Battle of York: Date & Conflict:
The Battle of York was fought April 27, 1813, during the War of 1812 (1812-1815).
Armies & Commanders
Battle of York Background:
In the wake of the failed campaigns of 1812, newly re-elected President James Madison was forced to reassess the strategic situation along the Canadian border. As a result, it was decided to focus American efforts for 1813 on achieving victory on Lake Ontario and the Niagara frontier. Success on this front also required control of the lake. To this end, Captain Isaac Chauncey had been dispatched to Sackets Harbor, NY in 1812 for the purpose of constructing a fleet on Lake Ontario. It was believed that victory in and around Lake Ontario would cut off Upper Canada and open the way for an attack on Montreal.
In preparation for the main American push at Lake Ontario, Major General Henry Dearborn was ordered to position 3,000 men at Buffalo for a strike against Forts Erie and George as well as 4,000 men at Sackets Harbor. This second force was to attack Kingston at the upper outlet of the lake. Success on both fronts would sever the lake from Lake Erie and the St. Lawrence River. At Sackets Harbor, Chauncey had rapidly constructed a fleet that had wrested naval superiority away from the British.
Meeting at Sackets Harbor, Dearborn and Chauncey began to have misgivings about the Kingston operation despite the fact that the objective was only thirty miles away. While Chauncey fretted about possible ice around Kingston, Dearborn was concerned about the size of the British garrison. Instead of striking at Kingston, the two commanders instead elected to conduct a raid against York, Ontario (present-day Toronto). Though of minimal strategic value, York was the capital of Upper Canada and Chauncey had intelligence that two brigs were under construction there.
The Battle of York:
Departing on April 25, Chauncey's ships carried Dearborn's troops across the lake to York. The town itself was defended by a fort on the west side as well as a nearby "Government House Battery" mounting two guns. Further west was the small "Western Battery" which possessed two 18-pdr guns. At the time of the American attack, the lieutenant governor of Upper Canada, Major General Roger Hale Sheaffe was in York to conduct business. The victor of the Battle of Queenston Heights, Sheaffe possessed three companies of regulars, as well as around 300 militia and as many as 100 Native Americans.
Having crossed the lake, American forces began landing approximately three miles west of York on April 27. A reluctant, hands-off commander, Dearborn delegated operational control Brigadier General Zebulon Pike. A famed explorer who had traversed the American West, Pike's first wave was led by Major Benjamin Forsyth and a company of the 1st US Rifle Regiment. Coming ashore, his men were met by intense fire from a group of Native Americans under James Givins. Sheaffe ordered a company of the Glengarry Light Infantry to support Givins, but they became lost after leaving town.
Outflanking Givins, the Americans were able to secure the beachhead with the assistance of Chauncey's guns. Landing with three more companies, Pike began forming his men when they were attacked by the grenadier company of the 8th Regiment of Foot. Outnumbering their attackers, who launched a bayonet charge, they repelled the assault and inflicted heavy losses. Reinforcing his command, Pike began advancing by platoons towards the town. His advance was supported by two 6-pdr guns while Chauncey's ships began a bombardment of the fort and Government House Battery.
Directing his men to block the Americans, Sheaffe found that his forces were being steadily driven back. An attempt was made to rally around the Western Battery, but this position collapsed following the accidental detonation of the battery's travelling magazine. Falling back to a ravine near the fort, the British regulars joined with the militia to make a stand. Outnumbered on land and taking fire from the water, Sheaffe's resolve gave way and he concluded that the battle was lost. Instructing the militia to make the best terms possible with the Americans, Sheaffe and regulars retreated east, burning the shipyard as they departed.
As the withdrawal began, Captain Tito LeLièvre was sent to blow up the fort's magazine to prevent its capture. Unaware that the British were departing, Pike was preparing to assault the fort. He was approximately 200 yards away interrogating a prisoner when LeLièvre detonated the magazine. In the resulting explosion, Pike's prisoner was killed instantly by debris while the general was mortally wounded in the head and shoulder. In addition, 38 Americans were killed and over 200 wounded. With Pike dead, Colonel Cromwell Pearce took command and re-formed the American forces.
A Breakdown of Discipline:
Learning that the British wished to surrender, Pearce sent Lieutenant Colonel George Mitchell and Major William King to negotiate. As talks began, the Americans were annoyed at having to deal with the militia rather than Sheaffe and the situation worsened when it became clear that the shipyard was burning. As talks moved forward, the British wounded were gathered in the fort and largely left unattended as Sheaffe had taken the surgeons. That night the situation deteriorated with American soldiers vandalizing and looting the town, despite earlier orders from Pike to respect private property. In the day's fighting, the American force lost 55 killed and 265 wounded, mostly as a result of the magazine explosion. British losses totaled 82 killed, 112 wounded, and over 300 captured.
The next day, Dearborn and Chauncey came ashore. After prolonged talks, a surrender agreement was produced on April 28 and the remaining British forces paroled. While war material was confiscated, Dearborn ordered the 21st Regiment into the town to maintain order. Searching the shipyard, Chauncey's sailors were able to refloat the aged schooner Duke of Gloucester, but were unable to salvage the sloop of war Sir Isaac Brock which had been under construction. Despite the ratification of the surrender terms, the situation in York did not improve and soldiers continued to loot private homes, as well as public buildings such as the town library and St. James Church. The situation came to a head when the Parliament buildings burned. On April 30, Dearborn returned control to the local authorities and ordered his men to re-embark. Before doing so, he ordered other government and military buildings in the town, including the Governor's Residence, deliberately burned.
Due to foul winds, the American force unable to depart the harbor until May 8. Though a victory for American forces, the attack on York cost them a promising commander and did little to alter the strategic situation on Lake Ontario. The looting and burning of the town led to calls for revenge across Upper Canada and set the precedent for subsequent burnings, including that of Washington, DC in 1814.