The first American amphibious operation gave a young general his chance at military fame.

The young general stood on the quarterdeck of the corvette USS Madison and scanned the shoreline, where his destiny slowly came into view. The first light of day on Tuesday, April 27, 1813, revealed the low-lying peninsula that sheltered the expansive bay in front of the frontier community of York to thirty-four-year-old Zebulon Montgomery Pike, who had only been promoted to brigadier six weeks earlier. Popularly referred to by Americans as “Little York” before it would  be renamed Toronto a generation later, York was the capital of Upper Canada (now southern Ontario province) and home to some seven hundred people living in a series of frame buildings that stretched for nearly a mile along the shore. West of the town, at the mouth of the bay, was the small garrison. It was here that Pike focused the lens of his telescope. He had drawn up the plan for an amphibious assault on the garrison, and his superior officer, Maj. Gen. Henry Dearborn, standing nearby, had only just that minute given him command of the operation.

As Commodore Isaac Chauncey’s flagship, Madison, guided the United States Navy squadron of schooners to an anchorage, a bloody scrap was taking shape that would eventually lead the British to seek revenge. On April 27, though, Pike knew only that his long-awaited opportunity to lead a brigade into battle was about to be realized.

“May heaven be propitious, and smile on the cause of the country!” he had written to his father just a week earlier. “But if we are destined to fall, may my fall be like [British Gen. James] Wolfe’s— to sleep in the arms of victory.”

The decision to attack Little York was a better-than-nothing alternative to what the American government really wanted to achieve, which was to take Québec. Early in 1812, President James Madison’s cabinet had formed an optimistic war plan, best described by Thomas Jefferson: “The acquisition of Canada this year, as far as the neighborhood of Québec, will be a mere matter of marching, and will give us experience for the attack on Halifax the next, and the final expulsion of England from the American continent.”

Zebulon Pike in his general’s uniform. (National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)

Soon after Madison signed Congress’s declaration of war in June 1812, however, reality set in as the weakly manned, inexperienced American army suffered defeats at Detroit on August 16 and Queenston Heights on October 13. Dearborn’s own invasion of Lower Canada (the modern Québec province) fizzled in a minor skirmish at the village of La Colle on November 20, and he marched his troops back to winter camps at Plattsburgh, New York, and Burlington, Vermont.

Despite these military setbacks, the idea of taking Québec and Halifax did not die. Acting as secretary of war in December 1812, James Monroe conceived an ambitious campaign to attain those objectives in 1813. But, as Secretary of the Treasury Albert Gallatin pointed out to Monroe, the nation lacked the funds to support such an undertaking, the army was not strong enough to accomplish it, and there was not enough time to arrange the logistics of transportation and supply. John Armstrong, the newly appointed secretary of war, proposed an alternate plan: rather than wait for money, men, and munitions to be in place, or do nothing, why not launch a spring invasion into Upper Canada, either at Kingston or some point on the upper Saint Lawrence River?

Armstrong based his plan on proposals Commodore Chauncey and General Dearborn submitted to the cabinet separately. The tiny American port of Sackets Harbor, in the most easterly corner of Lake Ontario, had become a strong naval and military center since the outset of the war. Kingston, the vital British post at the head of the Saint Lawrence River, was only thirty-five miles away by water. Statesmen and officers agreed that by seizing Kingston, they could stop the British from supplying the rest of Upper Canada. Orders soon went out for brigades to march to Sackets.

Around the middle of March, the first objective of the spring expedition suddenly changed from Kingston to York. Chauncey, who had gained control of Lake Ontario the previous November, championed altering the plan, citing news of heavy reinforcements moving into Kingston. The winter had been a hard one, and the ice still clogging Kingston’s harbor would also delay the operation.

The crucial consideration for Chauncey, however, was the rumored development of a naval dockyard at York. Warships of the Provincial Marine (an established British colonial transport service) were said to have wintered there, and two brigs-of-war were rising in a recently laid out dockyard surrounded by naval storehouses. The Americans knew York to be lightly defended, and Chauncey, with Dearborn’s approval, argued that it would provide an easy, much-needed military victory while securing naval supremacy on Lake Ontario, a strategic necessity.

Believing that commanders in the field were best placed to make operational decisions, Madison’s cabinet gave Chauncey and Dearborn their approval for an attack on York. Chauncey was eager for action, but the president had to order Dearborn, who no longer had the military drive that had earned him his reputation during the War of Independence, to return from his headquarters in Albany to supervise the campaign.

Zebulon Pike had marched the 1st Brigade from Plattsburgh to Sackets Harbor in March, where he continued daily training exercises through a snowy and miserable April. By the third week of the month, the ice left Sackets and, as Chauncey’s crews finished fitting out their vessels, Pike’s men began to embark on April 20. Their true destination was known to only a handful of senior officers. Close to eighteen hundred men boarded thirteen warships and one transport. They comprised elements of the 6th, 14th, 15th, 16th, and 21st U.S. Regiments of Infantry, the (1st) Regiment of Rifles, the Light and 3rd Regiments of Artillery, the “Baltimore Volunteers,” the “Albany Greens,” and two companies of federal volunteers (enlisted under legislation of February 1812). The landing at Little York would be the baptism of fire for nearly every single unit.

After an aborted attempt to sail on April 23, the squadron finally got underway two days later and covered the 150 miles to York by the evening of April 26. Dearborn then convened a council of war onboard Chauncey’s corvette Madison, during which Pike reviewed the order of battle he had already distributed. Dearborn, who had earned the nickname of “Granny” for his lassitude during the 1812 campaign, delayed until the next morning before announcing that Pike would command onshore.

This was the moment the zealous brigadier had been awaiting. He was the son and namesake of a patriot and U.S. Army officer who had taken him into his regiment in the 1790s. Pike spent most of his early career at far-flung posts. In 1805, Brig. Gen. James Wilkinson had sent him with a small party to find the source of the Mississippi River. Wilkinson was pleased with Pike’s mission (although it was later shown that Pike missed the actual headwaters).

Then he ordered Pike to make a second arduous trek of exploration, this time into the region of modern Colorado and New Mexico. Pike was to find the sources of the Red and the Arkansas rivers and inspect Spanish posts in the area. It was a difficult journey that ended with a Spanish detachment detaining Pike and his men until they could prove they had no hostile intent. Back in American territory, Pike had narrowly evaded entanglement in the notorious Wilkinson-Aaron Burr plot to build an empire in the southwest. In 1810 Pike published a memoir of his travels.

Well-connected to political and military leaders alike, Pike rose rapidly through the ranks after his explorations. He made up for his lack of formal education by reading widely and developing his ideas about military science. As colonel of the recently created 15th Infantry, for instance, he trained his men in snowshoes and outfitted one-third of his regiment with twelve-foot-long pikes for close-in fighting. This was a departure from manuals of arms of the day: no one else in the American or British armies still believed that using pikes was an effective battlefield tactic. “You will hear of my fame or of my death,” he wrote to Wilkinson in July 1812. Quoting from Shakespeare’s soliloquy about all the world being a stage, and a soldier’s goal being to gain a “bubble reputation,” Pike added, “for I am determined to seek the ‘bubble’ even in the cannon’s mouth.”

Late on April 26, after the council of war, Pike found enough privacy on the crowded Madison to write a few lines to his wife, Clara: “I shall dedicate these last moments to you, my love, and tomorrow throw all other ideas but my country to the wind.”

Chauncey’s squadron anchored around six o’clock the next morning, and about an hour later the signal was given for the first wave to go ashore. It consisted mainly of the nearly 180 members of the rifle regiment commanded by Maj. Benjamin Forsyth.

As a landing place, Pike had selected a clearing nearly a mile west of the garrison, around the overgrown battlements of an abandoned French post (Fort Rouillé) dating from the mid-1700s. A stiff breeze had brought the squadron to an anchorage within a mile of shore, but it now blew the bateaux and ships’ boats west of the intended beachhead. Peering at the forested shore from beneath the broad-brimmed hat he wore, Forsyth called for the oarsmen to hold off for a bit so the boats could drift farther west. He had spotted the first British defenders and wanted to land beyond their reach.

The intelligence Chauncey had received about York was partially correct. The place was only lightly defended. The garrison, not yet known as Fort York, consisted only of a single blockhouse and twenty hewn-log huts (or cabins) for barracks, protected by a stockade. On the other side of a creek, just west of the garrison, stood the one-story commander in chief’s residence, a newly mounded-up rampart, and some outbuildings. Between the autumn of 1812 and the following spring, the British had built two batteries near the residence and two others spaced several hundred yards west. Due to a shortage of heavier ordnance, only six-pounder ship’s guns, a pair of twelve-pounders, and some carronades had been mounted. Out of desperation, the British put two ancient eighteen-pounders in the westernmost battery. Their trunnions and cascabels had been broken off long before, and they had to be mounted in makeshift carriages to fire over the rampart.

On April 27 there were just over four hundred British regulars present, some of them expecting to have continued their journey that day to Fort George on the Niagara River. The regulars included members of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment of Fencibles, the Glengarry Light Infantry Fencibles, the 8th Foot (“the King’s Regiment”), some of the 41st and 49th Regiments, and a handful of gunners from the 4th Battalion of the Royal Artillery. Nearly five hundred militia from the 1st and 3rd York regiments, and individual companies of the 1st Durham Regiment and the recently created Incorporated Battalion backed them. Including about eighty shipwrights in the dockyard, a dozen or so volunteers from the town, and about fifty Ojibwa-Mississauga and Chippewa warriors, the total defensive force was nearly eleven hundred.

Chauncey’s sources had been wrong about the strength of the York naval force. Only one vessel was under construction, a 32-gun frigate already named Sir Isaac Brock in honor of the popular general who had been killed at the battle of Queenston Heights. Far from completion, the ship was not even fully planked yet due to the mismanagement of Thomas Plucknett, the shipwright sent from Québec to oversee the project.

Two small, armed schooners had wintered at York. One happened to sail away just before the Americans arrived, leaving only the worn-out and unrigged Duke of Gloucester at one end of the bay. The British had stockpiled a large depot of naval fittings and equipment at York during the winter, although the distance from Québec had delayed them in accumulating these stores. The guns meant to arm Sir Isaac Brock, for instance, were not expected to reach the lake until early summer.

The governor in chief of British North America, Lt. Gen. Sir George Prevost, had made the strategic decision in the spring of 1812 to gradually relocate the naval center from Kingston (where two warships were nearing completion in April 1813) because it was so near the American port of Sackets Harbor. York, at the other end of the lake, was to be the new center. Yet York was an odd choice. Not only was it still a remote frontier town and far down the supply line but few vessels had ever been launched on its shores because the water was so shallow. “There was not a man in the country,” wrote one long-time resident, “[who did not know] there was not enough water to launch it or soil to support the ways.”

Moreover, by ordering the new ship and dockyard to be opened at York, Prevost had made the otherwise innocuous town an attractive target for attack and then aggravated the situation by inadequately supplying it with heavy ordnance and a large reinforcement. The officer left to deal with this problem was Maj. Gen. Sir Roger Hale Sheaffe.

Sheaffe, forty-seven, had been in the British army since boyhood. He had seen very little battle action until the affair at Queenston Heights in October 1812, when he had rallied the British, Canadian, and native allies to attack the American invaders. For his leadership there, he received praise from Prevost and a baronetcy from the Crown, but Sheaffe paled in comparison to the charismatic Brock. Although he took over as military commander and governmental head in Upper Canada, his decisions and some comments he uttered aroused indignation among the locals. Because he was unpopular, he had to struggle to perform his many duties, and there were rumors during the winter that some officers had considered forming a “combination” to oust him from power. Aware of Sheaffe’s shortcomings, Prevost had criticized the general several times to Sheaffe’s superiors.

General Sheaffe was at his residence near the garrison at York when the American squadron was first sighted on Monday night. Although he immediately paraded his regulars and militia in the garrison and in the town and sent riders to call in more militia, Sheaffe did not convene a council of war with his senior officers. In the morning there was no clear plan of defense in place, and an informal discussion led to disagreement about what should be done.

When it became obvious that the Americans meant to land, Sheaffe ordered militia Maj. James Givins to oppose them on the shore, along with some native warriors. He next sent a detachment of militia with a field gun to guard a road north and west of the garrison and then told the sixty-man company of Glengarry Fencibles to join Givins’s force. These instructions were misunderstood, and the Glengarries, clad in dark green uniforms modeled after the 95th Foot, Britain’s famous rifle regiment, followed on the heels of the militia, heading north and away from the lakeshore.

It was the Ojibwa-Mississauga and Chippewa fighters that Major Forsyth saw in the woods west of the clearing around the old French fort, about a mile from the garrison. They were unmistakable in their varied outfits of hide and cotton, their hair cropped and greased in outlandish styles, and their faces stained red, black, and white. They carried a mixture of muskets and rifles and, in the independent mode of warfare that characterized their people, they began firing at the Americans when they were still offshore, in their boats. The time was about eight o‘clock in the morning.

Major Forsyth finally gave the order to advance, and the boats hurried forward. He was among those who leaped into the water, scurried across the narrow pebbly beach, and scaled the embankment. Forsyth was from North Carolina, as were many of his men, and they were all expert with their firearms, the 1803 Harper’s Ferry rifle. Although slower to load than a musket, the rifle fired a smaller-caliber bullet with deadly accuracy over a range that far exceeded that of the conventional smoothbore weapon.

General Robert Hale Sheaffe, who ordered the British retreat. (Library and Archives Canada)

Forsyth and his men had no use for the traditional line tactics of the infantry. They spread out over the battlefield in small groups, working in coordination with their fellows in loose order, while their major and his lieutenants directed them by bugle and whistle signals. The woods fringing the lake were a perfect environment for the backwoods sharpshooters, whose green uniforms blended with the thick pine and spruce and the buds of maple and birch. They moved forward to engage the Indians and immediately showed their prowess in the hit-and-run fighting of light infantry.

Forsyth, known for keeping a low and quiet profile around camp, was now in his element, striding along his chain of shooters, his long coat open to reveal a white vest—as if offering the native warriors a target. With his sword, he pointed out the natives to his men and urged them on in a style that had already gained him a reputation as “a perfect savage…[and] as brave a brute as any in the woods….He never obeys orders, yet he has turned the fate of the battle several times,” Master Commandant Arthur Sinclair later wrote.

From Madison’s deck, Pike, Dearborn, and their staffs watched the action until the brigadier could stand it no more. He announced that he was going ashore and set out with his aides in a boat Chauncey had reserved for his own use. By this time, Forsyth’s rifles had all landed and were hotly engaged with Givins’s warriors. Pike’s old regiment, the 15th, was now making its way to land under the command of Maj. William King, and they and their former colonel were soon under fire from a different source.

At the garrison, General Sheaffe waited until the first detachments were out of sight before he gave his next instructions. He summoned the grenadier company of the 8th Foot, commanded by Capt. Neal McNeale and numbering nearly 120 bayonets, and ordered McNeale to hurry forward to the landing point from where the clatter of small-arms fire could now be heard. McNeale advanced in column at the quick march and, in about twenty minutes, covered the distance along the lakeshore road and past the old fort. It was these grenadiers who added to the native opposition on the shore, pouring a deadly hail of bullets into the boats conveying the 15th U.S. Infantry ashore.

The American riflemen were already pushing the natives back toward the grenadiers’ position and soon began to pick away at the redcoats. McNeale, one of the first to fall, was shot through the head. The legislature’s clerk, Donald McLean, was among several volunteers from York who had joined the grenadiers, and he found himself in a maelstrom he never could have envisioned. His confusion did not last long; a bullet abruptly put an end to his days.

The grenadiers struggled to maintain their well-drilled formation as their casualties mounted, inflicted by an enemy that was all but invisible. By this point, Givins’s warriors had withdrawn from the battle completely, assisting any of their wounded that could stand.

Pike, Major King, and the 15th Infantry had splashed ashore and prepared to join the fight. Capt. John Scott, of New Jersey, led his men up the embankment when the order came. He was met with a volley from the grenadiers, a portion of whom advanced.

“We fell back below the bank,” Scott later explained to a friend, “to the brink of which they advanced and fired a volley at, or rather, over us for I do not know that they killed one at the time.” King then changed his tactic, and, as Scott related the next step, “We just raised our heads over the brink and took deliberate aim…. The balls flew as thick as Large Drops of rain at the commencement of a Shower.”

Caught between the deadly fire of Forsyth’s rifles in the woods and the 15th from the shore, the grenadiers—the first and best company of the proud 8th Foot—finally gave up after suffering 65 percent casualties. They ran in search of safety, dragging some of their wounded with them. As the fighting ebbed, Pike united the American infantry with the rifles and prepared to move forward, while the boats continued to bring other units to shore.

Once the grenadiers had set out toward the beach, General Sheaffe formed a column out of the Royal Newfoundland detachment, a second company of the 8th that had been temporarily housed in a second blockhouse at the other end of town, and the remainder of the militia and the dockyard workers. They began marching toward the battle. He passed the batteries (which were still silent, the distant squadron being out of range), advanced along the lakeshore road through a stretch of woods, and came out at the clearing. He arrived just as the surviving grenadiers were staggering out of the forest from the other side.

Sheaffe maneuvered his column into line formation and, when the first of the riflemen began to fire across the clearing, he ordered a charge—straight into the murderous fire of Forsyth’s rifles and the infantry. Musket volleys thudded and covered the field with dense white smoke. The sharpshooters replied in staccato fashion, easily distinguished by the ringing sound of their Harper’s Ferry firearms. The regulars took immediate casualties and wilted under the fire, falling back across the field.

Sheaffe rallied them forward once more, and they renewed their counterattack. But now the woods seemed full of blue- and green-coated adversaries, against which the British and Canadians could not hold their ground. They withdrew again, this time covered by the company of Glengarries that had finally found its way to the battlefield.

With his forces too badly hammered to mount another counterattack, Sheaffe ordered a retreat toward the garrison. As the Glengarries shielded the retreat, the column limped back through the woods toward the Western Battery. A contingent took the wounded to the garrison for treatment, while those Regulars who could still stand awaited orders near the Western Battery. General Sheaffe and his aides moved to a spot between the woods and the garrison. He remained silent about his intentions. Dozens of militiamen began to wander away from the scene, unchecked.

The first series of small arms fire exchanges lasted until just past nine that morning, after which Pike established a protective screen in the woods on the east side of the clearing and waited for the rest of the brigade to reach land. No one seemed to have taken notice at the time, but this assault was the first combined operation ever executed by the U.S. Army and the U.S. Navy, and it was conducted successfully, as if the forces had been launching amphibious operations for years. The naval and military officers who marshaled the movement of men, six pieces of artillery, and all the necessary supplies performed their tasks flawlessly. They managed the business in seven or eight “lifts,” and within three hours of first touching land, Pike’s brigade was assembled in column, its van was in the clearing, and they were ready to proceed.

During the landing, Chauncey’s squadron had begun supporting the troops ashore with their guns. Although Madison and the brig Oneida drew too much water to get inshore, the schooners could get near enough to open up with the one or two heavy guns that most of them carried and a few proceeded up the shoreline to engage the four batteries.

The British gunners managed to score a few hits. Some of the officers and men who had returned from the fighting now crowded in and around the Western Battery, since it offered protection from the naval guns.

They caused such confusion, however, that someone let a linstock—the staff holding the smoldering rope used to ignite the gun—fall into a traveling magazine that had been thoughtlessly hauled up to the guns. Its tip instantly detonated the powder cartridges in the magazine, which erupted in a shocking explosion. Some men were literally thrown through the air while others were dismembered or burned black. The blast knocked over one of the guns.

The accident was a demoralizing setback. Soon a line of horribly wounded men was making its way to the surgeons. Two British officers attempted to bring order to the battery and managed to get one of the guns operating again.

Uncertainty reigned among the British and Canadians, but General Sheaffe still kept his distance, issuing no orders until “Yankee Doodle” sounded in the forest, coming from saucy American fifes. Sheaffe now ordered all his troops into the Garrison Creek ravine, located between his residence and the garrison. Many of the men were expecting to be ordered forward from the ravine, to make a stand at the rampart behind Sheaffe’s house. Then their general astounded everyone by ordering a full retreat through the garrison, toward the town.

As Pike’s column came into view, the single workable British eighteen-pounder fired several rounds, but succeeded only in cutting off some pikes and bending a few bayonets. (In fact, that encounter occasioned the only mention of Pike’s famous pikes, which shortly thereafter were deemed useless, and were never again used by American troops.)

The American general sent a party of the 6th Infantry ahead to secure the Western Battery, which it did without opposition. The column moved on to the battery near Sheaffe’s house, which had also been abandoned. From here he could see the two remaining batteries, the rampart, the top of Sheaffe’s roof, and the blockhouse beyond, but he could not see his enemy and wondered if they were about to spring a surprise attack. To feel out his opponent, Pike called up the artillery, and while they set up and opened fire, he sat down nearby with his staff to interrogate a prisoner who had been brought to him. It was just past one o’clock.

As his force marched toward York, Sheaffe ordered Capt. Tito Lelièvre of the Newfoundland Fencibles to return to the garrison and detonate the grand magazine. The magazine, constructed during the preceding six months on the lakeshore near the general’s residence, was a strongly built structure of heavy timber and stone. While Pike’s guns were setting up, Lelièvre and his crew were laying a powder train. Then they lit it and fled as fast as they could.

The American field guns had fired two or three rounds when the grand magazine exploded. In an instant, three hundred barrels of black powder were vaporized into a ball of flame that erupted through the upper story, roof, and sides of the magazine, blooming up into the air like some nightmarish mushroom. The fireball was consumed by a pitch-black cloud of smoke that climbed up and around it, boiling out from its curves and stretching up into the sky. Out of the fulminating mass flew rock and pieces of timber, streaking on a thousand different trajectories. “Cart loads of stone, and an immense quantity of iron, shell and shot [fell to earth],” wrote Lt. Col. Samuel Conner, “the column was raked from front to rear.”

Some men were quick-witted enough to try to save themselves. One artillery officer bent double along the underside of his gun’s barrel “and escaped with only a few rents in those parts of his garments, which projected beyond the cover,” another officer said. A second dove headlong into an empty cask, “leaving his nether man to bide the pelting of the pitiless storm.” For him, time came to a standstill as “the falling stones beat a tattoo on the bilge of the barrel, which he thought was to put him to sleep forever.”

Zebulon Pike found no barrel, however. A large fragment of stone knocked him to the ground, crushing his spine. When his aides recovered well enough to tend to him, the general gasped, “I am mortally wounded—my ribs and back are stove in.”

More than two hundred men fell dead and wounded on the common; those left standing staggered back in shock and disbelief. But the survivors recovered quickly and their shouting officers, expecting a British attack, soon brought them back to order. When no attack came, Col. Cromwell Pearce, 16th Infantry, taking command as senior officer on the ground, ordered an advance on the garrison. Meanwhile, Pike’s aides improvised a litter and carried him to the beach, where he was ferried out to one of the schooners and then to Madison.

Sheaffe had stopped his retreat at the edge of town, a thousand yards from the garrison, and held a brief council of war. He cut off any talk of making a last stand and announced that he would head to Kingston with his regulars. He appointed Lt. Col. William Chewett and Maj. William Allan of the militia to treat for peace with the Americans and left the town in their hands. Placing dozens of wounded in quickly appropriated wagons, the general and his army began a straggling retreat eastward.

The American column halted as Chewett and Allan approached them under a white flag, and Pearce sent officers to discuss terms with them. The process was suddenly interrupted when plumes of black smoke boiled up from the dockyard where Captain Lelièvre and his men, at Sheaffe’s orders, had set fire to the Brock and nearby storehouses. This nearly put an end to negotiations, but the Canadians, claiming ignorance of Sheaffe’s action, persisted, and the two sides worked out a rough agreement.

Still, the situation was confused. Pearce ordered Allan detained and marched him through the town with the column as a symbol of defeat.

Confusion marked the entire American occupation of York. Some officers expressed their disgust that, living down to his reputation, “Granny” Dearborn did not go ashore until the late afternoon, and he did nothing— except take credit for the victory. The next morning he ordered a new set of terms written up, and it was not until that afternoon that some of the captured British wounded received medical attention.

Pearce had posted Forsyth’s rifles as guards in the town overnight, and they went on a rampage of looting. Other soldiers and seamen joined them, until nearly every house in the town and the outlying area had been vandalized—notably without personal injury to anyone. Several dozen locals were among the looters. The civil authorities protested to Dearborn, but he was unsuccessful in controlling his men. On May 1 and 2, only a few days after they had arrived there, Dearborn and his force sailed from York.

The most widely noticed act of vandalism during the American occupation was the burning of two single-story brick Parliament buildings at the eastern edge of town. That act of arson at York has since been seen by many as the motivation for the fires a British invading army set in Washington in August 1814. Many other extreme acts of arson occurred between the two events, however, with the burning of the American president’s mansion being just one more tale of vengeful destruction.

A woodcut depicting the death of Zebulon Pike at York. At 34, the young general’s death shocked the nation. (National Portrait Gallery, Smithsonian Institution)

Leaving York, the Americans burned all military structures. They filled their vessels with provisions, naval supplies, and munitions, and gave leftovers to the locals. They considered some of their booty, including a number of cannons, useless and dumped it in the lake.

Dearborn and Chauncey’s plan had been to capture York, then make a quick voyage to Fort George on the Niagara Peninsula and carry it, too, by amphibious assault. But a foul wind and days of rain pinned the squadron to the Canadian shore west of York until May 7. The seamen and soldiers endured crowded, wet, and grossly unsanitary conditions. It was a sickened task force that finally disembarked near Fort Niagara, causing the attack on Fort George to be postponed.

American newspapers soon began publishing the official reports and trumpeted the news of the great military victory, exulting in the taking of a Canadian capital city. Pike’s death seemed to add to the drama of this first significant success for American land forces in the war.

But the statistics of the battle revealed to knowledgeable observers how narrow the victory had been. While the Rifles and 15th Infantry lost 14 killed and 31 wounded during the first phase of the action, the explosion of the grand magazine killed 39 and wounded 224 men from their units and the others that fought there—about one-sixth of the entire brigade. Chauncey captured a vast amount of naval stores, but the Brock was destroyed.

The only ship he managed to take back to Sackets was the old Duke of Gloucester, where it remained for the rest of the war. Of the sixteen assorted cannons Chauncey kept, none was mounted on any of his vessels. To make matters worse, the Americans later burned nearly all the captured naval stores to prevent their recapture during the unsuccessful British attack on Sackets Harbor on May 29, 1813.

Although it gave a great boost to American morale and demonstrated that the nation could undertake effective amphibious operations, the assault on York had little strategic impact. Historians have often claimed that the loss of guns and stores at York contributed directly to the eventual British defeat at the Battle of Lake Erie in September 1813, but there is little proof of the connection. The Americans lost an active young general, and Henry Dearborn’s days of command were numbered. Chauncey’s strategic advantage was soon reduced when a Royal Navy detachment arrived at Kingston and challenged him for control of the lake.

Sheaffe’s retreating column made it to Kingston. There he found his defense of York condemned, almost universally. His official report understated not only the strength of his force but also the butcher’s bill.

Of the more than 1,100 men he might have assembled, 82 were killed and nearly 120 wounded. He left York in total disarray—the town suffered from civil unrest that persisted for months, its citizens harassing town authorities until military detachments finally arrived to help quell the disturbances.

Sir George Prevost soon removed Sheaffe from his overall command and sent him to a post in Montreal, privately criticizing him to his superior officers in London. In October 1813, orders arrived for Sheaffe to return to England. He remained in the army the rest of his life, but he never held another active command.

Zebulon Pike gasped away his last breath aboard the Madison, not long after his victorious brigade marched into York. A flag taken at the garrison was brought to him just before he died. His body was preserved in spirits, and on May 13 he was buried at Sackets Harbor. The iron casket containing Pike’s remains was relocated twice over the years, and is currently interred at Sackets near a modest stone recalling his service.

Although widely mourned, Pike did not receive a posthumous medal from Congress, as did some of his peers. His war service has barely been remembered. In time his explorations were honored, especially at Colorado sites near Pike’s Peak. Ironically, he failed in his attempt to scale the mountain named for him, just as his quest for glory was cut short by the explosion at Little York.


Originally published in the Autumn 2008 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here