Saturday, January 29, 2011

Windmill Battle: 9. Hunters Surrender

The morning of Friday, November 16, 1838, again dawned cold and clear. Hungry, sleep-deprived, and disillusioned, 117 Hunters prepared for the final battle they knew they could not win. As the day progressed, the trapped raiders watched the force of British regulars and Canadian militia surrounding their stronghold steadily grow.

Lt.-Colonel Henry Dundas arrived with 300 seasoned infantry of the British 83rd Regiment of Foot. Lt.-Colonel Plomer Young, commander of Canadian militia in Prescott, assembled at least 600 citizen soldiers. A company of the 93rd Regiment of Foot, comprised of battle-hardened Highlanders, joined the swelling army. Captain Williams Sandom arrived with a fleet of gunboats towing barrages packed with additional cannon.

The Hunters’s biggest threat came from Major Forbes Macbean and his artillery squads. Early that day, he landed two massive cannon at Prescott and had the 7300-pound weapons hauled by teams of horses to a position 400 yards north of the windmill. Macbean’s men spent several hours digging in and readying the powder and 18-pound iron cannonballs. Unlike the carronades on Sandom’s ships and the lighter cannon on the field, Macbean’s guns were long-range building smashers. The Hunter commander, Colonel Nils von Schoultz, whose European military expertise was in artillery, must have known what was in store for them.

At 1 PM, Colonel Dundas sent a flag of truce on the battlefield to request an hour to remove the last bodies. Lyman Leach met the flag bearer and conveyed the message to Von Schoultz, who agreed.

During the truce, von Schoultz met Dundas in mid-battlefield and returned two Canadian militia prisoners captured two days earlier. Von Schoultz offered to surrender to prevent further bloodshed, if Dundas would treat the Hunters as prisoners of war. Dundas denied the request, saying that he’d accept only an unconditional surrender. Von Schoultz refused.

At 3 PM, all cannon on Sandom’s seven vessels and barges began their final bombardment of Newport. A half hour later, Macbean fired the first shot from one of his massive guns. The 18-pound cannonball smacked into the windmill and deflected, leaving the tower unscathed yet again. The first shot from the second cannon caved in a wall of the nearest stone house sending Hunters running.

Macbean’s experienced artillery crews began to steadily dismantled Newport. Each cannon fired once every two minutes and every cannonball hit its target. At the same time, 15 lighter field cannon and Sandom’s fleet continued to rain iron on the hamlet. Their intent was to keep the Hunter snipers pinned down. It worked. The Hunters fired only an occasional shot that afternoon in their defense.

As dusk began to darken the short November day, most Hunters occupied just two structures. The majority huddled in the windmill under command of Colonel Martin Woodruff. A dozen or so Hunters under von Schoultz defended the stone tavern. A few snipers remained in the ruins of other buildings.

Shortly before the final British troop assault began, the Hunter officers gathered at the tavern. Colonels Dorephus Abbey and Woodruff wanted to surrender. Von Schoultz refused. Woodruff returned to the windmill. Abbey quietly exited the tavern, walked to the British lines and surrendered.

The foul-tempered militia colonel, Richard Fraser, spotted Abbey. Fraser road over on horseback and smacked Abbey’s buttocks with the flat of his sword. Abbey dropped to his knees in intense stinging pain.

About 4:30 PM, Dundas ordered the British regulars and Canadian militia to advance on the Hunters. Macbean’s cannon ceased their work to avoid hitting their own men.

The British regulars methodically advanced, setting fire to each house to drive out remaining Hunters. As the unstoppable wall of death moved closer to the center of Newport, Captain Daniel Heustis and Colonel Woodruff marched out of the windmill under a white flag. Members of the Canadian militia ignored the flag and fired at them, sending them scurrying back to the windmill.

Captain Sandom witnessed the episode. A man of unimpeachable honor, he ordered his marines to shoot the militia if they fired on a flag of truce again. After conferring with Dundas, Sandom sent a naval lieutenant with a flag of truce to the windmill. The Hunters surrendered and marched out between two lines of British regulars, who protected the Hunters from the militia who wanted no quarter given.

At the tavern, von Schoultz told his men to surrender or flee as they chose. Two who attempted to surrender were bayoneted by militiamen. Von Schoultz fled into the dark with Hunter Vaughan and several others. Scouts captured the colonel within two hours. Vaughan remained free for two days. Several men did successfully escape back to America, including an unnamed Pole who walked through the battle lines wearing the British uniform taken from Lieutenant William Johnson’s body on Tuesday.

The battle over, the surviving Hunters plodded under guard to Prescott. The next day they boarded ships for Fort Henry in Kingston where their final fates would be decided.

The British recorded 161 captured Hunters, including 17 wounded. At least five men were known to have escaped during the battle. Heustis’ memoirs state that 17 died during the battle, 17 were wounded, and three died later of their wounds. This matches British records.

The official toll of British and Canadian casualties is 82: 13 Canadian militia, and British officers and soldiers killed and 69 wounded. The toll seems suspiciously low. Eye-witness accounts suggest a much greater toll.

William Gates wrote that nine wagons piled with enemy bodies left the battle area the first day. Stephen Wright estimated the British casualties at between 400 and 600. Daniel Heustis wrote: “The loss of the enemy was stated on our trial, by a government witness, to have been about 20 officers, and upwards of 300 men, killed, and a very large number wounded.” (The trial transcript does not include the information Heustis quoted.)

We do know that bodies so littered the battlefield after the first day that it took a truce on the second and fourth day to remove them all. For propaganda reasons the real count of British and Canadian dead may have been downplayed, though the published Hunter estimates were certainly exaggerated.

Even if you accept the official casualty list, the Battle of the Windmill was the bloodiest encounter of the Patriot War—but it was not the last.

Further Reading

For the most detailed account of the Battle of the Windmill and the best list of combatants on both sides, read Guns Across the River by Donald Graves, 2001.

Also look for "A Troublesome Berth:" The Journal of First Lieutenant Charles Parker, Royal Marines: The Canada Years, 1838-1840, by Robert J. Andrews and Rosalyn Parker Art, published by the Kingston Historical Society, 2009. This new work is a rare account by an officer who fought on the British side at the Windmill.
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