The year 1812 had been a disaster for American forces in the Great Lakes region.
In light of these dramatic losses, John Armstrong the new American secretary of war, was desperate for a quick victory to bolster morale and restore confidence in the war effort. over the winter the United States army and navy assembled at Sackets Harbor, New York.
The plan was to make a concentrated strike at Upper Canada before British reinforcements could arrive. On April 27, 1813, an American forest landed west of York the capital of Upper Canada.
Rather than attack the more heavily defended garrisons at Kingston or Newark, the Americans began their campaign of 1813 by attacking this soft, but symbolic target.
York, which is now Toronto, Ontario was home to the provincial legislature but was still only a small village protected by a fort, with around 300 redcoats and an equal number of militia and a small force of Ojibwe warriors.
In command of the defenders was Major General Roger Hale Sheaffe, the officer who rallied the British after the death of Isaac Brock and led them to victory at the battle of Queenston Heights.
But Sheaffe had little chance to repeat his earlier success. Over a dozen armed ships filled the harbour and his forces were outnumbered by more than two to one.
Unsure where the bulk of the Americans would land, the British and Canadians put up a short-lived and confused defense. The British retreated here to Fort York and realizing the impossibility of their position, set charges to destroy the powder supply.
As the Americans approached the magazine exploded. Thirty-eight American soldiers, including their commander the renowned explorer Zebulon Pike, were killed in the blast. Another 200 were seriously wounded.
The shock and carnage of the explosion halted the American advance.
The defenders then were able to destroy the partially completed warship Sir Isaac Brock while the main force of British regulars escaped back to Kingston. Afterward the town of York and its militia surrendered to the American army.
Henry Dearborn the overall American commander was slow to ratify the British surrender and many American soldiers began plundering the town, stealing whatever they could carry from private homes and public buildings alike.
The Anglican bishop John Strahn, who was a fiery critic of the United States prior to the war, saw the looting as evidence of the corrupt and brutish nature of Americans and accused Dearborn of intentionally delaying the peace agreement to satisfy his men's thirst for loot.
After occupying York for over a week the American forces departed on May 8th, leaving the town to the British and Canadians. The fighting and week-long occupation left dozens dead hundreds wounded and the town stripped bare.
Canadians blamed General Sheaffe for the defeat and he lost his commission as lieutenant governor of Upper Canada.
Meanwhile the American forces emboldened by their victory set their sights on the heavily defended Niagara region. The campaign of 1813 was just beginning.
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