Search just our sites by using our customised site search engine

Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

History of Toronto and County of York in Ontario
Part I: Chapter XIX. The War of 1812-15

ON the 18th of June, 1812, war was declared against Britain by the United States ; as regards Canada it may well be called the War of Aggression. The States' Government knew well that Britain needed all her armaments for the gigantic struggle in which she was then engaged with the greatest soldier of the age. They calculated on over running Canada. A force of 25,000 regular troops was ordered to be enlisted by Congress. This was to be supported by 50.000 volunteers. General Dearborn, a veteran officer of the War of Independence, was appointed to command. Sir George Prevost at once ordered all Americans to quit Canada within fourteen days, and made a tour of observation along the St. Lawrence and lake frontier. He found the settlers of Upper Canada, all of them good marksmen and trained to fighting as well as farming, to a man ready to leave farming or clearing to the care of the women and boys, and to take the field in defence of their newly-settled country. Had the United States Government confined itself to fighting England, as was done with a fair amount of success by their spar-decked corvettes, on the high seas which were the original scene of the quarrel, the people of Canada might have felt some sympathy for a brave people subjected to the wanton insult of the right of search. But to strike at England through Canada, a country whose manifest destiny it was to grow up into a free nation, was felt to be mere aggression. The spirit of Lower Canada, too, was roused to resistance. The insolence, the squalor, the exaction of Montgomery's troops, whom their officers allowed to seize on the fanner s stores, and who never pretended to pay for anything except in their worthless paper money, were remembered with disgust. The clergy gave the whole weight of their influence, all-powerful as it was, to kindle the patriotic resolution for the defence of altar and hearth against a heretic, banditti. Although the Lower Canadian Assembly declined to pass an Alien Act, they gave a most liberal grant for organizing the militia, and for the general defence <>f the Province. The money so voted was to be raised in the form of bills, in order to prevent specie from being earned to the United Stated In Upper Canada, the Lieutenant-Governor had temporarily left the Province, having gone to England, leaving the administration of public affairs in the hands of Major-General Isaac Brock, a name which has become inseparably woven with our history. Though a comparatives young man, he had had much military experience, and was admirably fitted by nature and training for the difficult part he was now called upon to play. He had at first some difficulty in gaining the desired grant from the Legislature, which did not believe that war would ensue. But as soon as hostilities were declared, they cheerfully passed a very ample militia hill. There were then in Upper Canada 3050 regular troops ; in Lower Canada, 1450. The Governor-General informed Brock that no further aid need be expected from England for at least some months.

The war began with the capture of Fort Mackinac, (Michilhmackinac) by Captain Roberts, commandant (if the small military post of St. Joseph, on Lake Huron. Mackinac was surrendered without bloodshed. It was an important position, commanding the entrance to Lake Michigan. On July 12th, 1812, the American General Hull invaded the western peninsula of Upper Canada with 2,500 men. He occupied Sandwich, and issued a proclamation inviting the Canadians to join his standard, and "enjoy the blessings of peace and liberty," which he proceeded to illustrate by vaunting his country's alliance with war and despotism incarnate in the person of Napoleon I. Colonel St. George was stationed at the neighbouring town of Amherstburg with a force of about 300 regulars. Had Hull advanced at once, St. George must have been overpowered. But Hull delayed, sent small detachments which St. George defeated, aud meantime the Indians from Grand River poured in to St. George's support, and Brock advanced in force from Toronto. Hull now recrossed the river, and took up a position at Detroit. Among the Indians present in Brock's command was one of the most remarkable of Indian chiefs, Tecumseh. who in physique was a typical example of the strength and versatile dexterity which the wilderness sometimes developes in its children. He was born in the Miami Valley, and having distinguished himself in war and hunting became recognized as a chief of note among his countrymen. He devised a new scheme for uniting the Indians into a political confederacy under his sway. In concert with his brother, who claimed supernatural powers, he originated a religious movement, in part borrowed from Christianity but after some years the American troops attacked his town in Tecurnseh's absence. It was taken and destroyed, and this Mahomet of the Red Men had ever since hated the Americans with the implacable rancour characteristic of his race. In a council of war held opposite Detroit, Tecurnseh traced with his scalping knife on a piece of birch bark a rude plan of the defence of Detroit. Brock then crossed the river, and opened lire on Detroit, which he was on the point of assaulting, when General Hull signalled his wish to capitulate. Hull and all his regular troops were sent to Quebec as Prisoners of war. Brock returned in well-deserved triumph to York. But the Americans, anxious to efface the disgrace of Hull's unsoldierlike conduct, sent an army of 6,000 men to the Niagara frontier, with orders to the General in command, Van Rensellaer, to force his way through Brock's lines of defence, and establish himself on Canadian territory. The British and Canadian force for the defence of this entire frontier of tl uty-six miles was less than 2,000 men. The Americans succeeded in landing, after some opposition from a party of the 49th regiment under Captain Dennis, who was compelled to retreat. He was met by General Brock with his aide-decamp, Colonel McDonnell. Brock at once put himself at the head of six hundred men of the 49th, and, drawing his sword, led them to charge the Americans on the heights above. They advanced under a heavy fire, which killed several; among the first the gallant Brock. Infuriate at the fall of a leader universally beloved, the regulars and Canadian troops rushed up the hill, and swept before them a foe far superior in numbers. But the Americans were reinforced, and the British and Canadian force of three hundred, after a brilliant display of valour, had to retire. Meanwhile a vigorous attack had been made on General Scott's forces (he had succeeded Van Rensellaer) by a young Iroquois chief, John Brant, who came in command of a body of warriors from the Grand River Reserve. General Sheaffe now succeeded Brock, and after a sharp conflict for about half an hour, although with a force inferior in numbers, forced the enemy to surrender. Brock was side by side with the brave McDonnell, at Fort George, Niagara, the Americans as well as his own army firing minute guns during his funeral.

Dearborn now threatened to invade Lower Canada from his position at Plattsburg. General Prevost then called out the entire Lower Canadian militia, and his summons was obeyed w ith such enthusiasm that Dearborn gave up the proposed invasion as impracticable. Meanwhile General Smith, who now commanded the American force on the Niagara River, made several attempts to cross to the Canadian frontier, in ail of which he was so completely held in check by a much smaller force, that he had to skulk from his camp to avoid the anger of his own soldiers. These brave men deserved a more competent general. Ha was received m Buffalo with general execration, the very taverns being closed against him. He was soon after most deservedly cashiered. Meanwhile, in Congress, the representatives of Massachusetts, Connecticut, anil Rhode Island, who had refused to furnish militia for the war, were backed up by Maryland. Mr. Quincy denounced the war against Canada as piratical. "Since the invasion of the buccaneers," he said, "there has been nothing in history more disgraceful than this war." In 1813, once again the legislatures of both Upper and Lower Canada took ample measures to supply the Governor with funds for defence of the country. The campaign of this year opened with a victory of Colonel Proctor with five hundred regulars and six hundred Indians over General Winchester, in command of a detachment of General Harison's army. Winchester, with five hundred of Ins men, was taken prisoner. This checked Harrison's advance. For the rest of the campaign, raids were made with varying success on both sides, upon either bank of the St. Lawrence. Ogdensburg was taken by Major McDonnell, who crossed the frozen river with a force of regulars. Fort Presentation, with seven guns, four field pieces, and a considerable quantity of arms, ammunition, and other stores, was taken by Captain Jenkins and Captain Eustace. In the next campaign, Commander Chauncey sailed from his naval stronghold of Sackett's Harbour, with 1,600 regulars on board of fourteen vessels. These troops, under Brigadier Pike, landed, after some opposition, three miles west of York. Meanwhile the fleet opened fire on the very insignificant defences on shore, where Pike had succeeded in carrying the first battery. As he advanced, a tremendous explosion from the powder magazine shook the earth, and killed many, mortally wounding others, among whom was General Pike. It was impossible for General Sheaffe, with the force at his command, to resist the American invaders. He withdrew in orderly retreat to Kingston, leaving, for some inexplicable reason, Colonel Chewett with two hundred and ninety-three militia, who, after a hard-fought conflict of seven hours, surrendered. Having fired the town and destroyed what public stores were left, Chauncey, with reinforcements from Sackett's Harbour, made a descent on Niagara, where General Vincent, with but fourteen hundred men, held Fort George. Those who have visited the dismounted earthworks, where now the Niagara sheep, horses and children play m the casements and entrances, will have observed how completely it is exposed to the fire of the American Fort Niagara on the east side of the river. The fort now opened fire. Chauncey's ships poured in a shower of grapeshot and shell from the lake close by. After three hours' fighting, Vincent spiked his guns, blew up his magazine, and retreated to a position on Burlington Heights, near Hamilton. On the Detroit frontier, General Harrison, who, notwithstanding Winchester's defeat, wished to retake Detroit and Michigan, received a severe check from General Proctor, with a loss of seven hundred men. But Proctor's Indians wished to return home with their plunder, the militia were unwilling to sustain a siege, and he was thus compelled to leave Detroit, carrying with him his stores and munitions of war.

Sir James Yeo was now sent from England with a naval force of four hundred and fifty men. In concert with him, Prevost led an expedition against Sackett's Harbour, which was partially successful, and would have been completely so, had not Prevost, mistaking the dust raised by the fugitive Americans for the approach of another army, ordered a retreat; a disgraceful blunder for which he was deservedly condemned by public opinion. Dearborn wTas now established on the Niagara peninsula, where, however, he was held in check by the neighbourhood of Vincent, with his small army on Burlington Heights. Dearborn sent a force of six thousand regulars, two hundred and fifty cavalry, and nine field pieces, to attack Vincent. The latter resolved 011 a night attack upon the American camp, which was carelessly guarded. With but seven hundred men Vincent and Colonel Harvey surprised the camp, inflicted a heavy blow on the enemy, and took a hundred and twenty prisoners, with the Generals, Chandler and Winder. 'Dearborn now retreated to a position on Forty Mile Creek, whence Yeo's fleet soon forced him to fall back on Fort George, at Niagara. From thence Dearborn sent five hundred men, with fifty cavalry and ten held guns, to attack a British post at Beaver Dam, between Queenston and Thorold. Mrs. Secord, wife of one of the soldiers of Queenston, heard of this expedition, and the night before it took place, walked nineteen miles through the woods to give warning to Lieutenant Fitzgibbon, who at once communicated with the commanders of regulars and Indians in the vicinity, and prepared to give the Americans a warm reception. After a sharply contested struggle, the Americans surrendered to a force not half their number. Meanwhile, Vincent, by a skilful movement, extended his lines from Twelve Mile Creek to Queenston, thus isolating the four thousand Americans at Fort George to the narrow neck of land between river and lake.

But Chauncey had now built another ship of war at Sackett's Harbour, and had the superiority over Yeo's squadron. He attempted a descent on Vincent's depot of stores at Burlington, but was prevented from doing any mischief by the militia regiment from Glengarry, which marched from Toronto to Burlington. They thus, however, left York unprotected. Chauncey sailed thither, burned down the barracks and stores, and set free 9 the prisoners from the jail. Thus was the Provincial capital twice captured during this war of piratical raids. The Americans now put forth all the resources of their powerful country m order to stem the tide of Canadian success. Commodore Perry, with a well-equipped ileet of craft, outnumbering by ten the British squadron, and carrying guns of far heavier metal, encountered the British squadron, under the command of Captain Barclay, off Put in Bay, on Lake' Erie. The British ships were embarrassed by the insensate measure of having more landsmen than sailors on board. The fight began at a quarter before twelve, and continued till half-past two, during which time fortune seemed to favour Barclay's fleet. Perry's flagship, the Lawrence, being injured by the British fire, he went on board the Niagara. Soon after this the Lawrence struck its colours. But so defective was the equipment of Barclay's ships that there was not even a boat to enable him to board his prize. A change of wind, which occurred at the crisis of the fight, enabled Perry to get at the weather-side of the British ships, into which he poured such a deadly fire that, the officers being all killed or wounded, a third of the crew killed, and the vessels unmanageable, the entire squadron of Barclay surrendered. Perry showed the courtesy due from one brave man to another, to Barclay, whom he released on parole. The defeat and loss of the ships was a severe blow to General Proctor, who was now compelled to retreat. Having destroyed the fortifications of Arnherstburg and Detroit, he now commenced his disastrous retreat. His army consisted of eight hundred and thirty men, with an auxiliary force of 1,200 Indians, under the chief Tecumseh. General ^Harrison followed in pursuit with three thousand men, among whom were included one thousand dragoons and mounted Kentucky riflemen. Near Chatham, Harrison overtook Proctor's rear guard, and captured all his stores and ammunition. The only resource for Proctor now was to try the fortune of a battle. The ground he chose seems to have been well selected. Those who have visited and examined the field will remember that at this point the river banks are steep, descending some twenty feet to the water. There is still a swamp among the remains of the woods a few hundred yards from the river. The intervening ground is now level and open ; it was then covered with lofty trees. Proctor's left wing wras protected by the river, and strengthened by a field-piece ; part of his centre and all the right wing were defended effectually by a swamp; in the swamp, lurking in their usual manner behind trees, were a large body of Indians, with Tecumseh. The battle may be said to have begun and ended with a charge which General Harrison ordered to be instantly made by Colonel Johnson with the mounted Kentucky riflemen. To ordinary cavalry the ground, swampy as it was, would have been most unfavourable, but the Kentucky horsemen had been from boyhood accustomed to ride at full speed through the forests and swamps of their own state. They swept in full fareer on the British ranks before they had time to discharge a third volley.-The soldiers, exhausted by forced marches and hunger, were no match for fresh troops, well supplied with everything, and flushed with Perry's recent victory. The battle was lost. Proctor fled ignominiotrsly, as did his men. nor did neither stop utill they reached the shelter of Burlington Heights. Meanwhile Tecumseh and his Indians kept up a galling fire from behind trees in the swamp. The American Colonel's horse was shot, and he fell with it to the ground. A chief, conspicuous for his plume of eagle's feathers, rushed forward, knife in hand, to scalp him. Johnson drew a pistol and shot the Indian dead. He believed that he had shot Tecumseh, but his having done so is, to say the least, very doubtful. It is certain, however,, that Fecumseh was slam at the battle of the Thames, though his body was never found. The site of the battle is now marked by the site of a house, opposite the Indian village of Moravian Town, and formerly used as a tavern. It is now a farm house called the Red House.

Proctor's force was scattered to the winds. Some two hundred and twenty, with the General, answered to their names next day at Burlington Heights. Harrison set fire to the village of the unoffending Christian Indians under care of the Moravians. It has since been rebuilt, and still retains its name, a reminiscence not to be set aside of the good work done among the Indians by the "Unitas Emirum" For his. conduct on this occasion General Proctor was brought to a court martial, severely censured, 'and fined six months' pay.

But in Lower Canada the British arms had more success. Colonel Taylor, with his gunboats manned by artilerymen from one of his regiments, attacked the American naval force on Lake Champlain, and in a fight closely contested on both sides, all but annihilated the American naval power on that lake. In the same campaign two victories took place, each of which more than compensated for the rout of Proctor's army at Moravian Town—the battles of Chateauguay and Chrysler's Farm.

On September 20th, 1813, the American General Hampton, with a well-equipped army of five thousand infantry and cavalry, advanced towards Montreal by a road leading through the village of Odelltown. There was then a forest swamp of about fifteen miles square,which Colonel De Salabern , with his corps of Voltigeurs, had during the year before rendered impracticable by abattis. On account of these obstructions, Hampton changed his direction westward by the banks of the Chateauguay River. Colonel De Salaberry took up a position with his small force of four hundred men in a thick wood on the banks of this river, constructing breastworks of felled trees, and covering his front and right wing with an abattis; his left wing being sufficiently defended by the river. There was a small ford, which he commanded with a breastwork outpost. He rightly judged that, at whatever odds, this point ought to be defended against an invading enemy; for it was the only position where a stand could advantageously be made, all the rest fctfifig open ground as far as the St. Lawrence. On October 24th, Hampton advanced with three thousand five hundred men, led by General Izard. He sent Colonel Purdy, with a brigade, to march by a detour and attack the British in the rear. But Purdy got lost in the woods, and did not arrive in time. De Salaberry placed his men in extended order along the breastwork in front of their line, with orders not to fire till he discharged his own rifle as a signal. The Americans advanced in open columns of sections to within musket shot, when De Salaberry gave the signal by firing his rifle, with which he brought down a mounted officer among the enemy's line. A hot fire was now poured into the dense columns of the Americans. They wheeled into line and attempted to reply, without much effect. De Salaberry now tried a ruse which Dr. Ryerson compares to Gideon's ruse de querre described in the Book of Judges. He stationed his buglers as far apart as possible, and ordered tlieni to sound the advance. 1 his caused a panic among Hampton's troops, who thought that large reinforcements were about to aid the British. At the same time Purdy had been encountered by two companies of De Salaberry's men, who completely routed his force. General Hampton, disconcerted" at the failure of Purdy to execute his orders, and not daring, though with a force so immensely superior, to attack the breastwork and abattis with the bayonet, withdrew in good order. Thus did this gallant French Canadian soldier, with a force of less than four hundred, defeat an American army of several thousand strong. Well may Lower Canada be proud of De Salaberry's memory, and honour those who bear his name at this day.

Meantime, Wilkinson, with an army of nine thousand Americans, had moved from Sackett's Harbour, intending to take Kingston, form a junction with Hampton, and march 011 Montreal. But finding that Kingston was now garrisoned by ten thousand men, under General De Rottenburg, he did not attack it, but carried his army in three hundred boats down the St. Lawrence. Within three miles of Prescott he landed on the American side, m order to avoid the British batteries at that place, while his fleet of barges passed them in the night.

By this time a force of 800 regulars and militia, had been sent from Kingston to follow Wilkinson's movements. On the 10th of November this corps of observation came up with Boyd's division of Wilkinson's army, consisting of between three and four thousand men, at Chryskr's Point. The British took up a position, the right flank resting on the river, the left on a dense growth of pine wood. A general engagement took place, during which the British stood firm against a charge of an entire regiment of American cavalry, whom they met with a tire so hot that the cavalry were driven to retreat in confusion. At half-past four in the afternoon the entire American force withdrew from the field. Such was the battle of Chrysler's Farm, the most elaborate military display of the war. On the Niagara frontier, the American General, McClure, after ravaging the surrounding country, by the barbarous orders of Congress, set fire to the village of Newark (Niagara). The darkness of the night of December 10th. 1813, was lit up by the flames of the burning houses, the women and children were turned, shelterless, upon the snow. Of course reprisals followed this outrage ; General Riail surprised and gave to the flames the American towns of Buffalo and Lewiston, and the worst passions of warfare being now aroused, both armies marched torch in band.

The Assembly of Lower Canada which met n the next year (1814) impeached several of Governor Craig's subordinates as having been accomplices in his unconstitutional acts, more especially in the mission of the spy and traitor, John Henry, through whose agency, before the war of 1812, Craig had tried to sow disunion in some of the northern States. No definite result, however, followed. In the spring of 1814, Colonel Williams, with a force of 1.500 men, was attacked unsuccessfully by General Wilkinson with 4,000 Americans. The British General Drummond captured Oswego in May, but Commodore Yeo sustained a defeat in the same month, when endeavouring to cut out some boats laden with stores, at Sackett's Harbour. In the. Niagara district, General Riall having been reinforced from Toronto, resolved to assume the offensive against General Brown in the neighbourhood of Chippewa. Brown's force amounted to over 4,000. On July 25th, 1814, the battle of Lundy's Lane was fought. At first the British were worsted, and their general, Riall was taken prisoner. But the arrival of General Drummond from Toronto with a force of 800 men turned the scale, and the Americans made a hasty retreat to Fort Brie. After the victory of the British at Toulouse and the abdication of Napoleon, troops could be spared for service in Canada, and 1,600 of Wellington's veterans were sent over. Sir George Prevost, however, disgracefully rnismanaged the abundant means thus placed at his disposal. He attacked Plattsburg with 11,000 men, and after some idle manoeuvring withdrew before a force of 1,500 Americans. For this misconduct he was to have been tried by court martial, but death saved him from the disgrace it might have inflicted.

In the Niagara district, General Brown compelled the British General, Drummond, to return to Burlington Heights. Drummond being supported by Commodore Yeo with a squadron on Lake Ontario, compelled Brown to withdraw from Fort Frie, and to retire beyond the river. On December 24th, 1815. this weary and unnatural war ended by the Treaty of Ghent, and the sword drawn for fratricide was sheathed, never, God grant it, to be drawn again.

Return to Book Index Page

This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus