The Battle of the Windmill

 

Photo by Fraser Carr

 

The Windmill 

On the St. Lawrence River, approximately 2 km. east of Prescott, ON

 

This windmill structure was constructed in the 1830's as a grist mill for grinding grain.  In November of 1838, it was the site of the Battle of the Windmill, fought between approximately 200 insurgents from the United States sympathetic to the 1837 Rebellions in Canada and local militia and British soldiers. 

The  Rebellion of 1837 in Upper Canada happened because of the political, religious, economic and social problems which had arisen with the administration of a control group called the Family Compact.  The time was referred to as the "Dirty 30's".  

With the defeat of the rebels,  many rebel leaders such as William Lyon Mackenzie, escaped to the United States and found support for their goal of an independent, democratic and republican Canada.

A secret para-military Hunter (or Patriot) Lodge was formed, unknown to the U.S. Government.  This Lodge was a band of mis-guided band of idealists who were convinced that the Mackenzie and Papineau Rebellions of the previous year had failed because the Canadian population had not organized themselves properly against the imperialistic British and their toadies in the Family Compact and Chateau Clique.  The Hunters were convinced that many would flock to them and that Canada would become a sister republic of the United States.  The New York Hunters, led by "General" John Ward Birge, assembled at the Lake Ontario port of Sacket's Harbour for an attack on Fort Wellington, Prescott.  The British had been alerted to their activities and the reconstruction of Fort Wellington was authorized.

The Battle

On November 12th, two schooners approached Prescott with the Americans.  They attempted to land at Prescott Wharf. However, the customs inspector, Alpheus Jones, sounded the alarm.  The two schooners took off and one ran aground at Windmill Point.  With the defection of General Birge who claimed sickness and retired to the American shore with 100 men, command now fell to Nils Von Schoultz, a Swedish-Pole, 31 years of age.  He envisaged a quick victory but he would soon find out differently for he had stumbled into a hotbed of Loyalism. He could not have found a more unfriendly population.

Schoultz thought the mill, with its height of 80 feet, would be a great place for sniper activity and with its thick stone walls, it would be a veritable fortress.

A chief instigator along the St. Lawrence and Captain of one of the invading boats was Bill Johnston, a notorious River Pirate and smuggler who had burned the British steamboat,  Sir Robert Peel.  However, Captain Bill and 30 others went back to Ogdensburg. 

 Two hundred invaders took refuge in the mill and in the surrounding stone houses.  The mill was a terribly uncomfortable place and they ran out of supplies.  The escape routes and supply routes on the river side were blocked by British gun boats and a land attack was launched against them by British regulars and militia on November 13th. 

The first outside help was from Lt. Col. Gowan and his two companies of "Royal Borderers" from Brockville, who appeared about noon.

 Eventually, 2000 regulars and militia were amassed under the command of Colonel Young .  They launched a direct frontal assault on the American position  but were beaten back after sustaining heavy casualties, especially from the sharp shooters Von Schultz had placed in the high windmill tower.  Von Schoultz and his men were finally pushed back under relentless pressure from the British forces on land. After 4 days of fighting, running short of food and water, with no medical supplies and stunned by the hospitality of the population, the invaders were compelled to surrender on the evening of November 16th.

Prisoners were taken to Kingston where a lawyer, John A. Mac Donald, was counsel to them.  Von Schoultz was hanged at Fort Henry.  The British captured 159 prisoners of whom 11 were executed, 3 died of wounds and 60 were convicted and sent to Australia.  The remainder who were mere boys, only 15 to 18 years of age, were given their release papers by John MacDonald and sent home to the United States. 

 In all, 48 men were killed and 89 wounded in a vicious battle that helped pave the way to Confederation.

This mill was converted into a lighthouse in the 1870's.

This site was opened in 1996 and  today it is operated, on behalf of Parks Canada, by the Friends of Windmill Point who have just had a fantastic book written, called Guns Across the River (The Battle of the Windmill, 1838) by Donald E. Graves.  In this book are approximately 2000 names of everyone who fought in the Battle of the Windmill.  There has been approximately 2,200 books sold so far.  I think it is rapidly becoming a "best seller".

Anyone interested in this book, or would like further information, please call 613-925-2896 or write to The Friends of Windmill Point, P.O. Box 479, Prescott, ON, K0E 1T0.

Come visit this National Historic Site.   Read the plaques, talk to the guides, go inside the mill in the summer to view an audio-visual presentation and exhibits on the ground floor, climb to an observation level just below the light.  The tower offers a breath-taking view of the St. Lawrence River and the surrounding area.   Don't forget to scale down the little footpath at the back to the water's edge and imagine what it must have been like in 1838.

 

Click on the thumbnail prints.

Nils Von Schoultz.jpg (64235 bytes)

Von Schoultz's stones.jpg (29531 bytes)

Bill Johnston.jpg (38093 bytes)

Gowan.jpg (59844 bytes)

prisoners.jpg (73480 bytes)

Nils Von Schoultz

Von Schoultz's Stones, Kingston

Pirate Bill Johnston

Lt. Col. Ogle Gowan

Prisoners

 

References:

Parks Canada Pamphlet-The Battle of the Windmill

The Battle of the Windmill-K. F. Scott

 

 

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