In the spring of 1813, when the slumbering warfare had revived in earnest, Sir George Prevost, Commander-in-Chief, as well as Governor-General, and Colonel Baynes, Adjutant-General of the forces in British North America, were both in headquarters at Kingston, directing affairs at that centre. Sir James Yeo arrived on May 15th with more officers of the navy and seamen for the lakes, and was discouraged to find the naval force in a weak and unsatisfactory condition, inferior in equipment to that of the enemy. The squadron had been, in the end of March, divided between York and Kingston, but the western division was now stationed on Lake Erie, and, as we have seen, Chauncey, in his attack on York, had burned the new twenty-gun frigate Duke of Gloucester, the most serious result of the capture of the place.
At Sackett’s Harbour, the chief American naval station, facing Kingston across _the eastern end of the lake, through the energetic action of Commodore Chauncey, several new American vessels were approaching completion. It was necessary, therefore, as soon as possible, to strike for British acendancy on Lake Ontario ; since upon that, in the end, must depend the fate of Upper Canada, forthe farther seaward the control of the waterway could be gained by the invadersthe greater would be their chances of ultimate success. The possession of Kingston was therefore, a cardinal point ; and, as Captain Mahan tells us, Chauncey’s first plan had been “to proceed immediately with the fleet and a land force of a thousand men against Kingston, the capture of which would, at a single stroke, remove every obstacle in the Upper Province. No other harbour was tenable as a naval station. With its fall and the destruction of shipping and fort, the control of the lake would pass to the enemy, even if the place were not permanently held. Deprived of the water communication, the British forces could maintain no position to the westward, because neither reinforcements nor supplies could reach them. “I have no doubt,” Chauncey said, “that we should succeed in taking or destroying the ships and forts, and of course preserve our ascendency on this lake.”
It was most fortunate for Kingston, as well as for the British arms in Canada, that Chauncey did not, as his first move, put this plan into execution. Had he done so, it is possible that the town, not yet put into a state of adequate defence, might have shared the fate which afterwards befell Newark ; and it is impossible to say how far its capture and destruction might have affected the final issue. But he evidently did not feel sufficient confidence to try such hazardous conclusions, and “win or lose it all ;” and, instead, steered westward to deal with minor issues.
Eighteen months later he wrote, with evident regret :”It has always been my opinion that the best means of conquering Canada was to cut off supplies from Lower to Upper Canada, by taking and maintaining some position on the St. Lawrence. That would be killing the tree by girdling the branches. The tree was rooted in the ocean, where it was fed by the sea-power of Great Britain. Failing a naval power to uproot it, which the Americans had not, the trunk must be severed, and the nearer the root the better.” But, as things turned out, Kingston remained almost unmolested, and the tree was neither girdled nor felled, but still flourishes lustily on its deeply planted root.
After his successful descent on York, Commodore Chauncey returned with his fleet to Sackett’s Harbour, where he received reinforcements for his attack on Fort George, at the mouth of the Niagara, which he carried by assault on the 27th of May. On the same day, taking advantage of the absence of the fleet, it had been determined by Sir George Prevost and Commodore Sir James Yeo to make a dash for Sackett’s Harbour and burn the ships and stores there. Accordingly, an expedition, numbering some eight hundred or a thousand men, embarked on the British squadron at Kingston, consisting of Yeo’s new flagship, the Wolfe, of 124 guns; the Royal George, carrying the same number ; the Earl of Moira, of 14 guns, and four schooners, each carrying from ten to twelve guns. Expectation at Kingston was wrought to its highest pitch as the little fleet sailed out of the harbour in the early morning, with flying colours, followed by the cheers and high hopes of the enthusiastic citizens, who confidently anticipated a victorious return. Every condition was, indeed, favourable to success, when, during the forenoon, the squadron approached Cape Vincent. The landing was about to be made under the direction of the two commanders, and the men were already in the bateaux, when, from some cause never quite cleared up, but apparently Prevost’s overestimate of the strength of the defences, he changed his mind, gave the order to reembark, and the landing was deferred, thus giving the enemy time for better preparation. When Prevost at last decided to proceed, the ships had been driven by the wind to a greater distance, and the troops were landed during the night, under a heavy rain, to find the woods lined with American skirmishers, who, though retreating before the British charge, continued to maintain a brisk fire. Colonel Baynes’ detachment, however, dislodged them from the woods at the point of the bayonet, with the loss of their commanding officer, and, pursuing them to the fort and blockhouse, set fire to the barracks and the ships, the Gloucester and the new frigate on the stocks. The American General, Brown, believing a British victory imminent, hurriedly set fire to the naval stores, hospital and marine barracks, and was ready for surrender. But at the very threshold of signal success came the strange order to re-embark the troops ! The fleet, detained by adverse winds, had not yet come up to bombard the blockhouse, and Prevost, an ineffectual commander, though a brave man and a successful Governor, is said to have mistaken the dust raised by the retreating militia for an advancing column, and, losing both confidence and judgment, gave the signal for retreat. The Americans saved their new frigate, the Pike, to become thereafter Chauncey’s flagship, and the disappointed and disheartened expedition returned ingloriously to Kingston with a loss of 250 men killed, wounded or missing, and without gaining anything worth such a sacrifice. It need scarcely be said that, while this ignominious miscarriage bitterly disappointed the expectant Kingstonians, it combined with the defeat at York and the capture of Fort George, and other disasters of the summer, to encourage the enemy and impair the prestige won by the signal successes of the previous autumn.
A minor attack on Cape Vincent, then called Gravelly Point, had been made shortly before by Lieutenant Marjoribanks, RN., and Corporal Chretien of the Voltigeurs, of which Captain Viger’s diary supplies a graphic account. They had endeavoured to attack, with a gunboat, one of the enemy’s gunboats on the river, but failing to overtake it, and “feeling very sore and disappointed,” Marjoribanks decided to make a descent on Cape Vincent, the nearest American post, where he hoped to find and surprise some of the “Yankee boats,” a proposal accepted by his men with the greatest enthusiasm. The attack was carried out, but the boats were not there, and after forcing an entrance into the deserted barracks and shooting an officer at the Commandant’s quarterslooting some small arms by the waythe attacking party “retired under a desultory musket-fire from the returned enemy.”
“The naval lieutenant,” continues the diary, “in the official report to Commodore Yeo, gave a detailed statement of Chretien’s coolness and courage, together with the peril to which he exposed himself during this brush with the enemy. He further charged him to convey his despatch to Kingston, where Sir George Prevost sent for him, and after promoting him to the rank of sergeant, presented him with the sabres and pistols looted at Gravelly Point.”
On the first of March there arrived at Kingston the American General Winchester, with Colonel Lewis and Major George Madison, taken prisoners of war at the battle of Frenchtown, near Detroit. Their arrival was duly chronicled by the Kingston Gazette, the first newspaper published in Upper Canada, founded in 1810 by young Stephen Miles, not then twenty-one. Some months later there also arrived, in the same plight, the Brigadiers Chandler and Winder, captured, with their whole army, by General Vincent, after the signal victory of Stoney Creek, when Vincent and his much inferior force of 700 men nobly retrieved the previous disasters of the year. Many of the wounded were also conveyed by water from the exposed Niagara region to the shelter of Kingston, where they were carefully tended. Surgeon Dougall of the Prince Edward Militia and Dr. Meacham of Belleville, are specially mentioned as having rendered valuable service at Kingston during the pressure of the war.
While General Vincent and his troops, by several successful skirmishes, were holding the enemy in check along the Niagara frontier, and Captain Barclay was blockading Perry and his ships at Presque Isle, Sir James Yeo was engaged in a protracted contest with Chauncey for the mastery of Lake Ontario, both, however, seeming unwilling to risk a decisive engagement. On July 31st the British fleet left Kingston for the head of the lake, with supplies for General Vincent’s force at Burlington Heights, and on its way had a skirmish with the enemy’s fleet near Niagara, resulting in the loss of two small American vessels, captured by the British fleettwo other small schooners of nine and ten guns being upset in escaping, with loss of nearly all on boardwhile the rest of the fleet retired to Niagara. There the British squadron appeared on the 7th of September, .when another set of manoeuvres occurred, lasting for five days, during which a few shots were exchanged by the larger ships, without much injury on either side, the American vessels having the advantage in weight and long guns, while the British ships were better sailers, but carrying shorter guns, for engaging at closer quarters.
Sir James Yeo again retired for a time to the vicinity of Kingston ; but, not long after, the two fleets met a third time, off York, when a sharp engagement ensued, lasting for two hours, in which Sir James’ flagship, the Wolfe, lost main and mizzen masts, and was probably saved from capture only by the intervention of the Royal George, which ran in between her and her adversary, the Pike, and gave her a chance of hauling away. The British fleet took refuge under Burlington Heights, whither it was not pursued. Next day the fleets again sighted each other on the lake, but neither attempted to renew the fight. The American fleet, however, on its return cruise to Sackett’s Harbour, found and captured five small vessels out of a flotilla of seven, carrying some 250 men of De Walteville’s regiment from York to Kingston.
The scarcity of troops in Upper Canada at that time made even this small loss severely felt, especially as the British arms had just suffered severe reverses on Lake Erie and the Niagara frontier. Captain Barclay, by a single lapse of vigilance, had allowed the American fleet to slip out of Presque Isle, and, after a desperate engagement, in which every commander and second in command was either killed or disabled, was obliged to surrender, leaving the enemy in possession of the entire squadron and masters of Lake Erie. Disheartened by this disaster and debarred from any hope of supplies from Kingston by Lake Ontario, Proctor evacuated Detroit and the Michigan territory taken the year before by General Brock, and after firing barracks and stores in his rear, fell back on Sandwich. Pursued thither by Harrison, with a force of 3,000 men, which easily overtook the British rear-guard, cumbered with baggage, and captured the ammunition and supplies, Proctor was compelled to risk an engagement with less than a thousand men, supported, however, by a large body of Indians under the celebrated Tecumseth, who fell on this Canadian Flodden, after fighting with desperate gallantry to the last. The greater part of Proctor’s force, including twenty-five officers, were made prisoners, while the remnant that escaped with their commander through the wilderness took refuge at An-caster, a few miles from Burlington Heights.
Elated with their success, the American forces under Wilkinson were ready to proceed to invade Lower Canada and capture Montreal, and the first move in this campaign was to be the surprise and capture of Kingston, either from Sackett ‘s Harbour, or from Grenadier Island, in the St. Lawrence, where nine thousand men were collected, with a train of artillery. During October the people of Kingston lived in dread, only too well-founded, of a sudden attack. But against surprise, at least, they were pretty well provided, for some two thousand men, under Major-General De Rottenberg, garrisoned the place. The following extract from the Gazette of October 9th, 1818, quoted in Canniff’s “Settlement of Upper Canada,” gives us a glimpse of the conditions of defence at Kingston at this important crisis :
“By all accounts, we understand that the Americans were on the eve of attacking this place. It is our province to observe that their intentions have happily been completely anticipated, and every necessary preparation has been made to give them a warm reception. We are happy to announce the arrival of Lieutenant-Colonel Drummond, with the first detachment of the 104th Regiment, from Burlington Heights. This regiment, the 49th, and the corps of the Voltigeurs, may be expected here in the course of to-day or to-morrow. These three gallant regiments, together with our brave militia, who are pouring in from all quarters, and have already assembled in considerable numbers, will be a sufficient reinforcement, and, with our present respectable garrison, will be able to repel any force which the enemy may bring against us. We are glad to observe that every piece of artillery is advantageously placed, and we must really congratulate our fellow-citizens on the formidable appearance of every defensive position in the vicinity of this town. It has been the general rumour, for a few days past, that six or seven of our small vessels have been taken on their way from the head of the lake to this place and sent into Sackett’s, which rumour, we fear, is too true.”
From this account of the state of preparation to resist the expected attack, it would seem that, in not making it, the enemy displayed that discretion which is often “the better part of valour.” Instead of landing at Kingston, as General de Rottenberg, commanding there, had confidently expected, the American forces rendezvoused, towards the end of October, at Grenadier Island, on the St. Lawrence, and, early in November, slipped by night past the British batteries to Prescott, landing some distance below. On the 13th of November the following cheering announcement appeared in the Kingston Gazette, announcing the renowned Canadian victory of “Chrysler’s Farm,” which, with that of Chateauguay, a few days previous, effectually terminated the campaign of 1813 along the St. Lawrence frontier.
” POSTSCRIPT-HIGHLY IMPORTANT “.
The following important intelligence was received in town this morning by express :
“The enemy attacked us this morningsupposed from 3 to 4,000 men in numberand has been completely repulsed and defeated, with a very considerable loss. A number of prisoners and one General taken by us; the loss of the enemy cannot be less than 1 or 2,000. Ours has been severe. The Americans were commanded by Generals Lears and Boyd.
” (Signed) WILLIAM MORRISON, “Lieutenant-Colonel 89th Regiment.”
A week later the same paper contained the following details :
“We are assured, on good authority, that the loss of the enemy on the late action at Williamsburgh exceeded 1,000 in killed, wounded, prisoners and deserters ; their flight was precipitate during the remainder of the day and night after the action ; on the morning of the 13th they regained their own shore in the greatest confusion, and in momentary expectation of being attacked. Several officers of distinction were killed and wounded. Major-General Covender was dangerously wounded, and is since dead. Lieutenant-Colonel Preston, noted for his ridiculous and insulting proclamation at Fort Erie, inviting the inhabitants of Upper Canada to place themselves under his protection, was dangerously wounded. One six-pounder field-piece was taken on the charge, and about 120 prisoners ; 350 or 400 stand of arms was collected on or near the field of action.”
Kingston and the “Midland District” had a right to rejoice in this signal success, which relieved them from the imminent peril in which they had been living ; for they had nobly performed their part in the crisis. Not only had the staunch Loyalists and their neighbours who had emigrated from the United States at a later date, cheerfully hastened to the front, but they had also liberally contributed to the indispensable Commissariat. At one juncture, during the first year of the war, the troops at Kingston had but one week’s provisions in sight. Colonel Cartwright, as the worthy judge had then become, was asked by the Commandant if he could find any one able to raise the needed supplies in the surrounding district. Captain Robert Wilkins, who had formed a company when the war began, was recommended as the right man, and justified his recommendation by undertaking to start in half an hour. The result was an abundance of supplies, carried down the bay by bateaux, under a “half-martial law, by means of which provisions, wherever found, could be taken at a fair valuation.” Even the numerous Quakers in the vicinity of Picton, though they would not take up arms, were willing to sell their goods to anyone, without asking questions, for gold or silver, though not for Government bills circulated for war requirements. Commissary Wilkins secured their grain and respected their scruples by providing specie payments.
But the joy felt in Kingston and throughout Canada by the victory on the shore of the St. Lawrence was sadly clouded, a month later, by the brutal action of the American General McClure, in command at Fort George. Startled by the tidings of the defeat of the army destined for Montreal, and knowing Colonel Murray’s intention of advancing from Burlington Heights, he determined to retreat at once across the Niagara. Before his departure, in order to prevent the British force from finding shelter in the little town of Newark, now Niagara, he drove the defenceless inhabitants, including 400 women and children, out of their humble homes, one dark, stormy December morning, committing to the flames, at half an hour’s notice, one hundred and fifty dwellings, and leaving their unhappy owners exposed to the wintry storm, to bewail the smouldering ruins of their once happy homes.
Strangely enough, McClure, in his hurried flight and eagerness to destroy the defenceless town, had left Fort George, with its stores and barracks, uninjured, for the benefit of the approaching avenger. We can not wonder that this heartless and cruel act provoked hot indignation and commensurate reprisals, and that only a few days later Colonel Murray, with 500 men, captured Fort Niagara, and left the American frontier, from Ontario to Erie, one desolate scene of ruin, a retribution for the ruins of Newark, which fell on the innocent rather than on the guilty. Colonel Drummond, however, issued a proclamation in January, strongly deprecating the savage methods which the enemy, by his departure from the established usages of war, had compelled him to adopt, and declared it to be far from his intention to follow so revolting a practice, unless forced by future actions of the enemy to do so. But the invaders of Canada were not yet ready to relinquish their purpose, and the spring of 1814 saw active preparations on foot for both attack and defence. So long as the sleighing lasted, sleigh-loads of stores of all descriptions were poured into Kingston from Quebec at heavy cost, while another New Brunswick regiment marched through the woods from Fredericton to the St. Lawrence, and 220 seamen for the lakes reached them by the same route. An unsuccessful attack near Lake Champlain, repulsed by Canadian troops, was the first move of the enemy in the opening spring.
Early in May the American forces along Lake Champlain moved eastward towards Lake Ontario, intending to begin offensive operations against tipper Canada as soon as the fleet at Sackett’s Harbour, reinforced during the winter, should be ready to cooperate. The British fleet at Kingston had also been augmented by two vesselsthe Prince Regent and the Princess Charlotte, and in order to intercept supplies which reached Sackett’s Harbour by way of Oswego, an expedition was undertaken by General Drummond and Sir James Yeo, consisting of a considerable body of infantry, marines and Royal Artillery. Unlike the attack on Sackett’s Harbour a year before, this expedition was entirely successful, the enemy being driven from their battery and their stores captured, the barracks destroyed and the fortifications dismantledthe British loss in killed and wounded being about eighty. The naval stores, however, which were the main object in view, were not found there, having been placed at some distance from the town, near the Falls. The British squadron proceeded to blockade Sackett’s Harbour in order to intercept the supplies they had not been able to capture. On May 29th they seized a vessel laden with two large guns and other equipment, and pursued into Sandy Creek fifteen other boats, also laden with naval and military stores; but there the attacking party were met and overpowered by a stronger American force, losing eighteen killed and fifteen wounded. It is pleasant to find that the gallant Captain Popham, in reporting the affair to Sir James Yeo, gratefully acknowledged the humanity of the American officers, in saving from the ferocity of the Indians, as well as from their own countrymen, the lives of many officers and men.
These expeditions were the last events of the war locally connected with Kingston. The echoes of the campaign so sharply contested on the Niagara frontier between General Drummond and General Brown ; the American capture of Lake Erie ; the advance towards Fort George, and the final retreat of the invaders after the hotly contested action of Lundy’s Lane, the last field-battle of the warmust have excited the keenest interest in the loyal little town. But these events are beyond the scope of the present story, as is also the inglorious failure of Sir George Prevost to take Plattsburg during the following summer.
But the peace which had now been concluded in Europe, on the banishment of the “Corsican tyrant,” had left Great Britain at liberty to rally her forces to the defence of the harassed colony, and “carry the war into Africa”even to the American Capital itself. During the summer of 1814, sixteen thousand British troops were poured into Quebec, of which, however, only 4.000 found their way to Upper Canada, the remainder being needed for operations on the Champlain frontier. But the warfare which had previously harassed the whole Canadian frontier, from Sandwich to Passamaquoddy Bay, was now carried by Britain far within the enemy’s bounds, in blockading the American ports all along the coast, capturing -Washington and burning the Capitol. Such were the heavy losses and calamities to both sides involved in this unhappy war, which, after three troublous years, was at last brought to a close by the peace of 1815. Yet, strange as it seems, little Kingston, though set in the forefront of the warfare, and regarded as one of the keys to the possession of Canada, escaped from the struggle scot-free, without the displacement of a single stone or any serious damage to public or private property.
The Story Of Old Kingston:The Founding Of Fort FrontenacFort Frontenac Under The French RegimeThe Fall Of Fort FrontenacThe Coming Of The LoyalstsSettlement And Early DaysA Naval And Military Centre And First Seat Of Provincial GovernmentThe Cloud Of WarTo ArmsNaval Expeditions From KingstonAfter The WarRead More Articles About: The Story Of Old Kingston