May 29, 1813
Sir James Yeo, of the British fleet on Lake Ontario, had developed a plan to reconnoitre the American’s at their Sackett’s Harbour (New York State) location and then to report his findings to Sir George Prevost. Yeo reported on May 27th, 1813, that the entire enemy’s fleet was absent from Sackett’s Harbour as they were engaged at Niagara where a few days earlier they had captured Fort George. James Yeo strongly recommended that the British and Canadian forces proceed to Sackett’s Harbour in great haste in order to take possession of any and all ships and stores in order to destroy them.
Sir George made immediate arrangements to have his troops embark on various batteaux and small watercraft by sunset on the evening of May 27th. They proceeded to join all the British ships waiting at anchor in the mouth of the harbour at Kingston, Upper Canada. George Prevost himself boarded the Wolfe, with many of his troops still in their smaller boats strapped to the side of the British ship, where they all ended up remaining throughout the night. Prevost had initially intended to immediately sail toward the Americans and arrive at Sackett’s by early morning and attack by daylight. Unfortunately there was no wind throughout the midnight hours and it wasn’t until early afternoon on May 28th, 1813, that they finally laid their eyes on Sackett’s Harbour.
The British force consisted of one company of Glengarry Light Infantry (46 in number), two companies of the Canadian Voltigeurs (120 in number), a single detachment of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment (unknown number), a single section of the 1st (Royal Scots) Regiment (25 in number), two companies of the 8th King’s Regiment (200 in number), a grenadier company of the 100th Regiment (56 in number), four companies of the 104th Regiment (330 in number), two six- pounders complete with gunners, and Royal Marines. The total number of men was estimated at nearly 800.
Sackett’s Harbour, according to one of James Yeo’s returns, was located as follows: “Sackett’s Harbor bears from Kingston, on Lake Ontario, south by east; distant in a straight course, twenty-five, but, by a ships course, thirty-five miles. It stands on the south-east side of an expansion of the Black River, near to where it flows into Hungry Bay. The harbor is small, but well sheltered. From the north-west runs out a low point of land, upon which is a dock-yard, with large stone houses, and all the buildings requisite for such an establishment. Upon this point there is a strong work called Fort Tomkins; having within a block-house, two stories high: on the land side it is covered by a strong picketing, in which there are embrasures. At the bottom of the harbor is the village, consisting of sixty or seventy houses: to the southward of it is a barrack, capable of containing two thousand men, and generally used for the marines belonging to the fleet. On a point eastward of the harbor, stands Fort Pike, surrounded by a ditch, in advance of which there is a strong line of picketing. About one hundred yards from the village, and a little to the westward of Fort Tomkins, is Smith’s cantonment, or barracks, capable of containing two thousand five hundred strong; it is strongly built of logs, forming a square, with a block-house at each corner, and is loop-holed on every side.”
When the British reached their objective the wind was light and favourable and it allowed for the vessels to ‘stand in’ or ‘stand from’ the shore. Prevost was on the lead vessel, the Wolfe, and it, therefore, stood in towards the shore until it was nearly 2 miles away. By positioning themselves as such they were able to observe the position(s) of the enemy. Seeing very little threat the ships were ‘hove to’ and the troops were put into boats where they anxiously waited for the signal to land and attack. During this process the wind fought the British, slowing them down. It deprived them of the advantage they had hoped to maintain. Throughout the entire British exercise alarm guns were constantly being fired from the various batteries on shore but also from two American schooners that had made their way a short distance out of the harbour. The British could see, quite clearly, the Americans that had been left at Sackett’s. They assembled near the barracks buildings and were loaded into approximately twenty batteaux. They then began to row down near the shoreline.
After nearly half an hour, waiting in suspense, the troops were then given orders to return and board the fleet! The exercise was completed and they then prepared to return to Kingston. It seems that the British commander of the expedition, Col. Baynes, had decided that the attempt would no longer be successful.
Let’s read what James Yeo later wrote when recalling what happened next: ” About forty Indians, in their canoes, had accompanied the expedition. Dissatisfied at being called back without effecting anything, particularly as their unsophisticated minds could devise no reason for abandoning the enterprise, they steered round Stony Point, and discovering a party of troops on the American shore, fearlessly paddled into attack them. These consisted of about seventy dismounted dragoons, who had just been landed from twelve boats, which, along with seven others that had pulled past the point and escaped, were on their way to Sackett’s Harbor. As soon as the American troops saw the Indians advancing, they hoisted a white flag, as a signal to the British vessels for protection. The latter immediately hove to, and Lieutenant Dobbs, first of the Wolfe, stood in with the ships boats, and brought off the American dragoons, along with their 12 batteaux. This fortuitous capture was deemed an auspicious omen; and Sir George Prevost determined to stand back to Sackett’s Harbor.”
After much deliberation with Col. Young, Col. Gray, and others, Col. Baynes decided that an attempt should be made. The landing was, therefore, deferred until the very next morning. As the British settled in for one more evening the Americans raised the alarm and pulled back a detachment of their troops who had been posted on Horse Island located at the mouth of the harbour. They were repositioned opposite a ford on the mainland where a body of militia, under General Brown, reinforced and prepare them for an attack. The British delay also allowed the Americans to call upon all the immediate neighbouring counties and their militias. As many available militiamen as possible began moving toward Sackett’s Harbour to defend it from the British and Canadians.
Col. Baynes later recorded, from Kingston, on May 30, 1813, the following account of the battle at Sackett’s Harbour: “I have the honor to report to Your Excellency that in conformity to an arranged plan of operations with Commodore Sir James Yeo, the fleet of boats assembled astern of his ship at 10 o’clock on the night of the 28th instant with the troops placed under my command, and led by a gunboat under the direction of Captain Mulcaster, Royal Navy, proceeded towards Sackett’s Harbor in the order prescribed to the troops in case the detachment was obliged to march in column,…” “The grenadier company, 100th, with one section of the Royal Scots, two companies of the 8th (or Kings,) four of the 104th, two of the Canadian Voltigeurs, two six pounders with their gunners and the company of Glengarry Light Infantry, were embarked on board a light schooner, which was proposed to be towed, under the direction of officers of the Navy, so as to ensure the guns being landed in time to support the advance of the troops. Although the night was dark with rain, the boats assembled in the vicinity of Sackett’s Harbor by one o’clock in compact and regular order, and in this position it was intended to remain until the day broke, in the hope of effecting a landing before the enemy could be prepared to line the woods with troops, which surround the coast, but unfortunately a strong current drifted the boats considerably, while the darkness of the night and ignorance of the coast prevented them from recovering the proper station until the day dawned, when the whole pulled for the point of debarkation.”
Baynes hoped to land his British troops in the cove formed by Horse Island. Upon his approach he was met with heavy musket fire from the well-prepared American troops who were supported by a field piece. Baynes directed his boats to pull around to the other side of Horse Island and it was here that they were able to land with very little loss. It was the Grenadiers of the 100th Regiment that gallantly led the advance even under the fire of a heavy gun from the enemy’s battery. Much of the causeway that the British followed was under water and it was only 4 feet wide and just over 1000 feet long. It was their only connection to the mainland and the enemy occupied it in great force and with the support of another six-pounder. The British were successful in pushing the Americans back and taking their gun on the causeway. Under extremely heavy fire, and with the Royal artillery still to the rear, the Grenadiers left the American gun behind and pushed forward. As they reached the mainland a hill was in front of them with 2 pathways leading in opposite directions around it.
Col. Young of the 8th Regiment, with half a detachment, was instructed to take the path to the left, while Major Drummond of the 104th took his men on the path to the right. Young encountered very thick woods and much of the enemy’s force while Drummond was able to move more quickly since his path was less occupied.
The Royal Marines in the British gunboats assisted both advancing parties by firing into the woods, which seemed to be of little effect. It seemed as though hundreds of Americans fled from the advance of the British and upon seeing this a cease-fire was called. The British now formed into a regular order and advanced through the woods. The Americans retreated quickly toward their fort and blockhouse while being supported by both field pieces and heavy fire from the fort. Young’s division lead the charge and was joined by Major Drummond where they roused the enemy from one of the barracks and then set it on fire. This action renewed the energies of the Americans who had fortified their battery and blockhouse and in these two locations they stayed and took refuge. They could not be removed.
The British retired to a position at the bottom of the hill located at the end of the causeway. Here, they were given instruction to reform lines, supplied with ammunition and with a collective force of only 300 men they advanced into lines upon the right and the left of the enemy. The British sustained a very heavy and destructive fire. The 8th, 100th, and part of the 104th, stationed on the left, were able to penetrate one of the remaining barracks where they were able to take a piece of ordinance and upon doing so took shelter behind the Barracks where they prepared for another advance. At this time the enemy then turned their heavy guns upon the British right with fierce barrages.
The British right of the line was perched on higher ground amid logs and stumps. Here they received tremendous fire and to a civilian, Mr. Brenton, who had accompanied George Prevost, it appeared “,… that shot, both grape and musket, flew like hail.” Brenton went on to say that George Prevost was given a telescope through which to observe the American position. They tried “,… to fix it on a stump when a shower of grape covered us, a ball falling within a yard or two of him [Prevost]. At this time those who were left of the troops behind the barracks made a dash out to charge the enemy, but the fire was so destructive they were instantly turned by it, and the retreat was sounded. Sir George,… called out repeatedly to them to retire in order. Many, however, made off as fast as they could. We retired with the hindermost, nor was it, I assure you, with a quickstep, though showers of grape were falling about us. Fortunately the enemy did not attempt a pursuit, but contented themselves with discharging musketry and ordinance along the road and through the wood, as long as they thought they could reach us.”
As the British retreat began the Americans turned their guns upon their own naval stores and set fire to them. Many within the British and Canadian ranks had fallen and were disabled or killed. The British re-embarked and the enemy did not attempt to interrupt them.
The Canadian Archives contains what are known as the Freer Papers (Captain Noah Freer) from 1813. In these papers a British account of the conclusion of the battle is as follows: “We brought off all our men except a few wounded who fell near the scene of the last attack, together with a brass field-piece, some arms, tent equipage and about 25 prisoners. We reached the ship about 9 o’clock A. M., the attack having lasted about four hours. Captain Grey fell in the last attack and his body remained in their possession. Our loss in killed and wounded is near 200. The enemy’s force cannot have been less than 3000 as they received a reinforcement of 700 that morning. I think we may boast of having accomplished much in compelling them to burn their stores and in taking three guns, one of which remains in our possession. Their loss must have been considerable. We hear they lost one Colonel.”
The following is a list of those British, and Canadians, who commanded:
- The Left Division: Col. Young, Kings 8th Regiment
- The Right Division: Major Drummond, 104th Regiment
- Kings 8th Regiment: Major Evans
- British Grenadiers (100th): Captain Burke
- 104th Regiment: Major Moody
- Glengarry Light Infantry: Captain McPherson, and then Major Heriot
- Canadian Voltigeurs: Major Heriot
- The British Fleet: Commodore Sir James Yeo
Col. Baynes also reported that the “,… levies of the British Provinces of North America (Glengarry Light Infantry and Canadian Voltigeurs), evinced most striking proofs of their loyalty, steadiness and courage.”
Major-General Jacob Brown (American army), on June 1st, 1813, reported to Governor Tompkins that,… “About 400 of the regular troops sustained the heat of the action. These consisted chiefly of the 1st Light Dragoons, some of the 9th and 25th and a few of the 23rd Infantry and 3rd Light Artillery.”
British and Canadian losses as a result of the attack at Sacketts’ Harbour were as follows: Total Killed: 1 deputy assistant quartermaster-general, 3 sergeants, and 44 rank and file. Total Wounded: 3 majors, 3 captains, 5 lieutenants, 1 ensign, 7 sergeants, 2 drummers, 172 rank and file, and 2 gunners. Wounded and Missing: 2 captains, 1 ensign, and 13 rank and file.
Loss for the Glengarries was very heavy. In all there were 9 killed and 21 wounded. Of the wounded two more died later from their injuries.
Article courtesy Jesse Pudwell, June 2007