March to Erie!

Western Pennsylvania is currently in the grips of an “old fashioned” winter. Arctic cold has slid off the top of the planet like a Scots Tam O’Shanter. While mercury shivers in the bottom of the thermometer, cold fronts rake moisture from brooding Lake Erie and pummel the Pennsylvania hills with waves of snow. Similar harsh winter conditions prevailed in the winter of 1813-14 when Captain John McCollough led the Butler County militia to defend Erie in the War of 1812.

Why Erie of all places and why was there a military campaign in the middle of winter? The United States was in the depths of a second war with Great Britain, and tensions were high that winter on the America-Canada border. In early December 1813, General George McLure led American troops to burn the British-Canadian town of Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario forcing 400 residents to flee into deep snow. British troops retaliated by attacking the American Fort Niagara and the surrounding villages on December 10. Both the Americans and the British used burnings as a tactic to draw out and attack the enemy and terrorize civilian population. The Americans anticipated the British would attack Buffalo or Batavia next. The Americans moved their main force to defend Batavia, New York. This left the Lake Erie shoreline unguarded, and the British had other intentions – the strategic villages of Black Rock and Buffalo.

The burning of Black Hawk and Buffalo, December 1813.

General Amos Hall rallied the New York militia to defend Buffalo, but it was too late. By the night of December 29, 1813, a force of about 1500 British, including 400 Royal Scots, and Indian allies descended on Black Rock and Buffalo. Through the night, the American volunteers under General Hall skirmished with the British, but by dawn they had infiltrated Buffalo by foot and boats and took the village. Within a day, Buffalo was completely burned. Forty residents were killed and scalped. The destitute survivors fled in confusion through the deep snow to the protection of the military guarding Batavia. Residents of the surrounding countryside fled their home in terror leaving their livestock to perish in the deep winter snow.

Rumors quickly spread that the British were amassing troops and sleds at Buffalo and would proceed across the ice to destroy Erie, Pennsylvania. Erie was a strategic prize. The previous summer, a fleet of ships were built in the harbor at Presque Isle. Sailing from the new naval station and commanded by Oliver Hazard Perry, they would best the British Great Lakes fleet at the Battle of Erie in August 1813. The British wanted revenge. Four of the American schooners were burned in Black Rock and Buffalo. In the winter of 1813-14, the remaining American fighting ships the Niagara, the Lady Prevost, the Lawrence, and the Caledonia were frozen fast and helpless in Little Bay in the protection of Presque Isle Peninsula at Erie. British prisoners were held in the brig. The History of Erie County, Pennsylvania recounts, The most terrifying rumors were put into circulation and the excitement ran so high that many citizens removed their families and effects to the interior.  

Erie in 1813.

On January 15, 1814, The Mercury, a Pittsburgh newspaper, reported the alarming news of an impending British attack on Erie. A number of patriotic young men of Pittsburgh having volunteered their services, and troops of Fort Fayette, will march this day for Erie. On January 23, 1814, the Pittsburgh Gazette reported that American General Amos Hall sent a dispatch requesting assistance from Major General David Mead, the leader of the western Pennsylvania militia. Hall reported that the British at Buffalo were reinforced with 1500 fresh troops from Kingston, Ontario and that a force of 3,000 British and Indians were assembling sleds to drag cannons across the frozen lake. Military defenses at Erie were unprepared with just 150 regular soldiers, 600 militia, and 150 to 200 sailors. Major General David Mead raised a call to arms to the citizens of western Pennsylvania to rally in defense of Erie. He mustered his First Brigade to duty. This included the militia in northern Butler County under the command of Captain John McCollough. The Pittsburgh Gazette reported that Mead’s brigade was to hold themselves in readiness to march at a moment’s warning.

John McCollough continued active service with the militia in Butler County after his service in the Indian Wars in the 1790s. The militia was under the command of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and would be somewhat like our National Guard today. Sometime before the War of 1812, John rose through the ranks from lieutenant to captain and lead a group of riflemen from Donegal and Buffalo Townships in Butler County. He reported to Major Andrew Jenkins, a farmer and grist-mill operator from Lawrence County, Pennsylvania. John’s duties were to muster and train the local militia twice a year, maintain their equipment, and manage the payrolls. We found Captain John McCollough’s records from 1816 in a book of military records at the Senator John Heinz History Center in Pittsburgh. Thus, John continued his involvement with the military to at least the age of 46.

The Butler County militia likely provided their own “uniforms” for the expedition to Erie in January 1814. In 1847, Captain John McCollough was buried in his War of 1812 captain’s uniform.

Captain John McCollough knew General David Mead and was no stranger to the Erie country. He may have been one of the first to claim land near Erie in 1792, although he never settled there. He and his uncle, Abraham Fiscus, were granted land in 1796 near David Mead’s settlement, and John probably did service to guard the wilderness outpost of Meadville during the Indian Wars. In 1805, Captain John’s uncle, John Fiscus, moved from Westmoreland to Crawford County to farm and live his remaining days near Meadville.

By all accounts, the winter of 1813-1814 was harsh. A letter from January 14, 1814 indicates that Pittsburgh was very cold. Another letter from the same date from one of the volunteer militia companies at Erie said that the lake was frozen out as far as can be seen. John had little time to notify his 90 militia men and assemble military supplies, food, and rations. He was 44 at the time, not a young man by any means. He also had to prepare to leave his farm to the care of his wife Elizabeth and children. William, the oldest son, was just 15 years of age. Sons John and James were likely too young to care for livestock, but could probably help with farm chores. The other farmer-militiamen prepared quickly as well. They had no idea if they would return in time to plant their fields in the spring.

The call to arms from General Mead came in mid-January. The ice remained on Lake Erie only until mid-April. It was now or never for the British invasion. Major Andrew Jenkins issued orders that Captain John and his men were to be at Erie by February 1, 1814. From pay receipts in the Pennsylvania Archives, we know that eight days were allowed for travel. The day of muster was set for about January 20th. We do not know where the militia met to start their journey, possibly at a central gathering point in the city of Butler. It was not far down the road to Prospect where they would enjoin the old Venango Trail. Captain John had traveled this old Indian path to Erie many times, now a dirt and corduroy wagon path called the “LeBoeuf Road” or “Franklin Road” through the forest to Fort Venango (now Franklin, Pennsylvania) on the Allegheny River and onward to the old French Fort LeBoeuf.  

A roster of Captain John McCollough’s troops is full of familiar names of the families that live in Fairview and Donegal Townships today. There were also men from the old Buffalo Township that encompassed much of eastern Butler County. Names like Hemphill, Hillard, Christy, Storey, Barnhart, Thompson, Campbell, Young, Reep, Gibson, Miller, McLaughlin, Smith, Elliott, Duffy, Moore, McCurdy, Craig, O’Donnell, Cooper, Jack, Step, Martin, Fleming and Slator have remained in Butler County for the last 200 years. A complete list of the riflemen can be found in the Pennsylvania Archives.

Memories of the march to Erie during extreme winter conditions were recounted by these Butler County households for many years. In the 1895 History of Butler County Pennsylvania by R.C. Brown is a sketch about Captain John McCollough, probably told by his grandson Peter McCollough. The account talks about his experiences in the War of 1812; As an illustration of the hardships endured by these brave defenders of the nation, he often related how, upon one occasion, the soldiers of his company, worn out by forced marches, stretched themselves upon the damp ground to sleep and in the morning found their clothing and hair frozen fast to the ground. The expedition certainly left an indelible impression, especially to the farmers who had never ventured that far from home. The story has been an important part of our McCollough family history. Records indicate that Captain John was compensated for ferry crossings, hay and forage for their horses, meals and even for whiskey for the daily ration allowed each soldier. Perhaps this was Captain John’s own whiskey that he distilled on the McCollough farm. Some of the riflemen marched to Erie without rifles or muskets. They were promised firearms by the State before they left home but never received them. This caused much concern, and pressure was applied to Pittsburgh and Harrisburg to get the arms to Erie as soon as possible. We assume Captain John and his 90 riflemen arrived at Erie on or before February 1.

A map of Erie in 1837. Captain John McCollough the Butler County militia were house in quickly constructed barracks located near Mill Creek just west of the Garrison Grounds. The old French Fort at Erie was located on the high ground at the entrance to Little Bay. A block house was built nearby during the War of 1812.

The acrid smell of woodsmoke on the air was the first indication to the Butler County riflemen that they finally approached Erie. After a trek of 150 miles, they arrived with great expectations of a warm meal and sleeping in a warm house sheltered from the elements. Instead, they found the conditions were appalling. The weary troops were shown to dark, smoky, log barracks where men shared a louse-infested wool blanket on a buckboard bed. The histories of Erie recount the winter of 1813-14 as extremely frigid and wet. It was said that some days that winter, rain, sleet, and snow could all take place in a single day. Commodore Perry had long left Erie. His sailors remained behind aboard the ships or in makeshift shelters or tents on the shore. The garrisoned sailors were sick with “lake fever” for most of the winter and many died. Their bodies were sunk in nearby Graveyard Pond where they still lie. Fortunately, the disease, now believed to be typhus, never spread to the regular troops. Typhus was spread from sewage tossed overboard just a few feet from where the sailors drew buckets of drinking and wash water. Because of the disease, Little Bay was renamed “Misery Bay” after the winter of 1813-14.

At that time, two blockhouses were all that defended the harbor of Erie. The village of Erie was a small hamlet of 400-500 people and about 47 clapboard houses. When Captain John McCollough and his company arrived, Erie was a settlement for only 17 years and had a grinding and saw mill, a blacksmith shop, and a tannery. Settlers were farmers, merchants, sailors, and waggoners for the lucrative salt trade. Large oak trees and forests grew to the water’s edge, and Presque Isle Peninsula completely enclosed a large bay where the ships creaked in the shifting ice for the winter.

The British invasion never occurred. On February 22, 1814, the Pittsburgh Gazette reported that nothing of importance has occurred. The military are busily engaged in making preparations to repel any attack which the British may make on this place. It will be impossible for the enemy to cross in boats from Long Point, before the middle of April. About which time Lake is generally cleared of ice. The weather is at present intensely cold.

Little information has come down through the generations concerning the actual service of Captain John McCollough and his men at Erie. Pension records of some of Captain John’s recruits and their widows provide insight into their service. For example, William Christy enlisted January 20, 1814 and was discharged on March 22. Most of the men were compensated for service from February 19 through March 22. Some volunteered and others were drafted for service. Brothers Caleb and Aquilla Matthews later deposed that there was no significant engagement and that the company was mostly involved with garrison duty. We surmise that Captain John McCollough and his men spent the cold, dreary weeks at Erie practicing military drills, cutting firewood, and trying to stay warm and fed.

The History of Erie County documents, Happily, the alarm proved to be false and but one delusive report after another came so fast that a considerable body of troops was kept at Erie during most of the winter. Many of these men were substitutes and all were poorly furnished with arms and equipments. The principal camp was north of the First Presbyterian Church, where the ground was covered with low log barracks, most of which burned down soon after they were abandoned. Today, the area where Captain John and his men stayed is near the Erie Community Correction Center. In all, about 2000 militia assembled in the winter of 1813-14 at Erie, including 1,000 from Cumberland County, Pennsylvania. The History of Venango County indicated that the men returned with nothing more than experiencing anything more serious than the pomp and pageantry of war and the discomforts of a brief campaign in the middle of winter.

The small hamlet of Erie had never experienced so many people, especially thousands of idle men. The sailors were well compensated for their victory in the Battle of Erie the summer previous. Much of their prize was lost at the single drinking establishment in town. Perhaps Captain John McCollough found a ready outlet for selling the last of his whiskey! The History of Erie County recounts, The main topic of discussion, when matters were sufficiently quiet to allow of controversy, related to the respective merits of Perry and Elliott, many freely charging the latter with poltroonery during the battle of September 10, while others, and especially the officers and crew of the Niagara, defended him as a brave man who had been the victim of adverse circumstances (Commander Elliott lagged behind the other ships in the Niagara and never engaged the British ships at the Battle of Erie). The arguments grew so vociferous, that a duel took place between Navy officers from two of the American schooners. The commander of the schooner Porcupine was killed.

Perhaps Captain John McCollough and his men returned with many such stories from Erie. If so, they are lost to time. The trip home in March was arduous as the snow melted and the Franklin Road turned to greasy mud. The Butler County farmers were glad to be home in time to order their grain seed and plan for spring planting.

Historians say that Perry’s 1813 victory was the turning point in the War of 1812. It was the first victory that mobilized the nation, and other victories followed. The small American Navy at Erie never rendered any service of consequence afterward. The War of 1812 came to an end on December 12, 1814, with the Treaty of Ghent. In 1815, the remaining ships that so gallantly fought under Commodore Perry’s flag “Don’t Give Up the Ship” were scuttled in Misery Bay. Others were converted to merchant vessels. One was dismantled and set adrift to go over Niagara Falls as a spectacle, an inglorious end to such a dignified schooner.

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