The Americans, burning to wipe away the stain of Detroit, were determined to penetrate into Upper Canada at any risk, concentrated themselves along the Niagara frontier of 36 miles with 3,650 regulars and 2,650 militia. To oppose this force Major-General Brock, whose headquarters were at Fort George, had under his immediate orders part of the 41st and 49th regiments, a few companies of militia, amounting to nearly half these regulars, and from 200 to 300 Indians—in all about 1,500 men—but so dispersed in different posts at and between Fort Erie and Fort George, (34 miles apart,) that only a small number was quickly available at any one point.
[1-Brock on Arthur]
Before the dawn, about four a.m., the sound of distant firing roused him from his short slumber. The hour so long expected had come at last. In a few moments the general was in his saddle, and not waiting even for his aide-de-camp to accompany him, he galloped off by the road to Queenston, seven miles away, whence the ominous sound came. [Later, Walter Nursey wrote an account about Brock stopping for a stirrup cup of coffee from the hands of Sophia Shaw, a general’s daughter, said to be Brock’s fiancée. As Pierre Burton put it, “It is not convincing. On this dark morning, with the wind gusting sleet into his face and the southern sky lit by flashes of cannon, he will stop for nobody.” I will cover Sophia Shaw in a subsequent post. Brock was known to put duty first and foremost above all else.]
It was not only the general who had waited with impatience for the decisive moment. One of the young volunteers on guard, Lieutenant Robinson, in his account of that fateful day, wrote: “The lines had been watched with all the care and attention which the extent of our force rendered possible, and such was the fatigue which our men underwent from want of rest, and exposure to the inclement weather, that they welcomed with joy the prospect of a field which they thought would be decisive.”
[2-Plan of Battle of Queenston Heights from Lady Edgar’s book]
All along the river bank from Fort George to Queenston, a mile or two apart, Canadian batteries commanded different points where a crossing might be made. The principal were at Brown's Point, two miles from Queenston, and Vrooman's Point, nearer that village. At the former was stationed a company of York volunteers, under the command of Captain Cameron. The latter, which commanded Lewiston and the landing at Queenston, was guarded by another company of York volunteers under the command of Captain Reward.
Above the village of Queenston the channel of the river narrowed, and the banks rise to the height of three hundred feet, thickly covered with trees and shrubs. At the ferry between Lewiston and Queenston the river is 1,250 feet in breadth, with a depth of from 200 to 300 feet and a very rapid current. Half way down the hill, or the mountain, as it was called, was the redan battery, where the flank fight company of the 49th Regiment, under Lieutenant Robinson (afterwards the distinguished Sir John Beverley Robinson, chief justice of Upper Canada).
[3-Battle of Queenston Heights]
The other flank company of the 49th, the grenadiers, numbering only 46 men, under Major Dennis, was at the village of Queenston, where also was stationed Captain Chisholm's company from York, and Captain Hall's company of 5th Lincoln militia. There was a small detachment of artillery in the village, with two 3-pounders, under the command of Lieutenant Crowther and Captain Ball. On the height opposite Queenston, on the American side, was Fort Grey, whose guns commanded that village. From this point the firing first came.
About half an hour before daylight, probably about four a.m., in the midst of a violent storm of wind and rain, and under cover of darkness, that the Americans began to cross the river. They were seen by the militia sentinel on guard at Queenston, who immediately ran to the guardhouse to give the alarm. As soon as possible, the grenadier company of the 49th and the militia company stationed there, began firing on them, using the two 3-pounders with good effect. Colonel Solomon Van Rensselaer, a relative of the general, who had charge of the American troops crossing, was at this time severely wounded, as well as many of the rank and file, before the boats had gone far from their side of the river. The gun at Vrooman's Point, which commanded the landing at Lewiston, also joined in, and many of the boats were driven back, whilst others in a battered condition drifted down the river and ran ashore near Vrooman's Point. Those on board, many of them wounded, were made prisoners.
The detachment of York Volunteers at Brown's Point, two miles below, had heard the firing, and made ready to join their comrades in helping to drive the invaders back. Dawn was now glimmering in the east, but the semi-darkness was illumined by the discharge of musketry and the flash of artillery. In spite of the constant fire, some boats succeeded in effecting a landing.
Captain Cameron, in command of the York company at Brown's Point, was at first undecided whether to advance or to remain at the post assigned him to defend. It had been thought that the enemy would make various attacks at different points on the line, and this might be a feint, while the real landing would take place elsewhere. However, he decided to go to the aid of the troops above, and had scarcely set off on his march in that direction when General Brock galloped past alone. He waved his hand as he flew by, shouting “Push on, brave York Volunteers,” bidding the little troop press on. Little need to tell them to follow. Their confidence in their general was unbounded. They were ready to follow him through danger and death. In a few minutes the general reached and passed Vrooman's Point, and was soon followed by his two aides, Major Glegg and Lieutenant-Colonel Macdonell.
The reception given to the invaders had been a warm one. To quote from Lieutenant Robinson: "Grape and musket shot poured upon them at close quarters as they approached the shore. A single discharge of grape from a brass 6-pounder, directed by Captain Dennis of the 49th, destroyed fifteen in a boat. Three of the bateaux landed below Mr. Hamilton's garden in Queenston and were met by a party of militia and a few regulars, who slaughtered almost the whole of them, taking the rest prisoners. Several other boats were so shattered and disabled that the men in them threw down their arms and came on shore, merely to deliver themselves up as prisoners of war. 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 scenes, with horror, but we hurried to the mountain, impressed with the idea that the enemy's attempt was already frustrated, and the business of the day nearly completed.”
Thus far, everything had gone well for the defense, and the general, on his approach to Queenston, was greeted with the news that the greater number of the boats had been destroyed or taken. Another brigade of four boats was just then setting off from Lewiston, and the 49th Light Company, which had been stationed at the redan battery on the mountain, was ordered down to assist in preventing them landing. General Brock had ridden forward to inspect this battery, where the 18-pounder had been left in charge of eight artillerymen. He had just dismounted to enter the enclosure when shots from above warned him that the enemy had gained the crest of the hill. As was learned afterwards, Captain Wool, of the United States army, on whom devolved the command of the boats when Colonel Solomon Van Rensselaer was wounded, had very skillfully conducted his men up the river, and on shore, until they came to a fisherman's path leading up the south side of the mountain, a path so steep and narrow that it had been left unguarded. They had succeeded in reaching the height unobserved, where they remained concealed by the crags and trees. It was now about seven in the morning.
In the dangerous and exposed position in which General Brock found himself, there was nothing to be done but to order the gun to be spiked and to evacuate the battery with all the speed possible. There was no time for him even to mount his horse. He led it down the hill and entered the village to reform his troops and gather them for an assault on the enemy above. There were but two hundred men available for the work, two companies of the 49th, about a hundred men, and the same number of militia. It was a hazardous and daring enterprise to attempt to regain the heights with so small a force, but regardless of danger, as was his wont, General Brock, on foot, led his men to the charge up the hill. In vain was the attempt. The enemy above were so advantageously placed, and kept up such a tremendous fire, that the small number ascending were driven back.
[4-Isaac Brock leading charge]
A deflected bullet struck the wrist of his sword arm, but the wound was slight. Again the general rallied them, urged them on by word and gesture, “Push on, York Volunteers! Salient!” and proceeded by the right of the mountain, meaning to attack them in flank. His tall form and prominent position as leader made him too easy a mark. Scarcely had he ascended a few paces when the bullet struck him in the breast, and he fell.
Of the last words of a hero there are always conflicting stories. Some say Isaac Brock was conscious of his serious wounding, that he called on his men to press forward, some say he murmured his sister's name; and more audibly, as he gallantly strove to raise his head to give emphasis to his last faltering words—the same Isaac Brock, unmindful of self and still mindful of duty—he said to Clibborn, a soldier who was close at hand, “My fall must not be noticed, nor impede my brave companions from advancing to victory.”
They bore him from the place where he fell to a house at the foot of the hill, where his comrades covered his lifeless form, and then went back to the work he had left them to do. The handful of troops had retreated to the village, where they were joined by the two companies of York Volunteers from Brown's and Vrooman's Points. About half-past nine Lieutenant-Colonel Macdonell, aide-de-camp, a lawyer with no military experience, formed them again for an advance up the hill to dislodge the enemy.
Lieutenant Robinson tells the story: "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 from several field pieces directly opposite to us, besides an incessant and disorderly fire of musketry from the sides of the mountain. In a few minutes we were ordered to advance. The nature of the ground and the galling fire prevented any kind of order in ascending. We soon scrambled to the top to the right of the battery which they had gained, and were in some measure covered by the woods. There we stood and gathered the men as they advanced, and formed them into line. The fire was too hot to admit of delay. Scarcely more than fifty had collected, about thirty of whom were of our company, headed by Captain Cameron, and the remainder of the 49th Light Company, commanded by Captain Williams.
"Lieutenant-Colonel Macdonell was mounted and animating the men to charge. . . . The enemy were just in front, covered by bushes and logs. They were in no kind of order, and were three or four hundred in number. They perceived us forming, and at about thirty yards distance, fired. Lieutenant-Colonel Macdonell, who was on the left of our party calling upon us to advance, received a shot in his body and fell. His horse was at the same instant killed. Captain Williams, who was at the other extremity of our little band, fell the next moment apparently dead. The remainder of our men advanced a few paces, discharged their pieces, and then retired down the mountain. Lieutenant McLean was wounded in the thigh. Captain Cameron, in his attempt to save Colonel Macdonell, was exposed to a shower of musketry, but most miraculously escaped. He succeeded in carrying off his friend. Captain Williams recovered from the momentary effect of the wound in his head in time to escape down the mountain. This happened, I think, about ten a.m."
The two companies of the 49th and the militia, retreated to Vrooman's Point to wait there for further reinforcements, and the Americans remained in possession of the hill. They were enabled by the cessation of fire from the Canadian side to land fresh troops unmolested, and to carry back their dead and wounded in their boats.
The morning had ended most disastrously for the British. The beloved and trusted general was still in death, and near him lay his friend and aide-de-camp, mortally wounded. All along the line from Fort George to Erie, the evil tidings sped. How the news of defeat was brought to Fort Erie is told by an officer of the 100th stationed there. He relates how on the morning of October 13th the booming of distant artillery was faintly heard. Hunger and fatigue were no longer remembered, and the men were ordered to turn out under arms, and were soon on their way to the batteries opposite the enemy's station at Black Rock. The letter continues : —
"We had not assumed our position long, when an orderly officer of the Provincial Dragoons rode up and gave the information that the enemy were attempting to cross at Queenston, and that we must annoy them by every means in our power along the whole line, as was being done from Niagara to Queenston. The command was no sooner given than, bang, went off every gun we had in position. The enemy's guns were manned and returned the fire, and the day's work was begun.
It was about two o'clock in the afternoon when another dragoon, not wearing sword or helmet, bespattered horse and man with foam and mud, rode up. Said an old 'green tiger' (49th Regiment) to me, ‘Horse and man jaded, sir, depend upon it he brings bad news.'
‘Step down and see what news he brings.'
Away my veteran doubles and soon returns. I knew from poor old Clibborn's face something dreadful had occurred. 'What news, Clibborn — what news, man?' I said, as he advanced toward Captain Driscoll.
"Clibborn walked on, perfectly unconscious of the balls that were ploughing up the ground around him. He uttered not a word, but shook his head. The pallor and expression of his countenance indicated the sorrow of his soul. I could stand it no longer. I placed my hand on his shoulder. ‘For heaven's sake, tell us what you know.' In choking accents he revealed his melancholy information. ‘General Brock is killed, the enemy has possession of Queenston Heights.' Every man in the battery was paralyzed. They ceased firing. A cheer from the enemy on the opposite side of the river recalled us to our duty. They had heard of their success down the river.
"Our men who had in various ways evinced their feelings, some weeping, some swearing, some in mournful silence, now exhibited demoniac energy. The heavy guns were loaded, traversed and fired as if they were field pieces. 'Take your time, men, don't throw away your fire, my lads.' 'No, sir, but we will give it to them hot and heavy.' All the guns were worked by the forty men of my company as if they wished to avenge the death of their beloved chief."
At Niagara, the other extremity of the line, in obedience to General Brock's last order, sent from Queenston, a brisk fire had been kept up all morning with the American fort opposite, whence hot shot poured on the little town, threatening to envelop it in flames. Captain Vigareaux, R.E., by a daring act of valour, saved a powder magazine from being ignited. As at Fort Erie, news of the disaster at Queenston only impelled the artillerymen to redouble their exertions. So well directed was their fire that by mid-day the American fort was silenced.
 Major-General Sheaffe [photo] had, early in the morning, in obedience to a summons from General Brock, prepared to march to Queenston with about four companies of the 41st, 380 rank and file, and nearly the same number of militia, together with the car brigade under Captain Holcroft. News of the repulse and the loss of the general was followed by a second despatch, telling of Lieutenant-Colonel Macdonell's attempt to take the hill, which had ended so disastrously.
General Sheaffe, with the field pieces of the car brigade, arrived at Vrooman's Point about eleven o'clock, and found there the handful of troops who had retreated to that place to await his arrival. Captain Holcroft's company, with the heavy guns, was placed in position to command the landing at Lewiston, and to prevent any more troops from crossing. The general decided that it was useless to attempt a charge up the hill in the face of the addition that had been made to the enemy's force, and their commanding position on the heights.
He determined, therefore, to make a long detour through the fields and woods behind Queenston. His force had been strengthened by about 150 Mohawk Indians, under Chief Norton (a strapping six foot Scot who is more Indian than most Indians, having convinced many British leaders that he is a Cherokee), who had come from the lake shore near Niagara, had skirted the village of St. Davids near Queenston, and then had silently moved eastwards through the dense forest, hemming the Americans in. About two p.m. Major Merritt's troop of cavalry appeared on the scene, and later still, a detachment of the 41st and two flank companies of militia arrived from Chippawa.
It was three o'clock in the afternoon when the real battle of Queenston Heights began. General Sheaffe had gradually advanced towards the battery on the mountain held by the enemy. One spirit animated all the men, a fierce desire to avenge the death of their beloved chief, and to drive the aggressors back from Canadian soil. The main body on the right consisted of the 41st, and the flank companies of the Niagara militia, with two field pieces, 8-pounders, which had been dragged up the hill. The left consisted of the Mohawk Indians and a company of coloured troops, refugee slaves from the United States. The Light Company of the 49th, with the companies of York and Lincoln militia, formed the centre. In all a little over a thousand men, of whom half were regulars.
The Indians were the first to advance, and the Americans, who were expecting an attack from quite another direction, were completely taken by surprise. General Sheaffe had succeeded in reaching their rear unseen. There was scarcely time for them to change their front when a fierce onslaught was made on them from all sides, the Indians uttering their terrific war whoop, and the rest of the troops joining in the shout.
In vain did the American officers, among them Winfield Scott, attempt to rally their men. A panic seized them in the face of the determined fire that was poured upon them, and, scarcely waiting to fire a volley, they fled by hundreds down the mountain, only to meet more of their enemies below. There was no retreat possible for them. It was indeed a furious and avenging force that pressed upon them, and drove them to the brink of that river whose deep waters seemed to offer a more merciful death than that which awaited them above. They fell in numbers. “The river,” said one who was present, “presented a shocking spectacle, filled with poor wretches who plunged into the stream with scarcely a prospect of being saved.” Many leaped from the side of the mountain, and were dashed to pieces on the rocks below.
At last the fire from the American batteries at Lewiston ceased, and the battle was over in one short hour. Brock was indeed avenged. Two officers were now seen approaching bearing a white flag. They were conducted up the mountain to Lieutenant J. B. Robinson.
By the surrender, General Wadsworth and over nine hundred men, including sixty officers, were made prisoners of war. It was a complete victory, but dimmed by a national loss. That loss was felt through the two years of fighting that followed the battle of Queenston Heights. Sheaffe, who succeeded the fallen general, was lacking in the qualities that are requisite for a successful commander. His conduct at the taking of York in 1813, proved his unfitness for the position. Procter who had been left in command on the western frontier also lacked the firmness in action and fertility of resource that characterized the leader who had opened the campaign so brilliantly. But the influence which the lost leader wielded on the youth of the province lived after him, and stimulated them throughout the long struggle "to keep the land inviolate." Under Vincent and Harvey and Drummond and Macdonell and de Salaberry they fought as veterans, and when at the close of the war they laid down their arms not one foot of Canadian territory was occupied by the enemy.
Three times were Sir Isaac Brock's funeral rites observed. First, on that sad October day when a pause came in the conflict, and minute guns from each side of the river bore their token of respect from friend and foe for the general who had fallen in the midst of the battle. He was laid to rest first in the cavalier bastion of Fort George which he himself had built. Dark days were yet to fall on Canada, when shot and shell poured over that grave in the bastion, and fire and sword laid the land desolate; but the spirit kindled by Brock in the country never failed, and though his voice was stilled, the echo of his words remained and the force of his example.
When peace came again, a grateful country resolved to raise to his memory a monument on the field where he fell, and twelve years afterwards a solemn procession passed again over that road by the river, and from far and near those who had served under him gathered to do him honour. A miscreant from the United States shattered this monument on April 13th, 1840, a crime that was execrated in that country as well as in Canada.
[6 - Sir George Arthur, Govenor General after Prevost]
In order to take immediate steps to repair the desecration. Sir George Arthur, the new governor-general after Sir George Prevost, called upon the militia of Upper Canada and the regular troops then in the country, to assemble on Queenston Heights on June 30th of that year. The summons was obeyed with enthusiasm, and no greater civil and military display had ever been held in Canada. The youths whom Isaac Brock had led were gray-headed men now, judges and statesmen, the foremost in the land, but they had not forgotten him, and once again, in eloquent words, the story was told of how he had won the undying love and respect of the people.
[7 - Isaac Brock monument]
A resolution was unanimously passed, that another monument, higher and nobler still, should be built in place of the one destroyed. No public money was asked, but the regular troops, officers and men, and the militia gave a freewill offering. In due time the sum of $50,000 was raised. While the monument was building. General Brock's body was placed in a private burying-ground in Mr. Hamilton's garden at the foot of the hill. In 1854, more than forty years after the battle, the column was finished, and once again a long procession followed the hero's bier. Nor was this all. In 1860 there was a notable gathering on that historic hill, when King Edward VII, then Prince of Wales, came to do honour to the dead hero, and laid the topmost stone on the cairn that marks the spot where he fell. One hundred and sixty survivors of the volunteers of 1812 were present.
Sir John Beverley Robinson was their spokesman. In his address to the prince he said: "In the long period that has elapsed very many have gone to their rest, who, having served in higher rank than ourselves, took a more conspicuous part in that glorious contest. We rejoice in the thought that what your Royal Highness has seen and will see of this prosperous and happy province will enable you to judge how valuable a possession was saved to the British Crown by the successful resistance made in the trying contest in which it was our fortune to bear a part, and your Royal Highness will then be able to judge how large a debt the empire owed to the lamented hero Brock, whose gallant and generous heart shrank not in the darkest hour of the conflict, and whose example inspired the few with the ability and spirit to do the work of many."
In reply the prince said: "I have willingly consented to lay the first stone of this monument. Every nation may, without offence to its neighbours, commemorate its heroes, their deeds of arms, and their noble deaths. This is no taunting boast of victory, no revival of long passed animosities, but a noble tribute to a soldier's fame, the more honourable because he readily acknowledges the bravery and chivalry of the people by whose hands he fell. I trust that Canada will never want such volunteers as those who fought in the last war nor her volunteers be without such a leader. But no less I fervently pray that your sons and grandsons may never be called upon to add other laurels to those which you so gallantly won."
The noble shaft on Queenston Heights dominates a wide expanse of land and lake. Deep and strong is the current of the river that flows at its base, but not deeper and stronger than the memory of the man who sleeps below.
This monument to Alfred was erected in 1976. As to the fate of Alfred, in none of the research materials from reputable sources did I find anything that stated Alfred had been killed at the Battle of Queenston. The General's Horse "fully caparisoned, led by four Grooms" is listed as preceding the coffin at the General's interment at Fort George. Tupper (1847) p.341.
Other commemorative tributes to Major-General Isaac Brock was a postal stamp Guernsey issued in 1996;
and a stamp from Canada issued in 1969.
[8 -Isaac Brock uniform worn on fateful day on display at Military Museum in Ottawa - click to enlarge]
Isaac Brock is the first Canadian war hero, an Englishman who hated the provincial confines of the Canadas, who looked with disdain on the civilian leaders, who despised democracy, and who could hardly wait to escape Canada to join Wellington. None of that matters now.
His monument erected on the ridge, not far from where he fell, became a symbol of remembrance for his contribution to the country; his military prescience, his careful preparation for war during the years of peace, his astonishing bloodless capture of an American stronghold; and of that final impetuous dash, spendidly heroic but tragically foolish, up the slippery heights of Queenston on a gloomy October morning.
The Makers of Canada – General Brock by Lady Matilda (Ridout) Edgar [1844-1910] (1904)
The Life and Correspondence of Sir Isaac Brock, K.B. by his nephew, Ferdinand Tupper Brock (1845)
The Invasion of Canada: 1812-1813 by Pierre Berton
Photo Credits: -wikipedia, -Lady Matilda Edgar, 1904, -Lone Primate CC=nc-sa-flickr.
This is a My Town Monday post of which Travis Erwin is the founder. At his blog you can find other participants from around the globe providing a look at their corner of the world.
Queens and Saints
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