Faith Can Move Mountains... But Dynamite Works Better

Wednesday, October 10, 2012

The Field Of Battle

“Too thin the line that charged the Heights and scrambled in the clay. Too thin the Eastern Highland Scot who showed them all the way. And perhaps had you not fallen, you might be what Brock became, but not one in ten thousand knows your name. To say the name MacDonnell, it brings no bugle call, but the redcoats stayed beside you when they saw the General fall.” ~ Stan Rogers, MacDonnell On The Heights

This year marks the bicentennial of the outbreak of the War of 1812, which went on two years (well, into 1815, but by the time the last battle was fought early that year, the peace treaty had already been signed). It is a war pivotal to the history of my country (hence Darth Stephen Harper, Dark Lord Of The Sith and current occupant of the Prime Minister’s Office is going out of his way to pay homage to it). It’s a war that has many interpretations. The Americans, who sought to remove the British from North America and bring Canada into the fold as part of the Union, seem to think they won, despite not achieving their objectives. The Canadian nation today, having not been annexed into the United States, know that we won (oh yes we did). The Native peoples of the time know they lost; never again did they wield influence and the status of partnership that they had at the time. And the British, who were tangling with the Americans at the same time that they had a few other issues to deal with, seem to have forgotten the war entirely.

With good reason, mind you. At the time, they were involved in another war across the sea, with a short fellow named Napoleon (you may have heard of him) who tended to compensate for his hobbit-like height with an overblown ego and a tendency to pick ill advised fights with half the world. Sort of like the Tom Cruise of the early 19th Century, you might say. So for the British, the War of 1812 was a sideshow to the main show, fought by regulars, colonial militia, and Native allies against Yankee invaders.

October 13th, 2012 is the two hundredth anniversary of one of the battles of that war. Queenston lies in the heart of one of the most fiercely contested battlegrounds of the war, the Niagara Peninsula. American commanders tried time and again to push into the region, and a number of battles and engagements were fought in this place throughout the war. Stephen Van Rensselaer, an American general tasked with command of the area, got the bright idea to send troops across the Niagara River to Queenston, which lies in the shadow of the Niagara Escarpment, with the objective of taking the Heights and attacking the nearby Fort George. His counterpart, a British general named Isaac Brock, fresh off a victory capturing Detroit, arrived in the area in the weeks beforehand and promptly started reinforcing his troops.

Sir Isaac Brock
The American forces under Van Rensselaer started to move across the river during the night, and the Battle of Queenston Heights broke out at dawn on the 13th, with the Americans finding a route up onto the heights. Brock personally led a charge to retake the heights- and was gunned down by a sharpshooter, dying almost instantly. Much the same fate awaited his aide de camp, John MacDonnell (mentioned in that quoted song up above).

Stephen Van Rensselaer
Reinforcements arrived from Fort George under the command of General Sheaffe, at the same time as American militia still across the river found themselves refusing to cross- deeming an invasion of a foreign nation to be outside their obligations. The final, decisive part of the equation was the arrival of Native forces; Teyoninhokovrawen, also known as John Norton, and his Six Nations warriors moved through the woodlands from the west, flanked the Americans on the Heights, pinning them in place and allowing Sheaffe to move troops up to trap the Yankees. The troops that had crossed the river and occupied the Heights found themselves between a rock, a hard place, and a cliff, and running out of ammunition, offered up surrender.

Teyoninhokovrawen (John Norton)
The battle of Queenston Heights is one of the definitive moments of the war. Of the American invaders, a thousand were taken prisoner, while three hundred were killed or wounded. Van Rensselaer himself took some of the blame for the failure of the attack- though not enough to dissuade him from later ending up in political office (one might argue that in and of itself constitutes a punishment). One of the American prisoners, later exchanged, was a young Lieutenant Colonel named Winfield Scott, who years later would lead an army to war in Mexico, and would go on to devise the plan that would ultimately bring the Confederacy to its knees in the Civil War. On the side of victory, casualties were far lighter, a fraction of the American losses among British, colonial militia, and aboriginals, approximately a hundred in all.
One of the dead was General Brock, and his loss was the most grievous. The general was not only a bold, decisive, confident, and courageous leader, but also one who was able to work with- and had great respect for- Native warriors. In the years that followed, the relationship between the British and Native peoples would never be the same as it had been under Brock. His legacy remains in place, with his name spread in various places across the province and the country. The tunic he wore that day- with the bullet hole directly visible beneath the lapel- is on prominent display in the War Museum in Ottawa today.

 Brock’s remains are buried on the battleground where he fell, as are those of Colonel MacDonnell, in crypts beneath the monument that stands sentinel over the field of battle.  The grounds of the Heights are quiet these days, preserved in perpetuity. A visitor to the battlefield will find the monument surrounded by gardens and paths that mark the stages of the battle. The visitor can go inside the monument, ascending a spiral stairs up to the top and take in the view.

The victory at Queenston Heights- and the death of Brock- fortified the willpower of the people living here against American incursions. It remains to this day a key moment in Canadian history, and two hundred years on, we mark it as a touchstone in our history.
Oh, and just so we’re clear: our side won the War of 1812. So there.


  1. Okay, you won. I'll take your word for it. You know far more about Canadian AND US history than I do, even though I was around for most of it! (Though not quite as long as Darth Cheney....)

  2. I love the last picture. Dinosaurs would've made wars more interesting. ;)

  3. It's a miracle the infant USA even survived, taking on the entire empire of Britain like that. And our one great victory, as you alluded to, came after the peace treaty was signed.

  4. I had no clue. History is interesting.

    Hugs and chocolate,

  5. The whole time I was reading this, I couldn't help but hear Tchaikovsky's - 1812 Overture in my head - the canons, gunshots, etc.

    One of my fave pieces of music, hehe


  6. @Norma: thank you!

    @Kelly: more dangerous than bear cavalry...

    @Mark: I think when the anniversary of the defense of Baltimore, and the Battle of New Orleans comes up, there'll be a lot of American attention...

    @Shelly: it really is!

    @Eden: I've never understood how a piece of music, composed by a Russian, meant to mark the war of his country against Napoleon... could end up so emeshed in American culture today that they play it every Fourth of July....

    It's a stunning piece of music.

  7. Even when you're writing about a serious subject you can't resist throwing in some funny pictures.

  8. Some Americans see the 1812 War as the second war of independence, seeing as how Britain pretty much left us alone afterward. And yeah, some of us opportunists took the opportunity to invade Canada. Though what we would have done with it had we won is obviously something no one thought of!

    And Tom Cruise as Napoleon! Great casting! You might want to talk it up!

  9. Ah yes, the war of 1812. I remember it well (from history lessons, that is! I'm not *that* old!).

  10. Dang it, Eden! I have always detested the 1812 Overture with the cannons and it's in MY head! LOL

  11. Terrific recounting of this war! If I'd had this history lesson in school. I spent a bit of time in Baltimore, where one of the battles inspired the words to the US national anthem, so if Americans remember nothing else, hopefully some will still remember this war gave them a bunch of song lyrics.

  12. You learn something new every day. Who knew dinosaurs were still around in 1812? Very informative post;)

  13. And lo and behold, there's Waldo, hiding as always.

  14. @Deb: I've got to be me!

    @Cheryl: Tom might be a bit too short for the Emperor...

    @Talli: I think we all got lessons in it at one point or another...

    @Lynn: I love that piece of music! Particularly attending a performance among people who have no idea about the cannon, and get shaken up when that starts up towards the end...

    @LondonLulu: I'd rather like to see the Baltimore sites myself; Fort McHenry is a place on my to-see list.

    @Helen: I'm sure some school boards in Kansas or Kentucky might think they were...

    @Scarlett and James: caught him did you?

  15. Thanks, William. This was interesting. I think I read something about this in one of the books I read, maybe by John Eckert.

    And on a separate, but related note, have you seen Argo?

  16. @Christine: thank you!

    Haven't seen that film yet, though...


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