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  • A Very Brilliant Affair: The Battle of Queenston Heights, 1812
  • George Sheppard
A Very Brilliant Affair: The Battle of Queenston Heights, 1812. Robert Malcomson. Toronto: Robin Brass Studio, 2003. Pp. xvi, 328, illus. $37.95

For twelve solid hours on 13 October 1812, British and American forces along the Niagara River engaged in a brutal series of engagements. At [End Page 828] either end of the peninsula separating New York State from Canada, artillery batteries pounded each other while US forces poured over the border to invade the centrally located village of Queenston. Malcomson argues the Americans eventually lost this encounter because they made many more mistakes. On one side Stephen Van Rensselaer failed to properly establish objectives, did not fully equip or adequately marshal his troops, and refused to ride herd on prickly subordinates. Meanwhile an impetuous Isaac Brock charged blindly into an American position, but he was immediately replaced by Roger Sheaffe who ultimately, if rather awkwardly, gathered the better-trained and -supplied British forces to repulse the invaders. In the end, Queenston proved important for developing a sense of Canadian nationalism, and it helped foster the creation of a strong American military under veterans like Winfield Scott. Still, Malcomson concludes that the actual battle was of little consequence to the war itself, as neither side was able to deliver a knockout blow before fighting ended in 1815.

This book provides a refreshingly detailed account of all those events. Malcomson, better known for his works on naval activities, has managed to research major American, British, and Canadian sources. That balanced investigation means this work takes us into the private and public lives of the military commanders on both sides, and it also explains the events on the ground for the ordinary combatants. Certainly this reader was impressed by the nastiness of the lowly musket-ball. For US Captain John Wool the first few seconds of combat saw a one-ounce metal projectile pass through both hips so that blood 'squelched in his boots,' while nearby Solomon Van Rensselaer was 'wounded and then hit again and again, in his thighs, his calves, his heel.' Malcomson does a good job of explaining such weaponry, as well as the tactics and strategy of the wider conflict.

There are some problems. On more than one occasion the citing is imprecise or non-existent. We don't know to whom Brock complained about 'being placed high on a shelf,' or how Malcomson discovered that Solomon Van Rensselaer's infant son had died. The totals offered for militia personnel on the American side are similarly slippery. Is it 4050 (117), 'more than 3000' (165), or 4070, or 4230 (255), or even 3350 (226)? Sometimes Malcomson seems to be including Pennsylvanian forces, or excluding New York militia based too far from the embarkation point, or creating 'effective' strengths by subtracting 20 per cent for illness and absentees. While it could be argued these are all approximations based on incomplete source material, it would be nice to have one general guess to run with. That is particularly important because Malcomson wishes to rehabilitate the reputation of the militia on both sides of the [End Page 829] border. Only about seven hundred American citizen-soldiers agreed to invade Canada on 13 October 1812, the rest holding back under cover of constitutional protections. This Malcomson excuses by pointing out that some enthusiastic amateurs leapt into the boats bound for Queenston. Similarly he notes that, at its peak, the militia on the British side amounted to about eight hundred men from the York and Niagara regions, and around two hundred Native warriors from the Grand River area. But it seems even by his account that perhaps just half of those individuals saw action at Queenston, and thousands more from these regions just stayed home. Near the end, Malcomson takes historians like C.P. Stacey and G.F.G. Stanley to task for understating the overall role of the militia. Yet no one has ever argued that energetic or even heroic militiamen were non-existent. Just that they were understandably rare.

All in all, this is a well-written and quite entertaining book (for instance, the author offers...


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