The Battle of York reversed a year’s worth of disappointment for the American cause in the War of 1812 but may have led to the burning of Washington later in the war.
The War of 1812 had not gone to according to plan for the Americans as the country rang in the new year of 1813. The young nation had lost strategic Fort Mackinac on Lake Michigan without a shot being fired and three invasion attempts into British Canada were each repelled.
But as spring 1813 rolled around, the Americans mustered themselves for another foray into Canada, and this time they would find success.
April 26, 1813
The planned assault of Canada focused on attacking the provincial capital of York (now Toronto) to capture the British magazine and naval yard on Lake Ontario.
The British had two ships under repairs at the shipyard and one being built. The move on York reflected the new American strategy to take control of the Great Lakes to secure the supply lines that had been cut and caused the failure of the first three invasions.
Under the command of General Henry Dearborn and led by the adventurer soldier Brigadier General Zebulon Pike, about 1,700 troops set off across Lake Ontario on April 26, 1813.
On the British side, the undermanned garrison of about 600 troops mostly made up of militia and Native Americans prepared to meet the oncoming assault.
Strong wind forced the American flotilla off course and the troops landed a mile down the shore. This turned out to be a stroke of good luck as the British had rushed their regular troops to the original landing zone.
The Battle of York, April 27, 1813
The actual fighting during the battle of York occurred on April 27 as Pike’s troops facing militia and a small force of Native Americans quickly gained control of the high ground near the shore.
Marching their regulars overnight to the battle, the British command unsuccessfully sent wave after wave of soldiers to try and dislodge the American army.
Pike counter attacked and forced the British regular army to retreat to Kingston, while the militia units stayed behind to negotiate the surrender of the town.
While waiting for surrender terms, several American soldiers gathered around a large stone and earth magazine constructed near the fort at York. Suddenly the magazine exploded killing or wounding almost 300 men. Among the dead was General Pike.
Burning Government House
While the death of a general is usually good news for the opposing side, Pike’s death provoked a furious response from the Americans.
Pike, who was a strict disciplinarian, had warned his men about looting and respecting property before the attack, but now that he was gone, they had their revenge.
Even Dearborn was angered by the death. After coming ashore to take command, he refused to sign surrender terms with the militia officers until the next day. Soon after, the provincial parliament building was burned to the ground.
Following that, the symbol of British authority in the city, Government House, was also put to the torch.
Reaction to the Burning
The burning of Government House provoked a fury in London and from commanders of British forces operating in the war.
Governor General George Prevost, Britain’s governor in Canada, called for retaliation for the burning and demanded revenge.
In 1814, British troops under the command of General Robert Ross burned the White House and Capitol building in Washington D.C. While Ross claimed the burning was not in response to the actions in York, the British army quickly evacuated Washington after the burning and did not hold the city as strategically necessary.
A Needed Victory
While the Battle of York may have led to later atrocities, the impact the victory had on American morale was invaluable. The fight showed the American troops and their commanders that they could stand toe-to-toe with the British.
Later success on Lake Erie and in Canada would pave the way for a lasting peace with Britain but the Battle of York was the spark that lifted the American’s spirits and carried them through the war.
- Union 1812: The Americans Who Fought the Second War of Independence, by A.J. Langguth, Simon & Schuster, 2007