Isaac Chauncey’s mortification

Booknotes looks at plundered books and the Battle of York

181 British and American soldiers

181 British and American soldiers

Mike Selby

On the morning of April 23, 1813, just as the sun was beginning to rise, an invasion force of American soldiers landed on the beaches of Lake Ontario. A small group of First Nation warriors tried to stop them, but the Americans were far too many. They were then met by British forces, who were also defeated.

Surviving members of both groups retreated to Fort York, where their remaining gunpowder caught fire. The resulting blast killed about a quarter of the American troops, including their general. An officer named Isaac Chauncey took over, and spent the next week ordering his troops to loot and set torches to every settlement building in sight. This incident is often referred to as the Battle of York, one of the battles of the War of 1812.

Upon returning to Sackets Harbor in New York, Chauncey inspected the supplies his men had plundered from York. It was there he found something which disturbed him greatly: a box of books.

Chauncey ordered the books to be returned to York immediately. Either not knowing or somehow forgetting, York’s library had been destroyed under his orders. The returned books were kept packed away by some of York’s survivors, who in later years sold them off to help rebuild the city (York became modern day Toronto).

Existing records and correspondence from that time have identified the titles of three of the books: “The Works of Dr. Jonathan Swift” (1754), “Alexander Pope’s Poetical Works” (1752), and “Sermons to Young Women” (1803) written by James Fordyce.

Toronto marked the 200th anniversary of the Battle of York in April of this year, with parades, battle re-enactments, First Nation ceremonies, and even a visit from Prince Philip. And then something unsuspected happened. A small group calling themselves the Sackets Harbor Battlefield Alliance arrived at the Toronto Public Library, and returned the stolen books.

Of course these weren’t the exact originals — those had already been returned and sold off during the war. But the delegation from Sackets Harbor had spent the past six years engaged in fundraising, and was able to purchase the same editions of the three books mentioned above through a rare book dealer.

Canadian songwriter Mike Ford was on hand and he began to sing about the book theft, while Toronto library staff began to calculate fines for books which were 200 years overdue.

A spokesperson for the Sackets Harbor group was extremely happy to see the returned books’ reception, stating, “Chauncey’s mortification is being relieved.” She appeared a bit perplexed, though, on just exactly why Toronto was celebrating a battle in which Canada was defeated. A Toronto journalist set her straight:

“In Canada, we lose with style.”