by Oliver Bertin
This is Part II of a two part series. Read Part I.
The U.S. leaders gathered their expeditionary forces during the winter of 1812-1813 in Sackett’s Harbour at the eastern end of Lake Ontario. It was a cold winter and the American troops were trapped in harbor until the ice broke up in mid-April. They sailed for York on April 23, 1813 with a truly impressive force of 14 vessels and 1,700 soldiers and marines under the command of a battery of senior officers, including Commodore Isaac Chauncey, General Henry Dearborn and Brigadier General Zebulon Pike, known for Pike’s Peak.
The task force was the first combined army-navy amphibious assault in U.S. history, and one of the largest ever. It included a 22-gun flagship, the Madison, as well as the brig Oneida, the schooner Lady of the Lake, the five-gun schooner Growler and 10 converted lakers, all grossly overloaded with soldiers and their equipment.
They arrived off York in the late evening of April 26, striking panic among the local citizens, and anchored overnight 500 meters offshore near Sunnyside Beach, less than two kilometres west of Fort York. Luckily for the ill-prepared citizens of York, the U.S. troops were in poor condition after a rough, 36-hour voyage in overloaded ships, and many had been violently ill.
The ensuing battle was chaotic on both sides. The U.S. troops boarded their landing craft at about eight A.M. on April 27
planning to land near the current site of the CNE Bandshell, but they were driven west as far as Sunnyside by strong easterly winds. The British troops sounded the alarm and members of the militia, natives and grenadiers headed west to fight them off, armed with muskets and bayonets. But a company of the Glengarry light infantry got lost and arrived too late to fight.
The British troops fired on the Americans but were met by grape-shot from the cannons on the American warships. They couldn’t stand the fire for long and ran off into the bush led by their commanding officer, Major-General Roger Hale Sheaffe who, reportedly jumped on his horse and galloped as far as Scarborough before he finally slowed down. Sheaffe became a laughing stock of York for his rapid retreat and was recalled to England not long after.
Before he left, Wilson continued, Sheaffe “ordered the destruction of everything of worth including the unfinished ship in the stocks and the Grand Magazine (at Fort York), which contained five hundred barrels of gunpowder. The sound of the spectacular blast followed the water along the shoreline and could be heard at the Port of Oshawa some 33 miles away.”
The blast injured or killed about 300 American soldiers, including U.S. Brigadier General Zebulon Pike, who was hit by a flying stone from the magazine. The Americans were, naturally, angered by the blast and insisted on plundering the nearby town of York in retaliation.
“The cause of the explosion was not known to the American soldiers, who suspected some foul enemy ploy, a booby-trapped trick to catch the attackers off-guard after they assumed the fort had been abandoned and the battle won. General Dearborn, resplendent in a uniform that according to eye witnesses, ‘would not have shamed Napoleon,’ came ashore enraged and vowed to ‘make the town smoke for it.’ He calmed down when he was assured by the Reverend John Strachan that the explosion was an accident, citing the deaths of Canadian militiamen as proof of this, Dearborn promised that the town would not be razed.”
York surrendered at 2 PM, about six hours after the first landing, and the American troops raised their flag over Fort York. The British had lost 62 men killed and 77 wounded, less than half the American total of about 300, including a brigadier general. Most of the American casualties resulted from the explosion of the magazine.
The American generals won the battle but they had less success with their own troops. That led to a war of words between the two countries and the plundering of Washington by British troops 15 months later.
“Pike’s replacement was unable to control his troops, who promptly ignored Pike’s admonition against pillage and plunder and ran amok rampaging, looting and burning the public structures and records. The Government Building, the Governor’s residence, the Court House and the Block House went up in flames. Beikie’s letter mentions the destruction. ‘After the capitulation then the business of plundering and burning commenced and did not cease until the evening of the 1st inst., when they all went on board their vessels. They have broken every door and window in the council office and burnt a schooner.’
“A report in the Kingston Gazette angrily attacked the wanton vandalism of the Americans. The account indicated that the burned bare walls ‘alone remain, a monument to the Gothic ferocity of our enemies.’ This destruction created a thirst for revenge, which was satisfied by British soldiers when they entered Washington on August 24th, 1814 and torched the White House and the Capitol building.”
The Americans later claimed that they did little damage to the town of York, apart from destroying the military fort and looting the parliament buildings. But that would appear to be untrue. The officials in York did a detailed accounting of the damage a few years later and demanded many of the goods back.
Commodore Chauncey later said: “He was ashamed to have to admit that the books were stolen by American soldiers ‘much to my mortification.’ The mace vanished from the Parliament Buildings and turned up later in a military museum in Annapolis, Maryland. President Franklin Roosevelt returned it 121 years later on the occasion of Toronto’s centennial birthday in 1934. Today it hangs on the wall of Fort York.
“The public Archives of Canada contain documents covering requisitions for losses suffered in the war. They record that twenty-three people at York submitted the following details regarding losses in 1813: five stores were robbed; thirteen homes entered; farms were raided and horses and cattle stolen. St. James Church lost some of its treasures, a doctor his surgical instruments, a storekeeper two barrels of rum, the town’s only printing press was wrecked and an American officer was seen carrying a silver dinner service through town.
“The plunder included Sir Roger Hale Sheaffe’s baggage, which in his haste he had left behind. Because of the quality of its contents it was highly prized. It included ‘a handsome assortment of wines’ and Sheaffe’s ‘superb scarlet coat, the most elegant thing I ever saw, embroidered in gold and of the finest quality.’ The coat which cost $300 was sold to an American officer for $55. Sheaffe’s other possessions were offered at public auction at Oswego. ‘All of his things sold very high being good and much wanted by our officers.’ Sheaffe’s musical, jewelled snuff-box, which afforded considerable amusement, was taken as a token by Dearborn himself.”
The town was plundered in contravention of military law and the terms of surrender, Wilson said.
“The surrender terms contained three points: that regular, militia and naval personnel – other than surgeons – become prisoners of war; that naval stores be given up but private property be guaranteed to citizens; that papers of the civil government be retained by its officials. Since American vessels were already overloaded the militia prisoners were paroled. The Americans left as soon as they could since there was no point in staying because their ships were vulnerable to attack. The invaders carried away way all they could and destroyed the rest. They took with them two vessels: the Duke of Gloucester and the privately-owned General Hunter. They captured 28 guns of different calibres from 32s to sixes as well as blankets, large quantities of fixed ammunition, shot, shells and munitions of war packed in boxes destined for British troops in Niagara and Malden. The loss of the armaments and naval stores intended to equip the British squadron at Amherstburg, led to serious consequences on Lake Erie.”
There we are, a good little story and a picture of the invasion that few people are aware of.