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The War of 1812- The Battle of Queenston Heights

Sir Isaac BrockJan 5, 2018, 10:44:02 AM

     One of the most famous battles of the War of 1812, the conflict at the Heights, was a double edged sword for the British, because while it ended in victory, it also cost them (in my opinion) the greatest general in Canada.

     The Invasion of Canada by the Americans was planned to be a four-pronged strike, with General William Hull attacking Fort Amherstburg from the base at Detroit, Major General Van Rensselaer would lead his army across the Niagara River, a diversionary force would cross the St. Lawrence River to occupy Kingston, and Major General Henry Dearborn, the commander-in-chief of the United States Army, would attack Montreal in Lower Canada. These attacks were meant to cripple Canada and secure total victory before the Canadians could recover.

The battle locations of Upper and Lower Canada

     This strategy did not exactly go as planned, with General William Hull being utterly defeated by Major General Sir Isaac Brock at Fort Detroit, and Major General Dearborn sitting on his hands at Albany, New York, not bothering to actually invade Canada like he was supposed to. Major General Van Rensselaer was under-manned and under-supplied, and had never commanded a force in battle before, despite holding the title of Major General. He did, to his credit, secure his second cousin Solomon Van Rensselaer, and experienced soldier, the position as his Aide-de-camp (Personal Assistant in the military camp), a valuable resource as an advisor to the General.

     As for the British, the confident and aggressive Major General Isaac Brock's recent capture of Detroit had given him the local title of the "Saviour of Upper Canada", and a proper knighthood title, though he would never hear of it. His superior, Lieutenant General Sir George Prevost, tended to fight more defensively. This led to difficulties when deciding on strategies. Brock had hastened back from Detroit, intending to cross the Niagara, defeat Van Rensselaer before he could be reinforced and occupy upper New York State. Prevost vetoed this plan, ordering Brock to act with more caution. General Prevost was aware that the British had removed many of the laws that stifled American trade and started the war in the first place, and was concerned that more rash actions by General Brock would damage the possibility of a peaceful resolution.

     Lieutenant General George Prevost had opened peace talks with General Dearborn, and arranged a ceasefire. Despite this, the American government told Dearborn to "proceed with the utmost vigour in his operations". However, there was much delay for correspondence between Washington and the frontier. General Van Rensselaer was under pressure from Washington, and the American public, to reverse the failure and undo the stigma of losing to inferior enemy forces at Detroit. He was also desperate to make something of himself as a field commander. General Van Rensselaer chose to cross the Niagara River into Canada at the city of Queenston, in Upper Canada.

     The British detachment at Queenston consisted of the grenadier company of the 49th Regiment of Foot (which Brock had formerly commanded) under Captain James Dennis, a flank company of the 2nd Regiment of York Militia (the "York Volunteers") under Captain George Chisholm, and a detachment of the 41st Regiment of Foot with a 3-pdr Grasshopper cannon. The light company of the 49th under Captain John Williams was posted in huts on top of the heights. An 18-pdr gun and a mortar were mounted in a gun emplacement  halfway up the Heights, and a 24-pdr gun and a carronade were sited in a barbette at Vrooman's Point, a mile north of the village, guarded by a company of the 5th Regiment of Lincoln Militia under Captain Samuel Hatt. Two more companies of York Militia under Captains Cameron and Heward were stationed at Brown's Point, three miles to the north. The remaining local militia of the 5th Lincoln Regiment were not on duty but could assemble at very short notice.

The Attack on Queenston Heights

      On the night of the 12th of October, Van Rensselaer led his forces, totaling at 900 regulars and 2,650 militiamen, across the Niagara River. Major General Brock thought they would cross further down the river at Fort George, and this idea was reinforced in Brock's mind because the initial attempt to cross the river into Queenston was played out so poorly that Brock assumed it was a feint to draw his attention, and so he did not gather his forces to defend against them. This gave Van Rensselaer the opportunity to attempt another crossing before dawn on the 13th of October. The Americans discovered a hidden path to the top of the heights, and seized an important clifftop gun emplacement.  The gun had been preventing American reinforcements from crossing the Niagara.

The American Invasion of Queenston Heights

     General Brock was awakened by sounds of the British held gun emplacements at Vrooman's Point and along the shore near Fort George. He gathered his men and made for Queenston himself as the Americans were taking control the town. He passed through the village as dawn broke, being cheered by the men of the 49th, many of whom knew him well, and moved up to the emplacement to gain a better view. The U.S. forces had been pinned down along the river by the 18-pdr gun and the Howitzer in the emplacement. Prompted by Lieutenant Gansevoort of the U.S. Artillery, who knew the area well, the wounded Colonel Solomon Van Rensselaer ordered Captains Wool and Ogilvie to take a detachment upstream "and ascend the heights by the point of the rock, and storm the battery". The Heights themselves were poorly defended, as Brock had ordered the 49th to assist the grenadiers in the fight over the village below. American troops attacked just after Brock arrived, forcing his small party and the artillerymen to flee into the village, after quickly spiking the guns. Brock sent a message to Major General Sheaffe at Fort George, ordering him to bring as many troops as possible to Queenston. He then resolved to recapture the emplacement immediately rather than wait for reinforcements.

     Brock's charge was made by Dennis' and Williams' two companies of the 49th and two companies of militia. The assault was halted by heavy fire and as he noticed unwounded men dropping to the rear, Brock shouted angrily that "This is the first time I have ever seen the 49th turn their backs! Surely the heroes of Egmont will not tarnish their record!" At this rebuke, the ranks promptly closed up and were joined by two more companies of militia, those of Cameron and Heward. Brock saw that the militia supports were lagging behind at the foot of the hill and ordered one of his Provincial aides-de-camp, Lieutenant Colonel John Macdonell, to "Push on the York Volunteers" while he led his own party to the right, presumably intending to join his party with that of Williams' detachment who were beginning to make progress on that flank.

     Brock was struck in the wrist of his sword arm by a musket ball but pressed home the attack he was directing. His stature and energetic gestures, combined with his officer's uniform and a brightly coloured sash given to him by Tecumseh after the Siege of Detroit, made him a conspicuous target. He was shot down by an unknown American who stepped forward from a thicket and fired at a range of barely fifty yards. The ball struck Brock in the chest, killing him almost instantly. His body was carried from the field and secreted in a nearby house at the corner of Queenston Street and Partition Street, diagonally opposite that of Laura Secord. This event was recorded by one of the troops fighting along side Brock, George Jarvis, in his personal journal. “In the very teeth of a sharp fire from the enemy’s riflemen, and ere long he was singled out by one of them, who, coming forward, took deliberate aim and fired; 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 of where I stood.” George ran up to Brock and asked: “‘Are you much hurt, Sir?’ He placed his hand on his breast and made no reply, and slowly sunk down.” Jarvis’ account is now widely accepted by historians as the most authentic description of Brock’s last moments.

The Death of Major General Sir Isaac Brock, Saviour of Upper Canada, Most Honourable Knight of the Bath, at the Battle of Queenston Heights


     Despite being a lawyer by trade with little military experience, Lieutenant-Colonel Macdonell led a second attempt, together with Williams, to retake the emplacement. With Williams' men of the 49th starting from brush to the right of the line near the escarpment and Macdonell's anchoring the left, the force of between 70 and 80 men (more than half of whom were militia) advanced toward the emplacement. Wool had been reinforced by more troops who had just made their way up the path to the top of the Heights, and Macdonell faced some four hundred troops.

     In spite of the disadvantage in numbers as well as attacking a fixed position, Williams' and Macdonell's small force was driving the opposing force to the edge of the gorge on which the emplacement was situated, and seemed on the verge of success before the Americans were able to regroup and stand firm. The battle's momentum turned when a musket ball hit Macdonell's mount, causing it to rear and twist around, and another shot hit him in the small of the back, causing him to fall from the horse. He was removed from the battlefield but succumbed to his injuries early the next day. Captain Williams was laid low by a wound to the head, and Dennis by a severe wound to the thigh (although he continued to lead his detachment throughout the action). Carrying Macdonnell and the body of Brock, the British fell back through Queenston to Durham's Farm a mile north near Vrooman's Point.

A wounded Lieutenant Colonel John Macdonell, being tended too by a soldier of the 49th

     By 10 o'clock that morning, the Americans were opposed only by the 24-pdr at Vrooman's Point which was firing at the American boats at very long range. The Americans were able to push several hundred fresh troops and a 6-pdr field gun across the river. They unspiked the 18-pdr in the emplacement and used it to fire into Queenston village, but it's field of vision was limited when firing away from the river.

     At about noon, General van Rensselaer and Chrystie crossed to the Canadian side of the river. They ordered the position on Queenston Heights to be fortified. Lieutenant Joseph Gilbert Totten of the U.S. Engineers traced out the position of the proposed fortifications. Van Rensselaer appointed Lieutenant Colonel Winfield Scott of the 2nd U.S. Artillery to take command of the regulars on Queenston Heights. Brigadier General William Wadsworth, who was nominally present as a volunteer and who waived his right to overall command, took charge of the militia. There were few complete formed units; there was only a collection of disorganised detachments, some without their officers. Likewise some officers had crossed but their men had not followed them. Little more than a thousand of General Van Rensselaer's men had crossed the Niagara River.

     At this time, British reinforcements had begun to arrive from Fort George. A detachment of the Royal Artillery under Captain William Holcroft with two 6-pdr guns moved into Queenston village, supported by a company of the 41st under Captain Derenzy. Captain of the Lincoln Militia, Alexander Hamilton, guided them to a firing position in the courtyard of Hamilton's house. When they opened fire at 1 o'clock that afternoon, it once again became dangerous for the American boats to attempt to cross the river. Two American boats and a scow were sunk, and shrapnel fire several times silenced the American batteries in Lewiston. At the same time, 300 Mohawk warriors under Captains John Norton and John Brant climbed up to the top of the heights and suddenly fell on Scott's outposts. None were killed, and the Mohawk force was driven back into some woods, but the Americans' spirits were badly affected by their fear of the natives. Warcries could be clearly heard in Lewiston, and 2000 reinforcing militiamen waiting there to cross the river refused to do so.

The Arrival of Roger Sheaffe

     Sheaffe arrived at Queenston at 2 o'clock and took charge of the British troops. He led his force on a 3 miles (4.8 km) detour to the Heights, shielding them from the American artillery. Here, he was joined by another column of reinforcements from Chippawa under Captain Richard Bullock of the 41st. In all, he commanded over 800 men. In addition to the remnants of the force which had been engaged under Brock in the morning, he had five companies of the 41st and seven of militia (including Captain Runchey's Company of Coloured Men), with two 3-pounder guns, belonging to Swayze's Provincial Artillery (a militia unit) but commanded by Lieutenant Crowther of the 41st.

     General Van Rensselaer determined at this point to re-cross to Lewiston to push forward reinforcements and munitions. upon his arrival there, he found that his troops had dissolved into a disorderly crowd and was unable to cajole any more of the militia into crossing the river. He then tried to induce the civilian boatmen to cross the river and retrieve his soldiers from Canada, but they refused even that. The General reported the next day that, "...to my utter astonishment, I found that at the very moment when complete victory was in our hands, the ardor of the unengaged troops had entirely subsided. I rode in all directions – urged men by every consideration to pass over – but in vain." He sent a message to Brigadier General Wadsworth which left the decision whether to stand and fight or withdraw across the Niagara to him, promising to send boats if the decision was made to withdraw.

     As Sheaffe's force began their advance, Scott and Wadsworth received Van Rensselaer's message. At this point, according to Scott, the effective American force on the heights consisted of 125 regular infantry, 14 artillerymen and 296 militiamen. The Americans decided to abandon their incomplete field works and withdraw. Scott fell back to the top of the heights where he attempted to throw up a barricade of fence rails and brushwood to cover the evacuation with his regulars. He placed the 6-pdr gun in front of the line, and posted some riflemen on the right among the huts formerly occupied by the light company of the 49th. 

     Attacking from the rear, Sheaffe trapped the enemy between his army and the cliff. Van Rensselaer's reserves, all from the New York militias and waiting to travel across the river, were called into battle. But upon hearing the roar of the guns they refused to participate, claiming that they were not legally obligated to fight on foreign soil. Denied any ability to renew an attack or bolster his defence, Van Rensselaer's forces' morale crumbled, as they were drastically outnumbered and low on ammunitions.  Volleys of fire and a British-Canadian charge with bayonets took the American forces by surprise. US Lieutenant Colonel Winfield Scott, taking charge from the wounded commander Captain Wool, waved a white handkerchief to signal the American surrender. When the smoke had cleared, almost 1,000 Americans were taken prisoner, with 300 killed or wounded, while the victors lost only 28 killed and 77 wounded—regular, militia and Native American.


And so ends the fifth installment in my ongoing series on the War of 1812. While Queenston Heights was an important victory for the British, the death of Isaac Brock represented a significant loss. However, Brock's memory continued to inspire Upper Canadians to defend their land against several subsequent American invasions. Sir Isaac Brock's memory has been forever immortalised in the monument built to him at the site of the battle, Queenston Heights, Ontario, where he is buried alongside is friend and fellow loyal soldier, Lieutenant Colonel John Macdonnell.

The Monument to Sir Isaac Brock at the site of the battle that took his life

Thank you for the points-

Goodbye for now



What Started the War https://www.minds.com/blog/view/786155003864682496

Siege of Fort Mackinac https://www.minds.com/blog/view/788696278660812800

Capture of Fort Detroit https://www.minds.com/blog/view/790511552656216064

Battle of Queenston Heights https://www.minds.com/blog/view/795965830373089280

Siege of Fort Wayne https://www.minds.com/blog/view/795975806537736192

Battles of Frenchtown https://www.minds.com/blog/view/804277806997942272

Battle of Ogdensburg https://www.minds.com/blog/view/810315122197479424