On Aug. 12, 1943, Winston Churchill stood before Brock’s Monument in Queenston, Ont., and noticed something amiss. The burden of a world at war was upon him. He puffed continually on his namesake cigars and leaned upon a small cane. Over the next two weeks, he would sit down with U.S. president Franklin Roosevelt in Quebec City to map out a path to victory for the Allied forces.
But his mind was clear enough to spot a glaring omission at the historic site commemorating the Battle of Queenston Heights, the first major American invasion of the War of 1812. Where, he asked a tour guide, was the tribute to Sir Roger Hale Sheaffe, the man responsible for repelling the Yankee raid.
The name flummoxed his tour guide, as it does most Canadians.
“Perhaps that’s because he wasn’t killed,” Mr. Churchill replied, according to a Globe and Mail account.
Seventy years later, the prime minister’s quibble is finally being corrected.
On Thursday afternoon, a uniform and sword once belonging to Sheaffe, the unsung victor of Queenston Heights, will return to Ontario for permanent display in a Queen’s Park ceremony involving Lieutenant-Governor David Onley.
“He kind of got a raw deal in history,” said Ron Dale, author of The Invasion of Canada: Battles of the War of 1812, referring to Sheaffe’s relative obscurity compared to his better-known boss, Sir Isaac Brock. “Canadians should know of his contributions.”
Few figures in Canadian history have faced such a long and disputed journey into posterity. A hero in one battle, he became the goat in another. Despite his leadership at Queenston Heights, he is perhaps best known for retreating from York (now Toronto), when American forces landed around present-day High Park in 1813.
The British loss at the Battle of York – along with the arson, vandalism and plunder that followed – was blamed on Sheaffe. By 1943, when a Globe and Mail correspondent called for public recognition of Sheaffe’s earlier victory, it was clear that Torontonians were not ready to forgive. One descendant of a York veteran retorted that Sheaffe had “betrayed the people of York to save his own skin.”
Sheaffe had his reasons for abandoning York. His forces were heavily outnumbered and the town was poorly defended. Before finally heading for Kingston, Ont., he ordered the detonation of York’s gunpowder magazine. The blast killed more than 200 Americans and sent up a mushroom cloud seen across Lake Ontario.
“The only alternative would have been to fight to the death,” said Mr. Dale, whose day job is project manager of Parks Canada’s 1812 Bicentennial. “What he did was the right thing but got bad press.”
Few, however, can question Sheaffe’s tactics at Queenston Heights on Oct. 13, 1812. His superior officer, Brock, had been anticipating an invasion for months before American volleys began arcing from Lewiston, N.Y., across the Niagara River towards Queenston just before dawn.
He had barely 1,000 troops covering a 50-kilometre stretch from Fort Erie to Fort George, compared to an American force numbering more than 4,500. The Americans soon captured a strategically vital cannon battery halfway up the escarpment overlooking Queenston. When Brock led a charge to retake the position, he was shot dead. Brock’s aide-de-camp, John Macdonell, gathered the troops for a second charge, but was mortally wounded.
With the battle tilting in favour of the Americans, British hopes fell to Sheaffe, an unpopular and inexperienced military leader known for his meticulous nature and liberal use of the cat o’ nine tails on rule-bending troops. He arrived in Queenston from nearby Fort George with around 700 men to reinforce 80 or 90 first nations warriors. The mere sight of Sheaffe’s troops, along with the war cries of first nations warriors, deterred the 3,500 American troops remaining in Lewiston from crossing the river into battle.
“The American militia refused to cross,” Mr. Dale said. “So at the end of the day there were as many British-Canadians and first nations warriors as there were Americans on the ground in Queenston.”
Sheaffe surveyed the scene. Rather than scale the escarpment from below in the same manner as Brock, he took a longer route, marching his men inland to barrage the Americans from above.
“Sheaffe used his head and won the day,” Mr. Dale said. “He is the true victor of the Battle of Queenston Heights.”