The battle of Queenston Heights was a British victory early in the War of 1812 that turned back the first American attack on the Niagara front. Although the United States and Canada shared a very long border, in the north west there were only two realistic lines for American attack – from Detroit at the western end of Lake Erie, or across the Niagara River at the eastern end of the lake. The United States decided to attack in both of these areas, in the expectation that the weak British forces in Upper Canada would be unable to respond to the simultaneous attacks. Unfortunately for the Americans, their attacks could not be coordinated. The Detroit campaign began in July 1812 when an American army crossed the Detroit River, but ended in disaster on 16 August with the surrender of Detroit to Major-General Isaac Brock.
Brock had been able to travel west to take command around Detroit because the American forces on the Niagara front had remained inactive throughout the summer. The local American commander was Major-General Stephan van Rensselaer, a successful New York politician. He was supported by his cousin, Colonel Soloman van Rensselaer, who had at least observed some military manoeuvres. The Van Rensselaers, together with Major-General Henry Dearborn (the American commander-in-chief), felt that they needed 6,000 men to launch a successful invasion across the Niagara. News then reached America that the British had repealed the Orders in Council that had helped to provoke the war, and a short truce was arranged, lasting into early September.
The American forces on the Niagara finally reached the required strength on 29 September, when 1,650 Regulars under Brigadier-General Alexander Smyth arrived at Buffalo. Unfortunately Smyth and Van Rensselaer failed to agree on a common strategy. Smyth wanted to cross the Niagara River above the falls, close to Buffalo. Van Rensselaer favoured an attack further north, at the point where the Niagara River emerged from the ravine that began at the falls. He would cross from the American village of Lewiston to attack the British position at Queenston.
This was an ambitious plan. The village was located at the base of a 350 foot high escarpment, known here at Queenston Heights. The Americans would have to cross the rapidly flowing river close to the village and then climb the heights while under attack from the British garrison of the village. Van Rensselaer only have enough boats to transport 600 men in one go, so his boats would have to return to the east bank to bring across reinforcements. However, the Americans did have a significant numerical advantage – Van Rensselaer commanded 900 regulars and 2,650 militia, while the British only had 2,000 men on the entire Niagara front. Most of them were at Fort Erie, at the southern end of the river, Chippawa, just above the falls, or at Fort George, at the northern end of the Niagara River. The British only had 200 men in Queenston.
After a false start on the night of 10-11 October, the Americans finally launched their attack on 13 October. 300 regulars and 300 militia crossed the river under heavy fire. Solomon Van Rensselaer was badly wounded during the crossing, but the force managed to find the path leading up to the top of the Heights.
There they nearly captured Major General Isaac Brock, the British commander in Upper Canada. He had spent the previous night at Fort George. He was alerted to the fighting at Queenston by the sound of the American guns, and had dashed south to investigate. Once at Queenston he had climbed up the escarpment to a British redan just below the top of the height, to get a better look at the American attack. While he was at the redan, the first American party reached the top of the crest, and charged the British position. Brock was forced to flee back into the village.
Once there he immediately ordered a counterattack. At the head of 100 regulars and 100 Lincoln militia, Brock led the attack directly up the slope of the escarpment. He was hit by two American bullets, and was killed by the second. The attackers retreated back into the village.
Soon after this Brock’s aide-de-camp, Lieutenant-Colonel John Macdonell, arrived at Queenston with 100 York militia. He too decided to attack up the hill. This attack was a little more successful, capturing the redan before Macdonell was mortally wounded. The survivors then retreated back to Vrooman’s Point, a few miles down stream, to wait for reinforcements.
This was the high point of American success. Command on top of the heights had now passed to Lieutenant-Colonel Winfield Scott, who found himself in command of around 350 regulars and 250 militia. Another 600 men remained in Queenston, while the remaining militia now refused to cross over the river on the grounds that they did not have to serve outside the United States. Meanwhile the troops on top of the heights came under fire from a force of Indians, who attacked from the trees around their position.
The British troops at Vrooman’s Point now came under the command of Major-General Roger Sheaffe. He arrived from Fort George at the head of 300 regulars from the 41st Foot and 250 militia. He was eventually able to gather a force of 400 regulars, 400 militia and 300 Indians from the Six Nations. Taking advice from the Indians, he adopted a much more sensible plan than Brock. Rather than attacked straight up the escarpment, he moved inland away from the river, climbed the escarpment out of sight of the Americans and attacked from the west, on level ground. The Americans were caught completely by surprise. They had built breastworks to guard against a third attack up the hill, but not against an outflanking attack. At about 3.00pm Sheaffe’s men fired a single volley and then charged the American position. After only fifteen minutes Winfield Scott was forced to surrender.
The British took 958 prisoners, half of whom were U.S. regulars at the cost of 14 dead, 77 wounded and 21 missing. As well as the prisoners, the Americans lost 300 killed and wounded. Sheaffe was rewarded with a baronetcy, while Stephan van Rensselaer resigned his command. He was replaced by Brigadier-General Alexander Smyth. He would make a second unsuccessful attempt to invade Canada across the Niagara in November, but was repulsed at Frenchman’s Creek. He too was soon removed from command.