Sheaffe, Roger Hale

Sir Roger Hale Sheaffe, army officer, colonial administrator (b at Boston, Mass 15 Jul 1763; d at Edinburgh, Scot 17 Jul 1851). Growing up during the American Revolution in the volatile city of Boston, Sheaffe was taken under the wing of the Duke of Northumberland, who had made his headquarters in the boarding house of Sheaffe’s widowed mother. The duke sent Sheaffe to a military academy in England, where he was a classmate of future governor of British North America George Prevost.  The duke purchased most of Sheaffe’s commissions (a common practice at the time), beginning in 1778 with Sheaffe’s position as an ensign in the 5th Foot.

Sheaffe was posted to Canada in 1787 and in 1794 he was appointed the emissary of Lieutenant General John Graves Simcoe to Sodus, a First Nations community on the south shore of Lake Ontario, shortly before the final proceedings that established Jay’s Treaty. Sheaffe vehemently protested the seizure of Aboriginal land by settlement agent Charles Williamson, earning praise from Simcoe and the rank of captain by 1795. With his regiment returned to England, Sheaffe purchased a majority in the 81st Foot in 1797, and later became junior lieutenant colonel of the 49th Foot, under the command of Isaac Brock. When Brock left the unit under Sheaffe’s command, however, Sheaffe quickly became unpopular with his men.

After serving in the Baltic in 1801, Brock and Sheaffe were ordered to Canada, arriving in 1802 with the 49th. Brock was headquartered in York while Sheaffe took a wing of the regiment to Fort George. Sheaffe’s abilities were soon questioned and Brock had to suppress a mutiny and mass desertion at Fort George. While proximity to the US explained the desertion, Brock thought, he also believed that Sheaffe’s militant attitudes, overwork of his men, and harsh discipline for small infractions were the root of the poor deportment.  Some suspicion emerged that the hostility of the men was owing to Sheaffe’s American origins.

Sheaffe was a major general on Brock’s army staff when the War of 1812 began. With Brock’s departure to quell the American invasion rising from Detroit, Sheaffe arrived back at Fort George in command of the forces at the Niagara frontier, one of the main fronts of the war. After involving himself in the diplomatic and military intrigues of the brief armistice, Sheaffe was privately reprimanded for his conduct by Prevost.  Sheaffe returned command of Fort George to Brock and both men worked to improve defenses on the Niagara front, guessing rightly that the respite of hostilities would not last.

When the Americans attacked at Queenston Heights, Brock rushed from Fort George and was killed in the battle, leaving Sheaffe in command. He led a risky flanking movement against the Americans, joining with Aboriginal forces under Captain Richard Bullock, and attacked the American flank on high ground. The Americans were routed, 1000 taken prisoner, with relatively few British or Aboriginal losses. Sheaffe’s cool, determined and stalwart tactics earned high praise, though his choice to extend time for a prisoner exchange, instead of campaigning to take Fort Niagara, mitigated some of his accrued goodwill.

Sheaffe was now military commander of Upper Canada, and administrator of the provincial government.  Here he weathered the storm of problems such as alien (American) influence, the unpopularity of the war, the weakness of the militia and perennial problems of supply and logistics. Illness and the difficulty of fulfilling both military and administrative responsibilities plagued Sheaffe, but he initiated and endorsed both naval and land forces reforms, including the development of unconventional warfare units akin to the famous Butler’s Rangers of the American Revolutionary War, and passed important militia reform legislation.

With the American attack on York on 26 April, Sheaffe gathered his smaller force of 700 regulars and militia and perhaps 100 Aboriginals against 1700 Americans. Sheaffe had long held to Prevost’s tactics of conducting the war defensively, but at York this strategy would be his ruin. After initial contact, and with no other real option but death in battle, Sheaffe pulled his forces back to Kingston, leaving local militia to deal peace terms with the Americans, and a local population of influential people who saw Sheaffe as a coward who abandoned the capital to save his own skin. Sheaffe was removed from his military and administrative commands and placed in command of troops in Montréal, and never again held an important command in the war.  He was soon recalled to Britain, where he lived until his death. While Queenston Heights is remembered for Brock’s daring and death, Sheaffe’s victory over the Americans in that battle has been overshadowed by his later failures.

Author: Jason Ridler

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