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A Tranquil River No More: The Raid on Gananoque 1812
by Robert Henderson


King's highway bridge across Gananoque River.
 Detail of Watercolour by H.F. Ainslie, 1838 (LAC)
 

   The twilight of dawn had only begun to light the horizon’s sky when Captain Benjamin Forsyth’s  boats neared Canadian shores along the St. Lawrence River.   It had been a surprisingly long journey from Sackets Harbor on Lake Ontario, with head winds lengthening the trip to three days.   Avoiding detection had proved easy because the abundance of islands which masked his approach from Cape Vincent where he bivouacked the previous evening.  Avoiding open water would have been a necessity.   If they happened upon one of the many British gunboats patrolling the river, they would have to quickly land and take cover on one of the islands.   Loaded in the mini-flotilla were his 70-man company of 1st US Rifles, still in their summer uniforms even though it was the end of September.  Accompanying his green frocked riflemen were a handful of New York militia to help oar the boats.  All were nervous about their enterprise.  None had been in battle and their leader was an untested young officer from North Carolina.    Stories of British Indian allies lurking behind every tree likely played on their imagination as the forest made eerie shadows on the dark waters of the St. Lawrence.

 


Mill at Gananoque by Lady Simcoe, 1792 (Archives of Ontario)

                After removing leather covers from around their Harper’s Ferry rifle locks that protected them from the water of the St. Lawrence River and making sure their flints had not been knocked off in the process, the riflemen readied for the order to storm onto the shore west of village of Gananoque.    Hitting shore at Sherriff’s point, the riflemen spilled over the sides and bow of the boats and with his southern accent, Forsyth ordered his men to form up and extend into a skirmish line, a common manoeuvre for riflemen.   The landing was immediately spotted by two Leeds militia dragoons.  Without training, uniforms or equipment, these two mounted militiamen turned instantly to flee and spread the alarm.     One of the riders was shot by Forsyth’s riflemen, but the other escaped to Gananoque.

The sound of the “Troop” being played by a Canadian militia drummer broke the still air of the morning and suddenly the village was in a bustle of activity with villagers seizing their muskets and accoutrements and rushing to a pre-determined spot in Gananoque to form up.    The Leeds militia were met there by their commander, Colonel Joel Stone.[1] Born in Connecticut and had lost everything after remaining loyal to the crown in the American Revolution, Stone, like many loyalists, probably had a personal axe to grind with any US republican venturing north.    Known simply as “The Colonel” to locals, Stone had built Gananoque from the ground up, and now, in his early sixties, to see his way of life threatened again must have came to him as a strange déjà vu.  Forsyth knew of Stone and considered him “a notorious enemy and opposer to the government of the United States.”[2]

 While a good community leader, Stone lacked any significant military training and his zeal seemed to have been tempered by the sudden loss of his only son a few years earlier.   With a large portion of his militia from Gananoque and the surrounding area of the county of Leeds being American immigrants, the fighting will and ability of the locals was shaky at best.  While some of them looked like soldiers, having received a handful of red coats from the Kingston stores, they were in fact farmers and labourers with a couple training practices under their belts.

Advancing along the King’s road toward Gananoque, Forsyth’s men met Stone’s sixty or so militiamen deployed into line, primed and loaded.  Hearing the words of command from Stone, “Make Ready…. Present….. Fire”, the half-clothed militia, cocked their muskets, levelled and discharged a ragged volley with limited effect.    With a rifleman dead and a few wounded, the next move fell to Forsyth.   Lusting for glory and having riflemen with months of training under his command, Forsyth ordered his men to the charge.    The Militia immediately broke and fled.  Rifleman Elihu Shepard recounted what happened next: “We did not attempt to take one prisoner… but we fired on them as they ran down the street [King St.] to a bridge over a stream [Gananoque River] that divides the town, most of them without clothes except their pantaloons, and many without arms.”[3] Shepard himself was
new to Forsyth’s band of mostly North Carolinian riflemen; likely joining them when Forsyth arrived in Sackets Harbour in late July.  Born in Vermont, Shepard was articling under a Lewis County Judge in nearby Lowville when war broke out.  Recruiting locals like Shepard into the 1st Rifle Regiment was the idea of General Jacob Brown, who saw an immediate need for as many professional sharpshooters as possible.
[4]

With the fighting over, a group of riflemen went to Stone’s home and recklessly fired into the building.  One the bullets wounded the only occupant, the elderly Mrs. Stone; an injury she suffered from for the rest of her life.  After this, the Stone residence was ransacked but the riflemen were halted in carrying off any personal belongings by their officers.  This was likely specifically ordered by General Brown when he sanctioned Forsyth’s raid; there being a general anxiety along both sides of the border about protecting personal property from the ravages of war.  Unfortunately Forsyth and his men would gain a reputation for plundering as the war would carry on.  However this time efforts were focussed on carrying off a small number of arms and ammunition, a couple of Militia prisoners and then burning a store containing flour and beef.  Forsyth understood his attack on Gananoque would arouse the nearby Kingston garrison, and he could not linger and within thirty minutes his little flotilla was on its way back to Sackets Harbor.    Kingston did indeed mobilize:

 As soon as intelligence of this attack was conveyed to Kingston a detachment of troops and Militia…were dispatched to intercept the invaders; but they had retired. The detachment, however, landed on Tuesday morning at a place called Briton’s Point where the Americans usually keep a strong guard which had probably retired to the woods on their approach as they saw nobody. They found a large blockhouse begun and in some forwardness. This they burnt, together with the materials….and returned in the afternoon, regretting that they had not met with Capt. Forsyth and his redoubted Rifle men.[5]

While Forsyth’s raid was the first offensive operation on Canadian soil along the St. Lawrence, it was not his last.   The aggressive rifle officer would continue annoying the British supply line until he is finally rebuffed at the Battle of Ogdensburg in February 1813.

_______________________________________   

[1] It is possible Stone was absent at the time of the attack.  Records are not clear on whether he was there or not.  However Military officials were critical of the absence of two junior militia officers who were in Kingston at the time of the attack.  One would expect that officials would have been critical of Stone if he was absent.

[2] Sarah McCulloh Lemmon, Frustrated Patriots: North Carolina and the War of 1812, (University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, 1973), p.97 quoted at http://www.colonelstone.ca/index.html

[3] Elihu H. Shepard, The Autobiography of Elih H. Shepard (St. Louis, 1869) p. 36 noted in John C. Fredriksen,

Green Coats and Glory (Youngstown, 2000) p. 29.

[4] Bensen J. Lossing, The Pictorial Field-Book of the War of 1812 (New York, 1868) p. 370.

[5]  Kingston Gazette, Saturday, 26 September, 1812

 

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