Battle of York: Tainted American Victory
The Great Lakes were a strategically important battleground during the War of 1812. Effectively using a small fleet of warships, the British seized control of Lakes Ontario and Erie in the war’s opening year, thereby gaining the upper hand on their American adversaries. With the ability to concentrate their forces and quickly move men and supplies around the lakes, the British won several key battles during 1812.
The Americans responded with a concerted effort to win Lake Ontario. Commodore Isaac Chauncey assembled a 14-ship war fleet at Sackett’s Harbor, New York, at the end of 1812 and then awaited the melting of the winter’s ice. In early spring began the first significant move: an April attack on the port of York (present-day Toronto) where the British were building a powerful warship to combat Chauncey’s squadron. The timing of the attack was critical: wait long enough for enough ice to melt for safe passage on Lake Ontario’s waters, yet move before the ice melted on the Saint Lawrence River—which would allow the British to send reinforcements from Quebec in Lower Canada. With careful planning, the attack was launched on April 27, 1813.
The American forces consisted of Chauncey’s 14 ships, plus 1,700 troops supported by artillery, commanded by General Henry Dearborn. Their opposition was led by General Roger Hale Sheaffe, who only had 300 regular British troops, 300 militia, and around 100 Indian allies, relying upon a fort and a couple batteries of artillery for their defense.
The American troops landed and began the attack, with strong supporting fire from the warships. After some fierce fighting Sheaffe realized the cause was hopeless and, rather than sacrifice his remaining troops, ordered the British regulars to retreat and advised the militia to surrender to the Americans.
At that point it appeared the Americans had achieved a significant victory. They had captured the town and the port, and the British had suffered 475 casualties, compared to the Americans’ 17 dead and 43 wounded. But then disaster struck, due primarily to British duplicity.
While the Americans and the town’s militia were discussing surrender terms, the retreating British troops set fire to the warship being constructed in the dockyard, denying the Americans a great prize. Worse, the British left a flag flying over the fort as though it were still being defended. As American field commander General Zebulon Pike and his men cautiously approached the fort, the British set the gunpowder magazine on fire. With a huge roar, the resulting explosion rained stones down on the advancing American troops, killing Pike and 37 others, and wounding 222. The Battle of York’s final tally for the Americans ended up being 55 killed and 265 wounded; a burnt, useless warship; and a destroyed fort.
One more incident would mar the Battle of York for the Americans. Dearborn lost control of his troops for three days after the battle, the men damaging and plundering York from April 28-30, burning many of the buildings. This would come back to haunt the Americans a year later, when the British retaliated by burning Washington, D.C., on August 24-25, 1814.
This report of the American victory at the Battle of York was published by the Columbian (New York, New York) on May 7, 1813:
Interesting News from the North
By the steamboat Paragon, com. Wiswall, who arrived at half past 5 o’clock this morning, in the unexampled passage of 20½ hours from Albany, we have received the following glorious and important intelligence.
The Capital of Upper Canada Taken
Extract of a letter from Maj. Gen. Lewis, to the Postmaster at Utica, dated: Niagara, 29th April, 1813.
Our troops from the Harbor arrived at Little York at sunrise on the morning of the 27th, where, after a sharp conflict, we succeeded in carrying the place and all the outworks. We lost by the explosion of a mine several men, and unfortunately Gen. Pike [was] among the number. Sheaffe made his escape with what regulars he had left. Yours, &c.,
Messenger Office, Canandaigua, May 1, 1813.
The following letter from Gen. Peter B. Porter, was sent by express to J. C. Spencer, Esq., of this village, and received here this afternoon. We sincerely congratulate the readers of the Messenger upon the gallant achievement it describes. While we exult in the glory of our arms, we cannot but feel, deeply feel, the loss of the brave Gen. Pike.
Manchester, Niagara Co., April 28, 1813, 6 o’clock P.M.
I have just returned from Fort Niagara, where I saw a captain of the United States’ navy. He is just from Little York, the capital of Upper Canada, and gives the following account, which is confirmed by official dispatches from Gen. Dearborn to Gen. Lewis, now here.
On Tuesday the 27th April, at sunrise, Commodore Chauncey, with a squadron of 10 or 12 vessels, appeared before York, with Gen. Dearborn and near 3000 men. The infantry under Brig. Gen. Pike landed, attacked the town and batteries in the rear, while the squadron attacked them by water. At 2 P.M. they carried the place, taking a great number of Indians and militia prisoners, one thousand Indians being engaged.
Gen. Sheaffe, with a few regular troops, made their escape. Gen. Pike with about 200 men were killed, by the blowing up of a magazine, in one of their batteries, and in which they had a train of powder for the purpose. About fifty of the British artillerists were killed by the same explosion. The loss on both sides is considerable. Our army is now in possession of the town and is expected here shortly. Our troops behaved with the greatest gallantry. Immense quantities of military stores and Indian goods were taken at York, which seems to have been the depot for those articles. The vessels of the squadron are not sufficient to bring them away.
Although General Porter does not mention the taking [of] any British vessels, yet we are well informed that a considerable portion of the enemy’s lake-navy was lying at York, and the other part at Kingston. It is, therefore, highly probable that our gallant tars have either destroyed or obtained possession of a sufficient number of the enemy’s ships, to enable us very soon to chase the enemy from the lakes.
By a gentleman direct from Sackett’s Harbor we learn that the force that sailed from there on Sunday the 25th consisted of Com. Chauncey and about 1000 sailors; with Gen. Dearborn and Gen. Pike, who took with them, the 6th, 16th, and 15th regiments, Col. M’Clure’s regiment, consisting of the New York, Baltimore and Albany volunteers, and Capt. Forsyth’s company, all of infantry; and a detachment of artillery, in all about 2000.
By the politeness of Mr. Hitchcock, postmaster, Utica, we are favored with the original letter of Major General Lewis. Besides this incontestable evidence of the authenticity of the foregoing accounts (issued in a handbill this morning), his Excellency Governor Tompkins received letters from Commodore Chauncey and Gen. Lewis, congratulating him on the victory, and the subjoined communication from a distinguished officer who was present at the expedition.
York, Upper Canada, April 28th, 1813.
After having been delayed several days by adverse winds, we arrived here yesterday morning at sunrise. We commenced landing our troops at eight o’clock A.M. under very unfavorable circumstances. A very high wind, which continued to increase all day, prevented our armed vessels for some time from gaining proper positions for covering our landing as effectually as they otherwise would have done; and the same unfavorable wind prevented our boats reaching the shore at the place intended, and compelled our troops to land where the bank was covered with woods, in which Gen. Sheaffe had collected his whole force of regulars, militia and Indians, amounting to about 750 or 800 total; but our troops, with great coolness, sustained a heavy fire from the Indians and others from the time they approached within gunshot of the shore until they landed and mounted the bank, where a very sharp contest was kept up about half an hour. In the meantime other troops were landed and the enemy were compelled to give way and retreat through the woods to their works. As soon as the whole of the troops were landed and formed, under the immediate command of Gen. Pike, they marched through a thick wood about half a mile to the open ground, annoyed by the Indians as they moved.
On reaching the open ground, they advanced and carried a battery by assault, and were advancing towards the principal works, in open column, when a tremendous explosion took place, of an immense magazine prepared for the purpose, which threw into the air such a quantity of stones as almost covered the buildings and ground for from sixty to eighty rods in all directions; but it had been so contrived as to discharge much the greatest portion of stones in the direction our column was advancing. It made very considerable havoc in our column; and what is to be more especially lamented is the death of Brigadier-General Pike, occasioned by a severe contusion by a stone: he survived the wound but a few hours. His loss will be severely felt—he was a most excellent officer. Gen. Sheaffe had taken measures for going off with what regulars he had left, previous to the explosion. He left the town and militia to make the best terms they could. They are in our possession.
A large ship of war, nearly planked up, and all the naval stores, were set on fire before our troops had advanced far enough to prevent it. A capitulation was agreed on, surrendering the militia as prisoners of war, and the whole of the public property not destroyed.
Commodore Chauncey’s armed vessels had an active share in annoying their works; they kept up a very heavy cannonade on their batteries, until they were taken or blown up. The commodore is one of the best men in the world, and peculiarly suited to the command that has been confided to him.
P.S. The enemy set fire to their magazine too soon—they destroyed many of their own men.
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