|War of 1812|
|Capture of Detroit|
|This Month in History|
|Editor in Chief|
fifty chosen men from his 49th Regiment of Foot the ‘Green Tigers’,
FitzGibbon conducted operations on the road between St.Davids and Queenston.
The constant harassment of regional American forces, and the effective sabotage
of communications between their strongholds in the eastern Niagara Peninsula,
resulted in the dispatch of a strong American force of over 500 infantry,
supplemented by dragoons and light field artillery under the command of Colonel
Charles Boerstler, with the directive to surprise and eradicate the hive of
British and native irregular forces operating in the region.
The initiative which the American forces were hoping to exploit, however, was
not long lasting. While the source of the intelligence concerning the American
intentions which were transmitted to FitzGibbon and his detachment has been
brought to question, Canadian folklore tells of a young Laura Secord making a
long, arduous journey on the 23rd of June through the wilderness to
warn the British of the enemy advance. Regardless of source, FitzGibbon was
aware of the enemy presence and objectives on the 24th.
On the morning of the 24th, outside of Queenston, Colonel
Boerstler and his force was sighted by a band of Mohawk and Caughnawaga warriors
numbering between 200 and 300 under Captain Dominique Ducharme of the Indian
Department and Captain William Johnson Kerr (as well as a young John
Brant, son of Joseph Brant) . Noting that the American force was too large to
engage in the open, the war party adopted the irregular posture as natural to
the native form of warfare. Firing from the tall grass and wooded outcroppings,
the native host sporadically engaged the Americans outside of Queenston and on
their route of march.
Encamped to the west, FitzGibbon heard shots echoing in the distance and
considering the intentions of the Americans, rode forth with a detachment of
dragoons to assess the situation. On arrival, FitzGibbon observed that the
numerically superior American force had re-organized on raised terrain in the
middle of a field outside of St.David’s. Noting the disposition of native forces
on the perimeter, and the unwillingness of the American force to actively pursue
an engagement, FitzGibbon ordered up his small company of regular soldiers to
the position and deployed them in small groups to the rear of the enemy lines,
while dispatching messengers to Major De Haren and his force of approximately
200 regulars several kilometres to the west. Through cyclical firing from
various positions to the rear of the enemy, the British soldiers mimicked the
disposition of a force of superior strength, and severed the American line of
While much can be said of the quality of regular soldiers in pitched
battle, the overwhelming value of independent and effective irregular soldiers
should not be overlooked. The inevitable victory at Beaver Dams was a direct
result of the unadulterated terror native warriors invoked in their enemies.
While a certain kind of courage was required to stand face to face with the
enemy exchanging volleys, such warfare had an inarticulate equality to it. A
soldier in conventional warfare, eye to eye with the enemy on equal grounds,
could be encouraged by the availability of an enemy target and the potential to
inflict damage. It was in mutual danger that martial courage could be discovered
in even the most pusillanimous of recruits. To further solidify the solidarity
in the rank and file, soldiers of similar ethnographic and military backgrounds
could generally be trusted in to adhere to defined conventions and customs of
war pertaining to treatment on the event of defeat. When facing native warriors,
the ‘equality’ of warfare and notions of mercy were entirely abandoned. Firing
from clandestine positions in forests and fields, constantly inflicting
casualties, native warriors rarely presented a target for returning fire. In
close combat their ferocious abilities were renowned, and surrender to them
could often mean massacre on a large scale. When faced with no line of retreat,
and harassed by an unknown quantity of aggressive warriors, Colonel Boerstler
was in a highly precarious position with limited options. The enterprising
Lieutenant FitzGibbon aimed to exploit this weakness.
Under a flag of truce, Boerstler and FitzGibbon met to discuss terms. With the news that American reinforcements were en route, the pressing demand from the young Lieutenant was full surrender. Unwilling to accept these terms, Boerstler stipulated that he would prefer to see the enemy force before acquiescing to these lofty demands. The immediate counter to this request was simply the statement that he could not under any circumstances control the natives in the event of a defeat in the field. While a simple reality, the gravity of this statement was considerable. One can sympathize with the dilemma the colonel faced: to either endure the shame for surrendering a considerable detachment of American soldiers to the British, or face intense backlash and punishment for squandering hundreds of lives in a hopeless fight. Upon reflection (during which time the British forces under Major De Haren numbering roughly 200 men arrived), Colonel Boerstler was inclined to present a conditional surrender, which was subsequently acknowledged without delay. By accepting this, it would be forever remembered in posterity that an outnumbered and outgunned, vastly inferior force under a junior British officer had captured a considerable American military force with minimal friendly casualties.
The conditions of the surrender were threefold. Firstly, the surrender
had to be force inclusive. Every member of the American detachment was to submit
their arms. Secondly, the officers were to be given full right as suited to a
commissioned officer: to maintain their possessions including
horses and baggage. Thirdly, all non-commissioned officers
and soldiers were to become prisoners of war, excepting the volunteers and
militia who were given the right to return home under parole.
At the cost of an estimated 40 native casualties, approximately 25 officers, 519
non-commissioned soldiers, 50 dragoons, two cannons (a twelve and six pounder),
two ammunition carriages, as well as the colours of the 14th Infantry
Regiment were taken into custody. Roughly 462 American soldiers were taken to
British camps as prisoners of war.
As a result of the engagement at Beaver Dams, the American forces occupying forts George, Erie and Niagara were unwilling to patrol more than two kilometres from their encampments. Further expeditions to the west during the campaign were considered a highly risky venture, providing necessary relief for outnumbered British forces in the Niagara peninsula in 1813. It was engagements such as this which defined and limited American military posture in the vital episodes of the war.
The nature of warfare in the period of the War of 1812 meant that a single pitched battle would rarely result in unanimous victory (or defeat) for either side. While pitched battle has a place in the grander scheme of any victorious strategy, the overwhelming impact that smaller engagements on enemy morale and fighting efficiency should not be understated. On the eve of the Bicentennial of the War of 1812, the sacrifices made, and the impact of minor engagements such as Beaver Dams should be given their due respect and exposure.