The Battle of the Windmill was fought 177 years ago, on November 12 to 16, 1838. In my article, previously published (Remembering the Battle)
in the November, 2013 edition of “Thousand Islands Life,” I included some reminiscences and first-hand accounts from the time period. This article provides more eye-witness reflections about the second last event of the 1838 Upper Canadian Rebellion/Patriot War.
Prior to the Battle of the Windmill, there had been at least 11 armed incursions from New York, Ohio and Michigan into Upper Canada. In the fall of 1838, Scottish author Patrick Matthew, who was writing to prospective emigrants, commented upon these matters and their consequences. He noted that; “The late disturbances have tended much to aggravate the misery; emigration and the foreign supply of dollars has ceased, property has been lessened, industry has been checked, and even though the disturbances have been put down for the present, an anticipation of future mischief continues to pre dominion of the British Crown.” Certainly a portent of what was yet to come!
Further evidence of this grave situation was provided in a November 3, 1838 letter from Henry S. Fox, the British Ambassador to United States, to Aaron Vail, U.S. Special Diplomatic Agent to Canada. Ambassador Fox claimed that 40,000 American citizens, at the lowest estimate, were enrolled in a “criminal association.” Fox continued; “The direct objects of this vast combination are, to invade and conquer Upper and Lower Canada, to subvert and revolutionize the established Government of those Provinces, and to wrest them from the rightful dominion of the British Crown. These are the designs of the chief directors of the plot: but it is probable that a large majority of their followers have enlisted in the scheme, for the sole purpose of rapine and plunder...Vast hordes of banditti and assassins are maturing their plans for the desolation and ruin of a British territory: they are engaged in this work, within the jurisdiction of the United States - where no British Authority can reach them.” Such was the tenor of the times, immediately in advance of the Battle of the Windmill.
One of the first on the spot accounts, of the Battle of the Windmill, was penned by American banker and New York Fifth Circuit Judge, Hiram Denio. He personally observed the beginning of the battle from Ogdensburg, New York, and described what he witnessed. In a letter written on November 14, 1838, to his wife from aboard the American steamer United States, Denio detailed the following: “The British had two armed steam boats plying in the river, opposite the Patriot headquarters, and they continued throughout the whole action to run up and down, firing their artillery at the Patriots and throwing bomb shells on shore; and the Patriots, who had a battery of two pieces of artillery on shore, were returning the fire with great spirit, but I could not ascertain the effect on either side. At the same time the forces on land engaged with small arms. From where I stood (not having any spy glass) I could see the masses of men advance and retreat indistinctly, but I could also see, with perfect clarity, the flashing of their guns and the smoke. At one time the British lines seemed to be broken and they retreated several rods towards Prescott, but formed again and the action was kept up with various success,for about an hour, when the firing was further back from the river and finally ceased, with the exception of a few discharges from a stone windmill near the water, into which it is believed a party of the Patriots have thrown themselves. It is evident that the Patriots have been beaten, but whether the garrison have retreated into the country, or been taken, is not yet known. The party remains in the windmill, but there is no escape from the British.” Also on November 14, Denio wrote a letter to the editor of the Albany Argus and further described the seizure of the United States, and subsequent events associated with the Battle of the Windmill. He was the co-owner of the S.S. United States, with Oswego businessmen Lucius B. Crowder and Theophilus S. Morgan.
On November 11, while enroute from Oswego to Ogdensburg and in advance of the actual battle, the United States was taken over by Patriot forces, led by Bill Johnston. As a consequence, Captain James Van Cleve lost command of the vessel, when “...the directors of the steamer made a scape-goat of Capt. Van Cleve to save the steamer from condemnation, notwithstanding he [Van Cleve] had urged the laying up of the steamer in Oswego for the winter, thus avoid[ing] trouble.” In Van Cleve’s defence, Denio wrote the following; “My belief, arising from his conduct and conversation, after we had become alarmed, is that he was entirely ignorant of any hostile enterprises contemplated by the Patriots, when they came on board, and the character of the schooners when they came on board.” Denio’s support apparently was of no avail, as Van Cleve did lose his captainship of the United States.
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[Click all photographs to enlarge]
“Reminiscences of early sailing vessels and steam boats on Lake Ontario” by Capt. James Van Cleve
Top right: The Steamer “Cobourg.” Middle image: Poem about Captain James Van Cleve,
Third: Information about the steamer, “United States.”
Lower left: continued information about the “United States” and,
Lower right: About Captain James Van Cleve losing control of the “United States.”
Material provided by Chicago History Museum Research Center
Water colour sketches were done in 1887 by Captain James Van Cleve. Credit: Chicago History Museum Research Center
In a court deposition given by Adam A. Bass, a resident living near Windmill Point, Bass noted that on November 12 that he had been informed that an armed party had landed at the windmill. On going to look for his family, he was taken prisoner by Patriot forces, but was eventually allowed to return home on orders from General Von Schoultz. On the 13th, Bass was alarmed by firing from British steamboats and then from on land. Rebels told him that they expected to be joined by Canadian supporters “who were under a yoke,” and that the Patriots had come “to set them free.”
Approximately 200 Patriots were armed with muskets, bayonets, dirks and pistols. They informed Bass that “...they did not expect to have any fighting, but thought if they only made a stand, the people of this country [Upper Canada] would join them, and do all the fighting.” Bass concluded that; “The invaders seemed to be all acting quite freely. Saw no compulsion used, but all seemed united in the enterprise.” The evidence provided by Bass and other locals was published in the December 13 edition of the Brockville Recorder.
Rebel combatant E. Wingate Davis, described the initial Patriot efforts against loyalist forces; “Our little force [about 225 officers and men] having first formed a line near a stone fence perpendicular to the river, was forced to change front and wheel up into a line parallel to the river in order to face them, and to extend our line as far as theirs. After keeping up a brisk fire for about an hour at the enemy, with two mortars throwing bombs at our rear from steamers on the river, Gen. [Nils] Von Schoultz ordered us to take shelter in stone houses and Wind Mill. Our men continued to stand their ground some time after the order was given, seemingly loth to give up the position until forced to.”
In a November 14 official government despatch, local commander of loyalist forces at Prescott, Lieutenant Colonel Plomer Young, provided his perspective of the battle. This description was published in the November 29th, Brockville Recorder: “The enemy was strongly posted behind stone walls on rising ground; but the intrepidity of the troops overcame those obstacles, and in an hour they were driven into a wind-mill and stone house adjacent. The former is particularly strong & finding, after a constant fire of some hours from the armed steamboats [Victoria & Cobourg], and of musquetry that no impression could be made on the building, I considered it more prudent, in order to avoid a further risk of life, to draw off the greater part of the troops, at three P.M. saving strong plequets, to prevent the escape of those in the buildings, until the assistance of heavy guns could be procured.”
New York educator General Roscius W. Judson, chronicled the spectacle of the battle, as he personally viewed it from across the St. Lawrence River in Ogdensburg, New York: “During the firing of the gun boats the British were in motion and, when it ceased, they made an attack upon the rear, driving the Patriot forces from behind the stone wall and from one building to another, until nearly every building was vacant, and the Windmill, which was their [Patriot] stronghold, contained nearly all of their men. Toward night the battle ceased and left the Patriots in some of the stone buildings, but mostly in the Windmill. On Wednesday, Nov. 14th, negotiations were secretly entered into between the British officers and Preston King, Bishop Perkins, Judge Stilwell and other prominent citizens of Ogdensburg for a cessation of hostilities for several hours during the night, with the view of having those who were wounded brought away from the Windmill and affording an opportunity for the others to escape.”
Another first-hand account of action occurring on November 13, and reflecting a loyalist perspective, was written by Captain George Macdonell, who was Commander of the Lancaster Glengarry Highlanders. Macdonell’s observations concerned military actions and the heroics of one Private Edward Landers: “On the 13th Nov. 1838 the Johnstown District was invaded by a horde of American Brigands and others – On that occasion I was with my corps and a small detachment of the Royal Marines, the later commanded by Lieutenant [Charles Allen] Parker attached to the Column of Militia commanded by Colonel Richard Duncan Fraser. The enemy composed of Riflemen and Infantry under [Nils] Von Schoultz, a Polish Officer of some distinction were advantageously posted in a Windmill adjoining stone houses and in a field behind stone walls in great strength upon whom my men and the marines advanced in front of the Militia Column in extended order, when a smart and severe engagement ensued and half of my men including the Marines were either Killed or Wounded, among the latter Lieutenant Parker and my brother, one of my Subalterns; during the firing, Landers who had joined us broke away singly from the line and was observed to throw off his bayonet and with the butt end of his Musket throwing himself upon the enemy, was observed to knock down numbers of them in a manner which is almost incredible, he was at last surrounded by the enemy and received stabs and blows from Bayonets, bowie knives & butts of Rifles and Mangled, and left for dead by the enemy, we received orders to take charge which we did and put an end to the engagement, killing numbers taking prisoners and forcing the residue of the enemy to retreat into the Windmill, from whence they were forced to surrender in three days afterwards; during the charge we passed over Landers body in the field and fancying him dead did not on our return pick him up but left him in a pool of blood; he appears to have come to in the course of the night which was cold rainy & freezing, he managed to crawl and appears to have got into the loft of a building, to which there was a ladder, and occupied by the enemy and laid there the whole of that day & succeeding night enduring sufferings from his state seldom equalled, towards morning and while dark he managed to crawl back unobserved, and made his way dragging himself along to our sentries, and was picked up by us and sent to Prescott where he lay on his bed for months, and recovered to the astonishment of all.”
A November 13, “Extra” from the Ogdensburg Times, which was reprinted in the November 30 edition of the Waldo Patriot, provided more details from an American perspective: “Early in the morning (13th) it was discovered that the armed [Canadian] steamboats Cobourg and Traveller had arrived with troops. About seven o’clock this morning the armed steamboats opened fire on the party at the Wind Mill, which soon brought a large body of spectators to Mile Point, the nearest American territory...The cannonading between the Wind Mill and the three armed steamboats continued to be the scene of attraction till nearly eight o’clock, when a line of fire blazed along the summit of the hill in rear for about eighty or a hundred rods, and the crack of the rifle and musket made a continuous roar. The scene was one of most intense excitement and solicitude. The reflection, that men full of high hopes and ardent expectations, were falling by the hundreds, was calculated to awaken the most painful reflections. The action on the brow of the hill continued some 20 or 30 minutes, when one party gave way, the other followed, and the combatants passed out of view over the brow of the hill; but the contest raged fiercely, as was evinced by the continuous roar of musketry. Another scene came in view; a party marched down by the river road and opened a warm fire upon a stone building in which the rebel forces were quartered. The battle continued with spirit for some time, when the loyalists retreated and the combatants over the hill became fainter and fewer, til about 9 o’clock, when all seemed hushed for the moment. The rebel forces were left in possession of the ground, but they seemed to be in no condition to follow the retreating party. From 9 o’clock till 3, there was not much excitement in the scene. An irregular fire was kept up on the Wind Mill, and a body of regulars sent an occasional volley at a stone house in which a body of the assaulting party were sheltered. At three o’clock, P.M. a barn, a short distance from the Wind Mill was consumed by fire. This was probably done by the rebels, as the barn afforded a shelter to the loyalists. 7 o’clock, P.M. We have reports from the field of battle this evening. It is stated that 600 regular troops were engaged, besides the volunteer militia...The rebel forces were in three detachments – one occupying the Wind Mill, another a stone building, and the third were posted on the brow of the hill, and sustained most of the morning’s work. It is reported that the field is covered with dead and wounded soldiers of the government, while so far as was known, but thirteen of the rebels had fallen. The schooners which brought the invading force down, were taken this morning by the officers of the United States, for breach of neutrality, though we understand that one of them was a British vessel. So far ‘the Patriot’ forces have sustained themselves against fearful odds, and with signal success. What the result will be, it is impossible to predict.”
An additional loyalist response was published in the November 24, 1838 issue of the Prescott Sentinel. It provided readers with an entirely different version of events. In part, this period editorial read; “We started in our last issue [November 17] that 24 of the ‘Pirates’ had been killed, and a great number wounded. We have since noticed different statements in several Upper Canada papers, with regard to the number that fell, but we believe our account to be very near the truth. Some bones were found lying in one or two of the buildings, burnt, but the number of persons destroyed cannot be certainly ascertained, probably six or seven; many valuable arms and other property where also burned in the houses.” The article continued; “The [Patriot] prisoners are to be tried by a Military Court Martial, forthwith, and as a matter of course, death must be their doom. Whether the Government will commute the sentences of any who may be considered culpable (an extension of mercy that none of them have a right to expect), still remains to be seen. We are not vindictive, but we do think it is high time examples should be made, that a firm and decisive stand should be taken by our Government, if we are to remain British Colonies.”
The editor of the Brockville Recorder also expressed his sentiments about the Captain E. Wingate Davis. Battle of the Windmill in the November 22 issue: “A military attack, which no doubt was intended to be an effectual one, has been made on the Province, and fully defeated by the capture of the assailants. As this movement has been the cause of much excitement and anxiety... [we] hope that the promoters of such expeditions will at length have learned the utter futility of their attempts to wrest the Canadas from the hands of a nation possessed of the most ample war like resources, which has been, and no doubt will continue to be, applied to the maintenance of the hold of her Colonies. They must also have learned that the fact that there are very few people in the Province willing to assist them in their subversion of the Government of the country, knowing as they do, the disastrous consequences attendant on civil contest. Whatever may be the desire of some for a change in the institutions of the Country, few are to be found willing to assume the consequences of a contest, especially when a door is open for their desires by emigration. There does not appear to be a disposition to risqué life and property to gain an object which can be effected without hazard to the one, and a partial sacrifice of the other.” Would this pronouncement prove to be the writing on the wall, which would spell the end of any further fortunes for the Patriot forces?
Further, the actions, consequences and aftermath of the Battle of the Windmill were detailed in a narrative written by Patriot Captain E. Wingate Davis. Davis concluded his remembrances by noting that; “On the following day [November 16, 1838] an unconditional surrender of the [Patriot] force was made. The prisoners were conveyed to Kingston and there tried upon the charge of Brigandage. All of the officers and nearly all the rank-and-file were found guilty. The former were all hanged and the latter, with the exception of a few pardoned, sent to Van Dieman’s [sic] Land for long periods.”
Only one final armed incursion, that being the Battle of Windsor, would be fought on December 4, 1838. This action ended the open military operations of the Patriot Army. Again rebel forces were completely crushed. Because of gross incompetence of leadership and the debacles experienced at Prescott and Windsor, the movement fell into discredit, and support for the Patriot cause waned. The Patriot War was now over. In the March 23, 1839 edition of Mackenzie’s Gazette, a poem from the Cleveland [Ohio] Bald Eagle was reprinted. Entitled “The Battle of Prescott,” the following lines indicated what some Patriot supporters believed and were still hoping for;
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“See a small Heroic Band, On a hill in Prescott stand – Leagues of foes on either hand Hem the heroes round: Thousands on the New York shore, Ready armed would hasten o’er – Colonel Worth with Tyrant power Drives them from the ground.
The POLISH CHIEF with fifty braves Plunged amidst the British slaves – Spiked a gun! Repulsed the knaves, And wreathes of Glory won! They fell as MARTYRS to inspire Each PATRIOT with Heroic fire, And kindled every Freeman’s ire, To bring the Vengeance home!
And come it will, for East and West A cry is raised for the distressed – It kindles deep in every breast That beats for LIBERTY; It spreads from heart to heart afar – It echoes forth the notes of War – Victoria is no Helen Mar; CANADA SHALL BE FREE !!”
Such would not be the case!
John Forsyth, U.S. Secretary of State, recorded the official American reaction to the armed incursions into Upper Canada. In a November 15, 1838 letter to British Ambassador Henry S. Fox, Forsyth wrote; “The Government of the United States has regarded with the deepest anxiety, the unfortunate disturbances which have recently taken place in Her Majesty’s provinces adjoining the Northern Frontier of these States, and has spared no exertions whilst enjoining upon their citizens, a proper sense of their obligations to prevent by all legitimate means, any interference on their part in the affairs of their Canadian neighbours. That measures of this nature were promptly adopted by the President, upon the occasion referred to, you are well aware, as also how far they have proved successful. Prompted by the same feeling, the reports which have reached this city [Washington] of apprehended hostile movements against Canada from within the American Territory, whether received through official or other channels, have been scanned with lively interest by the executive...every precaution that the most watchful prudence can suggest; and perfect good faith towards a friendly nation dictate, has been, and will continue to be taken, to avert threatened mischief.” This missive seemed to indicate concrete action by American authorities, which would signal the end to any further Patriot threat.
To reinforce the American stance, U.S. President Martin Van Buren, in his Annual Message to Congress, delivered on December 8, 1838, said of the matters at hand; “A state of feeling on both sides of the frontier has thus been produced, which called for prompt and vigorous interference. If an insurrection existed in Canada, the amicable disposition of the United States towards Great Britain, as well as their duty to themselves, would lead them to maintain a strict neutrality, and to restrain their citizens from all violations of the laws which have been passed for its enforcement – But this government recognizes a still higher obligation to repress all attempts on the part of its citizens to disturb the peace of a country WHERE ORDER PREVAILS, or has been re-established. Depredations by our citizens upon nations at peace with the United States, or combinations for committing them, have been at all times been required by the American government and people with the greatest abhorrence – Military countries so situated, and the commission of acts of violence on the members thereof, in order to effect change in its government, or under any pretext whatever, have, from the commencement of our government, been held equally criminal on the part of those engaged in them, AND AS MUCH DESERVING OF PUNISHMENT AS WOULD BE THE DISTURBANCE OF THE PUBLIC PEACE BY THE PERPETRATION OF SIMILAR ACTS WITHIN OUR OWN TERRITORY.”
Even the highest authority in the British Empire voiced opinions about the Patriot War. In her Speech to the Throne on February 6, 1839, the young Queen Victoria addressed members of the English House of Lords, and provided them with the following information; “I have to acquaint you with deep concern, that the province of Lower Canada has again been disturbed by insurrection, and that hostile invasions have been made into Upper Canada, by certain lawless inhabitants of the United States of North America. These violations of public peace have been promptly suppressed by the valour of my forces, and the loyalty of my Canadian subjects. The President of the United States has called upon the citizens of the Union to abstain from proceedings so incompatible with the friendly relations which subsist between Great Britain and the United States.” The sovereign’s desire for a peaceful solution would ultimately be realized.
What can be concluded about the Battle of the Windmill? In 1895, Jefferson County historian John A. Haddock described the Patriot War as being “...one of the most curious, and what would now be classed as inexcusable and insane, episodes that Jefferson County and the whole frontier ever witnessed...Nothing more nor less than a popular effort on the part of American citizens to overthrow the government of Canada by an unwarranted invasion of the frontier [Upper Canadian] towns.” Probably an accurate assessment of the Battle of the Windmill, as well as the other 12 armed incursions, which constituted the 1838 Upper Canadian Rebellion/Patriot War.
Selected Bibliography and Suggested Readings:
John C. Carter, “From the Battle of the Windmill to Van Diemen’s Land: The Saga of Three Ogdensburg Men,” St. Lawrence County Historical Association Quarterly (2015), v. LX, #2.
Hiram Denio, “Another Letter Anent the Patriot Rebellion of the Battle of the Windmill,” St. Lawrence County Historical Association Quarterly (April, 1960).
[Hiram Denio], “Seizure of the United States,” Brockville Recorder (December 6, 1838), originally published in the Albany Argus.
Lillian F. Gates, After the Rebellion (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1988).
Donald E. Graves, Guns Across the River (Toronto: Robin Brass Studio, 2001).
John A. Haddock, The Thousand Islands of the St. Lawrence River (Alexandria Bay, N.Y.: Weed-Parsons Printing Co., 1895).
R.W. Judson, “The Patriot War, Recollections of the Battle of the Windmill,” Ogdensburg Journal (November 11, 1892).
Patrick Matthew, Emigration Fields (Edinburgh: Adam & Charles Black, 1839).
H.A. Musham, “The Battle of the Windmill and Afterward,” The American Neptune (January, 1948), v. VIII.
“Canada War,” Brockville Recorder (November 22, 1838).
“Canada War,” Waldo [Belfast, ME] Patriot (November 30, 1838).
“Editorial,” Brockville Recorder (November 22, 1838).
“Later – A Battle,” Extra - Ogdensburg Times (November 13, 1838).
“The Militia Court Martial. Trial of the Brigands,” Brockville Recorder (December 13, 1838).
“Names of the Brigands taken at the Wind Mill, near Prescott, from 12th to the 16th November, inclusive,” Brockville Recorder (December 6, 1838).
“The Pathetic Romance of the Battle of Prescott Windmill,” Syracuse Herald (June 11, 1905).
“Windmill Point on the St. Lawrence,” Ballou’s [Boston] Pictorial (December 29, 1855).
Charles R. Sanderson (ed.), The Arthur Papers 1822 – 1838 (Toronto: Toronto Public Library/University of Toronto Press, 1957), v. 1.
K.F. Scott, Prescott’s Famous Battle of the Windmill (Prescott: St. Lawrence Printing Ltd., 1970).
James Van Cleve, “Reminiscences of early sailing vessels and steam boats on Lake Ontario,” Manuscript (1887), Chicago History Museum Research Center.
Plomer Young, “Official Despatches,” Brockville Recorder (November 29, 1838).
Chicago History Museum Research Center.
By Dr. John C. Carter
Dr. John C. Carter is a Research Associate in the School of History and Classics, University of Tasmania, and is a frequent contributor to Thousand Islands Life. This is his 11th article written for TI Life (Click here view his other articles). In particular his Series of Patriot Chronicles provides the most comprehensive summary of this important historic Patriot War topic. In addition, Dr. Carter has provided additional bibliography material, which can be found in THE PLACE, History page. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Note: Cover photo: “United States,” Water colour sketch by Captain James Van Cleve. Credit: Chicago History Museum Research Center