War of 1812 Battles
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By the fall of 1812, the Americans were desperate for a major victory. Gen. William Hull's surrender at Detroit was proof that the invasion of Canada would not be a simple "matter of marching" as some American politicians had boasted. The United States had not followed its original plan of striking at Canada simultaneously on 3 fronts, and this would cost them control of the Western frontier.
The short, the Dearborn-Prevost Armistice gave the United States some time to recover from the shock of its early losses. All eyes were now turned toward the Army of the Center gathered along the Niagara River.
U.S. Maj. Gen. Stephen Van Rensselaer had command of a sizable army near Lewiston, but is far from inspired by the quality of his troops. To make matters worse, he was a major general of the militia and received little respect from the officers of the regular army. But he was under pressure from President James Madison and must act.
Brock believed the US would attack his headquarters at Fort George, but, after the battle was joined, he learned instead that they were planning to invade across the Niagara River from Lewiston, New York. Brock, followed by about 1,000 British troops, marched to Queenston to meet the invading force and support the thin British presence in the area.
The U.S., under Stephen Van Rensselaer III, launched the attack on the Queenston Heights at 3:00 A.M., by crossing the Niagara River in a group of boats that proved too few to serve the needs of the large US invading force, and too small to carry artillery across the river. In the early stages of the battle, the British had only 300 men to resist the 6,000 American soldiers coming across the river, and Brock's reinforcements had not yet arrived when the Americans first landed.
However, many of the American soldiers failed to cross the river at all, as, under a wilting bombardment, 3 of the boats (including the 2 largest) turned back for shore. Those troops which crossed the river were unnerved by the bombardment. Gen. Van Rensselaer's aide-de-camp and cousin, Col. Solomon Van Rensselaer, was hit by a musketball as soon as he stepped out of his boat on the Canadian shore. When Col. Van Rensselaer quickly tried to form up his troops for the attack after being hit, he was promptly hit five more times and, though he would go on survive, he spent most of the battle out of the action, weak from loss of blood.
Further calamity ensued as Lt. Col. John Chrystie's boat, filled largely with relatively experienced and well-trained regular soldiers, came under fire. The boat's pilot, despite the efforts of Chrystie to restrain him, turned the boat back for shore. Chrystie's men were out of action without ever joining the battle, and though Chrystie himself tried to organize the rest of the men to cross the river, it was in vain. Much of the second assault wave, led by Lt. Col. John Fenwick, was either shot out of the water by British cannon or forced into a hollow where British troops made quick work of them.
Despite initial failure, the US continued to wage the battle on the other side of the Niagara. Capt. John E. Wool, seeing that a large British cannon in an elevated position was causing great carnage amongst the American troops, suggested to Col. Van Rensselaer that an attack be made using a fisherman's path that Wool had heard about from locals in the area. Van Rensselaer, about to be evacuated due to his wounds, assented, and Wool successfully charged up the Heights to capture the British cannon.
Fortunately for the U.S., Brock was there watching the battle, having arrived from his headquarters at Fort George at dawn trying to gather reinforcements to defend the Heights. When the U.S. attacked the gun, Brock was driven back along with the small group of British regulars, managing only to quickly spike the gun. Brock, taking shelter in the far end of the town of Queenston, resolved to recapture the area immediately rather than wait for reinforcements, a decision that would prove fatal for him.
Brock's first charge at the Americans, with a small group of the village's defenders, nearly managed to dislodge Captain Wool and his men, but a swift counter-strike pushed Brock back again. Despite the failure, Brock, having been wounded in the hand during the first charge, immediately tried to rally his men for a second charge, but his bright red coat made him an easy target, and he was killed by a US sharpshooter at about 1:00 P.M. Brock's aide, Lt. Col. John Macdonell, led the second charge himself, despite being a lawyer by trade with little military experience. His troop strength augmented by Capt. John Williams's small group of volunteers, Macdonell ran straight into Wool's heavily reinforced American army with his own men badly outnumbered. Macdonell's attack was a complete failure, as he was mortally wounded in the charge, Williams was badly injured, and the British force was driven back completely.
The outlook was bleak for the British soldiers, and it would have been far worse had the opening of the battle unfolded differently. Little more than a thousand of Gen. 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. Moreover, British reinforcements, led by Gen. Roger Sheaffe, were near, and Col. Winfield Scott, in a group attempting to repair the gun captured from Brock, was set upon by John Norton and the Mohawks. Scott's men were driven back in a brief melée, and though none were killed, their spirits were worsened greatly by their fear of the natives.
Van Rensselaer, knowing of Sheaffe's impending arrival, attempted once more to exhort his militia into crossing the river, seeing that if he could get all his men across, the day might yet be won. Van Rensselaer, unable to cajole his men into joining the battle, attempted to convince the boatmen to cross the river and retrieve his soldiers from Canada, but the boatmen refused even that.
At the lead of the British reinforcements, Sheaffe planned to advance his men into the melée through the cover of the forest, shielding them from devastation by American artillery. A decidedly more careful commander than Brock, Sheaffe took his time forming his men up and preparing them for battle, and at 4:00 P.M., 13 hours after Van Rensselaer launched his assault, the British reinforcements of almost one thousand men marched into the battle. The American militia, hearing war-cries from the Mohawks and believing themselves doomed, retreated en masse and without orders, leaving Scott with only 300 stout defenders to resist the British force. Scott tried to cover the American withdrawal against Sheaffe's larger force, but, with the Mohawks furious over the deaths of two chiefs, he feared a massacre and surrendered to the British. Once the surrender was made, however, Scott was shocked and appalled to see 500 American militiamen, who had been hiding around the Heights, coming out and surrendering as well.
Of Van Rensselaer's 6,000 troops, about 300 were killed or wounded and another 925 taken prisoner, including Brig. Gen. William Wadsworth, Scott, 4 other lieutenant-colonels and 67 other officers. By comparison, the British suffered about fourteen men killed, with seventy-seven wounded including James Secord, husband of Laura Secord. However, the greatest loss of the battle for the British could not be measured in numbers, as the death of General Brock and his replacement by more cautious generals such as Sheaffe and Henry Proctor would have a noticeable influence on the conduct of the war by the British.