Major General Stephen Van Rensselaer was given a mission: He was to lead an American invasion force against the British at the Pillage of Queenston, Ont., across from Lewiston, in the month of October 1812.
Major General Henry Dearborn ordered him to raise 1,000 militia from New York. He had all the odds in his favor: He would outnumber the British with a force of 6,000 regular army troops and militia. The British would defend with a mere force of regular army troops, Canadian Militia and Indians from the Iroquois Nation, totaling 2,000. How could he lose? All the major general had to do was cross the Niagara River, gain the village of Queenston, and secure the Heights. And here is the tragedy of such arrogance.
The Village of Queenston, Ont., formed the epicenter of the portage route from Lake Ontario, through Fort George, Chippawa and Fort Erie. Whatever supplies, civilian or military personnel, or war material passed along this route, passed through this sleepy Canadian town. The military planners of the day decided that whoever controlled Queenston and the adjoining Heights commanded the portage route between the Great Lakes and the British forts. The Americans could strike boldly, secure the Heights, divide the British forces, and deliver a hammer and anvil strike, catching the British between Montreal and the western edge of Lake Ontario. Van Rensselaer could divide Upper Canada and threaten Lower Canada with an aggressive American fighting force. Or so it seemed.
The common American foot soldier had much to gain if the invasion became successful. After all, this War of 1812 was a war of land acquisition. Ontario offered hundreds of square miles of ripe and rich farmland. All they had to do is "march to Canada" and the land would be theirs, thought many militia men from Tennessee, Kentucky, and Ohio.
The Americans also firmly believed other misconceptions about the British: There were only a few elements of the English 41st and the 49th Foot guarding Fort George and nearby Queenston; the Canadian militia were mainly farmers who enjoyed playing "soldier on the weekends"; and the Mohawk Indians would join the side that was winning. Many of the settlers in Ontario had once been Americans who emigrated to Canada to acquire free land. All they had to do was to swear allegiance to the King. Wouldn't these new Canadians welcome their American cousins into their land? And besides, those English were due for payback because they had harassed American shipping, interrupted war trade with France, kidnapped and even killed many American sailors. And the English were responsible for stirring up the Indians, encouraging them to attack and to murder settlers who moved in the western territory. There were many motivations for the ordinary American soldier to fight in Ontario.
The Americans were poorly officered. The militia of officers and the regular army officers did not cooperate or communicate with each other. Regular army officers felt they did not have to carry out any orders given them by their militia counterparts. General Smyth of the U.S. Army was to attack Fort George, across from Fort Niagara, as part of a simultaneous action against Queenston. He refused to lead his men against the British simply because a militia officer had ordered him to do so. Mayor General Stephen Van Rensselaer ordered his cousin, Major General Solomon Van Rensselaer, a militia officer, to lead the attack at Queenston. Many U.S. Army officers refused to fight if he led the attack. And many regular troops refused to fight as well. But there were many fine leaders from the U.S. Army who eagerly took up the fight: Captain John Ellis Wool, Lt. Col. Christie, Lt. Col. Fenwick, and Lt. Col. Winfield Scott.
Major General Isaac Brock commanded the fighting forces in Upper Canada. He was born to a military family and joined the army at the age of 16. He underwent his baptism under fire in the Netherlands in 1799. He came to Ontario with his 49th Foot Regiment some years later. Brock rose to Commander in Chief of all fighting forces in 1811. He accepted the responsibility of the defense of Upper Canada. If the Americans were led by poor army officers, the British were blessed with Brock. He coordinated the Lincoln Militia and the York Volunteers with his 41st and 49th Foot Regiment regulars. He developed a rapport, a trust, and mutual respect with his Mohawk allies, and gave them the opportunity to gain glory in combat, to use their woodcraft skills and knowledge of the terrain. Brock even used a company of escaped slaves from America in his forces. African-American soldiers numbering about 25 formed Captain Robert Runchy's Company of Colored Men. They were noted as expert axemen and could be counted upon under fire.
Brock also used a detachment of elite fighting forces, sort of special fighting forces of the day. Brock also surrounded himself with fine British officers who could withstand any heat the Americans might try to generate. But Brock had his own fatal flaw: He was too impetuous a military leader. This fault would become a tragic one.
Major General Solomon Van Rensselaer and his attacking force of about 600 (300 militia and 300 regulars) waited several hours in the freezing rain and drizzle of the fall morning of Oct. 13, 1812. At 3 a.m., the first wave of American militia and regular army troops shoved off from the shore in their bateaux and other smaller boats at Lewiston, and paddled with murderous intent toward the Canadian side of the swirling and rain-swollen Niagara River.
Major General Brock had given orders to men standing watch to be wakeful and watch the river. Captain James Dennis, British commander of a grenadier company, was first to detect the American invading force and began firing into their boats. The Americans established a beachhead on the Canadian shore, but at a huge cost. Major General Van Rensselaer was shot six times himself; eight officers and 45 enlisted men were also wounded from the first wave alone. Then, the British opened up with their 18-pounder artillery guns from Vrooman's Point. And Fort George's artillery immediately began shelling Fort Niagara. English 3-pounder (grasshopper) artillery pieces quickly found the range of the American boatmen and began to blow them out of the water. Men and shattered pieces of boats were hurled into the air amid flames, bursting flintlock fire, and deadly, exploding canister balls fired from a battery of artillery pieces. Smoke and acrid gunpowder shrouded the scene amid the backdrop of dark night, the raging Niagara River, and the cries of the wounded. We can only imagine the sight of streaking, whizzing cannonballs, exploding canister shot, and the deafening roar of 18-pound artillery guns designed to sink ships or blast holes in stone walls.
Within a few moments of landing, the American cause was clearly in peril. Newly commissioned Captain James Ellis Wool, U.S. Army 13th Infantry Division, took command from Van Rensselaer and quickly consolidated his position. He developed a plan of attack. His situation: 300 feet of sheer rock cliff was in front of him, and British regulars and militia were firing into his right flank. He also was facing the 18-pounder artillery piece that could shoot straight down his throat. At this moment, Lt. John Gansevoort, a U.S. Army artillery officer, told Capt. Wool of a little-known fisherman's trail that traversed the Heights and came out at the summit. It was narrow and muddy from the rain, but it was also unguarded by the British.
Capt. Wool ordered 100 men to keep up covering fire against the British grenadiers while he led the majority of his forces up the fisherman's trail in total silence. It was unguarded by the British. At the summit, Capt. Wool ordered his men to form skirmish lines and fix bayonets. Upon his order to fire, the men fired and advanced with their deadly weapons. The
English did not even know the Americans had come up the Heights and were at their backs! The charge was glorious and successful; the British were swept off the hill. An alert artilleryman spiked the 18-pounder so the Americans could not easily use it against them. Even Major General Brock himself was one of the fleeing redcoats who sought shelter and safety among the trees of Queenston Heights.
The situation had clearly changed for the British. They were now at peril of losing everything. The Americans commanded the Heights and owned the silenced 18-pounder. The Americans had cut the portage route. The Americans now fixed the British against Lake Ontario. The Americans separated Fort Erie and Chippawa from Fort George. The Americans could burn the Village of Queenston and slaughter its citizens. The Americans could now draw a bead on the Village of Newark (now Niagara-on-the-Lake) and take Fort George as well. Would the English be finished in Upper Canada?
The Defender of Upper Canada needed to act. Brock, covered in mud, mounted a horse and virtually flew through the Village of Queenston. Soldiers from the 49th Foot cheered him as they saw their "savior." Brock could not wait for reinforcements to fight their way through the Americans. Brock gathered elements of his beloved 49th Foot and his favorite militia group: the York Volunteers. "Catch your breath, lads," Brock said before he led them back up the Heights into the American guns. In true storybook fashion, Brock led a charge of 200 redcoats at early dawn's light up the Heights. He was in front of this regiment, urging them to clear the Americans off the hill.
Major General Isaac Brock was shot through the chest by a Kentucky sharpshooter in the counterattack at the Heights. "There are more redcoats than honeybees on a sugar maple coming up this here hill!" commented one of the American shooters.
With Brock killed, Lt. Col. John Macdonell of the 49th Foot took 50 men to charge the hill again and avenge the "savior's" death. Macdonell and his horse were dispatched by American rifleballs. Captain Dennis of the grenadiers and Captain John Williams of the 49th were seriously wounded. The impetuous counterattack failed.
Command of the British forces now fell to Major General Roger H. Sheaffe. Lacking Brock's passion for quick action, Sheaffe coldly studied his situation and his options. He wanted to have all of the odds in his favor before acting. He commanded both the 41st and 49th Regiments, (about 1,000 regulars), the militia, about 100 Indians, and the Company of Colored Men. He devised a plan involving deception and maneuver.
Sheaffe led his main contingent of forces inland and away from Vrooman's Point. He hoped to link up with reinforcements from Chippawa. He would circle back and fire into the American rearguard position. Meanwhile, the Mohawk Indians, under the leadership of John Brant, Captain Jacob and John Norton, led a frontal assault upon the Americans. The Indians' tomahawks, knives and flintlocks were no match for the American rapid-firing flintlocks and organized bayonet attacks. They fell back and regrouped for another assault.
Again, the 3-pounder artillery guns blasted into the American right rear flank. And the Mohawk contingent was able to move to the left of the American position. By 3 p.m., just 12 hours after the battle began, Sheaffe merged with a detachment of troops from Chippawa and attacked the American right flank. With the order to fix bayonets, fire, and advance, the Americans buckled under Sheaffe's charge. About 125 U.S. infantry, 14 artillerymen, and 296 militia broke ranks and stampeded to boats they thought were waiting for them at the bottom of the Heights, some 300 feet below to the water's edge.
There were no boats. The terrified boatmen never returned to the Canadian shore to gather up any wounded troops. Rather than face death or a forced march to Montreal to a military prisoner of war camp, many hurled themselves into the Niagara River from the Heights.
On the American side of the Niagara River, fear and panic swelled among the troops. Militia members refused to reinforce their brothers in arms on the Canadian side. "Militia was not required to fight on foreign shores" was the excuse many used for not fighting. Boatmen were terrified to return to the Canadian shore in daylight, because the gunners were blasting the boats out of the water at will. Many boatmen fled. Many officers and militia officers exhorted their men to rejoin the fight. Shamefully, men ran away, hid in bushes, deserted in the face of sure annihilation.
For the Americans, 90 men were killed, 150 were wounded, and 30 men later died of war wounds. In all, 925 men were captured by a far less superior defending force. Worst of all, the Americans failed to gain the objective of securing the Heights. For the British, 14 men were killed and 77 were wounded. Five Mohawk Indians were killed and nine Mohawks were wounded.
But the British lost their great commander, Major General Isaac Brock. For many people living in Ontario, the Battle of Queenston Heights convinced them that the Americans could be beaten in an armed conflict. Many of the undecided citizens joined the British cause and bolstered the Canadian defense.
The Americans learned many great lessons from the battle. Night attacks over water were impossible for untrained troops to sustain. Available manpower had to be used more effectively. Experienced boatmen were needed to handle boats. Officers needed to be in charge of loading and unloading boats during the invasion. Better generalship was needed in war: Van Rensselaer could not rally his troops to fight and conquer the British. Brock was a formidable general who could lead and direct his forces under adversity.
But, most of all, this tragedy of an invasion should never have happened. General Stephen Van Rensselaer was blamed for the defeat and resigned his commission in the New York State Militia. He returned home to Albany in disgrace.
DENNIS W. CAISSE works as a school media specialist at Newfane High School. He has a master's degree in education from Niagara University, a master's degree in library science from the State University of New York at Buffalo, and a Certificate of Administration and Supervision from the State University College at Buffalo.
He served with Company A, 42nd Aviation Battalion, 42nd Infantry Division of the New York State Army National Guard during the Vietnam War era.
He lives in Lockport with his wife, Carol, and daughter, Vannessa, and is writing a historical fiction piece set on the Niagara Frontier during the War of 1812.