Sunday, April 26, 2009

The Scourge of York

The Hamilton Spectator reported this week that the city is considering allowing a new dive to the site of the Hamilton and the Scourge this summer. Both ships served in the War of 1812, and now lie in about 80 metres of water off St. Catharines. (I wrote about a recent dive to the site last year. Click here to read that post.)

Historians believe the two schooners were on hand for one of the most dramatic episodes of the war. On the morning of April 26, 1813, a massive, 14-ship American fleet appeared off York (present-day Toronto). Aboard were between 1,600 and 1,800 infantrymen under the command of Brigadier General Zebulon Pike. For months, the citizens of Upper Canada's tiny capital had been fearing just such an attack. Their worst nightmare was about to come true.

Guarding York were four companies of regulars, about 300 Canadian militiamen, and about 50 Native warriors. All were under the command of Major General Roger Hale Sheaffe. Numerically, it wasn't even close to a fair fight.

Predictably, the battle was brief, but both sides suffered heavy losses. Shortly after the landing, near today's Sunnyside Beach, the American ships unleashed a fierce bombardment with their long-range guns, pounding the cluster of wooden buildings along the shore. Sheaffe did what he could, but his men were taking heavy losses, especially after Pike ordered his troops to charge forward with their bayonets.

Sheaffe knew that victory would not be his on this day. But he had one more trick up his sleeve: as the Americans drew nearer to Fort York, he ordered his men to blow up the fort's powder magazine. This lethal maneuver killed 38 American soldiers, and injured over 200 more. The blast also fatally wounded Pike.

The Americans held York for more than a week, during which time their undisciplined troops caused a significant amount of damage. The greatest of these outrages was the burning of Upper Canada's first parliament buildings. The British and Canadians never forgot about this, according to many historians. In 1814, in one of the closing acts of the war, the British raided Washington, and held it for about a day. During this brief time, they were sure to burn down the White House and a number of other government buildings.

If they were indeed at the Battle of York, the Hamilton and Scourge would have played a pivotal role in landing men on the beach on the morning of the rout. Today, they lie in silence, under an ever-thickening blanket of zebra mussels.

To read the full Hamilton Spectator piece, click here.

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