The first visitors to Stella Maris arrived 136 years before the Sisters could have their beds ready. And many of them had come all the way from England.
It was the summer of 1814. The United States was at war with Great Britain, again, and American troops were marching on Fort Erie, on the Canadian side of the Niagara River where it meets Lake Erie, across the water from what is today Buffalo.
Major Thomas Buck of the 8th King’s Regiment was in command of Fort Erie, with a sparse contingent of 120 foot soldiers of the 8th Regiment, a dozen men from the Royal Regiment of Artillery, and a few mounted troops from the 19th Light Dragoons. Major Buck sent the horsemen north to warn his commanding officer of the approaching Americans and then took stock of his chances.
Fort Erie had no wall on the landward side. It had only three (3) cannons. And approaching the fort were more than 2,000 American soldiers, wheeling siege guns into place.
Some of Buck’s officers wanted to fight to the death; Major Buck was pretty sure the Americans could oblige them in short order. So he fired his cannons once, for pride’s sake, and then sent out an envoy with a white flag. Terms were agreed upon within two hours, and at 5 p.m., on July 3, 1814, the British garrison of Fort Erie marched out of the main gate and into captivity.
Transportation and facilities for prisoners of war were somewhat informal during the War of 1812. The closest camps were in Greenbush, N.Y., across the Hudson River from Albany, and in Pittsfield, Massachusetts, about 40 miles east of Albany. And so the 137 British prisoners marched east.
A few weeks into their walk, the group arrived in Skaneateles and bivouacked by the lake, on the land that would eventually belong to Frederick Roosevelt (1879), then Burns Lyman Smith (1917) and finally, the Sisters of Saint Francis (1952).
The next morning, the men of the 8th Regiment continued their journey to Albany and thence to Pittsfield, to the “cantonment,” which was 18 acres surrounded by a board fence and seven sentry boxes. Eight months later, in March of 1815, the men were marched from Pittsfield to Canada to be exchanged for American prisoners.
Several accounts say that Major Thomas Buck was court-martialed after the war for his hasty surrender at Fort Erie. This, however, is not accurate. He was indeed court-martialed, but it was because of an incident in the officers’ mess on Malta, May 31, 1819, when he said that he would be damned if he ever sat at the mess table again, “or words to a similar insulting effect,” refused to apologize, and finally offered to duel anyone who felt “aggrieved.”
The Court found him guilty, dropped him to the bottom of the promotion list, ordered a public reprimand, and reduced him to half-pay. All in all, his chosen career seems to have treated him badly. But at least he got to visit Skaneateles.
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My thanks to:
History of Skaneateles and Vicinity, 1781-1881 (1882) by Edmund Norman Leslie
War of 1812: British Prisoners in the United States (http://www.1812privateers.org/Great%20Britain/prisoners.htm)
A Collection of the Charges, Opinions, and Sentences of General Courts Martial as Published by the Authority; from the Year 1795 to the Present Time; Intended to Serve as an Appendix to Tytler’s Treatise on Military Law, and Forming a Book of Cases and References; with a Copious Index (1820) by Charles James