Battle of York


Death of General Pike, engraving, 1839
recounting events from the Battle of York, April 27th, 1813

In the winter of 1812-13, US Secretary of War John Armstrong formulated a surprisingly good plan to capture the remaining British North American possessions.  Armstrong wanted to assemble a force of 2,000 troops at Sackett’s Harbor, New York, before the spring break-up.  That army would then take Kingston, the most heavily fortified British base in Upper Canada.  The fall of Kingston would force the British to fall back to less-defensible Montréal; and Montréal was not too far from the ultimate prize: the very well-defended fortress city of Québec.

Fortunately for the British, Armstrong was blessed with far more timid subordinates.  The British got wind of his plan but could only muster a few hundred reinforcements, who undertook an epic wintertime march on snowshoes from Fredericton, New Brunswick to Kingston, Upper Canada.  Despite the heroic effort, Kingston’s defenders now numbered a mere 600 versus the American invasion force of 2,000 holed up at Sackett’s Harbor.  But the American ground commander, General Henry Dearborn, and the naval commander, Captain Isaac Chauncey, hear rumours that Kingston’s defenders now number no less than eight thousand.  Rather than comply with Armstrong’s wishes, they offer up a counter-proposal to take York, the seat of government in Upper Canada.  Armstrong agrees.

Thus it was in the twilight hours of April 26th, 1813, that an American squadron consisting of one corvette, one brig, and twelve schooners appeared off the town of York.  General Sir Roger Hale Sheaffe, Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada, splits his force into three to cover the numerous possible landing sites.  Although possessing a fort and numerous shore batteries, York’s obsolete cannons have shorter ranges than those of the American squadron.  Still, the cautious Americans wisely elect to land their force some ways west of Fort York, rather than try to force their way past the shore batteries into York’s sheltered harbour.  They are met — and temporarily repulsed — on the beach by the Grenadier company of the 8th (King’s) Regiment of Foot, until the squadron’s schooners maneuver inshore and sweep the beach of grenadiers with grapeshot.


British-allied natives and Glengarry Highlanders fight a brave delaying action along the lakeshore road, but the town’s York Volunteers fold rapidly as unit cohesion evaporates in the face of the relentless American advance.  Sheaffe realises that his mixed force of 300 regulars, 300 militia and 100 natives cannot hold their fort long against the superior numbers and naval bombardment of the invading Americans.  He orders his regulars to burn a half-built frigate (the Isaac Brock), detonate the fort’s Grand Magazine, and retreat east through the town.  Two militia officers and their self-appointed advisor, the Reverend John Strachan, are advised to seek the best terms they can.  While they are negotiating the magazine detonates, killing the American commander Brigadier General Zebulon Pike.  Forty-two Canadian militia and fifty-two American troops are killed by the blast, and a further one hundred and eighty Americans are wounded.

Strachan eventually badgers General Dearborn (aboard corvette USS Madison) into accepting York’s surrender, gaining some stature amongst the town’s inhabitants.  After the retreat of the British regulars, there is no more resistance offered.  The Americans proceed to loot private property and burn private and public buildings, including the Parliament Buildings of Upper Canada.  Dearborn occupies the provincial capital for a mere five days, sailing away on May 2nd, 1813.  While he has not secured Upper Canada for the United States, he has succeeded in cutting off the flow of British naval supplies to Lake Erie, paving the way for Oliver Hazard Perry’s victory at the Battle of Lake Erie.  General Sheaffe, meanwhile, has earned Reverend Strachan’s opprobrium for his apparent lack of enthusiasm in defending the town.  Strachan’s influence is such that Governor-General Sir George Prevost appoints a new Lieutenant-Governor, Major-General Francis de Rottenburg, and Sheaffe is recalled to Britain in short order.

Thr burning of York is not forgotten by the British, either, who order a retaliatory burning of Washington the following year.

Historic Fort York commemorated the Battle of York on Sunday, April 29th with a series of social and military demonstrations for the visiting public.  You can see images of the proceedings in my Battle of York Flickr set.

Cross-posted to The Torch.

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