Today, the New York State Quarter Coin remembers the cold darkness 203 years ago when the British surprised and overtook the Americans holding Fort Niagara.
From The Documentary History of the Campaign Upon the Niagara Frontier In 1812-14 collected and edited by Lieutenant-Colonel E. Cruikshank, F.R.S.C. for Lundy’s Lane Historical Society, and published in 1908:
The Capture Of Fort Niagara.
By one Who Served in 1814, (Lieut. Driscoll, 100th Regt.)
This post was very strong, for a fort in that part of the country, for its Enceinte, besides being of regular construction and mounting many guns, included three stone towers at the west, south-west and south angles of the fort, in addition to a long and strong barracks on the north face, the whole having flat roofs mounted with cannon. It was accordingly, in December, 1813, determined to attempt its capture, and the attempt was made on the night of the 19th December.
The force destined for the purpose was composed of the 100th Regiment, the grenadiers of the 1st, the flank companies of the 41st, and some artillerymen, the whole under the command of Colonel Murray, of the 100th, a better man than whom could not have been chosen.
Batteaux having been secretly conveyed overland from Burlington to a point about four miles up the British side of the river, the troops silently left their cantonments about 10 o’clock at night, concealing their march under cover of the adjacent wood, embarked without noise and landed undiscovered on the opposite side, whence they descended cautiously towards the fort.
There lay between them and their destination a small hamlet, called Youngstown, about two miles, or somewhat less, from the fort, to which it served as an outpost, where it was known lay a detachment from the garrison.
It was necessary to surprise it without alarming the fort.
A chosen body was therefore sent in advance, while the main body followed at a convenient distance.
When arrived near it, some of the former crept stealthily up to a window and peeped in. They saw a party of officers at cards. “What are trumps ?” asked one of them. “Bayonets are trumps!” answered one of the peepers, breaking in the window and entering with his companions, while the remainder of the detachment rapidly surrounded the house, rushed into it and bayoneted the whole of its inmates, that none might escape to alarm the fort. Not a shot was fired on either side, the American sentries having retired from their posts into a building to shelter themselves from the cold, there was no time for resistance.
The assailants performed their work of human destruction in grim silence — a lamentable but necessary act.
Resuming their march, they drew near the fort — not a word is spoken — the muskets are carried squarely, that the bayonets may not clash — the ice crackles audibly under their tread, but the sound is borne to their rear on the continuous gusts of a north-east wind — when lo! the charger of Colonel Hamilton (who, having lost a leg in Holland, could not march, and would not stay behind,) neighs loudly, and is answered by a horse in a stable not far from the fort. What a moment!
The force instantly halts, expecting to hear the alarm suddenly given, the sound of drums and bugles and of the garrison rushing to their posts. But all remains quiet, the sentries, crouching in their boxes, take the neigh of the charger for that of some horse strayed from a farm-house or the neighboring hamlet. They feel no inclination for leaving their shelters to explore, shiveringly, the thick darkness of a moonless winter night.
It can be nothing. The approaching force, drawing freer breath, puts itself in motion, shuffles hastily and silently forward, and the crisis is near.
The forlorn hope is commanded by Lieut. Dawson and led by Sergeant Andrew Spearman.
He halts at the distance of about 25 yards from the gate, towards which the sergeant (a tall, stalwart man) strides, and, strange to say, finds the wicket open.
The sentry, hearing someone approach, issues from his box, protrudes the upper part of his body through the doorway, and asks, “Who come there ?”
Spearman, imitating the nasal twang of the American, answers, “I guess, Mister, I come from Youngstown,” quietly introducing at the same time his left shoulder through the half open wicket.
The sentry stares at him, perceives by his accoutrements and his actions that he is an enemy, turns round and runs inward exclaiming “The Brit … !” He says no more. Spearman’s bayonet is in his side.
The sergeant returns and calls in a subdued tone to the forlorn hope, which swiftly enters, followed by the column. The light company of the 100th makes a rapid circuit and escalades the. wall; the attacking force has entered.
Had the assailants been discreetly silent, they might have effected the capture without loss to themselves or the enemy, but, their blood being up, they uttered a terrific yell, which roused the sleeping garrison and occasioned some resistance.
A cannon, turned inwards, was tired from the roof of the south western tower, followed by a slight pattering of musketry.
To prevent repetition of the former, Lieutenant Nolan of the 100th, a man of great personal strength and ardent courage, rushed into the lower part of the tower, regardless of what foes he might find there, and by what friends he might be followed. Next morning his body was found, the breast pierced by a deep bayonet wound, at the bottom of which were a musket ball and three buckshot.
But he had not died unavenged. One American lay at his feet, whom he had killed by a pistol shot, while the cloven skulls of two others attested his tremendous strength of arm and desperate valor.
Some of his men, however, who had seen him plunge into the darkness, followed him, and though too late to save him, had taken the tower, slaying the defenders to a man. This resistance exasperated our men, who rushed wildly about into every building, bayoneting every American they met. The carnage, indeed, would have amounted to extermination if the British officers had not zealously exerted themselves in the cause of mercy.
Lieut. Murray of the 100th particularly distinguished himself by his humane endeavors, for, finding the tide of fugitives set towards the southern angle, where a sally-port had been burst in, he made them lie down, protected them, and thus saved many.
In half an hour the fort was fully captured and was quiet, and the panting victors sought to drown their excitement in sleep.
Lieut. Dawson was promoted to a company, while Spearman remained a sergeant and never, as far as known, received any reward for his gallantry but the esteem of his officers and comrades.
If he be still alive he lives in Richmond, U. C, (near St. Thomas,) where the 100th after its disbandment received lands and settled.
The New York State Quarter Coin shows with an artist’s image of Fort Niagara, circa early 1800s, as seen from the British side of the river at Newark.