War of 1812: The Battle of Stoney Creek, June 6, 1813

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After he abandoned Fort George, Brigadier General John Vincent retreated south along the Niagara River towards Fort Erie. His senior officers, however, convinced him that withdrawing northwest towards Burlington would be more prudent. They feared that if they garrisoned Fort Erie, the American army would block them from combining their forces with Major General Henry Procter’s army at Fort Detroit.

The first night after the battle, General Vincent halted his army in Beaver Dam, where all of the troops stationed between Queenston and Chippewa joined his forces. He instructed the militia units south of the Chippewa River to return to their homes and pretend to be civilians until their services were needed in the future.

General Vincent and the British Army Escape

At Fort George, aging General Dearborn was ill and timid Major General Morgan Lewis was in charge. He delayed the American pursuit of Vincent’s British forces until the following day. On May 28, General Lewis and his troops made it only as far as Queenston, seven miles south of Niagara (now Niagara-on-the-Lake, ON), where Lewis decided to stay for the night. Meanwhile, General Vincent spent that night thirty-one miles west of Niagara, at the Forty-Mile Creek.

Having missed their opportunity to catch the retreating British Army, the Americans returned to Fort George. General Dearborn and Commodore Isaac Chauncey planned to use naval transports to beat the British to Burlington Heights. This plan was abandoned, however, when news arrived that the British fleet had finally sailed from Kingston and was threatening Sackett’s Harbor, the most important American shipyard on Lake Ontario.

With the pursuit delayed, General Vincent rested his weary army for two days before continuing. On May 31, they began fortifying Burlington Heights, a narrow strip of land with Lake Ontario on one side and an impenetrable marsh on the other. To defend the position, General Vincent had eighteen hundred men – mostly British Regulars – and eleven artillery pieces.

The American Army Marches Towards Burlington Heights

Having abandoned his plan for an amphibious assault on Burlington, General Dearborn ordered Brigadier General William Winder to pursue the British with four regiments of United States infantry and two companies of artillery. The slow-moving American force finally began their march on June 1 and reached the Forty Mile Creek on June 2. They were joined by three more infantry regiments and an additional artillery company commanded by Brigadier General John Chandler on June 4.

On June 5, the Americans moved north, intending to attack General Vincent’s left flank on the Lake Ontario shoreline. At three o’clock in the afternoon, the leading units encountered British advance pickets who delayed the Americans’ advance as they slowly withdrew. General Chandler ordered his army to encamp for the night and continue the pursuit the next day.

The British Attack Their American Pursuers

Weary and hungry from their march, the soldiers were ordered to halt and prepare a meal. As they ate, some troops were scattered across a meadow, others were near the mouth of Stoney Creek, and many were on a ridge south of the meadow.

Meanwhile, a British reconnaissance force commanded by Lieutenant Colonel John Harvey discovered that the enemy troops were scattered, not in defensive positions, and few sentries had been posted to warn of an attack. Colonel Harvey urged General Vincent to attack immediately. Vincent agreed. He gave overall command of 700 British Regulars to Colonel Harvey. The force left the Burlington Heights at midnight and began the seven-mile march south.

After his men finished their meal, General Chandler recalled the soldiers from the meadow and positioned them with his remaining troops on the defendable ridge. Almost fifteen hundred soldiers, with six field guns supporting them, were sleeping fitfully and ready to defend at a moment’s notice. Chandler ringed the encampment with sentries to warn them in case of a British surprise attack.

The small British force traveled south with unloaded muskets, to prevent an accidental shot from alerting their enemy. When they reached Stoney Creek around 2:30, the attackers quietly captured or killed many of the sentries on the main road. Thinking their surprise was complete, the Redcoats cheered and attacked the meadow with fixed bayonets. They found nothing but dying cooking fires. The noise of their attack alerted the entire army on the ridge, who quickly took their fighting positions.

The Chaotic Battle of Stoney Creek

The element of surprise gone, the frustrated attackers loaded their muskets. The British 49th regiment would advance on the left and the 8th (King’s) regiment on the right. While they were forming, the Americans opened fire with muskets and artillery. The British regulars began to retreat, but then Major Plenderleath and 20 men of the 49th regiment bravely attacked and captured four fieldpieces. They turned the cannon and began firing on the Americans while the British troops regrouped and joined them. The American defensive line was split into two parts.

In the darkness, chaos ensued.

Units were mixed together on both sides. Officers became separated from their men. Soldiers from the same units fired at each other. The American General Chandler was captured while trying to rally American artillerists, who turned out to be British soldiers. General Winder was also captured. By dawn, the British units were scattered but held the enemy encampment. The Americans had been pushed off the ridge and units were regrouping a short distance away.

Eventually, the Americans withdrew to Forty Mile Creek and then to Fort George. Technically, General Vincent won the battle because he had possession of the American camp the next morning; however, he had suffered more casualties than the Americans. The British had 23 killed, 136 wounded, and 55 for a total of 214, or almost a third of the attacking force. The American casualties were approximately 150-200 soldiers.

As a result of his string of failures, General Dearborn was replaced during the summer of 1813 by General James Wilkinson, who soon began planning an attack on Montreal.