Checkmate at York

Checkmate at York:

The Sir Isaac Brock and York Harbour

Matthew Gennaro

Toronto - 2023

The frigate Sir Isaac Brock was a ship that was built by the Provincial Marine in Upper Canada during the War of 1812, commemorating General Sir Isaac Brock, a well-known British fighting war hero who died in action. In the process of its construction at Fort York, present-day Toronto, the ship was burnt by the British during a raid on the fort by American forces in 1813. The ship was purposely burned due to orders from British General Roger Hale Sheaffe, who was in charge of the forces at Fort York at the time. While the ship was never completed, the Sir Isaac Brock brings focus to the significance of the ship and the importance of the naval shipbuilding race during the War of 1812. The Sir Isaac Brock burnt at Fort York showcases that the British were willing to lose all their military equipment, including their hold on the fort, to keep the frigate from reaching American hands. The British were willing to risk losing the frigate to win the long-game strategy of the war. Viewing the Sir Isaac Brock and its story at Fort York provides a strategic look into the War of 1812 and the importance of the Harbour of York with its shipbuilding prowess. This paper will explore the Sir Isaac Brock and the game of strategy that occurred within this war that ended with a triumph for the British Provincial Marine and Toronto.

Shipbuilding played a crucial role in determining the outcome of the War of 1812, as control over the Great Lakes, especially Lake Ontario, was pivotal. The United States President, James Madison, described this urgency for control of the lakes, stating: "the command of those waters is the hinge on which the war will essentially turn."1 The British had naval control in the early parts of the war, allowing for early victories and easier movement of troops and supplies along the lakes.2 In the beginning, the military fitted out civilian schooners or ships owned by the North West Trading Company with small cannons. After the declaration of war, ports including York, Kingston, and Sacketts Harbour, became key shipbuilding yards in the attempt for naval dominance.3 The goal for the British and the Americans was to build as many ships as possible to tip the balance of the war in their favour.4

The Americans began to build and design war-capable ships under the command of Commodore Isaac Chauncey with the British matching their efforts. The Americans built the corvette USS Madison while the British emulated it with their own corvette built at the Kingston dockyards. The Sir Isaac Brock began to be constructed in an attempt by the Provincial Marine to get ahead of the American fleet.5 The brunt of the manpower and supplies used during the war went to Lake Ontario in this 'battle of carpenters,' to achieve the end goal of naval supremacy and control of the Great Lakes.6 Building larger and better ships than the opponent played a major role in this game of strategy and made every ship built valuable in the long-term war effort. President Madison stated that "if they build two ships, we should build four. If they build thirty- or 40-gun ships, we should build them of 50 or 60 guns," showcasing how important building a formidable provincial marine would be in winning the war.7 The burning of the Sir Isaac Brock was characterized as a British loss, but it was also a loss for the Americans since they did not gain an important frigate in their efforts for naval supremacy during this shipbuilding battle.

The shipbuilding process at Fort York's Harbour began in the winter of 1812, to ensure the Provincial Marine could compete with the Americans once the ice melted in the spring. To construct the Sir Isaac Brock before the winter ended, a great number of men and resources were needed, including wood and metal, which was readily available around Fort York.8 This meant that beating the weather and the melting ice was of the utmost importance for the shipbuilders. British officials and Fort York's General Sheaffe were becoming increasingly worried about the American naval build-up occurring in Sacketts Harbour and around the lakes going into 1813.9 Sheaffe made recommendations to the British to up their production of shipbuilding in Upper Canada heading into the winter of 1812 to 1813, especially at the Harbour of Fort York.10 With the rise of shipbuilding at Fort York, General Sheaffe stated in a letter that York needed better defences with the belief that the Americans were planning to launch an attack on the port to stagger their ship production.11 As for Chauncey, he had failed to capture the important shipbuilding centre at Kingston in 1812 causing him to be cautious and shift his focus towards York.12 He and President Madison both agreed that the Provincial Marine had to improve to become victorious, especially with rumours appearing around the British Provincial Marine receiving reinforcements at the end of the winter from mainland Britain.13

The Americans were aware that to defeat the British, they had to outperform them in terms of shipbuilding and naval dominance. Chauncey, along with Major-General Henry Dearborn, suggested attacking Fort York as it was understood to be poorly equipped to defend against a naval invasion.14 In letters between Chauncey and the Secretary of the U.S. Navy, William Jones, Chauncey describes that there was "Not much of a force at York" and is keeping up to date with the movements of the enemies.15 York became a primary target for Chauncey and the Americans situated at Sacketts Harbour due to the growing rumours that indicated there were naval supplies and two important frigates being stationed in York's Harbours over the winter of 1812 to 1813.16 The Prince Regent, an armed schooner, was docked at York till spring and the more intriguing frigate, the Sir Isaac Brock, was being constructed at York.17 The Sir Isaac Brock was set to be one the largest ships on the great lakes and would help the British keep the American fleet pinned at Sackett's Harbour.18 The frigate was supposed to be armed with twenty-six 32-pounder, carronades and four long 18-pounders, making the Brock a formidable force once it finished construction.19 General Sheaffe acknowledged this fear of the shipbuilding at York and the potential of it being attacked by the Americans in the spring in a letter correspondence. He states that the Americans understand the shipbuilding here and the Sir Isaac Brock will be "larger than any which ever floated on these lakes", not stating the ship's name to keep secrecy.20 When General Sheaffe heard of this impending attack, he moved the Prince Regent to the shipyards of Kingston as soon as he could.21 This left the unfinished Sir Isaac Brock stuck at York and vulnerable to the Americans to acquire to use to their advantage on the lakes.

The relocation of the Sir Isaac Brock to Kingston posed a problem for the British as the ship's construction faced a significant delay, rendering it vulnerable to a potential American attack. Historian Robert Malcomson describes the condition of the Sir Isaac Brock as ill-prepared to be launched in the spring of 1813.

Its starboard side was barely half-planked and only the first few strakes of oak had been bent and fastened around its ribs on the larboard side. The lower masts were fully assembled on shore and two large sails were ready, as was most of the ironwork, and the ship's boats had been framed, but all the inner structures of the ship needed to be put in place, followed by its armament, equipment, mast, and rigging.22

Figure 1: Sir Isaac Brock on the stocks at Fort York in 1813.

The ship was behind on its construction and it was doubtful that it would sail before the spring of 1813.23 As seen in figure 1, the Sir Isaac Brock was not close to being fully completed and ready to sail once the ice melted in 1813.24 York's Harbour production in comparison to Kingston's Harbour was considerably worse, with Kingston dockyards being better equipped with supplies and manpower to achieve what the British wanted.25 York was so poorly equipped that the plan for the Sir Isaac Brock was to sail to Kingston to acquire the rest of the armaments required for the frigate to be fully completed due to the guns needed for the ship not being available at York.26 The winter made it challenging for the supplies needed to get to the port of York and the Sir Isaac Brock, making the construction process continually delayed.27 To make matters worse, there were bad relations between the shipbuilder and York's government officials, which further delayed the construction of the Sir Isaac Brock.28 The poorly executed construction process of the Sir Isaac Brock opened up the opportunity for the Americans to attack York and attempt to acquire the frigates for their provincial marine, especially one of Brock's stature at the time.

On the morning of April 27, 1813, Dearborn and Chauncey led a large fleet and squadron of men toward Fort York.29 The American forces outnumbered the British greatly, allowing them to land west of York dockyards, which is today Parkdale, near Dowling Avenue (See Figures 2 and 3).30 The Americans began marching westward towards the garrison and York with relative ease with the American fleet providing covering fire against the poorly defended Fort.31 General Sheaffe was present at Fort York during the attack and was active in the resistance against the American forces.32 Sheaffe quickly realized during the battle that his forces were greatly outnumbered and that York was all but lost.33 Sheaffe decided at that moment to let York fall and not let his regulars surrender by retreating to Kingston down the open road to the east as the Americans were storming from the west.34 During this order to retreat, the fate of the Sir Isaac Brock and Fort York was decided.

Figure 2: Map of Battle of York April 27th , 1813.
Figure 3: Map of Battle of York April 27th, 1813.

While the main forces were fleeing, Sheaffe, or another high-ranking British officer, burned all the government documents at York and then ordered the destruction of the Grand Magazine to minimize the enemy's gains from victory.35 The explosion from the Grand Magazine was catastrophic and killed large quantities of American and British soldiers in the process.36 Recollections of the explosion have caused historians to believe that the explosion could have been the biggest detonation in Canada before the great Halifax explosion during World War I.37 Sheaffe and the British did not want the Americans to gain the munitions and supplies that York had, thus making the strategic choice to destroy it rather than fight for it. Along with the Grand Magazine, Sheaffe also ordered the burning of the Sir Isaac Brock and a substantial portion of the naval supplies at York to prevent them from bolstering Chauncey's fleet.38 At the time, the Sir Isaac Brock was situated at the ports of York, where present-day University Avenue is located.39 It was out of reach for the Americans and the British were able to burn the frigate before they could obtain it. The American troops at York coming in from the west can be seen in figure 4, in which the Sir Isaac Brock is docked to the east in the distance where Sheaffe ordered the retreat and burning of the ship, out of the American's grasp.40 The Americans ended up claiming Fort York by the end of the day with little to gain from their efforts.

Figure 4: Painting of the Battle of York.

After the battle, Chauncey wrote letters to William Jones discussing the outcomes of the Battle at York. He discussed the death of General Pike from the explosion being a major loss for the Americans, as well as the absence of vessels they acquired from their victory.41 Chauncey's letters illustrate his disappointment about how little the Americans gained from their attack on York and was displeased with the aftermath. York was of great strategic importance during the War of 1812, with its ability to be a shipbuilding harbour for the British war efforts, and the Americans wanted to stop this production. While this was the case, this was not the only importance of the Fort at York in the war. York was key in cutting off British forces from the rest of Upper Canada.42 The Americans would be able to cause the fall of Upper Canada with control of Lake Ontario, which Dearborn argued would be the case if they captured the Sir Isaac Brock and Fort York.43 This would have led to the British being pinned in and the Americans would have been able to take the major strongholds at Niagara and Kingston.44 This strategic importance outlined was not obtained due to the few true winnings by the Americans at the Battle of York.

For their efforts, they received little in terms of equipment to use themselves and the Prince Regent was able to continue sailing and be a part of the British war effort on the Great Lakes. The Americans were able to capture the old schooner, Duke of Gloucester, but it was dismissed due to its old age and being unfit for battle, therefore being of little use to the American fleet.45 With this anger of little gains from York, the Americans retaliated against the destruction by Sheaffe by looting and plundering the town, destroying their government buildings and parliament buildings.46 Resentment towards the Americans grew from these actions in York and helped to fuel the British push to victory in the war, including the retaliation from the British in the raid and the burning of the White House in 1814.47 The British ended up rebuilding York after American occupation and in 1814 were able to repel the American attack using the Fort.48 Fort York after the Battle of York was seen as an important harbour in the war effort and led to better infrastructure being created in its efforts in becoming a functional harbour. The harbour of York was able to survive another day and able to build a stronger defence to help the British win the overall war effort.

While the Americans were able to claim the fort and achieve a short-term victory, the Battle of York ultimately resulted in a long-term victory for the British forces. The Americans had exhausted much of their resources and time in their raid on York. The Americans also suffered a large number of casualties and allowed Sheaffe, with his men, to escape and fight on.49 The Americans suffered a 20 percent casualty rate with 320 losses, making York a way too costly loss with little monetary gains of the plunder.50 The Americans did not achieve what they set out to do, which was to obtain the Sir Isaac Brock and the other valuable supplies situated at York.51 Sheaffe's orders to leave York behind became a success from the viewpoint of the long-term war effort and not looking at the short-term loss of York. The Prince Regent was safe at Kingston, along with Sheaffe and his regulars, and the Sir Isaac Brock was out of the American's hands. With a frigate such as the Sir Isaac Brock not being finished and used in the American fleet, it allowed the British to not be outnumbered and outgunned on Lake Ontario in 1813. While this was the case, the Americans did succeed in cutting off the York supplies that were meant to be used in the efforts on Lake Erie, leading to American victory during the Battle of Lake Erie in September later that year.52 Even with the triumph at Lake Erie, the Americans still lost a considerable number of men and supplies at York while gaining little to compensate for their efforts to achieve naval supremacy of the lakes. Fort York and the British Provincial Marine prevailed in this game of strategy, allowing the British to fight another day and prevented the American fleet from becoming too powerful.

  1. Robert Malcomson, Capital in Flames: The American Attack on York, 1813. Montréal: R. Brass Studio, 2008, 87. 

  2. Michael Hurley, "Naval battles on Lake Ontario: the battle of the carpenters: while Britain's Royal Navy ruled the ocean waves during the War of 1812, the fledgling American navy was able to challenge their supremacy on the Great Lakes." Esprit de Corps, May 2012, 58+. Gale OneFile: CPI.Q

  3. Hurley, “Naval Battles on Lake Ontario” 

  4. Hurley, “Naval Battles on Lake Ontario” 

  5. Hurley, “Naval Battles on Lake Ontario” 

  6. Hurley, “Naval Battles on Lake Ontario” 

  7. Malcomson, Capital in Flames, 87. 

  8. Carl Benn, “The War of 1812-1814.” In Historic Fort York, 1793-1993. Dundurn, 1993, 44. 

  9. Robert Malcomson, Warships of the Great Lakes, 1754-1834. Annapolis, Md: Naval Institute Press, 2001, 69. 

  10. Malcomson, Warships of the Great Lakes, 70. 

  11. Correspondence from Roger Hale Sheaffe to ‘B’. York, April. Malcomson Papers. MG 11 CO 42 354. P. 6. Brock University Archives, St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada. 

  12. Malcomson, Capital in Flames, 83. 

  13. Malcomson, Capital in Flames, 87. 

  14. Mary Beacock Fryer, “The Battle and Occupation of Little York (Toronto), 26 April- May 1813.” In More Battlefields of Canada. Dundurn Press, 1996, 55. 

  15. Correspondence from Isaac Chauncey to W. Jones. Sackets Harbour, 29th Mar. 1813. Malcomson Papers. box 1 folder 23. p. 234. Brock University Archives, St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada. 

  16. Malcomson, Capital in Flames, 88. 

  17. Fryer, More Battlefields, 55. 

  18. Fryer, More Battlefields, 55. 

  19. Malcomson, Capital in Flames, 342-343. 

  20. Correspondence from Roger Hale Sheaffe to ‘B’. York, April p.6. 

  21. Fryer, More Battlefields, 55. 

  22. Malcomson, Capital in Flames, 162. 

  23. Malcomson, Capital in Flames, 162. 

  24. Figure 1: HMS Sir Isaac Brock on the stock at Fort York in 1813. H.M. Sloop of War ''Sir Isaac Brock'', on the Stocks at York (Toronto), April 1813. Baldwin Collection of Canadiana. Toronto Public Library Digital Archives. Object Number JRR1152. 

  25. Malcomson, Capital in Flames, 162-163. 

  26. Malcomson, Capital in Flames, 342-343. 

  27. Malcomson, Warships of the Great Lakes, 72. 

  28. Benn, “The War of 1812-1814,” 49. 

  29. Benn, “The War of 1812-1814,” 50. 

  30. Figure 2: Map of Battle of York April 27th, 1813. Benn, “The War of 1812-1814,” 52; Figure 3: Map of Battle of York April 27th, 1813 (With Sir Isaac Brock’s Location). Fryer, More Battlefields, 59; Benn, “The War of 1812-1814,” 53. 

  31. Fryer, More Battlefields, 58 

  32. Benn, “The War of 1812-1814,” 49. 

  33. Benn, “The War of 1812-1814,” 54. 

  34. Fryer, More Battlefields, 61. 

  35. Benn, “The War of 1812-1814,” 54-56. 

  36. Benn, “The War of 1812-1814,” 56. 

  37. Fryer, More Battlefields, 61. 

  38. Benn, “The War of 1812-1814,” 56. 

  39. Fryer, More Battlefields, 56. 

  40. Figure 4: Painting of the Battle of York (With Sir Isaac Brock east of battle). Owen Staples, Bird's-eye view looking northeast from approximately foot of Parkside Drive, showing arrival of American fleet prior to capture of York, 27 April 1813, Painting, 1914, Accessed from Toronto Public Library, 

  41. Correspondence from Isaac Chauncey to W. Jones. U.S. Ship Madison at York, 28th April 1813. Malcomson Papers. Box 1 folder 23. p. 312-313. Brock University Archives, St. Catharines, Ontario, Canada. 

  42. Benn, “The War of 1812-1814,” 48. 

  43. Benn, “The War of 1812-1814,” 48. 

  44. Benn, “The War of 1812-1814,” 48-49. 

  45. Benn, “The War of 1812-1814,” 63. 

  46. Benn, Carl. “A Brief History of Fort York”. The Friends of Fort York and Garrison Common,

  47. Benn, “The War of 1812-1814,” 64. 

  48. Benn, “A Brief History of Fort York.” 

  49. Benn, “The War of 1812-1814,” 58. 

  50. Fryer, More Battlefields, 60. 

  51. Benn, “The War of 1812-1814,” 58. 

  52. Fryer, More Battlefields, 64.