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BATTLE OF YORK (TORONTO)

April 27, This day during the War of 1812

Posted on April 27, 2013 by

April 27, 1813 – The Battle of York  was a battle of the War of 1812 fought on April 27, 1813, at York, Upper Canada (present day Toronto) on the north-west shore of Lake Ontario. An American force supported by a naval flotilla landed on the lake shore to the west, defeated the defending British force and captured the fort, town and dockyard. The Americans themselves suffered heavy casualties, including Brigadier General Zebulon Pike who was leading the troops, when the retreating British blew up the fort’s magazine. The American forces subsequently carried out several acts of arson and looting in the town before withdrawing. Though the Americans won a clear victory, it did not have decisive strategic results as York was a less important objective in military terms than Kingston, where the British armed vessels on Lake Ontario were based. The Americans appeared off York late on April 26, 1813. Chauncey’s squadron consisted of a ship-rigged corvette, a brig and twelve schooners. The embarked force commanded by Brigadier General Zebulon Pike numbered between 1,600 and 1,800, mainly from the 6th, 15th and 16th U.S. Infantry, and the 3rd U.S. Artillery fighting as infantry. Dearborn, the overall army commander, remained aboard the corvette Madison during the action. The defences of York consisted of a fort a short distance west of the town, with the nearby “Government House Battery” mounting two 12-pounder guns. A mile west was the crude “Western Battery”, with two obsolete 18-pounder guns. (These weapons were veterans of earlier wars and had been disabled by having their trunnions removed, but they were fixed to crude log carriages and could still be fired.)  Further west were the ruins of Fort Rouillé and another disused fortification, the “Half Moon Battery”, neither of which was in use. Major General Sheaffe, the Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, was present at York to transact public business. He had under his command only four companies of regulars. The Militia was ordered to assemble, but only 300 of the 1st and 3rd York Regiments could be mustered at short notice. There were also about 40 to 50 natives (Mississaugas and Ojibwa) in the area. Early on April 27, the first American wave of boats, carrying Major Benjamin Forsyth’s company of the U.S. 1st Rifle Regiment, landed about 4 miles (6.4 km) west of the town, supported by some of Chauncey’s schooners firing grapeshot. Because Sheaffe could not know where the Americans would land, Forsyth’s riflemen were opposed only by some of the Indians led by Indian Agent James Givins, who were outflanked and retreated into the woods after a stiff resistance. Sheaffe had ordered a company of the Glengarry Light Infantry to support the Natives, but they became lost in the outskirts of the town, having been misdirected by Major-General Æneas Shaw, the Adjutant General of the Canadian Militia, who took some of the militia north onto Dundas Street to prevent any wide American outflanking move. As three more companies of American infantry landed accompanied by General Pike, the grenadier company of the 8th (The King’s) Regiment of Foot charged them with the bayonet. The grenadiers were already outnumbered and were repulsed with heavy loss. Pike ordered an advance by platoons, supported by two 6-pounder field guns, which steadily drove back the other two companies of Sheaffe’s redcoats (another company of the 8th regiment, and one from the Royal Newfoundland). The British tried to rally around the Western battery, but the battery’s travelling magazine (a portable chest containing cartridges) exploded, apparently as the result of an accident. This caused further loss (including 20 killed) and confusion among the British regulars, and they fell back to a ravine north of the fort, where the militia were forming up. Meanwhile, Chauncey’s schooners, most of which carried a long 24-pounder or 32-pounder cannon, were bombarding the fort and Government House battery. (Chauncey himself was directing them from a small boat). British return fire was ineffective. Sheaffe decided that the battle was lost and ordered the regulars to retreat, setting fire to the wooden bridge over the River Don east of the town to thwart pursuit. The militia and several prominent citizens were left “standing in the street like a parcel of sheep”. Sheaffe instructed the militia to make the best terms they could with the Americans, but without informing the senior militia officers or any official of the legislature, he also dispatched Captain Tito LeLièvre of the Royal Newfoundland to set fire to the sloop of war HMS Sir Isaac Brock under construction in the dockyard, and to blow up the fort’s magazine. When the fort’s magazine exploded, Pike and the leading American troops were only 200 yards (180 m) away, or even closer. The flag had been left flying over the fort as a ruse, and Pike was questioning a prisoner as to how many troops were defending it. Pike was mortally injured by flying stones and debris. The explosion killed 38 American soldiers and wounded 222. The American loss for the entire battle was officially reported as 52 killed and 254 wounded for the Army and 3 killed and 11 wounded for the Navy, for a total of 55 killed and 265 wounded. The British loss was officially reported by Sheaffe as 59 killed, 34 wounded, 43 wounded prisoners, 10 captured and 7 missing, for a total of 153 casualties. However, historian Robert Malcomson has found this return to be inaccurate: it did not include militia, sailors, dockyard workers or Native Americans and was incorrect even as to the casualties of the regulars. Malcomson demonstrates that the actual British loss was 82 killed, 43 wounded, 69 wounded prisoners, 274 captured and 7 missing, for a total of 475 casualties. Colonel William Chewett and Major William Allen of the 3rd York Regiment of militia tried to arrange a capitulation, assisted by Captain John Beverley Robinson, the acting Attorney General of Upper Canada. The process took time. The Americans were angry over their losses, particularly because they believed that the ship and fort had been destroyed after negotiations for surrender had already begun. Nevertheless, Colonel Mitchell of the 3rd U.S. Artillery agreed terms. While they waited for Dearborn and Chauncey to ratify the terms, the surrendered militia were held prisoner in a blockhouse without food or even medical attention for the few wounded. Forsyth’s company of the 1st U.S. Rifle Regiment was left as guard in the town. At this stage, few Americans had entered the town. The next morning, the terms had still not been ratified, since Dearborn had refused to leave the corvette Madison. When he eventually did, Reverend John Strachan (who held no official position other than Rector of York at the time) first brusquely tried to force him to sign the articles for capitulation on the spot, then accused Chauncey to his face of delaying the capitulation to allow the American troops licence to commit outrages. Eventually, Dearborn formally agreed to the articles for surrender. The Americans took over the dockyard, where they captured a brig (the Duke of Gloucester) in poor state of repair, and twenty 24-pounder carronades and other stores intended for the British squadron on Lake Erie. The Brock was beyond salvage. The Americans had missed another ship-rigged vessel, the Prince Regent, which carried 16 guns, as it sailed for Kingston to collect ordnance two days before the Americans had been sighted. The Americans also demanded and received several thousand pounds in Army Bills, which had been in the keeping of Prideaux Selby, the Receiver General of Upper Canada, who was mortally ill. Between April 28 and 30, American troops carried out many acts of plunder. Some of them set fire to the buildings of the Legislative Assembly. It was alleged that the American troops had found a scalp there, though folklore had it that the “scalp” was actually the Speaker’s wig. The Printing Office, used for publishing official documents as well as newspapers, was vandalized and the printing press was smashed. Other Americans looted empty houses on the pretext that their absent owners were militia who had not given their parole as required by the articles of capitulation. The homes of Canadians connected with the Indians, including that of James Givins, were also looted regardless of their owners’ status. Dearborn emphatically denied giving orders for any buildings to be destroyed and deplored the worst of the atrocities in his letters, but he was nonetheless unable or unwilling to rein in his soldiers. Sheaffe was later to allege that local settlers had unlawfully come into possession of Government-owned farming tools or other stores looted and discarded by the Americans, and demanded that they be handed back.

 

City of Toronto and Canadian Forces to commemorate the Battle of York bicentennial with events on April 27

Article from Friends of Fort York Web site

Details of the many events commemorating the 200th anniversary of the Battle of York were released in a presentation to the City of Toronto's Economic Development Committee today. The City of Toronto and the Canadian Forces will commemorate this defining day in the history of Canada and Toronto on Saturday, April 27.

"I'd like to invite residents and visitors to come out on April 27 as Toronto honours the bravery and sacrifices of those who fought - and in some cases died - on that historic day 200 years ago," said Mayor Rob Ford.

His Royal Highness Prince Philip, The Duke of Edinburgh, will present a new Regimental Colour to the 3rd Battalion of The Royal Canadian Regiment at a 10 a.m. ceremony in front of the Queen's Park Legislative Assembly of Ontario. His Royal Highness has been the Colonel-in-Chief of The Royal Canadian Regiment since December 1953.

After the presentation and consecration of the new Regimental Colour, a parade of more than 1,000 sailors and soldiers from the Royal Canadian Navy and the Canadian Army will march from Queen’s Park to Fort York. This parade of marching bands, ceremonial uniforms and Regimental Colours will be one of the largest military parades ever organized in Toronto.

At 1:30 p.m., a commemorative ceremony will be held inside the walls of Fort York National Historic Site. Among the participants will be re-enactment units in War of 1812 uniforms, First Nations whose ancestors fought in the battle, and an honour guard of sailors and soldiers of the Canadian Forces who serve in Toronto today.

"The Battle of York was the only time Toronto has experienced war and so it is very important to remember such a significant day in our city's history," said Brigadier-General Omer Lavoie, Commander Joint Task Force Central/Land Force Central Area. "We are pleased to collaborate with the City of Toronto to commemorate the Battle of York on April 27 to remember the sacrifices that were made by so many."

"The Battle of York's day of remembrance is among more than a hundred Toronto War of 1812 Bicentennial events,” said Councillor Michael Thompson (Ward 37 Scarborough Centre), Chair of Toronto's Economic Development Committee. "The events held so far have attracted more than a half million participants and have had a significant economic impact on the city."  

The City of Toronto will also offer free themed tours at Fort York in the morning and afternoon, along with family-oriented activities and military demonstrations in the afternoon.

The important role the First Nations had at the Battle of York and throughout the War of 1812 will be remembered with a sunrise ceremony on the western waterfront and with a plaque dedication at Fort York National Historic Site at 3 p.m.

There will also be rededication ceremonies for two plaques: one commemorating the death of General Pike, which was originally donated to Fort York in 1934 by the National Society United States Daughters of 1812, and a second marking the battle location, donated by the Imperial Order of the Daughters of the Empire.

Throughout Saturday and Sunday, St. James Cathedral, the St. Lawrence Market BIA and the Toronto Public Library will be staging ceremonies and events.

During the Battle of York, which took place April 27, 1813, Toronto - at that time called the town of York - was occupied by U.S. combatants. The town’s public buildings were burned to the ground. More than 180 Canadian, British, First Nations and American combatants died in the battle - the largest military conflict ever to have taken place in Toronto.

The War of 1812 was a defining chapter in the story of Canada and Toronto. More information about the City's bicentennial program and events is available at http://www.toronto.ca/1812.

A Brief History of Fort York

by Dr. Carl Benn
Chair, Department of History, Ryerson University

Colonel John Graves Simcoe, Lt.-Governor of Upper Canada, 1791–96.Colonel John Graves Simcoe, Lt.-Governor of Upper Canada, 1791–96.The founding of urban Toronto was a military event that occurred when John Graves Simcoe ordered the construction of a garrison on the present site of Fort York in 1793. Simcoe wanted to establish a naval base at Toronto in order to control Lake Ontario because of a war scare with the United States resulting from Britain's alliance to the native people of the Ohio Country, who were engaged in a brutal conflict with the Americans to preserve their territories. In his capacity as lieutenant-governor of the British province of Upper Canada, Simcoe also moved the provincial capital to Toronto from the vulnerable border town of Niagara during that tense period. Toronto was renamed 'York,' civilian settlement followed the government, and the settlement began to grow. During those early years, Fort York played a significant role in the economic and social development of the small backwoods community.

York Barracks, 1804.York Barracks, 1804.
Attack on York, 1813.Attack on York, 1813.

Simcoe, nevertheless, did not construct the strong defences he had planned for York. Anglo-American tensions eased by 1794, and his superiors decided that the Lake Ontario squadron should be stationed in Kingston, 250 kilometres to the east. Simcoe's original log buildings deteriorated quickly. His successors built new barracks, one hundred metres east of the present site in the late 1790s for the small garrison assigned to the provincial capital. In 1800, a residence for the lieutenant-governor, 'Government House,' was built on the present fort site.

In 1807, Anglo-American relations began to deteriorate again. In anticipation of hostilities, Major-General Isaac Brock strengthened Fort York in 1811. Today's west wall and circular battery date from that time. In 1812, the United States declared war and invaded Canada. On 27 April 1813, the U.S. Army and Navy attacked York with 2700 men on fourteen ships and schooners, armed with eighty-five cannon. The defending force of 750 British, Canadians, Mississaugas, and Ojibways had twelve cannon.

Death of American General Zebulon Pike.Death of American General Zebulon Pike.The Americans stormed ashore west of the fort under the cover of their naval guns. The defenders put up a strong fight, but fell back to Fort York from the landing site in the face of overwhelming odds. The British commander, Major-General Sir Roger Sheaffe, then retreated eastward and blew up the fort's gunpowder magazine (located near today's Memorial Area). The explosion was devastating: 250 Americans fell dead or wounded from its blast, including their field commander, Brigadier-General Zebulon Pike. Total losses in the six-hour battle were 157 British and 320 Americans.

The Mississaugas and Ojibways withdrew into the forest, Sheaffe's professional troops retreated to Kingston, and the local militia surrendered the town. The Americans occupied York for six days. They looted homes, took or destroyed supplies, and burned Government House and the Parliament Buildings (near today's Front and Parliament streets). In 1814, the British retaliated when they captured Washington and burned the White House, Capitol, and other public buildings.

The Americans returned to a defenceless York in July 1813 to burn barracks and other buildings that they missed in April. Shortly afterwards, the British rebuilt Fort York on what is both today's and Simcoe's original site. In August 1814, Fort York was strong enough to repel the U.S. squadron when it again tried to enter Toronto Bay. In February 1815, word reached York that the War of 1812 had ended the previous December. It was good news: peace had returned, and the defence of Canada against American invasion had been successful.

The British continued to garrison Fort York after the war, although most soldiers moved to new barracks one kilometre west of the fort in 1841. (The officers' barracks of that 'New Fort' or 'Stanley Barracks' survives today.) During times of peace, Fort York's defences were allowed to deteriorate, only to be strengthened in periods of crisis, such as the Rebellion Crisis of 1837–41, or when war with the United States seemed imminent, such as in 1861–62.

In 1870, the Canadian government assumed responsibility for most of the country's defences, including Fort York. Canadian troops maintained the harbour defences at the fort until its guns and earthworks became obsolete in the 1880s. The army, however, did not abandon the site at that time, but used it for training, barracks, offices, and storage until the 1930s. Some military activity even took place at Fort York during World War II.

Gov. Gen. Lord Bessborough inspects a cannon at the fort's re-opening in 1934.Gov. Gen. Lord Bessborough inspects a cannon at the fort's re-opening in 1934.Between 1932 and 1934, the City of Toronto restored Fort York to celebrate the centennial of the incorporation of the city in 1834. On Victoria Day 1934, Fort York opened as a historic site museum. Today, its defensive walls surround Canada's largest collection of original War of 1812 buildings. Even the older part of the one reconstructed building on the site, the Blue Barracks, contains a Aerial view of Fort York looking east.Aerial view of Fort York looking east.significant amount of 1814-period material and is an interesting example of the efforts made during the Great Depression to create employment by restoring and rebuilding historic sites. The grounds of the fort and the surrounding land encompass part of the 1813 battlefield, remnants of Toronto's late eighteenth-century landscape, and at least two military cemeteries. Below the soil of the fort lies a vast archaeological resource, capable of significantly expanding our understanding of life in the earliest years of Toronto's settlement.

Today, the City of Toronto, supported by The Friends of Fort York and other members of the community, operates Fort York as a historic site museum. The fort houses various exhibits, such as restored period rooms and traditional museum galleries, as well as other displays that explore the story of Ontario's turbulent military past. Staff and volunteers engage in the essential tasks common to operating any such institution of significant importance: enhancing the collection through acquiring artefacts, conserving the collection for the benefit of future generations, developing the site to meet the public's interests in the past, studying Fort York's history through archival, material culture, and archaeological research, and sharing that history through public programmes, tours, and special events.

 

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