A report on the Battle of Queenston Heights, War of 1812 Re-enactment, Queenston, Ontario, October 13, 1812.
(Read a Q&A post about this piece here. This page was posted on April 23, 2013.)
Ever since his death leading an ill-fated charge at the battle of Queenston Heights in 1812, Canadian mythology has reserved a special place in its pantheon of heroes for Major-General Sir Isaac Brock. Early nationalist historians were wont to style Brock Canada’s King Leonidas, and Queenston Heights as the country’s Thermopylae, when a small band of gallant Canadians held back the invading Yankee hordes. For a supposedly unwarlike country, Canada has long made an exception for Brock: his towering 185-foot limestone sepulchre, erected on the site of the battle, is unlike any other monument in Canada. Brock alone among Canadian military heroes has a university named in his honour, his image has been engraved on coins, and dozens of biographies have appeared about his relatively short life. Thus, it is perhaps no surprise that what may have been the largest re-enactment ever held in Canada took place on October 13, 2012 to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the Battle of Queenston Heights, in which Brock was killed.
As a former employee of the Niagara Parks Commission, the government agency that oversees the Niagara River parkway, including Queenston Heights, I was given the opportunity to participate in the re-enactment. Naturally I could not refuse. Brock had been one of my childhood heroes; on a seventh grade field trip to Brock’s Monument I recall ignoring my teacher’s instructions, and with a posse of friends, running off into the woods. With stirring stories from history class of Brock and his noble steed Alfred fresh in our young minds, we imagined ourselves as the Canadian militia, charging up the Heights and fighting off the invading Americans. Now, notwithstanding pretentions of becoming a serious historian, I secretly welcomed the chance to fulfill my childhood ambition of defending Canada from the Americans. The re-enactment was organized by the Parks Commission along with Parks Canada, which manages nearby Fort George National Historic site. In total, nearly 1,000 costumed re-enactors from Canada and the United States took part, while local newspapers estimated the spectators at 15,000 strong.
I arrived at Queenston bright and early on what was a warm October morning. The battlefield, now manicured parkland, is situated atop the limestone cliffs of the Niagara Escarpment, which was often grandiosely styled the “mountain” in 1812. The setting, however, is dramatic enough, whatever one chooses to call it: the escarpment, “Heights” or mountain. To the north it overlooks the historic village of Queenston, and to the east forms a spectacular two hundred and fifty foot gorge where the Niagara River rushes through its narrowest point. The river, then as now, forms the border between Canada and the United States. In the fall of 2012 the leaves on the plentiful trees in the park were a glorious orange, red, and yellow, whereas in 1812 these grounds would have been a muddy farmer’s field, with most of the trees cleared.
In the parking lot, I met up with some of my old colleagues, who were to outfit me with my period clothing and musket. They immediately informed me that there was an acute shortage of Americans invaders. (Apparently Canadians were keener to stage this re-enactment than our neighbours.) Thus, to my horror, instead of the scarlet redcoat that I was expecting, I was handed a brown hunting frock, grey wool pants, a haversack, and other accoutrements befitting a member of the New York militia. My childhood dreams were crushed.
Fortunately my disappointment vanished when I scanned the sprawling grounds and realized the sheer size of the event: a thousand costumed re-enactors, representing not just British redcoats and Canadian militia, but women, children, Native warriors, British Indian department officials, American regular troops, American militia, merchants, blacksmiths, cobblers, tailors, musicians, fur traders, and scores of others. There were cannons, horses and sundry canvas tents erected: the whole place was a bustling hive of activity. Even a sober scholar, as I sometimes fancy myself, would have found it hard not to be taken in by the atmosphere. For good measure, there were no fewer than four re-enactors dressed as Sir Isaac Brock, one of whom was grandly mounted on horseback. Other historical figures were not forgotten: three different re-enactors dressed as the famous Six Nations leader John Norton, and there was also a lone Roger Sheaffe, Brock’s successor as commander, and a single John Macdonell, Brock’s Canadian aide-de-camp who shared his fate and now shares his resting place beneath the monument.
Since the battle re-enactment was not scheduled to begin until mid-afternoon, with my friend Blair, a fellow Parks Commission alumnus similarly attired as a member of the American militia, we wandered off into the nearby forest to retrace the footsteps of those who fought here two centuries ago. We headed down one of the trails that skirt the escarpment edge to see if we could discover exactly where the American troops daringly scaled the Heights. Historical plaques are positioned along the winding trail, explaining how the battle unfolded. Here and there, through the foliage, one catches spectacular glimpses of the Niagara River, the surrounding countryside, and in the distance, the blue waters of Lake Ontario. Turkey vultures were circling high above the swirling blue water of the gorge, as they no doubt did on that fateful day in 1812 when the fierce currents carried corpses downriver. The Americans, rowing across under the cover of darkness, had been quickly detected and pinned down by heavy fire from the Canadian shore. Trapped on the stony beach by their enemies occupying higher ground, the Americans faced a bleak situation until Captain John Wool led his beleaguered men up the seemingly unclimbable cliffs, following a secret fisherman’s trail.
Walking along the path near the edge of the gorge, we crossed paths with a tall, middle-aged man also looking for the fisherman’s trail. Seeing us dressed as American militia, he asked if we knew the location of the fabled path used to scale the Heights. As a local I had grown up fishing in the gorge, but I had never succeeded in locating the trail. Conventional wisdom held that erosion had obliterated it, and a plaque perched near the cliff edge states that it no longer exists, but I always presumed that this was just a disclaimer to discourage irresponsible tourists from trying to scale the gorge. In the spirit of re-enacting, I had resolved that the only way to know for certain if the Americans could really have climbed the cliffs here was to try it myself. My friend and the middle-aged gentleman, wisely perhaps, decided that they would observe my progress from behind the wooden railing, while I attempted to descend the gorge walls (some two hundred and fifty feet high), then return by climbing back up. It was not nearly as difficult as it looked. While there were plenty of loose rocks, gravel, and uprooted trees from erosion, clumps of sumac and other trees provided ample holds for climbing, and avoiding some poison ivy, I made the climb without too much trouble. I was winded to be sure, and my dilapidated boots were not the most appropriate footwear, but it satisfied us that we had discovered the spot where the Americans had scaled the Heights.
After this laborious diversion, Blair observed that we had better make our way back to the main grounds and find the American militia group we were supposed to join. We jogged back along the winding trail, then took a shortcut through the woods by scampering up a steep, muddy bank. We emerged out of the bushes onto a gun battery, surprising a crowd that had gathered there to listen to a costumed tour guide. It was this cannon that Captain Wool and his men captured by their daring climb, having in the process outflanked its astonished defenders. Sir Isaac Brock, realizing the position’s importance, led a doomed charge to recapture it, only to be cut down by a rifleman’s well-aimed shot. Before we could run off, some of the crowd asked to have their pictures taken with us. We obliged them, making sure to explain that we were not really Americans, just locals conscripted to the Yankee cause for the day.
Now quite late, we hurried up the slope through the woods, across grassy parkland and through a throng of spectators, wove our way between canvas tents, and finally located the re-enacting group we were to join. They were actual Americans from Ohio and New York State, not pretenders like us. Under some maple trees, we went over what we were expected to do. As it has been five years since I last did light infantry drill, I was a little apprehensive that I would make the unit look bad by messing up an order or marching out of step. My concerns, however, quickly dissipated when our officer commanded the unit to “face right,” and half the squad pivoted to their left. Fortunately, not all War of 1812 re-enactors seem to take their training too seriously. Suddenly, a nearby fife and drum corps struck up a period tune. The main event was about to begin.
To the sounds of the drums, we marched across the grounds and headed for the scene of battle, passing by Brock’s imposing monument with the massive stone figure of the General looming high above us. We were ordered to halt under the cover of some oak trees near the edge of the mountain. Cannons were already blazing out on the field; through the thick white smoke from the guns I eyed a huge crowd of spectators corralled behind yellow caution tape. Helpfully, someone was narrating the battle for the crowd on a microphone. Our officer, dressed in a blue coat as a captain in the American regular army, advised us to catch our breath before we entered the fray. But before long, in the distance across the grass field, hundreds of British redcoats emerged out of the cover of some spruce trees marching in line formation, looking like a scene out of The Patriot. On their flank was a motley collection of Canadian militia. The American infantry re-enactors now began to deploy onto the field to meet the British and Canadians. Our group was given our cue to head out in the second wave. As we marched through some oak trees and onto the field, an explosion went off to our right, showering us in dirt. Someone to my left muttered that the pyrotechnics crew had blundered, that the explosions were surely not supposed to be this close to us. An order was given for our unit to fan out light infantry style in pairs, and drop on our knees. My infantry partner Blair had several misfires; his flint was dull and not producing the shower of sparks required to ignite the gunpowder in his musket’s pan. Even though we were firing blanks, the rules were never aim our muskets at anyone. As an added precaution, ramrods are never used at re-enactments: instead, powder is just poured down the musket barrel, and then gently tapped down.
Through the smoke I could see a portly re-enactor attired in the resplendent dress of a British general emerge in front. This was the lucky fellow who was the designated Brock. Maybe he had pulled the longest straw for the coveted honour. Our officer hastily yelled for us to make sure we were ready. As “Brock” charged across the field with his sword drawn a roar of applause emanated from the partisan crowd. By some strange bit of luck, among the hundreds of re-enactors, Blair and I found ourselves deployed in the very front centre of the American line directly across from the charging Brock. Orders were given to fire a timed volley. We leveled our muskets. Blair, overcome with the excitement of the moment, forgot the rules and with undisguised glee, took aim directly at Brock. We all fired. Brock fell down as a very audible collective “awwh” echoed from the multitude.
Several British re-enactors grabbed Brock’s body and carried it off the field. True to history, the British and Canadians recoiled after the death of their commander. Cheers erupted from the American line, though not from me. I hasten to add that my silence was not because of any residual loyalty I might have felt to my childhood hero: I merely happened to be choking on some black powder, having bitten off a musket round in the wrong place. While furiously spitting out the powder from my mouth, across the smoky field the British and Canadians had regrouped. A re-enactor representing Brock’s aide-de-camp, John Macdonell, led a renewed charge, sword in hand. Sticking to the script, he too was quickly shot down and his body carried off the field. Now all the British and Canadians retreated from the field to take cover in the adjacent woods.
At this point, re-enactors portraying Native warriors, whooping loudly, entered the field to hold the Americans off. This was supposed to represent the actual phase of the battle when John Norton and his warriors kept the Americans at bay while the rest of the British forces rallied under General Sheaffe. The way it was portrayed today is very different from how things would have looked two hundred years ago. For one thing, the average age and waistline of a soldier seems to have exponentially expanded since 1812. (Re-enactors tend to be aging baby boomers able to afford an expensive hobby.) After a few exchanges of fire between the Natives and us, the full British and Canadian force returned to the field, marching shoulder-to-shoulder in line formation, representing the arrival of the British garrison from Fort George under Sheaffe. Much to the crowd’s delight, we were about to be overwhelmed.
An officer ordered us to “start taking hits.” I fired my musket one last time, then uttered a scream and fell backwards as crouching Native warriors unleashed a volley of fire in my direction. The warriors rushed across the field at us while making loud war cries, and for good measure, pretended to loot our bodies. One enthusiastic individual even had a fake scalp, which he pretended to slice off one of us. The Americans were vanquished. The crowd cheered. Then, after a few moments spent lying in wet grass, we heard the narrator announce over the microphone that the re-enactment was over, allowing me and ever one else playing dead to get back on our feet.
The re-enactors then marched over to the foot of Brock’s Monument, where politicians and other notables delivered speeches. It had begun to rain, but a large crowd still gathered to listen. The steady rain made it hard to hear, but the speeches seemed to cover the usual ground about the importance of remembering history, honouring the fallen, and celebrating the long friendship between Canada and the United States. Among the speakers was a direct descendant of General Sheaffe, who had come all the way from Australia to be here. I was later informed that he planned to speak of his ancestor’s overlooked accomplishments in the battle and to put forward the novel theory that there were really two battles that day: the one Brock lost and Sheaffe won! This heretical speech was never delivered. The General’s descendant was apparently informed that if he dared make such a suggestion in the very gaze of Brock’s Monument he would have the microphone yanked out of his hands. The keepers of Brock’s legend guard it well. Finally, with most of the crowd shivering in the rain, the Canadian national anthem was played to conclude the ceremony. The next day, a wooden casket was drawn by horses in a solemn procession to Fort George where a re-enactment of Brock’s funeral was staged. At Queenston, myth still mixes with history. The historian in me demurs on this, the boy who as a student ran off into woods delights.
~ Adam Shoalts