Summer 1997

 
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The Battles of Sodus Point
and Pultneyville

by

Richard Palmer

Legislation passed by the United States Congress on June 17, 1812, announced that a state of war existed between the United States and Great Britain. The following day, President James Madison, with the consent of Congress, declared war on Great Britain.

On June 20th, the governor of Canada ordered all Americans out of that country within two weeks. Great Britain was well-equipped for fitting out her war vessels, and her fortified harbors were secure refuges for her merchantmen. Britain also had large standing armies and was well situated to garrison ports and harbors on the Great Lakes with seasoned troops.

America was ill prepared for any military confrontation. Very few ports were fortified and its only defense was a poorly trained militia, the distant ancestor of what later became the National Guard. On Lake Ontario the British fleet consisted of six war vessels mounting over 100 guns. The American fleet, although it also had six vessels, mounted only 30 guns. And these were primarily converted merchant schooners which the government had appropriated.

But what the Americans initially had on their side was good leadership. Commodore Isaac Chauncey commanded American naval forces on the Great Lakes and was an able and practical seaman. He was intimately knowledgeable on naval and military matters and on Oct. 5, 1812, established his headquarters at Sackets Harbor, N. Y.

With a much smaller force, Chauncey attacked the British Squadron near Kingston, Ontario early that November, damaging them considerably. He captured one schooner and took it to Sackets Harbor. He afterwards captured another British vessel having on board the equivalent of $12,000 of specie and General Brock's private baggage.

Capable British leadership finally came with the arrival of Commodore Sir James Lucas Yeo of Montreal on May 5, 1813. With him to take charge of the Lake Ontario fleet were 450 capable seamen.

At the time there were several small ports along the south shore of the lake that had been developed after 1800 by forwarders. These included Genesee, Pultneyville and Sodus Point (originally known as Troupsville). After Yeo took command, British naval operations accelerated. The method of warfare he chose was to cruise along the American coast and seize supplies stored at a poorly defended port. Sometimes he used force.

Occasionally he agreed not to molest the local residents if they handed over the supplies without resistance. Many people who lived along the coast lived in fear they would be visited by the British Commodore.

It should be noted, however, that the War of 1812 was not an unexpected outbreak. As early as the spring of 1809 Congress had authorized the President of the United States to call out 30,000 men to serve in the military. Companies and regiments of militia were subsequently organized in local communities. At the outbreak of the war, New York State's quota was 13,000 men. Then Governor Daniel D. Tompkins was one of the most avid supporters of this movement to protect the frontier, especially around the lake and at the U. S. - Canadian border along the Niagara and St. Lawrence rivers. During this period, both the British and Canadians also seized merchant vessels.

By January, 1813, the British were engaged in building two war ships at Kingston, some 300 carpenters having been brought in from the east coast. On Feb. 23, the British captured Ogdensburg. But on April 28, Chauncey, with the American squadron, brilliantly captured York (Toronto).

In a sweep across the lake, the British invaded the port at the mouth of the Genesee River known today as Charlotte (pronounced "Shar-lot"), and from all prospects it appeared that Sodus Point was next. A sizeable force of militia was accordingly sent to Sodus Point. The Ontario Messenger, a newspaper published in Canandaigua, N.Y., reported this development on June 29, 1813:

On Saturday afternoon, 19th inst., five of the enemy's naval force on Lake Ontario appeared off Sodus Bay. In the morning of the same day the enemy not appearing, Col. [Philitus] Swift's regiment of militia which had formerly assembled for the protection of the place, was dismissed and left Sodus after having removed all the public property to a place of security.
On the alarm being given, about forty men, under Capt. E. Hull, collected with a determination to make all the resistance in their power should the enemy attempt to land. Under cover of the ensuing night 100 men from the enemy's shipping effected a landing undiscovered and proceeded towards the village where they were met by the force under Captain Hull and fired upon.
The fire was immediately returned by the enemy and our men retreated, but were not pursued far before the enemy returned to their boats and re-embarked. In this affair we had one killed and three wounded. The enemy's loss was three killed and seven wounded.
Early the ensuing morning a number of British soldiers again landed, and without opposition took and destroyed about 230 barrels of flour, a few barrels of pork and whiskey, all private property—then proceeded to plunder the village of everything valuable and set fire to the houses, which were soon consumed.
Having thus wantonly done all the mischief in their power, they evacuated the place. The principal sufferers are Messrs. Edus, Merrill, Wickham and Nicholas.

This news is said to have been furnished to the newspaper by a man who arrived at Sodus Point soon after the enemy left the place.

It was only natural that these frontier communities develped a sense of insecurity after the outbreak of the war—even more so after the British had built up their fleet on the lake. What made British attack even more imminent was the fact that some government stores were kept at Sodus Point, Pultneyville, Charlotte, Braddock's Bay and other points along the lake. The British had a policy of hovering along the coastline and if they found a place undefended, they would confiscate the stores, either by negotiation or by force. The state of war gave the military an excuse to pillage and destroy property.

During the months preceding the battle, Sodus Point had been guarded by a few neighborhood militia companies. In June or July of 1812, according to witnesses, a British vessel had been spotted and the local militia was called out on several occasions. These proved to be false alarms, however. As the war escalated, a considerable force was stationed, from time to time, at Sodus Point, in anticipation of an attack.

On June 15th, it was reported that the British had landed at Genesee River and would undoubtedly make their way to Sodus Point. The militia was immediately ordered out and, as stated earlier, remained there until that Saturday morning, the 19th when, as luck would have it, the British decided to attack that afternoon, after the troops had been dismissed.

When the British vessels appeared in the offing that afternoon, the alarm was given. One or two men on horseback were dispatched to call the troops back, as well as rally the community in general. One of them rode to the village of Sodus, and west along the Ridge Road, shouting, "Turn out!" "Turn out!" West of Sodus village several farmers were just returning home from a barn raising, but, tired as they were, hastened to Sodus Point with such guns as they could find hastily.

The other messenger rode southward, following the trail of the soldiers. In the vicinity of South Sodus, some settlers were engaged in a "logging bee," and dropped their work and hastened to Sodus Point without going home for supper. John P. Terry, later of Portsmouth, Ohio, recalled:

"I recollect perfectly well seeing him pass our house riding fast, blowing a horn and shouting 'The British are landing!'"

Eventually these latter-day "Paul Reveres" were able to muster a number of militia and ordinary citizens to come to the defense of their country. So when the British were about to land at Sodus Point, the Rev. Seba Norton, acting as captain with 50 or 60 men, was there to meet them. He divided the men into groups of about 10 and placed them in different ambuscades, pointing the way to recede if attacked. He told them to "pop away as fast as you can."

But before the British actually landed, a colonel from Seneca Falls arrived with reenforcements. Captain Norton told him what had been done, and the colonel said he must recall the men and make a show of force. One old timer recalled, "I have heard several who were there say that the old captain's plan was far better."

Although Sodus Point had been plotted out and subdivided in expectation of becoming a great city, only a small portion of land had actually been cleared. Most of the area was a forest with considerable undergrowth so thick it was almost impossible to penetrate it. There was a roadway to the bluff where a few years later the first lighthouse was erected.

A footpath led from the site of the Methodist Church running southwest to a ravine between what is now Ontario and West (Fitzhugh) Streets, to which the government supplies had been removed from the warehouse. The plan was to form at the edge of the timber on the public square, advance until they met the enemy, fire, and then "every man for himself."

East from what today is the corner of Bay and John Streets, the British were heard coming, It was a dark, rainy night and the British were carrying a few lights. Amasa Johnson fired and the shot extinguished one of the lights. The British returned fire, but not being familiar with the lay of the land they aimed too low. The flash revealed the exact position of the British and the return fire of the Americans was much more effective. The British musicians immediately struck up a tune that drowned out the sounds of the many groans of their wounded.

The British attackers then calculated that the American force was larger than anticipated. So bearing their dead and wounded and taking with them three prisoners, they retreated to their ships. The following day the prisoners were put ashore. They included Harry Skinner, Christopher Britton, and Gilbert Saulter, a black man. On the American side two men were fatally wounded and several others received minor injuries. Those who died of their injuries were Asher Warner of Sodus Center and Charles Terry of South Sodus.

From all accounts the Americans were well aware that they were vastly outnumbered by some 400 experienced, well-disciplined and seasoned British regulars. But the Americans stood their ground and the British skedaddled. A detachment was then sent to guard the government supplies that had been removed to a ravine.

On Saturday morning the British cannonaded the village, landed a small force and seized that portion of the supplies that had not been removed from the warehouses. Then they burned all the buildings in the place except Nathaniel Merrill's tavern. It was spared because a wounded man was being treated there. In later years it was known as the Mansion House, and was destroyed by fire in 1881.

While the village was being burned the men guarding the supplies were in full view of the British. But fearing that the woods were full of Americans they quickly went about their pillaging, returned to their ships and sailed off. Among the structures burned were Thomas Wickham's store, its contents and his house, two other homes, and two warehouses.

The alarm continued to spread through the countryside but by the time these people arrived the British had fled, apparently on their way to Oswego for a repeat performance. On finding Oswego much better defended than he had anticipated, the ever-cautious Yeo turned his naval squadron westwards towards Niagara. After firing a few cannonade, they left. Yeo would contend with Oswego another day.

The British Attack on Pultneyville

For generations Sodus Point has been primarily a summer resort. At one time it was dotted with numerous resort hotels and cabins, and for nearly a century was a fairly important lake port. It is one of the more popular pleasure-boat havens on the lake. In sharp contrast is the village of Pultneyville, a few miles to the west, which strongly resembles a 19th century New England seacoast town with its beautifully kept houses that once were the homes of lake captains. There is no tin-pan-alley look to this community, also rich in history. The old homes are meticulously maintained right down to the white picket fences.

In the little lakeside park is an old ship's anchor mounted above a miniature lighthouse. It was dedicated on Memorial Day, 1936, in memory of no less than 27 sea captains that called Pultneyville their home port. One would never guess that a small battle was fought here during the War of 1812.

As in other locations along Lake Ontario, the U. S. Government stored supplies at Pultneyville at the beginning of the war, which included some 400 barrels of flour. On numerous occasions the militia was called out to guard these supplies when a British attack was suspected.

Then along came Commodore Yeo and his raiding party again. On Saturday morning, May 14, 1814, the British fleet was sighted and General John Swift was summoned. He arrived that evening with about 130 men. On Sunday morning, Swift was drilling his men on the streets. There was a dense fog and he did not know that Yeo's fleet was lying very close to shore. When the fog cleared both Yeo and Swift were astonished at the sight of each other.

A broadside from a ship quickly sent the men hotfooting to the nearby tall timber. The women and children followed and when the British came ashore, they explored and rifled to their heart's content, even helping themselves to all the pike and mild they found in the housewives' pantries.

The Ontario Messenger reported about two weeks later:

On Saturday morning (15th ult. ) the British squadron was discovered making towards Pultneyville, and information was sent to General Swift, who prepared thither in the course of the succeeding night with 130 volunteers and militia.
On Sunday a flag was sent on shore demanding a peaceable surrender of all public property and threatening an immediate destruction of the village (which is on the margin of the lake) in case of refusal. General Swift returned for answer he should oppose any attempt to land by all the means in his power.
Soon after the return of this flag General Swift was induced by the pressing solicitations and entreaties of the inhabitants of the town to permit one of the citizens to go to the enemy with a flag of truce and offer up the surrender of the property contained in a storehouse at the water's edge, consisting of about 100 barrels of flour considerably damaged, on condition that the commanding officers would stipulate not to take any other nor molest the inhabitants.
Before the return of this flag the enemy sent their boats with several hundred men on shore, who took possession in the store and were proceeding to further depredations. General Swift, whose force was too inferior to justify an open attack (and which if attempted must have exposed his men to the guns of the whole fleet) commenced a fire upon them from an adjacent wood, which wounded several and became so harassing as to induce them to re-embark, when they commenced a cannonade from the fleet upon the town, which was continued for some time but with no other injury than a few shot-holes through the houses. Three hundred barrels of good flour had been removed back from the storehouse a few days before leaving the damaged flour, which was the only booty the enemy obtained. The 300 barrrels were carried back of the town, of which the enemy were apprised by some prisoners they had taken. But they chose to forego the plunder of it rather than risk themselves in the wood with General Swift and his riflemen.

While the supplies were being removed some other British soldiers went beyond the warehouse to Russell Whipple's tavern. Some others forced there way into the home of Andrew Cornwall, thrusting a bayonet through the door and ransacking the dwelling.

The American militia was divided into two groups. One was stationed below the bank while General Swift's men were in a nearby ravine. When some British soldiers went beyond the warehouse fence, the Americans opened fire. Supposedly when the British landed their muskets were not loaded. But when the firing commenced they loaded immediately and a battle ensued. A British soldier, while trying to break open a chest on the second floor of Whipple's Tavern, was killed by a stray British bullet.

Soon the big guns on the ships were unlimbered and a rapid cannonade began. At first the cannons were so aimed that the balls struck the ground a mile back from shore. It was intended to head off any troops that might be coming to the aid of the Americans. Then they fired closer, first to the east and then to the west, bringing the fire near and nearer to the center of the village as if trying to drive the Americans into a huddle.

The firing ended suddenly and, as they did at Sodus, the British hastened to their boats, taking the man they killed in the tavern, their wounded and some prisoners The ships sailed away immediately as if on signal.

The British casualties, according to local historians, were two dead and two wounded. The Americans suffered only a few slight injuries. The two American prisoners were, Richard White, the bartender at Whipple's Tavern, and Prescott Fairbanks, a clerk to Samuel Ledyard who owned the warehouse where the flour was stored. They were taken to Halifax but were released a few months later and returned home. Over the years cannon balls were found in various places and some were even ploughed up on shore farms.

Later it was learned that the British originally landed about six miles west of Pultneyville where they seized two men and compelled them to act as pilots in approaching Pultneyville. One of these men was Thomas Fuller. His grandson, Alvah Fuller, said:

It was a pleasant day in the summer of 1814, when the British war vessel King George, came sailing down the shore opposite my father's farm, threw out her anchors and sent one of her gunboats with 12 red coats ashore. My mother and children took my father's uniform, sword and rifle, went out the back door to the woods and hid them in a heap of brush while my father and Captain Church, an old Revolutionary soldier walked down to the beach to meet the red coats, who informed them that the captain wanted to see them on board the King George.
They ordered the two to go with them, and when aboard set sail and carried them down the lake to Pultneyville, where the U. S. Government had certain military stores, guarded by a few militia, who refused to let the British land until they had fired several cannon balls through the old two story Whipple's public house which made the glass and splinters fly.
Under the rules of war they could not hold Captains Fuller and Church as prisoners and they were set free and after a walk of four miles, brought them[selves] home quite late. After this, Captain Fuller and his company were called to active service, crossing into Canada at Lewiston, where they remained until the close of the war.

It is said the British left Pultneyville in such a hurry that the crew of one of their bateaux lying at the warehouse cut the rope that fastened the boat instead of loosening it. The part cut off was used for many years as a well rope.

As part of his official report, Yeo sheds some light on this incident: "At Pultneyville, 12 miles west of Big Sodus, U. S. Brig. Gen. John Swift signed an agreement to give up Publick stores provided private stores were respected, which they were, but Our Flag of Truce was fired on from the woods as we were loading the last of the small amount of flour we had found there.

"It is with regret that I must report that Capt. Short of the Marines was severely wounded in the arm, one sergeant was killed and four seamen and marines were wounded."

1997, Richard Palmer
Index to articles by Richard F. Palmer

Bibliography

Green, Walter H., Great Sodus Bay, Sodus, N. Y. , 1947, pp. 91 - 99, 288 - 293

Clark, Lewis H., Military History of Wayne County, N. Y. , Sodus, N. Y. , 1883, pp. 189 - 220

Lossing, Benson J., Pictorial Field Book of the War of 1812, New York, 1868.

Letter of Commodore Sir James Lucas Yeo to Admiral Sir John Borlace Warren, May 19, 1814. Public Archives of Canada, MG12 Adml. Vol. 2736, p. 206.

Ontario Messenger, Ontario County Historical Society, Canandaigua, NY.

 
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