Military Subjects:  War of 1812


The War of 1812 Magazine

Issue 5: December 2006

Documents, Artefacts and Imagery

Military History in Built Up Areas: The Battle of York, 1813

A Photo Essay

By John R. Grodzinski

As part of a phased campaign plan for the spring of 1813, an American amphibious force was to strike at the provincial capital of Upper Canada at York, then move on to attack the British forces based at Fort George and finally attack Kingston. The aim was to weaken British naval power on Lake Ontario, take Fort George in the Niagara Peninsula (while a portion of its garrison was marching to relieve York) and to cut communication between Upper and Lower Canada.

The American plan originally called for Kingston to be attacked first, but the sequence was changed by Major-General Dearborn and Commodore Chauncey based on the perceived strength of Kingston. The appeal of attacking York was further heightened by the presence of several naval vessels there, including the almost completed Sir Isaac Brock and the Prince Regent. Seizing these vessels and the naval stores at York would provide the American squadron with further advantages on Lake Ontario, while a victory was deemed important to upcoming New York State elections.

The plan began with a major amphibious attack on 27 April 1813 against York. Some 1,700 American troops led by Brigadier General Zebulon Pike were landed by a naval squadron with 14 vessels led by Commodore Isaac Chauncey. The defenders were outnumbered and the commander in Upper Canada, Major-General Roger Sheaffe, who, after a six hour battle against the invaders, decided to withdraw his regulars eastward for Kingston. Before leaving, Sheaffe ordered the magazine at Fort York destroyed, and the charges went off just as Pike and his men were approaching. Pike was mortally wounded, 38 soldiers were killed and 222 wounded, leaving the Americans with a total of 320 killed and wounded. Given that the two brigs-of-war expected to be near launch in the York boatyard were not there and the Brock had been reduced to a mass of charred timbers, the American were left with a somewhat empty victory.

A gale delayed the departure of the assault force for several days and although they generally respected orders to respect private property, the provincial Parliament Buildings and the governor’s home were burned. By 3 May, the last of the American troops had returned to the squadron, but the departure was again delayed by a storm. Due to the number of casualties and the state of the remainder, it was decided that rather than move directly against Fort George, the combined force return to Sackets Harbor to rest and rehabilitate before their next operation.  

Fort York formed the basis of the York’s defences. It was constructed in 1793-94 under the direction of the first lieutenant-governor of Upper Canada, John Graves Simcoe. It was reinforced in 1811-12 and was burned by the Americans before they departed in May 1813. In August 1813, reconstruction commenced and new barracks, blockhouses and fortifications added, with all work completed in 1815.

Fort York remained in use after the war and continued as a garrison site for British and later Canadian troops, the last of which marched out in 1932. In 1934, Fort York reopened as a museum.

As the town of York grew, and was renamed Toronto in 1834, Fort York went from being on the outskirts of the town, to being near the centre of a city. Originally, the shore of Lake Ontario lay just near the fort, but land reclamation has left the fort landlocked, with the current shoreline being 900 metres south of its 1813 position in the Fort York neighbourhood.

For those interested in visiting War of 1812 battlefield, these images depict the difficulty of doing so in Toronto. Regardless Fort York is a fascinating site with eight of the buildings dating from the War of 1812, while the beach where the Americans landed is near the grounds of the Canadian National Exhibition.

These photos were taken in March 2006, from the Skypod of the CN Tower, 1,465 feet above Toronto. For a larger view click on the imag.e

Photo 1. This is a view looking south. The fortified walls, battery positions, blockhouses and other buildings of the fort are easily seen. (Photo by John R. Grodzinski)

Photo 2. A wider view of the area west of Fort York, which appears at the bottom left of the photo. The original shorelines swings right at the fort. The US landing site was 2 km west of the fort, near Dowling Avenue in today’s Parkdale neighbourhood. It is near the white blob by the shoreline at the centre right of the photo about two-thirds of the way up. The white blob is a covered tennis court at the Boulevard Club, although that site also was underwater in 1813. (Photo by John R. Grodzinski)




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