The United States of America declared war on Britain on June 18, 1812. It is most remarkable that word of the declaration reached British headquarters at Fort George in the Town of Niagara (Niagara-on-the-Lake) only a week later. Fast couriers had been waiting in Washington to bring news rapidly to Lieutenant General George Prevost, Governor General and Commander in Chief at headquarters in Quebec and to Major General Isaac Brock, the commander of forces in Upper Canada (Ontario).
American strategy for the war was to launch a three-pronged attack on British North America - on the Detroit and Niagara frontiers and up the Richelieu River to threaten Montreal.
Prevost believed that the British should take a purely defensive approach to the war. He felt that aggressive British moves into American territory would solidify support for the war in the United States and make defence of British North America more difficult. American public opinion was divided and the decision for war was not a popular one. Prevost worried that the Americans could muster a much larger army than could the British. The population of the United States was ten times that of British North America and Prevost had few British soldiers to defend a very large territory. Brock took a different view on the way in which the war should be conducted. He believed in immediate action and proposed attacking Fort Niagara in Youngstown, New York immediately. Prevost overruled Brock on this proposed assault but both men agreed that the only way to defend tiny Fort St. Joseph near Sault Ste Marie was by ordering its garrison to attack American Fort Michilimackinac in Michigan. This was done and on July 17, 1812, Fort Michilimackinac surrendered without a shot being fired. The American commander there had not received word of the outbreak of war and learned the news from British Captain Roberts who had already positioned his men around the American fort.
On the Detroit frontier, American Brigadier General William Hull, Governor of Michigan Territory, led an invasion of Upper Canada from Detroit on July 12. On learning of this invasion, Brock hastened with a few British reinforcements and militiamen from York and Niagara to Fort Malden in Amherstburg on the Detroit River, embarking at Port Dover on August 8 to sail to the mouth of the Detroit River. The Americans retreated back across the river to Fort Detroit. At Amherstburg Brock met the Shawnee War Chief Tecumseh and together they planned a successful attack on Fort Detroit which was forced to surrender on August 16, 1812. The first prong of the American strategy, the intent to capture the Detroit frontier had ended in American defeat. The second prong of the American attack, a campaign on the Richelieu River, never got launched. The third prong was aimed at an invasion on the Niagara frontier and the capture of Fort George, which could serve as bridgehead for the capture of Upper Canada.
Queenston Heights, October 13, 1812
Throughout September and early October, Major General Isaac Brock was aware of an American buildup on the Niagara frontier. He knew that they would invade and that they would attack Fort George but he did not know where the actual invasion would take place. He kept his army of British regulars and Canadian militia, assisted by Six Nations allies, spread along the frontier, concentrated at vulnerable spots.
In the early morning of October 13, the American army struck, rowing across the river from Lewiston, New York to invade at the village of Queenston. A much smaller force of British regulars and Canadian militia stationed in the village resisted the invaders. Initially Brock feared that this attack was only a feint and that the Americans were trying to draw his attention to Queenston while launching a main attack on Fort George. The ferocity of the battle at Queenston, and the roar of the cannons were heard at Fort George and convinced Brock that this was no feint but the actual invasion. Brock immediately set off for Queenston, issuing orders for the garrisons of Fort George and Chippawa and for the militia stationed along the river road to join him at the site of the invasion.
Arriving in Queenston, Brock quickly assessed the situation. The Americans had overwhelmed and captured the Redan Battery, a British cannon position on the side of Queenston Heights, a very strategic point. Brock rallied the forces at his disposal and rashly attacked the American position. A very tall and heavy man, Brock was targeted by an American soldier and killed by a shot in the chest early in the battle. Brock's aide-de-camp John Macdonell took up the torch and was mortally wounded leading a second charge on the Redan Battery.
As the Americans consolidated their position on top of the heights, British regulars from Fort George, men of the York and Lincoln militia regiments and Six Nations allies under war chiefs John Norton and John Brant began to arrive on the outskirts of Queenston. Brock's second-in-command, Roger Hale Sheaffe, now in charge, led his force on a circuitous route up the escarpment, beyond the range of American cannons on Lewiston Heights. By mid afternoon, he had deployed his men on top of Queenston Heights, facing the main American force that had been kept disorganized by the annoying fire of First Nations warriors and Canadian militiamen.
Sheaffe ordered a classic British assault. His thin line of red-coated soldiers fired a volley of musket fire at very close range and then charged with the bayonet. The Americans panicked. Many tried to rush down the escarpment and fell to their deaths on rocks at the base of the steep precipice. Others tried to swim back to safety in Lewiston and drowned in the attempt. The remainder, 925 men surrendered.
The Battle of Queenston Heights was significant in that it showed the British high command that the settlers of Upper Canada would fight fiercely to defend their land. Also, the crucial alliance with the Six Nations was strengthened. The successful defence of Upper Canada now seemed a possibility. It was a victory in which Upper Canadians could take a great deal of pride but was darkened by the death of Isaac Brock.
While the Americans had been defeated in their invasion attempt, they remained busy on the Niagara frontier, building up defences and planning for the next campaign season. The Americans remained somewhat active and on November 28 a large force of U.S soldiers crossed the Niagara north of Fort Erie to capture a British cannon position at Frenchman's Creek. They drove off the small group of British defenders at the cannon battery but were in turn forced to retreat by British reinforcements from Fort Erie.
On December 8 a small American naval force were able to board and capture the Caledonia and the Detroit, two British vessels that had been anchored close to Fort Erie. It was a daring raid undertaken by Captain Nathan Towson and Lieutenant Jesse D. Elliot of the United States Navy.