13 April 2013

Historical Toronto: The Battle of York

Illustration from Benson J. Lossing in 
The Pictorial Field-Book of the War of 1812

Regretfully I cannot be among the interested parties who will witness a sunrise ceremony on Toronto's western waterfront on April 27th. Travel plans waive my participation and a blog posting that day, but I will be there in spirit. It's a memorial gathering for the day two hundred years ago when the invading fleet sat poised at dawn to take our town. Then "Walking in their Footsteps" will subsequently trace the American advance from their landing to the garrison.

As Admiral Chauncey's fourteen ships approached Gibraltar Point from the east the day before, they would have had a view like this.
Robert Irvine’s "View of York" painted ca.1816 (Art Gallery of Ontario, ID 2946; a gift from descendants of the late Mrs Stephen Heward).[1]
And here is a closeup from that painting to show the old embankment at the garrison they were about to attack

By no means have I read all the excellent books about the War of 1812 and the Battle of York but I'd highly recommend Robert Malcolmson's Capital in Flames: The American Attack on York, 1813 (Montreal: Robin Brass Studio, 2008). Apparently a paperback edition is in the works. And the newsletter of the Friends of Fort York, The Fife and Drum, vol. 17, no. 1 (March 2013) is crammed full of bicentennial details. I am SO going to miss "There's a Great Day Coming"!

In every war, and perhaps every battle, on both sides there are missteps, mistakes, miscalculations, fumbles and stumbles, besides the unpredictable outcome and human consequences. The little colonial town of York, even though it was the capital of Upper Canada, for various reasons was not best prepared for defence. It had never been designated a military post per se.

What would I blog about anyway, if I were here on April 27th? It's rather pointless to regurgitate what I think of as classroom history even if I pretended to be a historian. Truth is, I don't know if "history" is formally or otherwise taught anymore in elementary and higher public education. Its relegation in some provinces into social studies is disquieting ... "socials," as coined by the youngsters, who, by the age of fourteen, seem to know zip-all about the founding of this country or its geography.

History is near the top of any responsible genealogist's consciousness so it's heartening that many memorial events for the War of 1812 have been underway since last year. Therefore ... on yet another reading of that crucial four-day period in 1813, I feel compelled to mention some of the incidents, well-known or otherwise, that capture my imagination:

■ The British decision to blow up the grand magazine of some 30,000 lbs of ammunition at about 1:30 pm caused a massive shock felt all the way across Lake Ontario, shaking buildings in Niagara. An estimated thirty-nine American troops were killed and over two hundred combatants dreadfully wounded.
■ Not long after this disaster, under orders from retreating General Sir Roger Sheaffe, Col. William Chewett and Major William Allen of the 3rd regiment, York Militia, with Rev. John Strachan, presented themselves to Col. Cromwell Pearce for the surrender of York.
■ Doctors―Baldwin, Beaumont, Aspinwall, and others—worked non-stop at the garrison with the ghastly casualties; some of the injured from both sides were billeted in town homes and lodgings.
■ General Zebulon Pike soon died of his injuries. Malcomson says his remains were preserved in a cask of liquor for a return trip to Sackets Harbor; in days gone by this was not an unusual way to transport a corpse.
■ When the Americans seized correspondence and personal effects left behind by hastily retreating British military officers, General Dearborn took great pleasure in using Sheaffe's musical snuff box.
■ Despite property protection in the terms of capitulation, shops and houses were ransacked at will, some repetitively; no-one stopped the ransacking and general madness for three days until American commanders finally acknowledged the pleas of town officials.
■ I have never been able to determine if the stolen fire engine still exists in an American museum, or if the story is apochryphal.
■ Some "fraternization" with the enemy occurred due to many cross-border family and commercial bonds; some Canadians benefited from hauling off wharfside swag, all of which the Americans could not load onto their ships.
■ Some militiamen who had not participated at the battle came to the garrison to obtain parole in the belief it would exempt them from future duty; the Americans duly recorded them.
■ Ultimately, most of the garrison and the parliament buildings were torched.
■ A human scalp had been on display next to the ceremonial mace in the parliament buildings; it was sent along with other trophies to the U.S. naval department. The mace was given back to Ontario by President Roosevelt in 1934.
■ While some Upper Canada government loot was eventually returned, the U.S. navy still possesses the large carved wooden lion that decorated the speaker's chair in the Legislative Assembly. Truly a face to ponder!
Original at the United States Naval Academy Museum, Annapolis, Maryland; the image itself is from the website of the Canadian War Museum which appears to be exhibiting a facsimile.
Photograph BDM, March 2013

The War of 1812 memorial at Victoria Square in Toronto sits in the old military burial ground at Wellington and Portland Streets. Few grave markers survive from the early days of York. The fallen soldiers and militiamen are represented by the figure known as the "Old Soldier."

[1] Stephen Otto, "The Thomsons: Early Builders at Fort York," The Fife and Drum [Newsletter of The Friends of Fort York] (http://www.fortyork.ca/resources/newsletter-archive.html : accessed 11 December 2012) vol. 14, no. 2, July 2010.

© 2013 Brenda Dougall Merriman


CallieK said...

How sad you will miss it it- I will be working at the stage that day and will try to take some photos if I remember to bring my camera!

BDM said...

Would love to see photos .. make a note about the camera? But you will be busy! I'll have intermittent Internet access while away.

CallieK said...

My work day doesn't start until we get to Fort York so I should be able to at least get photos of the sunrise ceremony.