Battle of the Windmill: An 1838 Armed Incursion into Upper Canada, Which Resulted in Transportation to the Penal Colony of Van Diemen’s Land

By: John C. Carter

Introduction:

Between December 1837 and December 1838, at least 14 armed incursions from United States into Upper Canada occurred. More than 1,000 participants were arrested for treason and piratical invasion. This article (and a second one in the next issue of WT), describe the last two actions of the 1838 Upper Canadian Rebellion/Patriot War. These events resulted in 77 English speaking prisoners being captured at these incursions, and ultimately being transported to Van Diemen’s Land as political prisoners, aboard H.M.S. Buffalo.

The Battle of the Windmill: 

Much has been written about this incident in Canadian, American and Australian newspapers of the time.  The second last incursion associated with the 1838 Upper Canadian Rebellion, has also been detailed in both period and recently published books and articles.

HMSV Experiment challenging the American steamer United States, in advance of the forthcoming battle.

One of the first eye witness accounts of the Battle of the Windmill was penned by American businessman and New York Fifth Circuit Court Judge, Hiram Denio. He observed the battle from Ogdensburg, New York, and described it in a November 14, 1838 letter written to his wife from aboard the steamer United States; “The British had two armed steam boats [the gunboats Cobourg and Queen Victoria] plying in the river opposite the Patriot headquarters, and they continued through out 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 see with perfect unhindrance the flashing of their guns and the smoke. At one time the British line 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 wind mill 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 yet remains in the wind mill, but there is no escape from the British.”

Militia firing from the shore to repel the Patriot “midnight assassins.”

It didn’t take long for news of the Battle of the Windmill to be circulated widely in the popular press.  An Extra edition of the [Kingston] Upper Canada Herald was published on November 17, 1838.  An unnamed loyalist observer provided graphic details of the battle, and concluded that the action; “…soon ended in the complete destruction of the pirates, who have left above 60 dead bodies on the ground.” A November 17th and 18th description of the raid written by a United States officer stationed aboard the American armed steamer Telegraph,was printed in the November 29th issue of the Army and Navy Chronicle.  It provided an impression made upon this witness of the readiness of the Upper Canadian militia to resist an attack upon the province, and is evidence of the efforts made by the United States government to enforce its neutrality laws.  At the end of the battle the officer noted that; “We shortly returned to port, and beheld the whole town of Prescott [Upper Canada] brightly ILLUMINATED. What a commentary on patriotism, that these people should illuminate their houses, because their deliverers had been slaughtered! Need we more than this to convince us that the people of Canada are not disaffected?”  

Three armed British steamers bombarded the windmill in Edwardsburgh Township from the St. Lawrence River.

The [Kingston] Chronicle & Gazette of December 5, provided details of the Military Court Martial and trial of Patriot prisoners held at Kingston’s Fort Henry.  It also included an extract of a November 21 letter from Sackett’s Harbor, New York published in the New York Commercial Advertiser. In part it questioned both “the late Prescott affair” and the common sense of that incursion.  It concluded by observing; “Will not this sad lesson open the eyes of our people, and induce them to respect the laws of their own country, instead of periling their lives and honor on such promises of 150 acres of Canada land and 24 dollars bounty?…Not a Canadian joined them, but on the contrary fought them bravely and whipped them soundly.”  

In a December 8, 1838 letter to his father in Scotland, Lieutenant Andrew Agnew of the 93rd Highland Regiment provided a different military perspective.  After months of tedious garrison duty at Fort Wellington in Prescott, Agnew expressed a strong desire to engage the Patriot forces.  As an actual participant fighting on the government side, Agnew provided a fascinating day by day account of the action.  He spoke highly of his military superiors and the militia, and offered numerical statistics of the casualties; “Total killed were 2 officers and 13 men. About 40 wounded. Of the rebels the numbers are uncertain as they threw their dead into the river the morning of the armistice. 15 bodies were left on the field, many must have been burned and several died afterwards of wounds.  We had about 150 prisoners.”  Lieutenant Colonel Ogle Robert Gowan, leader of the Orange Lodge in Upper Canada, was also directly involved in the battle.  He had portions of his account printed in the December 8 issue of Mackenzie’s Gazette. Col. Gowan’s observations give yet another version of events from the perspective of the militia, and portray its important role during the fighting which took place on November 13, 1838.   

Another rich source of information reflecting the loyalist position is found in the journal of First Lieutenant Charles Allen Parker of the Royal Marines. As a nineteenth-century military officer, Parker was trained to be an astute observer and an accurate communicator. What he recorded in his diary reflects these attributes.  Parker had command of 65 men. On engagement with the enemy forces, they faced sustained rifle fire from Patriot snipers holed up in the stone buildings at the windmill site.  During the battle, Parker was wounded in the arm and narrowly avoided being killed when another bullet passed through the hair on the side of his head.  Parker postulated that the rebels targeted him because he was an officer, and he wrote; “I felt at this time that I had been marked, my dress distinguishing me: the three men nearest me were struck about the same moment.”  From his company, 5 men died and 22 received wounds during the initial battle. Later on leaving the field after victory, Parker recorded that 13 soldiers had been killed and 62 wounded.  He surmised that the troops under his command had killed or seriously wounded at least 30 of the Patriot force.  No love was lost for his adversaries.  Subsequently when orders for a Court Martial were given for the trial of prisoners to commence, Parker concluded; “How gratifying to the devotedly loyal inhabitants of this province, to see their enemies defeated, – totally defeated from east to west, from one extremity to the other of their province. Loyal Canadians! If those whose hearts ought to teem with gratitude, look coldly on your deeds an approving conscience will be your reward.” His positive feelings for the loyalty of most Upper Canadian citizens and for the defeat of the Patriots were steadfast!

The Battle of the Windmill looking over the St. Lawrence River towards Ogdensburgh, New York.

Private T. Rose, a soldier with the 34th Regiment, wrote a letter to his wife in England on December 12, 1838. This correspondence was subsequently printed in the July 2, 1839 issue of the Leeds Intelligencer.  Rose noted that; “The rebels shot four of the 83 regiment, an officer, a lieut. of militia and two marines at the last attack they made by Kingston, but ours got 150 of them in a mill and shot and made prisoners of all of them.”   

Not to be out done, newspapers supporting the Patriot cause also soon had first-hand accounts published which told their versions of the events associated with the Battle of the Windmill. The Belfast, Maine, Waldo Patriot,reprinted an Extra from the November 13, 1838 Ogdensburg Times which 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…So far ‘the Patriot’ forces have sustained themselves against fearful odds, and with signal success.” From November 24 until the end of 1838, Mackenzie’s Gazette [published in New York City]printed numerous articles, reports and excerpts from American newspapers.  In a December 1 letter to the editor, an anonymous observer said that on November 13, Patriot forces numbering 128, “…stood their ground, facing between 600 and 800 British regulars and volunteers,” eventually driving  “…the British back into the fort with a loss of over 100 dead on the field, and three times that number wounded.”  A journal of events written by Canadian born Patriots James Philips and Alexander Wright, both whom were participants in the battle, appeared in the December 1 Gazette.  These chroniclers of the skirmish were killed in action on November 13 and 16 respectively. In addition, a British account of the Prescott hostilities was re-printed from an original article in the November 17 [Kingston] Upper Canada Chronicle. Private correspondence from Ogdensburg on November 26, supplied additional primary information from an American perspective in the following week’s edition of the Gazette.  Patriot General John Ward Birge, commander of the “late unfortunate attempt to assist the Canadians,” sent his personal reflections about the battle in a letter to the editor, William Lyon Mackenzie. This narrative was printed in the Gazette of December 22, 1838.

The events, consequences and aftermath of the Battle of the Windmill were detailed in a narrative written by Patriot Captain E. Wingate Davis. He concluded his remembrances by noting that; “On the following day [November 16, 1838] an unconditional surrender of the force was made. The prisoners were conveyed to Kingston [Upper Canada] and there tried upon the charge of Brigandage. All of the officers and nearly all of 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.” Davis claimed that he was one of only a few Patriots to escape from the battle, and he reflected upon his experiences later in his life.  

Steamboat Cobourg closing in to capture escaping Patriot soldiers.

The Gentleman’s Magazine was one of the first British journals to report on the Battle of the Windmill.  In its January 1839 edition, the following account was published; “Accordingly, on the night of the 11th….800 republican pirates embarked in two schooners at Ogdensburgh [New York], fully armed, and provided with six or eight pieces of artillery, to attack the town of Prescott [Upper Canada], on the opposite side of the river.  They failed in the attempt to disembark at Prescott; but by the aid of two United States’ steamers, effected a landing a mile or two below the town, where they established themselves in a windmill and some stone buildings, and repelled the first attempt to dislodge them, killing and wounding forty-five of their assailants, among whom were five officers; but on the 15th, Col. [Henry] Dundas brought a reinforcement of regular troops, with three pieces of artillery, against the invaders. From the water they were fired upon by Captain [Williams] Sandom, who had two gun-boats [armed steamboats Cobourg and Queen Victoria]; and, after enduring the attack for about an hour, they hung out their flag of truce and surrendered at discretion.”

After hostilities had officially subsided, William Lyon Mackenzie continued to publish related stories.  His Gazette of October 24, 1840 included an account of the “Attempt to Save Von Shultze (sic) & the Brave Boys in the Wind-Mill,” and featured a narrative of Ogdensburg’s postmaster Preston King and his “Heroic Conduct” in that episode of the Patriot War. Even more amazing was the publishing of Sebastian John (Meyer) Myer’s short “Narrative of the Expedition to Prescott and Wind Mill Point,” in the Gazette of November 14, 1840. Myer was a 21 year old native of Germany who had been living in Syracuse, New York prior to joining up with the Patriot forces. He supposedly acted as a cook for the rebel army.  Myer was captured, found guilty, sentenced to death, then recommended for mercy, and eventually set free.  He moved to Rochester, New York, where he wrote about the experiences associated with his involvement at the Battle of the Windmill.  He sent these remembrances to Mackenzie, and they were published on November 11, 1840, almost two years to the date of the actual incursion!  Myer, along with William Gates, Daniel Heustis and Stephen Wright are the only known Patriot participants captured at the Battle of the Windmill, to have had their recollections and memoirs published.  It is conceivable that Mackenzie assisted Myer in composing the piece.  If so, the timing of its publication was not surprising.  Mackenzie must have hoped that by printing Myer’s article that he could shore up declining numbers of paid subscriptions and the flagging fortunes of his newspaper.  Mackenzie’s efforts were unsuccessful, as the November 14 offering became the penultimate issue of the Gazette. 

Sebastian Myer suggested that it was not yet time for him to comment on the conduct of the English government regarding what he called the “…brave and innocent patriots,” and to address the transporting of his colleagues and others to the penal colony of Van Diemen’s Land.  He concluded his narrative by asking a question in poetical form; “Shall Canada fall as Poland did, And shall the heavenly spark be hid, Which fired the Patriot host – Shall Queen Victoria’s vaunted claim, And bloody flag, deep died in shame, Still move around our coast? Say, shall she boast that in her might, She trampled on that holy right, Which your forefathers won; And shall their sons with dastard mien, Stand trembling near the bloody scene, And not to conquest run?”

This was not the first verse to be written and published about the Battle of the Windmill.  Gavin Russell, a Sergeant in the 2nd Regiment Grenville Militia, wrote a twenty page epic poem regarding his thoughts on and sentiments about the events.  This lengthy tomb was published in Montreal in 1839.  Soon after the battle, a traditional song began to circulate, which acknowledged the “success” of the British regular troops and the Canadian volunteers and militia who had “triumphed” over the primarily American invading forces.  

In a strange quirk of fate, the site of the battle became a favoured destination for travellers to the immediate area.  Englishman Thomas Sibbald passed by aboard a narrow propeller canal boat on September 18, 1842. He recorded the following; “During the early part of the night we passed Prescott, the roofless buildings, visible by moonlight, tell of a party of rebels or brigands under Van Schultz (sic), a Pole, who crossed the St. Lawrence on the night of the 14th November, 1838, and took possession of a strong stone windmill, a little below the town, the provisional militia had kept them in check, until troops and guns could be sent from Brockville.  On the morning of the 15th a simultaneous attack was made by land and water, and the result was the capture of the mill, though the loss was very great on the side of the assailants, considering that their foes fought with halters around their necks. Many of the brigands were killed, those who survived were taken prisoners, among them, Van Schultz (sic), who with five of his officers was executed at Kingston.”  

Captain Sir James E. Alexander of the 14th Regiment of Foot and his wife Lady Alexander actually visited the site where the battle took place, on a journey made in 1842. Alexander noted that; “Here the American ‘Sympathizers’ had made a bold attempt to establish a footing in Canada.”  He claimed that 400 Patriots had embarked from Sackett’s Harbor, New York, to engage British troops commanded by Colonel Plomer Young and armed steamers under the direction of Captain Williams Sandom.  Captain Alexander recorded that 18 British soldiers were killed.  He also viewed a stone slab near the ruins of the windmill which bore the following inscription; “Patriots Stop And Shed A Tear! In Memory of the Brave Patriots Who Fell In Defence Of Liberty At Windmill Point, In The Year 1838. Where Liberty Dwells, There Is My Country. Woe To Britain!”

Personal remembrances later published about what Ralph Jones, captain of the Canadian steamer William IV reportedly witnessed (see Ogdensburg Daily Journal of August 2, 1880), and what contemporary chronicler and correspondent A.M. St. Germain purportedly saw (see St. Lawrence Republican & Ogdensburg Weekly Journal of December 26, 1888), were questioned for their accuracy. Numerous articles in Australian and Van Diemen’s Land newspapers were published in April and May of 1839.  While newsworthy, they would provided little solace for the 60 participants at the Battle of the Windmill, those who had been charged and sentenced for their participation, and who were preparing for transportation to Van Diemen’s Land as political prisoners! The defeat at Prescott ended Patriot operations along the St. Lawrence River. Disastrous as was this defeat, it did not deter other rebel forces stationed along the Detroit River from launching an attack on Windsor on the evening of December 3, 1838.

(See the second of these articles about the Battle of Windsor, in the next issue of The Wayback Times.)

Dr. John C. Carter is a frequent contributor to The Wayback Times, and he can be contacted at drjohncarter@bell.net. He would like to thank Canadian marine artist Peter Rindlisbacher, for permission to use the series of images that he created, which depict the Battle of the Windmill. Visit Fort Wellington N.H.S., and the Windmill at Prescott, to learn more about this incursion.  

One Reply to “Battle of the Windmill: An 1838 Armed Incursion into Upper Canada, Which Resulted in Transportation to the Penal Colony of Van Diemen’s Land”

  1. Kim Munro says:

    Is there an actual list of names of the Volunteer Militia who participated on the Battle of the Windmill. Especially the casualties.
    I have a relative named Morgan Munro who disappears from all records after 1836 but was living in the Prescott area during the period of the Battle of the Windmill. Thank you for any information you could provide.

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