A Danger More to Itself
by Mason Winfield
Queenston Heights, Part 1
While a minor dustup in world history, the October 1812 Battle of Queenston Heights was a gripping, seesaw adventure that threw remarkable personalities and situations into relief.
By October 1812, the Empire’s force on the Niagara might have had 2,500 men. US. High Commander General Stephen Van Rensselaer had 4,500-6,000. Figures are outrageously variable for most details of this war, and size is a deceptive edge.
The Army of the Niagara was mostly militia and volunteers: amateurs. And its cracks were showing. Army General Alexander Smyth was openly insubordinate to Van Rensselaer, a Hudson Valley land baron and military novice. The soldiers were miserable in their camps, sick of their commanders, and threatening to go to battle or to go home. One of America’s few seasoned soldiers—we hadn’t fought a war since the Revolution—found the Army of the Niagara undersupplied, undertrained, and laughably led. “A danger more to itself [than its enemies],” was his estimate. But the American public was starving for a win, and the decision was made to strike at British interests in Canada. The US plan was to gather forces at Lewiston, fake a shot at Fort George, dig a toehold at Queenston, beef it up all winter, and fan out in the spring.
American forces at Lewiston were all dressed up and ready to go on October 10 when militia Lieutenant Sims hopped into a boat and rowed out on the dim river. His mates stood a long time in the sleet before it was clear that he wasn’t coming back. They couldn’t chase him because his boat held the oars for all the other boats. Sims hopped out on the Canadian side and ran from history as fast as his yellow legs could carry him. It took two days to get new oars. By then even Triumph knew an attack was coming.
On the night of October 12 under a chilly rain, two 1,000-man forces at Lewiston readied for the 15-minute, 250-yard crossing. At 3am on October 13, Lieutenant Colonel Solomon Van Rensselaer of the New York Volunteers—a more seasoned cousin of the high commander—led the first 300-man wave. A shower of shells splashed the water, and only ten of thirteen boats made it. One was lost, and the two biggest, led by colonels, turned back. As the Americans hit the shore, 300 British soldiers fired.
Kentuckian Samuel Stubbs, 62, the oldest US volunteer in the war, remembered the shore lined with Redcoats “thick as bees upon a sugar maple,” their fire “cutting us up like slain venison.” Of the ten American officers, only three were unwounded, and two were killed. Colonel Van Rensselaer was hit six times. The batteries at Lewiston opened up on Queenston and eighty percent of the original flotilla turned back to reload.
At Niagara-on-the-Lake, the commander of the Empire’s North American forces woke to cannon-fire and hopped onto his charger Alfred to see what it meant. Legend has it that British Major General Isaac Brock stopped for a stirrup-cup of coffee with his girlfriend Sophia Shaw. On his ride down the Portage Trail he passed many confused soldiers and militia, all of whom knew the big, light-haired, handsome man by sight. At Queenston, he saw that Heights was the real target, sent word to all the Crown’s forces to hustle over, and took charge of the V-shaped fortification called “The Redan,” a cannon battery just below the Heights to the north.
The first American wave pushed back their attackers, but more were coming. Everything depended on reinforcements, which meant knocking out that Redan clobbering the American boats. Slight, twice-wounded, 23-year-old Captain John Wool took over, leading 150 men up the 300-foot cliff on a fisherman’s trail. Sometimes hauling themselves with roots and limbs, they reached the densely wooded heights undiscovered. They could see cannon flashing their ephemeral tongues all over the US side below them, but where was their target?
They sensed some commotion below them and to the north. Through branches they looked over the edge of a cliff, saw an orange lash, heard the chug of a shot, and spotted the shadowy forms of a cannon-team in a glow. The Redan! Guarded by a small squad and a tall, commanding figure.
Isaac Brock heard a scruffy battle-cry above him and saw bayonets flash in his cannon-fire. As the rifle-knives closed, he pounded a ramrod into a touchhole so the gun couldn’t be used on its soon-to-be former owners. Then (in one of Pierre Berton’s glorious sentences) “the Commander-in-Chief and Administrator of Upper Canada scuttled ingloriously down the hillside with his men.”
The US had its toehold, and at a high point. A thousand more Americans readied to cross. Brock’s worst nightmare was coming true. For the moment, though, the American position was weak.
Mason Winfield is the author of 10 books, including Ghosts of 1812 (Western New York Wares 2009), the only recent history of the 1812 war on the Niagara.blog comments powered by Disqus
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