The War With the United States: Chapter 4
1812: Brock at Detroit and Queenston Heights
The prorogation which released Brock from his parliamentary duties on August 5 had been followed by eight days of the most strenuous military work, especially on the part of the little reinforcement which he was taking west to Amherstburg. The Upper Canada militiaman, drawn from the United Empire Loyalists and from the British-born, had responded with hearty goodwill, all the way from Glengarry to Niagara. But the population was so scattered and equipment so scarce that no attempt had been made to have ready battalions of ‘Select Embodied Militia’ ready for the beginning of the war, as in the more thickly peopled province of Lower Canada. The best that could be done was to embody the two flank companies—the Light and Grenadier companies—of the most urgently needed battalions. But as these companies contained all the picked men who were readiest for immediate service, and as the Americans were very slow in mobilizing their own still more unready army, Brock found that, for the time being, York could be left and Detroit attacked with nothing more than his handful of regulars, backed by the flank-company militiamen and the Provincial Marine.
Leaving York the very day he closed the House there, Brock sailed over to Burlington Bay, marched across the neck of the Niagara peninsula, and embarked at Long Point with every man the boats could carry—three hundred, all told, forty regulars of the 41st and two hundred and sixty flank-company militiamen. Then, for the next five days, he fought his way, inch by inch, along the north shore of Lake Erie against a persistent westerly storm. The news by the way was discouraging. Hull's invasion had unsettled the Indians as far east as the Niagara peninsula, which the local militia were consequently afraid to leave defenceless. But once Brock reached the scene of action, his insight showed him what bold skill could do to turn the tide of feeling all along the western frontier.
It was getting on for one o’clock in the morning of August 14 when Lieutenant Rolette challenged Brock's leading boat from abroad the Provincial Marine schooner General Hunter. As Brock stepped ashore he ordered all commanding officers to meet him within an hour. He then read Hull's dispatches, which had been taken by Rolette with the captured schooner and by Tecumseh at Brownstown. By two o’clock all the principal officers and Indian chiefs had assembled, not as a council of war, but simply to tell Brock everything they knew. Only Tecumseh and Colonel Nichol, the quarter-master of the little army, thought that Detroit itself could be attacked with any prospect of success. Brock listened attentively; made up his mind; told his officers to get ready for immediate attack; asked Tecumseh to assemble all the Indians at noon; and dismissed the meeting at four. Brock and Tecumseh read each other at a glance; and Tecumseh, turning to the tribal chiefs, said simply, ‘This is a man,’ a commendation approved by them all with laconic, deep ‘Ho-ho’s!’
Tecumseh was the last great leader of the Indian race and perhaps the finest embodiment of all its better qualities. Like Pontiac, fifty years before, but in a nobler way, he tried to unite the Indians against the exterminating American advance. He was apparently on the eve of forming his Indian alliance when he returned home to find that his brother the Prophet had just been defeated at Tippecanoe. The defeat itself was no great thing. But it came precisely at a time when it could exert most influence on the unstable Indian character and be most effective in breaking up the alliance of the tribes. Tecumseh, divining this at once, lost no time in vain regrets, but joined the British next year at Amherstburg. He came with only thirty followers. But stray warriors kept on arriving; and many of the bolder spirits joined him when war became imminent. At the time of Brock's arrival there were a thousand effective Indians under arms. Their arming was only authorized at the last minute; for Brock's dispatch to Prevost shows how strictly neutral the Canadian government had been throughout the recent troubles between the Indians and Americans. He mentions that the chiefs at Amherstburg had long been trying to obtain the muskets and ammunition ‘which for years had been withheld, agreeably to the instructions received from Sir James Craig, and since repeated by Your Excellency.’
Precisely at noon Brock took his stand beneath a giant oak at Amherstburg surrounded by his officers. Before him sat Tecumseh. Behind Tecumseh sat the chiefs; and behind the chiefs a thousand Indians in their war-paint. Brock then stepped forward to address them. Erect, alert, broad-shouldered, and magnificently tall; blue-eyed, fair-haired, with frank and handsome countenance; he looked every inch the champion of a great and righteous cause. He said the Long Knives had come to take away the land from both the Indians and the British whites, and that now he would not be content merely to repulse them, but would follow and beat them on their own side of the Detroit. After the pause that was usual on grave occasions, Tecumseh rose and answered for all his followers. He stood there the ideal of an Indian chief: tall, stately, and commanding; yet tense, lithe, observant, and always ready for his spring. He the tiger, Brock the lion; and both unflinchingly at bay.
Next morning, August 15, an early start was made for Sandwich, some twelve miles north, where a five-gun battery was waiting to be unmasked against Detroit across the river. Arrived at Sandwich, Brock immediately sent across his aide-de-camp, Colonel Macdonell, with a letter summoning Hull to surrender. Hull wrote back to say he was prepared to stand his ground. Brock at once unmasked his battery and made ready to attack next day. With the men on detachment Hull still had a total of twenty-five hundred. Brock had only fifteen hundred, including the Provincial Marine. But Hull's men were losing what discipline they had and were becoming distrustful both of their leaders and of themselves; while Brock's men were gaining discipline, zeal, and inspiring confidence with every hour. Besides, the British were all effectives; while Hull had over five hundred absent from Detroit and as many more ineffective on the spot; which left him only fifteen hundred actual combatants. He also had a thousand non-combatants—men, women, and children—all cowering for shelter from the dangers of battle, and half dead with the far more terrifying apprehension of an Indian massacre.
Brock's five-gun battery made excellent practice during the afternoon without suffering any material damage in return. One chance shell produced a most dismaying effect in Detroit by killing Hanks, the late commandant of Mackinaw, and three other officers with him. At twilight the firing ceased on both sides.
Immediately after dark Tecumseh led six hundred eager followers down to their canoes a little way below Sandwich. These Indians were told off by tribes, as battalions are by companies. There, in silent, dusky groups, moving soft-foot on their moccasins through the gloom, were Shawnees and Miamis from Tecumseh's own lost home beside the Wabash, Foxes and Sacs from the Iowan valley, Ottawas and Wyandots, Chippewas and Potawatomis, some braves from the middle prairies between the Illinois and the Mississippi, and even Winnebagoes and Dakotahs from the far North-West. The flotilla of crowded canoes moved stealthily across the river, with no louder noise than the rippling current made. As secretly, the Indians crept ashore, stole inland through the quiet night, and, circling north, cut off Hull's army from the woods. Little did Hull's anxious sentries think that some of the familiar cries of night-birds round the fort were signals being passed along from scout to scout.
As the beautiful summer dawn began to break at four o'clock that fateful Sunday morning, the British force fell in, only seven hundred strong, and more than half militia. The thirty gunners who had served the Sandwich battery so well the day before also fell in, with five little field-pieces, in case Brock could force a battle in the open. Their places in the battery were ably filled by every man of the Provincial Marine whom Captain Hall could spare from the Queen Charlotte, the flagship of the tiny Canadian flotilla. Brock's men and his light artillery were soon afloat and making for Spring Wells, more than three miles below Detroit. Then, as the Queen Charlotte ran up her sunrise flag, she and the Sandwich battery roared out a challenge to which the Americans replied with random aim. Brock leaped ashore, formed front towards Hull, got into touch with Tecumseh's Indians on his left, and saw that the British land and water batteries were protecting his right, as prearranged with Captain Hall.
He had intended to wait in this position, hoping that Hull would march out to the attack. But, even before his men had finished taking post, the whole problem was suddenly changed by the arrival of an Indian to say that M‘Arthur's four hundred picked men, whom Hull had sent south to bring in the convoy, were returning to Detroit at once. There was now only a moment to decide whether to retreat across the river, form front against M‘Arthur, or rush Detroit immediately. But, within that fleeting moment, Brock divined the true solution and decided to march straight on. With Tecumseh riding a grey mustang by his side, he led the way in person. He wore his full-dress gold-and-scarlet uniform and rode his charger Alfred, the splendid grey which Governor Craig had given him the year before, with the recommendation that 'the whole continent of America could not furnish you with so safe and excellent a horse,' and for the good reason that 'I wish to secure for my old favourite a kind and careful master.'
The seven hundred redcoats made a gallant show, all the more imposing because the militia were wearing some spare uniforms borrowed from the regulars and because the confident appearance of the whole body led the discouraged Americans to think that these few could only be the vanguard of much greater numbers. So strong was this belief that Hull, in sudden panic, sent over to Sandwich to treat for terms, and was astounded to learn that Brock and Tecumseh were the two men on the big grey horses straight in front of him. While Hull's envoys were crossing the river and returning, the Indians were beginning to raise their war-whoops in the woods and Brock was reconnoitring within a mile of the fort. This looked formidable enough, if properly defended, as the ditch was six feet deep and twelve feet wide, the parapet rose twenty feet, the palisades were of twenty-inch cedar, and thirty-three guns were pointed through the embrasures. But Brock correctly estimated the human element inside, and was just on the point of advancing to the assault when Hull's white flag went up.
The terms were soon agreed upon. Hull's whole army, including all detachments, surrendered as prisoners of war, while the territory of Michigan passed into the military possession of King George. Abundance of food and military stores fell into British hands, together with the Adams, a fine new brig that had just been completed. She was soon re-christened the Detroit. The Americans sullenly trooped out. The British elatedly marched in. The Stars and Stripes came down defeated. The Union Jack went up victorious and was received with a royal salute from all the British ordnance, afloat and ashore. The Indians came out of the woods, yelling with delight and firing their muskets in the air. But, grouped by tribes, they remained outside the fort and settlement, and not a single outrage was committed. Tecumseh himself rode in with Brock; and the two great leaders stood out in front of the British line while the colours were being changed. Then Brock, in view of all his soldiers, presented his sash and pistols to Tecumseh. Tecumseh, in turn, gave his many-coloured Indian sash to Brock, who wore it till the day he died.
The effect of the British success at Detroit far exceeded that which had followed the capture of Mackinaw and the evacuation of Fort Dearborn. Those, however important to the West, were regarded as mainly Indian affairs. This was a white man's victory and a white man's defeat. Hull's proclamation thenceforth became a laughing-stock. The American invasion had proved a fiasco. The first American army to take the field had failed at every point. More significant still, the Americans were shown to be feeble in organization and egregiously mistaken in their expectations. Canada, on the other hand, had already found her champion and men quite fit to follow him.
Brock left Procter in charge of the West and hurried back to the Niagara frontier. Arrived at Fort Erie on August 23 he was dismayed to hear of a dangerously one-sided armistice that had been arranged with the enemy. This had been first proposed, on even terms, by Prevost, and then eagerly accepted by Dearborn, after being modified in favour of the Americans. In proposing an armistice Prevost had rightly interpreted the wishes of the Imperial government. It was wise to see whether further hostilities could not be averted altogether; for the obnoxious Orders-in-Council had been repealed. But Prevost was criminally weak in assenting to the condition that all movements of men and material should continue on the American side, when he knew that corresponding movements were impossible on the British side for lack of transport. Dearborn, the American commander-in-chief, was only a second-rate general. But he was more than a match for Prevost at making bargains.
Prevost was one of those men who succeed half-way up and fail at the top. Pure Swiss by blood, he had, like his father, spent his life in the British Army, and had risen to the rank of lieutenant-general. He had served with some distinction in the West Indies, and had been made a baronet for defending Dominica in 1805. In 1808 he became governor of Nova Scotia, and in 1811, at the age of forty-four, governor-general and commander-in-chief of Canada. He and his wife were popular both in the West Indies and in Canada; and he undoubtedly deserved well of the Empire for having conciliated the French Canadians, who had been irritated by his predecessor, the abrupt and masterful Craig. The very important Army Bill Act was greatly due to his diplomatic handling of the French Canadians, who found him so congenial that they stood by him to the end. His native tongue was French. He understood French ways and manners to perfection; and he consequently had far more than the usual sympathy with a people whose nature and circumstances made them particularly sensitive to real or fancied slights. All this is more to his credit than his enemies were willing to admit, either then or afterwards. But, in spite of all these good qualities, Prevost was not the man to safeguard British honour during the supreme ordeal of a war; and if he had lived in earlier times, when nicknames were more apt to become historic, he might well have gone down to posterity as Prevost the Pusillanimous.
Day after day Prevost's armistice kept the British helpless, while supplies and reinforcements for the Americans poured in at every advantageous point. Brock was held back from taking either Sackett's Harbour, which was meanwhile being strongly reinforced from Ogdensburg, or Fort Niagara, which was being reinforced from Oswego. Procter was held back from taking Fort Wayne, at the point of the salient angle south of Lake Michigan and west of Lake Erie—a quite irretrievable loss. For the moment the British had the command of all the Lakes. But their golden opportunity passed, never to return. By land their chances were also quickly disappearing. On September 1, a week before the armistice ended, there were less than seven hundred Americans directly opposed to Brock, who commanded in person at Queenston and Fort George. On the day of the battle in October there were nearly ten times as many along the Niagara frontier.
The very day Brock heard that the disastrous armistice was over he proposed an immediate attack on Sackett's Harbour. But Prevost refused to sanction it. Brock then turned his whole attention to the Niagara frontier, where the Americans were assembling in such numbers that to attack them was out of the question. %The British began to receive a few supplies and reinforcements. But the American had now got such a long start that, on the fateful 13th of October, they outnumbered Brock's men four to one—4000 to 1000 along the critical fifteen miles between the Falls and Lake Ontario; and 6800 to 1700 along the whole Niagara river, from lake to lake, a distance of thirty-three miles. The factors which helped to redress the adverse balance of these odds were Brock himself, his disciplined regulars, the intense loyalty of the militia, and the 'telegraph.' This 'telegraph' was a system of visual signalling by semaphore, much the same as that which Wellington had used along the lines of Torres Vedras.
The immediate moral effects, however, were even more favourable to the Americans than the mere physical odds; for Prevost's armistice both galled and chilled the British, who were eager to strike a blow. American confidence had been much shaken in September by the sight of the prisoners from Detroit, who had been marched along the river road in full view of the other side. But it increased rapidly in October as reinforcements poured in. On the 8th a council of war decided to attack Fort George and Queenston Heights simultaneously with every available man. But Smyth, the American general commanding above the Falls, refused to co-operate. This compelled the adoption of a new plan in which only a feint was to be made against Fort George, while Queenston Heights were to be carried by storm. The change entailed a good deal of extra preparation. But when Lieutenant Elliot, of the American Navy, cut out two British vessels at fort Erie on the 9th, the news made the American troops so clamorous for an immediate invasion that their general, Van Rensselaer, was afraid either to resist them or to let their ardour cool.
In the American camp opposite Queenston all was bustle on the 10th of October; and at three the next morning the whole army was again astir, waiting till the vanguard had seized the landing on the British side. But a wrong leader had been chosen; mistakes were plentiful; and confusion followed. Nearly all the oars had been put into the first boat, which, having overshot the mark, was made fast on the British side; whereupon its commander disappeared. The troops on the American shore shivered in the drenching autumn rain till after daylight. Then they went back to their sodden camp, wet, angry, and disgusted.
While the rain came down in torrents the principal officers were busy revising their plans. Smyth was evidently not to be depended on; but it was thought that, with all the advantages of the initiative, the four thousand other Americans could overpower the one thousand British and secure a permanent hold on the Queenston Heights just above the village. These heights ran back from the Niagara river along Lake Ontario for sixty miles west, curving north-westwards round Burlington Bay to Dundas Street, which was the one regular land line of communication running west from York. Therefore, if the Americans could hold both the Niagara and the Heights, they would cut Upper Canada in two. This was, of course, quite evident to both sides. The only doubtful questions were, How should the first American attack be made and how should it be met?
The American general, Stephen Van Rensselaer, was a civilian who had been placed at the head of the New York State militia by Governor Tompkins, both to emphasize the fact that expert regulars were only wanted as subordinates and to win a cunning move in the game of party politics. Van Rensselaer was not only one of the greatest of the old 'patroons' who formed the landed aristocracy of Dutch New York, but he was also a Federalist. Tompkins, who was a Democrat, therefore hoped to gain his party ends whatever the result might be. Victory would mean that Van Rensselaer had been compelled to advance the cause of a war to which he objected; while defeat would discredit both him and his party, besides providing Tompkins with the excuse that it would all have happened very differently if a Democrat had been in charge.
Van Rensselaer, a man of sense and honour, took the expert advice of his cousin, Colonel Solomon Van Rensselaer, who was a regular and the chief of the staff. It was Solomon Van Rensselaer who had made both plans, the one of the 8th, for attacking Fort George and the Heights together, and the one of the 10th, for feinting against Fort George while attacking the Heights. Brock was puzzled about what was going to happen next. He knew that the enemy were four to one and that they could certainly attack both places if Smyth would co-operate. He also knew that they had boats and men ready to circle round Fort George from the American 'Four Mile Creek' on the lake shore behind Fort Niagara. Moreover, he was naturally inclined to think that when the boats prepared for the 11th were left opposite Queenston all day long, and all the next day too, they were probably intended to distract his attention from Fort George, where he had fixed his own headquarters.
On the 12th the American plan was matured and concentration begun at Lewiston, opposite Queenston. Large detachments came in, under perfect cover, from Four Mile Creek behind Fort Niagara. A smaller number marched down from the Falls and from Smyth's command sill higher up. The camps at Lewiston and the neighbouring Tuscarora Village were partly concealed from every point on the opposite bank, so that the British could form no safe idea of what the Americans were about. Solomon Van Rensselaer was determined that the advance-guard should do its duty this time; so he took charge of it himself and picked out 40 gunners, 300 regular infantry, and 300 of the best militia to make the first attack. These were to be supported by seven hundred regulars. The rest of the four thousand men available were to cross over afterwards. The current was strong; but the river was little more than two hundred yards wide at Queenston and it could be crossed in less than ten minutes. The Queenston Heights themselves were a more formidable obstacle, even if defended by only a few men, as they rose 345 feet above the landing-place.
There were only three hundred British in Queenston to meet the first attack of over thirteen hundred Americans; but they consisted of the two flank companies of Brock's old regiment, the 49th, supported by some excellent militia. A single gun stood on the Heights. Another was at Vrooman's Point a mile below. Two miles farther, at Brown's Point, stood another gun with another detachment of militia. Four miles farther still was Fort George, with Brock and his second-in-command, Colonel Sheaffe of the 49th. About nine miles above the Heights was the little camp at Chippawa, which, as we shall see, managed to spare 150 mention for the second phase of the battle. The few hundred British above this had to stand by their own posts, in case Smyth should try an attack on his own account, somewhere between the Falls and Lake Erie.
At half-past three in the dark morning of the 13th of October, Solomon Van Rensselaer with 225 regulars sprang ashore at the Queenston ferry landing and began to climb the bank. But hardly had they shown their heads above the edge before the grenadier company of the 49th, under Captain Dennis, poured in a stinging volley which sent them back to cover. Van Rensselaer was badly wounded and was immediately ferried back. The American supports, under Colonel Christie, had trouble in getting across; and the immediate command of the invaders devolved upon another regular, Captain Wool.
As soon as the rest of the first detachment had landed, Wool took some three hundred infantry and a few gunners, half of all who were then present, and led them up-stream, in single file, by a fisherman's path which curved round and came out on top of the Heights behind the single British gun there. Progress was very slow in this direction, though the distance was less than a mile, as it was still pitch-dark and the path was narrow and dangerous. The three hundred left at the landing were soon reinforced, and the crossing went on successfully, though some of the American boats were carried down-stream to the British post at Vrooman's, where all the men in them were made prisoners and marched off to Fort George.
Meanwhile, down at Fort George, Brock had been roused by the cannonade only three hours after he had finished his dispatches. Twenty-four American guns were firing hard at Queenston from the opposite shore and two British guns were replying. Fort Niagara, across the river from Fort George, then began to speak; whereupon Fort George answered back. Thus the sound of musketry, five to seven miles away, was drowned; and Brock waited anxiously to learn whether the real attack was being driven home at Queenston, or whether the Americans were circling round from their Four Mile Creek against his own position at Fort George. Four o'clock passed. The roar of battle still came down from Queenston. But this might be a feint. Not even Dennis at Queenston could tell as yet whether the main American army was coming against him or not. But he knew they must be crossing in considerable force, so he sent a dragoon galloping down to Brock, who was already in the saddle giving orders to Sheaffe and to the next senior officer, Evans, when this messenger arrived. Sheaffe was to follow towards Queenston the very instant the Americans had shown their hand decisively in that direction; while Evans was to stay at Fort George and keep down the fire from Fort Niagara.
Then Brock set spurs to Alfred and raced for Queenston Heights. It was a race for more than his life, for more, even than his own and his army's honour: it was a race for the honour, integrity, and very life of Canada. Miles ahead he could see the spurting flashes of the guns, the British two against the American twenty-four. Presently his quick eye caught the fitful running flicker of the opposing lines of musketry above the landing-place at Queenston. As he dashed on he met a second messenger, Lieutenant Jarvis, who was riding down full-speed to confirm the news first brought by the dragoon. Brock did not dare draw rein; so he beckoned Jarvis to gallop back beside him. A couple of minutes sufficed for Brock to understand the whole situation and make his plan accordingly. Then Jarvis wheeled back with orders for Sheaffe to bring up every available man, circle round inland, and get into touch with the Indians. A few strides more, and Brock was ordering the men on from Brown's Point. He paused another moment at Vrooman's, to note the practice made by the single gun there. Then, urging his gallant grey to one last turn of speed, he burst into Queenston through the misty dawn just where the grenadiers of his own old regime stood at bay.
In his full-dress red and gold, with the arrow-patterned sash Tecumseh had given him as a badge of honour at Detroit, he looked, from plume to spur, a hero who could turn the tide of battle against any odds. A ringing cheer broke out in greeting. But he paused no longer than just enough to wave a greeting back and take a quick look round before scaling the Heights to where eight gunners with their single eighteen-pounder were making a desperate effort to check the Americans at the landing-place. Here he dismounted to survey the whole scene of action. The Americans attacking Queenston seemed to be at least twice as strong as the British. The artillery odds were twelve to one. And over two thousand Americans were drawn up on the farther side of the narrow Niagara waiting their turn for the boats. Nevertheless, the British seemed to be holding their own. The crucial question was: could they hold it till Sheaffe came up from Fort George, till Bullock came down from Chippawa, till both had formed front on the Heights, with Indians on their flanks and artillery support from below?
Suddenly a loud, exultant cheer sounded straight behind him, a crackling fire broke out, and he saw Wool's Americans coming over the crest and making straight for the gun. He was astounded; and well he might be, since the fisherman's path had been reported impassable by troops. But he instantly changed the order he happened to be giving from 'Try a longer fuse!' to 'Spike the gun and follow me!' With a sharp clang the spike went home, and the gunners followed Brock downhill towards Queenston. There was no time to mount, and Alfred trotted down beside his swiftly running master. The elated Americans fired hard; but their bullets all flew high. Wool's three hundred then got into position on the Heights; while Brock in the village below was collecting the nearest hundred men that could be spared for an assault on the invaders.
Brock rapidly formed his men and led them out of the village at a fast run to a low stone wall, where he halted and said, 'Take breath, boys; you'll need it presently!' on which they cheered. He then dismounted and patted Alfred, whose flanks still heaved from his exertions. The men felt the sockets of their bayonets; took breath; and then followed Brock, who presently climbed the wall and draw his sword. He first led them a short distance inland, with the intention of gaining the Heights at the enemy's own level before turning riverwards for the final charge. Wool immediately formed front with his back to the river; and Brock led the one hundred British straight at the American centre, which gave way before him. Still he pressed on, waving his sword as an encouragement for the rush that was to drive the enemy down the cliff. The spiked eighteen-pounder was recaptured and success seemed certain. But, just as his men were closing in, an American stepped out of the trees, only thirty yards away, took deliberate aim, and shot him dead. The nearest men at once clustered round to help him, and one of the 49th fell dead across his body. The Americans made the most of this target and hit several more. Then the remaining British broke their ranks and retired, carrying Brock's body into a house at Queenston, where it remained throughout the day, while the battle raged all round.
Wool now re-formed his three hundred and ordered his gunners to drill out the eighteen-pounder and turn it against Queenston, where the British were themselves re-forming for a second attack. This was made by two hundred men of the 49th and York militia, led by Colonel John Macdonell, the attorney-general of Upper Canada, who was acting as aide-de-camp to Brock. Again the Americans were driven back. Again the gun was recaptured. Again the British leader was shot at the critical moment. Again the attack failed. And again the British retreated into Queenston.
Wool then hoisted the Stars and Stripes over the fiercely disputed gun; and several more boatloads of soldiers at once crossed over to the Canadian side, raising the American total there to sixteen hundred men. With this force waiting impatiently to cross,with twenty-four guns in action, and with the heart of the whole defence known to be lying dead in Queenston, an American victory seemed to be so well assured that a courier was sent post-haste to announce the good news both at Albany and at Dearborn's headquarters just across the Hudson. This done, Stephen Van Rensselaer decided to confirm his success by going over to the Canadian side of the river himself. Arrived there, he consulted the senior regulars and ordered the troops to entrench the Heights, fronting Queenston, while the rest of his army was crossing.
But, just when the action had reached such an apparently victorious stage, there was, first, a pause, and then a slightly adverse change, which soon became decidedly ominous. It was as if the flood tide of invasion had already passed the full and the ebb was setting in. Far off, down-stream, at Fort Niagara, the American fire began to falter and gradually grow dumb. But at the British Fort George opposite the guns were served as well as ever, till they had silenced the enemy completely. While this was happening, the main garrison, now free to act elsewhere, were marching out with swinging step and taking the road for Queenston Heights. Near by, at Lewiston, the American twenty-four-gun battery was slackening its noisy cannonade, which had been comparatively ineffective from the first; while the single British gun at Vrooman's, vigorous and effective as before, was reinforced by two most accurate field-pieces under Holcroft in Queenston village, where the wounded but undaunted Dennis was rallying his disciplined regulars and Loyalist militiamen for another fight. On the Heights themselves the American musketry had slackened while most of the men were entrenching; but the Indian fire kept growing closer and more dangerous. Up-stream, on the American side of the Falls, a half-hearted American detachment had been reluctantly sent down by the egregious Smyth; while, on the other side, a hundred and fifty eager British were pressing forward to join Sheaffe's men from Fort George.
As the converging British drew near them, the Americans on the Heights began to feel the ebbing of their victory. The least disciplined soon lost confidence and began to slink down to the boats; and very few boats returned when once they had reached their own side safely. These slinkers naturally made the most of the dangers they had been expecting—a ruthless Indian massacre included. The boatmen, nearly all civilians, began to desert. Alarming doubts and rumours quickly spread confusion through the massed militia, who now perceived that instead of crossing to celebrate a triumph they would have to fight a battle. John Lovett, who served with credit in the big American battery, gave a graphic description of the scene: 'The name of Indian, or the sight of the wounded, or the Devil, or something else, petrified them. Not a regiment, not a company, scarcely a man, would go.' Van Rensselaer went through the disintegrating ranks and did his utmost to revive the ardour which had been so impetuous only an hour before. But he ordered, swore, and begged in vain.
Meanwhile the tide of resolution, hope, and coming triumph was rising fast among the British. They were the attackers now; they had one distinct objective; and their leaders were men whose lives had been devoted to the art of war. Sheaffe took his time. Arrived near Queenston, he saw that his three guns and two hundred muskets there could easily prevent the two thousand disorganized American militia from crossing the river; so he wheeled to his right, marched to St David's, and then, wheeling to his left, gained the Heights two miles beyond the enemy. The men from Chippawa marched in and joined him. The line of attack was formed, with the Indians spread out on the flanks and curving forward. The British in Queenston, seeing the utter impotence of the Americans who refused to cross over, turned their fire against the Heights; and the invaders at once realized that their position had now become desperate.
When Sheaffe struck inland an immediate change of the American front was required to meet him. Hitherto the Americans on the Heights had faced down-stream, towards Queenston, at right angles to the river. Now they were obliged to face inland, with their backs to the river. Wadsworth, the American militia brigadier, a very gallant member of a very gallant family, immediately waived his rank in favour of Colonel Winfield Scott, a well-trained regular. Scott and Wadsworth then did all that men could do in such a dire predicament. But most of the militia became unmanageable, some of the regulars were comparatively raw; there was confusion in front, desertion in the rear, and no coherent whole to meet the rapidly approaching shock.
On came the steady British line, with the exultant Indians thrown well forward on the flanks; while the indomitable single gun at Vrooman's Point backed up Holcroft's two guns in Queenston, and the two hundred muskets under Dennis joined in this distracting fire against the American right till the very last moment. The American left was in almost as bad a case, because it had got entangled in the woods beyond the summit and become enveloped by the Indians there. The rear was even worse, as men slank off from it at every opportunity. The front stood fast under Winfield Scott and Wadsworth. But not for long. The British brought their bayonets down and charged. The Indians raised the war-whoop and bounded forward. The Americans fired a hurried, nervous, straggling fusillade; then broke and fled in wild confusion. A very few climbed down the cliff and swam across. Not a single boat came over from the 'petrified' militia. Some more Americans, attempting flight, were killed by falling headlong or by drowning. Most of them clustered along the trees near the edge and surrendered at discretion when Winfield Scott, seeing all was lost, waved his handkerchief on the point of his sword.
The American loss was about a hundred killed, two hundred wounded, and nearly a thousand prisoners. The British loss was trifling by comparison, only a hundred and fifty altogether. But it included Brock; and his irreparable death alone was thought, by friend and foe alike to have more than redressed the balance. This, indeed, was true in a much more pregnant sense than those who measure by mere numbers could ever have supposed. For genius is a thing apart from mere addition and subtraction. It is the incarnate spirit of great leaders, whose influence raises to its utmost height the worth of every follower. So when Brock's few stood fast against the invader's many, they had his soaring spirit to uphold them as well as the soul and body of their own disciplined strength.
Brock's proper fame may seem to be no more than that which can be won by any conspicuously gallant death at some far outpost of a mighty empire. He ruled no rich and populous dominions. He commanded no well-marshalled host. He fell, apparently defeated, just as his first real battle had begun. And yet, despite of this, he was the undoubted saviour of British Canada. Living, he was the heart of her preparation during ten long years of peace. Dead, he became the inspiration of her defence for two momentous years of war.
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