The Queen’s York Rangers: Canada’s Historic Regiment Stewart Bull & David Schimmelpenninck van der Oye Please do not quote or cite without my permission
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The Crown awards regiments with honours to commemorate distinguished performance in a battle or campaign.1 Emblazoned on the guidon of a cavalry regiment or the colours in the infantry,2 they remind serving members of their unit’s proud heritage as well as honouring their predecessors who fell in those engagements. Based on the British practice, the Canadian army began the custom shortly after Confederation and continues it to this day, most recently with the distinction “Afghanistan” for those regiments that participated in that theatre in the early twenty first century. Although some were granted for the Fenian Raids of 1870, the earliest battle honour on the standard of an existing regiment are for those who participated in the Northwest Campaign of 1885, which includes the Queen’s York Rangers.
Until 2012, DND did not consider any engagements before 1867, no matter how important to Canada. That year, to observe the bicentenary of the War of 1812, it also began to award battle honours for the successors of units in that conflict.
1 J. R. Grodzinski, "The System of Battle Honours in the Canadian Army," http://regimentalrogue.com/battlehonours/grod_btlhnrs.htm.; Department of National Defence, "Battle Honours and Honorary
Distinctions: Process of Perpetuation," http://regimentalrogue.com/battlehonours/DND_Fact_Sheet_Battle_Honours_and_ Honorary_Distinctions.htm.
2 In the Canadian Army, battle honours are only awarded to armour and infantry regiments. The service of artillery and engineer units is recognised with the Latin word “ubique,” meaning “everywhere. Department of National Defence, “Battle Honours.”
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Among those who were distinguished with the most honours were the Queen’s York Rangers, whose Guidon will bear four of them, for Queenston, Detroit, Niagara, and the Defence of Canada 1812-1815. They commemorate the service of several units in the York County militia in the conflict, which today’s Regiment perpetuates.
The militia dates to the earliest days of European settlement in North America. As in the days of New France, the British authorities expected Canada’s local population to share the burden of colonial defence. Upper Canada’s first lieutenant governor, John Graves Simcoe regularized its organisation in his province by setting up units for each county shortly after taking office. They were commanded by County Lieutenants, typically prominent landowners who were chosen for their “loyalty, ability and discretion” (tavern keepers were not eligible).3 Meanwhile, with some exceptions, all males between 16 and 50 (raised to 60 in 1794) were liable for military service.
The lieutenant governor planned to provide his militiamen with weapons, but did not have any uniforms for them.4 He did eventually allow officers to outfit themselves with uniforms at their own expense, according to a standard pattern: scarlet tunic with gold buttons and blue facings, white waistcoat, linen or woollen
3 Simcoe, Correspondence, 1, 245. 4 Simcoe, Correspondence, 1, 247.
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trousers, or breeches and leggings. Those who had formerly served as a regular and were now on half pay could keep their old uniforms until they wore out.5
Simcoe wanted the militia to undergo basic training, but this proved impractical since most colonists lived on isolated farms and were busy clearing and cultivating their land. Therefore, the militia were to be assembled and drilled at least twice a year. In practice, this occurred only once a year, on King George’s birthday (June 4). That day, a region’s men gathered for some parade ground exercises, perhaps a marksmanship competition, and a feu de joie for the King. It was not a particularly onerous duty, with the accent as much on socialising as on honing martial skills, and the proceedings invariably concluded with pints at the local tavern.6
Simcoe appointed Æneas Shaw to be his first York County Lieutenant, who was succeeded by another Ranger officer, David Smith, in 1798. Smith would go on to organise the regiment of the Home (York) County, which at the time covered a much larger area that stretched from Burlington Bay to Whitby and Lake Ontario to Lake Simcoe. Many of the unit’s officers were former Rangers as well.7 They were
5 Simcoe, Correspondence, 2, 342.
6 William Gray, Soldiers of the King: The Upper Canadian Militia 1812-1815 (Toronto: Boston Mills Press, 1995). 32. Ely Player’s Diary, 14 June 1802, 1804, 1812, Public Archives of Ontario (hereafter PAO).
7 Jackson, Queen’s Rangers, 79-80.
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posted to ten companies in various locations throughout the county, each of which had an alarm post where the men would assemble in case of emergency.8
The first was the war scare of 1794, when Simcoe called out the Essex and Kent militia to help defend Fort Miami and Detroit against General Wayne. Three years later when the colony itself seemed in danger of American attack, York County’s Lieutenant assembled his entire militia and asked one quarter to volunteer for active service. In the event the danger passed and the men were stood down.9
War clouds gathered over the border with the republic once again in 1812.10 Jay’s treaty had settled many of the outstanding differences between Britain and the United States fifteen years earlier, but the ongoing fighting in Europe was causing new tensions. In its effort to choke Napoleon’s empire in Europe, London had imposed an economic blockade on the continent’s ports, thereby closing an important market to American commerce. Other irritants included the Royal Navy’s impressment of American sailors suspected of being deserters as well as concerns that British gold was supporting Native resistance to American settlement of the
8 Firth, Town of York, 67.
9 Firth, Town of York, 68.
10 The standard Canadian account of the War of 1812 remains J. Mackay Hitsman, The Incredible War of 1812: A Military History (Toronto: Robin Brass Studio, 1965; repr., 1999). For a reliable briefer history, see Wesley Turner, The War of 1812: The War That Both Sides Won (Toronto: Dundurn, 2000).
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Ohio Country. But it was the desire to conquer Canada that most encouraged Americans to go to war against Great Britain.
It looked straightforward. All of British North America counted some 300,000 souls, compared to nearly 8,000,000 US citizens.11 Meanwhile, the British were hardly in a position spare men and materiel to defend their overseas colony since they were engaged in the desperate struggle against Napoleon much closer to home. Former U.S. president Thomas Jefferson famously declared, “the acquisition of Canada...will be a mere matter of marching.”12
The advantage was not all America’s. Despite its much larger population, the republic’s army was puny. As of January 1812, the regular force had an effective strength of 4,000 men largely commanded by superannuated Revolutionary War veterans. To the north, 5,600 battle hardened Redcoats faced them, while Britain’s Provincial Marine dominated the Great Lakes. In theory, the Lilliputian US Army could be supplemented by 80,000 militia from the states. However, its soldiers hardly constituted a disciplined fighting force.13 As their generals would discover, many of them were distinctly unenthusiastic about shedding blood for the Old Glory, and some readily invoked their constitutional right not to cross international borders even in the midst of battle. Meanwhile, the native population tended to
11 Alan Taylor, The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels & Indian Allies (New York: Vintage Books, 2010). 140.
12 Taylor, Civil War, 140.
13 Hitsman, Incredible War of 1812, 31-45.
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favour the British, a sentiment that grew stronger as white American settlers began to encroach upon their lands west of the Ohio River; the Iroquois word for their president remains “town destroyer.”14
The British also had a formidable weapon in Upper Canada’s commander, Major-General Isaac Brock.15 Born in Guernsey, Brock had risen rapidly to become the commanding officer of the 49th Regiment of Foot. He already stood out as a subaltern. Shortly after joining 49th, another officer, who was the regimental bully, forced him to fight a duel. Since Brock was the one being challenged, he could choose both the weapon and the terms. Brock decided on a pistol, which horrified his friends, since Brock was large and his opponent was a crack shot. But they couldn’t persuade him to change his mind. When the two met, the duellist asked Brock how many paces they should take apart from each other. Brock answered “over the space of a handkerchief,” in other words, face-to-face. His opponent didn’t like the odds and declined. Such was the disgrace that he had to leave the regiment, and Brock earned the respect of his fellow officers.
Brock’s first overseas posting was in the Caribbean, and in 1799 he led the 49th in the Anglo-Russian campaign in Holland against the French during the War of the Second Coalition. That October, at Egmond-aan-Zee, as the French were about to
14 Jonathon Riley, A Matter of Honour: The Life, Campaigns and Generalship of Isaac Brock (Montreal: Robin Brass Studio, 2011). 138.
15 Written by former deputy commander of NATO’s ISAF in Afghanistan, Riley’s Matter of Honour examines Brock’s life from the perspective of a fellow British general.
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turn the regiment’s flank, the officer audaciously repelled the move by leading six companies across the dunes in a vigorous counter attack that repulsed the foe. His commanding officer thought the move a bid foolhardy, but it did help save the day.
Brock was transferred to Canada in 1802. First stationed in Quebec, he did much to strengthen the garrison’s defences. Eight years later, Brock was posted to Upper Canada, and in 1812 he was promoted to the rank of Major General. Since its Lieutenant Governor was away, Brock also became to province’s civilian administrator. The general was conscious of Upper Canada’s precarious strategic position. Sparsely populated with less than 80,000 European inhabitants, the province was defended by 1,000 men of the 41st Foot and another 800 British regulars who guarded a frontier that stretched 1,300 kilometres from Kingston to Lake Superior.16
Brock also commanded 11,000 provincial militiamen on paper. However, only a few hundred had been trained and the bulk were unreliable. Canada’s Governor, Lieutenant-General Sir George Prevost, cautioned him, “it might be prudent to arm no more than 4,000” of them.17
What made the situation even more tenuous was the fact that more than half of the King’s subjects in the province were recent American immigrants of doubtful loyalty. Along with the indigenous Native population, Upper Canada had been
16 Riley, Matter of Honour, 181-2.
17 Hitsman, Incredible War of 1812, 36.
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initially settled by the French. After 1783, many Loyalists also made their home there. But more recently, many Americans had migrated north because of the young province’s cheap land. By 1812, these “late Loyalists” made up about 60% of Upper Canada’s population.18
Brock knew that Upper Canada was not Prevost’s priority. While the governor expected the Americans to strike at the province first if it came to war, his primary objective was securing Quebec. Not only did Brock’s urgent requests for more men and supplies generally fall on deaf ears, but Prevost strictly forbade him to take any measures that might provoke the republic, whose Congress was now dominated by “War Hawks” thirsting for a fight. London was of a similar mind as the governor. The Prince Regent ordered Prevost to refrain from offensive operations, “except it be for the purpose of preventing or repelling Hostilities or unavoidable emergencies.”19
When General Brock took up his new posting in York, he worked hard to improve the province’s defences. One important reform was the Militia Act of 1812, which required every regiment in Upper Canada to provide two flank companies to act as auxiliaries of the regular forces.20 Each of these companies was to consist of
18 Taylor, Civil War, 56-63.
19 Hitsman, Incredible Civil War, 41-3.
20 William Wood, ed. Select British Documents of the Canadian War of 1812, 3 vols., vol. 1, The Publications of the Champlain Society (Toronto: Champlain Society, 1920). 375-385.
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100 men between the ages of 18 and 45, all volunteers, or if necessary, chosen by ballot. Because of their special responsibilities, they would devote at least one week a month to train in drill, musketry and bayonet fighting. Brock remarked, “It is my earnest wish that the little the men have to learn may be acquired by way of a pastime, and not looked upon in the light of an irksome restraint.”21 In addition to a pair of flank companies, the militia regiments would also eventually field a cavalry troop and an artillery battery, much like the combined arms unit Simcoe had commanded during the Revolutionary War.
President James Madison declared war on Great Britain on June 19, 1812. It would take five days for the news to reach Montreal, and another for Brock to learn about it. Major-General Henry Dearborn, who commanded the American campaign, planned a three-prong attack on Canada. His main thrust would drive north from Albany to Montreal, preceded by diversionary assaults on Detroit and Niagara. Writing half a century later, an American historian remarked,
The originators of this campaign seem to have forgotten the costly and disastrous lessons of 1775-’76, when a similar attempt to invade, conquer and liberate Canada was made, and similar expectations of welcome were indulged.22
21 Hitsman, Incredible War, 40.
22 Benson J. Lossing, The Pictoral Field-Book of the War of 1812 (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1868). 251.
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Prevost once again urged Brock not to take the initiative. The governor cautioned him, “Our numbers would not justify offensive operations being undertaken,” but he qualified this by adding “unless they were solely calculated to strengthen the defensive attitude.”23 Whether Prevost meant this as a hint or not, Brock took it as one. After some hesitation, he ordered Captain Charles Roberts, the commander of the tiny garrison at St Joseph Island on Lake Huron’s northwestern tip, to seize the larger American fort on Mackinac (Michilimackinac) Island 64 kilometres southwest.
Together with a force of some 600 Natives and fur traders, Captain Roberts and his troops sailed to Mackinac on July 16 and reached the island before dawn the following morning. Quietly disembarking, Roberts placed a six-pounder on a hill overlooking the fort while he ostentatiously deployed his Native allies and the troops in battle formation well in view of the Americans. Their commander had not yet gotten word that his country was at war. Outnumbered more than ten-to-one, he quickly surrendered. Without firing a shot, Roberts took control of the fort that guarded access to the upper Great Lakes. The move also did much to raise Britain’s prestige in the eyes of the First Nations.
Captain Roberts had not been the only to act. A few days earlier, the American Brigadier General William Hull had led a 1,500 man force from Detroit across the river towards the village of Sandwich (Windsor). It was a bloodless
23 in Hitsman, Incredible War, 63.
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operation. The local garrison at Ft. Amherstburg downriver consisted of only 250 regulars, and while the Essex and Kent County militia numbered 600 men, they refused to engage in any fighting. As a result, the British commander prudently withdrew, yielding the village to the Americans. Hull immediately issued a proclamation to the local population:
Being children...of the same family with us, and heirs to the same heritage, the arrival of an army of Friends must be hailed by you with a cordial welcome. You will be emancipated from Tyranny and oppression and restored to the dignified station of freemen...If, contrary to your own interest & the just expectation of my country you should take part in the approaching contest, you will be considered and treated as enemies, and the horrors and calamities of War will stalk you.24
But the general failed to follow up his bombast with decisive action. In truth, the 60-year-old Revolutionary War veteran had taken up his command reluctantly and had little stomach for combat. Instead of advancing towards Amherstburg, he summoned his senior officers to a council of war – a time honoured ploy for prevarication - while stationing his men in a defensive position around Sandwich. There were occasional skirmishes, but for the next few weeks Hull’s troops stayed put on the pretext of waiting for heavy guns. Then, on August 7, he learned that
24 in Wood, Select British Documents, 1, 356.
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Brock was marching towards his position and withdrew the bulk of his army back across the river.
Upper Canada’s commander had been anything but inactive. The news that the Americans had crossed into his province initially depressed his spirits. He wrote Prevost, “Numbers have already joined the invading army, commotions are excited, and the late occurrences at Sandwich have spread a general gloom.”25 In another letter, he reported that his efforts to mobilise the legislature’s support for the war effort were fruitless and most of its members cowards,
The House of Assembly have refused to do any one thing they were required - The truth is that...everybody considers the fate of the country as already decided and is afraid to appear conspicuous, in the promotion of measures in the least calculated to retard the catastrophe.26
Brock confided to the governor’s adjutant that there was every reason for despondency, “The population...is essentially bad. A full belief possesses them all that this Province must eventually succumb.” But he refused to give up. “Most of the people have lost all confidence – I, however, speak loud and look big.”27
Fortunately, General Brock could rely on York County’s militia. By 1812 the Home County’s growing population called for three militia regiments, two of which
25 in Wood, Select British Documents, 1, 379.
26 in Wood, Select British Documents, 1, 408.
27 in Wood, Select British Documents, 1, 366-67.
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are perpetuated by the Queen’s York Rangers. Based in the county’s north and centre, these were The First and Third York Regiments, respectively. Meanwhile, the Second York Regiment was based around Burlington Bay.
Unlike the politicians, the Home County’s militia listened to the general when he spoke loud and looked big. One officer with the 3rd Yorks, Lieutenant John Beverly Robinson, recalled, “it would have required more courage to refuse to follow General Brock than to go with him, wherever he would lead.”28 When war was declared, the York Regiment’s soldiers rallied to the Union Jack, as did several former Queen’s Rangers. Lieutenant-Colonel Æneas Shaw offered his services to Brock, who appointed him Commander of the First Division of Militia and Adjutant- General of all of Upper Canada’s militia. Major James Givins, another Ranger veteran, became the general’s provincial aide.
In early August, Brock called out the entire York Militia to Garrison Commons and announced that he was planning to confront General Hull. The Yorks responded so enthusiastically to his call for volunteers that he had to turn many away. To lead them, the general appointed Captain Stephen Heward of the 3rd Yorks, who was joined by Lieutenants Robinson and Jarvie from his regiment as well as Lieutenant Richardson of the 1st Yorks. At the same time, Samuel Jarvis, an ensign in Captain Heward’s company, was seconded to the 41st Foot.
28 In A. T. Hunter, History of the 12th Regiment, York Rangers (Toronto: Murray Printing Company, ca. 1912).
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Brock was confident the Yorks were ready. Shortly before their departure, Captain Heward wrote in the regimental order book,
Major-General Brock has desired me to acquaint the detachment under my command of his high approbation of their orderly conduct and good discipline while under arms; that their exercise and marching far exceeded any that he had seen in the province. And in particular he directed me to acquaint the officers how much he is pleased with their appearance in uniform and the perfect knowledge of their duty.29
The general set off on August 5. Together with 240 militia and 40 regulars he marched 120 kilometres to Port Dover near Long Point, where he convinced another 500 militiamen to join the expedition. Some 400 boarded bateaux and sailed for Amherstburg, while the rest marched overland. The five day voyage on Lake Erie’s waters was slow and laborious. Heavy rainstorms pounded the leaky, open vessels, which required constant bailing. At night the troops, who had not yet been issued tents, bivouacked on the rocky lakeshore, at times improvising with bark covers to keep dry.30 At last the soldiers landed at the fort on August 13, where they rested, dried out, and cleaned their weapons.
29 Henry Scadding, Toronto of Old (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1966). 39.
30 The diary entries for the trip of one volunteer were published. See Hunter, History of the 12th Regiment, 19-20.
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Brock understood the importance First Nation support in his struggle against the United States.31 The previous autumn the Shawnee leader Tecumseh, who sought to unite the First Nations against American predations of their home lands, had approached the general offering an alliance. Brock eagerly took him up, and the coalition bore fruit at Amherstburg, where Tecumseh arrived with 600 warriors. Tecumseh soon proved his worth when he ambushed a force of Ohio militia at Brownstone Creek on American territory and captured documents that revealed great dissention amongst Hull’s officers. Brock already had detailed information about the garrison at Detroit, since a chest of Hull’s correspondence had fallen into British hands in June. 32
Before sunrise, August 16, Tecumseh led his men back into Michigan while Brock’s force of 330 regulars and 400 militia landed closer to Detroit. The general faced a formidable challenge since Hull commanded 2,500 troops, 33 guns, all protected by the well built fort. To give the appearance of a much larger army, Brock had issued cast off scarlet jackets to the militia and he applied additional psychological pressure by asking Tecumseh to make repeated probing attacks.
31 He already wrote about this in a strategic survey for Prevost shortly upon arriving at York. See Wood, Select British Documents, 1, 273.
32 Richard Feltoe, Call to Arms: The 1812 Invasions of Upper Canada, Upper Canada Preserved War of 1812 (Toronto: Dundurn, 2012). 49, 61.
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Brock knew that Americans were still terrified of Native warriors. Under a flag of truce, he sent Hull a letter calling on him to surrender, which concluded ominously,
It is far from my intention to join in a war of extermination, but you must be aware, that the numerous body of Indians who have attached themselves to my troops, will be beyond control the minute the contest commences.
Feigning courage, the American general replied, “I am prepared to meet any force at your disposal.”33
Over time the loud Native war cries that continued to come from seemingly everywhere outside the fort’s walls combined with repeated barrages by British artillery on the left bank to wear down the garrison’s resolve. Soon American militia began to abandon their posts. When one cannonball crashed into the officer’s mess killing four, Hull lost all hope and raised the white standard. While Brock permitted the militia to be paroled back home, Hull’s capitulation yielded close to 600 regulars as prisoners of war. It also provided ample supplies of weapons, ammunition and other equipment to the Upper Canadian militia, although its men still had no uniforms.34 Most important, Brock’s victory emboldened the province’s population by demonstrating that the Americans were not so formidable after all.
33 in Wood, Selected British Documents, 1, 461. 34 Feltoe, Call to Arms, 64-5.
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According to a British prize list of soldiers entitled to share in the property captured in Detroit, about 100 York volunteers took part in the actual operation.35 Lieutenant Robinson proudly described their journey after his return,
This body of men consisted of farmers, mechanics and gentlemen, who before that time had not been accustomed to any exposure unusual with persons of the same description in other countries. They marched on foot and travelled in boats and vessels, nearly six hundred miles in going and return, in the hottest part of the year, sleeping occasionally on the ground and drenched in rain, but not a man was left behind in consequence.36
After a brief respite to tend to their own affairs, the York Volunteers were sent to the Niagara frontier, where Brock correctly predicted the Americans would attack next. He posted 20 men from the 1st Yorks at Brown’s Point on the Niagara River north of Queenston, and 40 3rd Yorks in the village itself. Other militia and regulars, mainly from the 49th Foot, stood guard at Vrooman’s point, Chippewa, Ft. Erie, as well as Queenston, while the main body was at Ft George, just outside Newark. Altogether, they numbered about 1,900.37
On the river’s other bank, Major General Stephen van Rensselaer fielded 6,700 Americans, including 2,500 regulars. Like Hull, Rensselaer had not accepted
35 in Wood, Selected British Documents, 1, 474. 36 in Hunter, History of the 12th Regiment, 21.
37 Feltoe, Call to Arms, 92. The author conveniently provides the order of battle of both sides.
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his command enthusiastically. Politician rather than soldier, he had opposed the war against Britain. And, as at Detroit, his militia were reluctant to see action. Meanwhile, Brigadier General Alexander Smythe, who led 1,600 regulars, had no respect for his superior and did his best to act independently. In fact, when Rensselaer proposed an assault on Ft George, Smythe refused to support him. Rensselaer therefore decided to launch his attack upstream, at Queenston.38
Dawn had not yet risen on October 13, 1812, when at 0430 hours the Americans began to cross the river. Their progress was slow, since they only had 13 bateaux that held about 30 men each. Rowing in the dark, in the Niagara River’s strong current, some landed downstream from their intended rendezvous at Queenston. Heavy fire from the 49th Foot’s muskets and artillery took its toll on the invaders, but most of them made it to the right bank.
The sound of the guns awoke Captain Duncan Cameron, who commanded the York Volunteers at Brown’s Point. He immediately roused his men and sent Lieutenant Jarvis on horseback to warn General Brock at Fort George. Jarvis had not gotten very far when he met the general riding towards Queenston. As Cameron’s men began marching towards the battle’s noise, Brock galloped past them. Here he may well have called out “Push on, the York Volunteers.”39
38 Robert Malcomson, A Very Brilliant Affair: The Battle of Queenston Heights, 1812 (Toronto: Robin Brass Studio, 2003). 110-11, 117-18.
39 This is an attempt to account for the apocryphal story that Brock uttered these words when he fell at Queenston Heights. He certainly did not say them on being
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When Brock arrived at Queenston shortly after 0700, he was dismayed to discover that the enemy had already managed to scale the heights above the village and seized the guns. Anxious to keep the enemy from consolidating, Brock put himself at the head of the 49th Foot’s light company and charged up the incline. George Jarvis, a fifteen-year-old “gentleman volunteer” with the 49th, was at the general’s side. “Ere long he was singled out by one of them, who... took deliberate aim and fired,” Jarvis recalled,
several of the men noticed the action and fired – but too late – and our gallant General fell on his left side, within a few feet from where I stood. Running up to him I enquired, ‘Are you much hurt, Sir? He placed his hand on his breast and made no reply and sunk down.40
The assault collapsed.
At this point about thirty men from the 3rd Yorks arrived with Captain Cameron. Lieutenant Colonel John Macdonnell, also with the Yorks and another aide-de-camp to Brock, was determined to avenge his commander’s death. With the militia and remnants of the 49th, he attempted to outflank the American position. Macdonnell came close to forcing them off the heights when a musket ball hit him in
mortally wounded, since he was leading British regulars in his final charge, not militiamen. In any case, a soldier does not have time to give encouraging commands to anybody upon being killed instantly by an enemy bullet. The present writer (Stewart Bull) knows this from battle experience. (Major Bull participated in the landing at Normandy in June 1944).
40 in Malcomson, A Brilliant Affair, 153.
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the back and he fell to the ground. Captain Cameron and another officer with the Yorks, Lieutenant MacLean, rushed to the colonel’s side but were also felled by enemy musket.
The enemy still commanded the heights. However, their militia still on the right bank refused to cross the river. General van Rensselaer pleaded with them to do their duty, but the men stood their ground, secure in the knowledge that according to the American Constitution they could not be compelled onto foreign territory. Even some who had gone over earlier that morning were now coming back. By now the invaders numbered 600 regulars and militia, who were beginning to run low on ammunition. Meanwhile 80 Six Nations warriors under Major John Norton (Teyoninhokovrawen) had skirted the woods around the American position and were harassing the foe’s left flank.
Virtually leaderless, the Canadian militia were taking shelter in the village when Brock’s second-in-command, Major General Roger Shaeffe, rode onto the scene with several hundred regulars from Fort George. Unlike his late commander, Shaeffe carefully assessed the situation. Taking a roundabout route, he deployed his men on the heights behind the Americans. Together with his Native allies and reinforcements from Chippewa, the general enjoyed numerical superiority and began his advance at around 1500. The enemy’s volleys failed to stem Shaeffe’s march, which pressed on them in a tightening semicircle ever closer to the escarpment’s steep slope.
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An attempt at a fighting retreat dissolved into a full rout. Captain James Crooks of the 1st Lincoln Militia described the debacle,
The battle...was a very warm and close one. I have been in many hail storms, but never in one where the stones flowed so thick as the bullets on this occasion...The lines were very near each other, and every foot of the ground the enemy gave way gave us an advantage, as on their side it descended. After almost half an hour’s close engagement they disappeared in the smoke, throwing down their arms, and ran down the heights to the water’s edge in the vain hope of reaching the other side.41
By 1600 hours it was all over. The nearly 1,000 soldiers who did not try to swim back were taken prisoner. Estimates for other enemy losses range from 150 to 500 wounded and killed, compared to about 200 casualties among the victors.42 According to Lieutenant Robinson, “the view of dead bodies which strewed the ground and the mangled carcasses of poor suffering mortals, who filled every room in the village, filled us with compassion.”43
The Yorks had acquitted themselves well, though they suffered some casualties with two men killed, 15 wounded and five missing.44 In a despatch about
41 in Feltoe, Call to Arms, 121.
42 Feltoe, Call to Arms, 123.
43 in Malcomson, A Very Brilliant Affair, 192. 44 Jackson, The Queen’s Rangers, 61.
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the battle, Shaeffe praised Captain Cameron and the other officers of the York and Lincoln militia, who had “led their men into action with great spirit.”45 With the onset of Winter, military activity along the frontier gradually subsided and the militia’s soldiers returned to their families. But the community’s women had not forgotten the exploits of their man at Detroit and Queenston. Their needles were soon busy on a set of colours, which were formally presented to the Third York Regiment in March 1813, bearing the motto “Deeds Speak.”46
In spring 1813 the war came to York itself. Smarting from their defeats the previous year, the Americans decided on a more aggressive strategy. The first stage would begin with a combined assault by land and water on Kingston, followed by another invasion at Niagara. Commodore Isaac Chauncey’s well armed fleet would carry Major General Henry Dearborn’s 1,600 regulars across Lake Ontario during the campaign.
It was a feasible plan, and had it succeeded the tenuous lifeline from Montreal to Upper would have been severed. However, when Dearborn received word that the British had gathered a large force at Kingston (which turned out to be false), he decided to begin with York instead. The British were completing work
45 in Wood, Selected British Documents, 1, 607-8.
46 When York was taken the following year, the colours were well hidden and did not fall into American hands. They were later laid up in St. James’ Church. There is a replica at the Fort York Museum in Toronto. Robert Malcomson, Capital in Flames: The American Attack on York, 1813 (Montreal: Robin Brass Studio, 2008), 111-112, 427 n35.
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there on a large 30 gun ship, the Sir Isaac Brock, which offered a very tempting trophy. The general was also reassured by the little town’s rudimentary defences.
Here Dearborn’s intelligence was spot on. Despite urgent pleas by Simcoe, Russell and Brock, Canada’s successive governors had consistently refused properly to fortify the provincial capital. According to the report of a Royal Engineer officer a year earlier, York was “entirely open to attack, and no works of any description have hitherto been constructed for its protection.”47 In 1813 York was guarded by a few wooden blockhouses and a pitiful collection of about a dozen guns, some dating back to the English Civil War. A wooden stockade running down to the shoreline surrounded the main garrison, which stood just west of today’s Bathurst Street at the site of Fort York, and work had begun on some earthworks. 48 These rudimentary defences were manned by about 800 soldiers, including 325 men from the flank companies of the 1st and 3rd York Militia.49 In early April, Major General Shaeffe, who had taken over both Brock’s military and civilian responsibilities, was not confident about York’s ability to withstand an enemy attack. In early April, he
47 Malcomson, Capital in Flames, 9
48 Carl Benn, Historic Fort York 1793-119 (Toronto: Natural Heritage/Natural
History Inc., 1993).50, Malcomson, Capital in Flames, 99-108.
49 Richard Feltoe, The Pendulum of War: The Fight for Upper Canada, January-June 1813, Upper Canada Preserved War of 1812 (Toronto: Dundurn, 2013). 41. The order of battle for the American expedition is on p. 35. For much more detailed lists of the participants on both sides, see Malcomson, Capital in Flames, 347-92.
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ordered government officials to hide important papers in the bush outside of town, lest they fall into enemy hands.50
Under General Dearborn’s command, the American invasion force set sail from Sacket’s Harbour on April 26 and by evening the next day they anchored within sight of York. Fourteen ships held a landing force of 1,650 troops led by Brigadier General Zebulon Pike. Strong winds the next morning blew the landing craft a little to the west, and at 0800 hours they began to disgorge the men on the beach at today’s Marilyn Bell Park, just west of Dufferin Street.
Because Shaeffe had miscalculated where the enemy would land, only some 50 Mississauga and Ojibway warriors stood in their path. Eventually joined by some British grenadiers, they did their best to hold off the assault, but their numbers were simply too small. The elderly Lieutenant Colonel Æneas Shaw led a body of York militia and some regulars through the woods in an attempt to outflank the foe, but lost his way. By the time they arrived it was too late and they had to retreat.
Several hundred Americans were now ashore as the flotilla’s 88 guns pounded the friendly positions. Matters took a turn for the worse when the Western Battery’s magazine accidentally exploded, killing about a dozen British soldiers. Major William Allen, second-in-command of the 3rd Yorks, tried to rally his men to
50 Benn, Historic Fort York, 49.
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take a stand in the shallow Garrison Creek ravine, but they lost heart when they saw General Shaeffe and the rest of his regulars hastening back to town.
Shaeffe had decided that any further resistance was futile and, rather than surrender his men, he would lead them to Kingston. As he marched east, he ordered the main York magazine, which stood on the waterfront near the mouth of garrison creek, to be destroyed. The low stone structure held 500 barrels of powder and fixed ammunition, “all of an explosive character,” according to an American surgeon in the invading force.51 Its tremendous blast produced a mushroom cloud that rained rocks and other debris on the advancing foe. One witness recalled, “It seemed that heaven and earth were coming together.”52 Together with General Pike, the explosion killed 39 Americans and wounded another 200, many of whom later succumbed to their injuries. A vigorous counterattack right now might have turned the tide, but Sheaffe was already nearly a kilometre away and the outnumbered militia were hopelessly outnumbered.
The British general did have the foresight to order the Sir Isaac Brock and the naval dockyards burned, thereby depriving the enemy of one great prize. When Lieutenant Colonel William Chewitt, the York Militia’s commander, negotiated the surrender with the Americans, he found them to be in a foul mood. Under its terms, all arms and public stores were to be turned over to the victors, although private
51 Malcomson, Capital in Flames, 105.
52 in Malcomson, Capital in Flames, 216,
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property would be respected. As for the militia, its men would be paroled, which meant they pledged not to fight until the war was over.53
Dearborn strictly forbade his men from looting civilian homes and posted guards when citizens asked for them, although this did not prevent some of them from ransacking empty houses. Nevertheless, a group of prominent men wrote a little later, “we must acknowledge that they behaved much better than expected.”54 Public buildings were a different matter. Many of them were put to the torch, including those that housed the provincial legislature. These depredations, along with those the Americans would inflict on Newark later that year, led to the Royal Navy’s retaliatory strikes on the republic’s east coast, which included the burning of the president’s mansion in Washington.
After five days, the invaders returned to their ships and sailed off. They had not managed to seize any warships and the bulk of the regulars had evaded their grasp. But the operation did help their overall campaign that year. By being deprived of important supplies, the British lost the battle of Lake Erie in September, which deprived them of mastery over the Great Lakes.
The Americans’ victory at York, their first on land during the war, had come at a heavy cost, with General Dearborn reporting 308 killed and wounded. The
53 For the terms, see Malcomson, Capital in Flames, 399-403.
54 C. P. Stacey, The Battle of Little York (Toronto: Toronto Historical Board, 1963). 17.
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Yorks had also suffered casualties, although far fewer – four killed and many more wounded.55 Although the regulars had done much more fighting to defend the town, because they had retreated, the militia received more acclaim as York’s brave and loyal defenders.
The Americans were back at York that summer. On July 31, 250 troops again landed on its shore. They met no opposition this time. Al British regulars were at Burlington to defend its heights, while the York militia had vanished into the hinterland to avoid capture. Only women and children were left, along with the redoubtable rector of St James’ Church, Dr John Strachan. When the Anglican priest asked the Americans about their intentions, they replied that they had orders to seize all public stores and fortifications. They got little of the latter, since much of it had been well hidden, but the burned the barracks, blockhouses and other buildings, and ransacked the store of Major William Allen, who had also prudently retired to the woods. Disappointed at achieving so little, the Americans withdrew two days later. They never returned.
The York Militia were no longer actively involved in the fighting over the next two years since the need diminished as Napoleon’s disaster in Russia freed up more British troops for North America. They did perform a supporting role by escorting prisoners, manning garrisons similar duties off the battlefield. There were some men, like Samuel Jarvis, who managed to escape parole and saw action at Stoney
55 Malcomson, Capital, 393-398.
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Creek and Lundy’s Lane. Æneas Shaw continued to serve as Adjutant General of the militia until the end of the war, but worn out by his long service to the Crown, he died shortly thereafter. Other York officers, former Rangers, who had responsibilities during the remainder of the war were Stephen Jarvis, the Assistant Adjutant General, Captain William Jarvis, the Assistant Quartermaster General, and Ensign Brooks, Adjutant of the militia garrison at York.
The fighting continued over summer and autumn of 1814. But by now both sides were tiring of the fighting and had sent diplomats to Ghent in the Netherlands. That winter they reached an agreement, which they signed on Christmas Eve 1814. According to the Peace of Ghent, not an inch of Canadian territory changed hands and the borders returned to those when muskets first began to fire two years earlier.
Americans and Canadians still debate who won the War of 1812. The former often refer to it as “the Second War of Independence,” since confirmed their republic’s existence as a sovereign nation. But they had not achieved their war aim, namely the conquest of Canada. Donald Graves writes,
If Britain had not successfully defended her North American colonies, Canada would not exist today. The war was a defining moment in Canadian history, laying the foundations not only for Confederation but for the modern nation
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we live in today, with a constitutional monarchy, a parliamentary system, and respect for linguistic and ethnic diversity.56
What was the militia’s contribution to the Dominion’s survival? After his sermon at St James’s Church of November 22, 1812, Reverend John Strachan made a famous speech about the recent actions at Detroit and Queenston Heights,
The Province of Upper Canada, without the assistance of men or arms, except a handful of regular troops, repelled its invaders, slew or took them all prisoner, and captured from its enemies the greater part of the arms by which it was defended...Never, surely, was greater activity shewn in any country than our militia has exhibited...they have twice saved the country.57
Most historians disagree.58 They remind us that regular British regiments had borne the brunt of the fighting. And after the fall of York in April 1813, the militia saw little combat. From then on their primary role was behind the lines, thereby freeing up regulars for their task. In any case, the Yorks and other militia units represented a small share of Upper Canada’s population. The “sedentary
56 Donald E. Graves, "The War That Saved Canada," Legion Magazine, no. 1 (2012). 31.
57 in Hitsman, Incredible War, 103.
58 For a recent discussion, see Steven D. Bennett, "The Militia Myth in the War of 1812," https://stevendbennett.wordpress.com/essays/the-militia-myth-in-the- war-of-1812/. See also Gray, Soldiers of the King, 43-46.
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militia,” all the rest of the male population between 16 and 60 years, took no active part in the fighting.
If anything, the “militia myth” had a deleterious effect on Upper Canada’s defence in the decades after the war. Apart from being untrue, it persuaded the public that military training in peacetime and its expense entailed were unnecessary. The average citizen, being unmilitary himself, was confident that if his country again faced an emergency, loyal volunteers would come to the rescue. He could not understand that an untrained soldier, no matter how brave and patriotic, is virtually useless in war.
The result was that no real attempt was made to improve the militia. In York County, as elsewhere, the obligation of universal military service remained. The annual muster continued once a year, but that was all. The government provided neither arms nor any organised training. Of course, it was immensely difficult to manage any kind of systematic military training in a vast and sparsely settled province like Upper Canada, where four-fifths of the population lived on isolated farms. Aside from the largest centres, facilities for drill, weapon training, administration and supply simply did not exist. And, even if it had wanted, the province was simply too poor to provide them.