Capture of York - Fort Meigs

Capture of York (Toronto)
 By Thomas Wilson 

The Battle of York was fought on April 27, 1813, at York, in present day Toronto, Canada on the north-west shore of Lake Ontario. An American naval flotilla supported a landing force on the western lake shore, which defeated the defending British force and captured the fort, town, and dockyard. The Americans themselves suffered heavy casualties, including Brigadier General Zebulon Pike who was leading the troops, when the retreating British blew up the fort's magazine.  The American forces subsequently carried out several acts of arson and looting in the town before withdrawing, which the British would later use as their justification for burning Washington D.C. Though the Americans won the objective was minor because the British armed vessels on Lake Ontario were based in Kingston.

On the 27th of April, General Pike arrived at York, with about seventeen hundred chosen men, and immediately prepared to laud. The spot which was selected for landing, was the site of an old French fort called Tor en to, of which scarcely any vestiges now remain. The plan of attack was formed by General Pike himself, and clearly and minutely detailed in his general orders, which were directed to be read at the bead of every corps; every field officer was also directed to canny a copy of them, in order that he might at any moment refer to them, and give explanations to bis subordinates. Every thing was arranged, and every probable exigency provided for, with admirable method and precision. 

There is one paragraph of these orders which is deeply stamped with that unity of character so visible throughout all his actions, and which is, in truth, one of the strongest marks of a powerful and original mind.
"No man will load until ordered, except the light troops in front, until within a short distance of the enemy, and then charge bayonets; thus letting the enemy see that we can meet them with their own weapons. Any man firing or quitting his post without orders must be put to instant death, as an example may be necessary. Platoon officers will pay the greatest attention to the coolness and aim of their men in the fire; their regularity and dressing in the charge. The field officers will watch over the conduct of the whole. Courage and bravery in the field do not more distinguish the soldier than humanity after victory; and whatever examples the savage allies .of our enemies may have given us, the General confidently hopes, that the blood of an unresistant or yielding enemy will never stain the weapons of the soldiers of his column. Property must be held sacred; and any soldier who shall so far neglect the honour of his profession as to be guilty of plundering the inhabitants, shall, if convicted, be punished with death. But the commanding General assures the troops, that should they capture a large quantity of public stores, he will use his best endeavors to procure them a reward from his government."
As soon as the debarkation commenced, a body of British Grenadiers was paraded on the shore, and the Glengary Fencibles, a local force which had been disciplined with great care, and has repeatedly proved itself fully equal to any regular force, appeared at another point. Large bodies of Indians were also seen in different directions, while others filled the woods, which skirted the shore. General Sheaffe commanded in person.

Forsyth's riflemen were the first to land, which they effected under a heavy fire of musketry and rifles from the Indians and British. As soon as the fire from the shore commenced, Major Forsyth had ordered his men to rest for a few moments upon their oars, and return the fire. At this moment Pike was standing upon the deck of his ship. He saw the pause of his first division, and, impatient at the delay, exclaimed, "lean stay here no longer, come, jump into the boat" and, springing into it, followed by his staff, was immediately rowed into the thickest of the fire.

The infantry had followed the riflemen, and formed in platoons as soon as they reached the shore. General Pike took the command of the first platoon which he reached, and ordered the whole to prepare for a charge. They mounted the bank, and the enemy, after a short conflict, broke at once, and fled in disorder towards the works. At that moment the sound of Forsyth's bugles was heard, announcing his success at another point. Its effect upon the Indians was almost electrical; they gave a horrible yell, and fled in every direction.

The whole force, being now landed and collected, was again formed and led on by General Pike, in person, to attack the enemy's works. They advanced through the woods, and after carrying one battery by assault, in the most gallant manner, moved on in columns towards the main work. The fire of the enemy was soon silenced by our artillery, and a flag of surrender was expected, when a terrible explosion suddenly took place from the British magazine, which had been previously prepared for this purpose. Pike, after aiding in removing a wounded man with his own hands, had sat down on the stump of a tree with a British Sergeant, who had been taken, and was employed with Captain Nicholson and one of his aids in examining the prisoner. The explosion was tremendous; an immense quantity of large stones were thrown in every direction with terrible force, and scattered destruction and confusion around among our troops. The General, his aid, Captain Nicholson, and the prisoner, fell together, all, except the aid, mortally wounded. General Pike had been struck on the breast by a heavy stone. Shortly after he received the blow, he said to his wounded aid, " I am mortally wounded—write to my friend Duane, and tell him what you know of the battle, and to comfort my wife." In the same broken manner, he afterwards added several other requests relating to his private affairs.

The command devolved on Colonel Pearce, of the 16th regiment of infantry, who sent a flag to the enemy, demanding an immediate surrender at discretion. The stipulation that private property should be respected, was the only condition asked, which was unhesitatingly granted. The British General and a part of his troops previously escaped.

Death of General Zebulon Pike  

The troops were instantly formed again; as a body of them passed by their wounded general, he said, "Push on, brave fellows, and avenge your General." While the surgeons were carrying hira out of the field, a tumultuous huzza was heard from our troops; Pike turned his head with an anxious look of inquiry; he was told by a Serjeant, "The British union jack is coming down, General—the stars are going up." He heaved a heavy sigh, and smiled. He was then carried ou board the commodore's ship, where he lingered for a few hours. Just before he breathed his last, the British standard was brought to him; he made a sign to have it placed under his head, and expired without a groan.

His death was a great public misfortune.

Siege of Fort Meigs
April 28th – May 9th, 1813
By Henry Marie Brackenridge

The Siege of Fort Meigs took place during the War of 1812, in northwestern Ohio. A small British army with support from Indians attempted to capture the recently constructed fort to forestall an American offensive against Detroit, which the British had captured the previous year. An American sortie and relief attempt failed with heavy casualties, but the British failed to capture the fort and were forced to raise the siege.

Governor Meigs having promptly dispatched two regiments to the assistance of Hanison, the latter again advanced to the Rapids, and immediately set about constructing a fort, which, in honour of the governor of Ohio, he named Fort Meigs. Fortifications were at the same time constructed at Upper Sandusky by general Crooks, who commanded the Pennsylvania militia. Excepting some partizan excursions, nothing additional transpired during the severe winter months. The movement of general Winchester had entirely deranged the plans of Harrison; and it was necessary to organize a new system. He returned to Ohio, for the purpose of obtaining an additional force from that state, and Kentucky. Towards the beginning of April, he received information which hastened his return to Fort Meigs.

The enemy for some time past had been collecting in considerable numbers, for the purpose of laying siege to this place; and as the new levies had not yet arrived, the Pennsylvania brigade, although its term of service had expired, generously volunteered for the defence of the fort. Immediately on his arrival, general Harrison set about making preparations for the approaching siege. The fort was situated upon a rising ground, at the distance of a few hundred yards from the river, the country on each side of which is chiefly natural meadows. The garrison was well supplied with the means of defence, and Harrison, with unremitted exertions, labored, night and day, to improve its capacity for resisting the siege. The assistance of captains Wood and Gratiot, his principal engineers, enabled him to put in practice whatever was necessary to improve hia fortifications. The troops in the fort, to the number of twelve hundred, the greater part volunteers, were in high spirits, and determined to defend themselves to the utmost. 

On the 28th, one of the parties constantly kept out for the purpose of noting the advance of the enemy, reported that he was in great force about three miles below. A few British and Indians showed themselves on the opposite side; but a few shot from an eighteen pounder, compelled them to retire. A dispatch was now sent to hasten the march of General Clay, who was approaching with twelve hundred militia from Kentucky. These brave people, so much sufferers during the war, were ever the foremost to meet danger, and the first to fly to the relief of their friends. On the three following days, the enemy was occupied in selecting the best positions on either side of the river, around the fort, whence it might be annoyed, and in erecting batteries on the opposite side : in the latter, they were considerably impeded by the fire from Fort Meigs; but they usually availed themselves of the night, to proceed in the work. A fire of small arms had been kept up by them, which was returned by the American artillery, but without any loss of importance on either side.

The garrison suffered somewhat from want of water, their well not being completed; and it was attended with great risk to obtain their supply during the night from the river. The perpetual vigilance necessary to be observed in guarding against a surprise, required them to lie constantly on their arms, and was calculated to wear them down. On the 1st of May, the enemy had mounted his batteries, and opened a fire with one twenty-four pounder, one twelve, one six, and one howitzer. No material injury was done on either side: the commander-in-chief made a narrow escape, a ball having struck a bench on which he was sitting; and some days before, a man was mortally wounded by his side. On the 3rd, an additional battery was opened, at the distance of two hundred and fifty yards from the fort, mounted with a mortar; and a number of bombs were thrown: but this was several times silenced. In this part of the siege, major Chambers approached the fort with a flag, and, for the first time, summoned the place to surrender. He stated, that the British commander was desirous of sparing the effusion of human blood; that his force was so immense that it would be impossible to withstand it; and that, unless the Americans threw themselves at once upon the tender mercy of Proctor, they might expect to be massacred in cold blood. 

 Lossing's Pictorial Field Book of the War of 1812, Plan of Battle of Fort Meigs

This summons was received by Harrison, with the contempt and indignation it merited. To look for mercy from the hands of Proctor, yet reeking from the murder of the Kentuckians at the river Raisin, would have been imbecility indeed; and if he had not been able to restrain the Indians then, how could he now, when, according to his own account, the number of these collected, was greater than had ever been known? The commander expressed his surprise, that the garrison had not been summoned before; this at least implied they thought him resolved to do his duty: and that as to the number of his force, which he represented as of such unusual magnitude, it was a trick which he perfectly understood. He then requested major Chambers to return for answer to general Proctor, that while he had the honor to command an American fort, it should never surrender to a combined force of British and Indians.

The siege was renewed with great vigor, and the firing was hotly kept up on both sides. The Indians mounted on trees at some distance from the fort, fired into it, and killed and wounded several. On the 5th, a small party from the advancing corps under general Clay, reached the fort, with the information that he was in his boats not many miles above. Orders were instantly dispatched by the commander-in-chief to the general, requiring him to detach eight hundred men for the purpose of landing on the opposite side and destroying the enemy's batteries; and in the meanwhile he projected a sortie against those on the side of the fort, under the command of lieutenant-colonel Miller of the Nineteenth United States infantry. This simultaneous attack was well planned: should it succeed, the enemy would be compelled to raise the siege instantly. Colonel Dudley, who was charged with the execution of the order by general Clay, landed his men in good order, and then advanced on the enemy's cannon* The four batteries were carried in an instant, and the British regulars and Indians compelled to take to flight. 

A large body of Indians, under the celebrated Tecumseh, were on their march to the British camp, when they met the fugitives: this body was instantly ordered to form an ambush, and wait the approach of the Americans; and, to decoy them, a few Indians showed themselves out of the woods, as if to renew the action. Colonel Dudley having executed his orders, commanded a retreat; but his men, flushed with victory, and roused with the desire of avenging their slaughtered countrymen, pushed forward with irresistible impetuosity. Their commander in vain attempted to check their career; he even turned his spontoon against them; but nothing could restrain them. 

In a few moments, they found themselves surrounded by three times their number. A desperate fight now ensued, which was followed by a slaughter of the Kentuckians, almost as terrible as that at the river Raisin, though not to the same extent after the battle. The chief who now commanded, was of a much more generous character than Round-Head, or Proctor; and even on the field of battle personally interposed to save those who yielded. But one hundred and fifty made their escape; the rest were either killed or missing. Colonel Dudley attempted to cut his way through to the river; but was killed, having himself slain an Indian after he was mortally wounded. The other party, under General Clay, landed upon the side of the fort, and was near being drawn in like manner into an ambush, when General Harrison ordered a troop of horse to sally out and cover their retreat.

The impetuosity of colonel Dudley's party, in some measure, disconcerted the plan of the sortie under colonel Miller. Notwithstanding this, he sallied forth at the head of three hundred men, assaulted the whole line of their works, manned by three sortie under Colonel Miller Siege of Fort Meigs raised.

hundred and fifty regulars and five hundred Indians, and after several brilliant charges, drove the enemy from their principal batteries, spiked the cannon, and returned to the fort with forty-two prisoners. The first charge was made on the Canadians and Indians by major Alexander's battalion; the second by colonel Miller, against the regulars: the officers of these were Croghan, Langham, Bradford, a gallant officer, Nearing, and lieutenants Gwynne and Campbell. A company of Kentuckians, commanded by Captain Sebree, who had distinguished himself in the battle of Frenchtown, was particularly remarked: it maintained its ground with unshaken firmness, at one time against four times its numbers; and being entirely surrounded, would have been cut to pieces, had not lieutenant Gwynne, of the Nineteenth, gallantly charged through the enemy, and released it.

General William Henry Harrison Lithograph of  a campaign banner with Harrison on horseback; surrounded by 12 vignettes of his home, military service, and political activity.
A cessation of hostilities took place during the three following days; flags frequently passed between the besiegers and the besieged, and arrangements were entered into for the exchange of prisoners. Tecumseh agreed to release his claim to the persons taken by the Indians, provided some Wyandots, to the number of forty, were delivered up: and Proctor promised to furnish a list of the killed, wounded and prisoners; with this, however, he never complied. On the 9th, the enemy appeared to be engaged in making preparations for raising the siege: a schooner, and some gun-boats had been brought up during the night, for the purpose of embarking their artillery; a few shot from the fort compelled them to relinquish this design, and at ten o'clock, they raised the siege, and moved off with their whole force.

Thus terminated a siege of thirteen days, in which our enemies were taught, that in future they must expect to meet with resistance different from that which they had experienced from Hull; and that, if they should succeed in taking an American garrison, it must be after severe fighting. The loss of the Americans in the fort, was eighty-one killed, and one hundred and eighty-nine wounded. The loss of the Kentuckians, as usual, was much the most severe, amounting to upwards of seventy killed and wounded, besides the loss under colonel Dudley. This officer was much regretted; few men in Kentucky were more generally esteemed: his body, after much search, was found unburied, and horribly mangled. He was interred, together with some of his companions, with the honours of war.

The force under general Proctor was reported at five hundred and fifty regulars, eight hundred militia, and fifteen hundred Indians ; the latter of whom fought with great courage, and, on several occasions, rescued their allies in the sorties from the garrison. On the day of the last affair, Tecumseh arrived in person, with the largest body of Indians that had ever been collected on the northern frontier; and had not the sortie taken place, it is probable the situation of the army would have been extremely critical. The Indians, after the battle, according to the custom which prevails amongst them, had returned to their villages, in spite of the exertions of Tecumseh and his subordinate chiefs. Thus weakened, Proctor was obliged precipitately to retreat, leaving behind many valuable articles, which in his haste he was unable to carry away. 

Besides the American officers already named, there were many others who distinguished themselves: Major Ball, an active officer, who was frequently complimented in general orders, rendered great service during the siege; captain Croghan on one occasion made a brilliant sortie on the British regulars; Majors Todd, Johnson, Sodwick, Ritzen, and Stoddard, were also mentioned in the most honourable terms. The latter, a man of distinguished literary attainments, received a severe wound, of which he afterwards died. Captain Butler's Pittsburgh Blues, which behaved so handsomely at the battle of Mississiniwa, composed chiefly of young gentlemen of Pittsburgh, suffered severely; the accomplished young officer who commanded them, was a son of the lamented General Butler, who fell in St Clair's defeat. It would be in vain, on this occasion, to enumerate all who deserved the applauses of their country.


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