The battle of York (27 April 1813) was one of the first American victories on land during the War of 1812. The original American plan for 1813 had called for an attack on the port of Kingston, the main British naval base on Lake Ontario, but Major Henry Dearborn, the American commander-in-chief for the invasion of Canada, felt that Kingston was too strong to be his first target for the year. Instead he decided to attack York (modern Toronto), on the north western shore of the lake. Two British ships were known to be based at York, and there was another 30 gun ship under construction, and Dearborn believed that the destruction of these ships would threaten British control of the lake.
York was then the capital of Upper Canada but despite this it was a poorly defended town. It had been intended to build a fort around Government House. This stood on a triangular point of land west of the town where Garrison Creek ran into Lake Ontario. By 1813 very little work had been carried out. A “grand magazine” had been built, as had a semi-circular earthwork battery containing two 12-pdr guns, known as the Government Battery. 600 yards further west was another battery containing two elderly 18-pdr guns minus their mountings.
The town was garrisoned by two companies from the 8th Regiment, a company sized detachment from the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, a company of the Glengarry Light Infantry Fencibles and 300 dockyard workers and militia, including a number of men from the 3rd York Militia Regiment, a total of 700 men, supported by 50-100 Mississauga and Chippewa Indians. At the time of the attack Sir Roger Sheaffe was present at York, and took command of the defence.
The American expedition was under the overall command of General Dearborn. A fleet of fifteen boats under the command of Commodore Chauncey left Sackett’s Harbour on 25 April, carrying 1,700 troops, amongst them a number of riflemen under Major Forsyth and a force of regular infantry under Brigadier General Zebulon Pike.
The American fleet appeared off York during the afternoon of 26 April. Sheaffe correctly assumed that the Americans would land west of the town, and dispatched the Indians and a company of the Glengarry Light Infantry to the site of an old French fort, where he believed the landings would be made. Strong winds pushed the American boats past this area, and they landed a mile further to the west early on 27 April. General Pike took command of the landings, while Dearborn remained on the boats.
The British response was not well organised. The Glengarry Light Infantry had got lost in the woods, so the initial attack was made by the small number of Indians, who were unable to prevent the Americans from seizing some high ground near the lake. Sheaffe then made a series of counterattacks, feeding his units in piecemeal, starting with the grenadier company of the 8th Regiment. The Americans were able to defeat each of these attacks, and push the British back to the western battery.
Three hours after the first landings the fighting was concentrated around this battery. The British then suffered a disaster when the battery’s magazine exploded, killing 20 and wounding many more. One of the two guns was knocked out. General Pike was then able to move his own guns into place, and had soon captured the battery.
The British had now lost 62 dead and 94 wounded, and General Sheaffe decided to pull his regulars out of York, leaving the militia behind to surrender the town. To modern eyes this looks rather callous, but in fact standard practise at this time was for defeated militiamen to be released on parole to return to their homes on the condition that they did not take any further part in the fighting until they had been officially “exchanged”, normally for a similar number of enemy militia who had also been paroled. In contrast the regulars were more likely to be seized as prisoners of war.
Before leaving, Sheaffe ordered the destruction of the 30-gun ship then under construction, the naval storehouse and the main magazine at government house. The flags were left flying over Government House. General Pike and his brigade were closing in on the abandoned British position when the magazine exploded, sending huge stones flying into the American troops. Thirty eight men were killed instantly and another 222 injured. Amongst them was General Pike, who later died of his wounds. This dramatically increased the cost of the American victory – in the earlier fighting they had only suffered 60 casualties.
General Dearborn was now forced to come ashore and take direct command. In an unjustified if understandable rage he refused to negotiate surrender terms with the militia officers until the following day. He then signed a capitulation that guaranteed the safety private property but allowed for the seizure of all government property. This later caused a certain amount of controversy when General Sheaffe’s property was seized – in his eyes it was his private property, but the Americans didn’t see it that way. Evidence about the behaviour of the Americans in York is mixed, but it would seem that if any looting did go on only empty private properties were attacked. The Parliament Buildings were burnt on 30 April, possibly by American sailors acting without official authority. Dearborn did order the destruction of the remaining military buildings in York and the Government House on 1 May before the departure of the expedition.
The original plan had been for the troops from York to cross directly to the Niagara front, to take part in the attack on Fort George. Poor weather delayed their crossing until 8 May, when they reached Fort Niagara, on the American side of the border. The attack itself was then delayed until later in the month, so the fleet under Commodore Chauncey returned to Sackett’s Harbour.