“Perhaps the last time I will write.”


Long before dawn the American camp was awake and in motion.

In the darkness, a dripping wet mist obscured every sign of the sky. Overhanging trees wept onto tent canvas. Musicians stripped linen jackets from their drums, firmed up tension ropes, and on the cue of the duty drummer, raised fifes and bugles to their lips, drumsticks to their eyebrows and unleashed a shrill, raucous refrain that rolled down the tent lines, gathering strength as the various unit drummers joined in turn.

In tents along the Lake Ontario shoreline at the mouth of Four Mile Creek, officers belted swords while other ranks shouldered cartridge boxes and bayonets and thumbed musket flints. And men, in the manner of warriors since the beginning of time, shared the same unspoken dread that precedes battle.

Fifty-four years earlier a British army had landed at this creek en route to wresting control of Fort Niagara and much of the Upper Great Lakes from the French Crown. On this day an American army was embarking from the creek on an equally ambitious quest to strip the British Crown of what remained of that territory. Four miles down the lakeshore, contesting the mouth of the Niagara River, was the objective: the stronghold of Fort George, gateway to Upper Canada. To carry that prize, more than 5,000 men – the largest army of regular troops fielded by either side in the war so far – had assembled in the still chill air. Farm boys from the frontiers, cobblers and cordwainers, cooks and coopers, and a dozen other trades, including butchers, masons, wheelwrights and labourers, all had recently downed tools and taken up arms. Despite widespread opposition to the war, they represented every state from the Carolinas in the south to New Hampshire in the north. Men who, the night before, had talked loud and late, were now alone with their thoughts as they shuffled in the near-dark to the waiting boats. Assembling with the advance force – the shock troops who would be first ashore – was a rangy, fair-skinned sergeant who shepherded his section to one of the scores of flat-bottomed bateaux drawn up on the beach.

Whatever thoughts occupied 23-year-old James Crawford that morning, getting his affairs in order was not among them. Recruited from western Pennsylvania a year earlier, the only son in a family of seven, James Crawford had already reflected on his mortality. He was literate, a distinct advantage in an army drawn from the lower segments of society and likely the reason he advanced to sergeant. Two days before, when the prospect of action became certain, Crawford, along with many of his comrades, had penned a soldier’s will. His began: “My father, perhaps the last time I will write to you. Should I be kild in action I write these few lines to be sent to you after my death. I expect to go in to action…. I go with a heart undaunted and Regardless of Death, with a conscience clear of gilt Either to God or man.”

In a more worldly vein, he also directed disposal of his estate, which consisted of $112 in back pay due from the army, $16.20 of due bills on soldiers and a collection of books. The letter was addressed to his best friend in Mercer, Pennsylvania, requesting – in the event of his death – delivery to his father.

By 3:30 a.m. the troops were fully embarked and the first signs of nautical dawn appeared. From the nearby woods a ponderous general officer and his staff emerged on horseback. A splendid uniform – gold-laced coat with silver stars on the epaulets, red leather sword belt and high boots with gilt spurs – could not conceal the fact Major General Henry Dearborn was not well. Cumbrous on his feet, unsteady of gait, he showed the continuing effects of a fortnight-long fever. One of the staff officers thought the Revolutionary War veteran looked like an invalid. Helped from his horse, the 62-year-old commander braced himself with a pinch of snuff while he surveyed the boats stuffed with men, bristling with
bayonets. Then, steadied by staff, he boarded the commodore’s barge, which after a few oar strokes disappeared into the fog.

Crawford and the 15 other men in his boat from Captain Daniel McFarland’s company of the Twenty-Second Infantry were part of the 600-strong advance or “forlorn hope” under the command of an ambitious young Virginian, Winfield Scott. Dearborn’s chief of staff. Scott – always keen for action – had sought permission to lead the advance and had collected the best light troops in Dearborn’s army. To accompany him he had gunners and dragoons, both acting as infantry – two companies of rifles as well as two companies from the Twenty-Second Infantry and one from the Twenty-Third.5 Commanding the Twenty-Third’s detachment was a 35-year-old captain, Drake Peter Mills, who had been commissioned 14 months earlier near Albany, New York. Although a new regiment, less than a year old, the Twenty-Third had been blooded at Queenston Heights and Frenchman’s Creek in the fall of 1812 and Scott had chosen Mills’s light company as part of the advance – a post of honour.

Ordered to carry only muskets, ammunition, blankets and one day’s ration, ready-cooked, many of the men dug into their haversacks and ate whatever they had – perhaps a heel of bread, a slab of pease porridge or smoked bacon. Dressed for the expected warmth of a late-spring day in coats now clammy in the cold mist, many soldiers felt, and stifled, the urge to shiver.

A gun boomed in from the fog to signify that the fleet was under way and at least 12 dozen small craft began leaving the beach, led by the advance and followed by three more waves at 20-minute intervals. After some initial confusion in the fog, they organized into divisions with the advance leading in an open column, four boats wide, followed by the three brigades at intervals of two to three hundred yards. Boats carrying brigadier generals bore a large green bough in the prow, and those with unit commanders on board displayed their darkblue regimental standard.

Pulling out into the lake and skirting across the mouth of the Niagara River, the boats of the advance, carrying infantrymen like Mills and Crawford as well as cavalry troopers, artillery gunners and riflemen, made for the Canadian side. Some two miles from shore they were ordered to lie upon their oars while three armed schooners took position. As the descent resumed, the fog began to dissolve. The musicians, concentrated in one boat, struck up Yankee Doodle and the invaders caught their first glimpse of the steeply banked shoreline where the British army waited.

James Crawford, Peter Mills and more than 5,000 other uninvited guests, poised to make their first extended visit to Canada, murmured simple prayers for life and honour.

Copyright © James E. Elliott 2009. All rights reserved.
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.:: Strange Fatality ::.
The Battle of Stoney Creek, 1813 - by James E. Elliott
ISBN 978-1-896941-58-5

© 2010 James E. Elliott

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