The Military Museums

Queenston Heights 1812

On 18 June 1812, at the height of the Napoleonic conflict, American President James Madison signed a declaration of war against Britain and struck at the only British possession on the continent: Canada.

Queenston Heights 1812

On 18 June 1812, at the height of the Napoleonic conflict, American President James Madison signed a declaration of war against Britain and struck at the only British possession on the continent: Canada.

Queenston Heights

Most of the battles that followed took place along the international border. The war ended in stalemate. The Treaty of Ghent, signed 24 December 1814, solved nothing, since the reasons for the war - British high-handedness on the high seas, including searching American ships during the Napoleonic blockade, had been rendered academic by France's defeat.

Yet Canada owes its present shape to negotiations that grew out of the peace, while the war itself - or the myths created by the war - gave Canadians their first sense of community.

War of 1812 - Introduction

Relations between the the Americans and the British had deteriorated during the early 1800's as Britain enforced its blockade against American shipping to France, which was further antagonized by the Royal Navy's use of impressment to seize American sailors to keep its ships fully crewed.

The declaration of war by the Americans on 18 June 1812 caught the British government by surprise, especially since it was still engaged in a war with France, and viewed the hostilities in America as more of a troublesome distraction.

As it turned out, neither side was particularly well prepared for a conflict, and the Americans were also at the time, overly optimistic that a war with Canada would be simply, "a mere matter of marching", as Thomas Jefferson famously wrote.

Initially, the British and Canadians were badly outnumbered by the Americans, but they were better prepared for war, thanks largely to the prescience of Major-General Sir Isaac Brock, administrator of Upper Canada.

The Americans felt that if they could move up the traditional Champlain-Richelieu invasion route, seize Montréal and cut the lifeline between Upper and Lower Canada, the war would be as good as over. Brock thought this impossible because his Indian allies, under the Shawnee war Chief Tecumseh, had the American Northwest frontier in ferment.

The bloodless British capture of a key US post at Michilimackinac on Lake Huron, on 17 July 1812 and of Detroit on 16 August, frustrated that strategy and gave the British control of Michigan territory and the Upper Mississippi. Lower Canada had the bulk of the British army and it would not fall easily.

War of 1812 - Sir Isaac Brock

Isaac Brock was a tall, unmarried career soldier with little actual battle experience, but he was anxious for action. He complained of being "buried in this inactive, remote corner" at a time when Napoleon was threatening.

To Brock the warning signs were ominous, "Every American newspaper teems with violent and hostile resolutions against England," he noted, "and associations are forming in every town for the ostensible purpose of attacking these provinces. I consider the time arrived when every loyal subject should... come forward and show his zeal for His Majesty's service."

Brock heard the news of the declaration of war while he was dining with American officers at Fort George. They finished the dinner in peace then withdrew to plan their mutual destruction.

In 1812, Canada had 500,000 people (some of whom had recently been Americans) to America's seven million. Brock had only 1,600 troops to defend a 1,200 mile border. And he had the same worries Guy Carleton had in 1774: Would the citizens fight the enemy or embrace them?

"My situation is most critical," Brock wrote to the adjutant-general in Montreal, "not from anything the enemy can do but from the disposition of the people – the population, believe me, is essentially bad – a full belief possesses them all that this province must inevitably succumb... Most of the people have lost all confidence. I, however, speak loud and look big."

It was difficult to look big given the state of affairs. To compound his problems there was rampant desertion in the Canadian militia, many of them going over to the Americans. Rather than spread his unreliable force in a thin, defensive pattern, Brock chose to assemble them and mount an audacious offensive.

War of 1812 - Bloodless Victory at Detroit

Brock’s target was Fort Detroit, defended by 2,000 men and an eight-day march away. It was a risk; in concentrating his army at Detroit, he left the rest of the province vulnerable to attack. Brock had 300 British regulars and 400 Canadian militia. His army was augmented by six hundred Indians under the leadership of Tecumseh, a stately, charismatic Shawnee chief who was heading a united resistance against American encroachment of Indian land.

Tecumseh's father and a brother had been killed in skirmishes with American settlers. Now he saw an opportunity to fight back. "Where today are the powerful tribes of our people? They have vanished before the avarice and oppression of the white man as snow before the summer sun. Will we let ourselves be destroyed in our turn without making an effort worthy of our race? Shall we without a struggle give up on our homes, our lands, the graves of our dead and everything that is dear and sacred to us? I know you will say with me, never. Never!"

Tecumseh and his 600 warriors from the Shawnee, Delaware, Kickapoo and Potawatomi met Brock's army and militia at Detroit. "It was an extraordinary spectacle to see all these aborigines assembled together at one time," wrote Thomas de Boucherville, a fur trader and volunteer in the militia, "some covered with vermillion, others with blue clay, and still others tattoos... from head to foot...

A European witnessing this strange spectacle for the first time would have thought... he was standing at the entrance to hell, with the gates thrown open to let the damned out for an hour's recreation on earth!" Tecumseh paraded his colourful warriors in front of Fort Detroit, three times to give the illusion of a larger force.

Brock had dressed his Canadian militia in discarded British uniforms to create the look of a professional army. Their attack relied heavily on bluff, something Brock had some experience with. As a young soldier, he had been provoked by a celebrated duelist, seeking to fight. Brock insisted that instead of the standard dueling distance, shots would be exchanged over a handkerchief. The duelist backed down and eventually left the regiment.

After assembling this theatrical force in view of Fort Detroit, Brock wrote a letter to the American commander, General William Hull. "Sir; it is far from my inclination to join a war of extermination, but you must be aware that the numerous body of Indians who have attached themselves to my troops will be beyond my control the moment the contest commences."

General Hull had civilians in the fort, among them his daughter and grandson. The spectre of an Indian massacre was entrenched in frontier mythology; it had an insistent power that conjured scenes of torture and hell. While Hull was pondering this vivid image, Brock pounded the fort with cannon fire.

Hull surrendered without a fight. An American observer wrote to President Madison that the whole fiasco was "the most weak, cowardly and imbecile" course of proceedings he had ever seen. Hull was court-martialed for cowardice and sentenced to death. "I have done what my conscience directed," he said. "I have saved Detroit and the Territory from the horrors of an Indian massacre." He was pardoned but died in disgrace.

Without risking a life, Brock had more than 2,200 prisoners, an armoury of muskets and cannon, and money to pay his men. Best of all, Brock's astounding victory raised hopes in Upper Canada and changed the attitude among the Canadians as their fragile patriotism was buoyed. "The militia have been inspired by the recent success with confidence," Brock wrote his brothers, "the disaffected are silenced."

But Brock knew that Detroit was a stolen victory and that a far greater contest was looming. Brock wrote: "You will hear of some decisive action in the course of a fortnight or in all probability we shall return to a state of tranquility. I say decisive because... should I be victorious I do not imagine the gentry from the other side will be anxious to return to the charge... and if I should be beaten the province is inevitably gone."

War of 1812 - Queenston Heights

Before dawn on 13 Oct 1812, the New York state militia launched an invasion across the treacherous currents of the Niagara River at Queenston, Upper Canada. At 4:00 o'clock in the morning, the garrison at Fort George, on the Niagara River, was awakened by the thunder of heavy guns.

Discovering a hidden path to the top of the escarpment, the Americans were able to seize a fieldwork from which a gun had been hampering the flow of reinforcements across the river and gain control of the battle. Brock didn't even wait for his aide, but galloped off alone into the night toward the sounds of fighting. He was anxious to determine if this was a real invasion or a diversionary tactic.

Across the Niagara River on the American side, Major John Lovett at Fort Grey was doing his best to pound the British defenses to pieces. Their national honour had been shaken by the taking of Detroit two months earlier and now the Americans were responding. "My battery pelted alternately upon the batteries and upon musketry on shore... On both sides fixed cannon, flying artillery and the roll of musketry... the mountain seemed to shake beneath the stride of death," Lovett wrote.

Major Lovett was a lawyer, occasional poet and pacifist who had never been in a battle. He viewed the war as a costly, inhumane waste. "If any man wants to see folly triumphant," he wrote to his friend John Alexander, "let him come here, let him view friends by friends stretched for hundreds of miles on these two shores, all loving and beloved; all desirous of harmony; all wounded by being coerced, by a hand unseen, to cut throats...".

"History, while recording our folly, will dress her pages in mourning, the showers of posterity's tears will fall in vain; for the sponge of time can never wipe this blot from the American name."

On the dark water below, American troops ran a gauntlet of musket fire trying to cross the river. Brock had his answer: this was a full-scale invasion of Upper Canada. In October of 1812 the Americans faced the same problem General Isaac Brock had faced months earlier – soldiers were deserting and some of them to the Canadian side. The war was unpopular, despite the expansionist fire being preached by congressmen.

It was clear that the war wouldn't live up to Thomas Jefferson's prediction of a "mere matter of marching." Instead, it would be a matter of killing and dying.

Major John Lovett didn't advertise the desertions for fear they would spark more. Nevertheless, he was committed to winning this misguided war, and ordered the bombardment of Queenston. By sunrise on 13 October, both sides were fully engaged.

"Day was just glimmering," wrote 21-year-old John Beverly Robinson, a law student and future Attorney General of Canada who had joined the Canadian militia. "The cannon from both sides roared incessantly; shells were bursting in the air, and the side of the mountain above Queenston was illuminated by the continual discharge of small arms."

The American attempt to cross the river was disastrous. They didn't have boats large enough to transport their heavy guns and the unfamiliar current played havoc with the boats they did send across. Musket fire from the Canadians cut them down before they beached. Under the United States constitution, American soldiers weren't required to fight on foreign soil. Some of the militia exercised that right and refused to cross. Still, almost 1,200 men made it to the Canadian side.

Under the command of the wounded Lieutenant-Colonel Solomon Van Rensselaer, the Americans were pinned below the cliffs that led up to Queenston Heights. They managed to find a fisherman's path up the cliff and Van Rensselaer sent his men up under the command of a young captain, with the order to shoot anyone who tried to retreat. They captured Queenston Heights and took the upper ground. The battle was turning in their favour.

At daybreak General Brock decided on a desperate counter- attack trying to recapture the high ground the Americans had taken. Brock believed the Queenston Heights was the key to Upper Canada; if it fell, the province would quickly follow.

War of 1812 - The Death of Sir Isaac Brock

Brock personally led a charge to regain the position. Brock's distinctive, scarlet uniform made him a natural target. A sniper shot him in the chest, killing him instantly. George Jarvis, a Canadian volunteer in Brock's regiment, saw the shot. "One of them... took deliberate aim and fired... and our gallant General fell... within a few feet of where I stood... "Are you much hurt Sir?" I inquired. He placed his hand on his breast and made no reply, and slowly sunk down." Brock had fallen, but the battle continued.

The fate of Upper Canada rested in the hands of a band of 80 Mohawk warriors waiting in the woods, surrounding Queenston Heights. They were led by Joseph Brant's son John and his adopted son John Norton who was half Scottish and half Cherokee. Norton had started the day with 300 warriors. Moving through the forest they had heard from retreating militia men that 6,000 Americans were at the Heights.

"Some Warriors answered – 'The more game the better hunting.'" Norton wrote in his journal. "These reports however had not the same effect upon all – many were alarmed thereby... we found ourselves much diminished in number by the imperceptible desertion of many; – there did not remain together more than 80 men, when coming to the Skirts of the Wood."

The Indians attacked repeatedly, retreating to the woods and regrouping. "Comrades and brothers," Norton yelled, "remember the fame of ancient warriors, whose breasts were never daunted by odds of number... we have found what we came for... there they are – it only remains to fight." Outnumbered 15 to one, Norton's warriors struck repeatedly. The Mohawk attacks prevented the Americans from digging in their defenses and helped win the battle.

War of 1812 - Victory for Upper Canada

About 2:00 o'clock in the afternoon on 13 October 1812, ten hours after the battle began, British and Canadian reinforcements started pouring into Queenston. Now a thousand strong with Norton's warriors on the flank, they broke cover and charged the Americans.

"The whole line opened fire on us... we rushed forward... and they ran," Norton later wrote in his journal. "From the side of the hill where they lay, they fired again. We came in upon them swiftly. They left their cannon and we raised the shout of victory."

As the American line broke and the soldiers ran in retreat, the American General Winfield Scott carried the flag of surrender himself. For the young Canadian militiaman John Beverly Robinson, the night's battle was a brutal introduction to war.

"They had no place to retreat to," Robinson wrote, "and were driven... to the brink of the mountain which overhangs the river. They fell in numbers... many leaped down the side of the mountain to avoid the horrors which pressed on them, and were dashed in pieces by the fall."

Major John Lovett encouraged his troops to cross the river but was unable to sway them. "The name of Indian," he wrote to his friend Joseph Alexander, "the sight of the wounded brought off, or the devil, or something else petrified them. Not a regiment, not a company, scarcely a man would go."

There would be no support or even rescue of those across the river. The Americans were pinned down below the cliffs, unsuccessfully trying to surrender. Twice, a soldier was sent out with a white flag and both times he was killed. Their capitulation was finally recognized before a wholesale slaughter occurred. Nine hundred twenty-five Americans were captured. No one is certain how many more were killed or wounded although estimates range as high as 500.

On the Canadian side there were only 14 dead and 70 wounded. Brock was counted among the fourteen. An ambitious soldier and brilliant tactician, he had personified the Canadian resistance and his death was a grievous loss. Brock was buried at Fort George as the British gunners fired a twenty-one gun salute. Across the river, the American guns at Fort Niagara matched the salute.

The young American Major Lovett, had survived the war. He watched the smoke of the guns disperse in the pale sky although he couldn't hear them. His day on the battery beside the guns had left him permanently deaf. "The 12th was all duty," he wrote again to Jason Alexander, "the 13th all death. My friend the scenes of war are trying... to body and soul... and where, where in God's name are they to end?"

The victory, following hard on Brock's bloodless capture of Detroit, did much to raise the morale of the inhabitants of Upper Canada and convince them that they could resist conquest by their larger neighbour to the south.

Brock is remembered as the Saviour of Upper Canada, and was revered by both English and French Canadians. In that critical first year of the war, he'd bought the province time and gave it a reason to fight and the heart to believe that the American invaders could be beaten. It was an invaluable legacy.

War of 1812 - Aftermath

In the months that followed the Battle at Queenston Heights, Sir George Prevost, who served both as Governor General and the Commander in Chief of British forces in Canada at the time, took over command of the British troops in Canada.

The British strategy was to act defensively and allow the invaders to make mistakes. Prevost deployed his thin forces carefully, a sensible precaution given the overwhelming numerical superiority of American forces.

As the campaign of 1813 opened, the invaders determined to seize Kingston to cut the link between Upper and Lower Canada. But a weakness of resolve diverted the attack to the lesser prize of York (Toronto).

The Americans briefly occupied the town, burning the public buildings and seizing valuable naval supplies destined for Lake Erie; but the British, by burning their half-completed warship, frustrated the enemy's plan to appropriate it and change the balance of naval power on Lake Ontario. Neither side totally controlled that lake for the balance of the war.

The Americans abandoned York and on 27 May 1813 their fleet seized Fort George at the mouth of the Niagara River. The British army escaped, however, repulsing the advance of the enemy up the Niagara peninsula by winning the battles at Stoney Creek and Beaver Dams, and driving the Americans back into the enclave of the fort. The US fared better on the western flank. The British tried and failed to take Harrison's stronghold at Fort Meigs on the Maumee River.

A struggle for control of Lake Erie followed. The two rival fleets, both built of green lumber on the spot, met 10 September 1813 at Put-in-Bay. The British were hampered by the American seizure of naval supplies at York the previous spring and by the loss, early in the battle, of several senior officers.

American commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, a bold seaman, used unorthodox tactics to turn defeat into victory and become the first man in history to capture an entire British fleet. Erie became an American lake, Detroit was abandoned, and the British retreated up the Thames River.

At Moraviantown, Harrison defeated Proctor. Tecumseh died in the battle, an event signaling the end of the northwestern Indian alliance. But Harrison, his lines extended, could not follow up his victory; his Kentuckians were eager to get back to their farms at harvest time.

Meanwhile, the US was mounting a two-pronged attack designed to take Montréal, but this was so halfhearted that it was foredoomed to failure. On the Châteauguay River on 26 October 1813, a handful of French Canadian voltigeurs under Lieutenant-Colonel Charles de Salaberry drove an American army of 4,000 back across the border.

At Crysler’s Farm (near Morrisburg, Ontario) on 11 November 1813, Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Wanton Morrison's regulars won a resounding victory over James Wilkinson's superior force, which also quit Canada. Thus the 1813 campaign ended with the Americans in possession of Ft Amherstburg on the Detroit River, and the British holding the two American forts, Niagara and Michilimackinac.

In 1814, the Americans again crossed the Niagara, seized Fort Erie on 3 July, and defeated the British at Chippawa on 5 July, but failed to retake Ft George. The bitter battle of Lundy’s Lane followed on 25 July 1814 within earshot of the Niagara cataract. Fought in the pitch dark of a sultry night by exhausted troops who could not tell friend from foe, it ended in stalemate.

The Americans withdrew to Fort Erie. Here they badly mauled the forces of the new British commander, Lieutenant-General Gordon Drummond, when he attempted a night attack (August 14-15). With both sides exhausted a three-month standoff followed. Finally, on 5 November 1814, the Americans again withdrew.

Meanwhile, Nova Scotia Lieutenant-Governor Sir John Sherbrooke led a force from Halifax into Maine, capturing Castine on 3 September. By mid-month British forces held much of Maine, which was returned to the US only with the signing of the peace treaty.

In the west, the Canadian voyageurs took Prairie du Chien on the Upper Mississippi and beat off an American attack on Michilimackinac, capturing two warships on Lake Huron. In the east, the story was different. With Napoleon defeated, the British army now outnumbered the thin American force at Plattsburgh on Lake Champlain.

Prevost marched south with 11,000 of Wellington's veterans but his hesitancy to attack - he was no Brock - together with the September 11 defeat of the hastily built British fleet in Plattsburgh Bay by the American commodore, Thomas Macdonough, caused Prevost to abort the ground attack and withdraw.

That single action tipped the scales, forcing the British peace negotiators at Ghent to lower their demands and accept the status quo. Had Prevost succeeded, much of upper New York State might be Canadian today. On the other hand, if the Americans had won the battle of Stoney Creek, or taken Montréal, much of Ontario and Québec - perhaps all - might now be under the Stars and Stripes.

Washington had expected the largely American population of Upper Canada to throw off the British yoke as soon as its army crossed the border. This did not happen. Lured northwards by free land and low taxes, the settlers wanted to be left alone. Nor was it wise after such a bitter war to advocate American political ideals, such as democracy and republicanism.

Thus the British and Loyalist elite were able to set Canadians on a different course from that of their former enemy. And the growing belief that they, the civilian soldiers, and not the Indians and British regulars, had won the war - more mythic than real - helped to germinate the seeds of nationalism in Canada.

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