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The capture of Fort Niagara

Robert Emerson, Executive Director, Old Fort Niagara Association

Major George Armistead’s name is indelibly linked with America’s most famous flag; the Star Spangled Banner. What is more obscure is his connection with another preserved flag from the War of 1812 that currently hangs at Old Fort Niagara.

Armistead was born in Caroline County, Virginia in 1780.  He came from a military family and entered the United States Army in 1799 as an ensign. From 1801 to 1806 Armistead served as First Lieutenant and Assistant Military Agent at Fort Niagara.  He arrived at the Fort September 1, 1801, assigned to Captain James Reid’s Company, Second Regiment of Artillerists and Engineers.

Throughout his career, Armistead liked big flags. Shortly after he arrived at Fort Niagara he discovered that the post had no national colors. The US had taken over Fort Niagara from the British in 1796. On August 11 of that year, American soldiers raised the new 15-star, 15-stripe flag on the garrison flagstaff located in the north bastion. Recently-landed six pounders roared out a 15-gun salute. Apparently these colors were no longer present in 1802, prompting Armistead to request the purchase of a 48-foot by 38 foot banner.  This flag was of the pattern established by Congress in flag legislation of 1795 including one star and one stripe for each state in the Union.

Armistead did not care for Fort Niagara’s harsh winters and took extended furloughs during the winter months to visit relatives in Dumfries, VA. In 1806 Armistead was assigned to the Arkansas Territory and then in 1809 was promoted to Captain and transferred to Fort McHenry on the Patapsco River in Baltimore. He returned to Fort Niagara in the spring of 1813 as a Major in the 3rd Regiment of Artillery. During his short stay at Fort Niagara, he almost certainly saw another garrison color flying over the Fort. This one measured at least 22 by 28 feet, a little smaller than the 48′ by 38′ foot flag requested by Armistead in 1802.

At Fort Niagara, on May 27, 1813, Armistead distinguished himself at the bombardment and capture of Fort George, a British-held post across the river in Canada. General Henry Dearborn reported to the Secretary of War “I am greatly indebted to Colonel Porter, Major Armistead and Captain Totten for their judicious arrangements and skillful execution in demolishing the enemy’s fort and batteries, and to the officers of the artillery.” For his distinguished service, Armistead was given the honor of carrying British battle flags captured in the fall of Fort George to Washington for presentation to President Madison.

On June 27, 1813, while in Washington, Armistead received orders to take command of Fort McHenry in Baltimore Harbor.  Shortly after his arrival he wrote, “We, sir, are ready at Fort McHenry to defend Baltimore against invading by the enemy.  That is to say, we are ready except we have no suitable ensign to display over the Fort, and it is my desire to have a flag so large that the British will have no difficulty in seeing it from a distance.”

As a result, what we call today the Star Spangled Banner was made under government contract in the summer of 1813 by professional flag maker Mary Pickergill and members of her family.  The flag measured 30 feet by 42 feet. During the Battle of Baltimore September 12-14, 1814, British ships bombarded Fort McHenry for 25 hours.  When Armistead’s flag of defiance appeared at dawn, showing that the Americans still possessed the fortress that blocked British ships from Baltimore Harbor, Francis Scott Key was prompted to write “The Star Spangled Banner” a poem that was eventually set to music and became our national anthem.

Visit Old Fort Niagara this summer to enjoy “Blue Coats Along the Niagara” living history programming from July 4 – August 24 that helps visitors learn about life along the American side of the Niagara River during the War of 1812.  Programs will include daily interpretive activities that bring history alive through costumed portrayal of people who lived at the Fort during the conflict. Characters portrayed will be United States Army regular soldiers, Army wives, and military artificers (woodworkers and blacksmiths who made tools needed by the Army). Staff will also portray Native people caught up in the conflict. There will be  musket and artillery demonstrations, cooking programs, military ceremonies, blacksmithing woodworking demonstrations, and hands-on activities for visitors at the historic fort, which is open daily for extended hours in July and August – 9 am – 7 pm. (For information visithttp://oldfortniagara.org/)

Betsy Doyle: Myth or Matross?

Catherine Emerson, Niagara County Historian

On November 21, 1812 the guns of Fort Niagara and Fort George opened fire across the Niagara River, ending a 30-day truce between American and British forces that had been at war since the previous June. Perhaps the most remarkable feature of the cross-border bombardment was a reference by Fort Niagara’s Commandant, Col. George McFeely, to a woman of the garrison bravely carrying hot-shot to one of the Fort’s guns.  McFeely described a woman named Betsy Doyle attending a six pounder with “red hot shot” during “the most tremendous cannonading I have ever seen.” McFeely further related that Betsy Doyle acted “with the fortitude of the Maid of Orleans,” a reference to the   15th-century heroine, Joan of Arc.

Betsy Doyle was a woman of the army, one of a small number of military wives who were permitted to accompany their husbands to perform menial but necessary tasks such as laundry and nursing.  Prior to the War of 1812 she married Andrew Doyle, a private in the First United States Artillery Regiment. Andrew was stationed at Fort Niagara, an antiquated outpost on the United States/Canadian border, about 30 miles north of Buffalo, New York.  When U.S. forces invaded Upper Canada, just seven miles south of the Fort, on October 13, 1812, Private Doyle was among them.  The subsequent Battle of Queenston was a disaster for the Americans and Doyle became a prisoner of war. When he was recognized by his captors as a native of Upper Canada, Doyle was sent to England to be tried for treason. There he remained for the balance of the war, an inmate at the infamous Dartmoor prison.  Andrew’s capture left Betsy and her four children alone at Fort Niagara.

After the battle of Queenston, both sides agreed to a 30-day truce needed to recover from the battle and strengthen their respective positions. When the truce expired on November 21, the guns of Forts Niagara and George, just 600 yards apart, opened fire. To gain a height advantage, Americans had removed the roofs of several buildings inside Fort Niagara and installed artillery batteries on the buildings’ top floors.

As an added edge, American gunners employed hot shot, cannonballs heated red hot, to set fire to Fort George’s wooden buildings.  One particular gun was located on the top floor of Fort Niagara’s stone Mess House (today called the French Castle), a structure built by the French in 1726. As casualties began to mount, Betsy Doyle swung into action, carrying red hot cannonballs from downstairs fireplaces to the gun on the exposed top floor.  This was Betsy Doyle’s moment of fame as the Fort’s commandant mentioned her bravery in his official report and in his journal.

Several months later in the spring of 1813, a group of young American officers at Fort Niagara were discussing Betsy’s exploits and decided to summon her to the roof of the Mess House to view the reputed charms of a “sort of Gallic Amazon.”  According to William Worth, the group was “sadly disappointed” to discover that Mrs. Doyle more resembled Meg Merilles, a gypsy-witch character in literature, rather than the Maid of Orleans.

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