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Guarding the St. Lawrence: Fort Wellington and the War of 1812
By Robert Henderson


Fort Wellington as it appears today with Ogdensburg, NY in the distance across the river.

            Located on the north shore of the St. Lawrence River roughly half way between Montreal and Lake Ontario , the small community of Prescott , Ontario grew to become a significant military and naval post during the War of 1812.   Put simply, if the United States had captured Prescott , the fledging colony of Upper Canada (now Ontario ) could not have held out.

Strategic Significance

            The St. Lawrence River was the life line for supplies for the war effort in Upper Canada .  Everything coming from Great Britain had to be loaded on bateaux and Durham boats to brave the dangerous rapids between Prescott and Montreal .  Once at the top of the rapids near Prescott , boats then sailed on through the Thousand Islands to Kingston at junction of the St. Lawrence and Lake Ontario .  Once there the goods were transferred onto larger lake vessels for their journey to York ( Toronto ) and the Niagara region.

            The forwarding of goods up the St. Lawrence was a very lucrative business and soon Prescott was founded in 1810 to compete in the moving of commercial goods along the river.   Its ideal location at the top of the rapids allowed Prescott to grow in leaps and bounds throughout the 19th century.  But at the opening of the War of 1812 it consisted of a handful of buildings.  Across the river from Prescott was the more established American town of Ogdensburg , New York .   Ogdensburg too was dependent on river traffic and competed both with Kingston and Prescott for business.

            However the strategic importance of this spot in the river pre-dated both the British and the United States .  Archaeologists have unearthed extensive native villages dating as early as 1450.  During the age of New France , as the French expanded deep into North America , guarding their major transportation route became necessary.  In the Prescott-Ogdensburg area, no fewer than two forts (Fort La Presentation and Fort Levis ), one trading post (La Galette) and a ship building yard were constructed.  In 1760 a British army descending the St. Lawrence to attack Montreal , laid siege and captured these French posts.    After the fall of New France , the British maintained a military presence at the old Fort La Presentation, where Ogdensburg now is.  It was not until 1796 did the British vacate the post and finally leave New York State .

The War of 1812

             When war was declared in June 1812, both Ogdensburg and Prescott were defenseless.   While the United States had declared war, the Americans on the south shore of the St. Lawrence wish to remain a position of neutrality.  British officials were as well quite content “preserve the tranquility” of the Upper St. Lawrence .    Peace between the two sides of the river was broken at the end of September with the arrival in Ogdensburg of a company of US Riflemen under Captain Benjamin Forsyth and New York militia under Brigadier General Jacob Brown.   Upon arriving in Ogdensburg, Forsyth immediately set out harassing British convoys of supplies (one of these attacks is described here).

             Across the river in Prescott , the local commander had Colonel Lethbridge enough and on October 3rd launched a flotilla of boats filled with militia and Glengarry Light Infantrymen against Ogdensburg.  After passing the middle of the river, Lethbridge ’s force was forced to turn back under a hail of grape shot from the U.S. batteries.  Lethbridge was replaced by able Lt. Col. Thomas Pearson. Upon his arrival, Pearson set about improving the military situation in Prescott .  A permanent garrison of regular forces was established, the militia were drilled, buildings began to be built and other defenses were completed before winter.

             The winter of 1812-1813 was far from peaceful.  With the river frozen over, Forsyth again attack the Canadian shore, this time the village of Elizabethtown ( Brockville today).   Over a week later, the Governor General Prevost passed through Prescott on his way to York .   Pearson requested permission to attack Ogdensburg, Prevost refused, allowing only a demonstration of force on the ice in front of Prescott .  Pearson was then ordered to accompany Prevost to Kingston , leaving command to Lt. Col. George Macdonell of the Glengarry Light Infantry.

             The next morning Prevost left, and Macdonell had the whole garrison and local militia formed up on the ice facing Ogdensburg.  But Macdonell had more in mind than a demonstration.   Immediately the fiery Scot ordered to two prong attack on Ogdensburg across the frozen river.   U.S. forces were caught by surprise and were defeated.  Forsyth was forced to flee, leaving his sword behind as a trophy for Macdonell (on display at Fort Wellington National Historic Site).    With Forsyth’s departure, tranquility returned to area.  Indeed Ogdensburg become a significant source of supplies for the British and trade flourished.

             In the spring of 1813 construction on Fort Wellington began along with other military buildings.    The garrison at Prescott had become quite sizable.  Detachments took turns playing the role of marines on the numerous gunboats moving up and down the river protecting supply conveys.  When not on the water, soldiers were employed in construction, training the militia and other duties.

             Peace again was broken on the upper St. Lawrence with the descent of a large flotilla carrying a massive U.S. Army under Major General James Wilkinson.  Wilkinson’s target was Montreal .    Concerned about the garrison guns of Fort Wellington , Wilkinson disembarked his army and marched them overland around Ogdensburg, while the empty transports were navigated past Prescott during the night.  The following morning, Pearson dispatched his Royal Artillery detachment to follow Wilkinson’s army and harass them while they descended the rapids.  A few days later, troops from Prescott and Kingston eventually drew Wilkinson into battle at Crysler’s Farm.  On November 11th, U.S. forces suffered a humiliating defeat by a force a quarter their size.

             For the rest of the war, Fort Wellington was never again threatened with attack.   Prescott continued to house troops on their way to the fighting in the Niagara region and protect supply convoys.   Though quite vulnerable, the U.S. forces were never able to control the St. Lawrence and sever Upper Canada ’s lifeline.  

Prescott’s Military Buildings  

            The first “military” structure was a stone school house that had been converted into barracks.   A make-shift stockade was built around the building and other wooden dwellings were constructed inside including a surgery.  The stone barracks is the only surviving military building in Prescott from the war.  Additional buildings were leased out in the town to accommodate the Commanding officer and the Commissariat’s stores.

           Fort Wellington itself consisted of a large wooden single-story blockhouse surrounded by earthworks.  The blockhouse was designed to 144 men and 7 officer’s bedrooms, an officer’s mess, a kitchen and a small open courtyard with a well in the centre of the building.  The earthworks were built with rooms in them called casemates, one of which served as the powder magazine.  On top of the earthworks were numerous 12 and 24 pounder cannons on naval-type platforms.  The entrance to the fort was to the north, away from the river.   On the shore in front of the fort was a large artillery battery.  The fort itself was very poorly designed and the engineer was soundly criticized for constructing “a great mass of earth badly put together.”  One regimental surgeon described it as “a clumsy, ill-constructed, unflanked redoubt.”   After being abandoned, Fort Wellington was rebuilt in 1838-1839.  Instead of starting new, engineers reused the old 1813 earthworks, except the casemates were filled in.  Today Fort Wellington is a national historic site (Parks Canada) and can be visited.


Fort Wellington 1816.  The lower part of the plan shows a cross section of the fort illustrating the casemates in the walls and the blockhouse with its interior courtyard and well.  
West of the fort is visable the stone barracks and stockade. The advance battery is also visable to the south of the fort. (LAC, National Map Collection H3/440)

            To the north of Fort Wellington was a large complex of buildings.  Amongst these buildings was a large two storey building that had a carpenter’s shop and stables for the artillery horses on the bottom and barracks for 110 men on the top.  Other buildings included officer’s quarters for the artillery, another stable or gun shed, an Engineer’s lime kiln, a cook house, a forge, and quarters for the garrison’s Adjutant.    Between these buildings and Fort Wellington , huts and shanties were erected by soldier’s families.   Even with all of these buildings, a large number of the garrison lived under canvas tents, both summer and winter.    

 

Regular Soldiers Serving in Prescott during the War

Royal Artillery
Royal Artillery Drivers
Royal Marines
Royal Marine Artillery
Royal Sappers and Miners
19th Light Dragoons
1st Regiment of Foot
8th Regiment of Foot
9th Regiment of Foot
16th Regiment of Foot
41st Regiment of Foot
49th Regiment of Foot
89th Regiment of Foot
90th Regiment of Foot
100th Regiment of Foot
104th Regiment of Foot
De Watteville’s Regiment of Foot
Glengarry Light Infantry Fencibles
Royal Newfoundland Fencibles
Canadian Fencibles

 


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