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The Battle of Queenston Heights: An American Folly

Figure 1.  A painting of the Battle of Queenston by eyewitness Dennis James. [Source: 1812history]
Well-planned British tactical maneuvers executed by experienced leadership and Native American assistance would overcome a numerical disadvantage on the battlefield while leading the British to victory during the Battle of Queenston Heights. This major battle that took place during the beginning of the War of 1812 would emphasize significant American military weaknesses. Ultimately the battle would be one of many factors that forced American government and military officials to reorganize the way that the United States maintained a standing army in the years following the war.

Cannons and Muskets Bring Light to the Battlefield

On the morning of October 13, 1812, a “cold rain was falling as the assault force clambered into the overcrowded vessels and shoved off into the black water” of the Niagara River (Ritz and Smith, 2001, 41-42). The battle for Queenston had begun as American Major General Stephen Van Rensselaer III ordered an invasion into Canada which at the time was under watch by British Major General Sir Isaac Brock. The town itself provided a crucial strategic control point as it was located directly on the Niagara River between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie. If Van Rensselaer could defeat the British opposition and gain control of the area he would “be able to sever the British communications route into western Upper Canada,” and would create a beach head where American forces would be able to gather troops and supplies for large over land campaigns (Rauch, 2013, 39). A successful siege of Queenston Heights could have potentially put the Americans in an ideal position to attack the British Fort George. Van Rensselaer did not have much choice when timing his attack, for American prisoners that had been captured at an earlier battle in Detroit could be seen across the river. Furthermore, Republican politicians thought that the general was delaying matters intentionally as he was a Federalist (Redway, 1909, 4). Feeling pressure from his men and others to attack, Van Rensselaer attempted to surprise the British by attacking in the darkness and mobilizing his first wave of troops very early in the morning. His troops were quickly discovered and could not escape the cloud of lead that engulfed their transport boats.

A young British officer, Sir John Beverly Robinson, wrote in a letter the day after the battle “From our battery there we had the whole scene most distinctly in our view . . . 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” (Robinson, 1904, 34).

There were about 150 British regulars from the 49th regiment and 150 militiamen known as the York Volunteers defending Queenston at the start of the battle. As for the Americans, there were approximately 300 regulars from the 13th U.S. infantry and 300 men representing the 19th New York Militia (Rauch, 2013, 43). In total, Van Rensselaer had approximately 1,600 regulars and a little over 5,000 militiamen at his disposal (Ritz and Smith, 2001, 40).

Initial American Success Followed by Absolute Failure

Despite the obstacles presented by the fast flowing river and the loss of numerous boats, the Americans were able to establish a beachhead, however the the troops that crossed had minimal artillery and insufficient number of soldiers to wage an all day battle. This beach head also came at a great cost:

In a letter that was posted in the Quebec Mercury on October 27th, 1812 that is expected to have been written by British Lt. Mclean of the York Militia, he noted that “In several boats all were killed but two or three men” (Cruikshank, 1900, 114).

There was also one eyewitness account of a direct hit in which fifteen Americans in one boat were instantly killed (Ritz and Smith, 2001, 42). After a significant struggle crossing the Niagara River and establishing a beachhead under fire, American forces were able take up a position on the high ground overlooking Queenston.

In another article from the Buffalo Gazette dated Tuesday, October 10th, 1812 the editor wrote, “The militia and regulars moved forward with the greatest intrepidity and gallantry and carried the enemy’s works with but a small loss, a possessed themselves of the enemy’s battery” (Cruikshank, 1900, 120).

Even though the Americans were able to take the high ground by way of an unguarded path, the British still had an elevation advantage over the American reinforcements attempting to cross the river and their boats were shot to pieces. General Brock rallied a counter strike, but failed in trying to take back the high ground and ultimately ended up being killed after he was shot in the chest. John Norton, a Mohawk Chief that sided with the British, recognized that a frontal counter- attack was near impossible. Instead he led his war party up the steep slopes (from the west rather than the north where Brock’s men were) with approximately 80 warriors and under the cover the smoke produced by small arms fire pinned down the Americans and took over the position after taking them by surprise (Institut Historica, 2013, 3).

In the same letter written by Sir John Beverly Robinson he noted his account of the Indian counter-attack in which he wrote, “The Indians were the first in advance. As soon as they perceived the enemy they uttered their terrifying whoop . . . The Americans stood for a few moments . . . then fled by the hundreds down the mountain” (Robinson 1904, 37).

It is important to recognize the impact that Native American assistance had in determining the outcome of the battle. This important tactical decision to move under cover rather than participate in the British frontal assault prevented casualties and allowed very quick execution. If it was not for John Norton’s bravery and decisive thinking on the battle field the outcome of the battle may ended in favor of the Americans. The actions of John Norton and his fellow warriors ultimately led to a British victory as they destroyed any possibility of an American regrouping and they left the American moral shattered.

A Shameful American Military Effort

Figure 2. A portrait of Stephen Van Rensselaer III by Gilbert Stuart. [Source: Wikimedia]
The United States likely would have been able to win the battle if the soldiers who were able to successfully cross were given ample reinforcements. However, when Van Rensselaer returned to Lewiston (the American staging area) to mobilize militia reinforcements they refused to step foot on foreign soil; especially after hearing the sounds of the war on the Canadian side of the river (Rauch, 2013, 45).

The gruesome battle is summed up well in a quote from a Buffalo Gazette article (dated March, 2, 1813) that described an American General’s son who “headed a company of 36 men, 14 of whom were killed and 16 wounded. He received four wounds one with a musket ball and three with buckshot” (Cruikshank, 1900, 124).

One can only imagine the sounds associated with such an event and it is no wonder why the militiamen looked for excuse not to fight. However, when looking at the battle with a critical eye, more volunteers in the landing parties may have led to a reduction in overall casualties by keeping the British from concentrating their fire. This issue would ultimately lead to defeat as British reinforcements arrived soon after Van Rensselear realized he would not be able to mobilize any more troops. The British reinforcements annihilated the American forces who were tired and running out of ammunition. The Americans had suffered an embarrassing defeat that Van Rensselaer was ashamed of. The battle could have easily ended in favor of Van Rensselaer if reinforcements would have been willing to fight.

Not only did the militia not mobilize, but American General Alexander Smyth who was stationed with his troops nearby, was in command of regular troops with every right to fight on foreign soil, refused to send men (Ritz and Smith, 2001, 43). This is certainly not the first time that internal conflict led to losing a battle and would not be the last. This only emphasized the problems with the current United States military. Once British reinforcements arrived from Fort George the American effort was a lost cause, there was no possible way for the Americans to pull off a victory.  Although Van Rensselaer advised that the men left on the battlefield surrender, they chose to continue the fight. A final British push broke any will that the remaining men had left and they then decided to surrender, with some choosing to jump of the Heights to their death rather than be taken prisoner.

A Significant Difference in Leadership

Another important aspect is the contrast in leadership between the American and British forces. The American General Van Rensselaer was not usually able to work cohesively with his most important colleague Brigadier General Alexander Smyth who refused any attempt at coordinating an attack with Van Rensselaer. It is said that when Van Rensselaer notified Smyth of his planned date of attack, Smyth replied that his men would be busy doing laundry that day. Given the fact that Smyth was in charge of a number of regulars who could have crossed into Canada, it is quite possible that this caused an American defeat before the battle even commenced. It also must be noted that Van Rensselaer’s military education was lack-luster at best (Redway, 2013, 16). The American general had a background that focused more on politics than military conflict, however, he was the commander of the New York State Militia. His opposition was Sir Isaac Brock who has almost three decades of military experience and was well respected by those who he commanded. After all, it was Sir Isaac Brock that had just annihilated the Americans in Detroit.

Figure 3. A Portrait of Sir Isaac Brock by William Berczy. [Source: Toronto Public Library]

Sir John Beverly Robinson also wrote about an encounter with Sir Brock in which he said, “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 with full speed to the mountain” (Robinson, 1904, 34).

Brock was an energetic and courageous leader who took pride in his reputation and his men. The man was well-respected and had leadership qualities that Van Rensselaer did not. Unlike the American general, Brock was able to align his men towards a common goal and reinforce his commands through brave actions. The death of Sir Brock was a irreparable British tragedy. “His death was regarded by his friends as an irreparable loss, but slightly compensated by their subsequent success, as he had united all parties” (Cruikshank, 1909, 25). Despite their General’s death however, the British were able to persevere and win the battle.

Conclusions and Impact

In can certainly be assumed that Sir Brock was expecting an attack at Fort George. In fact, the cannons and small arms fire woke him up in his headquarters at Fort George the day of the battle. Fort George was his army’s “center of gravity” as that is where the General kept most of his units. Fort George sat directly West of Fort Niagara across the Niagara River. In theory, Van Rensselaer had a good plan attacking at Queenston during the early hours of the morning, for the British certainly did not anticipate it. Unfortunately, as in most battles, plans seem to be ruined very quickly soon after the first shots are fired.

Figure 4. A monument at Queenston Heights constructed in 1856 in honor of Sir Isaac Brock. [Source: Niagara Falls Public Library]
If nothing else, the battle provided a crucial learning opportunity for the young United States. Since “generally speaking the, the militia’s performance during the war was poor” there was a significant push for change (Kerby, 1977, 105). The theoretical, well-trained group of militia men that Americans fantasized about was more of an exception rather than the rule. “The real problem with militiamen was their lack of discipline, poor training, and unreliability” and these problems were made very evident during the Battle of Queenston (Hickey, 2001, 2). The military ineffectiveness of the militiamen themselves combined with the inability of the government to equip its soldiers was truly forged multiple disasters. It is estimated that one in five of the army’s weapons were inoperable during the War of 1812 and there were shortages of ammunition and shoes (Rauch, 2013, 10).

Fortunately frustration tends to forge change. “During the War of 1812 the Republican Party converted to Federalist Military Policy . . . the armed forces prospered” (Maslowski and Millet, 1984, 108). Republicans and anti-nationalists had been fighting a standing army since the Revolutionary War, but finally realized the necessity of peacetime preparedness and the professionalization of the military. By 1816 the United States had built a navy capable of protecting American commerce overseas and by 1817 improvements were made to the military education curriculum to ensure quality officers (Maslowski and Millet, 1984, 109 and 119). Although it seems as if it took the United States until WWII to start anticipating war rather than reacting to it, a significant amount of progress was made. Realistically, for the sake of the United States, without the War of 1812 these flaws may have been realized when it was too late. With the rapid advancement of technology throughout the 19th century such as the development of the breech loading rifle, the telegraph, and the advancement of the steamship, warfare was changing very rapidly. Arguably, if the United States had not been so invested in advancing the military after the War of 1812 and learning how to combine technology with a professional fighting force the young country may have been left behind.


Primary Sources

[1] Cruikshank, Ernest. (1900). The Documentary History of the Campaign Upon the Niagara Frontier: Part IV. Welland: Tribune Office.

[2] Berczy, William (1809). Sir Isaac Brock [Painting]. (See Figure 3.)

[3] Dennis, James (1836). The Battle of Queenston Heights Oct. 13th 1812. [Painting](See Figure 1.)

[4] Robinson, C.W (1904). Life of Sir John Beverly Robinson. Endinburgh & London: Bannantyne, Hanson & Co.

[5] Stuart, Gilbert (1795). Stephen Van Rensselaer III [Painting]. (See Figure 2.)

Secondary Sources

[1] Cruikshank, Ernest (1909). “The Military Career and Character of Major-General Sir Isaac Brock.” Proceedings of the New York State Historical Association, 8, 67-90.

[2] Deacon, Ruth (1998). Queenston Heights – Brock’s Monument – Tribute to Sir Isaac Brock [Photograph]. (See Figure 4.)

[3] Institut Historica & Dominion Institute (2013). Queenston Heights.

[4] Kerby, Robert (1977). “The Militia System and the State Militias in the War of 1812.” Indiana Magazine of History, 73:2, 102-124.

[5] Maslowski, Peter and Allan Millet (1984). For the Common Defense: A Military History of the United States of America. New York, New York: The Free press.

[6] Rauch, Steven (2013). The Campaign of 1812. Washington, DC: Center of Military and History.

[7] Redway, Jacques (1909). “General Van Rensselaer and the Niagara Frontier.” Proceedings of the New York State Historical Association, 8, 14-22.

[8] Ritz, Joseph and Derek Smith (2001). “Distaster at Queenston Heights.” American History, 36:5, 39-44.

[9] Vansickle, Eugene (n.d.). “Militia During the War of 1812.” Bandy Heritage Center. 

Further Reading