Apr. 27, 2016
Fourteen American warships were sighted east of York (Toronto) on the evening of April 26th, 1813. The invasion of York was about to begin. The first year of the war of 1812-1814 had gone badly for the Americans as they lost all the major battles. After waiting out the winter they needed a quick victory to boost moral and set the tone for the coming season of war. It was known that York was poorly defended with only 750 men and 12 canons and therefore it made a suitable target. April 22nd was set for the attack and 1750 men and 85 canons were gathered at Sacketts Harbour on the American side of the lake. April weather is unpredictable and the fleet didn’t set sail until the 25th.
On the morning of April 27th the fleet moved to the west of town and it was believed that the landing would take place at a clearing where the old French Fort Rouille had stood. The wind blew the fleet past the planned landing site and they were forced to come ashore at a clearing near where the Palais Royale stands today, 2 kilometers west of the fort. The first to encounter the Americans when they landed around 8:00 am were the Mississauga and Ojibway natives, about 100 in total, who were able to pick off some invaders while still in their rowboats. They were trained to fight in the woods but soon were over powered and had to fall back. The picture below shows the staff of Fort York wearing the military uniforms of 1813. Interesting among the typical red coats of the British military are the green coats of the Glengarry Light Infantry Fencibles. This Canadian unit was present at the fort and was second to encounter the landing, temporarily forcing the Americans off the beach.
As the landing continued in strength, British General Roger Hale Sheaffe’s option was to fall back through the site of the modern CNE to the Western Battery where 2 of his canon were stationed. The battery was likely located under the present Automotive Building in the CNE but was taken out of the battle by an explosion just as the Americans were advancing on it. A spark fell in a barrel of gun powder which blew up killing or wounding 30. It also knocked out one of the canons, similar to the one featured in the cover photo. In the archive map below I have coloured in Garrison Creek which ran along the north and east side of the fort as well as the historic shoreline. The fact that the fort was surrounded on three sides with water made it easier to predict the landing and advance of the Americans.
The troops continued to harass the advancing forces as they retreated across the garrison common at the west end of Fort York. The picture below is taken from Strachan Avenue and shows the site of one of the downtown Military Burying Grounds. Fort York is between here and the condos that now dominate the background in all directions.
The final place of retreat for the soldier when the fort is breached was the block house. These structures were the first to be built when the War of 1812 broke out and were made of thick square timber walls with weather boards on the outside. They provided shelter from bullets, shells and small artillery fire. Soldiers inside could fire back at invaders through the slits on two floors.
The battle was lost and General Sheaffe decided that he should save his regulars to fight another day and ordered them to retreat to help protect Kingston. The Americans were building war ships at Sacketts Harbour and it had been decided to build a warship in York. The Sir Isaac Brock was to be the second largest ship on Lake Ontario with 200 men and 24 guns. It was intended to give Britain naval supremacy on the lake but it could do the same for the Americans if it fell into their hands. The British made the tactical decision to destroy the nearly completed warship and the powder magazine. The Sir Isaac Brock was set fire near the harbour and the government stores kept there were also destroyed.
The grand magazine was located near the waterfront, just below Government House. The underground storage contained at least 200 barrels of gun powder, and some say up to 500, plus all the cartridges, round shot and shells the British had in reserve. The magazine was dug under the bluff along the shore of the lake and when it exploded it blew out toward the Americans as they marched in from the Western Battery. The shock wave knocked at least 200 soldiers down and then they were pelted with stone and all the shot from the magazine. American General Zebulon Pike was among those struck with flying debris and mortally wounded. The print below is from 1815 and depicts the wounding of General Pike.
The grand magazine was located just outside of the present fort walls. The tree in the middle of the picture is on the inside of the wall approximately where the explosion took place. The site was excavated recently and signs of its past were uncovered in the form of mortar and stonework. In 1813 the water came up where the Gardner runs just south of Fort York. (The city actually proposed moving Fort York down to the modern waterfront to allow the Gardner to be built where this National Historic Site stands.)
With the British in retreat a surrender treaty was drafted that required all arms and public stores to be surrendered. The militia were sent home and not allowed to fight again for the rest of the war unless they were released in an exchange. All the captured officers were taken prisoner. John Strachan, the first Anglican Bishop of Toronto, assumed leadership on behalf of the 700 citizens of York. He later went on to be one of the leaders of the Family Compact who ruled the colony. Rebellion in 1837 against this conservative control helped lead to government reforms. The Bank of Upper Canada was a target for William Lyon Mackenzie and the government hid it’s money under the officer’s quarters at Fort York. The little windowless room is known as the “money room”.
The Americans occupied the town of York until May 8th when they retreated. Holding onto York had never been part of the plan and with British territory on the east and west it would have presented too great of a strain on resources. The Americans reported 55 killed and 265 wounded, mostly in the explosion of the magazine. The British totals are debated but including the militia and natives it is thought to be 82 killed and another 393 wounded, captured or missing.
The barracks at Fort York were built in 1815 when the fort was rebuilt and expanded. Originally the room shown below was home to 32 soldiers, soldiers wives and children. As time went on the numbers were reduced until it was split into several separate rooms for each family.
After the war was over a new powder magazine was built not far from where the previous one had been detonated. The date stone has been replaced with a replica while the original is preserved in the museum at the fort. The initials stand for Georgius Rex III (King George 3rd) and the 54th year of his reign (25 Oct. 1813 to 24 Oct. 1814).
It’s been 203 years since this battle but we should pause and reflect on those who gave everything to defend our town. It’s also 200 years since Fort York completed it’s restorations after the war, taking on it’s current form.
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