During the War of 1812 Oswego, New York was an important forwarding point on the supply route to American military operations on Lake Ontario. Fort Ontario, which guarded Oswego, turned away one attack in 1813 but fell to a powerful British fleet with 1,000 troops on May 6th, 1814.
A storm delayed the initial British landing attempt and provided Lt. Colonel George Mitchell, the American commander, time to move vast amounts of naval supplies and stores out of reach of the British. Hopelessly outnumbered and outgunned, Mitchell’s force of 290 soldiers and sailors with 5 small cannon, endured heavy artillery bombardments and fought until driven from the fort.
Lt. John Hewett of the Royal Marines was wounded three times while tearing the American flag from the flagpole. Damaged in a 1982 fire, the Fort Ontario flag resides in a private home in Scotland, a symbol of the American’s stubborn resistance and British determination.
Although the British won the Battle of Oswego, they failed to achieve their objective of capturing enough material to slow completion of two powerful warships at Sacket’s Harbor, which later tipped the scales of naval superiority on Lake Ontario in favor of the US Navy.
The graves of 12 unknown soldiers thought to be those of Americans killed in the May 5-6, 1814 Battle of Oswego are located in the northwest corner of the Post Cemetery at Fort Ontario. When the cemetery was moved to its present location in 1902, the gravestones were mistakenly marked as Revolutionary War veterans. The body of the only American officer killed during the battle, Lt. Daniel Blaney, was buried in the West Side Cemetery and its identity has been lost through time and two cemetery relocations. Nineteen British victims of the battle were buried in a mass grave about 330 yards southeast of Fort Ontario and their remains have never been found or were destroyed during 200 years of development.
Visitors to Fort Ontario State Historic Site today will see a pentagonal fortification dating to the early 1840’s with 1863-72 improvements. The fort is undergoing renovation and its two officer’s quarters are partially furnished. The enlisted men’s barracks houses exhibits on Oswego’s military history; a video of areas difficult to access is run continuously. A self-guided tour of Fort Ontario includes cavernous underground stone casemates and rifle galleries, a storehouse, powder magazine, guardhouses, and sweeping views of Lake Ontario from the grassy ramparts. A cemetery containing the remains of 77 men, women, and children who served or lived at Fort Ontario from 1759 – 1943 is located on the grounds.
Fort Ontario was originally built by the British in 1755, but was destroyed by the French in 1756 with two other forts. Rebuilt by the British in 1759, it was destroyed by Continental troops while temporarily abandoned by the British in 1778. Rebuilt by the British in 1782, Fort Ontario was turned over to the United States in 1796. Attacked and destroyed by an overwhelming British amphibious force in 1814, it was rebuilt by the United States between 1839 and 1845 during a period of tension along the border with British-held Canada. Fort Ontario served as a Union Army recruiting center during the Civil War, a post hospital for wounded and sick soldiers in World War I, and from 1944 – 1946 it was the only refugee camp in the United States for victims of the Nazi Holocaust. Development of Fort Ontario as a historic site by the State of New York began in 1949.
Upcoming War of 1812 events in Oswego:
The dedication of the City of Oswego’s War of 1812 Peace Garden will take place on June 16th at 4:00 PM.
The next Oswego County War of 1812 Symposium will be held on April 6, 2013. Tentative plans are being made to expand the War of 1812 Symposium to three days, Friday evening reception, Saturday Program, Sunday morning program, and Sunday a tour of the May 5-7, 1814 Battle of Oswego – Fort Ontario.
Paul Lear is also Chair of the Oswego County War of 1812 Bicentennial Committee. Before he came to Fort Ontario in 1999, he was Interpretive Programs Assistant at Washington’s Headquarters and New Windsor Cantonment State Historic Sites from 1986 – 1999. He has degrees in archeology and anthropology and is a member of the Company of Military Historians Council on America’s Military Past