During the winter of 1812-13,
American Secretary of War John Armstrong
asked Commodore Chauncey and Major
General Dearborn to prepare for
an attack on Kingston, the British stronghold on Lake Ontario. The British
got wind of the American plan and sent a regiment on an epic thousand-mile
snowshoe journey from Fredericton, New Brunswick to Kingston in order
to reinforce its garrison. When Chauncey and Dearborn found out, they
thought it wiser to attack the lightly-defended York and Fort George instead.
Knowing Chauncey was busy attacking Fort George at the opposite end of
Lake Ontario, British commander-in-chief, Sir George Prevost
and his Lake Ontario naval commander, Sir James
Yeo, decided it was a perfect opportunity to attack Chaunceys
own Sackets Harbour base. The new American frigate, the General Pike,
was nearing completion and they hoped to destroy it before it ever got
About midday on May 28, the British fleet anchored six miles off Sackets Harbour. Lacking a pilot familiar with local water depths, Yeo wouldnt sail any closer. The soldiers climbed into the ships boats and started rowing towards the American base, but they didnt get very far before Prevost, who had spotted boats in the distance and feared they were Chaunceys, lost his nerve and called them back. Even though the boats occupants proved to be only a few dozen American soldiers, the majority of whom the British promptly captured, Prevost dithered till the next morning before finally ordering the attack to resume.
For General Jacob Brown, who headed Sackets defense, this unaccountable delay was nothing short of providential. It gave him time to call out the militia. All afternoon and throughout the night, volunteers poured in to defend Sackets Harbour.
In the morning, the British landed and quickly routed the Americans
first line of defense. The remaining defenders however, proved more stubborn,
and it took nearly an hour and a half for the British to push them all
the way back into their redoubt. From behind its thick walls, the Americans
fired heavily at the British. Since Yeo still wouldnt bring his
ships to within range of his guns, the British had no way of breaching
the redoubts walls. Prevost had little choice but to order a retreat.
The Americans themselves had already set the General Pike on fire, together with their shipyards, and all the naval stores at the base. Unfortunately for the British, the General Pike, being made of green timber, failed to burn completely and the Americans were later able to salvage it. The Americans celebrated the British failure to breach the redoubt as a major victory, but their shipbuilding program had in fact suffered a major setback.