YOUNGSTOWN – Snow crunched underfoot as Adrian Rittner, resplendent in the red wool uniform of a British military officer, entered the outer reaches of wooded Fort Niagara State Park around 5:15 this morning. True darkness enveloped him as the lights of modern day Youngstown faded behind him and the moon hid behind hazy cloud cover.
“It really puts you in the state of mind of what it was like 200 years ago,” said the Niagara Falls, Ont., resident.
He was one of about 125 re-enactors portraying British soldiers who took part in a predawn 5-mile march this morning from Lewiston to Old Fort Niagara to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the British siege of the fort during the War of 1812 at this precise time on this exact date.
“As we approached the fort and there was no more ‘light pollution’ and it was really dark, we really experienced everything – the hour of day, the cold and the uniforms marching to order,” Rittner said.
“This is the most authentic event during the bicentennial because it happened to the hour on this day,” he said. “For a re-enactor, that’s quite a pleasurable experience.”
That “pleasurable experience” included rising in the wee hours and arriving at the area on River Road once known as Five Mile Meadow – currently Stella Niagara – where the re-enactors began the long, cold march to the fort. In the meantime, more than 100 spectators occasionally stomped their feet and rubbed their hands to stay warm inside the fort’s walls as they eagerly awaited the Brits’ arrival.
Cordoned off in a safe area to the left of the entrance inside the stone fort walls, the crowd included three generations of the Stack family of Youngstown. Patriarch Kevin is a member of the Old Fort Niagara Association and his sons Garrett, a Wilson social studies teacher, and Tom, a former social studies teacher and current Newfane High School principal attended. Tom Stack brought his nearly 3-year-old son, Cameron.
“This is a little snapshot of the past,” he said.
“It’s a good history lesson,” said Ellen Adams of Youngstown, who attended with her two young granddaughters. “There is so much history around here and so much happening in our own backyard.”
A hush fell over the crowd as the noise of a scuffle was heard and the British soldier re-enactors strong-armed the guards at the gate and hurried in to take stock of the grounds. Quickly dividing into three groups, they stealthily approached the French Castle to the left, the North Redoubt straightaway and the South Redoubt to the right. Soon, yells of panic rang out across the barren parade grounds and musket shots were heard as cannon fire lit the darkness. The British soon entered the buildings and climbed the stairs, bayonets at the ready.
The re-enactors inside the fort portrayed the American soldiers, surprised, unprepared and unable to reload their muskets in the dark during the assault. They were quickly overtaken and either killed, injured or taken prisoner.
Robert Emerson, executive director of Old Fort Niagara, said that two centuries ago, there had also been a wooden structure known as the “Red Barracks” on the grounds – long gone – which served as a hospital and was filled with many injured and recovering soldiers at the time of the attack.
“They put up quite a resistance, but the British used their bayonets on them as well,” he said.
At the end of the brief but bloody skirmish 200 years ago, the Americans had lost 65 men and the British had only lost six. A total of 344 Americans were taken hostage and moved across the Niagara River to Fort George in Newark, what is now Niagara-on-the-Lake.
Unbelievably, the British had been able to take the fort without firing a single shot.
After the attack on the fort 200 years ago, the British signaled their comrades and a second wave of British soldiers and their Mohawk allies arrived and burned down the Village of Youngstown and moved south and torched the Village of Lewiston.
That was not the military leaders’ original intent, Emerson said.
“The military objective was to go after the artillery placement in Lewiston pointed at Queenston [Ontario],” Emerson said. “But they were angry about the burning of Newark [nine days earlier] and burned Youngstown and Lewiston and that was collateral damage.”
That event will be re-enacted later tonight. At 6:30 p.m., local volunteers dressed in period garb will make a chaotic run down Center Street re-enacting the burning of Lewiston 200 years ago today. British soldiers and their Mohawk allies will chase the Lewiston settlers, while American militia and their Tuscarora friends try and buy time for the settlers to flee east toward Batavia, just as they did in 1813.
The “Flames Through Lewiston” event will culminate in the unveiling of a new bronze monument of thanksgiving to the Tuscaroras for their help, titled “Tuscarora Heroes.”
This morning after the siege, a ceremony was held at Falkner Park marking the burning of Youngstown, as well as a PowerPoint lecture on the war by the Niagara County Historical Society and a screening of “Niagara on Fire,” a video chronicling the Dec. 10 burning of Newark, Ont., by American forces.
Also this morning, 650 students from Lewiston-Porter and Wilson central schools, the Tuscarora Indian School and Stella Niagara arrived at the fort for a special program on the capture. They will then be bused into Youngstown to participate in learning stations regarding 1812 life.