The United States has long had a complex relationship with is northern neighbor, Canada. Once the US had plans to invade Canada should war with Britain come, but there was at least one occasion where American citizens did invade Canada, although not under the official auspices of the US government. These wayward Americans were caught up in an internal struggle within Canada. This particular scrap led to the Battle of the Windmill, on November 12-16, 1838.
Tensions flare to rebellion
The events leading up to the Battle of the Windmill were rooted in Canadian politics. The British colony of Upper Canada was dominated by a political cabal known as the family compact. This group was made up of appointed officials in alliance with he Crown Governor. Their administration was inept and unfair. Frustrations over their polices boiled over into a full on rebellion in 1837. British forces crushed and scattered the rebel upstarts, and several of their leaders fled to the US. Among these leaders was William Lyon McKenzie.
They found that Americans along the border were sympathetic to their cause. After all, the Americans ha no great love for the British, after fighting two wars with their former colonial masters. . Many must have seen a romantic appeal to the enterprise, envisioning themselves as heroes fighting a tyrannical king like the Founding Fathers. Not to mention, toppling British influence in Canada and establishing a republican democracy in the north would remove future threat of Britain using Canada as a spring board for another invasion.
The Canadian exiles and their American sympathizers formed a cabal of their own, a paramilitary organization known as the Hunter’s Lodge.
The battle begins
In November 1838, the New York branch of the Hunter’s Lodge assembled at Sacket’s Harbor, on Lake Ontario, preparing to attack Fort Wellington in the Canadian town of Prescott. The invaders were lead by John Ward Birge, a self-appointed general.
The British caught wind of the attack ahead of time and commenced preparations. They called up the militia in Prescott and began to fortify Fort Wellington.
Early on November 12, the rebels approached Prescott in two schooners. They attempted to land on the wharf, but turned tail when the customs inspector raised the alarm. One schooner grounded itself off Windmill Point during the attempted escape. Birge ordered men and material off the ship to lighten the load enough to get the ship afloat again. For his part, Birge landed on the American side of the St. Lawrence River, claiming illness, but he promised the men on the Canadian side 100 men as reinforcements. A British gunboat named Experiment, however, had other plans. It forced the would-be invaders to keep their heads down. This gave the US Army time to impound rebel vessels in Ogdensburg.
The rebels on the Canadian side of the river were on their own.
Siege at the Windmill
Meanwhile, an actual military man took command of the stranded rebels. He was Nils von Schoultz, and he certainly had credentials for the job. He’d graduated from the military academy in Stockolm, Sweden, had fought the Russians during the Polish rebellion of 1831, and had served in the French Foreign Legion.
To a man with Von Schoultz’s eyes, the rebels were in an excellent position. The windmill stood a good sixty feet tall, and sported three and a half foot thick walls. This and its stone outbuildings would form a formidable fortress for Von Schoultz and his nearly 200 men and their three artillery pieces. The only flaw in the plan was the fact that Von Schoultz was lead to believe that local militia and even British regulars would flock to the rebel banners, and that these combined forces could be used to sweep through Canada.
Unfortunately for the rebels, the opposite turned out to be true. Militia and regulars swarmed the area, but they were certainly not keen on joining the rebellion. The Commander of British Forces in the area was Colonel Young, and he commanded 2000 men. The battle opened with an artillery duel. Von Schoultz and his men tried to hold back the hordes, but were shoved back steadily toward the windmill. The battle devolved to a stalemate at that point, as Young lacked strong enough artillery to shell out the fortified rebels. During the day’s fighting, 13 British were killed and 67 wounded. The rebels lost 13 killed and 28 wounded.
The two sides settled in for a siege, while outside the weather turned cold and rainy. The rebels suffered miserably in the cold. One enterprising rebel named Meredith managed to row across the St. Lawrence on a board. But there was no help to be had from the American shore.
Their adversaries, however, were soon reinforced. By November 16, Colonel Young was joined by several regiments of militia and regulars, including two large artillery pieces. In addition, a total of seven gun boats plied the St. Lawrence, ready to pound the windmill. Issues unloading the big guns delayed the climactic battle. Meanwhile, the two sides met under the white flag of truce, but negotiations quickly broke down. Von Schoultz and his men would see the matter to its end.
British forces began to pound the windmill with heavy artillery for two straight hours. The rebels were largely unharmed, saved from the rounds by the thick stone walls, but many saw how futile their position was and how pointless further resistance would be. Lacking ammo, food, and artillery, they simply couldn’t fight any longer without help, and no one was under the illusion that the cavalry would come sweeping over the hill to save the day. Most rebels surrendered that evening. A few fanatics refused. These holed up in a farmhouse. The British burnt their makeshift fort to the ground. The Battle of the Windmill was over.
A total of 159 prisoners were captured. Eleven, including Von Schoultz, were executed, three more died of their wounds before trial, and another sixty were convicted and transported to Australia. The remainder were pardoned. By the end of the year, the Hunter’s Lodge scattered to the winds, and any threat of a future rebel invasion went with them.
“The Battle of the Windmill.” glengarrycounty.com. February 8, 1998. GlengarryCounty.com. July 30, 2014. http://www.glengarrycounty.com/windbattle.html