So it’s November 13, 1838, and 182 members of the Hunters Lodge, a United States-based secret society dedicated to the liberation of Canada, are stranded on the Canadian side of the Saint Lawrence River in Newport, near present-day Prescott, Ontario, after executing an ill-advised invasion.
* record scratch *
* freeze frame *
If you’re wondering how they ended up in this situation, read the first two posts in this series, The Republic of Canada and The Battle of the Windmill. This post concludes my summary of Shaun J. McLaughlin’s telling of The Battle of the Windmill, the bloodiest battle of the Patriot War.
It was extra bloody not because of the British or American militaries, both of whom opposed the Hunters (the former because their territory had been invaded, the latter because American Hunters, acting as individuals, were in violation of American law), but because of the Canadian militia, who were merciless.
By the way, do you like apples? On the first morning of the battle, there were “five hundred Canadian militia” and only a hundred professional soldiers. The militia squad that “took the brunt of Hunter fire” as bullets flew for the first time included two brothers named Macintosh, whose father, on the “family farm, twenty miles east… cultivated the crispy red apple variety that still bears the family name.” How do you like them apples?
Anyway, members of the Canadian militia had “drilled for hours on bayonet use” and “skewered slow-running Hunters with lethal, seventeen-inch, three-sided blades” as the Hunters ran.
Retreating to the relative safety of their stone buildings, including the windmill from which the battle gets is name, the increasingly ironically named Hunters also faced uncomfortably cold temperatures as well as bombardment from American and British ships on the river. Fortunately, one iron cannon ball “screamed in through a window” of the windmill and then, after settling and injuring no one, but still very hot, “helped warm the frigid room.”
“Winter arrived that afternoon” and snow began to cover “the unclaimed bodies in the battlefield’s no-man’s land.” By the next morning, “the wet snow that covered the bodies… had hardened to icy coffins” and one man “observed hogs eating corpses.” A truce was called mid-morning, “and for an hour combatants politely helped each other pry bodies from their wintry tombs.” It started snowing again later that night. The Hunters had still not liberated Canada from British tyranny, and now they were cold and miserable and eaten by pigs a bit.
On the third day, “gathering clouds dumped snow and sleet.” Some Americans on the New York side of the border tried and failed to negotiate the safe repatriation of the doomed Hunters. That night, three Hunters escaped across the river by canoe. They were the last to have such an opportunity.
On the morning of fourth day, Friday, November 16th, “just 117 Hunters remained fit to fight,” surrounded by a “force of regulars and Canadian militia” that “steadily grew” in number. The river also became “packed” with “gunboats towing barges with additional artillery.” The floating artillery “fired each gun every two minutes” and “steadily dismantled Newport.” By dusk the Hunters had retreated into “just two structures,” with “the majority huddled in the windmill.”
One American Hunter, Captain Heustis, was “infuriated” that his own government was against him in what he called his “struggle for freedom” in Canada. Heustis compared his fight to that of the Texas Revolution, in which individual Americans had also fought against a foreign power (in that case, Mexico).
As an “unstoppable wall of death” in the form of British regulars advanced on the Hunters, the Hunter leadership finally left the windmill, flying a white flag of surrender. “A squad of Canadian militia ignored the surrender notice and fired at them, sending them scurrying to the windmill.” Witnessing this display, a captain in the British navy “ordered his marines to shoot any militiaman who fired on a truce flag again.” Later, as the Hunters surrendered for real, they were protected by British regulars, though not with complete success. As Hunters were leaving the tavern, the other stone building they occupied, Canadian “militiamen bayoneted two men who walked out with their hands up.”
It’s unclear exactly how many men died. One source says 17 Hunters were killed, which McLaughlin says is “a testament” to their “defensive strategy and the thick stone buildings of poor little Newport.” McLaughlin also finds the official death count of 13 Canadian and British troops to be “suspiciously low” given that “we do know that bodies so littered the battlefield that it took a truce on the second and fourth days to remove them all.” No matter which number we choose, “it was the deadliest encounter for Canadian forces in the Patriot War.”
The windmill itself survived and remains standing today, converted into a lighthouse. You can go stand there, read the plaque, picture the battle unfolding around you, and even look across to the easily-visible American shore from which the raid was launched.
Remember the event that helped kick this all off, when Canadian militiamen rowed to Navy Island, aka the “Republic of Canada,” and set fire to the American ship the Caroline, sending its flaming hull over Niagara Falls? A “radicalized” Canadian rebel named Benjamin Lett had been on Navy Island with William Lyon Mackenzie, and he “harbored a grudge” about the burning of the Caroline. Almost a year later, near Navy Island, on the morning of the last day of the Battle of the Windmill, Lett knocked on the door of a man named Edgeworth Ussher (I swear George R. R. Martin didn’t write this), who “had piloted [the] fleet of boats” that had attacked the Caroline.
Ussher opened the door, saw Lett, and slammed the door in his face. “Lett fired his pistol through the sidelight, killing his victim instantly.”