Niagara Gazette

October 8, 2012

Lewiston, Ontario step back into the War of 1812

By DON GLYNN
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — LEWISTON — Although the War of 1812 may loom relatively unimportant  in America’s memory, the Village of Lewiston is taking giant strides this upcoming weekend to relive that too-often ignored chapter in history.

At the same time, along the Ontario side of the Lower Niagara River, the Battle of Queenston Heights will be commemorated by a series of event similar to what’s planned in Lewiston.

It’s all part of the three-day observance to renew interest in the U.S. invasion of Canada — a British possession then —on Oct. 13, 1812.

The battle that day is perhaps forgotten as insignificant since it ended virtually as a draw with no boundary or policy changes between the two nations, according to Pulitzer Prize winning historian and author Alan Taylor, a professor at the University of California.

“At best, Americans barely recall the war as a handful of patriotic symbols,” said Taylor during a summer lecture series at Niagara University.

Those symbols on Taylor’s short list: Inspiring the national anthem at the Battle of Baltimore and Fort McHenry; the victories of a warship called ‘Old Ironsides’; the British burning the White House and the nation’s capitol; and for the payback by Andrew Jackson’s Tennessee riflemen at the Battle of New Orleans. 

When President James Madison declared war against the British, June 18, 1812, three targets were selected to invade Canada, then known as British North America. Assaults were planned on Upper Canada (Ontario) from Lewiston and Detroit and Lower Canada (Montreal and Quebec) from upstate New York.

Even at a cursory glance, all three missions failed, mostly attributed to the incompetent U.S. generals and their troops riddled by insubordination, and a lack of communications between commanders of the invading forces. “Especially at Queenston,” it was a disaster for the Americans,” according to Thomas Chambers, an associate professor  and chairman of the Niagara University Department of History.

For starters, New York Gov. Daniel Tompkins had named Gen. Stephen Van Rensselear, with no prior military experience, to head the invasion at Queenston. He ended up with more than 3,500 troops, facing a force of 2,000 British and Indians along the Ontario side. 

Historian Walter R. Borneman noted that Gen. Van Rensselear first ordered troops to cross the river on Oct. 11, 1812, only to discover that all the oars for the boats had “disappeared” downriver in a single boat. The general’s cousin, Col. Solomon Van Rensselaer, led 200 men across the river just two days later and was wounded six times in the process. The records show that most of his troops were pinned under the heights, unable to make much headway. Finally, a company of the 13th U.S. Infantry Regiment under Capt. John E. Wool managed to reach the top of the heights via an unguarded fishermen’s trail.

Without much warning, Wool’s troops started streaming down from the crest of the heights, Borenman recounts, making it almost impossible for the British forces to retreat into the village. Part way up that slope, Maj. Gen. Isaac Brock was leading about 100 men in a counterattack to retake the higher ground when he was killed by a U.S. sniper shooting down at the easy target, an officer in a bright red coat with golden epaulettes.

Eventually, the British regained the heights and U.S. Lt. Col. Winfield Scott was forced to surrender his command. In the end, more than 300 American soldiers were dead or wounded and nearly 1,000 had been taken prisoners. The British losses: 14 killed, 77 wounded, and 21 missing.

Gen. Brock, who had been knighted for his earlier capture of Detroit, died before ever learning about his honor. Today, an impressive monument stands atop Queenston Heights, a vivid reminder of the legendary military leader. 

The hub of Lewiston re-enactment program and related events will be in Academy Park, Lewiston, starting at 2:45 p.m. Friday. Also that day, an “Off to War Cannon Procession” will begin at 4 p.m. on Center Street, from Portage Road to Fourth Street. More information will be available at a visitors tent in Academy Park.

In addition, for full schedule of the events, visit the Web at HistoricLewiston.org.

WEEKEND HIGHLIGHTS A few of the many events in Lewiston: FRIDAY • 7 P.M. -- Cannon bombardment of Canada SATURDAY • NOON -- British troops will harass and ransack Center Street • 3 P.M. -- Cannon bombardment of Canada SUNDAY • 9 A.M. -- Reenactor marching drills • 2 P.M. -- 1812 fashion show