Queenston Heights

December 30, 2012

In the fall of 1812 while Harrison was using the western U.S. army to drive First Nations warriors to Tecumseh’s cause the central army was trying to organize for a second invasion of Upper Canada at Niagara. They weren’t doing so well. Governor Daniel D Tompkins of New York was given permission by Eustis to install a major-general of the New York militia. He chose Major General Stephen Van Rensselaer. Although Van Rensselaer was a militiaman he was without campaign experience. Tompkins was a Democrat but likely chose him because he was a staunch Federalist and he needed to gain support for the war as most of the congressmen from New York and along the St. Lawrence had voted against it. In order to compensate for his deficiencies Van Rensselaer chose his kinsman Colonel Solomon Van Rensselaer as his aide-de-camp. Solomon had held a commission in the regular army from 1792 to 1800 and had been severely wounded at Fallen Timbers.

When Stephen Van Rensselaer first inspected the troops at the end of August he found less than 1,000 stretched out along the Niagara River. They were ill-equipped, in summer dress, some even shoe-less and far in arrears in pay. There was not enough artillery nor gunners to man them if there were. And tents, medicine and supplies were scarce. This militia was undisciplined, insubordinate and unreliable.

The First Nations at Niagara were Haudenosaunee or Iroquois. Those on the American side of the border had held a council and determined to remain neutral in the conflict. On the Canadian side First Nations warriors sided with the British. Wawanosh was there along with Ojibwa from Aamjiwnaang and Swan Creek. Nawahjegezhegwabe or Joseph Sawyer was there with his a band Mississauga warriors from the Credit. But the bulk of the warriors were Mohawk from the Grand River and Cauhgnawagna.

The warriors put themselves under the leadership of John Brant, the eighteen year old son of the celebrated late Mohawk chief Joseph Brant and John Norton, the son of a Cherokee from Kuwoki whose name was Norton and a Scottish woman named Anderson. He was adopted into the Mohawk Nation at the Grand and made an honorary chief. The older and flamboyant Norton would assume the leadership role.

By late September General Dearborn moved the Fifth and Thirteenth Regiments of the United States Infantry. Also Brigadier-General Alexander Smyth arrived at Buffalo on September 29th with a contingent of recruits. Now the American army which was stretched along the entire length of the Niagara River numbered 6,300 one half of them being militia. On the Canadian side of the river General Brock had a total of 2,200 men also stretched along the length of the river and also half of them militia. Brock had to disperse his inferior numbers so thinly because he did not know where the American’s planned to attack. He felt the invasion would most likely come from Fort Niagara so he took up a position across the river at Fort George. Norton and his 500 plus warriors concurred.

Major General Van Rensselaer planned a two-pronged attack. One division would cross the river by boats and storm Fort George from the rear. The other would cross over at Lewiston and attack Queenston and its heights. The American commanders suffered from bad intelligence estimating the British forces to be 8,500. They didn’t realize the distinct advantage they had. Smyth was not happy that he had to subordinate himself  to a militia commander so he successfully avoided it by insisting that an invasion point below the falls was folly. The result was that he was left out of the plan but this meant that the assault would take place with twenty-five percent fewer troops and there would not be an attack on Fort George.

On October 10th the invasion force of 600 men was assembled. Colonel John Chrystie arrived that morning with 350 recruits for the Thirteenth Infantry and immediately offered hid detachment for the invasion. His offer was refused because Van Rensselaer only had enough boats for his 600. Thirteen rowboats were put in charge of Lieutenant Sims but a severe storm blew through that day so they waited it out until the morning of the 11th. Now all was set but before they could get the flotilla underway Sims inexplicably pushed off in one of the boats with all of the oars. He floated down the river a ways then beached it and disappeared in the forest. Feeling along that all the necessary logistics were in place for an invasion against what he thought was a superior force Van Rensselaer was disposed to abandon this plan. However, his officers demanded another attempt.

The invasion was rescheduled for the night of October 12th. Chrystie moved his men from Fort Niagara and was allowed to join the invasion force after agreeing to put himself under the command of Solomon Van Rensselaer. Late in the afternoon of the 12th Lieutenant-Colonel Winfield Scott arrived with the Second Artillery and placed his cannon to fire on the heights across the river. All was in place.

Under the cover of darkness 4,000 troops amassed on the American side of the river. They still only had thirteen rowboats so the plan called for seven crossing for each one. The river was 200 yards wide with a swift current and the heights on the other side towered 345 feet above the Niagara. Colonel Van Rensselaer stepped into one of the first boats to cross as did Lieutenant-Colonel Chrystie but Chrystie’s boat became lost and was swept downstream with two others. The remaining ten boats ferried 300 men across successfully over the next quarter-hour.

The British opened fire on the first of the invasion force. This threw the beachhead into disarray and Colonel Van Rensselaer was severely wounded. Scott’s cannon opened fire on British muzzle flashes forcing the British to retreat to the top of the heights chased by a young Captain John F. Wool. The British who were reinforced by local troops returned fire and forced Wool back to the river bank where he took shelter and hung on to the beach head.

General Brock heard the all the gunfire as did Norton and the warriors. Brock charged out of Fort George at a full gallop toward Queenston some five miles away. He arrived at the British battery near the top of the hill as dawn broke. Wool had launched another assault. Brock had the artillery spiked and they made their escape just in time. Now Wool was above them on the hill and Brock gathered a force of 100 but they were beat back. Brock added another 200 stragglers and made another attempt. Up the heights they charged with Brock leading the way, all six-foot four of him and all decked out in his General’s uniform. The easy target was hit directly in the chest and fell instantly. The death of Isaac Brock was a most serious blow to Upper Canada’s cause. Brock was by far the best military leader the British had.

More senior leaders than Wool began arriving on the Canadian side including Major General Van Rensselaer, Brigadier General William Wadsworth of the New York Militia and Lieutenant-Colonel Winfield Scott, United States Second Artillery. Overall Command was given to Scott and the U.S. force now stood at 350 regulars and 250 militia. Van Rensselaer recrossed the river to bring the balance of the invasion force over.

There had been a lull in the action until early afternoon. But now Major General Sir Roger Sheaffe who had received Brock’s order to come with reinforcements posthumously was now marching down the road from Fort George with 800 men. Scott and Wadsworth were not too concerned because they were expecting Van Rensselaer to arrive with many more reinforcements.

Norton arrived ahead of them and attacked the Americans from the surrounding woods. This threw the regulars into a state of confusion and terrified the militia but after about an hour they managed to beat the warriors back into the woods. At this point Chrystie had found his way to the battlefield and joined Scott. Meanwhile, Sheaffe swung behind the heights and was now on the south side where he picked up a detachment marching north from Chippewa.

The warriors kept the Americans occupied with harassing,  lightning-like sorties from the woods. This also kept them disorganized while Sheaffe formed his battle lines. The loud, screeching war whoops of Norton’s warriors could be heard across the river. This terrified the volunteers who refused to cross over. They stood on their right as a militia not to serve except voluntarily on foreign soil. This was not the only problem the officers had with the reinforcements. The crossing was in a direct line of British cannon fire from Vrooman’s Point so the boat owners refused to let them use their boats claiming it was too dangerous. There would be no reinforcements arriving on the Canadian side to support Scott.

The warriors now attacked head on placing themselves between British and American lines. At first Scott’s line held but then wavered, then it broke. The route was on. The Americans reached the river’s bluffs some tumbling over, some setting up to make a stand. Scott and his officers decided that a quick surrender would be the only thing that would save their men from being massacred by the warriors. But how to get word to Sheaffe? They sent two separate couriers with white flags but the warriors killed them. Scott determined to go himself. He left dressed in his officer’s uniform and carrying his sword with a white scarf tied to its point but only managed to get himself captured by Brant and another warrior, but luck was with him that day. Two York militiamen happened to arrive before the warriors were trying to decide what to do with such a highly prized prisoner. John Beverley Robinson and Samuel Jarvis intervened to take charge of the prisoner and escort him to Sheaffe.

Sheaffe accepted Scott’s surrender and the ceasefire was sounded by the British bugler. But the warriors paid no attention to order. They were enraged by the loss of two of their chiefs in the battle and were intent on annihilating all of the Americans pressed against the river. Sir Roger was so appalled by the carnage wrought by the warriors on the battlefield that he insisted that his men stop Norton and Brant from continuing the battle. They succeeded and finally it ended.

Queenston Heights turned into another American debacle. The second invasion of Upper Canada was also a second dismal failure. Van Rensselaer’s American army suffered 958 captured. Far more militia crossed over that Scott and Wadsworth had realized. Besides this they suffered ninety killed and 100 wounded. By contrast and thanks to Norton’s Mohawks the British suffered only fourteen killed, eighty-four wounded and fifteen missing, but by far the most detrimental loss suffered by the British was the death of Isaac Brock.

NEXT WEEK:  Beaver Dams


Another American Disaster!

December 4, 2012

The Shawnee scouting for the Americans moved up the Maumee River ahead of General Winchester. They discovered that Roundhead and Muir had left the area and were headed back to Canada. However, the area was infested with pro-British warriors. On October 8th Captain Lewis, Logan and a few other scouts were attacked by Main Poc and a large party of Potawatomi. They escaped without injury beating a hasty retreat back to the American lines.

For the next two months Captain Lewis, Logan, Captain Johnny, Bright Horn, The Wolf and a few other Ohio Shawnee ranged across the region of northwestern Ohio sending intelligence back to the Big Knives. It was doubly dangerous work. They not only had to contend with roving enemy war parties but also roaming detachments of Big Knives who were carrying out Harrison’s orders to clear the area of First Nations people. The Big Knives were randomly destroying all First Nations’ towns they came across, burning them to the ground and destroying their winter supplies of corn. The Americans, especially the Militia, did not distinguish between enemy or friendly “Indians” but operated on the axiom “any dead Indian is a good Indian.”

In the third week of November Shawnee scouts were gathering intelligence on the rapids of the Maumee when they were attacked by an enemy war party. They all managed to escape but Captain Johnny, Logan and Bright Horn became separated from the others and spent the night eluding the enemy by hiding out in the thick Ohioan forest. The three made their way back to the main American camp but their late arrival cast suspicions on them. They were accused of being captured by the enemy and had secured their safe release by providing intelligence on American troop numbers and movements.

The three left the Big Knives camp on November 22nd moving up the Maumee on foot. They intended to prove their loyalty by bringing back either a prisoner or scalps. Some distance up the river on the north bank they encountered s a war party of Potawatomi and Ottawa travelling on horseback. It was led by Winamek and Alexander Elliott who was the son of the old British Indian Agent Matthew Elliott.

The American scouts tried a rouse. They pretended to be pro-British Shawnee trying to get back to Tecumseh’s forces on the Wabash. Winamek and Elliott were suspicious, especially Winamek because one of the three looked strangely familiar. However, they offered to escort them to the British camp. During the trip they kept them under close guard but did not take their guns.

Along the way it dawned on Winamek who the familiar looking Shawnee was. It was Logan so he suggested to Elliott in private that they be disarmed and bound. But he was overheard and the threesome suddenly opened fire killing Winamek,Elliott and one of the Ottawa warriors and wounding another. They seized the dead men’s horses and raced back down the Maumee to the Big Knives camp but they did not escape unharmed. Logan was shot in the abdomen and Bright Horn was wounded in the arm. Bright Horn would recover but on November 24th Logan succumbed to his injury.

By this time winter had set in. Winchester was inching his way down the Maumee to his ordered rendezvous point at the rapids. It was bitter cold and they were ill equipped. Many were suffering from various degrees of frost bite. Most of his Kentucky volunteers had arrived in the early fall with only summer clothing. The regulars were short of winter supplies as well. He had to deal with much complaining from the troops about the slow progress and lack of action as well as a high desertion rate. Even the threat of having to “ride the wooden horse”, a most barbaric punishment, failed to discourage defectors. Deserters who were caught were made to straddle a two-by-four or small log while two soldiers shook it violently up and down causing the prisoner extreme pain. This was not exactly what the men had signed up for!

Finally on January 10, 1813 they arrived at the rapids. Harrison had suggested to Winchester that he wait and not move forward but he did not order it. On June the 13th desperate appeals arrived for help from “marauding Indians” from Frenchtown a small village on the River Raisin some forty miles up the trail towards Detroit. The British had a small garrison of men there along with one hundred or so warriors.

Winchester held a council with his officers and all agreed to act on the calls for assistance. After all, the British only had a small force there which could easily be overwhelmed and any victory over the British after the disasters of Michilimackinac, Detroit and Queenston would instantly make national heroes out of those who claimed it. Besides, their supply line back to Amherstburg or Detroit was choked with deep snow. Frenchtown was the only community south of Detroit and would make the perfect site for launching an all out offensive across the frozen Detroit River to take Fort Malden. Winchester “seized the moment”.

On January 17th Winchester sent Colonel Will Lewis forward with 350 troops hastily followed by Colonel John Allen with 110 more. They reached the Raisin on January 18th and quickly dispatched the 200 British Militia and their 400 warrior allies but at a cost of thirteen killed and fifty-four wounded. They set up camp in the midst of the village, some twenty houses set out in rows on the north bank of the frozen river. Behind the row houses were garden plots protected on three sides by a row of pickets made of split logs sharpened on the top ends. The east side of the area was open leaving a large part of the American line vulnerable. They settled in to wait for Winchester to arrive with the rest of the western branch of Harrison’s army.

Winchester arrived on the 20th of January with another 350 soldiers raising the total to over 800 Kentucky Militia and 175 regulars. Winchester settled himself in at a house on the south side of the river about a quarter mile from the main bivouac and no one gave a second thought to a possible British response!

General Proctor received word that the Americans had taken Frenchtown and were amassing troops there. He had to make a decision and make it on his own. Communication lines were down because of the winter conditions. Proctor was a slow, plodding man not quick to make any hasty decisions. But this time he acted out of character. Perhaps he was inspired by his former commanding officer Isaac Brock. He called to muster every available man and crossed the frozen Detroit leaving the invitation for all First Nations warriors to join them. Roundhead sent war belts to the scattered encampments around Amherstburg. Many of the warriors that had been gathering there were Potawatomi who had been displaced by Winchester’s Kentucky marauders and Miami who had suffered the depredations at Mississinewa.

Trudging through the deep snow on the 21st of January Proctor’s force of 597 men and three six pounders were passed by Roundhead and Splitlog’s 700 warriors on snowshoes gliding over the deep snow drifts covering Hull’s road between Detroit and Frenchtown. Winchester got word of the advancing horde but chose to ignore it not believing they would attempt such a difficult trek.

The town was laid out on the east side of the road. The warriors arrived first in the early hours of January 22nd intent on retribution for the atrocities committed in the fall against their villages. Splitlog and Walk-In-The-Water left the roadway on the west side swinging around to attack from the west. Roundhead did the opposite. After positioning themselves they crouched waiting for Proctor to arrive which he did just before dawn.

The Essex Militia led by John Baptiste Askin joined Splitlog on the west side of the town. The old Shawnee war chief Bluejacket now in his sixties was with them. Proctor setup his battle line of regulars between Roundhead and Splitlog’s warriors and placed his six cannons in the front. The Big Knives were now surrounded on three sides with only the frozen Raisin to their backs. The attack began at the morning’s first light.

The sound of gunfire and the flash of muskets filled the air. The roar of Proctor’s cannons only added to the din. Winchester arrived disheveled his uniform had been quickly pulled over his nightshirt. The American right line had crumpled under Roundhead’s relentless fire. Winchester along with Allen and Lewis tried vainly to rally the troops and form a new line but they were forced back across the river’s slick ice.

Suddenly panic set in. The right line had devolved in a chaotic rush for the road to the west and escape. Many cast their arms aside as they bound through the deep snow pursued by Roundhead’s screeching warriors. Many of the Big Knives were caught and shot or tomahawked on the spot. Allen did not survive. Wounded in the leg he had limped off for a couple of miles but could go no further. A Potawatomi chief, probably Blackbird, also known as Le Tourneau, noticed his officer’s uniform and signaled to another warrior he wanted to take Allen prisoner but the other warrior moved in for the kill. Allen lunged at the wild eyed warrior with his sword running him through. The chief then shot Allen dead and took his scalp.

Winchester and Lewis fared better. They were captured and brought to Roundhead. The warriors demanding their payback wanted him to execute Winchester at once but Roundhead saw the value in keeping the American General alive and took both officers to Proctor.

The warriors were in a most foul mood exacting a take-no-prisoner policy. Unarmed prisoners were being shot or tomahawked then scalped one after the other in front of Winchester and Lewis. This prompted Winchester to sign a note ordering Major George Madison who was commanding the Kentucky Militia on the American left to surrender even though they were holding well and returning fire from behind the pickets. Madison would not comply unless Proctor personally agreed to protect them from the warrior’s fury. He did but later broke that promise.

The fighting ended and the tallies were done. Proctor suffered heavy casualties considering the advantage he held for the whole battle. He lost twenty-four killed and 158 wounded. The high rate was mostly attributable to his placement of his cannons. By placing them in front of his line he opened it up to Americans firing at the big guns and the gunners were left vulnerable to their own regulars who were behind them. For this he was censured but still promoted to Brigadier-General.

American casualties were worse at 300 killed and twenty-seven wounded. The balance of Winchester’s army except for thirty-three who escaped were taken prisoner including Winchester himself. One of the escapees, a Private John J. Brice, did so by discarding his shoes so that his tracks in the snow looked like a warrior’s wearing moccasins. He was the first to make it back to the Maumee and deliver the distressing news. Harrison was despondent. His entire left wing had been annihilated and his invasion plan stopped dead in its tracks.

Proctor feared an imagined approach of Harrison leading an overwhelming army. He bivouacked the American wounded in several of the town’s houses under a very light guard. When he began loading Canadian casualties on sleighs for the haul back to Amherstburg the American surgeon inquired as to why the American sick and wounded were being left behind. Proctor responded that there were not enough sleighs and he must take care of his own first. So the surgeon complained about the light guard given the number of warriors there and their mood. Proctor is said to have replied “the Indians make excellent doctors”.

The U.S. Army surgeon was right. Proctor should have left a reasonable guard for the Kentucky wounded. Part of the booty from the victory at Frenchtown was the town’s supply of liquor and a few of the young warriors drank more than their fair share. Angry and inebriated they began to go from house to house taking out their anger on the sick and wounded prisoners. Their chiefs tried to intervene but were unable to control the enraged young men.

Sometime during the night the light guard, a Major Reynolds plus three interpreters slipped away. A warrior appeared in the room of one of the wounded soldiers speaking fluent English. This could very well have been Wawanosh, a young Ojibwa from Aamjiwnaang, who was known to have an excellent command of the English language. He was asking for intelligence on Harrison’s movements and strength. When he left he made the off handed remark that he was sorry but some of the more mischievous young men would be doing some bad deeds that night. It was a prelude of things to  come.

By the morning the warriors were ransacking the homes for loot. They were looking especially for more whiskey. They begin to strip the sick and wounded of their clothing and in their excitement, fueled by liquor and their hatred for the Big Knives, began to shoot or tomahawk then scalp the helpless Kentuckians.

Captain Nathaniel Hart wounded, half dressed and barefoot was dragged from the home where he was being cared for. While awaiting his fate he recognized one of the warriors surrounding him as the English speaking one from the night before. He knew that he would recognize the name of William Elliott, Matthew Elliott’s son. William was a captain in the Essex Militia so Hart exclaimed that William had promised to send his personal sleigh remove him to  his home at Amherstburg. The bilingual warrior replied that Elliott had lied and there would be no rescue. Hart made him an offer. Take him to Amherstburg and he would give him a horse and one hundred dollars. The warrior replied that he could not because he was too badly wounded.  Then what were their intentions inquired Hart. The reply was chilling. You are all to be killed!

The massacre lasted most of the morning as the drunken, infuriated warriors moved from house to house looting and killing. When the macabre news reached the Americans it was another in a long line of interracial incidents that helped solidify their hatred of First Nations people. This particular incident gave rise to the battle call of the Kentucky Militia, “Remember the Raisin!”

NEXT WEEK:  Queenston Heights