In a nation of proud Canadians that may sound like a ridiculous statement, but it's a fact. The
bicentennial of the war of 1812 is close at hand and throughout history, many historians have
been busy telling about vital past events in a very palatable way. Sometimes the real story is glossed over or altered in favor of something that appears to be more dramatic and satisfying.
A major do or die pivotal event in the war of 1812 was the incredible Battle of Stoney Creek; a skirmish that only lasted about an hour on the morning of June 6th, 1813. Prior to that event, the British and Canadian army had been badly beaten at Fort George (Niagara on the Lake) and was in full retreat. The situation seemed hopeless and some of the Upper Canadian militia on the Niagara Frontier had been given leave to go home to their families. The remnants of the British army led by Brigadier General John Vincent were desperately trying to escape. Vincent led his battered troops by a 60-km mountain trail to what is now Hamilton, Ontario.
On the evening of June 5th, 1813 as many as 3,500 United States soldiers were camped approximately 9 km from Burlington Heights, a location that consists today of Hamilton Cemetery and Dundurn Park. That was the very last defensive British military post west of Kingston. (The remains of some of the earthworks can be seen in the cemetery even today.)
Fort York and the parliament buildings (Toronto) had been captured on April 27th. It was at that time some U.S. troops discovered the speaker's wig and mace. Legend has it that they thought the wig was a scalp and used this discovery as their excuse to burn the town. Since it is possible that two of Canada's most notorious anarchists, namely Joseph Willcocks and Abraham Markle, former Canadian Parliamentarians were among them; it is more likely that they burned the parliament buildings out of spite. Markle, who ran both a winery and a distillery in Ancaster where he had lived, also served as a spy and would have provided his Yankee comrades with details on the British defensive works. Willcocks & Markle later burned Newark, St. Davids and Port Dover etc., which gave the British the impetus to burn the United States White House.
On the evening of June 5th, 1813 the bulk of the U.S. army was camped on the Gage, Jones and Nash farms in Stoney Creek, now part of Hamilton. They had a giant barbecue going on the broad lane leading to the William Gage farmhouse. Here they were busy baking long loaves of bread from confiscated flour and roasting the neighborhood oxen. The Road to Ancaster, part of a stage coach line that ran from Newark (Niagara-on-the-Lake) to York, now the city of Toronto ran between the two Gage farms. A high point of land on that ancient roadway was chosen as the place for U.S. Captain Nathan Towson to position his 2nd U.S. artillery. His field guns were loaded with a round cannon ball and canister (buckshot.) The men of the U.S. 25th, regiment
positioned at the top of a steep bank on his right had their muskets loaded with twelve buckshot and no ball. A deadly combination of short-range scatter type fire power.
The Ancaster Road was the vital route that the British troops would need to attack by and it is recorded that the road in front of Towson's artillery was "nearly straight for a distance of half a mile." The two United States generals Chandler and Winder apparently felt confident that total victory was only a few hours away, so they relaxed waiting for their evening meal and played cards in a tent behind the artillery. In fact, they probably were enjoying a drink from one of the "20 barrels" of plundered whiskey mentioned in Elizabeth Gage's following first hand account. James Gage may have purchased his whiskey from Abraham Markle, but those are details that died with that era.
The strength and location of the U.S. army was well known to the British who knew that at daybreak they would face almost certain defeat. A desperate gamble to attack the enemy by surprise was formulated and put into effect. They would approach the United States camp by stealth, removing the flints from their muskets and demanding absolute silence as they marched. They were able to take out the advance sentries and caught the elite troop of Yankee riflemen sleeping in the church. In a bloody scene their trusty bayonets served them well, but they soon arrived at the edge of a meadow, possibly in range of the enemy's field guns.
The night was pitch black, and Lt. Colonel John Harvey needed to personally reconnoiter the exact position of the enemy artillery. It was an incredible act of bravery, and later the U.S. artillery Captain Nathan Towson wrote, "this was but one of several daring acts of the same gallant officer that night. He planned the attack and was the sole of the enterprise." Towson also wrote, "the Column of attack was advancing upon the road. My command was assigned to the defense of the road by which the enemy would advance, if he should venture to attack; but of that we had little expectation. It was important, however, that we should be prepared for such an event, and accordingly my guns were charged, and pointed, and the matches lighted before the men were permitted to lie down. The night was cloudy and very dark. About one o'clock, a single musket was fired by the picket in front of my battery. In a few seconds the men were at their stations, and the officers discussing the probability of an attack. Would the enemy who had sacrificed his artillery and baggage to enable him to escape us, turn upon his pursuers, and become the assailant? Was it not more likely to be a false alarm? At all events, time would be allowed for the guard to come in before us fired otherwise we might destroy our own troops.
At this moment a person (Col. Harvey) on horseback rode briskly up, nor did he check his horse until the animal's breast touched the muzzle of one of the guns. He wore an overcoat; but it was evident, from the chapeau bras, that he was an officer, whether British or American we could not tell. Lieutenant McDonough seized the bridle, and putting his sword to the officer's breast, demanded who he was? The answer was "a friend." The bridle was loosed, the horse turned round, the riders spurs dashed into the animal's sides, and he was urged back through the narrow lane at his utmost speed. There was no longer a doubt this daring person must be a British officer, leading a force to attack us. He had thus unexpectedly gained the intelligence that our artillery was in position, and ready to open on his columns. This would be most disastrous, and there was but on way to prevent it. The lane, by which his troops were advancing, was intercepted by another at right angles, some two hundred paces in front of my battery. Could he gain the head of his column, and wheel it down this second lane before the artillery fired, his troops might escape the slaughter that otherwise awaited them; he could then attack the flank, instead of the centre of our line, as to at first intended. It was almost a hopeless case; the chances were more than a hundred to one against him. The discharge of either place of artillery must destroy him' but the object to be accomplished was of vast, importance. The success of the enterprise, the lives of the gallant troops he was leading depended upon it, and he did not hesitate. It was evident, from the quick perception and fearless decision of this officer, that he was a master spirit, one that even an enemy must respect, and might admire. I did both; and deeply regretted, as I gave the order to fire, that so gallant a soldier would be the victim. The Column of attack was advancing up the road by which he returned, and if it was not checked, my battery would be carried, and the army sacrificed.
We could hear the measured tread of the infantry advancing in close column, and our order to fire could not be delayed. The instant the rider applied the spurs to his horse I gave the order to fire. The pieces of artillery were leveled so as to rake the lane to the extent of their range. The matches were applied to all again and again, but there was no explosion. "Why don't you fire?" "The guns will not go off, sir!" It is surprising with what rapidity thoughts pass through the mind when it is highly excited.
In an instant it flashed upon me-there has been treachery-the guns must be spiked. This would account for the officer riding so fearlessly up to their muzzles, and returning unscathed. My batter would be carried without resistance, and I should be disgraced. An indescribable feeling of horror came over me; I felt faint and sick at heart, when a thought occurred - some of the guns might be unspiked. I sprang to the nearest --- felt the priming; it was undisturbed; there was no spike there. I turned to the gunner in a rage; "why did you not fire?" "The powder will not ignite, sir." Instantly I got a portfire, lighted it, touched the guns off myself, and breathed again. And never was music so welcome to my ears, as the report of the first gun.
The truth was the dews of the evening had damped the powder, and our slow match was damaged as we afterwards ascertained. All this occurred in a brief space of time; but the delay was sufficient to enable the hero of the night to return to his column, and change the direction of his column before we fired.
Lt. Colonel John Harvey had survived, but before the battle was over British Brigadier General John Vincent, would become lost in the forest and the American generals, Chandler and Winder had been taken prisoner. The further confusion that had occurred allowed the bayoneting of the artillery horses and the unarmed artillery men and the cooks in the wide lane leading to William Gage farmhouse. (Elizabeth Gage in her story mentions all the dead horses, which meant heavy caissons and artillery could no longer be moved.) Although the British attack had been stopped and they had suffered greatly from the heavy buckshot, lady luck was still on their side.
U.S. Colonel Christie arrived at daybreak with about 800 fresh infantry troops, and the battlefield was still occupied by the enemy. The morning after the battle of Stony Creek, the British sent in a flag, requesting that a female who accompanied it, the wife of a sergeant of the British 49th, might be informed whether her husband, who was missing was among the wounded in our hands, and if not, that she might be permitted to search for his body among the slain. Whilst the officer, who received the flag, was questioning the bearer, a little dog, which had accompanied his mistress, and seemed to comprehend the nature of her sad errand, ran around among the dead bodies, smelling each, until he discovered that of his master, then, sitting down beside it, he commenced howling piteously. "There" shrieked the poor woman. "There is my husband," and, rushing towards him, found it but too true.
"His body bathed its purple gore.
She bore with her away;
And kissed it cold a thousand times,
Ere it was clad in clay"
Apparently Col. Christie was seriously considering the practicability of giving chase to the retreating British with the largely intact United States force. In fact it was later learned that the retreating British with the captured U.S. Generals was only about 4 km away and were resigned to surrender should that have occurred.
A meeting of the United States officers was held, and they soon discovered that Col. Burn's commission bore the oldest date, thus making a cavalry officer the senior officer in command. His cavalry had not even been engaged in the battle, and he had a history of not taking on any challenging initiatives. He had no intention of leading infantry into battle and chose a strategic withdrawal thus ending what was the greatest threat to Canada's survival to date.
In 1889 Elizabeth (Gage) Birley gave her first hand account of what she saw and heard during the occupation of Stoney Creek by the United States army on June 5th, and 6th, 1813. The old lady was eighty-five years of age, when she told her story and though only nine years old at the time of the battle she remembered distinctly many of the incidents connected with that stirring time as well as other information which she got from her parents about the battle in after years. "I remember the battle and some of the incidents connected with it quite well, though I was but a little girl at the time. Our house was right on the battlefield and some of the American Officers were staying there.
I remember well how the night before the battle a couple of generals came riding up to the place on big horses. They were very proud and braggy, and told some of us the old man (my father) would be shot in the morning if we didn't look out.
They ordered the men to let down the fences for them, so that they could ride into the meadow where the soldiers were. The cellar of my father's house was full of all sorts of provision, enough to do the family during the year, and the soldiers made free with everything. In the house, were a number of bags of flour, and there were twenty barrels of whiskey in the cellar, all of which they took. The soldiers killed all the cows and sheep they could lay their eyes on. No wonder, either, for the poor fellows were the most miserable, half-starved lot I ever saw. We were really sorry for them. The officers who stayed at our house were quite kind and friendly, and we got on first rate with them. They brought their own cooks with them, but they used everything about the house, and the soldiers carried away the quilts and forks and spoons to their camp.
I remember the night of the battle distinctly. What a yelling and shouting there was! The officers rushed out of the house when the noise commenced, and soon some of the soldiers came running in. I well remember how scared they were. They thought it was the Indians, from the yelling, and were afraid of being tomahawked. You know in those days people were far more afraid of the Indians than they are now, and these people being in the enemy's country, and knowing the Indians were on the British side, were mortally scared of them. When the firing commenced, my mother looked around for some place to put us children out of harm's way. It was a large log house, with a loft above the living rooms, and in the loft was stored all the wool that had been sheared that summer, so she took us up there and made us lay down among the wool. I remember it so well. Every little while a bullet would hit the house, but they did not go through the logs, and we were safe. When daylight came and all the shooting was over, I went out in front of the house. There was the body of a soldier lying between the house and the creek and a lot of dead horses. I plainly remember seeing the blankets that the American soldier had been sleeping on lying in rows on the hillside just where they were sleeping when the surprise came. I thought at the time they looked like a flock of sheep on the green hill."
When Elizabeth told about her experience regarding that fateful event she gave the only surviving memoir from a private citizen who was actually there. This was probably the most recorded battle in the war of 1812, but only from the military viewpoint. Few Canadians today realize just how devastating it was to have their homes invaded and pilfered by enemy troops. Not a single item was safe from pillaging and in some places even fruit trees were deliberately killed and honeybee hives destroyed. That resource along with maple syrup provided the early sugar supply supplemented by dried fruit during the cold winters. Smoked meat, grain and vegetables stored in a root cellar sustained them, but most had been taken or destroyed.
Those were very hard times for the Canadian pioneers and even when the United States troops retreated from their property, British troops moved in. Homes, sheds and barns became barracks for allied troops and it would be over a year before anything faintly resembling normalcy and privacy would return to these early Canadian homes.
This was the United States officier that refused to pursue the badly shaken British force immediately after the Stoney Creek battle. He chose to take the cautious role and in so doing lost the opportunity to conquer Upper Canada for the United States.
Fort George, Upper Canada
1st July, 1813
My Dear Sir,
I have often felt the greatest inclination to write to you but in taking my pen I found my subject would be an addition to the catalog of my misfortunes and postponed it from time to time in hopes of a more favorable opportunity. I yesterday received yours of the 24th June and am happy to hear that the Secretary of War had formed so correct an opinion of my situation after the capture of generals Chandler and Winder at Stoney Creek. I was so much at a loss on that occasion as you would be if you were to be made the president of the U.S. without any previous notice. I commanded the advance and I did not even know the regiments that composed the Army. We had a sharp skirmish on the afternoon of the 5th with the advance of the enemy which led us to pursue them farther than was intended by the Generals, and induced them I believe to encamp more advanced than they originally intended. The enemy, finding they would be attacked the next day, determined to give the first blow and came upon us in the dark with their Indians and regulars, who are entitled to credit for the the masterly manner in which it was exected. Our army defended themselves with bravery but were unable to move from the position they held, while the enemy, from their local knowledge, moved under the cover of night when they pleased. They pushed forward a column which took part of our artillery, and I believe at the same moment our generals, who were heard about that time encouraging the men to rally. It was so dark it was impossible to distinguish friend from foe and Chandler at that time had ordered the artillery to cease fireing, fearing they were annoying our own men. An unfortunate order for it was the British who were at the mouth of his canon. That part of the field of battle was covered with their killed and wounded.
When the day appeared I found myself in command and not knowing what had become of either of the generals or a great portion of the army who inter nos had skulked into the woods, and finding the ammunition of those who had gallantly defended themselves in many instances nearly expended, I called a council of the field officers who were of the opinion we ought to retire to our former position at the 40 Mile Creek then to join our boats and get supplies. We were joined by Generals Lewis and Boyd next day and with them came the British fleet who destroyed our boats, with tents, ammunitions, provisions etc. and the army retuned by forced marches to this place for its protection.
The British have pressed and destroyed all the wagon's in the county, they have at present total control of the lake and the army must remain where it is until Chauncey and Sir James Yeo decide who shall have the command. In the meantime we are entrenched and the enemy push the Indians every night as far as our picquets, which keeps the army constantly on the qui vive. We have had many quarrels among our officers of the most childish nature but I believe most have been arranged, I have kept clear as yet and hope to continue to do so. I have been playing Capt. of Dragoons and being generally in the advance I have troubled myself very little with the tittle tattle of the camp, which in that respect equals any tea party in our cities. I will write to you often in field and let you know what is passing here. When you have leisure I shall be glad to hear from you. Deserters come in daily who report that the enemy are reinforcing and intend soon to pay us a visit; if they come in the day time we will beat them most assuredly, our fellows fire so much better than theirs do.
Yours, &c. James Burn
Colonel James Burn,
U.S. 2nd, dragoons.
An oil on canvas, Portrait of Col. James Burn unsigned, identified on label on the reverse. John Wesley Jarvis (American,1780 to 1840). N.B. Colonel Burn was Captain of the Cavalry in 1799 until promoted to Colonel of the 2nd light Dragoons in 1812. He died in 1823, outside Philadelphia. This portrait was
commissioned for General Wilkinson,
under whom Colonel Burn served