On April 27 1813, American troops came ashore in the town of York, in Upper Canada. The Americans push back the Mississauga warriors, Canadian militia and British troops defending the town. The British are forced to retreat but manage to burn the nearly completed sloop Sir Isaac Brock being built in the harbour. They also manage to blow up Fort York’s gunpowder magazine on the shores of Lake Ontario causing many American casualties. One casualty is the American commanding officer, General Zebulon Montgomery Pike.
Alan Taylor describes the scene in his excellent Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, & Indian Allies (Alfred A. Knopf, New York, 2010):
During the early morning of April 27, the troops boarded small boats and rowed ashore west of the town. The green-clad riflemen of Major Benjamin Forsyth led the way, dispersing some Mississauga Indians in the woods. Covered by cannon fire from the ships, General Zebulon Pike commanded the main strike along the shore, driving back the British regulars and capturing their batteries. For the first time in the war, American troops fought well in a major battle, albeit against smaller numbers.
Making the best of a bad situation, the British commander, General Roger H. Sheaffe, ordered a retreat by his regulars toward Kingston to the east. He had fires set to destroy the Sir Isaac Brock and to blow up a stock of gunpowder in a stone storehouse. The massive explosion sent skyward a deafening fireball and tons of stone, which fell in a deadly rain on the advancing American troops, killing 38 and wounding 222. The dead included General Pike, but some of the wounded fared worse. For forty-eight hours, without food or sleep, an army surgeon operated on “his fellow creatures … mashed & mangled in every part, with a leg—an arm—a head, or a body ground to pieces.” The wounded screamed, “Oh, Dear! Oh Dear! Oh my God! My God! Do Doctor, Doctor! Do cut of[f] my leg! My arm! My head! To relieve me from misery! I can’t live! I can’t live!”
The explosion stunned and halted the American troops. Deprived of Pike’s leadership, they dreaded more explosions. Aged and ailing, Dearborn failed to leave his ship to take charge of his stalled force. The confusion and delay enabled Sheaffe to make good his escape with the regulars and allowed flames to consume the precious Sir Isaac Brock, denying the Americans the fruits of victory.
York’s magistrates and militia officers negotiated terms of surrender with the American officers, who agreed to protect private property and to parole the local militiamen, who pledged not to serve until formally exchanged. In return, the town fathers promised to surrender all government and military property. But both sides soon felt betrayed. Dearborn refused to ratify the agreement for a day because he resented the burning of the warship as a violation of the terms. During his delay, American soldiers and sailors looted the town. The town’s Anglican priest, John Strachan, blasted Dearborn’s hesitation as “a deception calculated to give the riflemen time to plunder, and after the town had been robbed, they would then perhaps sign the capitulation and tell us they respected private property.”
Dearborn’s belated ratification did little to slow the looting, for the officers could not control their men. The magistrates concluded that “the great degree of insubordination that prevailed among his troops rendered such orders of no effect.” York’s leading militia officer, William Allan, reported, “Few houses in the town escaped a minute search by two or three parties, under the pretext of looking for public property. Many have been pillaged and some have had everything taken.” The sheriff John Beikie noted, “Those who abandoned their Houses found nothing but the bare walls at their return.” The looters also hit Strachan’s Anglican church and the town’s subscription library, and they hauled off the town’s fire engines and destroyed the local printing press, casting the type into the harbor.
The most talented looters belonged to Major Forsyth’s riflemen, who had been assigned to guard the town against thieves. An American naval officer marveled:
Some of them have had handkerchiefs full, and have made several hundred dollars in one battle. They have mashed up, between two stones, some of the most elegant Silver embost urns, turines and plate of every discription to get them in their napsacks. The officers generally attempt to prevent it; but Forsyth is a perfect savage himself. He, it is said, encourages it.
The riflemen took special pains to ransack the home of Major James Givins, an officer in the Indian Department. Strachan noted: “[Dearborn] confesses that he is not able to protect any family connected with the Indians.” While British commanders conceded that they could not control their Indian allies, American commanders failed to restrain their own troops bent on vengeance against natives and their British agents.
Dearborn and Chauncey ordered the burning of the fortifications, barracks, and military storehouses, but freelancing sailors exceeded those orders by also torching the twin Parliament buildings. To justify their arson, they claimed to have found a scalp “suspended near the Speaker’s chair, in company with the Mace & other Emblems of Royalty.” That brazen placement seemed to confirm the close ties between Indian violence and British rule in Canada. But would British officials truly have given a public place of honor to a scalp? One Upper Canadian plausibly argued that the sailors found the scalp elsewhere and then planted it beside the mace as a joke on their officers. If so, the joke became deadly serious, for Chauncey and Dearborn officially reported the discovery of the damning scalp to their superiors in Washington. In Congress and the press, Republicans pounced on that scalp to excuse the ravaging of York.