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Remembering the Pivotal Battle of Queenston Heights and its Hero Sir Isaac Brock

by Ken Bird

2012 – Battle of Queenston Heights

The weekend of October 13th was a busy and exciting time for my wife, Maryanne and I. We had decided that retirement would allow us the freedom to inhale the thrill of reliving the event that 200 years ago proved to be pivotal in what is now the “true north strong and free”, our Canada. It also must be understood that I grew up in Queenston and attended Laura Secord Public School and was immersed in the local history. I can still see the huge Romantic prints of the death of Wolfe and Brock hanging above the front blackboards. I daydreamed and immersed myself into those pictures on more than one occasion. Many a time my friends and I passed the approximate site where Brock fell and climbed the escarpment to the heights and, of course, climbed the 235 steps of the monument to look north at the stunning and beautiful panoramic view of the Niagara River.

We left our home in Burlington on the afternoon of October 12th and headed for Stamford Centre (now Niagara Falls) where we had reserved a room in a pre-1812 B & B (1805) across from the historic Stamford Green, the Only “Green” in Canada, if not North America.

We then proceeded to Queenston Heights Park where Educational Day Events were being held. It was late in the day but some students were still in the park, involved in a demonstration displaying the workings of cannons. As a history buff and former teacher, I was caught up in the activity and enjoyed the demonstration myself as well as seeing the students hold their ears and yell and scream with delight. The period merchants stated that the kids were well behaved and amused and amazed by the differences in daily life. All the re-enactors were very gracious allowing me to take their pictures and in explaining their uniform/costume. Lewiston New York also held an educational day and had a cannon bombardment and fireworks that evening. We later saw the re-enactors and others perched in appropriate places along the Canadian side of the river for the show.

These Drummer Boys were in the heat of the action

On Friday afternoon there was a Twinning Ceremony at St. Saviour, Major General Brock Memorial Anglican Church “in Queenston celebrating the historical, social, and cultural relationship between St. Peter Port, Guernsey, the birthplace of Major General Sir Isaac Brock, and Queenston where Brock was mortally wounded.” Representatives of the Isle of Guernsey, Sir Geoffrey Rowland & John O’Hara, participated in this ceremony. (Queenston Residents Association)

The Canadian Mint unveiled the Brock quarter at Fort George as part of the weekend celebrations.

Maryanne and I were up bright and early on the “glorious 13th”. We drove to 20 Queenston Street, Queenston to the Brock Dead House, the temporary and improvised storage edifice or mortuary where the bodies of Brock and Macdonnell were placed to prevent their theft or desecration. The dead house, torn down in the late 1920’s, was originally owned by Patrick McCabe. Here a dedication ceremony was held and a plaque unveiled marking the site. In attendance, as at many of the other events, were representatives of St. Peter Port, Guernsey and a New Zealand descendent of Brock’s brother, Sally Greenaway. (Queenston Residents Association – The Association need donations in order to purchase John Norton’s home at which time will be moved to the sight of the Secord homestead)

Our second stop was Queenston Heights Park. Here we attended the bicentennial plaque dedication at Brock’s Monument. The Historic Sites and Monuments Board designated Brock as a person of National Significance. Sadly, it was noted, that Brock’s name was not added to the Canadian Government’s Person of National Historic Significance until 2010.

Lunch was at the beautiful Queenston Heights Restaurant. Maryanne and I were lucky enough to get a table by the window looking north along the Niagara River with the Canadian and American embankments on both sides. It is a view of which I will never tire. While dining, we saw on the pathway below, reenactors, who had marched from Niagara-on-the-Lake, ascending the escarpment towards The Heights. I can’t imagine making that trek myself and I’m sure there were many a sore and maybe cold foot today as well as 200 years ago. Leaving the restaurant we bumped into Brock astride his legendary horse Alfred, accompanied by his aide de camp Lieutenant-Colonel John Macdonnell. This, needless to say, was another 1812 photographic moment, not to be missed!

The reenactment of the Battle of Queenston Heights proved to be all I had hoped for. With cannons roaring and muskets blasting I became entranced by the excitement, cheered on the British, and felt pride at the final victory knowing that Sir Isaac Brock and all those who had sacrificed that day on The Heights did not sacrifice in vain.

I then attended the Commemorative ceremony at Brock’s Monument. Its purpose was to recognize the importance of the Battle of Queenston Heights; recognize the importance of Brock’s influence on the war and Canada’s future; and to honour those who served on our behalf. Major General Roger Hale Sheaffe’s descendant, Stephen Sheaffe, visiting here from Australia, spoke. Of note, his family presented the Canadian government with several items of memorabilia that had once belonged to his ancestor. Following the ceremony, with British and American troops lining the pathway, rifles reversed and flags draped, Brock’s body, led by the Drum Crown Force 1812 (Toronto), left Queenston Heights by horse drawn wagon.

While eating a hot dog for supper, waiting for the fireworks, and dodging the rain, Maryanne and I listened to Gin Lane and their Celtic music.

If the rain had not let up we may have left for the evening but standing under a tree seemed to protect us as the rain dissipated. Not many remained behind but those who did heard and saw a spectacular sight. To the strains of Tchaikovsky’s 1812 Overture, the fireworks display highlighted Brock’s column and lit up the sky with loud booms and light that once again proclaimed the greatness that was Brock and the victory at the Battle of Queenston Heights. The lady next to us said to her husband, “Aren’t you glad you stayed?” and he replied, “I sure am!” Although not overly long, the fireworks were the best presentation I have seen in a very long time. It was an appropriate way to commemorate the life of my hero Major General Sir Isaac Brock. Weary and tired after a very long day, Maryanne and I returned to our homey and comfortable B & B.

Up early again Sunday morning we headed north to Niagara-on-the-Lake. Once parked, we headed over to the court house for the funeral commemoration and procession. Reenactors marched from Fort George to the town’s court house where period garbed dignitaries awaited the horse drawn wagons to pick up the coffins of Major General Sir Isaac Brock and Lieutenant-Colonel John Macdonnell. Affixed on Brock’s coffin was the statement:

Here lie the Earthly Remains of a Brave and Virtuous Hero MAJOR-GENERAL BROCK, Commanding the British Forces and President Administering the Civil Government, who fell when gloriously engaging the Enemies of his Country at the head of the Flank Companies of the 49th Regiment, in the town of Queenston, on the Morning of the 13th October, 1812. Aged 42 years.

Bringing Brock & Macdonnell's bodies in for the church service on Sunday at Queenston Heights - photo by Ken Bird

Appropriate words of praise for the fallen hero were spoken and prayers were invoked before the coffins were lifted onto the wagon and the Pallbearers moved into position. The slow march funeral procession led by the mournful strains of the 41st Regiment of Foot Fife and Drum Corps (Fort George) moved to St. Mark’s Anglican Church, where Brock had been a parishioner. Here the Brock Bell tolled; the choir sang a funeral Hymn; and the carillons rang out a newly commissioned piece for the occasion.

From the church, the procession marched along the brightly coloured tree lined road to Fort George where a drumhead service was held. A drumhead service is a non-denominational service conducted ‘in the field’ during armed conflict, often near the battlefield. To create an alter, two drums were stacked with the Union Jack (flag adopted in 1801 and still used today) draped over them. Once again the appropriate words and prayers were given. Finally, it was fitting that the 200 year friendship between the USA and Canada was recognized. As in 1812, the ceremony ended with musket and cannon salutes from Fort George and Fort Niagara. The service was a moving end to three successful days that appropriately recognized and honoured a true ‘Canadian’ hero.

Remember the 13th! There are many who point to the “glorious 13th” of October 1812, the Battle of Queenston Heights, as a pivotal battle and one of Canada’s first steps toward nationhood. I wish the following were my ideas but come from readings done over my life time and recently for the 200th anniversary publications by men like Riley, Turner, Porteous and even Wikipedia. We know Brock was charismatic, well-liked and befriended many including Tecumseh. This worked well for him. We also know Brock wanted to strike first, but even when he was forced to take a defensive stand, when the time came, struck hard. And we know, as best possible, Brock prepared his forces and militia for the inevitable. He was instrumental in the capture of Fort Michilimackinac/Mackinac and struck a decisive blow against the enemy with the capture of Fort Detroit and the Michigan Territory. This latter victory reverberated throughout London and earned him a knighthood and membership in the Order of the Bath unbeknownst to Brock. Finally, to maintain his honour; because he appeared to be somewhat impulsive and a doer; and because he felt he needed to respond immediately to the enemy forces on British territory, he led the charge on the 13th. It was soon over for this gallant leader but not for his name. Immediately seen as “The Hero of Upper Canada”, endless praise was put forth in his honour both here and in England. The rally call in future battles was to remember Brock and the Upper Canada legislature unanimously voted to set aside a large sum of money to build a monument by which to remember him. It is interesting to note that the monument was built higher than that of Nelson’s. (Brock’s 56m – Nelson’s 51.6m) For the first time, due to the offensive actions of Brock and his death at Queenston, followed by the British victory that day, diverse groups like the Loyalists, old world settlers, American settlers who had newly arrived seeking free land, and the aboriginals began to see that they just might be able to defend themselves after all and that there now was a chance to actually win the conflict. All was solidified by the mythology that grew up around Brock’s death giving Upper Canada a new found sense of identity. Now it was impossible for the British to even think of withdrawing to Montreal or Quebec City for here in this vast new wilderness lay the body of one of their respected and well decorated heroes. There is little doubt that Brock, Upper Canada’s first hero, the Battle of Queenston Heights, and the mythology that surrounded his name united Upper Canada and eventually brought the British North American colonies a step closer to nationhood.

Fireworks at Brock's Monument - photo by Ken Bird

Returning to my car I stopped to talk with a serviceman who had served two stints in Afghanistan. When I realized the sacrifice he had made for me, I thanked him. He interjected that most people did not realize how important the War of 1812 was to the development of what is now Canada’s army. Certainly I hadn’t really thought that out but see the logic of it in light of the fear the Colonies had of a second war with their neighbour to the south. It didn’t take much for the British North American Colonies to realize that united, they would be a stronger force against this perceived enemy.

Cogeco has been seen at many of the events videoing. Presently some of them are on their “On Demand” section for free viewing. Queenston Heights is not yet available but Cogeco trucks were seen at Fort George.

Permanent link to this article: http://uel-hamilton.com/heritage-news/remembering-the-pivotal-battle-of-queenston-heights-and-its-hero-sir-isaac-brock/