It has been almost exactly two centuries since the Americans sacked what would one day become Toronto.
To mark the bicentenary of the Battle of York, Heritage Toronto has organized a lecture series about the War of 1812. In conjunction with those lectures, Torontoist and Heritage Toronto are publishing a series of articles that examines various aspects of that war, ranging from a look at battle techniques to the impact on the region’s First Nations.
Next month brings with it a key point in Toronto’s commemoration of the War of 1812: April 27 marks the 200th anniversary of the Battle of York. Though British forces and local militias failed to repel the invading American forces, their efforts didn’t lack for explosive fury.
It happened on April 26, 1813: British sentries posted at the Scarborough Bluffs spotted a fleet of American vessels approaching from the southeast. Using signal guns and various objects strung on a flagpole, they warned the citizens and soldiers of York that an invasion was imminent. By the next morning, the Battle of York was underway.
Tensions between Great Britain and the United States simmered before war was officially declared on June 18, 1812. The conflict was the result of a number of different things: British attempts to press-gang seamen on American ships, trade restrictions enforced by the British as part of the Napoleonic Wars, an American desire to expand north and west, and British support of natives who stood in the way of American expansion.
As 1813 dawned, American Major-General Henry Dearborn wanted to attack York, which was seen as easy pickings. He figured that capturing the under-construction warship HMS Sir Isaac Brock, which was docked there, would help tilt the naval balance of power on Lake Ontario in favour of the Americans. Dearborn thought he could then conquer Niagara, which would have allowed him to concentrate his forces on taking Kingston and Montreal. After some hesitation, the Americans adopted Dearborn’s plan in the hopes that quick victory at York could swing an upcoming New York State election in favour of the pro-war Democratic-Republican party.
A fleet of 14 vessels set sail for York from Sackets Harbour, New York on April 25, 1813. Once military officials in York had sighted the fleet, they began planning their defense. Major-General Roger Hale Sheaffe intended to use a plan similar to one employed in Niagara the previous November: no opposition until the enemy was in firing range, retreat if things went badly, destroy any ammunition, provisions, or anything else that could aid the opposition. He ordered a group of First Nations warriors coordinated by Major James Givins to meet the landing party, and a troop of soldiers led by Aeneas Shaw to stand guard at Lot Street (present-day Queen Street) by Garrison Creek. Grenadiers were sent to the ruins of Fort Rouillé (present-day Exhibition Place), while Sheaffe waited for the militia to show up at Fort York.
Around 7 a.m. on April 27, waves of American troops rowed to shore. They had been blown slightly off course, so they landed near the present-day intersection of Lakeshore Boulevard and Dowling Avenue. The First Nations warriors were pushed back into the woods, and the Americans made their way to Fort Rouillé, where they ran into some of Sheaffe’s forces. Steady firing on land and from schooners anchored in the lake lasted until 8 a.m., when the British retreated. Around 10 a.m. a mobile gunpowder magazine was accidentally set off at the Western Battery (near the present-day Princes’ Gates), which knocked over a gun and killed or wounded 30 troops. All the while, American forces led by Brigadier General Zebulon Pike inched toward Fort York.
By 1 p.m., Sheaffe’s troops had withdrawn to Elmsley House at King and Graves (now Simcoe) Streets. Many of the militia had thrown in the towel. Back at the fort, Pike’s forces were within 400 yards of the grand ammunition magazine. The remaining British forces ignited the magazine, producing a fireball that blasted bits of ammunition, rocks, and timber out to a disance of 500 yards. The explosion created a boom that was audible at forts 28 miles away along the Niagara River. An estimated 39 American troops were killed, 224 wounded. Among the casualties was Pike, who depending on the source, either died after being struck by a rock in the forehead, or after suffering a crushed spine.
While Sheaffe marched his remaining regular troops to Kingston, a team consisting of Lieutenant-Colonel William Chewett, Major William Allan, and Reverend John Strachan negotiated capitulation terms with the Americans. The invaders were not amused when they noticed smoke rising from York’s dockyards, where Sheaffe had ordered the torching of HMS Sir Isaac Brock to prevent it from falling into American hands. Just after 11 a.m. on April 28, 1813, the surrender was ratified.
That evening, the Americans—and even some locals—began looting York. Dearborn showed little interest in controlling the occupying forces. Homes were cleared of items ranging from clothes to cutlery. Jails were emptied. The pillaging climaxed with the burning of the Parliament Buildings during the early hours of April 30, 1813. The Americans intended to depart on May 2, but strong winds kept the fleet at York until it could set off for Niagara on May 8.
As for the attack’s political ramifications, news of the victory may have helped pro-war incumbent Daniel Tompkins win the New York State gubernatorial race. Sheaffe was soon relieved of his duties. The British got revenge for the burning of York and other settlements when they set Washington D.C. ablaze in August 1814. The war ended when the United States ratified the Treaty of Ghent in February 1815, which restored the prewar boundary between the Americans and British North America. Who actually won the war will be an eternal debate.
The image gallery, above, includes pictures of artifacts from the Battle of York, and images of the fighting locations.
Consulted materials include Historic Fort York 1793-1993 by Carl Benn (Toronto: Natural Heritage/Natural History, 1993) and Capital in Flames by Robert Malcolmson (Montreal: Robin Brass Studio, 2008).