Nov 9, 2015
Having gone to school with Canadians and being married to one, I've heard about Laura Secord, a Massachusetts Loyalist who moved to Canada after the War for Independence and became a Canadian national hero during the War of 1812, ad nauseum. Fortunately, this Two-Fisted History isn't about that no-good, rotten collaborator. This week, I'm going to tell you about a way more radically tubular heroine: Betsy Doyle.
Betsy Doyle was married to Andrew Doyle, who was an artilleriest with the American army. In 1810, Andrew had been assigned to serve at Fort Niagara, which sits at the mouth of the Niagara River, just 600 yards downstream from the British Fort George. Betsy, being his wife, was allowed to come along and serve as a laundress and nurse at the fort.
In June of 1812, war was declared by the Americans on Great Britain. The Americans tried to invade Canada, but were beaten at Queenston Heights on 13 October 1812. During the battle, Andrew was captured by the British, leaving Betsy and their four children abandoned at Fort Niagara.
Following the battle of Queenston Heights, the Americans and British agreed to a ceasefire for 30 days to recover and fortify their positions. At Fort Niagara, the Americans took the rooftops off their buildings and mounted cannons on the top floors to gain a height advantage over Fort George. For added zing, the Americans would heat the iron cannonballs until they were red hot. That way they'd be more likely to start fires in the wooden buildings.
This was tricky business because the cannonballs were heated in furnaces on the lower floors, carried with tongs up two flights of stairs, then placed down the barrel of the cannon – hopefully without igniting the gunpowder and blowing up the whole battery.
Once the ceasefire ended on 21 November, both forts began firing at each other. Carrying the sizzling, cherry red cannonballs to the guns on the roof of the main building at Fort Niagara was Betsy Doyle. She worked tirelessly to keep American cannons firing their deadly shot. Betsy was even mentioned in the official report by Lt. Col. George McFeeley who compared her to Joan of Arc saying:
'During the most tremendous cannonading I have ever seen, she attended the six pounder on the Old Mess House with red hot shot and showed fortitude equal to the Maid of Orleans.'
About a month later, the British crossed the Niagara River and, after capturing Fort Niagara, set the nearby town of Lewiston to the torch. The night before the attack, Betsy put on a uniform, grabbed a musket, and took her turn at watch to shame the local militiamen who were afraid of the coming attack.
After the fall of Fort Niagara on 19 December 1813, Betsy Doyle fled with her children on foot. Four months later, at an army camp near Albany, New York, in what is today East Greenbush. . . a trek of about 310 miles!
Once she had recovered from a fever she had when she arrived at the camp, she continued working as an army nurse until she later died of another illness on 2 April 1819. The camp commander, Lt. Henry Smith, wrote to his commanders that she hadn't been paid in over a year, and that, 'Her death was accelerated by want of those necessities which her pay would have procured.' The War Department eventually did wind up giving some of the money to one of Betsy's Daughters.
But what happened to Betsy's husband? Well, he had been born as a Canadian and a British subject. The British had a policy of not allowing any British subject to renounce their citizenship, and he was treated as a traitor. They brought him back to England where he was found guilty and put in Dartmoor Prison. He was released in August 1815, and returned to the United States. He spent the next four years searching for his wife, but being unable to find her, figured that she must have died and remarried in 1819. He lived out his days on a Massachusetts farm until he died in 1875.
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