At dawn April 27, 1813, a flotilla of more than a dozen American ships under Commodore Isaac Chauncey attacked York, the capital of Upper Canada. They landed west of the fort, and quickly overpowered the small number of British regulars and First Nations warriors guarding the shore. It was an easy victory for the American force of 2,600 soldiers and sailors, who faced fewer than 1,000 defenders. The British general, Sir Roger Hale Sheaffe, retreated to Kingston. Militia officers were left behind to negotiate the terms of surrender.
Sheaffe set the gunpowder magazine at the fort on fire to cover his retreat and deny the Americans ammunition. The effect was devastating. The exploding black powder sent out a shock wave and spewed rock and barrel fragments into the air.
The blast instantly killed nearly 40 men and wounded more than 200, many of whom did not survive their injuries. Among the dead was Brigadier-General Zebulon Pike, the American commander on shore.
The detonation was seen as a cruel trick by the Americans, who were expecting the British to lay down their arms. The invaders became even more furious upon discovering that Sheaffe had burned a warship, the Sir Isaac Brock, which the Americans had hoped to capture and use to control Lake Ontario.
American troops sacked any home they found deserted, along with several businesses. They then set fire to the Parliament, Government House, and other public buildings, and destroyed the local printing press.
The capture of the capital was an embarrassment for the British. Chauncey returned in July, landing unopposed to burn more military installations and make off with supplies. The British attack on Washington in August 1814 was seen as just retaliation for York's sacking.
By James Marsh