The Patriot War began in Upper Canada (Ontario) began on December 4, 1837, without any help from Americans (that would come later). William Lyon Mackenzie assembled 700 to 800 rebels on the outskirts of Toronto. They dithered too long before attacking and gave the colonial militia ample time to assemble. On December 7, the militia routed the rebels.
Mackenzie and hundreds of supporters escaped to the US. He arrived in Buffalo on December 10 knowing his rebellion had failed, but not yet aware that the Patriot War had just begun.
Mackenzie met a populace primed for action. Among the civic leaders who championed the rebellion, Dr. Cyrenius Chapin took an early leadership role. He loathed the English, having grown up during the American Revolution. He wanted the British removed from North America
Chapin swept up the fugitive Scot and made him his houseguest. Chapin organized a public meeting the next evening, December 11, in a Buffalo theater. He extolled the virtues of the Canadian rebels and pushed for the liberation of Canada.
Mackenzie spoke at the same theatre the next night. A fiery and accomplished orator, the bantam-sized rebel leader knew his audience well. The majority had either fought during the American Revolution or the War of 1812, or claimed kinship with veterans of those wars.
To a packed house estimated at 3,000 people (the Buffalo population was then just 25,000), Mackenzie compared the suffering of Canadians to the “same evils” that caused the 13 colonies to break allegiance from England.
With the audience primed, Thomas Jefferson Sutherland, addressed the throng next. Sutherland fancied himself a natural commander of men and fully expected to be a general in any force raised to support Canadian freedom. That night, he stated he intended to form an army of liberation. He requested men, money, ammunition and weapons. The response was immediate and generous.
On December 13, Mackenzie and Sutherland met in the Eagle tavern in central Buffalo to plan a war. With them was Rensselaer Van Rensselaer. He came from one of the most influential families in upstate New York. Men with his surname ranked among the elites in politics and the military. Though Van Rensselaer had no military experience, he became the rebels’ chief general.
The Patriot leaders agreed to occupy Navy Island and make it the seat of a provisional government in exile. The 316-acre island in the Niagara River, not far from the mighty falls, belonged to Upper Canada.
On December 14, Mackenzie and General Van Rensselaer landed on Navy Island with 24 volunteers and two small cannons. As the news of the occupation spread, groups of Canadian refugees and American volunteers from across the state journeyed to Navy Island. Recruits brought cannons stolen from New York State arsenals (24 in all), rifles, muskets and ammunition. Brigadier-General Sutherland arrived with a company. Mackenzie’s men bombarded the Canadian shore. British cannon fired back.
Van Rensselaer strutted about the island, a cutlass in one hand and brandy in the other. As weeks passed, he refused to divulge his plans. His drunkenness was obvious and his cowardice suspected. Men sought action but found boredom, and only crude huts for shelter from the cold and snow. Even as new recruits joined the island’s defenders, a steady stream of deserters departed for home.
On December 29, 1837, Captain Andrew Drew, acting on orders from his British commander, rowed across the icy river in darkness with 60 armed militiamen in small boats and boarded the Patriot’s rented supply ship, the Caroline, at Schlosser, NY. A handful of men slept on the steamer. Only the sentry carried a musket.
Drew’s raiders stormed the ship and killed a black American sailor named Amos Durfee. He became the war’s first American casualty—but not the last.
Drew’s men towed the Caroline into the current and set it afire. The blazing craft grounded on rocks and broke apart, its pieces plummeting over the falls.
Americans saw the British attack on an American ship in a US port as an assault on their sovereignty. While President Martin Van Buren shrugged off the incursion, US citizens sent money and ammunition to Mackenzie. American volunteers soon outnumbered Canadians in the Patriot army.
The opposing forces at Navy Island bombarded each other for two weeks following the Caroline affair. Boredom compounded by cold made Van Rensselaer’s dithering unbearable to the rebels. Patriot fighters steadily deserted. On January 13, 1838, Van Rensselaer abandoned Navy Island and withdrew his men to Buffalo.
The retreat from Navy Island did not bring the war to an end. Rebel armies gathering in New York and Michigan promised a very hot winter ahead.
This is the second in a series of guest posts on the Patriot War by blogger and author Shaun J. McLaughlin. Visit his blog at www.raidersandrebels.com. To learn more about his two Patriot War books, one history and one fiction, visit www.raidersandrebelspress.com.