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A Revolutionary soldier’s life at Fort Oswegatchie

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If you were a British soldier serving at Fort Oswegatchie (present day Ogdensburg) during the American Revolution, duty on the shores of the St. Lawrence River could be monotonous, cold and difficult on the stomach.

The meals at Fort Oswegatchie were never going to win anyone a spot on the Food Channel.

A report by Adjutant John Ferguson to British headquarters in Quebec reported that the provisions on hand at Fort Oswegatchie for the winter of 1779 included14,862 pounds of flour, 8,446 pounds of salt pork, 3,860 quarts of peas, 1,003 pounds of butter, and 1,400 pounds of oatmeal.

Ferguson estimated that he could feed the 50 men at the fort for 297 days with the flour, 295 days with the pork, 359 days with the peas, 373 days with the butter and 393 days with the oatmeal.

That basically translated into a diet of half a pound of salt pork and a pound of flour, peas and oatmeal each day, which was why the soldiers spent as much time as they could off-duty hunting, fishing and tending to their personal gardens to supplement the dreariness of their daily rations.

For the British soldiers living at Fort Oswegatchie, life at a fort on the frontier was hardly luxurious.

The barracks were divided into rooms with six to 12 enlisted men to a room. A straw-stuffed bed case measuring six feet by seven and a half feet, large enough for two men to sleep together, was issued for each wooden berth.

Soldiers received 36 pounds of straw every three months to stuff their bed case.

Each room was issued six rugs, 12 blankets, one iron pot, one bale for the pot, one trowel, a pair of tongs, one fire shovel, one iron candlestick, one table and one axe.

A pair of clean sheets were issued every 30 days for each bed. Soldiers were charged two pence for the service.

From Nov. 1 to April 30, a one-pound candle or oil and a half cord of wood were issued for every room.

Between May 1 and Oct. 31, the wood allowance was a quarter cord per week.

Captains were entitled to one room.

Two subalterns shared one room. The commissary of stores and provisions, the chaplain, the surgeon major, the apothecary and the barrack master each had a room.

The barrack chimneys were swept once a month. Soldiers could earn three shillings for each cord of wood they cut and brought back to the fort and piled properly.

The soldiers at Fort Oswegatchie had several major responsibilities.

■ Work with the Oswegatchie Indians and other tribes on the St. Lawrence River to keep them loyal to the Crown.

■ Accompany the Oswegatchie Indians on periodic expeditions into the Mohawk Valley to spy on the Americans and keep tabs on their plans.

■ Launch attacks with the Indians against the Americans in the Mohawk Valley to force the rebels to station troops and devote supplies to protecting the region. Destroy the mills and farms that were being used to feed the American Army.

■ Protect the British shipments that traveled up the St. Lawrence River to Fort Haldimand on Carleton Island off the shore of Cape Vincent where Lake Ontario empties into the St. Lawrence River.

Governor General Sir Frederick Haldimand had ordered the construction of a British fort in what’s now Jefferson County to serve as a supply depot for the British forts on the Great Lakes and to help protect the St. Lawrence River from an invasion by the Americans.

With cannon overlooking the steep sides of Carleton Island, Fort Haldimand offered a commanding view of both the St. Lawrence and Lake Ontario in case the American rebels attempted to duplicate Sir Jeffrey Amherst’s invasion in 1760 through Oswego and down the St. Lawrence River to capture Montreal.

For the British outposts along the Great Lakes, Fort Oswegatchie played a critical role in protecting their supply line since every musket ball, pound of gunpowder, cannonball and blanket had to be shipped from London across the ocean and up the St. Lawrence River to the British forts at places like Niagara and Detroit.

James E. Reagen is a former managing editor of The Journal and Advance News. He is the author of “Warriors of La Presentation” and “Fort Oswegatchie.” He is currently employed by the New York State Senate.

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