War of 1812: Battle of Queenston Heights

The Battle of Queenston Heights. Photograph Source: Public Domain

The Battle of Queenston Heights was fought October 13, 1812, during the War of 1812 (1812-1815) and was the first major land battle of the conflict. Seeking to cross the Niagara River, American troops under Major General Stephen van Rensselaer encountered a variety of difficulties. Finally landing part of his command, van Rensselaer engaged British forces under Major General Isaac Brock. In the resulting fighting, American troops suffered a defeat after militia forces refused to cross the river and a British counterattack isolated those on the Canadian side. The battle marked the end of a poorly managed campaign for the Americans.

Fast Facts: Battle of Queenston Heights

  • Conflict: War of 1812 (1812-1815)
  • Dates: October 13, 1812
  • Armies & Commanders:
    • United States
      • Major General Stephen van Rensselaer
      • 6,000 men
    • Great Britain
  • Casualties:
    • United States: 300 killed and wounded, 958 captured
    • Great Britain: 14 killed, 77 wounded, and 21 missing. Native American casualties 5 killed and 9 wounded


With the outbreak of the War of 1812 in June 1812, American forces began marshaling to invade Canada. Intending to strike at several points, the American efforts were soon put in jeopardy when Brigadier General William Hull surrendered Detroit to Major General Isaac Brock in August. Elsewhere, General Henry Dearborn remained idle at Albany, NY rather than move forward to capture Kingston while General Stephen van Rensselaer was stalled on the Niagara frontier due to a lack of men and supplies (Map).

Major General Sir Isaac Brock. Photograph Source: Public Domain

Returning to Niagara from his success at Detroit, Brock found that his superior, Lieutenant General Sir George Prevost had ordered British forces to adopt a defensive posture in the hopes that the conflict could be settled diplomatically. As a result, an armistice was in place along the Niagara which allowed van Rensselaer to receive reinforcements. A major general in the New York militia, van Rensselaer was a popular Federalist politician who had been appointed to command the American army for politic purposes. As such, several regular officers, such as Brigadier General Alexander Smyth, commanding at Buffalo, had issues with taking orders from him.


With the end of the armistice on September 8, Van Rensselaer began making plans to cross the Niagara River from his base at Lewiston, NY to capture the village of Queenston and the nearby heights. To support this effort, Smyth was ordered to cross and attack Fort George. After receiving only silence from Smyth, van Rensselaer sent additional orders demanding that he bring his men to Lewiston for a combined assault on October 11.

Stephen van Rensselaer
Major General Stephen van Rensselaer. Public Domain - National Gallery of Art

Though van Rensselaer was ready to strike, severe weather led to the effort being postponed and Smyth returned to Buffalo with his men after being delayed en route. Having spotted this failed attempt and received reports that the Americans might attack, Brock issued orders for the local militias to begin forming. Outnumbered, the British commander's forces were also scattered along length of the Niagara frontier. With the weather clearing, van Rensselaer elected to make a second attempt on October 13. Efforts to add Smyth's 1,700 men failed when he informed van Rensselaer that he could not arrive until the 14th.

Opposing the American advance were two companies of British troops and two companies of York militia, as well as a third British company on the heights to the south. This last unit possessed an 18-pdr gun and a mortar which were located in a redan halfway up the heights. To the north, two guns were mounted at Vrooman's Point. Around 4:00 AM, the first wave of boats moved across the river under the leadership of Colonel Solomon van Rensselaer (militia) and Lieutenant Colonel John Chrystie (regulars). Col. van Rensselaer's boats landed first and the British soon raised the alarm.

The British Respond

Moving to block the American landings, British troops under Captain James Dennis opened fire. Col. van Rensselaer was quickly hit and put out of action. Captain John E. Wool of the 13th US Infantry took over and pushed into the village with the aid of American artillery firing from across the river. As the sun rose, British artillery began firing on the American boats with great effect. As a result, Chrystie was unable to get across as his boat crew panicked and returned to the New York shore. Other elements of Lieutenant Colonel John Fenwick's second wave were forced downstream where they were captured.

At Fort George, Brock, concerned that the attack was diversion, dispatched a few detachments to Queenston and rode there to see the situation himself. In the village, American forces were contained in narrow strip along the river by the artillery fire from the redan. Though wounded, Col. van Rensselaer ordered Wool to take a force upstream, ascend the heights, and take the redan from behind. Arriving at the redan, Brock sent most of the troops guarding it down the slope to aid in village. As a result, when Wool's men attacked, Brock was forced to flee and the Americans took control of the redan and its guns.

Brock Killed

Sending a message to Major General Roger Hale Sheaffe at Fort George, Brock requested reinforcements to block the American landings. Due to the redan's commanding position, he immediately resolved to recapture it with those men on hand. Leading forward two companies of the 49th Regiment and two companies of York militia, Brock charged up the heights assisted by aide-de-camp Lieutenant Colonel John MacDonell. In the attack, Brock was struck in the chest and killed. Though outnumbered, MacDonell pressed the attack and pushed the Americans back to the edge of the heights.

The British assault then faltered when MacDonell was hit. Losing momentum, the attack collapsed and the Americans forced them to fall back through Queenston to Durham's Farm, near Vrooman's Point. Between 10:00 AM and 1:00 PM, Maj. Gen. van Rensselaer worked to consolidate the position on the Canadian side of the river. Ordering the heights to be fortified, he placed Lieutenant Colonel Winfield Scott in command with Brigadier General William Wadsworth leading the militia. Despite the success, Van Rensselaer's position was tenuous as only around 1,000 men had crossed and few were in cohesive units.

Disaster on the Heights

Around 1:00 PM, reinforcements arrived from Fort George, including British artillery. Opening fire from the village, it made crossing the river hazardous. On the heights 300 Mohawks began attacking Scott's outposts. Across the river, the waiting American militia could hear their war cries and became reluctant to cross. Arriving on the scene around 2:00 PM, Sheaffe led his men on a circuitous route to the heights to shield them from the American guns.

Frustrated, van Rensselaer re-crossed to Lewiston and worked tirelessly to convince the militia to embark. Unsuccessful, he dispatched a note to Scott and Wadsworth giving them permission to withdraw if the situation warranted. Abandoning their field works, they constructed a barricade at the top of the heights. Attacking at 4:00 PM, Sheaffe met with success.

Hearing the Mohawk war cries and fearing massacre, Wadsworth's men retreated and soon surrendered. His line collapsing, Scott fell back, ultimately retreating down the slope above the river. With no escape and the Mohawks, angry over the loss of two chiefs, in pursuit, Scott was forced to surrender the remnants of his command to Sheaffe. Following his surrender, around 500 American militia who had fled and hid emerged and were taken prisoner.


A disaster for the Americans, the Battle of Queenston Heights saw 300 killed and wounded, as well as 958 captured. British losses totaled 14 killed, 77 wounded, and 21 missing. Native American casualties 5 killed and 9 wounded. In the wake of the fighting, the two commanders agreed on truce to treat wounded. Defeated, van Rensselaer resigned and was replaced by Smyth who bungled two attempts at crossing the river near Fort Erie.

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Hickman, Kennedy. "War of 1812: Battle of Queenston Heights." ThoughtCo, Aug. 28, 2020, thoughtco.com/war-of-1812-battle-queenston-heights-2361372. Hickman, Kennedy. (2020, August 28). War of 1812: Battle of Queenston Heights. Retrieved from https://www.thoughtco.com/war-of-1812-battle-queenston-heights-2361372 Hickman, Kennedy. "War of 1812: Battle of Queenston Heights." ThoughtCo. https://www.thoughtco.com/war-of-1812-battle-queenston-heights-2361372 (accessed March 26, 2023).