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The battle & burning of York: America's first victory in the war of 1812.

After a number of reversals in the Niagara Peninsula, an American invasion force set its sights on the lightly defended capital of Upper Canada. The capture and brief occupation of York proved to be a major setback forthe British forces.

On the 26th of April 1813, ships of the United States Navy under the command of Commodore Isaac Chauncey were spotted by sentries just off the Scarborough Bluffs, east of the Town of York on Lake Ontario (what is now present-day Toronto). This fleet consisted of the corvette USS Madison, a brig and 12 schooners carrying an American infantry force of about 1,800 men under the command of Brigadier-General Zebulon Pike, the adjutant general of the US Army. Major-General Henry Dearborn, commander in chief of the American Army of the North, was also there to command the attack.

The target of this strike force was the Town of York and its naval dockyards, which held two ships of the Provincial Marine--the newly constructed brig Isaac Brock and the brig the Duke of Gloucester, which was undergoing repairs. The docks also contained the naval store and artillery intended for the British naval squadron being built on Lake Erie at Amherstburg.

This strike on York was intended as part of a much larger operation to capture the Town of Kingston, destroy its naval dockyards, capture or destroy the Provincial Marine Naval Squadron, and cut off the line of supply to the British Army in the western forts in Upper Canada.

MGen. Dearborn and Commodore Chauncey had received earlier intelligence that Kingston was heavily defended with a garrison of 6,000 British regular troops. Truth was Kingston's garrison consisted of 600 troops and 1,400 militia. Dearborn and Chauncey, however believed the exaggerated claim and changed their plans accordingly.

The Town of York, being the capital of Upper Canada and a main transit hub for the British Army's extended supply lines, was weakly garrisoned with two companies of the King's 8th of Foot, a company of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment of Fencible Infantry, a company of the Glengarry Light Infantry Fencibles, Royal Artillery, militia from the 3rd York Militia Regiment as well as dockyard workers and First Nations warriors from the Mississauga and Chippewa nations. In total, a force of about 700 to 900 troops were commanded by Major-General Sir Roger Sheaffe, lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada.

The defences around which Sheaffe could anchor his forces were the fort at York, built by Lieutenant-Governor John Simcoe in 1793, beside present-day Bathurst St. The Government House battery also mounted two 12-pounder guns west of the fort. Further west, the Western Battery manned two old condemned guns that had been mounted onto logs due to having their trunnions and castabels struck off. Further west of that location, in what is now the Canadian Nation Exhibitions Grounds, were the remains of Fort Rouille, the old French fort from the French and Indian Wars and a disused fortification known as the Half Moon Battery. There was also a blockhouse and battery built on Toronto Island, where the Toronto Island Airport now stands.

In the early morning hours of April 27, Chauncev manoeuvred his ships to engage the British batteries that defended York's harbour and positioned those ships carrying American infantry forces to land on the beach in front of what is now High Park. As the first wave of boats landed their troops, Major Forsyth's company from the US 1st Rifle Regiment came under attack by Aboriginals led by British Indian Department Agent James Givins. This Aboriginal force was successfully flanked and driven off to the north. Sheaffe ordered the Glengarry Light Infantry to support Givins' force, but for some reason they became lost and were directed north to Dundas St., having been misdirected by Aeneas Shaw, adjutant general of the Canadian militia.

Three more American infantry companies with supporting artillery were landed from Chauncey's ships, which were promptly attacked by the grenadier company of the King's 8th. This British force was driven off with heavy losses and retreated north past what is now known as Grenadier Pond in High Park. The remainder of the King's 8th and the Royal Newfoundland Fencibles were pushed back to the Western Battery, from which they tried to rally. It was then that a portable artillery magazine serving the battery exploded killing 20 and wounding a great many more. The remaining regulars fell back to the north of the fort, where the militia were forming up.

While BGen. Pike's forces pushed the British back on the town of York, Chauncey's ships pounded British defences with their long 24- and 32-pounder guns, forcing and entering the harbour. Sheafferealizing that further defensive efforts were futile, ordered his regulars to fall back to the east side of the Don River. He further ordered the burning of the Isaac Brock, and the destruction of the Grand Magazine on the western edge of the fort. He also released the militia and instructed the leading citizens to make the best terms they could and surrender the town to advancing US forces.

Sheaffe then commenced his retreat east to Kingston, which he reached 14 days later by road. Sheaffe was much criticized for his actions in the defence of York, a move which led to his removal as lieutenant-governor and from further military command. In his defence he did, however, save the bulk of his regular troops, which lived to fight another day.

As Pike and his troops cautiously entered the fort from the west, thinking it was still occupied as the garrison flag still flew, Pike was brought a British prisoner for questioning. At this time York's Grand Magazine exploded killing 38 and wounding 222, including Adjutant General of the US Army BGen. Pike, who was taken onboard the USS Madison, where he died the next day of his wounds.

With the fighting ended Colonel William Chewett and Major William Allen of the 3Rl York Militia along with Captain John Beverley Robinson, a local lawyer who would eventually become the Attorney General for Upper Canada, attempted to work out terms of surrender with MGen. Dearborn. The Americans were in no mood to negotiate, given the burning of the brig Isaac Brock and their military losses from the destruction of the Grand Magazine. However, at 4 pm the terms were made with Colonel Mitchell of the 3rd US Artillery, which were sent to Dearborn and Chauncey to ratify.

The Americans remained in York for the next five days and, while the surrender terms stated that private property was to be respected, a number of public buildings including the Upper Canadian Legislature were looted and burned. Nor did it stop the American troops from looting and burning empty houses. Though both Dearborn and Chauncey denounced these acts of looting, they did nothing to stop their men.

On 2nd of May the Americans boarded their fleet but were held in harbour by a storm until the 8th of May when they sailed back to Sackets Harbor to refit their ships and to prepare for their next military action against Fort George, which is located at the mouth of the Niagara River.

The Battle of York gave the Americans their first land victory in the War of 1812. It also had far-reaching consequences for both the American and British forces in southwestern Upper Canada.

With the loss of the artillery and supplies earmarked for the Provincial Marine Naval Squadron on Lake Erie, the British were defeated at the naval battle of Put in Bay on the 10th of September 1813, thereby forcing Major-General Henry Proctor to retreat back from Forts Amherstburg and Detroit. This would later lead to Proctor's defeat by General Henry Harrison at the Battle of Moravian town on the Thames River near Chatham and the death of Chief Tecumseh on October 5, 1813.

With the burning of York and later the burning of the Town of Newark (present-day Niagara-on-the-Lake), Governor Sir George Prevost ordered the British Navy to carry out retaliatory strikes on the American east coast that eventually led to the burning of Washington. By the fall of 1813, British and American troops were in no mood for the niceties of war, and by the end of 1814 both sides of the border in the Niagara region as well as large areas west of the Grand River had become, except for the movement of military forces, a no man's land.

York, Upper Canada, circa 1804. John Graves Simcoe, lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada, wanted to develop York at the expense of existing towns like Kingston and Niagara. He transferred soldiers to the site and had them build roads, but his plan was mocked by Upper Canadian merchants and finally thwarted by his superiors in both Canada and London, who disapproved of stationing troops in the middle of nowhere. In 1804, York was still an isolated village with a good harbour. (ELIZABETH FRANCES HALE, NATIONAL ARCHIVES OF CANADA, C-040137)
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Title Annotation:FEATURE
Author:Hurley, Michael
Publication:Esprit de Corps
Geographic Code:1CANA
Date:Dec 1, 2011
Words:1490
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