By Don Glynn
NIAGARA FALLS —
Major-General Isaac Brock was still a little weary that cold and damp morning, Oct. 13, 1812, when he heard thunder from south of Fort George.
The falls were too far away to create that noise. It could only be the cannons booming near Queenston as the U.S. troops crossed the Niagara River to invade Canada.
Quickly, Brock pulled on his breeches, his boots and the coat he had worn as a brigadier. Outside the soldier who had saddled the British general’s horse, Alfred, was holding the reins.
For a moment, all that thunder did make sense. Brock recalled how Thomas Evans, a brigade major at Fort George, had informed him the night before about many boats hidden behind bushes along the American shore near Lewiston.
Still Brock was sure the attack on Queenston was a mere diversionary tactic for the Americans to seize their main objective — Fort George — so he ordered his second-in-command, Lt. Col. Roger Sheaffe, to keep most of the troops behind at the fort.
But Brock needed to check on the cannon and musket fire some 5 miles away. The heavy rain made it a rough and muddy ride on the route along the lower river, distant but parallel to the present Niagara River Parkway.
It was just before dawn when he arrived at the quaint village below the Heights. Things had changed on the battlefront, even during Brock’s frantic trip.
Minutes before the British had yielded control of the battery atop the hill to the American troops. Brock knew instantly he had to retake it although it meant charging up the hill under fierce enemy fire.
The younger soldiers — always close on the heels of their commander — kept driving upward, sometimes passing and then falling, dead or wounded, amidst the steady musket fire.
A documented account notes that young Robert Walcot, an American sharpshooter with the 13th Regiment, crawled from his spot on the embankment to look down for a better view of the charging red coats.
Suddenly there appeared a tall officer in a scarlet coat with gold epaulettes, an easy target. Walcot took careful aim and squeezed the trigger.
According to historian Ven Begamurde, two musket balls punched through Brock’s chest, just above his heart. They tore into his body and out his left side.
Nearby a 15-year-old Canadian volunteer from the 49th Regiment hollered toward Brock: “Are you much hurt, sir?”
The general died on the damp red-and-yellow leaves while his troops — many unaware that he had been hit — continued their steep climb.
J.C.A. Stagg, a history professor at the University of Virginia and author of “The War of 1812: Conflict for a Continent” (1912), says Brock lost his life because he had impulsively tried to recapture that small battery. A short time later, Major General Roger Sheaffe (Brock’s successor) and his reinforcements including Iroquois Indians from the Grand Region in Upper Canada, pulled off a flanking movement that captured some 900 Americans troops.
Meanwhile the American troops invading that day were falling at every turn. Their lack of leadership and discipline was shocking.
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It didn’t help that some boats shoving off from the Lewiston shoreline toward Queenston were soon stranded because many oars had been left in another boat drifting aimlessly downstream.
To compound matters, a number of American troops under Major General Stephen Van Rensselear, a political appointee with hardly any military experience, refused to cross the river to fight in a foreign country. The insisted they had joined the Army to defend the homeland.
And in a classic case of insubordination, Brig. Gen. Alexander Smith, a regular Army officer, refused to obey the U.S. War Department order to put his troops under Van Rensselear’s command.
The outlook supposedly was improved when Lt. Col. Winfield Scott arrived on the scene, taking charge of some 600 troops on the heights. Even with that, he needed more reinforcements to confront Brock’s successor, Maj. Gen. Sheaffe, advancing from Fort George with an entire garrison and about 100 Mohawk Indians known for their savage onslaught.
Realizing it would be impossible to hold his position, Scott was ordered to evacuate and take the boats back across the river. When he reached the landing below, however, there were no boats. Scott then surrendered his entire force.
Brock, 42, a native of Guernsey (Channel Islands) completed his studies in Southampton, England, and bought a commission as an ensign in the 8th (the King’s) Regiment of the British army. When the war broke out in 1812, Brock was delighted because he expected to win glory by foiling the American invasion.
Alan Taylor, who teaches American and Canadian history at the University of California, says Brock was aware of the interdependence of Upper Canada’s prime sources of defense: regular soldiers, militiamen and Indians. “In a frontier colony, the Indians were pivotal,” Taylor added, “If alienated, they could ravage exposed settlements, paralyzing the militia and negating the regulars. But if rallied to defend Upper Canada, the natives could daunt American invaders, who especially dreaded Indians.”
Despite his pleas for more troops, Brock was allowed only 1,200 regulars to garrison seven forts, scattered from the St. Lawrence River to Lake Huron. Short on regulars and militia, he needed Indians more than ever to defend the province.
Jim Hill, superintendent of heritage for the Niagara Parks Commission in Ontario, noted that Brock was first buried at Fort George. His remains were later removed to the summit of Queenston Heights where a stately monument was built in his honor.
When rebels destroyed that monument in 1840, Hill said, Brock’s body was then interred in a grassy area below the hill. After the new 184-foot monument was raised in 1856, Brock was buried a fourth time beneath the splendid memorial that stands as a symbol to Canada’s struggle for nationhood.
What do the tour guides in the park tell visitors when they ask, “Who won the war?”
Hill said, “We try hard to provide an objective answer to that since there were, of course, losses on both sides. The fact is, however, that for a number of years we had plaques in the park that provided a very one-sided interpretation. They’re gone now.”
The toll from the Queenston Heights fighting: Americans, 300 killed and wounded, and 958 taken prisoner; The British, 14 killed, 77 wounded and 21 missing.