The Battle of Stoney Creek was fought in the pre-dawn hours of June 6th, 1813. The battle saw an attack of approximately 700 British soldiers on a much larger force of 3,500 Americans. Although losses on both sides were small, the British did manage to capture two American Brigadier-Generals and caused enough confusion in the American ranks that the American force retreated. Subsequent harassment by the British forces led to the Americans retreating back to Fort George and prevented a deeper penetration of American forces into Upper Canada (now Ontario) from the Niagara frontier. The Battle of Stoney Creek represents the last time the American army seriously threatened the people living in the communities in and around Hamilton.
We invite you to click on the video links to see the battle unfold and learn about why it happened, who fought in it and its place in the wider story of the War of 1812.
On May 27th, 1813 an American force successfully took Fort George, near modern day Niagara-on-the-Lake. This forced the British to evacuate the Fort quickly and retreat deeper into Upper Canada (now Ontario). The destination of the defeated British force was Burlington Heights, at the head of Lake Ontario. Burlington Heights is now the location of Dundurn Castle in Hamilton Ontario, although at the time it was a farm owned by Richard Beasley.
The British forces arrived at Burlington Heights on May 29th and their commanding officer signed an agreement with Richard Beasley for the use of his property. This included Beasley’s farmland, barn, wharf and storehouse, other outbuildings and his house, which the officers used as their quarters.
Although on a high point of land overlooking Burlington Bay and surrounded by water on three sides, Burlington Heights had to be fortified to be defensible. The British cut and placed tree limbs in front of an already existing mounded fence line to assist in the defense of Burlington Heights, but the British commanders knew their defenses were not all that strong.
Essentially farmland with a house, a few barns and other outbuildings, for most soldiers, the only housing to be found at Burlington Heights was in tents. Used to a mobile army, the British had well-established rules to govern the layout of an encampment. Tents were laid out in orderly rows to ensure easy access and to reduce confusion. Soldiers were expected to maintain everything in a neat and well-ordered manner.
The encampment at Burlington Heights was not limited to soldiers, but also included women and children. A soldier had to apply for the right to marry and only about six out of every 100 men were granted this right. Wives and children of soldiers were fed from army rations and were allowed to sleep in camp. The women did much of the cooking, sewing and cleaning needed by the army regulars.
In addition to the wives and children of soldiers, Native Allies were present at Burlington Heights and fought alongside the British. They were especially feared on the battlefield. Members of local militia regiments were also present. Burlington Heights was also likely home to refugees, made homeless as a result of other battles fought during the War of 1812.
Having defeated the British at Fort George, near modern day Niagara-on-the-Lake, the American forces pursued the British deeper into Upper Canada (now Ontario). The American force was unable to overtake the retreating British before the latter arrived at Burlington Heights. Both sides expected that the Americans would then attack the British at Burlington Heights.
Prior to moving on Burlington Heights the American force stopped in Stoney Creek, about seven miles (12 kilometers) east of the British location. American soldiers camped in tents on the Gage family farm and some of the officers used the farmhouse as their quarters.
According to local legend the Gage family were locked either in the cellar or the attic of the house while the Americans occupied the property. It is also possible they were simply turned out of the home and forced to find accommodation elsewhere.
The American encampment looked fairly similar to its British counterpart. Some of the officers were housed in the Gage home, while the soldiers were housed in tents. The American encampment included women and children but did not include refugees, nor did the Americans have any Native Allies with them. Like the British, the American forces slept in canvas tents arranged in rows.
The British knew the Americans were encamped at Stoney Creek but were not aware of the exact number or disposition of their forces. This vital information was needed by the British in order to decide how to respond to the threat posed by the Americans. Brigadier General John Vincent ordered his deputy, Lieutenant Colonel John Harvey, to reconnoiter the American positions and suggest an appropriate response. Harvey recommended a night attack on the Americans because in his words,
the enemy's guards were few and negligent; his line of encampment was long and broken; his artillery was feebly supported; several of his corps were placed too far to the rear to aid in repelling a blow which might be rapidly struck in front.
When the British arrived at Burlington Heights, they set about building defenses because they expected the Americans to attack them. They also knew the American force outnumbered them so the British commanding officer, Brigadier General John Vincent, began planning a defensive strategy while sending his deputy, Lieutenant Colonel John Harvey, to gather more information about the American forces. Harvey realized that a successful defense of Burlington Heights might not be possible but that a surprise attack on the American force might cause enough confusion to allow the British to win. This would be more effective if the British attacked the Americans at night.
In order to carry out his plan for a night attack, Harvey first had to convince his commanding officer. The fact that Vincent agreed illustrates the relationship between himself and Harvey. Essentially Vincent is agreeing to try a risky plan that could well fail, and if it does fail, will deprive him of some of the troops he needs to defend Burlington Heights. Vincent places Harvey in command of the attack on the Americans at Stoney Creek.
On the night and early morning of June 5th/6th, 704 men under the command of Colonel John Harvey, advanced to Stoney Creek to attack a force of over 3,000 Americans. Heavily outnumbered the British were relying on superior discipline and preparedness and on catching the Americans by surprise. By attacking at night the British were hoping to hide their true numbers from the Americans and to create as much confusion as possible in the American ranks. The first goal of the attack was to get to Stoney Creek without being noticed and deny the American’s the opportunity to raise the alarm and prepare for the battle. The British advance had to be stealthy and above all else quiet.
Having made their way past the first series of sentries the British quietly crept up to the Methodist Meeting House situated to the west of the Gage homestead in what is known today as the Stoney Creek Cemetery. Having overcome or bayoneted at least four sentries and armed with the countersign, men of the 49th Regiment of Foot captured the sentries outside and then entered the church, and attacked the sleeping members of the American 1st Rifle Regiment. With orders to remain alert and post sentries, the Riflemen had apparently entered the Meeting House and promptly gone to sleep. Many of the American Riflemen surrendered; however, as one British soldier indicates, a number of them, woke up in another world, dispatched by British bayonets. Accurately characterized as a burglarious assault, the leading edge of the British attack had stealthily made it to within 300 yards of the main American encampment without raising an alarm.
The War of 1812 was not fought exclusively by people of European descent. Native peoples were also involved and many fought for the British. Those aligned to the British were referred to as His Majesty’s Indian Allies. According to Captain John Norton, a man of mixed Cherokee and Scottish descent, a handful of Six Nations warriors were part of the British contingent at Stoney Creek. The presence of Native warriors on the battlefield was almost always an important factor in determining the outcome of a battle. Historically, the style of warfare engaged in by First Nations had often been referred to as “savage” by white observers. Wildly screaming warriors, fearsomely painted brandishing tomahawks and scalping knives, instilled terror in the hearts of the Americans.
The Battle of Stoney Creek was fought in the very early hours of June 6, 1813 and lasted about forty-five minutes. The darkness resulted in a level of confusion on the battlefield that the British were counting on. With just seven hundred soldiers, compared to three thousand Americans, the British were relying on the element of surprise and greater discipline to win the day. It is unknown whether the goal of the attack was for the British to achieve a decisive victory or simply to cause enough confusion and damage to the American forces so that they would be less effective in future engagements.
Vastly outnumbered, victory initially seemed unlikely for the British, however a series of American mistakes turned the battle around. Colonel James Burn, the American Light Cavalry commander, ordered his men to charge but in their confusion found themselves running down their own troops. The Americans also failed to support their artillery with infantry, allowing the British to capture the guns. The capture of the guns led to American Generals John Chandler and William Winder arriving to investigate. Both were subsequently captured along with at least three guns. The loss of the American commanding officers left Colonel Burn in charge. Without experience in leading such a large body of men he elected to retreat towards Niagara. The British having succeeded in causing confusion in the American ranks and having captured the American Generals, retreated to Burlington Heights to await a counter attack which never came.
The American artillery was located on a small rise of land just north-east of the Gage home. This piece of property is now known as the Battlefield Cemetery at Smith’s Knoll. During the course of the battle the Americans made two tactical mistakes which allowed the British to capture the artillery. First the Americans failed to support the artillery with infantry. Secondly, the American artillery fired in quick succession, allowing the British to ascertain the location of the guns. Once they knew where the guns were located the British quickly acted to capture them as this removed an important advantage for the Americans. Major Charles Plenderleath, the commanding officer of the British 49th Regiment gathered 20 to 30 men, ordered them to fix bayonets and charged the artillery battery. As historian James Elliott indicates,
With bayonets charged, the little party set off down the road at a run reverting to the most basic form of warfare when man-to-man combat with edged weapons was the standard and impromptu charges the norm. Certainly there was little in Formation, Field Exercises and Movements of His Majesty’s Forces governing middle-of-the-night headlong dashes against enemy artillery.
Had the Americans been quick to respond it is possible they could have prevented this attack by firing their field guns on the British advance. This was not to be the case and the British were able to capture the guns and bayonet the American defenders.
An unexpected result of the British capture of the American artillery was the capture of two American Generals. Neither Brigadier General John Chandler nor Brigadier General William Winder were present when the guns were taken, but both heard the commotion that was caused and both went to investigate with the intention to instill order into their artillery troops. Unfortunately this meant both American Generals walked into a heavy British presence and were taken captive. This action denied the American forces their leadership and was one of the most significant events of the Battle.
When the battle was over, it was not really clear who had won. The British had captured two American Generals but were still significantly fewer in number than the Americans. Not wanting to give the Americans time to regroup and fight in the daylight, the British retreated to Burlington Heights. The Americans had also retreated a short distance from the battlefield. It is possible the Americans could have pressed the attack but they chose to retreat to 40 Mile Creek at the Lake Ontario shoreline, where Grimsby is today. American reinforcements joined the shaken contingent; however, in the end a cannonading by the Royal Navy Lake Ontario squadron helped to convince the American army to retreat back towards Niagara, pursued by British regulars, militia and Native warriors. It is only in retrospect that the importance of the battle became obvious. Constant harassing pressure by British forces contained any American attempts to press westward towards the Head of the Lake. The Battle of Stoney Creek proved to be the last time the American army would penetrate so deeply into Upper Canada from the Niagara River frontier.
As a result of the Battle of Stoney Creek, 23 British soldiers were killed, 136 were wounded and 55 were listed as missing, with the majority of these men captured by the Americans. The American forces saw 17 men killed, 38 wounded and 7 officers captured, including Brigadier Generals Chandler and Winder. Ninety-three enlisted men were also listed as missing, all captured by the British.
Historian A.R.M. Lower sums up the War of 1812 as,
a succession of timorous advances and hasty retreats, of muddle-headed planning and incompetent generalship, interspersed with a few sharp actions and adroit manoeuvres which reflected credit on a few individuals and discredit on many.
While Lower is essentially correct in his summation, it does nothing to reduce the significance of the battle which resonates like no other historical event in Stoney Creek, the City of Hamilton and the surrounding region. The battle lives on long after it occurred in the minds of the people of this community because of the annual battle reenactment which is the longest continuously running War of 1812 reenactment in North America. It lives on because of the monument erected on the centennial in 1913. It lives on because of the monument at the Battlefield Cemetery at Smith’s Knoll: the final resting place of American and British soldiers who gave their lives 200 years ago.