By the Way: Battle of Queenston Heights

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By Byron Kroeger (October 04, 2012)
Last week I provided an update on the U.S. Civil War during this period in 1862. This week I would like to do the same with the War of 1812, now in its bicentennial years. With that said, I turn to the battle at Queenston Heights in Canada.

Following the first major battle in the war, the British taking of Detroit in August, word of the English Parliament’s having revoked some of the “Orders of Council” had finally reached the western hemisphere. These “orders” had brought on the war, and now their revocation eased some of the tensions they had created in the American view.

After the belated news had been received, a brief armistice was offered up by British Gen. Sir George Prevost, civilian governor general and military commander in chief in British North America. He had opened negotiations with the American army’s commander in chief, Maj. Gen. Henry Dearborn.

The U.S. government rejected Prevost’s offer to negotiate and ordered Dearborn to continue the hostilities. Although the Americans had sent word of the rejection to Prevost, it took a while to reach him and, during the delay, the Americans used the opportunity to reinforce their military operations in the area while the British had adopted a defensive posture. Once again, the slow communications of the day allowed a possibly unnecessary war to continue.

Thus, amid all the confusion, the United States prepared for its campaign across the Niagara Peninsula, which, according to Wikipedia, was “the portion of southern Ontario, Canada, lying between the south shore of Lake Ontario and the north shore of Lake Erie. It stretches from the Niagara River in the east to Hamilton, Ontario, in the west.” This is south of Toronto, across the western end of Lake Ontario.

The U.S. regulars and New York state militia were under the command of Maj. Gen. Stephen Van Rensselaer III (founder of the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and one of the 10 richest men in America). The British regulars, Canadian militia and Mohawk Indians were under the direct command of Maj. Gen. Isaac Brock, who had taken Detroit in August, receiving a knighthood for his victory.

Rensselaer, having taken advantage of the armistice to reinforce his strength and under pressure of President James Madison to attack, complied on the morning of Oct. 13, when he launched an invasion against the British at Queenston Heights. The first wave of Americans ran into heavy artillery fire but managed to secure a landing from which they proceeded up a narrow path, where they routed the British artillery.

Brock was quick to counter and, following his philosophy to never order his men where he would not lead them, led the attack on the American foothold. The counterattack was nearly successful, but Brock was killed and, thereby, never learned of his knighthood as, once again, slow communication kept this information from arriving before his death.

Col. John Macdonnell, senior officer following Brock’s death, led another unsuccessful charge during which he, too, was mortally wounded. British reinforcements under Maj. Gen. Roger Sheaffe arrived in the afternoon, and he took command of the British forces. Using a more cautious approach, i.e. not employing the direct attack, Sheaffe won out over the Americans and the invasion was ultimately repulsed — another American failure during the war.

By the way … I recently acquired the book “Voices from the Past: War of 1812” by Kathlyn Gay and Martin Gay. It’s a brief volume that appears to be from a series designed for middle school students. Although not a compendium on the War of 1812, it does provide an excellent outline on the subject.

It is also a source of numerous anecdotes, like this one: “The emotional response of many (U.S.) citizens to their government’s declaration of war carried the day. Anyone who questioned the reasoning behind the war preparations was called a traitor, a Tory and a friend of England. Newspaper editorials threatened harsh treatment for those who didn’t support the effort. ‘The war will separate the partisans of England from the honest federalist and Tar and Feathers will cure their penchant for our enemy,’ one editorial warned.”

This conjures up memories of recent events, like the manic call for patriotism that erupted following the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. This hawkish passion resulted in not one, but two wars, both of which continue to this day.

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