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Sherman Says: Fly the 15-star flag in memory of the city of Buffalo’s darkest day

What happened along the Niagara Frontier 200 years ago next week is so unimaginable that most contemporary residents are unaware of its historical significance.

Primarily as an act of revenge, British troops and their Native American allies descended upon Youngstown, Lewiston and Black Rock, destroying most of the property in their path. On Dec. 30, 1813, they overcame meager resistance in the hamlet known as Buffalo and put it to the torch.

There was virtually no military presence left along the eastern side of the Niagara River, with Fort Erie’s guns within eyesight. The nearest encampments of American troops were at the present site of Delaware Park and in Williams Mills, the settlement that would eventually become Williamsville.

We must remember the date, not only for the loss of life in Western New York, but for the strength and resilience shown by civilians and soldiers in the days, weeks and months that followed the attack.

The 15-star, 15-stripe American flag that flew over those garrisons is the same one that would inspire Francis Scott Key to write our national anthem nine months later, while awaiting the end of the bombardment of Fort McHenry in Baltimore.

I have spent months urging that every public building in Erie County and vicinity fly the 15-star flag on Dec. 30.

With homes and businesses reduced to ashes, many terrified Buffalo residents fled east along the primary road – today’s Main Street – leading to Batavia. Others sought refuge in Lancaster, Hamburg and beyond. There was a genuine fear that the British would pursue them into what was then a wilderness.

In October 1813, a large tent city had been erected along what is now Garrison Road in Williamsville. As many as 5,000 soldiers may have been there. This security led directly to the establishment of the village of Williamsville, 37 years later.

A printing press was hauled east as far as Harris Hill so one of Buffalo’s newspapers, The Buffalo Gazette, could continue to publish. Life would go on for the hearty residents of Buffalo.

Until that day, the War of 1812 had been a distant dispute that began on the high seas. Caught in the middle were native North Americans, misled into thinking that a British military victory would ensure establishment of a separate nation lying somewhere between upper Canada and what would remain of the United States. Many British leaders saw the war as an opportunity to settle the score for the loss of the colonies, during the Revolutionary War. Toppling the U.S. government could mean that the 15 fledgling states would return to British rule, back then.

The war suddenly landed on our ancestors’ doorstep. The Niagara Frontier was one of only a handful of places where lands controlled by the two warring nations abutted each other. Controlling the Niagara River was vital to our national security.

American troops were reinforced the following spring, with bloody battles being fought at Scajaquada Creek on the U.S. side of the border, and Fort Erie, Chippawa and Lundy’s Lane across the river. The hospital at Williams Mills was expanded to handle the steady flow of sick and injured from both armies. The primitive burial ground on present day Aero Drive near Buffalo Niagara International Airport in Cheektowaga became the final resting place for an estimated 600 combatants. Many are unidentified.

The costly conflict dragged on throughout the following year. On Aug. 27, Lt. Sylvanus Felton made the ultimate sacrifice at Fort Erie. His mortal remains are buried in Clarence.

It would be more than four months until the war officially ended with no territory being conquered or exchanged. The most important lesson learned since then is that we have been at peace with Great Britain for nearly 200 years.

The day Buffalo burned must not be forgotten. Fifteen stars never shone so brightly.

David Sherman is managing editor of Bee Group Newspapers and a columnist for the Weekly Independent Newspapers of Western New York. Opinions expressed here are those of the author. He can be reached at dsherman@beenews.com.
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