The Battle of Queenston Heights was a British victory during the War of 1812 which took place on October 13, 1812, near Queenston, Ontario. It was fought between United States regulars and New York militia forces led by Major General Stephen Van Rensselaer, and British forces led by Major General Sir Isaac Brock and Major General Sir Roger Hale Sheaffe. The battle, the largest in the war to that point, was fought as the result of an American attempt to establish a foothold on the Canadian side of the Niagara River before campaigning ended with the onset of winter. This decisive battle was the result of a poorly managed American campaign, and is most historically significant for the fact that in it, the British lost their commander, General Brock, who was killed by an unknown shooter.
Despite their theoretical numerical advantage and the wide dispersal of British forces against an invasion attempt, the Americans, who were stationed in Lewiston, New York, were unable to get the bulk of their invasion force across the Niagara River due to the work of British artillery and reluctance on the part of the undertrained and inexperienced American militia. As a result, British reinforcements were able to arrive and force those Americans on the Canadian side to surrender.
However, the three attacks on Upper Canada failed, or could not be launched. Hull was besieged in Detroit and, faced with the threat of a massacre by Britain's Native American allies, surrendered the city and his entire army at the Battle of Detroit. Dearborn and his army were remaining, relatively inactive, at Albany, and seemed to be in no hurry to attempt an invasion. (Dearborn would be replaced in 1813 with only minor successes to his credit). Van Rensselaer, meanwhile, was under considerable pressure to attempt his part of the invasion, both from his own men eager for battle and from an American public chafing under the disgrace of Hull's surrender.
Although he held the rank of Major General in the New York state militia, Van Rensselaer had never commanded troops in battle, and was in fact considered the leading Federalist candidate for the governorship of New York. Possibly hoping to get Van Rensselaer out of the way, New York governor Daniel Tompkins put Van Rensselaer's name forward to command the American army, and he officially took command July 13, 1812. Stephen Van Rensselaer did secure the appointment of experienced soldier Colonel Solomon Van Rensselaer (the General's second cousin) as his aide-de-camp, giving the General a valuable source of experienced advice.
Van Rensselaer laid a plan for the main force to cross the Niagara and take the heights near Queenston while Smyth attacked Fort George from the rear. However, Smyth made no reply to Van Rensselaer's plan. When summoned to a council of officers to plan the attack, Smyth did not respond, nor did he reply to a letter sent soon after. A direct order to arrive "with all possible dispatch" was also met with silence. Van Rensselaer, an amiable politician in a hurry to launch his attack, simply chose to proceed without Smyth rather than court-martial him and possibly delay the start of the battle.
On October 10, Van Rensselaer sent orders to Smyth to march his brigade to Lewiston in preparation for the attack "with every possible dispatch. The attack had been planned for Sunday, October 11 at 3 a.m., and Smyth set out upon receipt of the letter; however, he chose a bad route to Lewiston, in foul weather, on a road so bad that abandoned wagons could be seen "sticking in the road. At 10 a.m. on October 11, orders reached Smyth that the attack had been postponed. Smyth then turned back to his camp at Black Rock rather than press on to Lewiston, expressing in a letter to Van Rensselaer written on October 12 that his troops would be in condition to move out again on October 14, a day after the postponed attack was to be launched.
The October 11 attack was delayed because of a defection in Van Rensselaer's army. Over the previous few days, Colonel Van Rensselaer had been able to cross over to the British side under the escort of Brock's aide Lieutenant-Colonel John Macdonell, and as such had a fairly good idea of the lay of the land. Although Colonel Van Rensselaer was stricken down with fever, General Van Rensselaer resolved to launch the attack on October 11. However, with the American army formed up to cross in the early morning, one of the lead boatmen, a Lieutenant Sim rowed his boat away and abandoned the army, taking with him most of the oars that were to be used for the crossing. By the time the oars could be replaced, the attack had to be set back. General Van Rensselaer set the second attempt for October 13.
It was Brock's intention to attack the United States again, crossing the Niagara, defeating Van Rensselaer and Smyth before they could be reinforced, and occupying upper New York State for the British. Prevost vetoed this plan, ordering Brock to behave more defensively. (Prevost was aware that the British Government had revoked several Orders in Council which affected American merchant ships, and thus removed some of the stated causes of the war. He may have believed that peace negotiations might result, and would not wish to prejudice any talks by taking offensive action.) Brock's one aggressive action was to facilitate the siege of Fort Wayne on the Maumee River, which ended in a defeat of the Native attackers.
Particularly galling to Brock was an armistice concluded by Major General Roger Sheaffe, under Prevost's orders, with Colonel Van Rensselaer on August 20. The terms of the armistice permitted the use of the river by both powers as a common waterway, and Brock could only watch as American reinforcements and supplies were moved to Van Rensselaer's army without being able to take action. The armistice ended on September 8, by which time Van Rensselaer's army was considerably better supplied than it had been before.
On October 12, the day before the battle, by Brock's orders, Major Thomas Evans crossed the Niagara River under a flag of truce to request an immediate exchange of prisoners taken in a successful American raid on two British ships near Fort Erie by Lieutenant Jesse Elliot a few days before. Evans attempted to see Solomon Van Rensselaer, but was told that the Colonel was ill. Evans was met by a man who claimed to be General Stephen Van Rensselaer's secretary, Toock. Toock was probably Major John Lovett (Van Rensselaer's private military secretary) in disguise and he repeatedly stated that no exchange could be arranged until "the day after tomorrow". Evans was struck by the repetition of this phrase and was able to spot several boats hidden by the shore under some brush. Evans deduced that an invasion was planned for October 13, and upon returning to the British lines he was met with laughter and mockery from a council of officers. However, Brock took Evans aside and after a meeting was convinced of the possibility.
The village of Queenston lay at the mouth of the gorge of the River Niagara, which was fast-flowing and 200 yards wide. Immediately south of the village, the ground rose 300 feet (100 m) to Queenston Heights. Lewiston was on the other side of the river, with the ground to its south rising to Lewiston Heights. In time of peace, there was a regular boat service between Queenston and Lewiston.
The British detachment at Queenston consisted of the grenadier company of the 49th Regiment of Foot (formerly Brock's own) under Captain James Dennis, the light company of the 49th under Captain John Williams, two flank companies of the 2nd York Militia (the "York Volunteers") and a detachment of the 41st Foot with a 3-pounder Grasshopper cannon. An 18-pounder gun and a mortar were mounted in a redan halfway up the Heights, and a 24-pounder gun and a carronade were sited in a barbette at Vrooman's Point, a mile north of the village. The local militia, companies from the 5th Lincoln Regiment, were not on duty but could assemble at very short notice.
The American forces involved were the 6th, 13th and 23rd U.S. Infantry, with detachments of U.S. Artillery serving as infantry. There were also five regiments of New York Militia and a volunteer battalion of riflemen. Because the United States Army was being rapidly expanded, most of the regulars at Lewiston were recent recruits, and Van Rensselaer considered the Militiamens' drill and discipline was superior to that of the regulars. The Americans had twelve boats, each of which could carry thirty men, and two large boats which could carry eighty men and which were fitted with platforms on which field guns or wagons could be carried.
A last-minute squabble over seniority and precedence led to the command of the first landing party being split. Colonel Solomon Van Rensselaer led the militia contingent, Lieutenant Colonel John Chrystie led the regulars.
The Americans began crossing the river at 4 a.m. on October 13. Ten minutes after they began crossing, ten boats under Colonel Solomon van Rensselaer began landing at the village. A sentry noticed them and, rather than fire his musket to raise the alarm and thus warn the American troops that they had been spotted, ran to Dennis's headquarters. A few minutes later, Dennis's troops fired a volley into the Americans as they were still coming ashore. Colonel Van Rensselaer was hit by a musketball as soon as he stepped out of his boat on the Canadian shore. As he tried to form up his troops, he was promptly hit five more times, and—though he survived—he spent most of the battle out of action, weak from loss of blood. Captain John E. Wool of the 13th U.S. Infantry took over and fought to retain the American foothold in Queenston.
Meanwhile, the British guns opened fire in the direction of the American landing stage at Lewiston, and the American guns (two 18-pounders in an earthwork named "Fort Gray" on Lewiston Heights, two 6-pounder field guns and two 5.5-inch mortars near the landing stage) opened fire on Queenston village. Dennis's troops were driven back into the village but kept firing from the shelter of the houses.
As the light grew, the British guns became more accurate. Calamity for the Americans ensued as the crews of three of their boats, including their two largest—one of which was carrying Lieutenant-Colonel Chrystie—panicked as they came under fire. Chrystie's pilot turned the boat back for shore, despite the efforts of Chrystie to restrain him. This later caused controversy when Captain Lawrence, commanding the next boat following, asserted that Chrystie had ordered him to retreat, leading to accusations of cowardice.
Much of the second assault wave, led by Lieutenant-Colonel John Fenwick (formerly the commandant at Fort Niagara), was either shot out of the water by the British cannon or drifted downstream and was forced to land in Hamilton Cove, a hollow about 800 yards downriver, where British troops quickly surrounded them and forced the survivors to surrender.
Meanwhile, the 18-pounder cannon and the howitzer in the Redan were causing great carnage amongst the American boats. Since coming ashore an hour-and-a-half earlier, the U.S. forces had been pinned-down along the river and the wounded U.S. commander, Solomon Van Rensselaer ordered Captains Wool and Ogilvie to take a detachment upstream "and ascend the heights by the point of the rock, and storm the battery". The Redan had very few troops guarding it, the Light Company of the 49th having been ordered from the Heights into the town by Brock to join the fighting in the village in support of the grenadier company Wool's troops attacked just after Brock had arrived, forcing his small party and the artillerymen to flee into the village, managing only to quickly spike the guns. Brock sent a message to Major General Sheaffe at Fort George, ordering him to bring as many troops as possible to Queenston. He then resolved to recapture the redan immediately rather than wait for reinforcements.
Brock's charge was made by Dennis' and Williams' two companies of the 49th and two companies of militia. The assault was halted by heavy fire and as he noticed unwounded men dropping to the rear, Brock shouted angrily that "This is the first time I have ever seen the 49th turn their backs!". At this rebuke, the ranks promptly closed up and were joined by two more companies of militia, those of Cameron and Heward. Brock saw that the militia supports were lagging behind at the foot of the hill and ordered one of his aides-de-camp, Lieutenant Colonel Macdonell, to "Push on the York Volunteers" while he led his own party to the right, presumably intending to join his party with that of Williams' detachment who were beginning to make progress on that flank.
Brock was struck in the wrist of his sword arm but continued to press home the attack of the faltering U.S. troops. His bright red coat with its gold lace and epaulettes (and a gaudy scarf given him by Tecumseh) and his tall figure and energetic gestures made him a conspicuous target, and he was shot down by an unknown American who stepped forward from a thicket and fired at a range of barely fifty yards, dying almost instantly. Lieutenant-Colonel Macdonell led another charge despite being a lawyer by trade with little military experience. Wool had been reinforced by more troops who had just made their way up the path to the top of the Heights, and Macdonell was outnumbered. His attack failed, and he was mortally wounded, Captain Williams was laid low by a wound to the head, and Dennis by a severe wound to the thigh (although he continued throughout the action). Carrying the bodies of Brock and Macdonell, the British fell back through Queenston to Durham's Farm a mile north near Vrooman's Point.
According to legend, Brock's last words were "Push on, brave York Volunteers", but this is very unlikely, since Brock was not with them when he fell. According to historian J. Mackay Hitsman, Brock's earlier command to push on the York Volunteers, who had just arrived from Queenston, was transformed into the later legend.
Colonel Winfield Scott (who later became one of the most highly regarded generals in American history) now took command of the regulars on Queenston Heights, and Brigadier General William Wadsworth, who waived his right to overall command, took charge of the militia. There were few complete formed units; there was only a collection of unorganised detachments, some without their officers. Likewise some officers had crossed but their men had not followed them. Little more than a thousand of General Van Rensselaer's men had crossed the Niagara River, and the militia, which knew nothing of the death of Brock or the silencing of most of the large British cannon, refused to cross in the few boats that remained.
Meanwhile, British reinforcements had begun to arrive from Fort George. A detachment of the Royal Artillery (a "car brigade", with draught horses and drivers provided by Canadian farmers and militia) under Captain Holcroft with two 6-pounder guns moved into Queenston village, supported by a company of the 41st under Captain Derenzy. Militia Captain Archibald Hamilton guided them to a firing position in the courtyard of his own house. When they opened fire at 1 p.m., it once again became hazardous for the American boats to attempt to cross the river.
At the same time, 300 Mohawks under Captains John Norton and John Brant climbed up to the top of the heights and suddenly fell on Scott's outposts. None were killed, and the Mohawks were driven back into some woods, but the Americans' spirits were badly affected by their fear of the natives. Warcries could be clearly heard in Lewiston. General Van Rensselaer was unable to cajole any more of the militia into crossing the river. He then tried to induce the civilian boatmen to cross the river and retrieve his soldiers from Canada, but they refused even that. The General reported the next day that, "...to my utter astonishment, I found that at the very moment when complete victory was in our hands, the ardor of the unengaged troops had entirely subsided. I rode in all directions -- urged men by every consideration to pass over -- but in vain."
Major General Roger Hale Sheaffe arrived at Queenston at 2 p.m. and took charge of the British troops. He ordered yet more reinforcements to join him, and when they had done so, he led his force on a three mile (5 km) detour to the Heights, shielding them from the American artillery. Here, he was joined by another column of reinforcements from Chippawa. In all, he commanded over 800 men. In addition to the remnants of the force which had been engaged under Brock in the morning, he had five companies of the 41st and seven of Militia (including Runchey's Company of Coloured Men), with two 3-pounder guns.
Sheaffe took his time forming his men up and preparing them for battle and attacked at 4 p.m., twelve hours after Van Rensselaer launched his assault. The American militia, hearing war-cries from the Mohawks and believing themselves doomed, retreated en masse and without orders, leaving Colonel Scott with only three hundred defenders to resist the British force. Scott tried to cover the American withdrawal against Sheaffe's larger force, but with no boats arriving to evacuate his men and with the Mohawks furious over the deaths of two chiefs, he feared a massacre and surrendered to the British. Even so, excited Indians continued to fire from the heights into the crowd of Americans on the river bank below for several minutes. Once the surrender was made, Scott was shocked to see five hundred U.S. militiamen, who had been hiding around the heights, coming out and surrendering as well.
General Van Rensselaer, his attack a dismal failure, resigned immediately after the battle and was succeeded as senior officer on the Niagara by Alexander Smyth, the officer whose insolence had badly injured the invasion attempt. Smyth still had his regulars at Buffalo but refused to launch an attack until he had three thousand men under his command. He then bungled two attempts to cross the river near Fort Erie and drew the loathing of his soldiers. Universally castigated for his refusal to attack and with rumours of mutiny in the air, Smyth slipped away to his home in Virginia rather than remain at his post.
At Albany, the defeat of Van Rensselaer only increased Henry Dearborn's reluctance to act. With two armies already defeated, Dearborn was not keen on leading the third. He led a half-hearted advance as far as Odelltown, where his militia refused to proceed further, and then he retired. As a result, Van Rensselaer's army was the only one to launch a significant assault on Upper Canada in 1812.
The question of who to blame for the defeat was one that was never resolved. Stephen Van Rensselaer's popularity remained high enough that he was able to launch an (unsuccessful) attempt to unseat Daniel Tompkins as Governor of New York, and he later went on to serve in the United States House of Representatives. General John Armstrong, Jr., the Secretary of War for much of the war, pinned the blame on General Van Rensselaer in his Notices of the War of 1812. This provoked an indignant response from Solomon Van Rensselaer, who compared Armstrong to Benedict Arnold and laid the blame squarely on Lieutenant-Colonel Chrystie, who he accused of cowardice and said "to his failure may mainly be attributed all our disasters."
The loss of General Brock was nevertheless a major blow to the British. Brock had inspired his own troops and the militia and civilians by his confidence and activity. Sheaffe, his successor, received a baronetcy for his part in the victory but could not command the same respect. His success where Brock had rashly sacrificed himself couldn't help Sheaffe escape censure for not having followed-up his victory at Queenston Heights with an attack on Fort Niagara (which had been left virtually evacuated by its garrison due to the bombardment from British batteries that afternoon). Furthermore, although his retreat the following April from a numerically superior force at the Battle of York was militarily correct, it left the local militia, the Assembly and the population of York feeling abandoned and aggrieved. He was relieved of his appointments in Upper Canada.
The Battle of Queenston Heights is also mentioned in an unofficial Canadian national anthem, The Maple Leaf Forever.
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