Remembering the Battle of York: April 27: Snapshots in History
On April 27 and beyond, Torontonians and others with an interest in Toronto’s history may wish to pause a moment and go back to April 27, 1813 when York (Toronto’s forerunner), the capital of Upper Canada (predecessor of the Province of Ontario), was invaded and sacked by American forces at the Battle of York during the War of 1812. National Defence (Canada) and the Canadian Armed Forces, in its document “The Battle of York: Backgrounder / April 27, 2013 / Project number: BG 13.006”, noted that York had only light military protection at the beginning of the War of 1812, even though an important shipbuilding facility had been established in Toronto Harbour. The feeling at the time was that the small British naval forces on Lake Ontario were sufficiently strong to fend off an American attack but that this was unlikely as York was considered to be rather isolated at the time. However, during the autumn of 1812, the Americans had been continuing to work at their main naval base on Lake Ontario at Sackets Harbor, New York. Consequently, by spring 1813, American naval forces on Lake Ontario were superior in military capability to the British naval forces stationed at Kingston.
Initially, American Secretary of War John Armstrong had wanted American forces to capture Kingston on the eastern end of Lake Ontario, counting also on the presence of Americans who had recently arrived in Upper Canada, to help swing the tide in favour of the United States. Captain (soon-to-be Commodore) Isaac Chauncey and Major-General Henry Dearborn were not keen on attacking Kingston as they were in receipt of faulty intelligence that overestimated the strength of British forces at Kingston in terms of regular soldiers and artillery. At the time of the battle, two-thirds of York’s population had been born in the United States.
The Battle of York would go down in history as a victory for the United States but it would be a victory coupled with losses and missed opportunities. Major-General Henry Dearborn saw the capture of York as an easy objective with the opportunity to capture the unfinished warship HMS Sir Isaac Brock which could only serve to reinforce American naval supremacy on Lake Ontario in addition to the 18-gun Prince Regent and the 16-gun Duke of Gloucester stationed there. Furthermore, Dearborn wanted to capture Niagara before pushing on eastwards to take Kingston and Montreal.
On April 26, 1813, British sentries on duty at the Scarborough Bluffs observed a fleet of 14 American ships approaching the coastline from a southeasterly direction and set off signal guns and sent objects up a flagpole to send warning to the citizenry and soldiers of York that an attack was in the offing.
What was the defense plan for York? Major-General Roger Hale Sheaffe planned to utilize a plan similar to that used by British forces in Niagara in November 1812, namely: offer no opposition until the American forces were within firing range; retreat if things turned out badly on the battlefront; and, destroy any ammunition, supplies and anything else that could be of use to the opposing forces. To defend York, there were 300 regular soldiers supported by 300 militia men and 100 Indigenous allies from the Mississauga and Ojibwe peoples. Opposing them were some 1,700 American soldiers, including some riflemen under the command of Benjamin Forsyth. On April 27, 1813, American forces landed several kilometres west of York/Fort York (in today’s terms - in the Parkdale area west of the Canadian National Exhibition grounds) somewhere around 7:00 a.m. or a little afterwards (accounts vary). Major James Givins had been placed in command of the Indigenous forces assigned to meet the opposing landing forces. Militia under the command of Aeneas Shaw were ordered to stand guard at Lot Street (now Queen Street) near Garrison Creek but Shaw and his troops failed to show up (there has been speculation on this point) to support allied forces after shots were exchanged between Givins’ forces and those of Forsyth’s riflemen.
The battle between the American troops and the British and their allied forces lasted for over five hours with victory for the Americans and a stinging defeat and heavy losses for the defenders – comprised of Indigenous allies, York and Durham Militia, Glengarry Light Infantry, Royal Newfoundland Regiment, 8th (The King’s) Regiment of Foot, and Royal Artillery. However, the defenders covered the withdrawal of the remaining British forces who fell back east of the Don River, burned the wooden bridge behind them, and abandoned Fort York. However, the flag remained flying over Fort York as a deception to trick the Americans into believing that the fort was still being defended. General Sheaffe managed to march his remaining troops to the Kingston garrison.
58-year old Captain Tito LeLièvre, formerly of the French navy but fighting for the British at this point, received an order from British General Roger Sheaffe to destroy the Fort York armoury to prevent its explosive contents from falling into American control. He improvised a fuse of black gun powder which he ignited with his gun. The ensuing explosion at around 1:00 p.m. killed between 25 and 40 American soldiers, including Brigadier General Zebulon Pike, and wounded over 200 more, who were waiting outside the fort for the official surrender. Eardrums were perforated and lungs were hemorrhaged of those close to the blast. Shrapnel and debris of rocks, twisted metal, and pieces of wooden timber rained down for about half a minute following the explosion. Forty British and allied soldiers and militia were also caught in the “friendly fire” blast.
The documentary Explosion 1812, broadcast on History Television in June 2012, examined the explosion of the “grand magazine” from an archaeological and historical perspective based on the premise that the event has been underreported and underappreciated in terms of its impact on the outcome of the War of 1812. In addition to a huge crater being left following the explosion, a considerable amount of explosive material was detonated, including about 14,000 kilograms of black powder, 10,000 cannon balls, and 30,000 cartridges. The sound of the explosion was heard at forts located some 45 kilometres away on the Niagara River. The archaeological team on the documentary uncovered evidence that the site of the munitions magazine was located west of Bathurst Street and just north of the Gardiner Expressway. Some twisted metal was discovered in the Garrison’s parking lot one-fifth of a kilometre away.
Explosion 1812 also picked up on the account of a young boy named Patrick Finan who witnessed the fighting and the explosion and whose story was relayed by Pierre Berton in his book Flames Across the Border (1981).
General Sheaffe had also order the unfinished HMS Sir Isaac Brock to be set on fire in the dockyard to deny its use to American forces. The smoke from the remains of the ship provided the backdrop for the official surrender on April 28, 1813 just after 11 a.m. at which Lieutenant-Colonel William Chewett, Major William Allan, and Reverend John Strachan represented the British side.
Following the surrender, American soldiers and some local residents began looting York as no orders were issued by General Dearborn to reign the occupying forces in. The Upper Canada Parliament Buildings were burned on April 30, 1813. Strong winds off Lake Ontario delayed the departure of the American fleet from the intended departure date of May 2, 1813 until May 8, 1813.
Several footnotes to the Battle of York story include the return of American forces to York on July 31, 1813 for a two-day occupation during which the barracks were burned and supplies were seized. The British successfully repelled another attempted incursion in August 1813. Historians such as Carl Benn noted that York had limited value militarily. The British exercised the revenge option with the burning of Washington D.C. and the White House on August 24, 1814.
Consider the following titles for borrowing from Toronto Public Library collections:
Please examine the following digitized items from the Toronto Reference Library’s Baldwin Collection:
Bird's-eye view looking northeast from approximately foot of Parkside Drive, showing arrival of American fleet prior to capture of York, 27 April 1813.
Picture, 1914, English
Notes: Inscribed in l.l.: Owen Staples. Numbers written on drawing refer to separate printed key. Key is stored separately. A photocopy of the key is in Accession File. Key refers to the present as 1914. Cataloguing revised November 1981, 2nd August 2011.
Rights and Licenses: Public Domain ; Medium: water colour, tempera & pen & ink ; Extent:
471 x 1443 mm ; Provenance: Gift of J. Ross Robertson.
(Credit: Toronto Reference Library, Baldwin Collection; Call Number / Accession Number: JRR 905 Fra)
Victory by Gen. Dearborn
Porter, Peter B. (Peter Buell), 1773-1844
Ephemera, 1813, English
Rights and Licenses: Public Domain ; Medium: Broadside ; Extent: 29.5 x 17 cm ; Contributor:
Spencer, John C. (John Canfield), 1788-1855.
(Credit: Toronto Reference Library, Baldwin Collection; Call Number / Accession Number: 1813.Victory.SB)
There are many good online articles about the Battle of York. Here are several examples:
Almost 200 Years Later, a Look Back at the Battle of York (Jamie Bradburn, Torontoist, March 20, 2013)
The Battle of York: Background / April 27, 2013 / Project number: BG 13.006 (National Defence (Canada) and the Canadian Armed Forces, Modified: August 29, 2013)
The Battle of York 1813 (Alan L. Brown, Toronto’s Historical Plaques, 2004-2018)
The Capture of York (William R. Wilson, Historical Narratives of Early Canada, 2013)
The catastrophic explosion that defined the war of 1812 (Chris Bateman, BlogTO, April 27, 2013)
Commemoration of the Battle of York – April 27, 1813 – April 27, 2013 (Doug Taylor, Taylor On History, May 2, 2013)
1813: Niagara Frontier and York (Archives of Ontario, © 2012-2015)
Once Upon a City: The Battle of York and the City of Toronto: American troops rampaged through York during the War of 1812, which was provocation that led to British troops famously burning the White House (Valerie Hauch, Toronto star, August 17, 2017)
The Sacking of York (Renee Lafferty, Canadian Encyclopedia, March 22, 2011; Last Edited: July 13, 2015)
War of 1812: Battle of York (Robert Malcomson and Thomas Malcomson, HistoryNet.com, August 21, 2006 – Originally published in the October 1998 issue of Military History magazine)
War of 1812 explodes on TV: Film explores fiery turning point of the war (National Post, June 16, 2012)
See also: Remembering Fort York’s Beginnings: July 30: Snapshots in History.