At dawn on Tuesday, April 27, 1813, a squadron of American warships bore down upon the town of York, situated on the northwest corner of Lake Ontario. Aboard USS Madison, a 24-gun corvette, Major General Henry Dearborn, a 62-year-old veteran of the Revolutionary War, surveyed the shoreline where his army would land. Beside the general, Commodore Isaac Chauncey gave orders to bring the vessels as close to shore as possible. Throughout the squadron, armed men prepared to disembark. The initial invasion of British soil during the War of 1812’s second year was about to begin.But why would the Americans initiate hostilities against a weak garrison and a town of barely 700 people? The disappointing failure of American armies to conquer the Canadian provinces during 1812 had prompted Secretary of War John Armstrong to devise a new plan of attack for the 1813 campaign. He identified the important British military and naval base at Kingston and the vital transportation route of the St. Lawrence River as the prime targets of the invasion force. Gaining control of those points would isolate British posts on the lakes and make them easy prey for subsequent attacks. At first Dearborn and Chauncey, who were making preparations at Sackets Harbor, N.Y., had intended to implement Armstrong’s plan late in the winter. They changed their scheme, however, after a successful British sortie at Ogdensburg, on the St. Lawrence, and after hearing a rumor that the garrison at Kingston had been reinforced to the strength of 6,000 to 8,000 men. In addition, ice continued to clog the eastern end of Lake Ontario through April. Rather than risk their military and naval forces on a risky assault on Kingston, the two commanders selected York, whose harbor was already free of ice, as an alternate objective for their first expedition of the season. Armstrong reluctantly gave his consent.
York was an enticing target for the Americans. Although the town was the capital of Upper Canada (now Ontario) and the province’s government buildings were located there, it was only weakly defended. The British were also developing a naval base at York, which was intended to eventually supersede Kingston. In December 1812 work had begun on a 30-gun frigate to be named HMS Sir Isaac Brock, after the general who had taken Detroit on August 16, 1812, and subsequently died in defense of Queenston Heights on the Niagara River on October 13. That frigate, several storehouses full of naval materiel, plus two small Provincial Marine warships that had wintered there would make significant additions to Chauncey’s squadron — and their loss would significantly hamper British efforts to regain supremacy on the lake. Once York was secured, Dearborn and Chauncey expected that a quick invasion and conquest of the Niagara Peninsula would be assured, after which an attack could be made on Kingston.
Dearborn’s troops embarked at Sackets Harbor on April 22. Included among the 1,750 men were members from the 6th, 4th, 15th, 16th and 21st Infantry regiments, as well as detachments from the 3rd and the Light Artillery regiments and a company of Major Benjamin Forsyth’s Rifle Regiment. Militiamen from New York, Maryland and Vermont also joined the force as volunteer reserves. The warships were uncomfortably crowded; Madison alone, with a gun deck measuring nearly 120 feet, held more than 600 seamen and soldiers. After a first attempt to sail on April 23 was cut short by a storm, the squadron weighed anchor on the 25th, its destination unknown to all but the commanding officers.
Brigadier General Zebulon Montgomery Pike had been appointed by Dearborn to lead the invasion force ashore. At 34 years of age, Pike had spent most of his life in the army, serving at frontier posts and earning some fame as an explorer in the western regions. As the colonel of the 15th Infantry Regiment during the fall campaign of 1812, he had seen his first action under fire. Pike’s plan for attacking York was forthright and simple: initiate a naval bombardment, establish a beachhead, cover the military landing, then move toward the target in well-delineated order with bayonets fixed, ready for close action. His orders emphasized the need for obedience and bravery from his men, while at the same time calling for humane treatment of civilians.
Late on April 26, the American squadron appeared west of York. By the following morning, Chauncey had brought his squadron toward the harbor, heading for a landing site three miles west of the town. At that point, a clearing around the ruins of an old French fort provided an ideal location for forming the troops into marching order. A stiff easterly breeze made their approach difficult, but by 8 a.m. the signal to disembark was given.
The first craft to head for the shore was a pair of bateaux carrying Forsyth’s riflemen. The adverse wind frustrated the mariners handling the boats, making it impossible to reach the shore at the French fort. Instead, they were blown a half mile up the shoreline toward a narrow beach lying at the foot of an embankment. As Forsyth’s group neared the beach, a fusillade of musket and rifle fire rained down upon them from the dense brush and forest atop the bank. Forsyth ordered his men to rest momentarily as the boats came to ground and then gave the command to load and fire at the defenders. Aboard Madison, Pike watched the flashes of musketry opposing the bateaux. Unwilling to be only an observer, the general climbed down into a boat along with his staff officers and joined the flotilla of small craft streaming toward the shore.
Leading the British was Sir Roger Hale Sheaffe, who had rallied British forces after Maj. Gen. Sir Issaac Brock’s death at Queenston Heights and marched them to ultimate victory over the American invaders. Sheaffe now had about 300 regular troops at his disposal, plus 45 Indians of the Missassauga and Ojibway tribes, 250 militiamen, some members of the Provincial Marine and 40 artificers from the shipyard. After the enemy had been sighted on the evening of April 26, Sheaffe had deployed his men at various points between the garrison and the eastern end of the town.
As the Americans’ point of attack became obvious the next morning, Sheaffe gathered his troops at the garrison and ordered the Indian detachment, commanded by Major James Givins of the Indian Department, to be the first to oppose the landing. Shortly thereafter he sent the Glengarry Infantry to support them while directing a militia patrol, under the command of Maj. Gen. Aeneas Shaw, to protect the right flank on a road north of the woods lying just past the lakeshore. Next, the Grenadier Company of the 8th, or King’s Regiment of Foot, led by Captain Neal McNeal and assisted by a handful of volunteers, marched toward the landing point. They were soon followed by two small companies of the Royal Newfoundland Fencibles, supplemented by a number of local militiamen. Last to join the procession was a battalion company of the 8th, under Captain James Hardy Eustace, which had spent the previous night on duty at the eastern blockhouse.
Sheaffe warned each party to make its advance through the cover of the woods to avoid drawing fire from the schooners, which were moving in closer to shore to cover the landing. The thick woods made the going too difficult for Sheaffe to order the garrison’s pair of 6-pounder field guns forward. Not involved in the attempt to turn back the invaders was the majority of the 3rd York Militia Regiment, commanded by Lt. Col. William Chewett. It remained close to the town during most of the fighting, apparently in defiance of Sheaffe’s instruction to join the regular troops, although the reason has never been determined.
While those deployments were being made, the American landing continued, the troops strung out along the shore near Forsyth’s bateaux and opposed only by Major Givins’ Indians. Pike had arrived and was directing the formation of the companies. Forsyth’s Rifles, dressed in green, had taken up positions among the trees and bushes that fringed the beach and were defending the boats as they approached the shore.
Assistance for Givins’ Indians was slow in arriving. Inexplicably, the Glengarries were drawn away from their objective through a miscommunication from General Shaw, so it was the Grenadiers of the 8th Regiment who arrived first at the landing to support Givins’ group. Led by Captain McNeal, the Grenadiers fired a volley and stormed down the bank toward the Americans. A steel-against-steel skirmish then erupted, during which McNeal’s men pushed some of the Americans back to their boats. McNeal was killed, as were his sergeant major, more than two dozen rank-and-file troops and Donald McLean, a prominent citizen of York. Among the Americans, Captain Hoppock of the 15th Regiment and Midshipmen John Hatfield and Benjamin Thompson lay dying in the boats, along with nearly 20 other casualties. Sensing victory in spite of the bloodiness of the fight, Forsyth’s buglers blared out in defiance, and the Americans managed to regain ground. Beaten, the survivors of the 8th turned and fled back up the bank and into the woods.
The Royal Newfoundlanders met the survivors from the 8th Regiment and were urged by General Sheaffe to attack. Supported by Eustace’s 8th Regiment company and the Glengarries, who had finally found their way into the fight, they pushed forward toward the beach but were repulsed after another bloody exchange. Conceding defeat at last, Sheaffe then ordered his troops to retreat out of the woods, to the accompaniment of ‘Yankee Doodle, coming from the fifes and drums of Major William King’s 15th Regiment.
The British fell back past the old French fort and through a second stretch of forest to a gun emplacement known as the Western Battery. They crowded around the earthen mound where gunners were gamely firing a pair of condemned 18-pounders, with their trunions broken off and tightly bound to wooden stocks, at the schooners moving along the shore toward the garrison.
The schooners energetically returned fire, but they were not the cause of the next setback for the British. The traveling magazine in the battery suddenly exploded in flames, sparked by a carelessly handled match. In a flash the guns were blown off their mounts and a dozen or more men lay dead. Slowly the wounded were gathered up and carried toward the garrison. A witness to the disaster described them: Their faces were completely black….their clothes scorched and emitting an effluvia so strong as to be perceived long before they reached one. One man in particular presented an awful spectacle; he was brought in a wheelbarrow, and from his appearance I should be induced to suppose that every bone in his body was broken.
Working frantically, Lt. Col. Rowland Heathcote and Lieutenant Philip Ingouville of the Royal Newfoundlanders managed to get one of the 18-pounders set up again just as Pike’s vanguard came within sight on the edge of the forest. Discovering that no grapeshot remained to oppose the assembling infantrymen, Heathcote and Ingouville fired several ineffective rounds and then joined the retreat.
By then it was nearing 11 a.m. Pike had been able to draw up his troops on the clearing at the old French fort before proceeding slowly along the bridle path that cut through the woods. When the Western Battery came into sight, Pike halted his march. He called on Captain John Wolworth of the 6th Regiment to assault the battery, but before Wolworth could do anything the British were seen abandoning their position and fleeing toward the town.
The York garrison, located about 11Ž2 miles east of the originally intended landing site, was lightly fortified. A single blockhouse stood within a palisade guarded by a pair of 6-pounder cannons and at least one other long gun. A second pair of guns, 12-pounders, was set up on the west side of Garrison Creek near a one-story building that was the governor’s residence. Some plans had been made to strengthen the garrison, but prior to the American attack only a dry moat and earthwork had been completed, connecting the creek to the lake shore just west of the governor’s house.
As noon approached, the retreating British reached the garrison. Soon Pike’s column was seen passing an unarmed earthwork known as the Half-Moon Battery. The guns by the governor’s residence opened fire on the Americans, while the garrison guns engaged the schooners that had managed to tack into position opposite the blockhouse. Pike ordered a field gun brought up to join in the contest.
Seeing the damage that had been inflicted upon his force, General Sheaffe gave orders to abandon the garrison. It was his intention to preserve his surviving troops, rather than sacrifice them for a losing cause. Sheaffe turned over command of York to militia officers Colonel Chewett and Major William Allan, with orders to negotiate a truce with the Americans. Unobtrusively, all but a handful of British troops and locals slipped away from the garrison and headed toward the town. Behind them, at the general’s instructions, a fuse was laid to the grand magazine that was located on the shore by the governor’s residence and contained 200 barrels of powder and prepared ammunition.
General Pike, at the head of his line, watched the British cannons fall quiet and wondered what they would do next. The large royal standard still flapped on the flagpole in front of the governor’s house, and there was no clear indication that the British had given up the fight. Pike held his force in position about 400 yards from the garrison, expecting an attack. Accompanied by his aides, he assisted with the removal of a wounded infantryman and then turned to interrogate a captured British sergeant. The general sat down on a tree stump, and at that instant the magazine exploded. The earth quaked and, in the words of an eyewitness, an immense cloud…a great confused mass of smoke, timber, men, earth, &c…rose, in a most majestic manner…[assuming] the shape of a vast balloon.
A deadly rain of debris fell on the American line, killing and wounding scores of men, among them Zebulon Pike. The fallen general — who suffered from either head or back injuries that would prove fatal — was gently transported to one of the schooners and then to Madison. Command of the brigade passed to Colonel Cromwell Pearce of the 16th Regiment, who had been sitting less than 15 yards from Pike. It was Pearce’s first experience in battle, but he showed no hesitation in taking charge. Along with Major Charles Hunter of the 15th and Lt. Col. George Mitchell of the 3rd Artillery, he shouted for his men to come to order. Within five minutes of the explosion, discipline had returned and the ranks had been restored. The Americans assumed that a subterranean mine had been ignited, and they expected the British would soon attack in full force.
No British counterattack was to come, however. Pearce waited and then sent Mitchell and Major William King ahead under a flag of truce to bargain for a cease-fire. They were met by militia officers Chewett and Allan. The royal standard, which had miraculously survived the explosion, was hauled down and replaced with the Stars and Stripes. The British flag was sent to Madison, where a corner of it was laid beneath the head of General Pike just before he died.
Mitchell and King met with Chewett and Allan and the Reverend John Strachan, one of the town’s leading citizens. They objected to negotiating with militiamen rather than General Sheaffe himself and then became more indignant when word came that the vast plume of smoke rising over the town was from the shipyard. In a short time the troops advancing upon the town discovered that Sheaffe had ordered the destruction of the yard and the unfinished frigate Sir Isaac Brock after negotiations for a truce had begun.
The Americans and British reached a rudimentary capitulation agreement, but its conditions were neither effectively established nor carried out. The wounded British rank and file were gathered into the garrison blockhouse and left unattended for 48 hours (Sheaffe had taken the surgeons with him). The captured regulars, militia and provincial navy men were also impounded at the garrison. All of the American troops were recalled to the same area except for Forsyth’s Riflemen, who were sent to occupy the village and to protect the safety of public property. Little was safe in York that night, however. In complete disregard of Pike’s orders, soldiers, sailors and local turncoats ransacked the homes and businesses of the village. Some American officers joined in the looting, while others, ashamed of the behavior of their comrades in arms, tried to protect locals from their depredations.
The next day, April 28, the militia officers and the Reverend Strachan again tried to settle the terms of capitulation with the Americans. The talks went on for six hours, and they seemed close to a resolution when Dearborn and Chauncey arrived at the garrison. According to Colonel Pearce, Dearborn had made a very brief visit to the garrison the day before and then left without giving orders. Now, in his first official act, the general rudely interrupted negotiations, harshly denigrating the British representatives. More debate followed before terms were agreed upon and the British wounded were finally tended to.
Members of the 21st Regiment were sent into the town to maintain order. Private property was to be respected, the militia and regular forces paroled, and the remaining war materiel confiscated. Ordnance, ammunition, provisions, a rich booty of 2,000 pounds sterling from the Provincial Treasury, plus the personal effects and papers of General Sheaffe were confiscated and loaded aboard the ships until no space remained to store them. The Americans also refloated a dismantled schooner, Duke of Gloucester, but had missed another ship that Chauncey had hoped to capture, the armed schooner Prince Regent, which had sailed for Kingston on April 23.
Ratification of the conditions of surrender did little to end the state of anarchy in York. Vandals roamed at will, the church was robbed on April 30, and shortly afterward the legislative buildings at the east end of the village were burned. Appalled by such outright disregard for authority, Dearborn returned control of civil law to the local authorities and ordered all military units re-embarked. He also distributed leftover flour and pork among the destitute people in the village.
On May 1, the occupation force began returning to the ships after burning the remains of the governor’s house. Stragglers were rounded up the following day. Dearborn sailed to Fort Niagara on May 3, but bad weather prevented the rest of the fleet from sailing until May 8. Even then, the severe conditions on the lake so debilitated the soldiers that when they arrived at Niagara they were completely unfit for the planned raid on Fort George; that attack was delayed for almost three weeks.
The attack on York cost the British dearly. Although reports of the casualties varied, more than 60 regulars appear to have been killed and about 75 wounded, some of whom retreated with Sheaffe. Another 20 or so were made prisoners or were listed among the missing. Only 10 names of militiamen appeared on the list of killed and wounded, indicating the minor role the militia had played in defending the town. The citizens of York were completely disheartened, their worst apprehensions about the incompetence of their professional and military leaders having been realized. Sir Roger Hale Sheaffe’s active involvement in the war was at an end, as was all hope of building a well-fortified naval establishment at York. The loss of ordnance and stores would severely weaken the British naval squadrons, especially the ships that would face Oliver Hazard Perry’s fleet on Lake Erie the following September.
For the Americans, the outcome of the raid on York was dubious at best. Fifty-five men had been killed and another 265 wounded, the detonation of the magazine alone accounting for 250 of those casualties. Among them had been the energetic Zebulon Pike and a number of promising young officers whose talents would have been valuable during the ensuing months of the 1813 campaign. The Americans had seized a significant amount of materiel, but their failure to capture the warships Sir Isaac Brock and Prince Regent was a disappointment. More than a third of the British regulars had been captured or killed, but Sheaffe had been allowed to retreat with the majority of his force intact. The morale of the American army was eroded by the days of lawlessness in the village and the week spent wallowing aboard the storm-bound ships. Secretary of War Armstrong — who had envisioned a two-pronged attack, rather than the single-pronged assault Dearborn had mounted, which had allowed most of Sheaffe’s forces to escape — was generally dissatisfied with the invasion’s results. He responded to Dearborn’s report with a private letter noting his official censure of the attack. Within two months, Dearborn, whose subsequent invasion of the Niagara Peninsula was marked by similar incomplete success, stepped down as head of the U.S. Army in Upper Canada — another one of the old guard replaced by younger, more ambitious officers.
Pike’s orderly management of the attack earned him credit at the moment of his valorous death. Much had been sacrificed and little gained, however, by the Americans in their attempt to gain control of Lake Ontario. A pattern was set for the mismanaged campaign they would wage fitfully for the remainder of 1813, as well as a precedent for the burning of the town of Niagara in December 1813. That and the earlier sack of York caused an outraged cry for revenge from the residents of Upper Canada. Vengeance would come in August 1814, when a British force landed at Bentinct on the Patuxent River and — after routing an opposing force of American militia, Marines and seamen at Bladensburg on August 24 — entered Washington and burned the public buildings of the United States capital.
This article was written by Robert and Thomas Malcomson and originally appeared in the October 1998 issue of Military History magazine.
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