Battle of Queenston Heights, The
DESCRIPTION: "Upon the heights of Queenston one dark October day, Invading foes were marshalled in battle's dread array." General Brock, intent on repelling the invaders, leads his troops up the hill and is killed. The soldiers mourn
AUTHOR: Music: Alan Mills
EARLIEST DATE: 1960 (Fowke/Mills/Blume)
KEYWORDS: Canada soldier death
October 13, 1812 - American troops cross the Niagara River and take up a position on Queenston Heights in Canada. General Brock, the victor at Detroit, moves to drive them off. His soldiers succeed, but Brock is killed
FOUND IN: Canada
REFERENCES (1 citation):
Fowke/Mills/Blume, pp. 66-67, "The Battle of Queenston Heights" (1 text, 1 tune)
cf. "Brave General Brock" [Laws A22] (for the earlier career of General Brock)
NOTES: Theoretically, the Americans wanted to open the War of 1812 by attacking Canada on three fronts simultaneously (Hickey, p. 80; Mahon, p. 38). The main thrust was intended to be toward Montreal, with diversions along the Detroit and Niagara fronts. The idea was to cut off traffic on the Saint Lawrence, isolating Canada from Britain.
Very little of it worked. The Montreal assault started late, and the other two probes, which might have amounted to something had they been simultaneous, instead took place weeks apart -- long enough that Isaac Brock could personally deal with both of them. (Indeed, there was actually a cease-fire on the Niagara front while the Detroit campaign was going on; Mahon, pp. 75-76.)
For Brock's first success in the War of 1812, see "Brave General Brock" [Laws A22]. Having bluffed the Americans out of Michigan, and captured their army with vastly inferior forces, Brock hurried back to defend the Niagara front. Here again the Americans muffed a chance to use their superior forces.
Queenston Heights was one of those battles where the key was which side made the last mistake. The British forces were on the north side of the Niagara River (actually the west side, given that the river flows south to north), the Americans on the south (east), with their leaders itching to invade but suffering from divided command between officers who did not get along (Borneman, pp. 70-72; Hickey, p. 86). What was supposed to be a double-pronged assault on Queenston and Fort George (the latter to the south and the former to the north) turned into a single assault on Queenston, led by the political appointee Stephen Van Rensselaer (who had no military experience; Borneman, p. 70); General Alexander Smyth (himself a political appointee some years earlier), who should have attacked Fort George, refused direct orders to cooperate in the attack (Mahon, p. 76, tells of how Smyth avoided meeting van Rensselaer so he couldn't possibly be given orders).
The Canadian town of Queenston is about eight miles north of Niagara Falls, about half way between the Falls and Lake Ontario. The Americans in the vicinity had 3500 troops to face Brock's 2000, most of whom were about six miles away at Fort George (near Lake Ontario) rather than at Queenston, but the Americans had a horrid time finding boats to get across the river and for a time lost all their oars (Hickey, p. 87); they never did find enough transportation to move their full force (Mahon, p. 77).
The Americans eventually managed to push about 200 soldiers across the river west of the town. There was a British redoubt part-way up the Heights, which inflicted heavy casualties on the forces in its front, but Captain John Wool's company of regulars circled up the heights and came at it from above. Brock gathered the forces he could and counter-attacked. The motley crew did retake the redoubt, but Brock was dead on the field (Borneman, p. 73; Mahon, p. 79).
That wasn't the end of the battle. General Van Rensselaer sent Winfield Scott's troops across to reinforce Wool. Wool had by then retaken the redoubt (Borneman, p. 74), and Scott had 600 men to hold the position (though only 350 of them were regulars; Mahon, p. 80). Had they been reinforced, Queenston Heights might have held. But the rest of the American militia refused Van Rensselaer's pleas to cross the river (Hickey, p. 87), and British artillery was making the crossing perilous anyway, so few of the boatman were willing to go on the river (Mahon, p. 80).
From that time on, it all went bad for the Americans. Brock's second-in-command, Major General Hale Sheaffe, brought up the garrison of Fort George, giving him probably a three to one edge over Scott's forces on the Heights.
Van Rensselaer ordered Scott to retreat, and promised to have boats to evacuate his troops. But he had no boats. Scott, pinned on the river bank rather than in the strong position on the heights, was forced to surrender (Borneman, p. 75; Hickey, p. 87; Mahon, p. 80). In terms of casualties, it was an overwhelming British victory: 14 British killed, 84 wounded, and 15 missing; the Americans had 90 killed, 100 wounded, and 958 prisoners (Mahon, pp. 80-81; Jameson, p. 537, agrees that there were190 killed and wounded but suggests that there were only 900 prisoners; he inflates British losses to 130 -- which still means the Americans lost eight men for every British casualty). The only thing spoiling it for the British was the death of Brock.
In the aftermath, Van Rensselaer asked to be relieved, and Smythe (who blamed Van Renssalaer for not using his troops when he by his own actions made cooperation impossible; Mahon, p. 81) took his place and produced an even bigger mess at Fort Erie, after which he too was out of a job (Hickey, p. 88; Mahon, pp. 83-85. Mahon on p. 85 reports that his reputation after this was so bad that he was threatened by some of his own troops).
Van Rensselaer would later serve as a congressman for New York, and he founded Rensselaer Polytechnic (Jameson, p. 675), but the only officers to come out of the affair with any credit were Wool and Scott -- both of whom would actually still be around to serve not only in the Mexican War (where Scott was the commander-in-chief and Wool the second-in-command to General Taylor; Jameson, p. 725) but even in the Civil War. By contrast, "If English-speaking Canada has a national hero (and it is not a people to recognize such things readily) he is Sir Isaac Brock. Certainly it is difficult to imagine that Upper Canada could have survived without Brock's combination of sound strategy and courageous tactics" (McNaught, p. 73).
The third thrust of the American offensive, the one toward Montreal (led by Henry Dearborn), was so badly organized that it didn't start until November, never made it past the Canadian border, and at one point on the way American troops fired on each other (Hickey, p. 88). So Brock, even though dead, had won another victory -- and by doing so permanently saved Canada from American occupation. The Americans would try again in 1813 (see the notes to "The Battle of Bridgewater") but while that involved much heavier fighting, it still left the Americans on their side of the Niagara. By 1814, it was the British who were invading New England (see "The Siege of Plattsburg").
These lyrics are associated with the memorial raised to General Brock in 1824. There is no reason to believe they were ever sung.
And yes, Brock's charge is the incident Stan Rogers wrote a song about (but from the standpoint of Lt. Colonel John Mcdonell, the #2 man in the field behind Brock, who also died at Queenston). I have to dispute that song's contention that Mcdonell, had he lived, "might be what Brock became"; Brock had already done far more by his campaigns in the Ontario peninsula -- victories which had earned him a knighthood, though word had not reached Canada when he died (Borneman, p. 75). And Mcdonell would soon have been superseded by Sheaffe even had he lived. And, at best, Mcdonell might have drrven the Americans back into the river before Scott could cross. But, given how the battle turned out, that would probably have made the campaign less of a British victory. - RBW
Last updated in version 2.5
- Borneman; Walter R. Borneman, 1812: The War That Forged a Nation, Harper Collins, 2006
- Hickey: Donald R. Hickey, The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict, University of Illinois Press, 1989, 1995
- Jameson: J. Franklin Jameson's Dictionary of United States History 1492-1895, Puritan Press, 1894
- Mahon: John K. Mahon, The War of 1812, 1972 (I used the undated Da Capo paperback edition)
- McNaught: Kenneth McNaught, The Pelican History of Canada (enlarged edition, Pelican, 1982)
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