April 27, This day during the War of 1812

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.

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