In the early morning hours of April 27, 1813, the people of York, the capital of Upper Canada, were startled to hear gunfire. American troops had landed on what is now Sunnyside Beach, and were fighting their way along the shore.
The Americans had sailed from Sackets Harbor, New York, two days before, but the only opposition on Lake Ontario had been rough weather. General Dearborn, who was so stout that he had to be carried in a special carriage, became seasick and his second in command, General Pike, directed the landing of 1,700 men.
The garrison at York was commanded by General Sheaffe who had not expected an attack and so had spent the winter at Niagara. Consequently, arrangements for defence were very poor. The only new artillery guns were lying in the mud near the shore, where they had been unloaded from a ship the previous autumn. Two companies of red-coated “regulars” happened to be staying at the fort on a march from Kingston to Niagara. They brought the strength of the garrison to 510 regulars, 250 militia and 40 Indians. Sheaffe ordered them to try to stop the Americans who were working their way through the woods towards the west battery (where Toronto Argos play their football games). British bayonets were ineffective against American guns and the fight was over in half an hour.
General Dearborn then led a victory parade through the muddy streets of York in his special carriage. Some of the Americans were undisciplined volunteers and spent four days looting the town. Then even let the prisoners out of York jail and urged them to help themselves. Finally, they decided to burn down the new Parliament Buildings of Upper Canada.
While they were looting the legislature, they found the Speaker’s wig which they sent to Washington as, “an example of British barbarity.” They thought it was a human scalp!
After storing as much loot as possible in their ships, including York’s only fire engine, the Americans sailed away to attack the British at Niagara.
The British retaliated for the attack on York by raiding Washington the following year and burning the Capitol and other government buildings.
There are a few places to visit to learn more about this battle. For instance, visit the April 2013 issue of Maple Leaf on National Defence and the Canadian Forces’s site, and then 680 News Radio. Other good links are the Canadian Heritage site, the Friends of Fort York; you can see a beautiful painting by Owen Staples of a bird’s-eye view of the battle at the Legislative Assembly of Ontario; there’s an extensive article at Wikipedia.
There are interesting books, as well, THE INCREDIBLE WAR OF 1812 A Military History and Capital in Flames: The American Attack on York, 1813.
- Free Kindle Book (janisimonroe.com)
- Canadians Defeat Americans! (tkmorin.wordpress.com)
- Monument to thank Tuscarora Nation for helping NY residents during War of 1812 attack (timescolonist.com)
- When Ogdensburg was a battleground, 200 years ago (northcountrypublicradio.org)
- NY monument to honor Tuscaroras for help in battle (newsday.com)
- Tuscarora Nation honored for aid in War of 1812 (newsday.com)