Battle of Queenston Heights

One of the most famous battles of the War of 1812, the battle for Queenston Heights was both a victory and a tragedy for the British and Canadian forces against the invading American army. The battle took place on 13 October 1812. In the aftermath of Major General Isaac Brock’s stunning victory against the US forces at Detroit, the US and British authorities agreed to a temporary ceasefire. Instead of peace, it allowed both sides to regroup their efforts to continue hostilities.

American operations against Upper Canada in the Niagara region were entrusted to General Stephen Van Rensselaer, a militiaman who was one of the wealthiest men in the country. His slow effort marshalling his forces on the long trek from Albany was ameliorated by the temporary halt in hostilities. Brock, now situated at Fort George, watched the frontier as the ceasefire ended. With 1500 soldiers and 250 Aboriginal allies, he spread his forces, unsure of where the next American invasion attempt would occur. Under pressure from Washington and the American public to reverse the failure and stigma of losing against inferior forces at Detroit, and desperate to make something of himself as a field commander, Van Rensselaer chose to cross the Niagara River at the city of Queenston, in Upper Canada.

Americans Launch the Invasion Against Queenston Heights

On the night of 12 October 1812, the New York militia launched its invasion across the treacherous Niagara currents. Brock was convinced they would cross further down the river at Fort George and the initial attempt was so poorly organized that he assumed it was a feint and did not consolidate his forces at Queenston. This allowed Van Rensselaer to repeat the attempt before dawn on 13 October. Discovering a hidden path to the top of the escarpment, the Americans were able to seize a redan from which a gun had been hampering the flow of reinforcements across the river and gain control of the battle.

Death of Isaac Brock

Brock was awakened by the sound of guns on Vrooman's Point and along the shore and now the battle was made in haste, with the Americans taking command of Queenston Heights against the British forces. Brock took to his horse and rode hard to Queenston, where he regrouped his forces and personally led a charge to regain the gun position on the heights that the Americans had taken. Sword drawn, Brock charged forward and became an easy target for snipers. He was shot just above his heart, and died almost instantly.

The Arrival of Reinforcements at Queenston Heights

After Brock's aide-de-camp, Lieutenant Colonel John Macdonell, was mortally wounded in a similar vain assault, Major General Roger Hale Sheaffe, arriving from Fort George with reinforcements, ascended the heights out of sight of the Americans. These included 300 soldiers and 250 militia. Included were Captain Robert Runchey's Company of Coloured Men, a regiment of free men and indentured servants who were organized as an engineering unit.

Most of the American army had taken position here, and were pinned down by a small group of Mohawk and Delaware warriors. American reinforcements did not arrive as many of the militiamen assembled at Lewiston refused to cross into Upper Canada. Critical at this stage of the battle were the actions of John Norton and his Six Nations and other First Nation forces. Norton made the brilliant tactical decision to ascend the escarpment at a considerable distance along the road west of Queenston, an easier climb than the one attempted by Brock closer to the Niagara River. The woods on the right flank of the American force moving westward along the heights provided perfect cover for Norton and his warriors as they pinned down the enemy’s advance until Major-General Sheaffe and his troops arrived.

Attacking from the rear, Sheaffe trapped the enemy between his army and the cliff. Van Rensselaer's reserves, all from the New York militias and waiting to travel across the river, were called into battle. But upon hearing the roar of the guns they refused to participate in the battle, claiming that they were legally not obligated to fight on foreign soil. Denied any ability to renew an attack or bolster his defence, Van Rensselaer's forces crumbled to a mere 350 regulars and 250 militia, who were running low on ammunition and the will to continue.

American Surrender

The American forces were taken by surprise by volleys of fire and a charge of bayonets. US Lieutenant Colonel Winfield Scott, taking command from the wounded commander Captain Wool, waved a white handkerchief to signal the American surrender. When the smoke had cleared, almost 1000 Americans were taken prisoner, with 300 killed or wounded, while the victors lost only 28 killed and 77 wounded - regular, militia and Aboriginal. Unfortunately, one of the losses was irreplaceable - the much-admired Isaac Brock. But both Brock's death and British victory had a fortifying effect on the people of Upper Canada, who had started the war with both doubt and apathy about any possible British victory against its mighty southern neighbour and foe. With two victories, the British and Canadian forces would have to plan their next moves without the aid of Brock's dynamic, popular and aggressive leadership.

Author: Jason Ridler