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History of the York Rangers
Chapter V

How General Sheaffe put the quietus on the Yorks

THE trouble was that under the circumstances York was indefensible and that General Sheaffe allowed the militia and some regulars to be involved in a defense, which was meaningless. For it is meaningless to defend a place that, after taking, the enemy could not hold if it would and would not if it could.

A good description of what York was and how it was fortified is to be found in Coffin’s “Chronicle of the War.”

“In April 1813, the town was a scattered collection of low-roofed villas, embowered in apple orchards. An old French Fort or earthwork constructed to resist the Indians, stood on the shore of the lake about a mile from the inhabited part of the Ray. Two embrasured field works, dignified by the name of batteries, covered the entry to the harbour. These works were armed with three old French twenty-four pound guns, captured in 1760; the trunions had been knocked off at the time, but, for the nonce, they had been exhumed from the sand and clamped down upon pine logs, extemporised as carriages. The town was entirely open in the rear and on the flank.”

Well on the 25th of April, 1813, Commodore Chauncev, having for the time the command of the lake, sailed from Sackett’s Harbour for York with a fleet of some fifteen sail, having on board Generals Dearborn and Pike and a force variously estimated by historians at from sixteen hundred to five thousand troops.

Videttes had been long before posted in constant watch on Scarborough Heights with orders to fire alarm guns and on sight of a hostile fleet to ride into town. The alarm came late on the evening of April 26th.

Now according to Coffin, who was a relative of Sir Roger Sheaffe, “Sheaffe’s first duty as a soldier and as a general looking to the defence of his military command was to abandon a place never intended to have been defended and to preserve his force for the protection of the country. The capture of this detachment at this time would have been an irretrievable loss and in its effects, fatal to the province.”

It was this duty of abandonment, which Sir Roger Sheaffe performed in a fashion that endangered his regulars, disqualified the militia for the rest of the campaign, caused the burning of the parliament buildings and ruined Sheaffe’s own reputation as a soldier. Unless he purposed to match brown-bess muskets against the guns of a fleet—he must have known he could not prevent a landing and the capture of the ridiculous fortifications. But as it was he frittered away what fighting chance there was by allowing his force to be engaged and beaten in detail. First, Major Givens with about forty Indians and a few inhabitants of the town not enrolled for military duty, then about sixty Glengarry Fencibles, then some two hundred and twenty militia, and fifty of the Newfoundland Regiment, then two companies of the 8th Regiment (about two hundred strong)— these in succession were dribbled in to withstand a landing force upwards of one thousand strong. Meanwhile General Shaw, with forty men and a six pounder held the line of Dundas Street and never got into action.

The blowing up of a magazine2 killed General Pike and some two hundred Americans along with some of the defenders. Having set fire to a ship that was on the stocks, General Sheaffe retreated with the remains of his force to Kingston.

The bitter part of it was that having been permitted by Sheaffe to throw themselves into the contest with enthusiasm, the militia were allowed to save their homes by surrendering the town to an enemy exasperated by their stiff resistance and by the death of Pike and the destruction of stores. As Sheaffe puts it, “Lieut.-Col. Chewett and Major Allan of the militia were instructed to treat with the American commanders for terms.” The negotiations were conducted largely by John Strachan (sometime Bishop of Toronto) assisted by Lieut. John Beverley Robinson, acting Attorney-General.

A curious statement appears in Auchinleck’s “History of the War,” as follow's: “The defence of the town being no longer practicable, a surrender necessarily followed by which it was stipulated that the militia and others attached to the British military and naval service who had been captured should be paroled; that private property of every kind should be respected and that all public stores should be given up to the captors. 'We have italicised the words, ‘who had been captured,’ as the Americans got possession of the militia rolls and included amongst the list of prisoners on parole many who had never laid down their arms and whom it was never contemplated to include in the list.”

This statement is borne out by the fact that the list printed in the histories8 includes at least one name that does not appear in the original orderly room copy of the terms of capitulation. And this name is that of our famous fighting lieutenant of Selby’s Company, Reuben Richardson lately hero of Detroit and Queenston Heights, and now in cold blood surrendered by insertion.

Of the cavalier wnty in which General Dearborn treated his conquest and his prisoners, and how Dr. Straehan bullied the Americans into observing the terms of capitulation (after they had burned the public buildings) we need say no more than that the reverend doctor and future prelate for clear headed intrepidity carries off the chief honours on the British side.

Decidedly it would have been better if General Sheaffe had on sight of the American fleet burned his stores, carried oil' all his troops, including the York Volunteers, and left Dr. Strachan to surrender the town without a futile contest. But being a personally brave and mentally inconclusive man, Sheiffe could on this occasion neither fight nor refrain from fighting but salved his conscience with a resistance the utility of which does not appear. For the enemy having won a complete victory and captured York on April 27th, 1813, evacuated York on May 2nd, 1813, which in legal parlance constitutes—Four clear days.

Surgeon Lieut.-Col. R. M. Hillary, Hon. Major A. Gillies, Quartermaster, Major A. Elliott, Musketry Instructor, Hon. Major J. E. Knox, Paymaster

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