A Small Bay at the Head of the Lake

Reconstructing a Naval Engagement in The Burlington Races (1813)

A Small Bay at the Head of the Lake

Reconstructing a Naval Engagement in The Burlington Races (1813)

Benjamin Riopelle

Hamilton - 2022

In June of 1812, for the first and most notable time in its history, Canada was invaded by the United States of America during the War of 1812.1 This war is largely remembered for the burning of the White House at the hands of Canadian soldiers and, today, is a source of immense pride for many Canadians. The people of Canada often see this war as the young provinces fending off the mighty United States of America and toppling the giant through a patriotic drive to protect their sovereignty. Yet the War of 1812 was much more than what most people would have you believe. It was not an underdog story of a young Canada rising up and defending its land and ideals from the much stronger U.S.A., but it was much more complicated than that. There are many aspects of the War of 1812 that should be framed in a wider lens for how important and influential they were to both military combat and everyday life. An example of this comes from a battle from 1813 named the Burlington Races, which effectively reinvented naval warfare on the Great Lakes. The battle involved British Commodore, Sir James Yeo, leading a seemingly outnumbered host against the American Commodore, Isaac Chauncy, in a naval skirmish on Lake Ontario.2 However, there are three things to keep in mind when analyzing how the Burlington Races reinvented naval combat: the exploitation of a combat technique that flipped the status-quo of naval warfare upside down, the role of Burlington and its bay in securing a British, and subsequently a Canadian, victory, and how the Burlington Races reflected said role. It is important to note that while it was Yeo’s ingenious military strategy that won the battle, it was the port in Burlington, now known as Hamilton Harbor, and its geography that made the Commodore’s strategy a success which is something that should not be understated. The Burlington Races ultimately reinvented naval combat on the Great Lakes during the War of 1812 and secured Canada’s sovereignty before it was even a nation.

Eighteen days before the Burlington Races, American Commodore, Matthew Perry, secured a “stunning” victory over the British naval force on Lake Erie.3 Historians describe this victory as a crushing and almost absolute blow to the British waterborne presence on the Great Lakes that would have all but decided naval superiority for the remainder of the war. However, despite being a spectacular success, it would be all for naught unless the following and more important battle, the Burlington Races, was another American victory, as command over Lake Ontario was of supreme importance to the belligerents of the war and would effectively spell absolute destruction for the British naval presence on the Great Lakes in the event of a second American victory.4 The Burlington Races was thus a do or die scenario for British and Canadian forces. Going into the battle, the American naval host outnumbered the British by ten vessels to six with a weight-of-metal ratio of three to two and a long range cannon advantage of three to one.5 Despite the British being seemingly outnumbered, sources would later discover that six of these American ships were simply converted merchant schooners that were not built for fighting, making the battle much more even as a result.6 These naval hosts engaged each other just off the Port of York during a day that was described in a ship’s log as “cloudy with fresh breezes of E.N.E. wind.”7 The British host, however, would quickly find themselves overwhelmed by the superior numbers and firepower of the American armada and, at the behest of Sir James Yeo, would retreat to, in the words of the Commodore, “[engage] on more equal terms.”8

Commodore Yeo led the British host to regroup behind the shelter of a sandbar at a friendly port in Burlington Bay before re-engaging the American armada.9 Burlington Bay was an important strategic position because it was separated from the rest of Lake Ontario by a four-mile-long sandbar that provided the city with a natural, and almost impenetrable, defense. The bay was considered a “friendly port” simply because of its position as part of Canada, as it provided Yeo and his men a place to safely recollect themselves on friendly territory. This strategy would prove effective as the U.S. Commodore Chauncy noted:

I considered that if I chased the enemy to his anchorage, we should [all] go on shore; he amongst his friends, we amongst our enemies .. .! [therefore] relinquished the opportunity of acquiring individual reputation, at the expense of my country.10

Chauncy did not pursue Yeo and the British into Burlington Bay because doing so would have likely put him and his fleet into an extremely unfavorable position. Not only would the Americans have no access to a fast escape out of the bay, due to how difficult it would have been to reorientate their ships in such a small area thanks to the sandbar, but a prolonged skirmish in Burlington Bay would have likely resulted in troops taking to land to fight. Doing so would trap the Americans amongst their enemies with the British having an advantage. While Chauncy’s fear of overextending may, in hindsight, seem like a major blunder, his intuitions were proven correct by Commodore Yeo’s decision to anchor and make a final stand. However, the Americans lack of pursuit would ultimately allow Yeo and his host to regroup, resupply, and reorientate enough to secure an incredibly important victory over the U.S. navy that would give Britain naval superiority on the Great Lakes for the remainder of the war. While some may argue that Commodore Yeo’s actions in this battle were simply him “running away” in light of his own military failures, the events of the Burlington Races are much more complex than a simple blunder being turned into a success. Historians have yet to prove that Yeo’s retreat did in fact have the sole purpose of escaping the American host due to a military failure. Instead, all signs point to Commodore Yeo’s strategy being a calculated maneuver with the main goal of regrouping at the friendly port in Burlington Bay, a place that was firmly in British hands, which resulted in a decisive British and Canadian naval victory that secured the Great Lakes, a victory that was achieved, thanks in large part, to Burlington Bay’s geography.

Burlington stretches along the shores of the head of Lake Ontario which on its own is an incredibly valuable position as it grants the holder near complete control over access to the lake.11 The city was initially a fishing town due to the large amounts of fish present in the bay.12 The shores of Burlington are separated from Lake Ontario by a four-mile-long sand strip where a building named the King’s Head Inn stands.13 Initially a simple inn, the King’s Head was ordered to be built by the governor of Upper Canada, Sir John Graves Simcoe, in order to be a convenient rest place for travelers going between York and Niagara.14 However, as tensions began to grow between Great Britain and the U.S.A., the King’s Head Inn took on an important strategic role as a staging ground for military operations, something that would come into play during the War of 1812.15 The King’s Head Inn would play an important role in controlling Lake Ontario as it was built on elevated terrain making it extremely difficult to conquer.

Another aspect of Burlington’s strategic position that proved highly valuable is a part of the bay called the Old Outlet. Located north of the present day Burlington canal, the Old Outlet was a section of the bay where water levels were constantly fluctuating due to strong winds causing waves.16 This in turn negatively and dramatically impacted access to the bay and surrounding waterways by invaders and acted as natural protection for British and Canadian encampments in Burlington.17 However, the city of Burlington is not the only Canadian maritime settlement whose position proved highly valuable in the defense of the provinces, in fact, nearly every port, harbour, and city on the shores of the Great Lakes played an incredibly important role during the War of 1812 in one way or another whether it be through its strategic military position or as a trading point for fish.

With knowledge of both the Burlington Races and the use of a revolutionary naval technique alongside the importance and role that Canadian maritime settlements played during the War of 1812, it becomes clear how these two topics are connected and how the Races reflected this role. To reiterate, the Burlington Races was a battle fought on Lake Ontario that is famous for the British Commodore Sir James Yeo and his strategic retreat to Burlington Bay which allowed he and his men to regroup and win the day. With naval superiority over the Great Lakes likely being decided by the results of this battle, it was imperative for Yeo and his host to secure a victory. During the battle, Yeo’s ship, the British flagship; HMS Wolfe, sustained serious damage after it came into conflict with the American flagship; the USS General Pike.18 The Wolfe lost its main sails in the bout and forced both it and the rest of the British fleet to flee the area.19 Yeo assumed it was inevitable that the American fleet would follow him in order to finish them off and secure victory, so he and his host set sail to Burlington Bay with the hopes of anchoring at a friendly port to make a final desperate stand against the larger US armada.20 Yeo figured that the sandbar that separated the bay with the rest of the lake would provide them with enough of an advantage to have a chance at winning the battle because of how much natural protection it provided. Yet the American fleet never arrived, in fact they never even considered following due to the concern of having to fight so far into enemy territory. With this development, Yeo used this opportunity to regroup and revitalize his host in order to turn back around and win the day, which is exactly what he did.

While much of the credit for this stunning and incredibly important victory goes to Commodore Sir James Yeo for his infamous strategic maneuver, the role that Burlington played in the battle is often understated or completely overlooked. As discussed earlier, Burlington and its bay was separated from the rest of Lake Ontario by a four-mile-long sandbar that provided the city with a natural, and almost impenetrable, defense. Ship logs from the HMS Wolfe claim that the fleet used the high waters of the area, that were generated by an encroaching storm, to safely take refuge behind the protection of the sandbar.21 In the scenario in which the American fleet did give chase, the British fleet would be entirely protected by natural land formations and able to reorganize. While the Americans would use this as a distraction in order to move their armies up the St. Lawrence River, they would ultimately meet disaster and lose control of Fort Niagara, becoming a British supply port.22 The strategic importance of Burlington proved highly valuable in this battle as it is arguably the main reason why it was not a complete and utter disaster for the British fleet. The physical location of the city provided a strategic military position that allowed Great Britain and Canada to maintain control over Lake Ontario not only through its impregnable bay but also because of its place at the head of the lake, subsequently granting them control over access to major waterways.

In conclusion, the Burlington Races was a monumental victory for both Great Britain and Canada that secured Canadian independence from America over half a century before confederation. Through an examination of Commodore Yeo’s strategic retreat during the Burlington Races, the role that Burlington and its bay played during the War of 1812, and how the Burlington Races reflects that role, it becomes evident that this battle was imperative in preventing the U.S.A from claiming naval superiority on the Great Lakes and winning the war. Without the Burlington Races and its reinvention of naval engagements, it is likely that America would have taken control of the Great Lakes and left Canada and Great Britain in a weak and highly vulnerable state that could be easily exploited by the U.S.A. However, while Commodore Yeo’s revolutionary naval tactic is what the battle is remembered for, it would never have become a reality if not for the city of Burlington and its bay, who’s geography and strategic position arguably was the sole reason for the British victory, something that cannot be forgotten. Burlington Bay’s unique and protective geography made it an incredibly important strategic position that was the driving force behind the British victory. The examination of primary sources from the event is incredibly valuable to understanding the battle because they paint a clear picture of the story that illustrates how important Burlington Bay was to the success of Yeo and his fleet. With how important the Great Lakes are to both Canada’s prosperity and its identity, the loss of these bodies of water could prove disastrous in a future in which the country has no access to them. So, in the words of Commodore Sir James Yeo, the man who saved Canada from a disastrous future, in reference to the bay where he would unknowingly reinvent naval combat: “I put the squadron before the wind for a small bay at the head of the lake…”23

  1. “Canada’s History,” Discover Canada-Canada’s History, Government of Canada, last modified October 2015, https://www.canada.ca/en/immigration-refugees-citizenship/corporate/publications-manuals/discover-canada/read-online/canadas-history.html

  2. Robert J. Williamson, "The Burlington Races Revisited: A Revised Analysis of an 1813 Naval Battle for Supremacy on Lake Ontario," Canadian Military History 8, 4 (1999): 1. 

  3. Williamson, "The Burlington Races,” 1. 

  4. Barlow Cumberland, “The Navies on Lake Ontario in the War of 1812: Notes from the Papers of a Naval Officer Then Serving on His Majesty’s Ships,” Ontario History 104, no 1 (2012): 124. 

  5. Williamson, "The Burlington Races,” 2. 

  6. Williamson, "The Burlington Races,” 2. 

  7. Williamson, "The Burlington Races,” 2. 

  8. Williamson, "The Burlington Races,” 2. 

  9. Stephen Vermette, “Friend and Foe: Weather and the War of 1812,” Weatherwise 65, no. 1, (2012): 2. 

  10. Williamson, "The Burlington Races,” 2. 

  11. Daphne Smith, “Burlington Connections to the War of 1812,” Volume 25 (2012): 3. 

  12. Smith, “Burlington Connections,” 3. 

  13. Smith, “Burlington Connections,” 3. 

  14. Smith, “Burlington Connections,” 4. 

  15. Smith, “Burlington Connections,” 4. 

  16. Smith, “Burlington Connections,” 4. 

  17. Smith, “Burlington Connections,” 4. 

  18. Vermette, “Friend and Foe,” 4. 

  19. Vermette, “Friend and Foe,” 4. 

  20. Williamson, "The Burlington Races,” 5. 

  21. Vermette, “Friend and Foe,” 5. 

  22. Williamson, "The Burlington Races,” 5. 

  23. Williamson, "The Burlington Races,” 6.