Lockport Union-Sun & Journal Online

December 13, 2011

Civil War sesquicentennial: War on the homefront

Niagara County deputy historian

— “To His Excellency, Commander in Chief of the Militia of the State of New York:

We, the undersigned, citizens of the State of New York, exempted from military duty by law, have associated together as a Company, and hereby enlist to serve during the war, unless sooner discharged; and that said Company be designated the Reserved Corps of Niagara County.

Adjourned, to meet at Union Hall, (over Devereux and Webber’s store) on Saturday, the 25th inst., at o’clock, P.M.”

During the course of the Civil War, Niagara County sent approximately 8,000 men off to war — a number representing nearly 16 percent of the county’s 1860 population. Those left behind also had their own important jobs supporting the war effort.  May 15, 1861, saw the organization of the Continental Company. This company, composed of men over 45 and ineligible for duty in the regular army, was formed for the protection of Lockport and the surrounding area. 

In accordance with the group’s bylaws, any man could become a member if they agreed and signed the Constitution and Bylaws of the Continental Home Guard and were accepted by the other members present. Members had to pay dues of 50 cents every three months, and each man was required to appear in uniform whenever they participated in parades, but they were not required to wear their uniforms to meetings or while drilling. The uniform consisted of a black, cocked hat with a red, white, and blue rosette on the left front. A black coat and white gloves rounded out the rest of their official attire. Every couple of weeks, the Company met to drill, often at a nearby tavern.

While the Home Guard was commissioned with keeping the peace on the homefront and helping protect the county from Canadian invasion, there was a deep worry throughout the northern states that Britain would enter the fray and support the Confederacy. Due to the Trent Affair in November 1861, in which a British mail ship was stopped by the U.S. Navy in direct violation of international laws and relieved of two Confederate diplomats, Britain responded by sending 11,000 troops to Canada and demanded the release of these prisoners from the RMS Trent.

The specter of 11,000 British troops lurking just over the border in Canada sent ripples of discontent through the northern states, especially along the border.  In a year that saw Confederate victories at Sumter and at Bull Run, the North was reeling from the strength of the rebel forces. Additionally, Britain prepared the ship Melbourne be outfitted and ready to transport 80,000 Enfield Rifles to Canada, and by the end of the month of December, was ready to send another 28,000 troops.  British Gen. William Fenwick Williams, Commander in Chief, North America, ordered the repair of old forts and the erection of new ones, as British Canada seemed to be quickly preparing for war.

Enter Louis Leffman. Sgt. Leffman had been solely in charge of Fort Niagara during its hiatus from 1854 until the Trent Affair.  As the regiment returned to Fort Niagara, Leffman set about to modernize the facility with brickworks much like those at forts Jefferson and Sumter. Some of the plans called for the destruction of the historic French Castle, leaving behind the façade of the building to be incorporated into the new walls. Fortunately, the French Castle was saved, and a majority of the upgrades did not take place until well after the peaceful ending of the Trent Affair in late December.

On Dec. 26, Lincoln decided to release James Mason and John Slidell to the British, and Secretary of State William Seward declared that Capt. Charles Wilkes had acted on his own without specific orders. Britain, satisfied with this resolution and the return of the two officials, considered the conflict resolved. The Confederacy, on the other hand, was terribly upset with this decision, as they had hoped the English would declare war on the US. Without a second front to distract the Union, the southern cause had a tougher route to victory.

In an incredible “what if” scenario, the United States had come very close to fighting a war on two fronts, both within itself and against an old foreign foe. Had this happened, perhaps Niagara County would now be part of the British Empire of Canada.