April of 2011 marks the 98th anniversary of the battle of York, during the War of 1812. This post contains the tongue-in-cheek section from the book, “The Villages Within” that tells about the event.
The War of 1812
As tension between Great Britain and the United States increased, it was feared that open conflict was pending between Canada and her neighbour to the south. It was far more serious than the perennial argument over whether tea or coffee should be served for breakfast, or if a nation’s head of state should be a president or a king.
In July of the previous year, Major-General Isaac Brock had arrived at York, taking command of the military affairs of the province. He reinforced the fortifications of Fort York, and it is rumoured that he established a pub for the troops. This is this untrue. Perhaps historians misunderstood the meaning of the term “high-spirited troops.”
When Governor Gore returned to England in October of 1811, Isaac Brock became both the civil and military commander, with the title of “President and Administrator,” a rather “republican” title for the chief executive of a royal colony. We do not know if the troops sang “Hail to the Chief” to him when he entered the fort.
The same year Brock entered Upper Canada, a young lieutenant also arrived—James Fitzgibbon. In Europe, both he and Brock had fought in the Napoleonic Wars. Fitzgibbon was one of Brock’s favourite officers, having secured for him several promotions without the usual payment of funds. The residents of York did not consider this unusual. Simcoe had already established the principle of giving “privileges to the privileged.” Brock encouraged Fitzgibbon to pursue private studies to improve his education. Early in the year 1812, Fitzgibbon resigned his army commission to study full time, in hopes of eventually earning further promotions. A few of the more advanced government positions required that a man be intelligently educated.
I believe that in the modern era, this stipulation has been abolished for elected positions in government.
Arriving in Canada with the Forty-ninth Regiment, Brock was an officer of considerable military experience. He commanded much attention, with his striking features, blond hair, and blue eyes. He was over six feet in height, which was unusually tall for these years. In addition to his handsome appearance, he possessed gracious manners, impressing those whom he encountered.
Brock was also immensely popular with the troops, as he did not permit the officers to drill the men for long durations during freezing temperatures and insisted that they be properly clothed and fed. Under his leadership, morale rose and desertion from the ranks ceased. Besides, as they were in the middle of the wilderness, there was nowhere for the men to go.
At the social evenings at Government House, located on the west side of Fort York, the women always eagerly anticipated the commander’s presence. On such occasions, he was attired in the ornate scarlet tunic of a British officer. He wore a white sash around his waist, and a polished silver sword hung from his belt. He was long remembered by those whom he met. Star-struck women said that he was such an excellent horseman that he looked like part of the horse. I am certain that more than a few envious husband agreed, muttering, “He looks like the horse’s rear-end.”
On June 18, 1812, war with the United States commenced. Unlike today, York’s business community did not welcome a summer invasion of Americans charging across the border. After several victories on the battlefield, General Brock was killed at the Battle of Queenston Heights. The news of his death struck the fragile community of York like a thunderbolt. Many feared the war would be lost without his leadership.
In April of 1813, the American sailed across Lake Ontario and attacked York. When it was obvious that the struggle to secure the fort was doomed, the British lit a fuse to the powder magazine and swiftly retreated. When the powder detonated, it rained shrapnel for a radius of over a mile. Very little of Fort York survived. During the years ahead, debris from the explosion was found in the fields and embedded in the trees. It is possible that the older trees of the St. Andrew’s Playground of today were among them, as photographs taken around 1910 reveal that they were already mature tree at that time.
When the American invaders entered the town, they set fire to the parliament buildings and carried away the parliamentary symbol of authority, the “mace.” In addition, while in the building, they discovered the ceremonial wig of the Speaker of the House, and mistakenly thought it was a human scalp. When the troops returned home, they claimed that the British were “scalpers.”
Today, I glow with pride when I see the descendents of these “scalpers” outside the Air Canada Centre, particularly when the Leafs play against the Habs. I have even seen them around the opera house and Roy Thomson Hall. Some unkind souls say that Torontonians will scalp their grandmothers if the price is right. We do indeed honour our traditions.
In addition, today, some state that the infamous wig from the War of 1812 eventually surfaced on the head of Mel Lastman, who wore it honourably and ignored the surreptitious smiles, claiming it was a hair weave. I am certain they are wrong.
In 1934, in honour of the city’s centennial, the mace was returned to Toronto and today is on display at Fort York. No one knows the real location of the speaker’s wig.