The Battle of Queenston Heights

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The Beginning of the Invasion of Canada

The Battle of Queenston Heights was one of the first major engagements of the War of 1812 and took place on October 13, 1812, near Queenston, Ontario.

The largest engagement of the War of 1812, to that point, the battle was an American attempt to establish a beachhead on the Canadian side of the Niagara River.

The Background to the Battle

The American crossing of the Niagara River was originally intended to be part of a four pronged invasion of Upper Canada, at Amherstburg, the Niagara Escarpment, and Kingston. These three axis of attack were coupled with a fourth, an assault on Montreal. This plan was designed to subdue Canada quickly.

Right from the start of the War of 1812, events turned against the Americans. General Hull was trapped in Detroit by the British, and Dearborn remained in Albany, New York. Van Rennselaer was also unable to attack immediately, as he lacked troops and adequate supplies.

Meanwhile, Major General Isaac Brock was preparing for an American invasion across the Niagara River. Already known as the “Saviour of Upper Canada” after his victory at the Siege of Detroit, Brock planned to attack the United States again by crossing the Niagara River and defeating Van Rennselaer before he could be reinforced. However, when Brock returned to Upper Canada he found that a ceasefire had been reached and the Americans had been given access to the Niagara River.

Despite Dearborn’s inaction and Hull’s defeat, Van Rennselaer’s already strong position was made stronger thanks to the ceasefire that gave him unlimited access to the river. Von Rennselaer’s plan was to cross the Niagara River, while a secondary force took Fort George from behind.

On October 10, Van Rennselaer made an initial attempt to cross the Niagara River. However, the attack was postponed at the last minute due to driving rain.

Queenston Heights

Queenston consisted of a stone barracks and a few scattered houses. The village lay at the mouth of the Niagara Gorge, where the river was wide and fast moving. The bluffs behind the village were steep, but easy to climb. Queenston was defended by elements of the British grenadier company, the 49th Regiment of Foot, while the flanks were defended by the 2nd Regiment of the York Militia, the famous York Volunteers. Held in reserve were elements of the 41st Regiment of Foot, which included some light field artillery. Halfway up the Heights, the British had also positioned an 18-pounder cannon and a mortar. They also stationed a 24-pounder cannon at Voormans’ Point a mile north of the village.

Queeston Heights Battle MapThe Battle of Queenston Heights

The American invasion began on October 13, 1812 at 4 AM. Ten minutes later the troops of the first attack-wave landed on the Canadian side of the river. They were immediately spotted by a British sentry, who informed the garrison commander. As the sun came up, the British artillery began attacking the American landing stages. The American artillery began shelling Queenston in response.

The Death of Isaac Brock

Meanwhile, Brock was awakened at Fort Niagara by the sound of artillery. Thinking that this might be a diversionary action, Brock accompanied a few detachments of troops to Queenston. When he arrived at the scene of the fighting and realized that Van Rennselaer was committing his main force to the battle, Brock sent a message to Fort George, ordering Major General Sheaffe to bring as many men as he could. Meanwhile, Brock was determined to storm the Heights, without waiting for reinforcements. Half way up the Heights, Brock was struck in the wrist by a musket ball. With his bright red uniform and energetic manner, Brock was a tempting target for any American sharpshooters. He was struck in the chest with a second musket ball, from 50 yards away, dieing almost instantly.

By mid-morning, only the 24-pounder cannon remained in British hands, still bombarding the American boats moving back and forth across the river.

Colonel Chrystie took command of the American troops on the Canadian side of the river, however, he was forced to return to the American side for entrenching equipment. The Americans had originally planned to fortify the Heights, in anticipation of a spring break out the following year.

The British Counter-Attack

By 2 PM, Sheaffe arrived at the battle with 800 men and a quantity of artillery, which once again made crossing the river difficult.

Sheaffe took his time forming up his men, preparing for the battle carefully. He finally began to attack at 4 PM. The first wave of the attack consisted of elements of the 41st Foot, some Canadian militia and a Mohawk war party, set against the American right flank. Meanwhile, American troops on the other side of the river could hear the Mohawk war cries and completely lost the will to fight, fleeing en masse.

In spite their defeat, however, the Americans were able to regroup and attacked Fort George the following year.

Sources

Berton, Pierre (1980). The Invasion of Canada, 1812-1813. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart. Borneman, Walter R. Borneman (2004). 1812: The War That Forged a Nation. New York: Harper Perennial.

Cruikshank, Ernest A. (1964). “The Battle of Queenston Heights”. in Zaslow, Morris (ed). The Defended Border. Toronto: Macmillan of Canada.

Elting, John R. (1995). Amateurs to Arms:A military history of the War of 1812. New York: Da Capo Press.

Hitsman, J. Mackay; Donald E. Graves (1999). The Incredible War of 1812. Toronto: Robin Brass Studio.

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