Memorial Day 2015, Dryden, New York.

Thank you all for coming together on this solemn day of remembrance.

One hundred fifty years ago, Dryden residents were celebrating the end of the Civil War, cheered by the return of many who came back but kept somber by the memory of those who did not.

200 years ago, Dryden residents had reached the end of a previous war. The War of 1812 is largely forgotten today, so forgotten that New York State decided not to put tourism dollars toward commemorating its bicentennial. Why did this forgotten war happen? Great Britain still saw us as a wayward colony. Britain didn't want Americans trading with Britain's enemy, Napoleonic France. The British refused to recognize American citizenship, impressing sailors off our vessels to stock their navy. Continuing British support for Native American ambitions added American expansionists to those supporting the war.

Two centuries ago, Dryden residents in particular had reason to remember a battle near the start of the war, Queenston Heights. Former President Thomas Jefferson had claimed that conquering Canada would be "a mere matter of marching". Taking this advice to heart, Americans tried repeatedly to cross the Niagara River and invade what is today Ontario. 1812 so far had been a disaster, but the American army hoped to close the year by seizing the Niagara peninsula.

In 1812, Dryden was still getting settled, with stumps littering the fields for years to come. The Dryden militia, which assembled once a year for training, volunteered on August 26th rather than wait for the draft.

Major General Stephen Van Rensselaer, appointed to his command by Governor Daniel Tompkins, for whom this county is named, called troops to the Niagara area, and the Dryden men, led by Captain Peleg Ellis, marched, arriving September 1st as part of a larger Cayuga County contingent. Their new commanders' response was "hope they brought tents." The Dryden men patrolled the Niagara Falls area until they were called to Lewiston on October 12th. They were one small group in over four thousand militia, and five thousand troops.

On the morning of the 13th, 300 American regulars seized a beachhead on the Canadian side of the river, but were discovered. With the help of a second wave, they scaled the cliffs and seized a key artillery piece. British and Canadian troops arrived, and in a strange series of charges, they lost their commanding general, Isaac Brock - and then his second-in-command made the same charge with the same result.

The Dryden men were among the few state militia who actually crossed the river. They joined the third wave, and were optimistic, though still under artillery fire. George Goodrich's Centennial History of Dryden tells the story well:

"As the Dryden company were crossing the Niagara river to the Canada side, Stephen B. June, impressed with the importance of the occasion and boiling over with the true martial spirit, arose in his boat and swinging his hat defiantly called out as the watchwords of the expedition: "Death, Hell, or Canada." ....

Aaron Cass, one of the Dryden company, from near Ellis Hollow, was struck on the head by a British cannon ball and instantly killed while the regiment was crossing the Niagara river in boats to take part in the battle of Queenston."

The rest of the battle did not go well. British regulars, Canadian militia, and the Grand River Nations - Iroquois who had left New York after the Revolution - regrouped and drove the Americans back to the river bank, capturing everyone who hadn't crossed back.

The Dryden militia had had a difficult time too, though details are scarce. After the battle, to quote Goodrich again,

"Not seeing his townsman, Stephen B. June, among the prisoners, Captain Ellis went back on the battle field to look him up, and after searching found him very severely wounded by a ball....

Finding that June was alive and still conscious, although fearfully wounded, Captain Ellis asked him which it was now, "Death, Hell, or Canada," to which the wounded soldier feebly but firmly replied: "I can't tell quite yet, Captain, which it is, but when the British bullet struck me I thought I had them all three at once."

June, unlike Cass, lived to return home, as did his brother Stephen June, Peleg Ellis, Aaron Genung, Marcus Palmerton, Jonathan Luce, George McCutcheon and Peter Snyder.

60 Americans died at Queenston, including Aaron Cass.

I'd like to pause for a moment to remember, to reflect on what we know of Cass, the first Dryden resident we know of to die fighting for this country. He was 51 years old and had ten children. 1812 wasn't his first war - when he was 17, he had served as a private in the American Revolution. Originally from Connecticut, Cass came to Dryden from Ulster County in 1805, pioneering two farms on Ellis Hollow Road. One of his ten children, Josiah, was supposed to have gone with the militia and couldn't, so Aaron went as his substitute. We don't seem to know where Aaron Cass was buried.

Since we can't visit Cass's grave, I'd like to suggest that you consider visiting Lewiston and Queenston. Walk in the places the old Dryden militia saw and try to see it through their far-distant eyes. The Dryden militia apparently spent more time at this war - "leaving but fourteen able-bodied men in the township," according to Goodrich, but we know little about it. Memorial Day seems like the right day to ask why we lose these memories so easily., and preserve the memories we can.

The United States had other victories, largely on water, and other losses, largely on land. You might remember the British burning the White House, though the most permanent memory of the War of 1812 came from Francis Scott Key, who penned The Star-Spangled Banner after the bombardment of Fort McHenry.


For more, see the larger presentation.