on WBFO’s Heritage Moments in 2016.

“That day the British crossed back to Canada,” Klein wrote, “leaving behind the charred ruins of Buffalo and all the other towns on the American side of the river — grim vengeance for the burning of Niagara-on-the-Lake. The fighting ceased for the rest of the frigid winter, but the cycle of retaliation did not stop with warm weather’s return.

“In revenge for Buffalo, the Americans burned Port Dover in Upper Canada. The British, in turn, avenged Port Dover by bombarding Stonington, Conn., then sailing their fleet south to lay waste to Washington, leaving the White House in flames.”

And the U.S. Capitol, too. It would not be breached again for 207 years.

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Erik Brady has more than 50 years in newspapers as a paperboy for The Buffalo Evening News, a sports columnist for The Courier-Express and sports reporter for USA Today, where he retired as the last member of the national newspaper’s founding generation.

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