On December 30, 1813, British forces and their native American allies torched several towns along the U.S. - Canadian border, including Buffalo, New York. Here are five things you didn't know about the Burning of Buffalo and the War of 1812.
The Burning Was Part of an Act of Revenge The Burning of Buffalo didn't come out of nowhere. It was an act of revenge exacted after American troops had burned several Canadian towns as bad winter weather closed in, with the idea of leaving everyone in those towns homeless and at risk from the cold and snow. The burnings so enraged British and Canadian leaders, especially Lieutenant-General Gordon Drummond, that they devised a plan to attack and burn several American border towns as revenge.
The British Issued a Statement of Regret Later. Believe it or not, the British leaders in North America actually recognized how bad the burning was, though that was of little comfort to people who'd lost homes and neighbors. One British leader, Lieutenant General Sir George Prevost, offered regret over the burnings a few weeks after troops were no longer attacking border towns and incinerating them. But before you assume that this regret was part of an act of repentance, realize that Prevost said the burnings were in response to the actions of the Americans on the Canadian side of the border, and he placed the blame squarely on the Americans' shoulders—not on the British or Canadian troops who had burned American towns.
Even Americans Didn't Like the Events That Led to the Burning of Buffalo The burnings on the Canadian side, which had driven the British and Canadians to burn Buffalo, were the acts of military leaders and troops—and American civilians were not happy. Those along the border not only knew that making entire towns homeless before a winter storm was unconscionable, but they also knew that now they were exposed to a heightened risk of attack. In the days before the burning, more American troops poured into the area and made residents feel a bit safer, but that did not stop attacks from occurring. It didn't help that the numbers of troops didn't match their fighting abilities, which were subpar and left the Americans unprepared.
A Lot of American Troops Deserted During the Attacks That Led to the Burning Part of the problem during the Burning of Buffalo was that many American troops deserted. Many were frightened by cries from Native Americans who had allied with the British. When the troops could see flashes from muskets firing in addition to hearing the cries, a lot of American troops fled en masse. Several more slipped away in smaller groups. This didn't happen at all the battles occurring that night—just at Buffalo, with terrible consequences. Many men from the town went to fight as their homes burned, but their numbers and fighting skills were not adequate to stop the disaster.
The British Later Returned to Burn More of Buffalo Bad enough your town gets burned to the ground once, but twice? On December 30, during the main Burning of Buffalo, one resident named Sarah Lovejoy did not flee and instead put up a fight as Native Americans ransacked her house during the attack. Some sources call her foolish or reduce her fight to an attempt to save her dresses—and according to neighbors, she said she'd stay behind to protect her property—but she put up more of a fight than some American troops who fled the scene. Lovejoy was killed and her house set on fire; her neighbors later returned, put out the fire in her house, and placed her corpse inside. Unfortunately, the British returned soon after (depending on the source, either December 31 or January 1) and torched her house again, leaving only her bones for burial.