Monday, November 29, 2010

Windmill Battle: 5. Hunters Trapped and Besieged

The Hunter raiders trapped on a wedge of Upper Canada woke in the cool, bright dawn of Tuesday, November 13, 1838, to see three armed British steamers moving into firing position on the misty St. Lawrence.

The Experiment (150 tons), the Cobourg (500 tons), and the Queen Victory (200 tons) carried between them seven 18-pound carronades (short-barreled naval cannon) and one 12-pound cannon. At about 8 AM, the ships began a cannon bombardment of the Hunters fortified hamlet.

Because of the limited range and power of the carronades, many cannonballs plowed into the limestone cliffs below the windmill. Those that hit the mill or the thick stone houses in Newport usually bounced off. The three Hunter cannon, facing the river behind a wall of piled rocks, fired back but the balls fell short. Their only effect was to keep the British ships from coming closer.

That morning, a force of about 500 Canadian militia (farmers, shopkeepers and laborers) in civilian clothes and 100 professional soldiers in red or blue uniforms marched to Newport from Prescott. They surrounded the hamlet about 9 AM. Besides their superior numbers, the Canadian force was better prepared—militia training being a legal requirement for Upper Canada men.

Captain Daniel Heustis, who authored the best of several memoirs of the battle, later wrote 182 Hunters fought the first day, mostly untrained teens and young men from farms and villages.

Though a smaller force, the Hunters were well-fortified in the stone buildings and they had modern rifles, which could shoot further and more accurately than the militia’s muskets. The American farm boys were also crack shots, veterans of many a turkey shoot and other marksmen contests.

The Battle Lines Form

Colonel Nils von Schoultz, commander of the raiders, had two choices: surrender or fight. His army was clearly out-numbered, surrounded, and cut off. But, perhaps because he believed the Hunter generals would soon delivery 500 more fighters, he chose to fight. He ordered the bulk of his men out of the buildings. They took up positions behind wood and stone fences and waited for the attack.

Their lines three deep, the Canadian-British force began its lethal march from the north towards the thin line of Hunters. On both sides few men had faced a real enemy--this was their first battle.

The first casualties that day were not soldiers. A Newport woman, Mrs. Benden Taylor, and her teenage daughter Eliza fled their home to avoid the battle. Nervous Canadian militia fired, killing the mother and disfiguring the daughter with a musket ball to her jaw. (Some accounts also say an infant of six months died in Mrs. Taylor's arms.)

Fighting Begins

Who fired the first shot in the battle is debatable. Canadian sources blame the Hunters. Stephen S. Wright, one of several Hunter raiders who published his memoirs, said von Schoultz ordered the Hunters to fire only when fired upon. The first volley and return volley were so closely spaced that it would seem both sides fired almost simultaneously when about 150 yards apart.

The distance was too great for the Canadians' muskets and all shots missed. The Hunters' rifles hit multiple targets. Closing in, the Canadians fired again, this time finding Hunter targets. The Hunters let loose another volley, again killing and wounding their enemy.

The 2nd Grenville militia and Glengarry Highlanders under Colonel Richard Fraser took the brunt of Hunter fire in that first encounter. Fraser, 54, was a bombastic and bad-tempered man but a competent militia officer. He took the Hunter attack personally for two reasons: the Hunters had dared to attack his county, and he knew Bill Johnston was somehow involved. Fraser was one of the passengers on the ill-fated Sir Robert Peel that Johnston’s bandits roughed up and robbed six months earlier.

Fraser ordered his men to fix bayonets and charge. The Hunters fired a last round, balked and ran as a wall of resolute and angry men charged through the battle smoke. The Hunters were no match for men who trained for years in close combat. Several Hunters were skewered by the lethal 17-inch, three-sided bayonets.

The Hunters retreated into their fortified stone buildings. Firing through windows and doors, they turned Fraser’s advance.

Meanwhile, a second force of Canadian militia and army regulars under British Lt.-Colonel Olge Gowan, 35, attacked Newport from the west through a butternut grove. From behind a stone wall, the Hunters let loose a devastating volley. Again, the attackers fixed bayonets and charged. Again, the Hunter ranks broke and ran. Gowan’s troops followed but were turned back by Hunter snipers in the stone buildings.

One of the Hunters fighting in the grove was Nelson Truax, 20, from Antwerp, NY. A musket ball hit his leg and he fell. Just as a rabid militiaman was about to bayonet him, a British regular shoved him aside and took Truax prisoner, saving his life. (Truax died January 1915 at 96, the last Hunter veteran of the windmill battle.)

Amidst the noise and confusion, British Lieutenant William Johnson, 39, led a group of men to capture a Hunter cannon. (Heustis and Wright both wrote the six-pounder was left unattended as a decoy.) In doing so, Johnson and his men walked into a fierce Hunter crossfire from several buildings. Johnson dropped, mortally wounded, while his men (many also wounded) retreated. Sylvanus Swete (or Sweet), 21, is credited with the shot.

After a brief pause about 10:30 AM to regroup, the Canadians attacked again. Lt.-Colonel Plomer Young, 41, the local militia commander, and Colonel Fraser entered Newport from the east. Heustis wrote that the Canadians and British charged and then feigned a retreat. A band of Hunters eagerly followed and were outflanked and snared in a trap. The British took 30 men as prisoners and sent dozens of Hunters running for the windmill in a hail of musket balls.

Captain James Philips, 38, the only Canadian officer in von Schoultz’s army, was hit and dropped dead. William Gates, 24, from Cape Vincent, NY, rose from behind a wall to shoot and found himself alone between his fleeing fellows and Fraser’s charging soldiers. He fired the weapon, dropped it, and ran. With musket balls whizzing past him, he ducked into the barn and then into the windmill. (In 1850, Gates published his memoirs with details of the battle.)

Despite the setback, the Hunters held that flank.

After three hours of battle, Colonel Young called off the attack. It was clear that the Hunters could not be dislodged from the windmill and stone buildings. And it was apparent that the British gunboats did not have the fire power to breach the walls.

That first day of battle was the bloodiest encounter of the Patriot War. The official count of British and Canadian casualties was 13 killed and 78 wounded. Von Schoultz later claimed the Hunters had 8 dead and 14 wounded, plus 32 men taken prisoner. Wright stated they had 13 killed and 28 wounded, which seems more accurate based on the final tally of prisoners taken later.

Heustis found six bullet holes in his clothing but miraculously avoided the casualty list. Wright had a wounded arm.

Wright wrote about his friend Charles West, 26, from Salina, NY. A ball pierced his body. Bleeding heavily, he helped his comrades load their rifles until he expired. Wright wrote, "he bore up nobly—no sigh escaped him…and his last breath was spent in encouraging us to our duty. A braver youth never lived."

About 3 PM, Colonel Young posted a cordon of soldiers around Newport while the bulk of his army returned to Prescott with their prisoners. The naval bombardment ceased.

In the eerie quiet, the Hunters could only wonder what lay in store for them. They were victorious but trapped. They had no food and no medical supplies for the wounded. And they knew for certain the British and Canadians would return with more men and bigger cannon.

Further Reading

Next installment of the Battle of the Windmill.
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