The Battle of the Windmill

Near Prescott, Ontario

Downstream from Prescott but within sight of the town, the stone windmill that became the focus of the Battle of the Windmill in November 1838 still stands. Sixty feet in height with thick rubble stone walls, it was in the midst of a tiny hamlet called Newport, containing about a dozen buildings. The windmill itself is at the top of a steep slope that rises thirty feet above the river.

Only a few weeks before the landing at Windmill Point, Hunter leaders in the northern part of New York State had made the momentous decision to invade Upper Canada, choosing the town of Prescott as their point of attack. Preparations were elaborate, entailing gathering men from far and wide and the weapons to arm them, and arranging for their transportation to the American town of Ogdensburg, opposite Prescott. All these activities had to be undertaken in secrecy, for the American government did not look favourably upon an attack by Americans on Canada when no state of war existed between Britain and the United States. But, in the end, secrecy was not possible, for the British authorities had managed to infiltrate the Hunters and their spies reported back on the location and approximate timing for the attack on Prescott.

The goal of the invaders was Prescott but the element of surprise that they needed for success was no longer possible. The residents were on the alert. When, in the early morning hours of Monday, 12 November, suspicious vessels were spotted heading to the shore, the alarm bell sounded to bring the populace out to the defence of their town, forcing the nighttime invaders to flee to the safety of American waters. They were not, however, disheartened by this initial failure. Convinced that once they landed on British soil they would be joined by countless discontented Canadians, they chose another landing spot: Windmill Point.

The initial attempt at invasion had been a fiasco. The events that unfolded at Windmill Point were bloody and tragic. The invaders numbered about 250 men with the expectation that reinforcements would add considerably to their numbers. They were well equipped with rifles and artillery, and enough ammunition for four or five days of fighting. Their newly-elected commander, Nils von Schoultz, seemed an ideal leader for their enterprise. The Point itself was a strong defensive position and the windmill gave them a bird's-eye view of the surrounding countryside. British troops could not move on them unobserved. To them, their prospects appeared favourable.

13 November, Tuesday: The British authorities had moved quickly upon receiving news of the invasion, gathering together in Prescott a small force of local militia and regular troops, supported by steamers patrolling the river and armed to fire on the windmill. Early on Tuesday morning, the guns of the steamers opened fire but it was soon evident that their armament was not up to the task of seriously damaging the structure. At about 9 o'clock, the British troops numbering nearly 600, were on the move. Von Schoultz quickly ordered his men to take their positions and, when the British arrived within range, to open fire.

If the British thought that they would have an easy victory, the Hunters quickly proved them wrong. The fighting went on for five hours, at which time the British withdrew their force, leaving the Hunters still in control of the windmill site. A later report stated that 13 British soldiers were killed and 78 wounded, while the Hunters were thought to have lost 18 killed, 20 wounded and 26 taken prisoner.

14 - 15 November, Wednesday and Thursday: The Hunters had succeeded in fending off the British attack but their situation was precarious. They had suffered heavy losses. Their supplies of ammunition and food were almost gone. The reinforcements that they had anticipated from Ogdensburg showed no sign of arriving. And worst of all, the support that they had expected from discontented Canadians failed to materialise. All they could do was sit and wait for the return of the British troops.

16 November, Friday: From the windmill the Hunters had an excellent view of the preparations of the British for a second attack. What they saw must have oppressed their spirits: more troops, more and better armed steamers, moving in to place for a final attack. It began at 3:30 in the afternoon when the British artillery started the bombardment of the windmill. Then, as the sky was darkening the British, 1000 strong, moved in for the kill.

The battle was short-lived. While some of the Hunters quickly surrendered, many put up a strong resistance. But their efforts were futile. The fighting was over by 6 o'clock with the surviving Hunters either laying down their arms or fleeing the battlefield under the cover of darkness.