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