Major-General Sir Roger Hale Sheaffe was an American born British officer who briefly came to prominence during the War of 1812. He was born in Boston in 1763, twelve years before the outbreak of the War of Independence, the son of William Sheaffe, the deputy collector of customs at Boston. Sheaffe’s father died in 1771, and his mother opened a Boston boarding house. During the war Sheaffe became a protégé of Hugh Percy, Earl Percy, who had his headquarters in the boarding house.
Percy took a direct hand in Sheaffe’s military career, first sending him to sea, then to Lochée’s military academy in Chelsea and then in 1778 buying him an ensigncy, the essential first step on any military career at the time. Percy continued to fund Sheaffe’s career, helping him to buy his lieutenancy in the 5th foot in 1780. Percy was the colonel of this regiment, in which Sheaffe would serve until 1797, when he purchased a majority in the 81st Regiment. Sheaffe had an active military career, serving in Ireland from 1781 to 1787 and in Canada from 1787 until 1797. In 1798 he became lieutenant-colonel of the 49th Regiment. With that regiment he fought in Holland from August to November 1799 and in the Baltic from March to July 1801 before returning to Canada in 1802, serving as Major-General Isaac Brock’s immediate subordinate from 1803. Other than a short break from October 1811 to July 1812 (spend on leave in Britain) Sheaffe would spend the rest of his active military career in Canada.
At the start of the War of 1812 Sheaffe was sent to Upper Canada to assist Brock. Once there he was sent to the Niagara front, one of the areas expected to be vulnerable to an American attack. Upper Canada was considered to be vulnerable to simultaneous American attacks from Detroit and across the Niagara River. In the event the Americans failed to coordinate their attacks, and the Detroit campaign failed before commanders on the Niagara front were ready to move. Knowing this, on 20 August Sheaffe agreed to an American suggestion not to reinforce any post to the west of Niagara without four days notice.
Having removed the threat from Detroit, Brock them took over on the Niagara Front, with Sheaffe as his second in command. The American attack finally came on 13 October. American forces under the command of Stephan van Rensselaer crossed the Niagara River at Queenston, capturing the heights above the village. Brock rushed to the scene where he organised and led a desperate counterattack directly up the front of the heights. During this attack he was shot and killed, as was his aide-de-camp.
This left Sheaffe in command. He arrived from Fort George at about noon, and led a much more organised counterattack. Rather than attack directly up the heights, he moved his men through the woods on the American left flank, and launched an attack along the top of the heights which caught the Americans by surprise. After a short fight the American force surrendered. Sheaffe was rewarded for his efforts with a baronetcy, and the command of Upper Canada.
His high military reputation only lasted until April 1813. That month the Americans launched an attack on York, the capital of Upper Canada. The town was poorly defended, and Sheaffe only had command of around 800 men, while the American attack was made by 1,700 men, under the overall command of General Henry Dearborn. The Americans landed west of the town on 27 April. Sheaffe did not organise his counterattack well, feeding units into the battle piecemeal, and he was soon forced back towards the town. Having been pushed back to the weak fort west of York, Sheaffe decided to retreat back towards Kingston with his surviving regular troops, while the local militia commander were left to negotiate a surrender. He was later to be criticised for his conduct of the battle, and for not having made enough effort to enthuse his men, although as he was outnumbered by around two to one and the town lacked any real fortifications there was very little he could have done to successfully defend the place.
In June 1813 General Prevost decided to remove Sheaffe from Upper Canada. Prevost wrote to the Duke of York to explain that “circumstances indicating an insufficiency on the part of Major General Sir R. H. Sheaffe to the arduous task of defending Upper Canada” had led to his replacement by Major General Francis de Rottenburg. Sheaffe had certainly lost the confidence of some vocal elements of Upper Canadian society, who felt that he had mishandled the defence of York, but he did receive the praise of the executive council of Upper Canada when he was replaced.
After leaving Upper Canada Sheaffe was posted to Montreal. He was still there in October 1813 when the Americans briefly threatened to attack the city from both the St. Lawrence and from Lake Champlain. Before Prevost arrived to take command he called out 3,000 militia, and later had command of the reserve while Major-General de Watteville commanded at the frontier. Soon after this the British command structure was rearranged once again, and De Rottenburg took over at Montreal. This time Sheaffe returned to Britain, leaving Canada in November 1813.
This ended Sheaffe’s active career, although not his promotions. He was made colonel of the 36th Regiment on 20 December 1829 and promoted to general on 28 June 1838. From 1817 until his death in 1851 he spent most of his time in Edinburgh. He had been a capable commander during the War of 1812. At Queenston he displayed a cool head, and his willingness to take the time to outflank the American position helped restore a dangerous position. At York there was very little he could have done to prevent an American victory against overwhelming odds.