War of 1812: Dearborn and Chauncey Target York, Spring 1813

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Major General Henry Dearborn

Although Kingston was the most strategically important target on Lake Ontario, the weakly defended town of York was selected for the initial attack.

When the War of 1812 began, the United States believed their military forces could easily conquer the British provinces of Canada. Several disappointing losses early in the war, including the surrenders of Forts Michilimackinac, Dearborn, and Detroit, proved the U.S. had underestimated the difficulties. During the winter of 1813, there were improvements in American political and military leadership that suggested the defeat of their northern neighbor was still possible. For the upcoming spring campaign, the United States sought a new strategy that would drive the British out of Canada once and for all.

The Importance of Lake Ontario

During the War of 1812, Lake Ontario became a key battleground where both sides engaged in a naval arms race to build larger and better warships. The British primarily built their ships in Kingston, Upper Canada (Ontario), while the Americans constructed the majority of their vessels at Sackets Harbor, New York. Both towns are located on the eastern side of Lake Ontario, near the vital shipping routes of the St. Lawrence River.

During the winter of 1813, the new United States Secretary of War, John Armstrong, Jr., decided that Kingston was the primary military target on Lake Ontario. Destroying the Royal Naval Dockyard at Kingston and capturing or destroying the British fleet based there would cripple the enemy. With Kingston defeated, the Americans would win the arms race on Lake Ontario and control shipping on the St. Lawrence River. The United States Navy could then more easily defeat other military installations on Lake Ontario, including Fort George, Fort Erie and the naval base in York.

The Town of York is Targeted for the Invasion of Canada

Major General Henry Dearborn commanding the regional army and Commodore Isaac Chauncey leading the American naval forces originally agreed to the Secretary of War’s Canadian invasion plan to attack Kingston. By April when the lake ice began to thaw, however, circumstances led them to believe that the defenses at Kingston were too strong for their existing forces. They suggested to the Secretary of War that York would be a better target.

York (now Toronto) was the provincial capital of Upper Canada (Ontario) and weakly defended. The British had failed to garrison the fort adequately and its defenses were almost nonexistent. A scratch force of about 300 British and Canadian regulars, 250 militiamen, and 50 Missassauga and Ojibway warriors defended the shoreline. Their only artillery was a scattering of ineffective cannons, including two small 12-pounders, a couple of ancient and nearly useless 18-pounders, and a pair of 6-pounder infantry guns.

Defeating York would avail the Americans of British naval supplies and deprive their enemies of an important shipyard. Additionally, the conquest of York would mean the capture of three important British warships: the Prince Regent, the Duke of Gloucester, and the powerful 30-gun frigate Sir Isaac Brock that was currently under construction in the York dockyard.

The U. S. Secretary of War reluctantly agreed to an attack on York, although the provincial capital had almost no strategic value according to his original plan. Capturing York would weaken but not cripple the British fleet on Lake Ontario, and British movement of war materials would continue to flow down the St. Lawrence River.

The combined American forces that sailed for York on April 25, 1813, consisted of approximately 1700 soldiers and militiamen crowded aboard fourteen warships. The naval forces were armed with one hundred and twelve guns, including the flagship USS Madison with twenty-two guns. In all, the American fleet carried forty formidable 32-pounder cannon that were longer range and more powerful than any cannon at York. These overwhelming forces proved too strong for the York defenses, and the Americans went on to defeat the British in The Battle of York.