The Battle of York

Backgrounder / April 27, 2013 / Project number: BG 13.006

At the beginning of the War of 1812, York, the provincial capital of Upper Canada (and present day Toronto), was only lightly garrisoned by the British army, even though a strategically important shipbuilding yard had been established in Toronto Harbour. It was considered too isolated and Lake Ontario too well protected by the small, but capable Provincial Marine to be attacked by the Americans.

However, during the autumn of 1812, the American navy had completed considerable work at their main naval base on Lake Ontario, Sackets Harbor, New York. By the early spring of 1813, the American navy had a more powerful presence on Lake Ontario than the British fleet based at Kingston.

The Capture of York

The Americans appeared off York late on April 26, 1813. American Navy Commodore Isaac Chauncey's fighting squadron consisted of a ship-rigged corvette, a brig and twelve schooners. The embarked force commanded by Brigadier General Zebulon Pike comprised approximately 1700 soldiers.

The defences at York consisted of a fort a short distance west of the town, with the nearby Government House Battery mounting two 12-pounder guns. A mile (1.6 km) west was the crude Western Battery with two obsolete 18-pounder guns. Major-General Roger Hale Sheaffe, who succeeded Major-General Sir Isaac Brock as Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, had 300 British regulars, 500 soldiers from the 1st and 3rd Regiments of York Militia, and 50 Mississaugas and Chippewas First Nations allies under his command.

Early on April 27, the first American wave of boats landed about four miles (6.4 km) west of the town, supported by some of Chauncey's schooners firing grapeshot. A small group of First Nations warriors were defending the shore. Outflanked, they retreated into the woods after putting up a stiff resistance.

As three more companies of American infantry landed, the grenadier company of the 8th (The King's) Regiment of Foot charged with bayonets fixed. The grenadiers were already outnumbered and were driven back with heavy losses. A subsequent American advance drove back the other two companies of Major-General Sheaffe's redcoats (another company of the 8th Regiment and one from the Royal Newfoundland Regiment of Fencible Infantry).

The American force advanced towards the British, who were rallied around the Western Battery, while Commodore Chauncey’s schooners bombarded the fort and Government House battery. Major-General Sheaffe ordered his regulars to retreat—setting fire to naval stores and a ship under construction (HMS Sir Isaac Brock, after the general, who had been killed at the Battle of Queenston Heights the previous October), also exploding the fort’s main powder magazine as they abandoned the garrison. Brigadier General Pike and 38 American soldiers were killed in the explosion of stones and debris, and 222 others were wounded. British casualties were also heavy, with more than 150 killed and wounded, and 290 captured.

The Americans accepted the surrender of York, occupied the town for a few days, burned government buildings including Parliament and the shipyard, and then returned to Sackets Harbour. For the Americans, the Capture of York was a politically important victory. Following months of ineffective campaigning, it was a much-needed boost to both military and civilian morale.

When the British reoccupied York, they began building a new fortification on the ruins of the earlier installation. The defences and gun batteries were powerful enough by August 1814 to prevent an American flotilla from entering the harbour.

The perpetuation of units that fought in the Battle of York

Only one current day unit perpetuates the historic units that fought in the Battle of York, and that is The Queen’s York Rangers (1st American Regiment) (Royal Canadian Armoured Corps). This Toronto region unit perpetuates the Battalion of Incorporated Militia of Upper Canada, the 1st Regiment of York Militia (1812-15), and the 3rd Regiment of York Militia (1812-15). In addition, a few other Canadian militia units fought in the battle and have historic ties to current day units, and this information can be found in the War of 1812 Canadian Awards Sorted by Current Units backgrounder

Fort York National Historic Site

Built in 1793, Fort York National Historic Site is the birthplace of urban Toronto. It is best known as the location where the Battle of York came to its violent climax in 1813 during the War of 1812. The Fort served as the city's primary harbour defence between the 1790s and the 1880s, and was the home of a military garrison until the 1930s.

Today, its defensive walls enclose Canada's largest collection of original War of 1812 buildings. Every year, thousands of people visit the site to explore its fascinating history and enjoy its public programs.

For more information on Fort York National Historic Site, please visit the Toronto’s Historic Museums.

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Notes to editor / news director: For more information, please contact Captain Indira Thackorie, Public Affairs Officer, 416-633-6200 x 5509, cell phone 647-920-9231 or by emailing indira.thackorie@forces.gc.ca.

Photographs of this event can be viewed and downloaded at the Canadian Armed Forces Flickr page.

For more information, please consult The Battle of York Backgrounder.

For further information on the War of 1812 history of Canadian units, please consult the War of 1812 Battle Honours backgrounder.   

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