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The War of 1812- The Burning of York

Sir Isaac BrockFeb 23, 2018, 9:20:26 AM

     On the north coast of Lake Ontario, the  stood the capital of Upper Canada, the city of York. During the War of 1812, Lake Ontario served both as the front line between Upper Canada and the United States, and as part of the principal British supply line from Quebec to the western settlements, forts and armies. When the war broke out, the British had a small naval force, the Provincial Marine, with which they seized control of the lake, and also of Lake Erie. This allowed Major General Sir Isaac Brock, leading the British forces in Upper Canada, to gain several important victories during 1812 by shifting his small army quickly between points of conflict to defeat poorly planned American attacks on their own.

     The United States Navy appointed Commodore Isaac Chauncey to retake the lakes. He constructed a squadron of fighting vessels at Sackett's Harbor, New York by purchasing and arming several lake schooners and laying down new purpose-built fighting ships. However, no decisive action could be taken before the onset of winter, during which the naval forces of both sides were confined to harbour by ice. To match Commodore Chauncey's ships, the British laid down a sloop of war at Kingston, and another in the dockyard at York. This vessel was named Sir Isaac Brock after the general, who had been killed at the Battle of Queenston Heights the previous year on the 13th of October, 1812.

     On the 13th of January, 1813, John Armstrong Jr. was appointed to the position of United States Secretary of War. Having been a served in battle before, he quickly understood the situation on Lake Ontario, and drew up a plan by which a force of 7,000 regular soldiers would be gathered at Sackett's Harbor on the 1st of April. Working in tandem with Chauncey's squadron, this force would capture Kingston before the Saint Lawrence River thawed and substantial British reinforcements could arrive to support Upper Canada. The capture of Kingston and the simultaneous destruction of the Kingston Royal Naval Dockyard and most of the vessels of the Provincial Marine, would make nearly every British post west of Kingston vulnerable to attack. After Kingston was captured, the Americans would then capture the British positions at York and Fort George, at the mouth of the Niagara River.

     John Armstrong conferred with Major General Henry Dearborn, commander of the American Army of the North, at Albany, New York in February. Both Dearborn and Chauncey concurred with Armstrong's plan at this point, but they later had doubts. That month, Lieutenant General Sir George Prevost, the British Governor General of Canada, traveled up the frozen Saint Lawrence to visit Upper Canada. This visit was made necessary because Major General Roger Hale Sheaffe, who had succeeded Brock as Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, was ill and unable to perform his various duties. Prevost was accompanied only by a few small detachments of reinforcements, which participated in the Battle of Ogdensburg en route. Nevertheless, both Chauncey and Dearborn believed that Prevost's arrival indicated an imminent attack on Sackett's Harbor, and reported that Kingston now had been reinforced with a garrison of 6,000 or more British regulars.

     Despite Prevost soon setting off for Lower Canada once again, and deserters and pro-invader Canadian civilians reporting that the true size of Kingston's garrison was 2000 men in all, 600 regulars and 1,400 militia troops, Chauncey and Dearborn chose to believe the earlier inflated number. Furthermore, even after two brigades of troops under Brigadier General Zebulon Pike reinforced the troops at Sackett's Harbor after a labourious trek through the Canadian winter from Plattsburgh, the number of effective troops available to Dearborn fell far below the mark of the 7,000 planned, with sickness and exposure taking most of the blame. During March, Chauncey and Dearborn recommended to Armstrong that when the ice on the lake thawed, they should attack the more vulnerable town of York rather than the original target of Kingston. After capturing York, they would then attack Fort George.

     Although York was the capital city of Upper Canada, it wasn't nearly as important as Kingston in terms of military conquest. Armstrong, by now back in the American capital, Washington, nevertheless acquiesced in this change of plan as Dearborn had better access to local information. Historians such as John R. Elting have shown that this effectively undid Armstrong's original strategy. Also, by committing the majority of the American forces at the western coast of Lake Ontario, it would leave Sackett's Harbor vulnerable to an attack by British reinforcements arriving from Lower Canada.

     The Americans appeared off York late on the 26th of April, 1813. Chauncey's squadron was made up of a ship-rigged corvette, a brig and twelve schooners. The embarked force commanded by Brigadier General Zebulon Pike numbered between 1,600 and 1,800, mainly from the 6th, 15th, 16th and 21st U.S. Infantry, and the 3rd U.S. Artillery fighting as infantry. Dearborn, the overall army commander, remained aboard the corvette Madison during the action.

Commodore Chauncey's Squadron

     York's defences included a fort a short ways away on the west end of the town, with the nearby "Government House Battery" mounting two 12-pdr guns. A mile west of there was the crude "Western Battery", with two obsolete 18-pdr guns. (These weapons were used in prior conflicts and had been disabled by having their trunnions removed, but they were set up on some crude log carriages and were still functioning.) Further west were the ruins of Fort Rouillé and another disused fortification, the "Half Moon Battery", neither of which was in use. Major General Sheaffe, the Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, was present at York to transact public business. Under his command was a small force consisting of only four companies of regulars. The York Militia was ordered to assemble, but only 300 of the 1st and 3rd York Regiments could be mustered at short notice. There were also about about 50 natives (Mississaugas and Ojibwa) nearby.

The Yorktown Barracks

     On the morning of the 27th of April, the first wave of American boats, carrying Major Benjamin Forsyth's company of the United States 1st Rifle Regiment, landed about 4 miles west of the town, supported by some of Chauncey's schooners firing grapeshot. Because Sheaffe hadn't the knowledge of where the Americans would land, Forsyth's riflemen were confronted only by some of the Native warriors led by Indian Agent James Givins, who were outflanked and forced to retreat into the woods after a stiff resistance. Sheaffe had given the order for a company of the Glengarry Light Infantry to support James Givins and his Natives, but they became lost in the outskirts of the town, having been misled by Major General Aeneas Shaw, the Adjutant General of the Canadian Militia, who took some of the his men north onto Dundas Street to prevent any potential wide American outflanking maneuvers.

     As three more companies of American infantry landed accompanied by General Pike, a grenadier company that had accompanied Major General Sheaffe,the 8th (The King's) Regiment of Foot, charged at them fiercely with their bayonets. The grenadiers were heavily outgunned and were repulsed with heavy losses. Pike ordered an advance by platoons, supported by two 6-pdr field guns, which steadily drove back the other two companies of Sheaffe's redcoats (another company of the 8th regiment, and one from the Royal Newfoundland).

     The British troops tried to regroup around the Western battery, but the battery's traveling magazine exploded, apparently as the result of an accident. This caused further loss, including the deaths of 20 men, and confusion among the British regulars, and they fell back to a ravine north of the fort, where the militia were forming up. At this time, Chauncey's schooners, most of which carried a long 24-pdr or 32-pdr cannons, were bombarding the fort and Government House battery. The British tried to retaliate, but were ineffective at repelling this attack.

Map of the Battle of York

     Sheaffe understood that the battle was over, and so ordered his companies to fall back, setting fire to the wooden bridge over the River Don east of the town to stifle a possible chase. The militia and several citizens were left "standing in the street like a parcel of sheep". Sheaffe instructed the militia to make the best terms they could with the Americans, but without informing the senior militia officers or any official of the legislature, he also ordered Captain Tito LeLièvre of the Royal Newfoundland to set ablaze the sloop of war HMS Sir Isaac Brock which was currently under construction in the dockyard, and to blow up the fort's magazine.

Burning of the River Don Bridge

     When the fort's magazine exploded, Pike and the leading American troops were only a couple of hundred yards away. The flag had been left flying over the fort as one last bit of defiance, and so Pike had been questioning a prisoner as to how many troops remained inside. Pike was mortally injured by flying stones and debris. The explosion killed 38 American soldiers and wounded several hundred.

     Colonel William Chewett and Major William Allen of the 3rd York Regiment of militia tried to arrange an surrender, assisted by Captain John Beverley Robinson, the acting Attorney General of Upper Canada. The Americans were angry about the loss of so many men, particularly because they believed that the ship and fort had been destroyed after negotiations for surrender had already begun. Nevertheless, Colonel Mitchell of the 3rd United States Artillery agreed to terms. While they waited for Dearborn and Chauncey to ratify the terms of the agreement, the surrendered militia were locked away in a blockhouse without food or medical assistance for the few injured men. Forsyth's company of the 1st United States Rifle Regiment was left to police the town. At this time, few Americans had actually entered York.

     The next morning, the terms had still not been ratified, since Dearborn had refused to leave the corvette Madison. When he eventually did, Reverend John Strachan, rector of York, first tried to force him to sign the articles for capitulation immediately, then accused Chauncey to his face of delaying the capitulation to allow the American troops license to commit outrages.Eventually, Dearborn formally agreed to the articles for surrender. The Americans took over the dockyard, where they captured the brig Duke of Gloucester in poor state of repair, and twenty 24-pdr carronades and other stores intended for the British squadron on Lake Erie. The Sir Isaac Brock was beyond salvage. The Americans had missed another ship-rigged vessel, Prince Regent, that carried 16 guns, as she sailed for Kingston to collect munitions two days before the Americans had been sighted.

     From the 28th to the 30th of April, American soldiers sacked the town. Some of them set fire to the governmental buildings. It was alleged that the American troops had found a scalp there, though folklore had it that the "scalp" was actually the Speaker's wig. The Parliamentary mace of Upper Canada was taken back to Washington and was only returned over a hundred years later in 1934 as a goodwill gesture by President Franklin Roosevelt. The Printing Office, used for publishing official documents as well as newspapers, was vandalized and the printing press was destroyed. Other Americans looted empty houses on the belief that their absent owners were militia who had not yet given their parole as required by the articles of capitulation. The homes of Canadians connected with the Natives, including that of James Givins, were also looted regardless of their owners' status.


This concludes the eighth entry in the War of 1812 series. I hope you've all been enjoying it so far. I certainly have. This particular battle, while not too well known, has a very well known response that we will be covering later, taking place on the 24th of August, 1814.

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