It was September 21, 1812 - 200 years ago, the first shots on the St. Lawrence River frontier rang out in Gananoque.
By 1812, Gananoque was becoming a vital staging point along the St. Lawrence River corridor. All supplies, domestic and military, that passed by here were escorted by armed gunboats. On this final leg of the upriver journey to Kingston, the convoy crews changed at Gananoque’s gunboat station.
In July of 1812 word was received that the first regular American soldiers had arrived at Ogdensburg, N.Y. Although untested, Capt. Benjamin Forsyth and his Rifle Company from North Carolina were well-trained and eager to show off their marksmanship. The new American Republic desperately needed some positive results as the war was not going well for them.
With an eye to capturing much needed munitions as well as finally bringing Colonel Joel Stone to trial in the States for past treasonable activities, General Jacob Brown granted leave for Forsyth to attack the Village of Gananoque. Colonel Joel Stone’s anti-republican sentiments from the Revolutionary War had not been forgotten. And in recent years he had raised a militia in Gananoque – The 2nd Leeds Rifle Company.
So it was, in September 1812, as the full moon was ascending over the St. Lawrence that Capt. Forsyth, and 70 of his Rifle Company along with about 30 New York militiamen, departed from Sackets’s Harbour in a small flotilla of 6 to 8 bateaux.
Contrary winds extended the trip, but after three days of manoeuvring among the islands and avoiding British gunboat patrols, they rounded the foot of Sir John’s (Howe) Island.
The cool morning mists were clearing nicely on that Monday morning when the invading force quietly landed on a narrow strip of beach along the west side of Sheriff’s Point (now the Howe Island Ferry point). The land was heavily forested, but Forsyth and his men marched along a rudimentary forest trail that connected to the King’s Road. (Highway # 2)
To Forsyth’s surprise, there were two British Dragoons on patrol that morning, riding west of the village; however, Forsyth got off the first shots. One dragoon was wounded. The other one escaped and headed into the village to alert The Colonel and the 2nd Leeds Militia.
Gananoque was poorly defended and the militia poorly trained. The militia was composed of the men working for The Colonel and others who had recently arrived. In all of Leeds County there were over 300 signed up for militia duty, but there were less than 70 in the Gananoque area.
On Monday, September 21, 1812, when the call to arms was sounded, the militiamen grabbed their muskets and assembled near The Colonel’s mill in an open area, south of the King St. Bridge. (now known as International Square).
With very little powder and shot in their pouches, the local militia met the American riflemen head on and got off the first volley. But it was with little effect. Most of them had no more ammunition.
Unfortunately, two officers and several of the militia had been called out on convoy duty and were escorting valuable shipments and supplies to Kingston. So the numbers were even more depleted that day.
After initial volley, the local lads had no alternative but to abandon the offensive in order to protect their lives. Forsyth ordered a charge and the 2nd Leeds Militia retreated back to the village. Those that had powder fired another volley. Then most headed across the King St. Bridge and vanished into the woods while others took refuge in a nearby building that was used as a hospital. They were captured and removed to Sackets’s Harbour by Forsyth and his men.
Before leaving Gananoque, Forsyth’s men, burned the government stores, destroyed the bridge across the Gananoque River, and ransacked The Colonel’s home.
Some riflemen ran amok, carrying out blankets and bed ticks and recklessly firing shots into the house. Mrs. Stone was injured in the hip. She carried that wound for the rest of her life, but it did not slow her down. She was a remarkable, caring woman.
An interesting thing happened during this raid. When Mrs. Stone heard that Americans were invading the village, she had the presence of mind to take the gold and silver coins she had in her possession, and drop them into a barrel of soap, whereupon the valuable pouch quickly disappeared. The contents remained safe from the attacking Americans.
Forsyth knew that his raid on Gananoque would arouse the ire of the garrison at Kingston. Not wanting to encounter the professionally trained British regulars, Forsyth and his men quickly departed in their small flotilla back to Sackets’s Harbour carrying with them their prisoners, some muskets and their one American casualty.
When word of this attack arrived at Kingston later that day, a detachment of troops and militia were immediately dispatched to intercept the invaders. But Forsyth and his riflemen were nowhere to be found.
Sometimes, in defeat there is victory, and in victory there is defeat.
With the bridge across the Gananoque River destroyed by Forsyth, the British commanders in Kingston realized how vital that crossing was to the land communications network in Upper Canada. Although military supplies and shipments travelled by water, the sensitive military documents were carried on horseback from Prescott to Kingston via the King’s Road.
Colonel Stone’s concerns were addressed and within six months of the attack, a blockhouse was built on a prominent escarpment on the east side of the Gananoque River overlooking the harbour and the bridge. For the remainder of the war it was garrisoned by British regulars and the 2nd Leeds militia. Gananoque was secure and never again threatened.
Captain Forsyth and his Rifle Company continued to harass the British supply lines along the St. Lawrence. They crossed the frozen river to attack Brockville on February 7, 1813. However, on February 22, 1813 the tide turned for the Forsyth Rifles. During British military manoeuvres on the St. Lawrence River ice, a force of over 500 regulars and militia launched an all-out attack on Ogdensburg, forcing Capt. Forsyth and company to retreat to the safety of Sackets’s Harbour.
Shortly after this British victory, Ogdensburg was returned to the control of its citizens and American merchants resumed supplying the British troops at Fort Wellington in Prescott with meat and produce. The Americans never re-garrisoned Ogdensburg.
On the 200th anniversary of the Attack on Gananoque, we not only pause to consider the horrors and casualties of this Unwanted War, but also are reminded that Americans and Canadians have enjoyed 200 years of peace and friendship along the longest undefended border in the world.
By Paul Scott, Gananoque, Ontario
Paul Scott is the former publisher of The Gananoque Reporter and an organizer of the 1812 events in Gananoque this past summer. As a lead-up to the major Remember the Raid re-enactment weekend, he wrote articles and gave presentations about Col. Joel Stone and the Forsyth raid. As a local historian he portrayed Lieutenant Levi Soper of the 2nd Leeds Militia.
- Alan Taylor – The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, British Subjects, Irish Rebels, & Indian Allies, Knopf, 2010
- Robert Henderson – A Tranquil River No More: The Raid on Gananoque 1812, http://www.warof1812.ca/gananoque.htm
- Illustrations: Fred Werthman