March 29, 2010

Patriot Attack on Kingston Falters

On the evening of February 21, 1838, Patriot General Rensselaer Van Rensselaer tried to rally his army and march 6.5 kilometers (4 miles) from Clayton, NY, across the ice-covered St. Lawrence River to Hickory Island. The island, just inside the Canadian border, was to be the first step in the Patriot invasion of Upper Canada.

Patriot Army Limps into Battle

The exact size of the Patriot army at Clayton on February 22, 1838, is uncertain. Lt.-Colonel Richard Bonnycastle (September 30, 1791 – November 2, 1847), the commandant of Fort Henry, later wrote that "there were no fewer than 3,000 sympathizers in arms." Various historians suggest the number was 1,500. Captain Daniel Heustis (who is the most credible source) wrote they had 600 men.

Van Rensselaer, ever the pompous ass, paraded around Clayton, as historian John Northman wrote, "resplendent in a uniform that would have graced Napoleon and filled with the courage created by good French brandy." He was unpopular and untrusted by the volunteer army. Only 50 answered his call and braved the bitter cold (records show the temperature was -27F or -33C).


Map showing Hickory Island

But the men did trust many of the Patriot's junior officers. Captain Heustis, a participant in the raid, later wrote: "The next morning [the 22nd], I led another company of 50 men to the island. Captain Lightle soon joined us with another company. About noon, Lyman L. Leach made his appearance with a company from Syracuse. A large number of men in sleighs visited the island during the day, but many of them stopped only for a short time. At no time did our force [on the island] consist of more than 300 men."

Bill Johnston arrived in the afternoon with another 50 men. With him were Hugh Scanlan and Samuel Frey, two loyal followers who months later joined Johnston in his signature event.

Just as he did on Navy Island earlier that winter, Van Rensselaer dithered instead of carrying on with the battle plan. No amount of brandy could summon the courage he needed to march any further. As the sun began to fade on February 22, Van Rensselaer's army melted away.

Heustis, who had worked for a month with Johnston to prepare for this battle, fumed with anger. He pledged that he would carry out the assault if just 99 others would follow. His challenge came too late. When the roll was called for the assault upon Kingston, just 83 men remained.

At sunset, the last stragglers departed. Heustis later wrote that he and Bill Johnston were the last to head home.

Bonnycastle Defends Canada

Had Heustis found his 99 volunteers, his brave effort would have been for naught. Bonnycastle had prepared Upper Canada for the invasion.

In mid-1837, Bonnycastle, 45, a brevet major in the Royal Engineers (and lieutenant-colonel in the militia), arrived in Kingston to oversee completion of Fort Henry, begun in 1832. At the start of the rebellion, he found himself in command.

Informants told Bonnycastle of Johnston's plot to have hundreds of farmers wait in local inns and public houses to attack Kingston. In his posthumously published book, Canada As It Was, Is and Will Be (1852), he wrote: "I took a strong guard of militia, visited every suspected house before midnight, and, upon pain of death, forbade the inmates to leave their abodes."

Bonnycastle also knew which man Johnston had inside the fort to spike the cannon and blow up the magazines. Bonnycastle confronted the man and received a confession. He ordered him out of Canada, saying if he returned "no mercy should be shown to him." Bonnycastle did not arrest the man because he was: "Unwilling to damp the ardour of the brave Militia who garrisoned the fort, or to frighten the townspeople by stories of blowing up magazines…"

Bonnycastle called up militia units along Lake Ontario and the St. Lawrence River. He requested and received a force of Mohawks from the nearby reservation to patrol the lake shore. He had men cut irregular holes in the ice near Kingston to foil attacks by sleigh. He barricaded Kingston with the help of a group of lumbermen who tore apart a timber raft to build a breastwork along the waterfront. Bonnycastle sent scouts to the US side of the river to spy on the Patriots and he set up a series of signals to warn of an approaching army.

On February 23, Bonnycastle went on the offensive. Riding at the head of a militia regiment, he crossed the ice to Hickory Island. He found it deserted. Johnston's entire battle plan, as brilliant as it was, never saw a single shot fired.

Back in the America, Patriot officers and men scattered to avoid arrest for breaking US neutrality laws. US marshals arrested Johnston, Heustis and a few others. Each was acquitted at trial or their case discharged.

Van Rensselaer Fades from History

Arrested in Syracuse, Rensselaer Van Rensselaer was unable to raise bail, despite his wealthy family connections. He waited for months in jail until sentenced to a term in prison. Colonial Canada's greatest unwitting ally, Van Rensselaer never commanded a Patriot force again.

The third of 10 children, Rensselaer Van Rensselaer was born in March of 1802 into one of the richest and most influential families in upstate New York. Men with the Van Rensselaer surname were prominent in politics and the military. His grand-uncle Stephen Van Rensselaer III (November 1, 1764-January 26, 1839) owned a massive estate in the Hudson River Valley, graduated from Harvard, founded the Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute in 1824 (which still exists), and served as a general in the War of 1812.

Rensselaer's father, Solomon (August 6, 1774-April 23, 1852), served as a decorated colonel under Stephen in the war, and later as a US congressmen and postmaster of Albany. Rensselaer's mother, Ariaantje "Harriet" Van Rensselaer (September 3, 1775-February 3, 1840), was a cousin. Maybe it was the inbreeding or a privileged upbringing that left young Rensselaer incapable of success. In retrospect, his tenure as Patriot general seems like a desperate grasp for glory.

Certainly his excess drinking had ill effects. Bonnycastle wrote: "Van Rensselaer is a gin-sling, sottish-looking genius of twenty-seven (he was 35), but apparently much older from disease and dissipation."

Rensselaer married Euphemia "Mary" Foreman in November 1840 but any joy it brought him appears short-lived. He committed suicide by inhaling charcoal gas January 1, 1850. They had one child, Solomon.

Further Reading

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