"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
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
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
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
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
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."
Also read - Origin of Military Expressions
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