Battle of Stoney Creek
(1764-January 21, 1848) English General
Although little remembered, Vincent was a doughty and aggressive defender of Niagara during the War of 1812. His decision to attack at Stoney Creek in 1813 saved the peninsula from capture and led to an American withdrawal.
John Vincent was born in Ireland in 1764, and he commenced his lengthy military career by joining the British army as an ensign in the 66th Regiment of Foot in 1781. Two years later he transferred to the 49th Foot, where he rose to captain in 1786. Vincent then accompanied his regiment to the West Indies and fought in the capture of Saint-Domingue in 1793, the Holland campaign of 1799, and finally Copenhagen in 1801. By 1802, the 49th had been transferred to Canada as part of the standing garrison, where it alternated between York (Toronto) and Fort George, Niagara. Vincent, a brevet lieutenant colonel since 1800, oversaw much of the training and disciplining that made the 49th such a formidable outfit. When the War of 1812 commenced in June 1812, he was directed to march several companies and help garrison Kingston on the northern shore of Lake Ontario. He was present on November 10, 1812, when the American squadron under Commodore Isaac Chauncey sailed into the harbor. Several British vessels were severely shot up, but Vincent manned the shore artillery and kept the marauders from attacking the town. For his prompt action, Vincent was officially commended by Governor-General George Prevost, who the following February promoted him to brigadier general.
Vincent arrived at Niagara in the spring of 1813 to replace the ailing Roger Hale Sheaffe. He was tasked with defending the entire Niagara Peninsula from invasion with only 1,900 soldiers and militia, divided between himself, Lt. Col. John Harvey, and Lt. Col. Christopher Myers. Vincent warily observed the construction of batteries at Fort Niagara across the river, as he well understood that this event presaged an eventual invasion. On May 27, 1813, Chauncey’s fleet embarked the army of Gen. Henry Dearborn at Fort Niagara and sailed over to the Canadian side. Vincent, who pondered which route the Americans would take, had previously concentrated his forces along the Niagara River. As an armada of rowboats, carrying nearly 2,500 soldiers, beat to shore, the general hurriedly redeployed his men on the beach to repel them. They were met with a concentrated barrage from cannons aboard the fleet and from Fort Niagara and suffered heavy losses. Vincent nonetheless strongly contested the landing, headed by Gen. Winfield Scott and Lt. Col. Benjamin Forsyth. After a stout fight, numbers finally prevailed, and Vincent ordered a headlong retreat to the south. “I could not consider myself justified in continuing so unequal a contest,” he wrote Prevost. This was accomplished so rapidly that the women and children of soldiers belonging to the 49th Regiment were abandoned at the fort. A prompt pursuit might have ensnared Vincent’s entire force, but Scott was ordered by the timid Dearborn to halt and return.
Vincent took his battered forces south to Queenston Heights, then turned and marched west into the Niagara Peninsula. He halted at Burlington Heights to rest, regroup, and await developments. The region was now finally in American hands, but not entirely secure as long as British forces were still intact. Therefore, in June Dearborn dispatched two brigades under Gens. John Chandler and William H. Winder in a tardy pursuit. They marched as far as Stoney Creek on June 5, 1813, and carelessly encamped for the night. Vincent, meanwhile, pondered his options. If he retreated back to Kingston, the entire peninsula would be lost for good. Furthermore, forces further west commanded by Gen. Henry Proctor at Detroit would be summarily cut off and captured. The only viable option seemed to be a sudden, violent counterattack to discourage a further advance. To this end, he dispatched Colonel Harvey to reconnoiter the American camp, which he daringly accomplished, reporting back that enemy dispositions were disjointed and inviting attack. This was all the encouragement Vincent needed, and he authorized Harvey, who was familiar with the ground, to lead the charge. That night, asserted by the local Canadian scout Billy Green, a British column of 700 soldiers departed Burlington Heights and made for Stoney Creek-10 miles away. During these deliberations, word was also received of Vincent’s promotion to major general.
On the morning of June 6, 1813, Harvey led a stealthy advance directly into the sleeping American camp. Although surprised, the Americans recovered and fought back gamely, inflicting heavy losses on the British. Harvey finally retreated at daybreak, but not before capturing Chandler, Winder, and 100 prisoners. Bereft of high command, the leaderless American force fell back to Fort George, with Harvey in pursuit. Vincent, meanwhile, had missed most of these proceedings, as he sustained a heavy fall from his horse and was lost for several hours in the dark. He finally stumbled into camp the following noon. However, his gamble, born of strategic desperation, stopped the Americans cold. Vincent then established several strong outposts in and around Fort George to watch enemy movements. One of these, commanded by Lt. James Fitzgibbon, became the object of American attention later that month. A 500- man force under Lt. Col. Charles Boerstler was directed to attack DeCou House, where Fitzgibbon was stationed, but the British, forewarned by Laura Secord, were ready and successfully ambushed Boerstler at Beaver Dams on June 24, 1813, capturing his entire force. The American remained cooped up at Fort George for the next six months. Dearborn’s invasion, begun so promisingly in May, had completely unraveled.
Vincent remained at Niagara well into the fall, when news of the October 5, 1813, defeat of Proctor at the Thames arrived. He feared that Gen. William Henry Harrison would continue advancing up the Thames Valley and cut him off from York, so he withdrew once again back to Burlington. Fortunately for the British, expiring army enlistments forced Harrison to return to Detroit. The ailing Vincent remained at Burlington until December 1813, when a new commander, Gen. Gordon Drummond, ordered him to Kingston. He was also replaced at Niagara by Gen. Phineas Riall. From Kingston, Vincent went on to Montreal the following summer, where he requested sick leave. He departed Canada on July 18, 1814, concluding 14 years of dedicated service to the Crown. Back in England, Vincent gained an appointment as lieutenant governor of Dunbarton Castle, Scotland, and saw no further active service. He nevertheless rose to lieutenant general in 1825 and general in November 1841. Vincent died in London on January 21, 1848, a forgotten defender from the War of 1812 whose success helped preserve Canada for the empire.
Bibliography Chartrand, Rene. Canadian Military Heritage. 2 vols. Montreal: Art Global, 1994-2000; Coleman, Margaret. The American Capture of Fort George, Ontario. Ottawa: National Historic Parks and Sites Branch, Parks Canada, 1977; Johnson, Charles. The Battle for the Heartland, Stoney Creek, June 6, 1813. Stoney Creek, Ontario: Pennell Printing, 1963; Myatt, Frederick. The Royal Berkshire Regiment (the 47th/66th Regiment of Foot). London: H. Hamilton, 1968; Stanley, George F. G. Battle in the Dark: Stoney Creek, June 6, 1813. Toronto: Balmuir Book, 1991; Suthren, Victor J. H. The War of 1812. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1999; Turner, Wesley. The War of 1812: The War That Both Sides Won. Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1990.