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Acknowledgements

The Battle

"That night a child might understand
The Devil has business on his hand"

Excerpted from Strange Fatality: The Battle of Stoney Creek, 1813
By James E. Elliott
ROBIN BRASS STUDIO

Copyright © 2009 James E. Elliott.
All rights reserved. Reprinted by permission

www.strangefatality.com


John Norton, Mohawk war chief. The charismatic Scots-Cherokee led a small war party of perhaps a dozen warriors at Stoney Creek. (Watercolour by Mary Ann Knight, Library and Archives Canada)

Although John Norton fielded no more than a handful of warriors at Stoney Creek and, by his own account, their part was limited, Indians nevertheless played a significant role – out of all proportion to their actual numbers – in how the action played out. The Americans believed at the time, and continued to believe for dozens of years afterwards, that they were attacked by a large contingent of native warriors.

There were plenty of survivors of Queenston Heights at Stoney Creek – particularly in the Second Artillery – who had first-hand knowledge of just how terrifying Norton’s warriors could be in battle. Likely every soldier in Chandler’s command had heard some version of the recent River Raisin massacre in Michigan Territory where, after the battle the American wounded were slaughtered by Indians. All the way down the peninsula, the spectre of Indian ambushes had been a constant fear, even though Norton’s numbers amounted to little more than a corporal’s guard and had only made contact once.

These anxieties were probably not far from the mind of Second Lieutenant Ephraim Shaler of the Twenty- Fifth Infantry when he left his unit’s new position to the right of the artillery and returned to its initial position on William Gage’s lane. The young officer checked on the cooks left there to prepare the next day’s meal and “just as I was about to leave the lane and go back to my regiment (it being at this time between one and two o’clock in the morning) I heard one of the most dreadful shrieks that ever fell on mortal ear and which seemed to come from one of the sentinels. I observed to an officer nearby that a sentinel had been shot with an arrow and the Indians were then tomahawking him, which I have no doubt was the fact, for not a gun had been fired.”

That silence, however, was only momentary before the first sentry discharged his musket, thereby raising the alarm. The assistant adjutant general, Major John Johnston, noted the time. It was 2:20 a.m.

On the edge of the woods the two British light companies moved rapidly to bag the remainder of the advance picket. They were now within a few hundred yards of the American line and still invisible. But as Clausewitiz disciple Helmuth von Moltke so famously observed: no campaign plan survives first contact with the enemy. For the British, neutralizing the pickets was the last thing that went according to plan that night.


James FitzGibbon, lieutenant 49th Regiment.
FitzGibbon commanded a company at Stoney Creek and wrote an even-handed account of the battle that was critical of his fellow officers.
Engraving by Alfred Sandham.
(McGill University Library)
 

Behind the light companies, some of Vincent’s staff officers came forward to the head of the column to watch the action. Completely heedless of Harvey’s “perfect order and profound silence” command, they began to cheer. Five companies back in the column, Lieutenant James FitzGibbon heard them and understood immediately what it meant: “The instant I heard their shout I considered our affair ruined.”

For the men in the ranks, constrained by the enforced silence, the outburst from the staff officers was both a welcome release from the tension and an invitation they could not resist. Section by section, company by company the troops began to cheer and yell “huzza!” And at least some of the men mimicked Indian war cries.

“The moment I heard the shout spread amongst the men,” FitzGibbon said, “I considered our situation very critical. For I was aware that it would be almost impossible to make the men silent again, and that consequently orders could not be heard or obeyed.” As Clausewitz warned, command and control of troops in a night action is crucial for success. FitzGibbon immediately told his company not to take up the shout and with the help of his three company sergeants, Joseph Buchanan, John Cole and Alexander Nicholl, “succeeded in keeping them silent and in good order,” for the moment at least.

The Irish subaltern was appalled at the behaviour of his fellow officers, considering them responsible for squandering a golden opportunity. “Never was surprise more complete – never was anything more brilliant than it would have been had we kept silence … but our officers began that which they should have watched with all their care to prevent; for they ought to have known that in darkness and noise, confusion must be inevitable. I think I could have killed some of them had I been near them at the moment.” Certainly any chance of a Paoli-style rout had evaporated.


John Chandler, American brigadier general.
An inexperienced, political appointee, Chandler commanded an army of 3,500 men at Stoney Creek.
(Maine Historical Society)

On the other side, the sudden tumult was also having an effect. Ephraim Shaler, the Twenty-Fifth Infantry lieutenant, was standing less than 50 yards away when the roar began. Though he could see nothing in the dark, he was convinced by the yelling that he was surrounded “by all the Indians in Canada. The war whoop was given and the air seemed rent with the yell of Indians, which was quickly followed by every sentinel discharging his piece and retreating to the main guard.”

Some of Shaler’s countrymen claimed they distinctly heard Indians yelling and troops shouting, but Norton, who noted the troops were cheering loudly, made no mention of his small band of warriors taking any part. Of the dozens of accounts of the action from American officers, only one – that of Captain John Thornton of the Twentieth Infantry – appears to have got it right. “There were but few Indians with the British,” Thornton wrote, “but the latter set up the savage yell before the attack was made. This artifice was unworthy of regular troops and it excited no other sentiment but contempt among our soldiers.”

Back on the American line, Chandler’s acting ADC, Lieutenant Donald Fraser, was startled to discover the enemy – “British & Indians” – had penetrated American defences. “The first we knew was a horrid yell in Camp."

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