February 22, 1813
The American side of the Saint Lawrence River, during the winter of 1813, was being protected by Major Forsyth (e) and his Rifle Regiment. He had been performing raids all along the Canadian side of the border and most recently, on the 7th of February, he had attacked Elizabethtown (later to be renamed Brockville) and that was the last straw for Major George Macdonell (Macdonnell). On that same day, Macdonell found himself in charge of the companies at Kingston. The very next day, on the 8th of February, George Macdonell was granted, by Prevost, command of the entire district between Kingston and the Lower Canada Border. For this purpose he received the commission of Lieutenant-Colonel for as long as he held the position.
Just a few days later several of Forsyth’s men returned to the Canadian side and took a farming family, and their horses, into captivity. As this happened Macdonell was in the middle of exchanging commands with Lieutenant-Colonel Thomas Pearson at Fort Wellington in Prescott, Upper Canada, which is situated directly opposite Ogdensburgh, New York. This blatant disregard and disrespect for civilians and civilian property lead Macdonell to send military personnel over to Ogdensburg to negotiate for the return of the captives and their property. The negotiators were snubbed by the Americans who were reported to have laid out a challenge to the Canadian commander saying that they were prepared to meet the Canadians on the border on top of the ice in order to decide the outcome of the matter at hand and that they were prepared to do this as early as possible. This vexed Macdonell enormously and he immediately began formulating a plan to attack the Americans and to silent their insolence.
As February of 1813 dragged on Macdonell took command of the Prescott area and Thomas Pearson, too, had revenge on his mind. By the 17th of February, Pearson found himself in the company of Sir George Prevost at the city of Quebec in Lower Canada. Together the men were planning an inspection of the eastern end of Upper Canada. On the evening of February 21st Prevost rested at Fort Wellington and it was then that Macdonell suggested to Prevost that Ogdensburg be attacked immediately. Macdonell had spent nearly a week taking his army out onto the ice of the Saint Lawrence in front of Fort Wellington and putting them through early morning drills and procedures. In doing so the Americans became complacent thinking that this was simply a better place for the enemy Canadians and British to practice their military manoeuvres. Macdonell hoped to receive permission to attack Ogdensburg by starting off the attack on the ice as opposed to starting from the fort and on land. He knew that the Americans, having watched the same routine for nearly a week, would not be as prepared as they normally would.
At first light, on the morning of February 22nd of 1813, Sir George Prevost left Prescott having submitted slightly to Macdonell allowing him permission simply to show a display of force to the Americans out on the ice of the Saint Lawrence. Prevost continued on his way to Kingston and by the time he arrived in Elizabethtown the words that Macdonell had been saying the night before weighed heavily on his mind. Prevost was concerned for his personal safety en route to Kingston and he decided to send word to Macdonell that should he choose to attack the Americans he should obtain approval first from Major-General de Rottenburg in Montral. Prevost finished his message by providing Macdonell with an option and that was that should the Americans continue their “imbecile conduct” and should opportunity arise to attack them to do so without further permission. By the time this message was received at Prescott the Battle at Ogdensburg was well underway.
By seven o’clock in the morning of February 22nd Macdonell’s force was assembled on the ice directly in front of Fort Wellington. To the Americans it sounded like yet another regular early morning drill session. Macdonell, in his post-battle report, had indicated that he had at his disposal 120 of the 8th King’s Regiment, 40 of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, 16 artillerymen, and one Company of Glengarry Light Infantry. 270 local militiamen further supplemented Macdonell’s force. They were soldiers from the First Regiment of Stormont Militia, and First and Second Regiments of the Dundas, Glengarry, Leeds and Grenville Militias. Macdonell had assembled his army in two columns of attack and for fear of falling through thin ice the soldiers were all in open order.
The column on the right consisted of the Glengarry Light Infantry Fencibles, 70 Glengarry Militia, one piece of artillery and four artillerymen. Captain Jenkins of the Glengarry Light Infantry commanded the column. Their job was to check the enemy’s left and to attack directly upon the old French fort that the Americans occupied in Ogdensburg.
The column on the left was situated to the east of the right column nearly half a mile away. It was this column that was led by Macdonell himself. His intent was to approach the town of Ogdensburg from the east, march west through its streets and attack the American fort from its flank. Macdonell’s column consisted of the King’s Regiment, the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, and three field pieces of artillery on sleighs, 12 artillerymen, and 200 militiamen.
An artillery piece was fired which was the signal to begin the advance. It was still dark out and the American sentries were slow to recognize the danger. Macdonell’s force made it half way across before hell broke loose on them. As the two columns approached the American shore they were severely slowed by the depth of the snow. This reality exposed them and Jenkins’ column, in particular, received extremely heavy crossfire from the enemy’s gun batteries. Macdonell’s column gained the bank of the river first and they did so under direct fire of musketry and artillery. As Macdonell’s column rapidly advanced the enemy’s artillery was taken with the bayonet and the enemy’s infantry scattered. Some of the Americans fled over the Black River (Oswegatchie) toward the American fort while others fled into the woods or into civilian homes. Those inside the houses continued to fire at Macdonell’s column as they advanced west through the town of Ogdensburg toward the fort. Macdonell had to use his field pieces, which had previously been stuck in the deep snow, to rid the houses of enemy American soldiers.
While Macdonell was advancing through the town, Jenkins’ column was stuck in the snow and receiving direct fire of artillery grapeshot from the enemy fort. Jenkins received a shattering blow of grapeshot to his left arm but bravely continue to encourage his men to advance and as he did so received a second wound to his right arm. The enormity of his wounds finally caused his collapse. Jenkins’ column was stopped just as Macdonell’s column had reached the fort. Jenkins’ one gun was disabled by an enemy artillery shot and some of Jenkins’ men had been captured by American forces on the shoreline, others made it to the edge of the fort and still others were caught in the deep snow on the shelf-ice not knowing what to do. Once the Americans saw that Jenkins’ column was in disarray they decided to train most of their guns toward the east and redirect their fire upon Macdonell’s column. This was a cumbersome process since the American guns were originally trained to the west and not toward the east. Jenkins’ column was taken over by Lt. James MacAuley and Ensign Angus Macdonell.
It was at this point that Macdonell decided to storm the fortification. His men were exhausted so he decided to give them some recovery time by sending a summons into the fort demanding an unconditional surrender of the Americans. Forsyth swiftly left the fortification through its rear entrance as Macdonell stood at its front entrance. The Americans hesitated in surrendering and this indecision caused Macdonell to advance and take the fort’s eastern battery. He used it against the other and the fortification’s guns duelled with each other. A detachment of the King’s Regiment and Glengarry militia, under Captain Eustace, quickly advanced into the fort causing most of the Americans to retreat through its rear entrance. It wasn’t long before the New York Militia almost entirely disbursed and retired to an area known as Black Lake approximately 8 miles south of Ogdensburg. Macdonell’s only disappointment was the fact that he had been unable to capture the Americans and he wished that his Native Allies had been with him to perform the task but instead they had been escorting Prevost to Kingston.
By 9:00 a.m. the Battle at Ogdensburg was done. Word was sent to Prescott for sleighs to be brought to the American side in order to move the captured materials back to Canada. By three o’clock in the afternoon Macdonell was back inside Fort Wellington preparing his report regarding the Battle. By evening the American barracks and fort, as well as the American gunboats (‘Dolphin’, ‘Niagara’, and two others), were all burned and destroyed. Macdonell’s force had captured several artillery pieces: one 4-pounder, six 6-pounders, two 9-pounders, and two 12-pounders. Amongst the other spoils that Macdonell took back to Canada were ammunition such as grapeshot, cased shot and cartridges. He also obtained almost 100 pounds of gunpowder in barrels as well as over 600 muskets and 10,000 cartridges for them. It didn’t stop there though. There was food, alcoholic beverage, blankets and hundreds of tents. Perhaps the most cherished item taken from the fort was the garrison’s colours. These were to be presented to the Prince Regent himself.
Macdonell reported that 20 Americans were killed and of the 70 that were captured many were wounded. These enemy soldiers were taken to Fort Wellington. There had been other American wounded but Forsyth himself had managed to extricate several of his own wounded before he fled the American position. Macdonell also reported that the “enemy had 500 men under arms, and must have sustained a considerable loss.”
Captain Jenkins lost his left arm and came close to losing his right. Captain Lefevre of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, Col. Fraser of the Militia, Captain Eustace and Lt. Ridge of the King’s 8th, Lt. MacAuley and Ensign McKay and Ensign Macdonell of the Glengarry Light Infantry, Ensign Kerr of the Militia, Lt. Gangueben of the Royal Engineers, and Lt. Impey (who lost a leg in Battle) of the Militia were all praised by Lt. Col. Macdonell for their efforts, professionalism and determination during the Battle at Ogdensburg.
The Military Secretary, Captain Noah Freer, of Canada recorded a complete list of Regiments, their strengths and their casualties during the Battle at Ogdensburg. Freer’s numbers and names conflict slightly with both George Macdonell’s post-battle report, and researched and reported material found in the first edition of The Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders, 1783-1951, published in 1952. Its author was Lt. Col. William Boss,CD. However, to complete the story, Freer’s list of regimental strengths and casualties must be pondered.
Freer reports the following Regiments and their strengths:
Glengarry Light Infantry 65 Royal Newfoundland Regiment 33 King's 8th Regiment 153 Royal Artillery 16 1st Regt. of Glengarry Militia 56 2nd Regt. of Glengarry Militia 28 1st Regt. of Dundas Militia 44 2nd Regt. of Dundas Militia 36 1st Regt. of Stormont Militia 67 1st Regt. of Grenville Militia 66 2nd Regt. of Grenville Militia 38 1st Regt. of Leeds Militia 41 2nd Regt. of Leeds Militia 26 Miscellaneous Militiamen 12
Macdonell reported that his “…force consisted of about 480 regulars and militia,” Freer shows that Macdonell’s total strength was 681. Freer goes on to report the following casualties:
Glengarry Light Infantry 2 Fatalities 12 Wounded Royal Newfoundland Regiment 1 Fatality 4 Wounded King's 8th Regiment 1 Fatality 15 Wounded Royal Artillery 1 Fatality 1st Glengarry Militia 1 Fatality 8 Wounded 1st Stormont Militia 3 Wounded 2nd Grenville Militia 2 Wounded 1st Leeds Militia 1 Wounded 2nd Leeds Militia 1 Wounded Unidentified 4 Fatalities Several Wounded
A lesson was taught to the Americans that day and this is one fact that cannot be disputed. The Glengarry Light Infantry, a fencible regiment of Upper Canada, had not only left their province (even though a condition of being a fencible was that you would not be required to fight outside of your province) but they had left their country and attacked the enemy on their own soil. The Glengarries set a precedent and became famous for it. Lt.-Col. George (Red George) Macdonell would later receive the Most Honourable Order of the Bath Companion for his contributions during the Battle of Chateauguay but it was recognized by most of his superiors that it was given to him in lieu of his sincere and bold achievements at the Battle of Ogdensburgh.