As far as battles go, the 1813 clash between the Americans and British at Stoney Creek, Ontario was a small one to be sure. Only 4,000 men fought in the engagement; a mere 40 were killed. The British, although heavily outnumbered, wanted to take the Americans by surprise in the dead of night. Instead, the redcoats clumsily gave away their position before the first shot was fired. Both armies blundered through the ensuing pre-dawn scuffle attacking their own troops as well as the enemy’s. In the course of the 60-minute action, the two ranking American officers were captured, one by mistakenly wandering right into the British line. And when it was over, both sides were convinced that the other had won. Despite all of this, the effects of this insignificant (almost farcical) affair were far-reaching. The skirmish ended a string of successes for the Americans that might have seen U.S. go on to capture most of Upper Canada in a matter of weeks, possibly winning them the war and gaining the young republic vast new territories. But the reversal at Stoney Creek forced the U.S. onto the defensive in the Niagara theatre for the remainder of the year, possibly making the small battle one of the War of 1812’s most decisive clashes. We here at MilitaryHistoryNow.com had the chance to attend this year’s re-enactment of the Battle of Stoney Creek. Check out our pictures and let us know what you think.
Background to the real battle
In May, 1813, the United States Army launched an invasion of Upper Canada at the mouth of the Niagara River. Supported by ships of the U.S. Navy on Lake Ontario and the guns from Fort Niagara, a force of approximately 4,000 regulars and militia landed in the small town of Newark, Ontario (today Niagara-on-the-Lake) and handily captured Fort George. After a brief but bloody struggle, roughly 1,400 British redcoats and militia gave up the fort and beat a hasty retreat towards the western tip of Lake Ontario. They regrouped 40 miles away at Burlington Heights and waited for the Americans’ next move.
Once Fort George had been secured, the main body of the U.S. invasion force, 3400 troops in all, set off in pursuit of the fleeing British. The objective was to catch and finally crush the redcoats and then advance onto the capital of York (modern day Toronto), thereby seizing the entire colony and effectively winning the war that had been raging for the past year.
The invading army, under the command of Brigadier General John Chandler approached the British-held heights, and camped on the evening of June 5 at the Gage farm, 5 miles to the east near the small village of Stoney Creek.
Learning the location of the American camp from a local teenager by the name of Billy Green, the British general John Vincent ordered a daring nighttime assault on the American camp. Outnumbered more than four to one, Vincent’s small force quietly made its way in darkness to the edge of the American camp. The plan was to rush past the small body of sentries and take the sleeping American camp by surprise using only their bayonets. Vincent even ordered the British troops to remove the flints from their muskets to avoid any accidental discharges that might arouse the sleeping Americans.
Upon making contact with the American pickets just after 2 a.m., some overzealous redcoats ignored orders for silence and let out a rousing cheer. The sudden noise alerted the American camp, which formed up to meet the threat. For the next hour, both armies clumsily had at each other. In the confusion, troops from both sides attacked their own and two of the American generals, Chandler and Brigadier General William Winder, were captured by the British. Unable to force the Americans from the field, the British withdrew. As light broke over the battlefield, it revealed the bodies of 23 redcoats and 17 American soldiers.
The British limped back to Burlington Heights in defeat with more than 130 wounded to wait for the inevitable American counter attack. It never came. Although the U.S. casualties were comparatively light, the sheer brazenness of the raid as well as the continued British superiority on the lake was enough to sap the confidence of the Americans. They abandoned the invasion plan and quickly retreated to the safety of Fort George. They would remain there until the end of the year. Had the Americans pressed on the following day, it’s entirely possible that Upper Canada would have fallen.
The battlefield today
While the Battle of Stoney Creek rates as little more than minor dust up, it’s still celebrated in Canada. The Gage farmhouse was converted into a national historic site and in 1913, a monument marking the battle was erected on the grounds. Billy Green, the teenager who tipped off the British as to the whereabouts of the American camp would go one to become something of a national hero. An area school is still named in his honour. And each year, historic re-enactors from Canada and the U.S. don period costume and descended on to the battlefield park to refight the engagement on the first weekend in June.
This year’s re-enactment marked the 199th anniversary of the clash.
Do you have any pictures of the battle posted online? If so, add the link to the comments page. We’d love to see them!