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The Battle of York was a battle of the War of 1812 fought on 27 April, 1813, at York, Upper Canadamarker, which was later to be renamed Torontomarker. An American force supported by a naval flotilla landed on the lake shore to the west, defeated the defending British force and captured the town and dockyard. The success of the operation was marred by acts of arson and looting carried out by the American force.


During the War of 1812, Lake Ontariomarker was both the front line between the British and American forces, and also part of the principal British supply line from Quebecmarker to the various armies and outposts to the west. At the start of the war, the British had a small naval force, the Provincial Marine, with which they seized control of the lake, and also of Lake Eriemarker. This made it possible for Major General Isaac Brock, leading the British forces, to gain several important victories during 1812 by shifting his small force rapidly between threatened points to defeat disjointed American attacks individually.

The Americans appointed Commodore Isaac Chauncey to regain control of the lakes. He created a squadron of fighting ships at Sackett's Harbor, New Yorkmarker by purchasing and arming several lake schooners and laying down new purpose-built fighting vessels. However, no decisive action was possible before the onset of winter, during which the ships of both sides were confined to harbour by ice.

American planning

To gain undisputed control of Lake Ontario in 1813, the Americans would either have to defeat the ships of the Provincial Marine in a naval battle, or capture their bases and dockyards and destroy them in port. It was known that, while the British had started constructing a sloop of war at Kingstonmarker and another at York to match Chauncey's squadron, the Provincial Marine lacked experienced officers and crews, and would be unlikely to risk battle with Chauncey until they were reinforced. Thus, the Americans would have to attack one or both of these ports.

On 13 January, 1813, John Armstrong, Jr. was appointed United States Secretary of War. Himself a former serving soldier, he quickly appreciated the situation, and devised a plan by which a force of 7,000 (out of roughly 19,000 in the United States regular army) would be concentrated at Sackett's Harbor on 1 April. Working together with Chauncey's squadron, this force would capture Kingston before the Saint Lawrence Rivermarker thawed and substantial British reinforcements could arrive in Upper Canada. The capture of Kingston and the destruction of the Kingston Royal Naval Dockyardmarker together with much of Provincial Marine, would make almost every British post west of Kingston vulnerable if not untenable. After Kingston was captured, the Americans would then capture the British positions at York and Fort Georgemarker, at the mouth of the Niagara Rivermarker.

Armstrong conferred with Major General Henry Dearborn, commander of the American Army of the North, at Albany, New Yorkmarker during February. Both Dearborn and Chauncey agreed with Armstrong's plan at this point, but they subsequently had second thoughts. That month, Lieutenant General Sir George Prevost, the British Governor General of Canada, travelled up the frozen Saint Lawrence to visit Upper Canada. This visit was made necessary because Major General Roger Hale Sheaffe, who had succeeded Brock as Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada after Brock was killed at the Battle of Queenston Heightsmarker, was ill and unable to perform his various duties. Prevost was accompanied only by a few small detachments of reinforcements, which participated in the Battle of Ogdensburg en route. Nevertheless, both Chauncey and Dearborn believed that Prevost's arrival indicated an imminent attack on Sackett's Harbor, and reported that Kingston now had a garrison of 6,000 or more British regulars.

Front Street, York, depicted in 1804
Even though Prevost soon returned to Lower Canada, and deserters and pro-American Canadian civilians reported that the true size of Kingston's garrison was 600 regulars and 1,400 militia, Chauncey and Dearborn chose to accept the earlier inflated figure. Furthermore, even after two brigades of troops under Brigadier General Zebulon Pike reinforced the troops at Sackett's Harbor after a gruelling winter march from Plattsburghmarker, the number of effective troops available to Dearborn fell far short of the 7,000 planned, mainly as a result of sickness and exposure. During March, Chauncey and Dearborn recommended to Armstrong that when the ice on the lake thawed, they should attack the less well-defended town of York instead of Kingston. After York, they would then attack Fort George.

Although York was the Provincial capital of Upper Canada, it was far less important as a military objective. Armstrong, by now back in Washington, nevertheless acquiesced in this change of plan as Dearborn might well have better local information. Historians such as John R. Elting have pointed out that this effectively reversed Armstrong's original strategy; and, by committing the bulk of the American forces at the western end of Lake Ontario, would leave Sackett's Harbor vulnerable to British reinforcements arriving from Lower Canada.


The Americans appeared off York late on 26 April. Chauncey's squadron consisted of a ship-rigged corvette and a brig, together with twelve schooners. The embarked force under Dearborn and 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).

York's defences 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-pounders. Further west were the ruins of Fort Rouillémarker 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 Indians (Mississaugas and Ojibwa) in the area.

Early on 27 April, the first American wave of boats, with Major Benjamin Forsyth and a company of the U.S. 1st Rifle Regiment, landed about 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 Streetmarker 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 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. 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 under construction in the dockyard (HMS Isaac Brock) and to blow up the fort's magazine.

Zebulon Pike
When the magazine exploded, Pike and the leading American troops were only two hundred yards away, or even less. 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.

In total, the British regulars and fencibles had lost 62 killed and 76 wounded. Five of the militia died and five were wounded. The casualties among the Indians were never officially recorded.


Colonel William Chewett and Major William Allen of the 3rd York Regiment of militia tried to arrange a capitulation, assisted by lawyer Captain John Beverley Robinson. The process took time. For their part, the Americans were angry over their losses, and because the ship and fort had apparently been destroyed after negotiations for surrender had begun. Nevertheless, Colonel Mitchell of the 3rd U.S. Artillery had agreed terms by 4 p.m. While they waited for Dearborn and Chauncey to ratify the terms, the surrendered militia were held prisoner in a blockhouse without food or 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, as Dearborn had refused to leave the corvette Madison. When he eventually did so, 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; and 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 in poor state of repair (the Duke of Gloucester) and twenty 24-pounder carronades and other stores intended for the British squadron on Lake Eriemarker. The Brock was beyond salvage. The American had missed another ship-rigged vessel, the Prince Regent, which carried 16 guns, as it had 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 the Receiver General of Upper Canada (Prideaux Selby, who was mortally ill).

Between 28 April and 30 April, American troops carried out many acts of plunder. Some of them set fire to the Parliament buildings. (It was alleged that they 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 vandalised 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. Chauncey later returned some looted property, including books from the public library. Sheaffe was later to allege that local settlers had unlawfully come into possession of Government-owned farming tools or other stores discarded by the Americans, and demanded that they be handed back.


The Americans sent the captured military stores away on 2 May but were then penned in York harbour by a gale. They left York on 8 May, in miserable weather, and required a period of rest at Fort Niagaramarker on the Niagara peninsula before they could be ready for another action. Sheaffe's troops endured an equally miserable fourteen-day retreat overland to Kingston. Following complaints about his conduct by the Provincial Assembly, Sheaffe lost his military and public offices in Upper Canada as the result of his defeat.

However, the Americans had not inflicted crippling damage on the Provincial Marine on Lake Ontario, and they admitted that by preserving his small force of regulars rather than sacrificing them in a fight against heavy odds, Sheaffe had robbed them of decisive victory. Secretary of War Armstrong wrote, "...we cannot doubt but that in all cases in which a British commander is compelled to act defensively, his policy will be that adopted by Sheaffe - to prefer the preservation of his troops to that of his post, and thus carrying off the kernel leave us the shell."

The most significant effects of the capture of York were probably felt on Lake Erie, since the capture of the ordnance and supplies destined for the British squadron there contributed eventually to their defeat in the Battle of Lake Erie.

The many acts of arson and looting committed by American troops at York later became a justification for the Burning of Washington by British troops.


  1. Hitsman, p.136
  2. Charles W. Humphries, "The Capture of York", in Zaslow, p.254
  3. Elting, p.94
  4. Hitsman, p.138
  5. Charles W. Humphries, "The Capture of York", in Zaslow, p.255
  6. Hitsman, p.332, fn
  7. John Beikie, Sherriff of York, quoted in Charles W. Humphries, "The Capture of York", in Zaslow, p.258
  8. Malcomson, Capital in Flames, p.215
  9. Hitsman, p.140
  10. Malcomson, Capital in Flames, p.225
  11. Malcomson, Lords of the Lake, p.107
  12. Charles W. Humphries, "The Capture of York", in Zaslow, p.259
  13. Charles W. Humphries, "The Capture of York", in Zaslow, p.261
  14. Forester, p.124
  15. Charles W. Humphries, "The Capture of York", in Zaslow, p.264
  16. Charles W. Humphries, "The Capture of York", in Zaslow, p.265
  17. Charles W. Humphries, "The Capture of York", in Zaslow, pp.267–268
  18. Charles W. Humphries, "The Capture of York", in Zaslow, p.269


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