Battle of Queenston Heights

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The Battle of Queenston Heights

The Battle of Queenston Heights by James B. Dennis depicts the ultimately unsuccessful American landing on October 13, 1812.
Battle of Queenston Heights
ConflictWar of 1812
DateOctober 13, 1812
PlaceNear Queenston, Ontario
ResultBritish victory
United States
Isaac Brock
Roger Sheaffe
Stephen Van Rensselaer
1,000 6,000
14 dead
77 wounded
1,000 captured
500 dead or wounded

The Battle of Queenston Heights was a battle of the War of 1812 on October 13, 1812 between the Americans, led by Stephen Van Rensselaer, and the British, led by Isaac Brock and Roger Sheaffe.

Brock believed the Americans would attack his headquarters at Fort George, but, after the battle was joined, he learned instead that they were planning to invade across the Niagara River from Lewiston, New York. Brock, followed by about 1000 British troops, marched to Queenston to meet the invading force and support the thin British presence in the area.

The Americans under van Rensselaer launched the attack on the Queenston Heights at 3:00 in the morning, by crossing the Niagara River in a group of boats that proved too few to serve the needs of the large American invading force, and too small to carry artillery across the river. In the early stages of the battle, the British had only 300 men to resist the 6000 Americans coming across the river, and Brock's reinforcements had not yet arrived when the Americans first landed.

However, many of the American soldiers failed to cross the river at all, as, under a wilting bombardment, three of the boats (including the two largest) turned back for shore and many other soldiers were put on edge. General Van Rensselaer's aide-de-camp, Colonel Solomon Van Rensselaer (the general's cousin), was hit by a musketball as soon as he stepped out of his boat on the Canadian shore. When Van Rensselaer quickly tried to form up his troops for the attack after being hit, he was promptly hit five more times and, though he would survive, spent most of the battle out of the action, weak from loss of blood.

Further calamity ensued as Lieutenant-Colonel John Chrystie's boat, filled largely with relatively experienced and well-trained regular soldiers, came under fire and the boat's pilot, despite the efforts of Chrystie to restrain him, turned the boat back for shore. Chrystie's men were out of action without ever joining the battle, and though Chrystie himself tried to organize the rest of the men to cross the river, it was in vain. Much of the second assault wave, led by Lieutenant-Colonel John Fenwick, was either shot out of the water by British cannon or forced into a hollow where British troops made quick work of them.

Despite initial failure, the Americans continued to wage the battle on the other side of the Niagara. Captain John E. Wool, seeing that a large British cannon in an elevated position was causing great carnage amongst the American troops, suggested to Colonel Van Rensselaer that an attack be made using a fisherman's path that Wool had heard about from locals in the area. Van Rensselaer, about to be evacuated back to the United States, assented, and Wool successfully charged up the Heights to capture the British cannon.

Fortunately for the Americans, General Brock was there watching the battle, having arrived from his headquarters at Fort George at dawn trying to gather reinforcements to defend the Heights. When the Americans attacked the gun, Brock was driven back along with the small group of British regulars, managing only to quickly spike the gun. Brock, taking shelter in the far end of the town of Queenston, resolved to recapture the area immediately rather than wait for reinforcements, a decision that would prove fatal for the General.

Brock's first charge at the Americans, with a small group of the village's defenders, nearly managed to dislodge Captain Wool and his men, but a swift counter-strike pushed Brock back again. Despite the failure, Brock, having been wounded in the hand during the first charge, immediately tried to rally his men for a second charge, but his bright red coat made him an easy target, and he was killed by an American sharpshooter at about 1 pm. Brock's aide, Lieutenant-Colonel John Macdonell, led the second charge himself, despite being a lawyer by trade with little military experience. His strength augmented by Captain John Williams's small group of volunteers, Macdonell ran straight into Wool's heavily reinforced Americans with his own men badly outnumbered. Macdonell's attack was a complete failure, as he was mortally wounded in the charge, Captain Williams badly injured, and the British force driven back completely.

The outlook was bleak for the British soldiers, and it would have been far worse had the opening of the battle unfolded differently. Little more than a thousand of General Van Rensselaer's men had crossed the Niagara River, and the militia, which knew nothing of the death of Brock or the silencing of most of the large British cannon, refused to cross in the few boats that remained. Moreover, British reinforcements, led by General Roger Sheaffe, were near, and Colonel Winfield Scott, in a group attempting to repair the gun captured from Brock, was set upon by John Norton and the Mohawks. Scott's men were driven back in a brief melée, and though none were killed, their spirits were worsened greatly by their fear of the natives.

General Van Rensselaer, knowing of Sheaffe's impending arrival, attempted once more to exhort his militia into crossing the river, seeing that if he could get all his men across, the day might yet have been won. Van Rensselaer, unable to cajole his men into joining the battle, attempted to convince the boatmen to cross the river and retrieve his soldiers from Canada, but the boatmen refused even that.

At the lead of the British reinforcements, Sheaffe planned to advance his men into the melée through the cover of the forest, shielding them from devastation by American artillery. A decidedly more careful commander than Brock, Sheaffe took his time forming his men up and preparing them for battle, and at 4:00 p.m., thirteen hours after Van Rensselaer launched his assault, the British reinforcements of almost one thousand men marched into the battle. The American militia, hearing war-cries from the Mohawks and believing themselves doomed, retreated en masse and without orders, leaving Colonel Scott with only three hundred stout defenders to resist the British force. Scott tried to cover the American withdrawal against Sheaffe's larger force, but, with the Mohawks furious over the deaths of two chiefs, he feared a massacre and surrendered to the British. Once the surrender was made, however, Scott was shocked and appalled to see five hundred American militiamen, who had been hiding around the Heights, coming out and surrendering as well.

Of General Van Rensselaer's 6000 troops, about 500 were killed or wounded, and 1000 were taken prisoner, including Brigadier-General William Wadsworth, Colonel Scott, four other lieutenant-colonels and sixty-seven other officers. By comparison, the British suffered about fourteen men killed, with seventy-seven wounded; one of the wounded was James Secord, husband of Laura Secord. However, the greatest loss of the battle for the British could not be measured in numbers, as the death of General Brock and his replacement by more cautious generals such as Sheaffe and Henry Proctor would have a noticeable influence on the conduct of the war by the British.

External links

pl:Bitwa pod Queenston Heights


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