The Night Attack that Saved Canada

On this day, 205 years ago, Upper Canada (now Ontario) was as close as it ever would be to becoming part of the United States. But the night-time battle fought in the early hours of June 6, 1813, was a turning point in the War of 1812.


To those living through the events of May 27-June 6, 1813, it must have seemed inevitable that the American army would sweep its way through the Niagara peninsula and up around Lake Ontario. They were within a few miles of cutting off the road that was the lifeline to the Crown forces in the west.

map 3.jpg

But it didn't turn out that way. The boldness, determination and resourcefulness of one side -- coupled with division and hesitation on the other -- turned what should have been an easy U.S. victory into a humiliating defeat.  More than a defeat of arms, it was a defeat of the psyche, and it put the Americans on the defensive where they should have been pushing ahead.

map upper canada.jpg

In the spring of 1813, the impact of the British victory at Queenston Heights was beginning to fade. The Americans continued to build up their strength on their side of the river.  Facing them, General Vincent had only a thousand regular troops and militia to cover a 50-kilometer frontier.  The Americans could strike where they pleased.  They proved it when their ships sailed across Lake Ontario, landed 1,700 soldiers near Fort York on April 27, 1813, and captured the capital of Upper Canada.  

Fort york.jpg

They stayed long enough to burn the Parliament buildings before setting sail again, but the Crown forces knew they were vulnerable, not only along the Niagara River, but along the lake shores as well.

Fort Niagara.jpg

A month later, when the Americans made their concerted attack, once again they made effective use of their navy.  Fort Niagara on the American side and Fort George in Upper Canada began an artillery duel with each other on May 25.  Under the cover of darkness, the Americans assembled an attack force of 4,000 men in a four waves of bateaux.  They were supported by 14 ships of war and several batteries, including Fort Niagara.  When the fog lifted on the morning of May 27, 1813, they pummeled the British position from both land and water before landing their soldiers a few kilometers up the Lake Ontario shore.

Fort George flotilla.jpg

The plan, devised by a young Lieutenant-Colonel Winfield Scott (who would go on to be the foremost American soldier of his generation), was to sweep around and attack Fort George from behind, cutting off General Vincent's retreat.  He very nearly succeeded.


The attack on Fort George provides the setting for the opening chapters of Blood Oath.  Eli McCabe is with the first wave of Colonel Scott's attack; Jacob Gibson and his step-mother and step-sisters take shelter from the bombardment, while his father goes off to fight the attackers.  In the interest of efficient story-telling, I had to cut one of my favourite draft chapters in which Eli races ahead with Colonel Scott to snuff a fuse before the British can succeed in blowing the fort's powder magazine.  The chapter was based on an actual incident and it made for great drama and action, but it slowed down the story and it had to go.  

Blood Oath.jpg

The story picks up with the looting that took place when the American soldiers occupied the town of Newark (Niagara-on-the-Lake). From then until December, Newark was an occupied town under martial law.  Civilian men of military age were rounded up and incarcerated on the American side of the border -- some had to walk as far as Albany, New York (around 600 kilometers).


But General Vincent and the the Crown army had escaped.  They retreated up the Niagara peninsula and made their stand at Burlington Heights, at the head of Lake Ontario.  It was a strong position looking over the water, and years later, Sir Allan MacNabb chose it to erect his estate, Dundurn Castle.


Fearing their villages along the Grand River were now vulnerable to American attack, the Mohawk allies had also retreated to Burlington Heights. In his seminal study, The Iroquois and the War of 1812, Dr. Carl Benn describes how some among the Iroquois Confederacy thought that this would be an opportune time to change sides, and attack the British. This would surely have ended the war quickly and decisively -- and bloodily.


They were dissuaded by the counsel and advice of their war chief, Teyoninhokarawen: John Norton, who had negotiated with Joe Willcocks the previous year to ally the Grand River Mohawk with the Crown. This diplomatic initiative forms part of A Hanging Offence, when Jacob and his father accompany Willcocks on his vital mission.

hanging offence.jpg

John Norton remained true to the alliance he forged with the Crown under the diplomatic suasion of Joe Willcocks; Joe Willcocks, however, did not.  It is not certain at what point he offered his services to the American army. There were some reports that he had been seen accompanying the Americans when they moved up the Niagara peninsula in pursuit of Vincent.  That's the foundation on which I built the story in which Eli McCabe accompanies Willcocks on the way to Stoney Creek.  For both Jake and Eli, the motives of Joe Willcocks are unknown, but they certainly threaten their friendship and their loyalty to each other.

Eli witnesses first hand the arrogance and ineptitude that helped turn a decisive American victory into an ignominious defeat. He is with Mr. Willcocks for a meeting to the two generals, Chandler and Winder -- "General Bull and General Stallion," Eli calls them. Willcocks tries to advise them that they have chosen poor ground at Stoney Creek on which to camp their army for the night and, when they don't heed his advice, he and Eli wisely decide to bed down behind the lines, far from the creek.


Eli cannot know what is going on behind the British lines -- and Jake is still back in Newark with his family. So neither of them are privy to the resourceful plan concocted by Lieutenant-Colonel John Harvey, General Vincent's chief-of-staff.


Along with Major James Plenderleath, Lieutenant James Fitzgibbon and 700 soldiers and some Mohawk warriors, they marched 15 kilometers to reach the American encampment at Stoney Creek.  In the middle of the night, they attacked an American force of 3,400 soldiers. 


The battle did not go entirely their way.  As recounted in Blood Oath, the Twenty-Fifth Regiment (from Connecticut) had redeployed to safer ground during the night, and was in a perfect spot to shoot down at the British where they were outlined against the cooking fires. 


The fighting was close-range and fierce. In the story, the heroism of Henry Ecker is based upon the actions of Sergeant Alexander Fraser who, as part of the attack on the American guns, captured both General Chandler and General Winder.


Nevertheless, the Crown forces were badly mauled by the Americans. By morning, they had withdrawn from the field and pulled back toward Burlington Heights. 


The Americans, however, did not seize upon that advantage.  They had lost their two generals, and command now fell to Colonel James Burn, who ordered a retreat back to Fort George. The Mohawk warriors harassed them along the way, and the retreat soon became a route.


For the rest of 1813, the Americans stayed behind their defences in the corner of the peninsula. Their occasional forays were met with defeat -- but that is another story, covered in the final chapters of Blood Oath.  Many historians regard the Battle of Stoney Creek to be the turning point of the War of 1812. Never again would the Americans comes so close to scooping Upper Canada from the Crown.

battle map.jpg

An excellent study of the battles of Fort George and Stoney Creek is James E. Elliott's Strange FatalityIt, along with Richard Feltoe's The Pendulum of Warprovided much of the research material for Blood Oath.