Hamilton Military Museum
The building that is now the Hamilton Military Museum started its life as Sir Allan MacNab’s gate house. Built in the late 1830s atop a battery from the War of 1812, this building served as a house for his daughters’ tutor. The building was sometimes referred to as Battery Lodge because of its location on top of a military defense work.
Originally York Road (now York Boulevard) curved sharply around the earthwork and gatehouse. This sharp curve was the cause of many traffic accidents. In 1976 it was decided to straighten and widen York Road in an effort to improve safety. Battery Lodge was moved 40 metres (150 feet) into Dundurn Park. It was set on a new foundation and an earthen wall was built around it to recreate the appearance of the 1813 earthwork. This building is now the Hamilton Military Museum which first opened its doors in 1976.
Richard Beasley settled here at the ‘head of the lake’ with his family. He was involved in a wide variety of ventures from fur trading to politics. Beasley occupied the area known as Burlington Heights (now Dundurn and Harvey Parks) by 1790, making him one of Hamilton’s earliest settlers. This location, with easy access to the water, was ideal for his trading business. He lived here with his wife, eight children and at least one servant.
In June of 1813 the British Military commandeered his land.
Geographically this site was a logical choice for a military base. It is a narrow peninsula of land rising seventy feet above the water. The road to York (Toronto) ran along the length of the Heights. It was the soldiers who settled here who defeated the Americans in the Battle of Stoney Creek on June 6th 1813. It was the job of Lieutenant Colonel Ralph Henry Bruyere, to assess British fortifications and plan defences. He visited Burlington Heights in 1813 and drew up these plans. He was quite critical of Burlington Heights, calling it ‘void of every resource’ due to lack of materials and reliable workers. The British military remained on Burlington Heights until Sept. 1st 1815 and their stay significantly altered the landscape: they built earthen defences, fortified Beasley’s barn, moved their officers into Beasley’s house and some of their construction can still be seen to this day. In 1835, Dundurn Castle was built around Richard Beasley’s house. Dundurn was the prestigious home of the MacNab family and their servants. Dundurn is currently restored to 1855 when MacNab was at the height of his political career as Premier of the United Provinces of Canada.
John Harvey was sent to Upper Canada, from England, in June 1812 as a Deputy Adjutant General to Brigadier General John Vincent who was commanding the British forces on the Niagara frontier. When the fall of Fort George forced the British to retreat to Burlington Heights with 3,500 Americans in pursuit, a strategic decision had to be made. Harvey was responsible for suggesting a night attack to allow the outnumbered British to take advantage of the element of surprise. In the early morning hours of June 6th 1813, 704 British soldiers from Burlington Heights attacked the 3,500 Americans at Stoney Creek. After only 40 minutes, the battle was over and it was initially unclear who had won. It would ultimately be the capture of two senior American officers and an overestimate of British strength by the Americans which resulted in a much-needed victory for the British. The Battle of Stoney Creek would become a turning point in the defence of this part of Upper Canada. Stoney Creek was the furthest that the American forces were able to advance up the Niagara Peninsula during the War of 1812.
When the War of 1812 began the British Military was engaged in war with Napoleon in France; the British Government was facing protests from displaced factory workers; Prime Minister Spencer Percival was assassinated one month before the United States declared war, and King George III was battling mental illness. It was not the time to fight a second war in the Colonies. Britain was able to raise 5,600 British regulars led by Major General Isaac Brock, their task was to defend British territory rather than lead offensive attacks on the United States. By 1814, the British had defeated Napoleon and the full force of the British military was now available to lead an offensive strategy against American forces in battle.
York (Toronto) was the capital of Upper Canada in 1813. Fourteen American ships sailed into York harbour on April 27th 1813, with the intention of seizing the city, disabling the Fort, and disrupting the supply line. The incident did not last long but created notable icons. At just 14 years of age MacNab helped the British as York burned. He would later be knighted by Queen Victoria for defence of the colonies and eventually build Dundurn Castle.
For many in Upper Canada, choosing which side to support during the war was difficult. They lived on British soil, but many families were immigrants from the United States. As American soldiers invaded, they had to choose between seeing their homes burnt down, or providing the Americans with supplies. In order to send a powerful message to the population, many men were arrested and charged with treason. In June of 1814, 15 men were convicted of High Treason at the Court of Assize (a travelling court of law) in Ancaster. Eight men were hanged here at Burlington Heights. This event called the Bloody Assizes saw the first executions for treason in Canadian history.
The results of the War of 1812 are still hotly debated. Politically, the victor is not clear. For Canadians, the war is usually remembered as a victory. It was the first time that settlers in this country came together, fought in unison, and successfully defended our borders from an invading army. Many Americans consider the War of 1812 as the final, successful stage of the American Revolution. Perhaps the most important outcome of the War of 1812 is the over 200 years of peace between Canada, the United States and Great Britain. It is clear that the First Nations peoples allied with Britain suffered the greatest losses. Although the British signed treaties with them promising not to impose on each other’s cultures and lands, these treaties were broken by the late 19th century. Settlers in Upper Canada also paid a huge price for the defense of their borders; property and wealth was lost, not only to American invaders but also to the British military, as evidenced by the seizure of Beasley’s property here on Burlington Heights. By 1815 nearly four thousand men had been killed in action and twenty thousand died due to disease, unsanitary conditions and poor medical knowledge.