The Battle of Queenston Heights
"I shall refrain as long as possible, under your excellency's positive injunctions, from every hostile act, although sensible that each day's delay gives (the enemy) an advantage."
British Background to the Battle of Queenston Heights
In the fall of 1812, an uneasy calm reigns along the shores of the Niagara River. There has been a standoff since the brief Dearborn-Prevost armistice ended in early September. Both the British and the Americans have used this time to secure their defensive positions while they wait for an attack.
The two commanders on the Niagara front are under pressure from their superiors. But their situations are quite different. The hesitant Stephen Van Rensselaer is dealing with an impatient President James Madison, while the headstrong Isaac Brock is being restrained by an overcautious Governor General George Prevost.
The Americans have gathered large numbers of troops along the river, many more than Brock has at his disposal. In order to respond to a potential American attack anywhere on the Niagara, Brock has had to divide his 1,600 regulars and 300 militia between Fort Erie and Fort George. Queenston, between the two forts, is lightly garrisoned. Typically, Isaac Brock remains confident about his determined, if outnumbered, army. In late September he writes:
"We have been upwards of two months in a state of warfare, and... along this widely extended frontier not a single death, either natural or by the sword should have occurred among the troops under my command... nor has a single desertion taken place."
The regular forces include companies from Brock's own regiment, the 49th Foot, as well as troops from the 41st whom Brock calls, "an uncommonly fine regiment." Local militia units, the York and Lincoln volunteers, have also earned Brock's respect. The General is particularly relieved that a group of Iroquois under John Norton and Joseph Brant's son Ah'You'wa'eghs have also decided to fight with him. The Iroquois warriors are now camped at Fort George.
On October 12, 1812, the day before the battle, British Major Thomas Evans raises a flag of truce. He crosses over to Lewiston in order to discuss a prisoner exchange with Stephen Van Rensselaer. Evans is shot at as he rows across the river and is given an unusually cautious reception. Before he returns to the Canadian side, he also notices a number of boats concealed under bushes along the river's edge. Evans becomes convinced that an attack is imminent.
Once back at Queenston, Evans leaves immediately for Fort George to report the news to Brock. He tells the batteries along the road to expect an invasion. Both Brock's aides, Glegg and Macdonell, are convinced that Evans is overreacting and Brock himself has always believed that Fort George is the most likely target for an attack. But Evans persists, and he finally convinces Brock that preparations must be made. As night falls, Brock dispatches riders from the Provincial Dragoons to alert the local militia. Before he retires to bed, all of Fort George is ready to repel the Americans.