The battle of Beaver Dams, 24 June 1813, was an American defeat on the Niagara front that helped the British to recover from the earlier defeat at Fort George on 25-27 May 1813 (War of 1812). The battle of Fort George had forced the British to withdraw from the line of the Niagara River to a new position at the western end of Lake Ontario. The American commander, General Dearborn, had sent an expedition west to attack this new British position at Burlington, but instead the Americans had been surprised at Stoney Creek on 6 June, and the senior officers on the expedition captured. The Americans retreated back to the Niagara, with the British under General John Vincent following close behind. By late June they had reoccupied most of their original positions on the Niagara, with the exception of Fort George itself.
Dearborn responded by sending what was meant to be a secret expedition to attack a British detachment at Beaver Dams, five miles west of the Niagara. The attack was to be made by 600 men under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel C. G. Boerstler. They were sent south from Fort George to Queenston, from where they were to strike inland and catch the single company of British troops at Beaver Dams by surprise.
The chance of an easy victory was lost because of the actions of Laura Secord, a Canadian housewife. American officers were billeted in her house and she overheard them discussing the planned attack. On the morning of 22 June she set off on a cross-country journey to Beaver Dams, where she was able to warn Lieutenant Fitzgibbon, the commander of the expedition, of what was coming. The Americans didn’t set out until the following day, by which time the British had deployed Indian scouts on all of the likely routes from Queenston to Beaver Dams.
On the morning of 24 June the American expedition was found by Indian scouts, and was soon under attack. First 300 Caughnawaga Indians, led by Captain Dominique Ducharme of the Indian Department, attacked the American rear, and then by 100 Mohawk Indians under Captain William Kerr.
The Americans did not have the light infantry they needed to repulse this attack. The battle in the woods lasted for three hours, and saw the Americans suffer 100 casualties while only inflicting 50 on the attacking Indians. The battle ended when Lieutenant Fitzgibbon reached the scene at the head of fifty regulars and took the surrender of the American force (without firing a shot).
Dearborn’s position as command-in-chief of the attack in Canada was already under threat before this defeat. He was known to be in poor health, and so on 6 July he was ordered to retire from his command to recover his health.
Despite their victories at Stoney Creek and Beaver Dams the British were still not strong enough to force the Americans out of Fort George. Instead of attacking the fort, Vincent decided to blockade it, beginning a siege that would last well into the autumn. The reason for the low priority the British gave to the fighting in Canada becomes rather clearer when one realises that the battle of Beaver Dams took place only three days after a rather more important clash, at Vittoria.