OSWEGO — The sixth annual International War of 1812 Symposium concluded Sunday with a presentation by Fort Ontario Superintendent Paul Lear on the British raid of Oswego in 1813.
New York and America in general were unprepared for the war, and Fort Ontario, despite being a vital point on the Mohawk - Oneida-Oswego shipment route that ferried war materials, was no exception, Lear said.
Fort Ontario had been allowed to fall into disrepair following the Revolutionary War. Abandoned by the Army in 1803, the fort's buildings, windows and materials had been robbed by local citizens for use in their own homes, Lear said.
Lieutenant Colonel George Fleming, an experienced Revolutionary War officer who had served at York-town, was placed in charge of garrisoning forces at the fort.
By the time war was declared, Fleming was in charge of nearly 500 men, and was mostly too busy dealing with training and supply arrangements, including terrible rations, to deal with the fort's ruinous condition.
"Fleming had his hands full," Lear said.
By January of 1813, the fort was again nearly abandoned through the winter, with only a captain and his recruiting station left. Valuable supplies continued to be shipped in, however, making the fort an attractive target for the British.
In June of that year, American Major Robert Carr and his forces were sent to the fort and immediately began reinforcing and repairing.
On June 17, a squadron of British ships led by Commodore Sir James Lucas Yeo, who would also lead the British attack during the Battle of Oswego in 1814, was spotted headed for Oswego, forcing Carr and his men to prepare a defense in earnest.
Carr ordered the construction of three or four gun batteries on the cliff edge just outside the fort and was reinforced by two battalions of militia forces.
British forces arrived on June 19 and the ships exchanged cannon fire with the fort's defenders for only around 25 minutes. Despite having a landing force of around 450 men, the British apparently decided the fort was too well-defended, Lear said.
Carr had his men track the squadron as they headed west, cautiously aware that most of the valuable supplies were being stored in the village itself rather than the fort, and were thus more vulnerable.
"He realized the fort isn't what they were there to defend, it's the stores on the west side," Lear said.
Artillery batteries and further fortifications were built on the northern and western edges of the village into the woods and swamps to further discourage an incursion inland from the British.
That discouragement appeared to have worked, Lear said, as the British left Oswego and instead attacked and eventually burned the town of Sodus to the west.
However, despite the minimal amount of fighting, a deeper blow had been struck, as the village residents lost faith in the military's ability to protect them after seeing the militia and even Army regulars quickly abandon the fort.
Residents began making plans to evacuate their families and hide their possessions in the nearby woods in the event of a British attack, and some even made deals with the enemy to have their property spared.
In the next year, the British led a more successful attack during the Battle of Oswego where they were able to destroy the fort's barracks and capture its supplies.
Lear said this year's symposium had been a "fantastic event," and even had the distinction of hosting the New York Archives as a sponsor and exhibitor.
Thomas Ruller, the state archivist and CEO of the Archives Partnership and Trust, said the archives were responsible for preserving more than 200 million documents of New York's government and history, dating back to its earliest Dutch settlement in the 1600s, which helped contribute to events like the symposium.
"Many of the speakers here used the archives," Ruller said, "The historical archives are the way historians tell their story." Having the Archives attend the symposium was a sign that the event had become a significant event, Lear said.
"It really shows we're nationally and internationally known," Lear said.