July 09, 2014

I never witnessed such a scene – The Burning of St. Davids

After the American victory at the Battle of Chippawa, the advancing Americans discovered the growing hostility to their occupation. As the Americans advanced, General Porter became frustrated with the women of Upper Canada since they provided information to the British. Porter reported that the enemy “were advised of all our movements and positions by the women who were thronging around us on our march … professing friendship.”

The Americans were also unhappy with Upper Canadians when on July 12, General John Swift accepted the surrender of a Loyalist, but before the prisoner was disarmed, the prisoner raised his musket and shot the general dead. Major Daniel McFarland of the U.S. Twenty-Third Infantry summed up the hostility of Upper Canadians in a letter to his wife, “The whole population is against us; not a forging party but is fired on, and not infrequently returns with missing numbers.”

In response to ambushes from Upper Canadians, Porter sent Lieutenant-Colonel Isaac Stone, a tavern keeper and mill owner from Western N.Y., to St. Davids to investigate the area on July 18, 1814. Stone had reports that St. Davids was a Loyalist stronghold and a militia headquarters. After a brief skirmish, the American volunteers plundered the village and burned down fourteen homes, two shops and a gristmill. Shortly after the burning, McFarland and the regulars entered the village. McFarland wrote to his wife, “My God, what a service! I never witnessed such a scene.”

General Brown was outraged and decided to dismiss Stone from the army citing that Stone was accountable for an act that “was directly contrary to the orders of the Government and those of the Commanding officer.” Although Stone denied giving the order to burn the village, the results were clear. The Canadian militia were particularly outraged as Riall reported that they “seem actuated with the most determined spirit of hostility to the enemy.”

In retaliation, Governor General Prevost called on Vice-Admiral Cochrane “to inflict a severe retribution” on the Americans. The destruction of St. Davids, and the earlier destruction of Dover, led to the British attack on Washington in August 1814.

Make sure you head out to St. Davids on July 18 and 19 as they commemorate the 200th anniversary of the burning of the town. Click here for details. 

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