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The War of 1812 Magazine

Issue 11: June 2009


Reviews: Books, Film, Collectables and Ephemera

Elliott, James E. Strange Fatality: the Battle of Stoney Creek, 1813.  Robin Brass Studio, 2009.  320 pages.  ISBN: 1-896941-58-3 Paperback; $28

Review by Robert Burnham

I will be the first to admit that my knowledge of the War of 1812 is not extensive.  Matter-of-fact, I had never heard of the battle of Stoney Creek, prior to reading this book.  It chronicles the little known campaign of May 1813, when the American Army poured across the Niagara River and came close to destroying the British Army in the area and securing Upper Canada for America.  Fortunately for the British, the American Army had many command and control problems and the battered British were allowed to escape.  The Americans initially pursued vigorously, but conflicting sets of orders halted them and permitted the British to escape.  With no hope of receiving reinforcements, the badly out-numbered British commander decided to take a huge risk and to attack the lead elements of the American Army in its bivouacs at night.  James Elliott draws heavily on contemporary British, Canadian, and American sources to bring to life a tale of courage and incompetence.  The British commander’s audacity and the American generals’ bungling would keep Upper Canada safely British.

The battle of Stoney Creek was unusual in that it involved two things that were rare during the Napoleonic Wars:  a night attack and the use of bayonets in hand-to-hand combat.  Night attacks were generally avoided because once they begun, it was too hard for a commander to control his force.  Strange Fatality re-enforces why night attacks were so rare.  Both the British and American commanders lost track of their units.  The British Army was in danger of being severely mauled if the American commander could have committed his forces to a counter-attack.  However, in the confusion of the battle, the American commander could not find his units, his aides-de-camp, or his staff officers.  Instead he wandered the battlefield and was captured!  The British recovered and in the end, crushed the Americans, hurting them badly enough for the Americans to end their campaign.  Strange Fatality also examines the use of the bayonet by the British.  The initial charge was with unloaded weapons and so initial killing was done with the bayonet.  In the late 1990s, the remains of soldiers who were buried on the battlefield were examined by forensic archeologists to determine how the soldiers died.  Appendix B provides some very interesting data on the effect of a 17” bayonet on ribs.

Strange Fatality closes with eight appendices that cover a variety of topics, including the discovery of remains on the battlefield, almost 200 years later; the efforts to preserve the battlefield beginning in the late 1880s and continuing to the late 1960s; information on weapons; and by name casualty lists for both the British and Americans.  In this day of scrimping on documenting sources and cutting footnotes / endnotes in an effort to cut costs, the publisher should be commended for the 30 pages of endnotes.  Many of these not only cited the source, but also provided additional information on the topic.

The format of Strange Fatality is unique and the author should be congratulated on it.  The book consists of 41 chapters and eight appendices.  Each chapter is about four pages long and usually only covers one topic.  This allowed the author to focus on each minor aspect of the campaign and the battle by itself, yet while still maintaining the flow of the narrative.  Strange Fatality is lavishly illustrated with over 100 images of the key people, uniforms, old photographs of the buildings on the battlefield, and maps.  Furthermore, the illustrations were appropriately placed, on the pages close to where the text that was referring to them was located.  There were numerous maps – both modern and contemporary; like the illustrations, they were intermixed with the text!  One of the things I enjoyed about the images is that the author included photographs of some of the survivors of the battle!  Granted most of them were taken 50+ years after the battle, but it did bring to life what they looked like.

James Elliott has written a gripping story about a little known battle that changed the course of the war.  He has done a superb job of integrating contemporary sources into a fascinating narrative that will hold the interest of both the serious scholar and the casual reader.  I highly recommend it to all.