The Battle of Queenston Heights
"The blow must be struck soon or all the toil and expense of the campaign will go for nothing and...it would be tinged with dishonor."
The Americans at Queenston HeightsColonels Solomon Van Rensselaer and John Chrystie push off from the Lewiston shore just after 3 am on October 13, 1812. Their troops have only received vague instructions: take Queenston Heights and gain control of the village. These orders have not inspired the men with confidence. The 13 boats carry 300 regulars under Chrystie and an equal number of militia under Van Rensselaer. They only have to cross 200 yards of water to reach Canada.
The sound of creaking oarlocks alerts the watchful British troops and a shower of bullets sprays down on the river. The British cannon soon open up and begin trying to pick off the boats before they reach the shore. For many, the short journey seems interminable.
Only ten of the boats reach the opposite shore. Colonel Chrystie's boat has been damaged and carried downriver. Once on shore, the Americans become pinned down on the beach. They watch helplessly as boats with reinforcements drift downriver and are captured. Several American officers are wounded by rifle fire, including Solomon Van Rensselaer who watches his attack begin to unravel.
Twenty-four year old American Captain John Wool proposes a plan which might allow them to outflank the enemy. He has heard of a fisherman's path which leads up the steep cliffs to near where the British are manning an 18-pounder. Wool leads 150 men up the path and positions them in the woods behind the artillery piece. In the early morning light, they can see that the gun is only lightly manned. Their charge surprises the British, who manage to spike the gun and retreat.
Wool's capture of the Heights turns the battle in favour of the Americans, who drive the British off the escarpment and kill General Isaac Brock. The silenced artillery allows more U.S. troops to cross the river safely and the British are pushed back to the north end of Queenston. By this time, the young Lieutenant Colonel Winfield Scott has arrived and taken command. He secures his position on the Heights and looks expectantly towards the American shore where over 1,000 militia should be readying to cross.
On the American side of the river, things are not going according to plan. Major General Van Rensselaer's fears have been confirmed. Not only has General Smyth not launched the crucial attack from Buffalo, but he has refused to send reinforcements to Lewiston. To add to Van Rensselaer's frustration, by noon only six boats are still fit to make the crossing. Colonel Chrystie later remembers the situation like this:
"A scene of confusion hardly to be described; no person being charged with directing the boats and embarkation or with the government of the boatmen... some would occasionally hurry into a boat as they could find one, cross and leave it on the shore, perhaps to go adrift or else to be brought back by the wounded and their attendants."