“The Battle of the Windmill”


"On Tuesday morning we marched out In command of Colonel Fraser... To let them know, that day, below, We're the Prescott Volunteers." The soldiers come to the Windmill Plains and, boldly led, drive off the invaders


For the history of the Canadian rebellion, which led to the events in this song, see the notes on "An Anti-Rebel Song" and "Farewell to Mackenzie."

The Canadian rebellion/invasion resembled most of the border raids of this period: So badly planned that it would have been funny if lives had not been lost.

1837 was a troubled time in Canada; a series of bad harvests had produced hardship and discontent (Brown, p. 211. For references, see the Bibliography at the end of this note) William Lyon Mackenzie, long a foe of the government, took advantage to raise a rebellion. In December 1837, they tried to march on Toronto -- but they were completely disorganized; a few volleys by the local militia put them to flight (Bourrie, p. 57). Mackenzie fled to the United States; two of his followers were hanged (Brown, p. 213). Brebner/Masters, p. 240, observes that "The protest [Mackenzie and followers] personified so feebly and pathetically was widespread and deep, but too immature to find voice in either a solid party program or in truly substantial revolt." McNaught, p. 89, points out that the very fact that Mackenzie made it to the U. S. with all the power of the local government against him shows how much sympathy he had among ordinary Canadians.

A small-scale reign of terror followed as Colonel Allan MacNab worked to burn out the protests by employing Indians to kill alleged rebels.

A motley band of Americans, lured as always by the prospect of taking Canada from the British, decided to support the rebels. But their leaders, General Sutherland and Colonel von Rensellaer, were both "frauds," according to Bourrie, pp. 57-58. They shoved Mackenzie out to Navy Island in the Niagara River, made him a provisional president, promised land in Canada to his supporters -- and waited. The British managed to burn Mackenzie's support ship, the _Caroline_, and send it over Niagara Falls (Bourrie, pp. 59-61). That was pretty much the end of the Niagara rebellion. The action then shifted to the far end of Lake Ontario.

In November 1838, a more serious menace arose, in the form of the Hunters' Lodges, groups of unofficial soldiers trying to gain a foothold in Canada. They weren't really supporting Mackenzie (he in fact said that they never consulted him; Bourrie, p. 62) -- but he gave them an excuse.

Exactly how many men invaded Canada in 1838 is uncertain; Brebner/Masters, p. 241, claims there were about a thousand, but Bourrie, p. 63, offers a figure of 300, of whom a hundred (including their commander John Ward Birge) turned back when one of their ships ran aground. On the whole, it seems most likely that 150-200 men came ashore in Canada and occupied a windmill in Prescott. They were now under the command of Nils von Schultz -- yet another of the fake military men who seemed to swirl around these efforts (Bourrie, p. 64).

The British brought up over a thousand troops, many of them militia but all of them more regular than the Americans. Their first attack failed, but they pulled back their lines and let the Americans stew (Bourrie, pp. 65-66). Four days later, on November 16, the British went in again. They had been reinforced up to 2000 men, and they had supplies, which the Americans did not. (It will tell you something bout how messed-up the Americans were that their commander was styled a "colonel" though he had fewer than 200 men; the British, who outnumbered them ten to one, were commanded by Lt. Colonel Dundas).

Von Schultz was realistic enough to offer surrender if the British would treat his troops as prisoners of war. Dundas, properly I think, refused (Bourrie, p. 67); the invaders were not troops of the U. S. government but a private army. The British brought up artillery and bombarded the Windmill; the invaders eventually surrendered even without the promise of POW starus.

Give Von Schultz this much credit: Tried for treason and sentenced to hang, he left four hundred pounds in his will to the widows and orphans of the Windmill battle. Ten others were also hanged, perhaps thirty of the Hunters escaped, those under 21 were sent back to the U. S., and the rest -- 82 in all -- transported to Van Diemen's Land. (Bourrie, p. 70).

Mackenzie survived, but had to remain in exile until 1849. In that time, his property was plundered, so that he went from well-to-do to a near-pauper when he died in 1861 (Bourrie, pp. 71-72). He was nonetheless fondly remembered by anti-aristocratic forces in Canada.

This sort of filibustering was largely halted in 1842 as the Webster/Ashburton treaty resolved many border issues (Brebner/Masters, p. 241). The Fenians would later try to invade Canada -- but that was an independent excursion, not something with broad American support.


Bourrie: Mark Bourrie, __Many a Midnight Ship: True Stories of Great Lakes Shipwrecks_, University of Michigan Pres, 2005

Brebner/Masters: J. Bartlett Brebner, _Canada_, revised and enlarge by Donald C. Masters, University of Michigan Press, 1970

Craig Brown, editor, _The Illustrated History of Canada_, Key Porter, 1987-2000.

McNaught: Kenneth McNaught, in _The Pelican History of Canada_ (enlarged edition, Pelican, 1982) - RBW

Historical references

  • Nov 11, 1838 - Roughly 170 men of "The Hunters," a group devoted to republican government in Canada, invade Canada near Prescott under Colonel Von Schultz
  • Nov 13, 1838 - Loyalist forces (Glengarry militia under Capt. George Macdonall, Dundas militia under Colonel John Crysler, and Grenville militia Colonel Richard Duncan Fraser) gather and attack the invaders
  • Nov 16, 1873 - The loyalists receive artillery reinforcements, while the invaders are out of ammunition and have not received expected reinforcements. The invaders are forced to surrender. Von Schultz and ten others will be hanged, and others transported

Cross references

  • cf. "An Anti-Rebel Song" (theme)
  • cf. "The Girl I Left Behind Me (lyric)" (tune & meter) and references there


  1. Fowke/Mills/Blume, pp. 78-81, "The Battle of the Windmill" (1 text, 1 tune)
  2. Fowke/MacMillan 3, "The Battle of the Windmill" (1 text, 1 tune)
  4. Roud #4523
  5. BI, FMB078


Author: unknown
Earliest date: 1942
Found in: Canada