MITCHELL SMYTH, Special to QMI Agency
Monday, October 8, 2012
On Oct. 14, the Battle of Queenston Heights will be reenacted on the same battlefield where it took place 200 years ago during the War of 1812. (JULIE JOCSAK/QMI AGENCY FILES)
QUEENSTON, Ont. — The Battle of Queenston Heights, the first major engagement of the War of 1812, began at 3 a.m. on Oct. 13.
But you can’t expect tourists to be out in the pre-dawn darkness, so the re-enactment marking the 200th anniversary will come 12 hours later, at three in the afternoon (a Saturday) on the escarpment running down to the Niagara River.
It’s one highlight of a weekend of events celebrating the victory by British Redcoats and Canadian militia and First Nations warriors over the invading Americans. The battle is best remembered for the death of the commander of the British forces, General Isaac Brock.
Other events include a special educational day on the battlefield, a commemorative service, fireworks, guided tours of the heights and a re-enactment of the funeral of General Brock.
Winning this battle was vital in those early days of the war for, if we had lost, the Americans would have dominated both sides of the Niagara River, making it an American waterway. It would also — as Pierre Berton notes in The Invasion of Canada — “give the Americans warm winter quarters (and) allow them to build up their invading army for a spring campaign.”
Brock, says Berton, believed that “if the heights are lost the province (Upper Canada, present-day Ontario) is lost.”
But that wouldn’t happen, in large part because an amazing stroke of good fortune had earlier laid the groundwork for victory. The guides on the bicentennial tours will doubtless tell how, one day before the battle, a British officer, under a flag of truce, had crossed the river to the American camp at Lewiston to try to negotiate an exchange of prisoners.
The officer, Major Thomas Evans, noticed the Americans’ numbers had been “prodigiously swelled,” and also saw more than a dozen boats in fissures in the bank and half-covered with brush.
This convinced him that an attack across the river to Queenston was imminent. He scurried back to Fort George, in present-day Niagara-on-the-Lake, with the warning. Forces were rushed the 10 km to the heights and they were waiting when the Americans came across, to be met, says Berton, by “a sheet of fire.”
The Saturday re-enactment will fill in the rest of the story. It will show how Brock was rallying his men for a charge when an American sniper, 30 metres away, drew a bead and buried a bullet in the general’s chest, killing him instantly. The cry “Revenge the general!” went up and the invaders were finally driven back. The Americans lost 250 men, dead and wounded. British/Canadian casualties were 14 dead, 77 wounded.
Mistakes and miscalculations by the Americans undoubtedly helped lead to their defeat. For a start, they had too few boats for a major invasion, as they had thought they would land unopposed so they could send their boats back for more men. Some soldiers abandoned the boats when they reached the Canadian shore, leaving them to drift down river. Unbelievably, the U.S. soldiers were given too little ammunition. And they had no large boats to carry heavy cannons across.
So the British and Canadians won. But it would take another 26 months before the Treaty of Ghent ended the war. America would never again try to annex Canada.
NEED TO KNOW
There is a monument to General Brock — and one to Laura Secord, another hero of the war — on Queenston Heights, a huge park with National Historic Site designation. For further details on the bicentennial celebrations of the battle, check the website friendsoffortgeorge.ca/event.htm.