Why the Americans Lost the Battle of Queenston, in the words of the losing American Major General, Stephen Van Rensselaer written the day after the historic War of 1812 battle
General Van Rensselaer writes:
"...to my utter astonishment, I found that at the very moment when complete victory was in our hands, the ardor of the unengaged troops had entirely subsided. I rode in all directions -- urged men by every consideration to pass over -- but in vain. "
The following is a transcript of the complete letter from Maj. Gen. Van Rensselaer of the New York Militia, to Maj. Gen. Henry Dearborn, transmitted by the latter to the Department of War, written the day after the battle which occurred on October 13, 1812, at Lewiston, New York & Queenston, Ontario
Published Wednesday, November 4, 1812
(original copy owned by the Lewiston Museum, Lewiston, NY)
Head-Quarters, Lewistown, October 14, 1812
Sir -- As the movements of the army under my command, since I had last the honor to address you on the 8th instant. have been of a very important character, producing consequences serious to many individuals; establishing facts actually connected with the interest of the service and the safety of the army; and as I am prominently responsible for some of these consequences, I beg leave to explain to you, sir, and through you to my country, the situation and circumstances in which I have had to act, and the reasons and motives which governed me; and if the result is not all that might have been wished, it is such, that when the whole ground shall be viewed, I shall cheerfully submit myself to the judgment of my country.
In my letter of the 8th instant, I apprized you that a crisis in this campaign was rapidly advancing; and that (to repeat the same words) "the blow must be soon stuck, or all the toil and expense of the campaign go for nothing; and worse than nothing, for the whole will be tinged with dishonor."
Under such impressions, I had on the 5th instant written to brigadier general Smyth, of the United States forces, requesting an interview with him, major general Hall, and the commandants of the United States regiments, for the purpose of conferring upon the subject of future operations. I wrote major general Hall to the same purport -- On the 11th, I received no answer from general Smyth, but in a note to me of the 10th, general Hall mentioned that general Smyth had not yet then agreed upon any day for the consultation.
In the mean time, the partial success of Lieut. Elliott, at Black Rock, (of which, however, I have received no official information) began to excite a strong disposition of the troops to act. This was expressed to me through various channels in the shape of an alternative; that they must have orders to act, or at all hazards, they would go home. I forbear here commenting upon the obvious consequences to me, personally, or longer withholding my orders under such circumstances.
I had a conference with ___ as to the possibility of getting some person to pass over to Canada and obtain correct information. On the morning of the 4th, he wrote to me that he had procured the man who bore his letter to go over. Instructions were given him; he passed over-- obtained such information as warranted an immediate attack. This was confidentially communicated to several of my first officers, and produced great zeal to act; more especially as it might have a controlling effect upon the movements at Detroit, where it was supposed general Brock had gone with all the force he dared spare from the Niagara frontier. The best preparations in my power were, therefore, made to discharge the enemy from the Heights of Queenstown, and possess ourselves of the village, where the troops might be sheltered from the distressing inclemency of the weather.
Lieut. Col. Fenwick's flying artillery, and a detachment of regular troops under his command, were ordered to be up in season from Fort Niagara. Orders were also sent to general Smyth to send down from Buffaloe such detachment of his brigade as existing circumstances in that vicinity might warrant. The attack was to have been made at 4 o'clock in the morning of the 11th , by crossing over in boats from the Old Ferry opposite the Heights. To avoid any embarrassment in crossing the river (which is here a sheet of violent eddies) experienced boatmen were procured to take the boats from the landing below to the place of embarkation. Lieut. Sim was considered the man of the greatest skill for this service. He went ahead, and in extreme darkness, passed the intended place far up the river; and there, in a most extraordinary manner, fastened his boat to the shore and abandoned the detachment. In this front boat, he had carried nearly every oar which was prepared for all the boats. In this agonizing dilemma, stood officers and men, whose ardor had not been cooled by exposure through the night to one of the most tremendous northeast storms, which continued, unabated, for twenty eight hours, and deluged the whole camp. The approach of daylight, extinguished every prospect of success, and the detachment returned to camp. Col. Van Rensselaer was to have commanded the detachment.
After this result, I had hoped the patience of the troops would have continued until I could submit the plan suggested in my letter of the 8th, that I might act under and in conformity to the opinion which might be then expressed. But my hope was idle; the previously excited ardor seemed to have gained new heat from the late miscarriage -- the brave were mortified to stop short of the object; and the timed thought laurels half won by an attempt.
On the morning of the 12th, such was the pressure upon me from all quarters, that I became satisfied that my refusal to act might involve me in suspicion and the service in disgrace.
Viewing affairs in Buffaloe as yet unsettled, I had immediately countermanded the march of general Smyth's brigade, upon the failure of the first expedition; but having now determined to attack Queenstown, I sent new orders to general Smyth to march; not with the view of his aid the attack, for I considered the force detached sufficient, but to support the detachment should the conflict be obstinate or long continued. Lieut. Colonel Christie, who had just arrived at the Four Milk Creek, had late in the night of the first contemplated attack, gallantly offered me his own and his men's service; but he got my permission too late. He now again came forward; had a conference with colonel Van Rensselaer, and begged that he might have the honor of a command in the expedition. The arrangement was made. Col. Van Rensselaer was to command one column of 300 militia; and lieut. col. Christie a column of the same number of regular troops.
Every precaution was now adopted as to boats; and the most confidential and experienced men to manage them. At an early hour in the night, lieut, colonel Christie marched his detachment, by the rear road, from Niagara to Camp. At 7 in the evening lieut. col. Stranalian's regiment moved from Niagara Falls-- at 8 o'clock, Mead's -- and at 9, lieut. colonel Blan's regiment marched from the same place. All were in camp in good seaon. -- Agreeably to my orders issued upon this occasion, the two columns were to pass over together; and as soon as the heights should be carried, lieut. colonel Fenwick's flying artillery was to pass over; then major Mullany's detachment of regulars; and the other troops to follow in order.
At dawn of the day the boats were in readiness, and the troops commenced embarking, under the cover of a commanding battery, mounting 2 eight pounders and 2 sixers. The movement was soon discovered and a brisk fire of musketry was poured from the whole line of the Canada shore. Our battery then opened to sweep the shore; but it was, for some minutes, too dark to direct much fire with safety. A brisk cannonade was now opened upon the boats from 3 different batteries-- our battery returned their fire and occasionally threw grape upon the shore, and was itself served with shells from a small mortar of the enemy's. -- Colonel Scott of the artillery, by hastening his march from the Niagara Falls in the night, arrived in season to return the enemy's fire with 2 six pounders.
The boats were somewhat embarrassed with the eddies, as well as with the shower of shot; but colonel Van Rensselaer, with about 400 men, soon effected his landing amidst a tremendous fire directed upon him from every point; but to the astonishment of all who witnessed the scene, this van of the column advanced slowly against the fire. It was a serious misfortune to the van, and indeed to the whole expedition, that in a few minutes after landing, col. Van Rensselear received four wounds -- a ball passed through his right thigh, entering just below the hip bone -- another shot passed through the same thigh, a little below -- the third through the calf of his left leg -- and a fourth cartused his heel. This was quite a crisis in the expedition. Under so severe a fire it was difficult to form raw troops. By some mismanagement of the boatmen, lieut. col. Christie did not arrive until some time after this, and was wounded in the hand in passing the river. Col. Van Rensselaer was still able to stand; and with great presence of mind ordered his officers to proceed with rapidity and storm the fort. This service was gallantly performed, and the enemy driven down the hill in every direction. Soon after this both parties were considerably reinforced, and the conflict was renewed in various places -- many of the enemy took shelter behind a stone guardhouse, where a piece of ordinance was now briskly served. I ordered the fire of our battery directed upon the guardhouse; and it was so effectually done, that with 8 or 10 shot the fire was silenced. The enemy then retreated behind a large storehouse; but in a short time the route became general, and the enemy's fire was silenced except from a one gun battery, so far down the river as to be out of reach of our heavy ordinance, and our light pieces could not silence it. A number of boats now passed over unannoyed, except from the one unsilenced gun. For some time after I passed over, the victory appeared complete : but in the expectation of further attacks, I was taking measures for fortifying my camp immediately -- the direction of this service I committed to lieut. Totten, of the engineers. But very soon the enemy were reinforced by a detachment of several hundred Indians from Chipawa -- they commenced a furious attack; but were promptly met and routed by the rifle and bayonet. By this time, I perceived my troops were embarking very slowly. I passed immediately over to accelerate their movements, but to my utter astonishment, I found that at the very moment when complete victory was in our hands, the ardor of the unengaged troops had entirely subsided. I rode in all directions -- urged men by every consideration to pass over -- but in vain. Lieut. col. Bloom, who had been wounded in action, returned, mounted his horse and rode through the camp, as did Judge Peck, who happened to be here, exhorting the companies to proceed -- but all in vain.
At this time a large reinforcement from Fort George were discovered coming up the river. As the battery on the hill was considered an important check against their ascending the heights, measures were immediately taken to send them a fresh supply of ammunition, as I had learnt there were left only 20 shot for the 18 pounders. The reinforcements, however, obliqued to the right from the road, and formed a junction with the Indians in the rear of the heights. Finding to my infinite mortification, that no reinforcement would pass over, seeing that another severe conflict must soon commence; and knowing that the brave men on the heights were exhausted and nearly out of ammunition, all I could do was to send them a fresh supply of cartridges. At this critical moment I dispatched a note to Gen. Wadsworth, acquainting him with our situation -- leaving the course to be pursued much to his judgment -- with assurance that if tho't best to retreat, I would endeavor to send as many boats as I could command, and cover his retreat by every fire I could safely make. But the boats were dispersed -- many of the boatmen had fled, panic struck -- and but few got off. But my note could but little more than reached Gen. W. about 4 o'clock, when a most severe and obstinate conflict commenced and continued about half an hour, with a tremendous fire of cannon, flying artillery and musketry. The enemy succeeded in re-possessing their battery, and gaining advantage on every side, the brave men who had gained the victory, exhausted of strength and ammunition, and grieved at the unpardonable neglect of their fellow soldiers, gave up the conflict.
I can only add that victory was really won; but lost for the want of a small reinforcement. One third part of the idle men might have saved all.
I have been so pressed with the various duties of burying the dead, providing for the wounded, collecting the public property, negotiating an exchange of prisoners, and all the concerns consequent of such a battle, that I have not been able to forward this dispatch at as early an hour as I could have wished. I shall soon forward you another dispatch in which I shall endeavor to point out to you the conduct of some gallant and deserving officers. But I cannot in justice close this without expressing the very great obligation I am under to Brig. Gen. Wadsworth, Col. Van Rensselaer, Col. Scott, L. Col. Christie and Fenwick, and Captain Gibson. Many others have also behaved most gallantly. As I have reason to believe that many of our troops fled to the woods, with the hope of crossing the river, I have not been able to learn the probable number of killed, wounded or prisoners. The slaughter of our troops must have been very considerable. And the enemy suffered very severely.
General Brock is among their slain, and his Aid-de-camp mortally wounded.
I have the honor to be, sir, with great respect your most obedient servant.
(Signed) STN. VAN RENSSELAER,
(to) Major General Dearborn