April 24, 2013

A zealous and dedicated officer

On April 27, 1813, the American flotilla gathered offshore the capital of Upper Canada, York (modern-day Toronto). The Americans moved quickly and overpowered the outnumbered British forces sent to engage the American landing parties. After some fierce skirmishing, the British commander, General Sheaffe, decided to retreat from Fort York.

Leading the American land forces during the battle was Brigadier General Zebulon Pike. Born in 1779 in New Jersey, Pike quickly became a distinguished member of the American Army. He was stationed at a number of different frontier posts before being ordered to lead an expedition to explore the southwest.

The Pike Expedition, as it was later known, discovered a mountain that expedition members attempted to climb. This mountain was later called Pikes Peak and is located in Colorado. Eventually Pike’s expedition got into trouble when they mistakenly entered Spanish controlled New Mexico and Spanish authorities captured Pike and some of his men. Pike learned a great deal about the frontier during his expedition and subsequent detention by Spanish authorities.
Zebulon Pike
By 1811, Pike was serving with the 4th Infantry Regiment during the Battle of Tippecanoe. By 1812, he was promoted to colonel and then quickly promoted again to brigadier general in March 1813. Pike earned the admiration of his superiors who believed he was a zealous and dedicated officer who would have a promising future in the military. When Pike was placed in charge of the attack on York, he issued detailed instructions to his subordinates on how to proceed with the dangerous landing at York.

Pike landed with the bulk of the American forces in the middle of fierce skirmishing near the woods outside York. At about noon as the Battle of York raged Pike organized his men for a major push toward Fort York. At the same time, General Sheaffe gave the order for the British regulars to retreat toward Kingston and for Fort York’s main magazine to be blown. The explosion of the magazine wreaked havoc on Pike and his men who were about 200 yards away. The shockwave knocked men on their backs and flying debris struck Pike and his men. Pike was struck by a boulder that crushed his spine and left him clinging to life. Pike was quickly transported to the American ship Madison where he died, resting his head on a British flag that was captured during the battle and given to him as proof of the American victory.         

The American victory was marred by the loss of Pike, along with another 55 dead and 265 wounded. The Americans stayed in York for a few days looting, freeing prisoners from the local jail and harassing citizens, with the help of local American sympathizers. The American also burned many public buildings, including the legislature buildings and the library.

This Saturday, April 27th, marks the 200th anniversary of the Battle of York. The City of Toronto has many events planned throughout the city to commemorate this historic event. Click here to find out more.  

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