One of the most famous battles of the War of 1812, the struggle for Queenston Heights was both a triumph and a tragedy for the British and Canadian forces fighting the invading American army. The British and Canadians fought back the Americans and prepared the way for eventual victory, but suffered the loss of one of their most important leaders, Isaac Brock.
A Lull in the Fighting
The War of 1812 was a conflict between the United States and Great Britain, fought mostly in North America. Lasting from 1812 to 1814, the war was connected to the Napoleonic Wars engulfing Europe at the time.
The Battle of Queenston Heights came in the aftermath of Major General Isaac Brock's stunning victory against the US forces at Detroit. His win in Detroit led US and British authorities to agree to a temporary ceasefire. But instead of bringing peace, the pause allowed both sides to regroup and continue hostilities. The war erupted again at Queenston Heights.
American operations against Upper Canada in the Niagara region [present-day Ontario] were led by General Stephen Van Rensselaer, a militiaman who was one of the wealthiest US citizens. The temporary ceasefire allowed him to marshall his forces and take them on an overland trek from Albany, New York, to Upper Canada.
Brock, now situated at Fort George, was guarding the frontier against a US invasion when the ceasefire ended. With 1,500 soldiers and 250 Aboriginal allies, he spread his forces, unsure where the next American invasion would occur.
Americans Invade Canada
Van Rensselaer was under pressure from Washington, and the American public, to reverse the failure and undo the stigma of losing to inferior enemy forces at Detroit. He was also desperate to make something of himself as a field commander. Van Rensselaer chose to cross the Niagara River into Canada at the city of Queenston, in Upper Canada.
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. The initial attempt at Queenston was also so poorly organized that Brock assumed it was a feint, so he did not consolidate his forces there. 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 British-Canadian redan, or clifftop gun emplacement. The redan’s gun had been hampering the flow of US reinforcements across the river. The US gained control of the battle.
Death of Isaac Brock
Brock was awakened by the sound of guns on Vrooman's Point and along the shore at Fort George. He prepared for battle in haste, as the Americans took command of Queenston Heights. Brock rode his horse hard to Queenston, where he regrouped his forces and personally led a charge to regain the gun 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.
Brock's aide-de-camp, Lieutenant Colonel John MacDonell, was mortally wounded in a similar assault. However, 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. With him 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 on the heights but became pinned down by a small group of Mohawk and Delaware warriors loyal to the British. The actions of Mohawk chief John Norton and his Six Nations and other First Nation forces were critical at this stage of the battle. Norton had 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, claiming that they were not legally 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.
Volleys of fire and a British-Canadian charge with bayonets took the American forces by surprise. US Lieutenant Colonel Winfield Scott, taking charge from the wounded commander Captain Wool, waved a white handkerchief to signal the American surrender. When the smoke had cleared, almost 1,000 Americans were taken prisoner, with 300 killed or wounded, while the victors lost only 28 killed and 77 wounded—regular, militia and Aboriginal.
One of the British losses was irreplaceable—the much-admired Isaac Brock. But both Brock's death and the 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 success against Canada's mighty southern neighbour and foe.
The British and Canadian forces had earned two victories over the US, but would have to plan their next moves without the aid of Brock's dynamic, popular and aggressive leadership.