American troops invading Canada might have fared better if they had exploited a mistake made by a British martinet that left his force unprepared to fight.
Capturing the enemy’s entire force on the battlefield is certainly a victory, and that is what British Major General Roger Hale Sheaffe accomplished at Queenston Heights, Canada, on October 13, 1812. Only later was it revealed that he had “clubbed” his battle line and was lucky not to have been beaten in the ensuing chaos.
The term “club,” according to Charles James’s Military Dictionary (published in London in 1802), means “a temporary inability in the commanding officer to restore any given body of men to their natural front in line or column.” The “natural front” for a British battalion of infantry had the grenadier company of elite attack troops on the right, the light infantry company on the left, and the battalion companies in between. This “line” actually consisted of two ranks of soldiers, standing shoulder to shoulder, with commanding officers, colors, and musicians at specific points ahead of and behind the line. All eyes were forward, or “to the front.”
To march, the battalion usually faced right (making a quarter turn in that direction) and proceeded. When halted, an officer would order the battalion to “Front,” whereon each man would turn back to face to the natural front. However, Sheaffe’s force arrived on the battlefield in reverse order, and if they had been ordered to “Front” they would have offered their backs to the enemy.
The enemy on Tuesday, October 13, 1812, comprised about four hundred American regulars and militia on the heights. They were the remains of the force Maj. Gen. Stephen Van Rensselaer had sent out before dawn to establish a toehold in Upper Canada.
A wealthy landowner by birth and New York State politician by choice, Van Rensselaer was the state’s senior militia officer but lacked any practical military experience. Under pressure to achieve a military success before winter set in, he launched an attack at the village of Queenston on the Niagara River, which separated New York from the colony, seven miles south of Lake Ontario.
The first wave of militia and regulars crossed the treacherous watercourse in the predawn darkness. After some fierce fighting with the British garrison, the Americans took the heights and captured a key battery. They then killed the British commander, Maj. Gen. Isaac Brock, when he led a charge, attempting to retake the guns.
The Americans secured their position and took station by noon in a copse of oak trees on the ridge towering three hundred feet above the river. Up to that point it had been what New York Militia rifleman Jared Willson termed “a splendid victory in the morning.”
By midafternoon things had gone sour, however. Due to poor logistical planning and a failure in command and control, the American army found it was hemmed in as the British counterattacked. Van Rensselaer did not take charge in the field, and command eventually passed to Lt. Col. Winfield Scott of the 2nd U.S. Regiment of Artillery, who along with most of the Americans present was experiencing his baptism under fire.
Although the British and Canadians were dismayed at the sudden loss of the much-respected General Brock, there was only a brief lapse in their defense of the Upper Canada frontier. Brock’s second in command, Sheaffe, rode up from the headquarters near Fort George at the mouth of the Niagara River and took over. He sent forward a detachment of British infantry and artillery to fire on the Americans from the village, and a party of Grand River Six Nations warriors to harass them on the heights.
This gave him time to assemble reinforcements from Fort George at a point about one mile north of Queenston. Shortly after 1 p.m., he marched his column by a roundabout route up the ridge to a stretch of farmers’ fields south of the woods where Scott and his men were holding.
As many as fourteen hundred Americans of the six thousand assembled had crossed into Canada, but this number withered in the afternoon. Terrified by the Six Nations warriors and the realities of war, hundreds of regulars and militiamen crowded into the handful of remaining boats and rowed back to the New York shore.
Others hid in the undergrowth of the Niagara gorge, waiting for the boats to return. Only about four hundred Americans stood their ground waiting for a frontal attack from the British forces, which numbered about 650.
However, the attack was slow in coming. In fact, it seemed delayed, and Scott later wrote that the British organized themselves with “an awful tediousness.” Lieutenant Colonel John Chrystie, 13th U.S. Regiment of Infantry, echoed Scott’s impression when he wrote a friend of watching “the enemy, manoeuvering with great caution if not with some hesitation.”
Even among the British there were eyebrows raised by Sheaffe’s preparations for battle. Captain James Crooks of the 1st Lincoln Regiment, Upper Canada Militia, recalled that “The attack on the heights appeared…to be oddly managed.”
Indeed, Sheaffe had brought his column to the battlefield in the wrong order. Had the Americans been more experienced, they could have attacked the British at a point of obvious vulnerability. As he ordered his force to march from the rallying point north of Queenston, Sheaffe led it from the left instead of the right. The left-most end of his line was at the head of the column as it trudged down the main road to confront the Americans.
“Judge their situation for a moment,” Ensign John Smith of the 41st Regiment of Foot stationed at Fort George wrote to Lt. Col. Henry Proctor. “If Wheeled into Line, which was the only Formation left, their backs would have been to the enemy.”
The handbook of British regulations was very clear about this state of affairs. “The inversion of all bodies in line is to be avoided,” states Sir David Dundas’ Rules and Regulations for the Formation, Field-Exercise and Movements of His Majesty’s Forces. In addition:
“There are situations where this rule must be dispensed with…[when the] line may be obliged to face to the right about, the more readily to oppose a danger, instead of changing its position by a countermarch…[but the] Troops must therefore be accustomed to such operations…[or] otherwise, in such critical situations, confusion is very easily produced, and will even be attended with the most fatal consequences.”
On the bloody fields of the Peninsular War (1808-1814), recovery from such a circumstance had been a matter of routine, as battle-hardened units learned how to adapt quickly to situations. But this October day at Queenston was the first time in more than a decade that most of the British regulars on hand had marched into battle. As for the local militia, which comprised about half of the column, virtually any maneuver was a novelty.
This was one of the points that Ensign Smith made as he reported on Sheaffe’s predicament and its solution to his regimental commander, Lt. Col. Proctor:
Right Wing was ordered to the Front (much the militia knew about this) Sergt [Gordon] Lyon [41st Foot] was very fortunately present and by some means or other got them form’d so—which brought the Column into the next field which was joining the Chippawa Road, the head facing the River [to the right, or east, of that road]. Next the direction of the Column was Changed so as to face [north] towards Queenston then ordered to Deploy [spread out] so as to extend to the Right…(much the militia who were intermixed knew about this). When the Deployment had taken place many of the Right division were in the Field on the opposite side of the road and exposed there very much to the Fire from the Enemies [a battery of two 18-pounder long guns] on the other side of the river. The men in this Field were scarcely able to move being up to their knees in mud and water. The Line then faced to the Left and marched til the Left was brought in rear of the old camp ground [the American position] again and the right in the Field to the S.W. of the Chippawa road where they were ordered to lay down to conceal them from the Enemy.
Smith concluded that this last maneuver left the Americans confused about Sheaffe’s intentions, which probably saved the whole enterprise, “for had they [the Americans] attacked them when in the Field (while Changing Front Deploying) they certainly would have defeated them.”
About 250 regulars and militia arrived from Chippawa (ten miles to the south) around 3 P.M., and Sheaffe quickly sent them to the right of his line and signaled for the advance. The confusion was not over, however.
“An order came for the regulars to front and attack,” remembered Captain Crooks, “but no orders for the Militia to do so were received.” They had actually been left to march away from the advancing regulars when Crooks took matters into his own hands. “Seeing a Company in front fall into confusion upon hearing the booming of two 3 pounders we had with us…I no longer hesitated to face to the front, and at a double quick we soon encountered the enemy.” Crooks also made a point of mentioning where Sheaffe was at the time, writing, “The General must have seen all this, following the attack as he did with a stick in his hand.”
How could a major general so badly botch an attack? According to Charles James’ definition, “Ignorant or inexperienced officers may frequently commit this error; sometimes, however, the circumstance may arise from an erroneous movement [of] a division or company, notwithstanding that the word of command was correct….It does not, however, always follow, that because an officer may occasionally commit this error…he must therefore be unequal to the superior functions of command.”
Was Roger Sheaffe unequal to the superior functions of command? According to Isaac Brock, in a letter to his brothers written about a month before the battle, “There never was an individual so miserably off for the necessary assistance.”
This observation has spurred some discussion, but what Brock meant remains uncertain. Sheaffe does not appear to have been in need of money. Indeed, he had the funds to buy the majority of Brock’s estate on the general’s death and was a leading donor to the relief fund set up to establish the militia. There is some evidence of his unpopularity, perhaps because he had shortcomings as an officer.
Sheaffe was born in Boston on July 15, 1763, one of eight children fathered by William Sheaffe, a customs collector. After his father died, the British general, Earl Percy, later the duke of Northumberland, hired rooms in the boardinghouse run by Sheaffe’s mother. In time, he took an interest in the boy. He first obtained a berth for him as a midshipman, then sent him to Lewis Lochée’s academy in London and, in 1778, purchased an ensigncy for him in the 5th Regiment of Foot.
With the duke’s patronage, Sheaffe rose through the ranks, mainly by purchase, and ended up in 1799 as a lieutenant colonel in the 49th Foot, where Brock was the senior lieutenant colonel. He and Brock had their only battlefield experience before 1812 during one engagement in the Netherlands in 1799. They were aboard the British fleet during the battle of Copenhagen in 1801, but had seen no other action before receiving orders to serve in Canada in 1802.
In August 1803, a mutiny nearly erupted at Fort George while Sheaffe commanded the post. Brock was at York (modern Toronto) at the time and rushed to Niagara (today Niagara-on-the-Lake) when he found confirmation of the impending insurrection. He quickly and efficiently arrested the perpetrators of the plot, and tried them at Quebec. The guilty parties were executed or transported.
Early in 1804, Brock reported his assessment of Sheaffe to Upper Canada’s Lieutenant Governor Peter Hunter. He openly acknowledged Sheaffe’s strengths, writing that “no man understands the duties of his profession better” and that he had “shewn great zeal, judgment, and capacity.”
The general added that Sheaffe was prone, however, to exercise the men of the 49th too hard, berate them without mercy, expect the highest level of perfection in every maneuver, and would abruptly reduce sergeants in rank if their men failed to meet Sheaffe’s standard. His “rude manner of speaking” and “disagreeable ways,” wrote Brock, have led to “many instances [when] he has been very indiscreet and injudicious.” To Brock, it was plain that Sheaffe “possesses little knowledge of mankind” because “he did not sufficiently study the character of the men.”
General Brock spoke privately to his colleague about the mutiny and his manner with the men. Sheaffe soon left Fort George to take command of the post at York. Although Brock clearly considered Sheaffe at fault for the incident, he could not reveal this opinion publicly lest the lieutenant colonel “become the scoff and ridicule of the whole Regiment.” As it was, Sheaffe had already earned “many enemies who have been in the habit of propagating reports highly injurious to his character as an officer.”
Nevertheless, Sheaffe remained in the army. Although he went home to England in 1811, he returned to Canada the next year as a major general and Brock’s second in command.
Ironically, it was to a noncommissioned officer, Sergeant Lyon, and no doubt others of that rank, that Sheaffe turned when he found his column clubbed in the fields south of the Americans at Queenston. The reputed parade-ground martinet had failed to anticipate how his column would arrive in front of the Americans.
A scene of confusion was rapidly worsening, and the situation was only rescued after much moving about. According to the militiaman Crooks, Sheaffe even bungled the attack itself, although it ended in capturing 925 Americans.
Not surprisingly, there was no mention of the fumbling in Sheaffe’s official report of the battle that by October 27 was already being termed “a complete victory” by a contemporary newspaper, the Quebec Mercury. Sheaffe was made a baronet for his actions, but he still had many detractors. After he failed to give quick support to the British force on the upper Niagara River late in November when the Americans made another unsuccessful attempt to invade, officers and locals alike heavily criticized Sheaffe.
When a combined military and naval force captured York, the capital of Upper Canada, on April 27, 1813, Sheaffe managed its defense badly. A local report compiled right after the action noted, “The universal reproach of every man and woman, and execration of the conduct of Genl. Sheaffe, was such that for the first days it was idle to interpose a doubt of his cowardice and disaffection.” Before the end of the year, Sheaffe was recalled to England, his active days on that war front at an end.
The image of a thin red line advancing to the attack in perfect precision is a cliché in military history. Things did not always evolve according to the textbook, however. Such a club as Roger Sheaffe suffered on his march to success at Queenston may be hidden from view after a day that ends in “a complete victory,” but not necessarily from memory.
Robert Malcomson’s most recent book is Historical Dictionary of the War of 1812 (Lanham, Maryland: Scarecrow Press, 2006).
Originally published in the Spring 2007 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.