On October 13, 1812, the Americans at 3 in the morning begin the invasion of Upper Canada. Major General Isaac Brock will die in the attack but the Americans will be defeated as a result of their own internal quarrels that divided their forces. John Beverley Robinson, who was present, wrote the following account in a letter probably addressed to John Strachan on the following day.
Brown’s Point, October 14, 1812
The affair of yesterday terminated so gloriously for this province, and does so much honour to its spirited defenders, that I hasten to give an account to you, whom I know to be most warmly interested in the present cause of our country.
I am anxious to detail to you the particulars, because I know your heart will glow with fervour at our success, while it feelingly and sincerely laments the price at which it was purchased.
Few things occurred which I had not an opportunity of observing, and what I did see, from its novelty, its horror, and its anxiety, made so awful an impression on my mind, that I have the picture of it all fresh and perfect in my imagination.
About half-an-hour before daylight yesterday morning, (the 13th of October, Tuesday), being stationed at one of the batteried between Fort George and Queenston, I heard a heavy cannonade from Fort Grey on the American side situate on the height of the mountain, and commanding the town of Queenston. The motions of the enemy had, for a few days previously, indicated an intention to attack. The lines had been watched with all the vigilance that our force rendered possible, and so great was the fatigue which our men underwent from want of rest and exposure to the inclement weather which had just preceded, that they welcomed with joy the prospect of a field which would be decisive, and set them more at ease for the future. Their spirits were high, and their confidence in the General unbounded.
Our party, which was merely an extra guard during the night, returned to Brown's Point, our main station, which is about two miles in a direct line from Queenston.
From our battery there we had the whole scene most distinctly in our view. Day was lust glimmering. The cannon from both sides roared incessantly, shells were bursting in the air, and the side of the mountain above Queenston was illumined by the continual discharge of small arms. The last circumstance convinced us that some part of the enemy had landed ; and in a few moments, as day advanced, objects became visible, and we saw numbers of Americans in boats attempting to land upon our shore, amidst a shower of shot of all descriptions, which was skillfully and incessantly levelled at them.
No orders had been given to Captain Cameron, who commanded our detachment of York Militia, what conduct to pursue in case of an attack at Queenston; and as it had been suggested to him that, in the event of a landing being attempted there, the enemy would probably, by various attacks, endeavour to distract our force, he hesitated at first whether it would be proper to withdraw his men from the station assigned them to defend. He soon saw, however, that every exertion was required in aid of the troops engaged above us, and resolved to march us immediately to the scene of action.
On our road, General Brock passed us. He had galloped from Niagara in great haste, unaccompanied by his aide-de-camp or a single attendant. He waved his hand to us, and desired us to follow with expedition, and galloped on with full speed to the mountain. Lieutenant-Colonel Macdonell and Captain Glegg passed immediately after.
At the time the enemy began to cross there were two companies of the 49th Regiment (the Grenadier and Light Company) and, I believe, three small companies of Militia to oppose them.
Their reception was such as did honour to the courage and management of our troops. The grape and musket balls, poured upon them at: close quarters as they approached the shore, made incredible havoc. A single discharge from a held-piece directed by Captain Dennis himself (the captain of the 49th Grenadiers) killed fifteen in one boat.
Three of their batteaux landed at the hollow below Mr.Hamilton's garden in Queenston, and were met by a party of Militia, who slaughtered almost the whole of those in them, taking the rest prisoners. Several other boats were so shattered and raked that the men in them threw down their arms, and came on shore merely to deliver themselves up prisoners of war.
Thus far, things had proceeded successfully; and the General, on his approach to the spot, was greeted with the happy intelligence that all our aggressors were destroyed or taken. As we advanced with our company we met troops of Americans on their way to Fort George under guard, and the road was lined with miserable wretches, suffering under wounds of all descriptions, and crawling to our houses for protection and comfort.
The spectacle struck us, who were unused to such heart-rending scenes, with horror; but we hurried to the place, impressed with the idea that we had conquered, and that the business of the day was done.
A fresh brigade of four boats had just then crossed, and our troops, who had been stationed on the mountain, were ordered down to dispute their landing. No sooner had they descended than the enemy appeared in force above them. They had probably landed before the rest, while it was yet dark, and had remained concealed by the rough crags of the mountain. They possessed themselves instantly of our battery on the height.
General Brock rushed up the mountain on foot with some troops to dislodge them; but they were so advantageously posted, and kept up so tremendous a fire, that the small number ascending were driven back.
The General then rallied the men, and was proceeding up the right of the mountain to attack them in flank, when he received a ball in his breast. Several of the 49th assembled round him. One poor fellow was severed in the middle by a ball, and fell across the General. They succeeded, however, in conveying the General's body to Queenston.
Just at this instant we reached Queenston. We were halted a few moments in Mr. Hamilton's garden, where we were exposed to the shot from the American battery at Fort Grey and two field-pieces directly opposite us, and also to an incessant fire of musketry from the side of the mountain. One of our poor fellows had his leg shot off in the ranks by a ball which carried away the whole calf of another lad's leg.
In a few minutes we were ordered to advance to the mountain. The nature of the ground and the galling fire prevented any kind of order in ascending. We soon scrambled to the top, at the right of the battery which the Americans had gained, and were in some measure covered by the woods. There we stood, and gathering the men as they advanced, formed them into line ; the fire was too hot to admit of delay. Scarcely more than fifty were collected, of whom about thirty were of our company, headed by Captain Cameron and three of our subalterns. The remainder were the 49th, commanded by Captain Williams.
Lieutenant-Colonel Macdonell was there, mounted, and animating the men to charge, seconded with great spirit and valour by Captain Williams. But the attempt was unsuccessful, and must have been dictated rather by a fond hope of regaining what had been lost by a desperate effort than by any conviction of its practicability. The enemy were just in front, covered by bushes and logs, and were three or four hundred in number. They perceived us forming, and at about thirty yards' distance fired.
Colonel Macdonell, who was on the left of our party, most heroically calling upon us to advance, received a shot in his side, and fell. His horse was the same instant killed….Captain Williams, who was at the other extremity of our small band, fell the next instant, apparently dead. The remainder of our men discharged their pieces, and retired down the mountain. Lieutenant M'Lean was wounded in the thigh, and Captain Cameron, in his attempt to save Colonel Macdonell, exposed himself to a shower of musketry, which he most miraculously escaped. He succeeded in bearing off his friend; and Captain Williams recovered from the wound in his head in time to make his escape down the mountain.
This happened about ten o’clock. Our forces rallied a mile below.... General Sheaffe, with the 41st from Fort George, about 300 in number, came up soon after with the field-pieces and Car Brigade. All the force that could be mustered was collected, and we marched through the fields back of Queenston, ascended the mountain on the right, and remained in the woods in rear of the enemy till intelligence was gained of their position. During this time, the Americans were constantly landing fresh troops unmolested, and carrying back their dead and wounded in their return boats.
About three o'clock, General Sheaffe advanced through the woods towards the battery on the mountain, with the main body and the field guns on the right: the Mohawk Indians, under Captain Norton, and a Niagara Company of Blacks, proceeded along the brow of the mountain on the left ; and our company of Militia, with the Light Company of the 49th, broke through in the centre.
In this manner we rushed through the woods to our encamping ground on the mountain, which the enemy had occupied. The Indians were the first in advance. As soon as they perceived the enemy they uttered their terrific war-whoop, and commenced a most destructive fire, rushing rapidly upon them. Our troops instantly sprang forward from all quarters, joining in the shout.
The Americans stood a few moments, gave two or three general volleys, and then fled by hundreds down the mountain. At that moment, Captain Bullock, with 150 of the 41st and two Militia flank companies, appeared advancing on the road from Chippawa. The consternation of the enemy was complete…
They had no place to retreat to, and were driven by a furious and avenging foe, from whom they had little mercy to expect, to the brink of the mountain which overhangs the river. They fell in numbers.... Many leaped down side of the mountain to avoid the horrors which pressed upon them, and were dashed to pieces by the fall.
A white flag was observed, and with the utmost difficulty the slaughter was suspended. Two officers who brought it were conducted up the mountain to General Sheaffe. A cessation of hostilities for three days was agreed upon.Thus ended the business of this day, so important and so interesting in its occurrences to the inhabitants of this province. The invasion of our peaceful shores has terminated in the entire destruction of their army and the total loss of everything brought over.
The number of Americans landed is unknown, and cannot be easily ascertained by us, but we know that we have taken nearly, or perhaps quite, 1000 prisoners, with more than fifty officers, undoubtedly their bravest and best. Still we have much to sorrow for. Our country has a loss to deplore which the most brilliant success cannot fully atone for. That General who had led our little army to victory, whose soul was wrapped up in our prosperity, and whose every energy was directed to the defence of our country, is now shrouded in death.
Who will not sympathise in another misfortune nearly related to this. ... That heroic young man [Lieutenant Colonel Macdonell], the constant attendant of the General, strove to support to the last a cause which should never be despaired of, but he was not destined to witness its triumph. I have mentioned the manner of his death. His career was short, but honourable; his end was premature and full of glory. He will be buried at the same time with the General…
Our company of volunteers suffered considerably. One man was killed, and eleven wounded, most of them badly. But all these, though melancholy circumstances, are inevitable consequences of war; and grateful should the inhabitants of this province be to Heaven if, by a sacrifice of some of its gallant defenders, it can save itself from unjust aggression, and preserve to our Mother Country a possession which has ever been the object of its affection.
Alan Taylor in Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, & Indian Allies (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2010) describes the battle this way:Our troops will have received fresh courage from their victory, and the cool though determined and vigorous conduct of General Sheaffe, and the gallant behaviour and spirited exertions of every officer under his command on that occasion, claim from us every confidence in the anticipation of the future.
In the predawn darkness of October 13, an advance force of three hundred militia and three hundred regulars crowded into thirteen boats for the hard rowing against the rapid, twisting current of the powerful river. To the dismay of Republican officers, Van Rensselaer gave command of the advance to his cousin Solomon. But he did not command for long. Upon landing at Queenston, Solomon suffered gunshot wounds to his hip, thigh, and leg, and had to be hauled back across the river to safety in a field hospital. His command nominally fell to a militia brigadier general, William Wadsworth, but he deferred to Lieutenant Colonel Winfield Scott of the regulars. Despite the difficult crossing, the initial attack proved surprisingly successful. Only a small guard defended Queenston, for Brock had concentrated his forces seven miles to the north at Fort George, where he had expected the Americans to strike. Before Brock could rush south to Queenston, Scott had stormed the nearby heights, capturing a British battery. When Brock arrived with reinforcements, he ordered a hasty charge to retake the high ground. Sword drawn, he rushed into a withering American fire. Shot in the chest, Brock crumpled, dying within a minute. His dismayed troops carried off his corpse as they fled down the hill. An easy victory at Detroit had cost Brock his life at Queenston, for his earlier triumph had reinforced his aggressive overconfidence. He died from his conviction that Americans were undisciplined cowards who would run or surrender whenever boldly attacked.
...In the late afternoon, Sheaffe led a British counterattack that overwhelmed the Americans on Queenston Heights. By their piercing screams and painted appearance, about 250 Indians turned the American retreat into a bloody rout. An American volunteer confessed, “I thought hell had broken loose and let her dogs of war upon us.” A British officer described the scene:
The Indians hanging upon their rear completed their dismay and those remaining in the batteries, becoming also terror struck, fled in all directions. A terrible slaughter ensued. The Indians were furious. Their war whoops so intimidated the Americans, who expected no quarter, that in despair some leapt the precipice and were seen for some time after suspended halfway down in the branches of the trees, where the Savages had shot them from the brow [of the heights].
James Laxer in his fine book Tecumseh & Brock: The War of 1812 (House of Anansi, 2012) describes Brock's assault on the heights this way:Some leapers died from the fall and others drowned in the rampaging riber. Mot of the routed Americans huddled at the landing, where they found no boats for their evacuation. In a panic, the boatmen had fled, leaving their boats on the far shore or to drift away down the river. To avoid a massacre, Scott surrendered to Sheaffe. The American losses were heavy: 90 killed, 100 wounded, and another 925 captured. By comparison, the British-led force suffered only 19 killed, 77 wounded, and 21 captured.
Alarmed that the Americans were once more installed at the summit and regretting the earlier decision to move the Light Company from the Heights, Brock prepared a new attack. He assembled all the men he had available to him in the village. Riding on his horse, he led the men southward. Just before reaching the foot of the Heights, he shouted, “Take a breath, boys — you will need it in a few moments.” Dismounting from his horse, Brock led his men up the hill. Outfitted in his scarlet uniform with gold epaulettes and the ornamental scarf that had been Tecumseh’s present to him after Detroit, the general led his horse by the bridle. He had taken only a few steps when a ricocheting bullet hit the wrist of his sword arm. It was a slight wound and did not deter Brock, who waved his sword and urged his men forward. As Brock was leading the charge to battle, a scout from Ohio saw the tall general in his resplendent scarlet, took aim, and felled him with a shot that tore through his left breast. According to the account from George Jarvis, a fifteen-year-old gentleman volunteer in the 49th’s Light Company who was close to Brock when he was hit, “Our gallant General fell on his left side, within a few feet of where I stood. Running up to him I enquired, ‘Are you much hurt, Sir?’ He placed his hand on his breast and made no reply and slowly sunk down.” A legendary account has it that, with his last breath, Brock uttered the words, “Push on, brave York volunteers,” to rally the York militiamen. Another man who saw the general fall, militia private John Birney, recounted, “With the help of others, he was laid on the grass and the surgeon called out, but he was past human aid and never moved or spoke.”