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  • The British in Pittsburgh: POWs in the War of 1812
  • Ross Hassig (bio)

Far from the Atlantic seaboard and the Canadian frontier, Pittsburgh was not expected to play a major role in the War of 1812. But it became involved in military affairs even before the start of the war, with Fort Fayette acting as a staging point for troops going down the Ohio River to more westerly posts, notably at Newport, Kentucky, opposite Cincinnati. After Congress declared war on Great Britain on June 18, 1812, troops marched from Pittsburgh to posts along the Canadian frontier in northern Ohio and Michigan.1 For much of the war, too, Pittsburgh also played a little-known role as a prisoner-of-war (POW) depot for British soldiers and sailors.

The United States anticipated that many, if not most, of the British prisoners captured during the war would be taken from ships. The government therefore sanctioned holding prisoners of war at various seaports on the Atlantic coast and at New Orleans. These ports were designated in the opening months of the war, where all British prisoners were turned over to the US Marshals in their respective districts. Military prisoners were almost an afterthought in a nation that was poorly prepared for war itself. Depots for army and militia prisoners were not [End Page 501] officially established until 1813, almost a year after the war began. The first was to be at Schenectady, New York, but that location proved unsatisfactory and the army posts at Greenbush, New York, and Pittsfield, Massachusetts, were quickly substituted instead. This concentration of POW depots in the Northeast reflected the anticipated area of greatest army operations, along the border between Canada and New York, since the Great Lakes separated most of the remaining settled areas of the two countries.

Yet it was a naval victory, not a military one, that unexpectedly changed the situation in the west. Lake Ontario, between New York and present-day Ontario, was contested throughout the war, with both British and American fleets challenging each other for control. But Lake Erie farther west was also crucially important. Separating western Pennsylvania and Ohio from Ontario, both ends of the lake provided ready passage across the border. On the western side, Lake Erie provided crucial communications and supplies for the British posts on both sides of the border around Detroit and Amherstburgh. Overland supply was inadequate, so control of the lake was crucially important for holding these areas. The pivotal battle on Lake Erie occurred on September 10, 1813; under pressure to act, the British fleet of six ships commanded by Captain Robert Heriott Barclay attacked the nine ships of the American fleet commanded by Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry. In the ensuing battle, Perry triumphed, capturing hundreds of British POWs. He then wrote Secretary of the Navy William Jones, reporting that two British ships, two brigs, one schooner, and one sloop had surrendered to him. Perry’s commander, Commodore Isaac Chauncey, similarly wrote Jones. Barclay reported that in the battle he had lost three officers and thirty-eight men killed, and nine officers and eighty-five men wounded.2

With the United States now controlling Lake Erie, Major General William Henry Harrison’s forces were free to advance into Canada toward Amherstburg. With their supplies and reinforcements now cut off, the British commander at Amherstburgh, Major General Henry Proctor, was unable to resist and began withdrawing to the east. Harrison caught up with him near Moraviantown. On October 5 a battle ensued at the River Thames between the American forces and the British and their Indian allies. During the battle, the Shawnee leader Tecumseh was killed, and over 600 British soldiers were taken prisoner.3

Both Perry’s and Harrison’s victories left hundreds of prisoners in American hands, with the nearest POW depot far to the east at Greenbush, opposite Albany. Marching hundreds of POWs for such a distance through [End Page 502] rugged and sparsely populated territory posed such serious logistical and security obstacles as to be impractical. Perry and Harrison therefore agreed to send their prisoners south, to Chillicothe, then the capital of Ohio, where there was a military command. Perry’s prisoners would...


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