When war was declared in the summer of 1812, the US had the idea that the Canadas could be seized in a very quick manner, a mere matter of marching. The idea was to launch several coordinated attacks across the borders. In the east General Dearborn would cross Lake Champlain and take Montreal, another attack would seize the British stronghold at Kingston. General Van Rensellaer would take the Niagara Peninsula, and General Hull would seize the western frontier at Amhurstburg. With these strong points secured, Quebec City and Halifax would be captured, and the British tied up with Napoleon in Europe would broker for peace quickly. At least that was the theory. Hull’s invasion of the western frontier was cut short when General Brock arrived, forcing him across the river, and then laid siege to Detroit. Hull surrendered Detroit rather than face the native warriors of Tecumseh. The attack on Kingston never materialized, and Dearborn’s army remained in Albany, NY. Van Rensellaer however was ready, but hampered by lack of troops and supplies to launch any attack on the well protected Niagara frontier. With Brock tied up in Detroit still, Van Rensellaer appealed to the much more cautious Lt. General Prevost and organized a cease fire along the Niagara River, including the restriction of British troop and supply movements. Brock returned to Fort George (his headquarters) by August to find the ceasefire in effect and his own plans of a pre-emptive strike against New York turned down by Prevost. By the time the ceasefire expired on September 8th, Brock was facing a much bigger and much better prepared American army across the river, and scrambled to deploy his own forces across the river.
Looking across at the Heights from Lewiston, NY. Close to where the American invasion was launched.
But the one thing Brock did not know was where the invasion force would land. British forces were stationed at (the still incomplete) Fort Erie, Chippawa, Queenston Heights, with a majority of the forces stationed at Fort George. Two failed crossings in October still had not revealed the American end-game, but by the early hours of October 13th, 1812 the target was clear, the Americans were heading for Queenston. Captain James Denis was in command of the forces at Queenston, he had the grenadier company of the 49th regiment of foot, elements of the 41st regiment of foot, along with the 2nd York Milita and the 5th Lincoln Militia, along with Royal Artillery manning the batteries at Queenston Heights, Vrooman’s and Brown Points. British sentries raised the alarm around 4am on the 13th, as the batteries opened fire making the already dangerous river crossing more deadly. The American guns stationed at Lewiston also opened fire on the British forces. American troops although initially held back soon overran the small detachment, finding a hidden path up to the heights seized the British batteries and secured their position. General Brock was awoken by the initial cannon fire, and rushed to Queenston, gathering Militia forces stationed along the river to bring into the fight. Upon arrival he found the militia and regulars in disarray. Brock tied up his horse and did what he did best, lead men. Drawing his sword he organized the shattered troops, and got out in front and led the charge to take back the heights directly in the line of fire coming from the heights. Now a British major general makes for an excellent target, and Brock resplendent in his red uniform with gold braid, a tall bicorn hat was just that. An American rifleman took the shot, striking the Saviour of Upper Canada killing him instantly. Brock’s Aide-Du-Camp, Lieutenant Colonel John Macdonell attempted to rally the troops for a second attempt but he was also struck down by American fire. The troops scattered. But the actions of John Norton’s native warriors and members of the British Indian Department kept the American’s pinned down at the heights allowing the time needed for General Sheaffe and the bulk of the British forces to arrive, but not from where the Americans were expecting. Sheaffe knew of another way up the heights, from the north swinging his troops around outside of the village of Queenston scaled the heights to attack the Americans from the rear. Surprise was on their side. It also helped that many of the American militia had refused to cross the river claiming it was against the Constitution (Militia were required to defend their country, but not to invade another).
Brock’s smaller monument, located approximatly where he fell during his initial charge on the heights.
Sheaffe’s troops through volley fire and use of bayonets were able to force the shattered American forces off the heights and back to the river’s edge, where their invasion boats were gone, many still on the other side of the river or destroyed during the initial crossing or during the fight. With ammunition and spirits low there was only one option left. Rather than face slaughter at the hands of the British and their Native allies, Lt. Colonel Scott formally surrendered to General Sheaffe as the sun was setting. With 300 killed or wounded on the American side, the British took over 1000 prisoners, themselves only suffering 28 dead and 77 wounded. Despite the loss of the much loved General Sir Isaac Brock (he had received his knighthood shortly after he had been killed) the massive victory against the Americans sealed the resolve to defend Upper Canada should the Americans tried to cross again.
A small weather worn marker, showing where Sheaffe’s relief force scaled the heights behind the American forces.
This past October I was able to participate in the re-enactment of this battle, one of the biggest in the first year of the War of 1812, with 500 British, 300 American reenactors taking the field, made it the largest such re-enactment in Canada to date. Also 250 British reenactors took the march from Fort George to the Heights to remember the same march that Sheaffe’s troops had taken that terrible day in 1812. A reader of my blog posted a video of the event in one of my earlier posts. You can view it below.
War of 1812 Battle of Queenston Heights Historic Re-enactment near Brock Monument from Peter Mykusz on Vimeo.
Written with files from:
Guidebook to the Historic Sites of the War of 1812 Second Edition by Gilbert Collins – 2006 The Dundurn Group Publishers
Contax G2 – Carl Zeiss Planar 2/45 T* – Efke KB50
Blazinal 1+50 9:00 @ 20C