The Fall of Fort George, Desperate Moments, and the Battle of Stoney Creek, 1813
Teyoninhokarawen next saw action at the mouth of the Niagara River, where he fought in the unsuccessful defence of Fort George in late May 1813. Defeated, the British retreated not only from that post, but also from Fort Erie and other positions along the waterway to reassemble at Burlington Heights (in today’s Hamilton). At about the same time, the Americans repulsed an attack on their Lake Ontario naval base at Sackett’s Harbour. With the republic’s forces in the ascendant, the Six Nations Tract seemed vulnerable to a direct assault by the invaders who now occupied both sides of the Niagara River, especially as many believed that the British soon would abandon all of Upper Canada west of Kingston. That prospect threw the Haudenosaunee of the Grand River into crisis, especially as they remembered the devastation inflicted upon them a few decades earlier during the American Revolution, when rebel armies burned their villages, destroyed their crops, and impelled them to seek shelter in squalid refugee camps surrounding Fort Niagara (then held by Crown forces). Naturally, they wondered if all of the rebuilding of their world that had consumed their energies since arriving in Canada in the 1780s might be undone through American retribution for their alliance with King George III. Consequently, many of them withdrew from their homes to hide in safe places, while some thought they might need to purchase American forgiveness by falling on the vulnerable British camped in and around Burlington Heights. Thus, as the Americans followed up their success at Fort George by marching troops through the Niagara Peninsula along the shore of Lake Ontario towards the British positions in early June, a sizeable number of warriors assembled near the heights with uncertain intentions, while rejecting requests to send men to help the colony’s defenders in the coming confrontation. Would they fall on the British army or the settler population if the invaders were to win another battle? That was the vital question on the minds of the King’s officers and in John Norton’s thoughts at that moment. These developments troubled him deeply, and we will see his distress expressed through elusive and incomplete descriptions of the situation at the time. As a vigorous proponent of the Anglo Haudenosaunee connection during this troubled period, Teyoninhokarawen lost most of the support he had enjoyed earlier, and found himself reduced to leading a small war party as the crisis moved towards its conclusion. With deep anxieties over the security of the province and the safety of its inhabitants, the British made a fraught decision to launch a surprise night attack at Stoney Creek against the much larger American force, accompanied by John Norton’s small band of followers. It was a desperate move, but if they were to win the battle, they then could begin the difficult process of re-establishing dominance in the Niagara region to preserve their hold over the colony.
The warriors of the Grand River were very dilatory in coming down to Niagara this spring. I heard of their making preparations, but none came. I had only about sixty or seventy effective men when the enemy’s fleet reappeared. We saw troops landing [on the American side of the border] from the ships, and deserters gave us information that there was a numerous army assembled on the opposite shore. Our force was scattered along the lines from Fort George to Fort Erie (a distance [of] more than thirty miles). At the former post the greater proportion remained. The enemy sent a detachment to the Head of Lake Ontario, burnt the Government House, [and] landed near the house of the late Colonel Brant. His widow having retired with her family, they broke the windows and returned to their ships triumphant.
An attempt to put boats into the water at the Five Mile Meadows on the American shore called forth the fire of one of our batteries opposite, which was returned by the enemy along the lines until it reached Fort Niagara, when a general cannonade ensued, which ended in the burning of the barracks and wooden works contained in Fort George. We did not suffer much in killed, but the pickets were mostly burnt down, which left the rear of the fort open. It was now evident from every move of the enemy that they meditated to fall upon Fort George and the neighbourhood with all their force. The concentration therefore of our troops in one point to oppose them with effect appeared to be the best measure to extricate ourselves, as we had no tenable fortification on the whole line. The general [John Vincent] sent to Fort Erie for two companies, and he sent into our rear a depot of ammunition in case of a reverse.
Between the Two Mile Run and Mississauga Point [in Niagara, half a mile downriver of Fort George], we expected the enemy to land; and the better to be in readiness to oppose them, I had placed our camp a little space in the rear of that place in a wood so as not to come within their observation. Every night we watched with the most persevering vigilance that they might not take us by surprise. On the night of the 26th of May, we heard at the garrison opposite a great bustle. All were under arms. A detachment of the King’s of about three hundred men under Colonel Ogilvie formed the centre division occupying the town of Newark. A division of the 49th of about the same number occupied Fort George [on the right]; and on the left, near to our station, were posted two companies of the Glengarry (Captains Liddell and Roxburgh) and the grenadiers of the Newfoundland under Captain Winter, the whole about 130 men.
At the dawn, the horizon was covered by a thick fog. The alarm appeared to subside, when the sound of voices on the lake again called our attention and we hastened to fill our stations. The cannon from Fort Niagara ranged the open plain near the lighthouse. We collected as many of our warriors as we could at the Two Mile Run. We lay near the bank of the lake at the extremity of the right [i.e., the right of the British left flank]. The fleet of the enemy moved on with a gentle breeze (which began to chase away the fog) and anchored opposite to us. Some murmured that the position was too much exposed to the fire from the ships. The warrior replied, “We are here to do our duty, not to seek security. Those who desire that only should remain at home. The warrior knows no anxiety for his safety. He only hopes to be truly so when his body is under ground and his soul is gone above.”
While the [vessels in the] flotilla of the enemy were putting themselves in order, at about three or four hundred paces from the shore, the boats, filled with men, remained at some distance behind them. Our batteries at this time observing the strictest neutrality, and no reinforcement coming to the support of our little party, many of our men seemed to lose confidence and expressed that appearances gave no indication of any resistance being intended. I went to the nearest battery, about one hundred paces on our left, to enquire the cause, and there I met an officer who was giving injunctions not to fire till the boats full of troops should approach the shore. As I returned he passed on to our position. I told him that unless we received support, I felt assured that in a little time I would be left with only a few of the bravest warriors, and that the others were already beginning to show much unsteadiness. Immediately after he had passed, the enemy opened a heavy cannonade from seventeen vessels anchored along the shore. They fired very close, but the bank of the ravine afforded some cover when we stooped low. The fire continued, and my forebodings were verified. The wavering had retired. Some, yet hesitating between shame and apprehension, said, “Where is it best for us to go?” I replied, “If you don’t like to stay here – you see it is the place I have chosen and I have not changed my mind – I shall direct you to a safe place. It is the ravine on our left, about a quarter of a mile distant, but I am assured that they will land here. Therefore, as soon as you see the boats pass the ships, hasten to our assistance.” I then remained with only about twenty warriors.
The cannonade had now continued for an hour. The battery on our right was deserted. The boats of the enemy moved towards the shore. A young Mohawk, Joseph Claus, then came to me and said that General Vincent had sent him to call me, and that he awaited me at Secord’s, a house half a mile in the rear. We ran there, completely exposed to the shot of the enemy, for I did not require the men to remain behind, apprehending that the plan of operations had been changed, and that no opposition was to be made to the enemy’s landing. On arriving at Secord’s, the general was gone, but he had desired Major Merritt to inform me that on board of the Madison, the enemy wore red coats. I felt disappointed at having been called from my position to gain such intelligence. I then saw Captain Brock of the 49th. He told me that the Glengarry had advanced to the shore of the lake, which made me hasten to return, desirous to take to their succour as many as I could. I required young Claus to run and call those who had sought shelter from the cannon. He complained of lameness. I sent another, and he advanced with me towards the shore with the most active zeal. We heard the fire of small arms, and my little band hastened their speed.
We directed our course towards the heaviest fire and crossed a muddy brook. The fire was very hot. Between the Glengarry and the Newfoundland, we came to the lake. They were standing within about twenty paces of the bank, from behind which the enemy kept up a heavy fire. Lieutenant-Colonel Myers was already badly wounded; his horse lay dead on the bank. Poor Joseph Claus soon fell, and the ranks were quickly thinned. The enemy seldom showed their heads above the bank but fired incessantly. We advanced to get a fair view of them. We met them rising [up] the bank a few paces to our right and brought some of them to the ground. We returned to our line, the right of which [at the right side of the British left flank] began to yield to superior numbers. For a while, however, a stubborn valour supported the little band. At last, pressed both in front and flank, we retired under a tremendous fire from our enemy. In about one hundred paces, we met the King’s advancing to our assistance in the most gallant manner. There were in this division only 280 muskets. Had there come forward eight hundred in such a manner the enemy would certainly have been compelled to take to the water. These brave fellows advanced courageously against a heavy fire of grape in front, and what was more galling and destructive, a sharp crossfire of musketry and rifles from the flank. They staggered the enemy for some time notwithstanding the odds of numbers. Here they lost several brave officers, among them the adjutant, Mr Lloyd, and they did not retire until they were diminished half their number in killed and wounded, and were nearly enveloped. They then fell back and retired through a ravine. There now remained with me only fifteen warriors. We came to where the [men of the] 49th (who had been kept in the reserve) were formed. The Americans were then advancing through the common in good order. As soon as the general gave orders for a charge, this gallant body of men, although not more than three or four hundred, ran forward to meet this formidable column of several thousands. We accompanied them. The enemy seemed to pause, when we received orders to return, the other part of the army having been too much reduced to support us. We then retired to the rear of some barracks and stores nearly out of reach of the enemy’s shot. The latter were advancing to the tune of Yankee Doodle. The poor Glengarry had few remaining unhurt. Captain Liddell and Mr McLean were killed, the two Kerrs badly wounded. Captain Roxburgh, who was slightly wounded, brought off the remaining few. The grenadiers of the Newfoundland were also greatly reduced.