"Climax of the Action at Crysler's Farm", by Adam Sherriff-Scott,
Mural at the Cryslers Farm visitor centre, copyright unknown
Photographed by J. Gray
The greatest conflict to be fought on Canadian soil, the War of 1812, is known by many names. Sometimes the conflict is referred to as "the Forgotten War" , "The British-American War", or in the United States, the "Second War of Independence". Two centuries later, this brutal war seems to have been buried by the nations involved. Even in Canada, the site of much of the bloodiest fighting, the conflict is all but a ghost. The roots of the conflict stretch back to the American War of Independence. Though officially ended by the Treaty of Paris, tensions between Great Britain and the United States remained, rising and falling during the decades that followed, and there were several causes that led to war.
Although the United States had many greivances against Great Britain, there were two chief causes that eventually led to war. The first of these was the blockade of European ports by the British, a practice the United States believed prohibited them from exporting goods to the lucrative European market. Napoleon's Berlin Decree, which forbade British goods from being imported into allied countries, was countered by a similar order from Westminster, known as the Orders In Council. Under this new maritime rule, all ships trading with European nations would be required to register at a British port, and obtain a permit. In order to conduct business with the European continent, the Americans would now have to pay the British another "tax".
The second primary cause of the war was the impressment of American merchant seamen into Royal Navy service. The British navy, the largest in the world, had un-questioned dominance of the oceans. To maintain this naval superiority, and to continue their war at sea against the French, thousands of sailors were needed to man their vast fleet. Claiming many U.S. merchant sailors were deserters from British warships, the Royal Navy began boarding American merchant ships in order to "reclaim" seamen. At first, only British subjects were targeted, but as the need for trained sailors grew, more and more Americans were swept up by the practice. Eventually, and estimated six thousand U.S. sailors were forced into the ranks of the British navy and pressed into service against France. In 1807, relations deteriorated further when HMS Leopard, a British warship, opened fire upon, and then boarded, USS Chesapeake. In the short battle, which became known as the "Chesapeake Incident", three men were killed, and several others wounded. The British boarding party discovered four deserters from the Royal Navy, and forced three of them back into Royal Navy service, and executed the fourth.
A group of young congressmen, known as the "War Hawks", and led by Henry Clay of Kentucky and John Calhoun of South Carolina, pressured the United States government to go to war with Great Britain. The War Hawks hoped that the British, committed to the war against France, would back down and repeal the Orders in Council, as well as abandoning the practice of impressment on the seas. They tried to convince the President and Congress that if Britain would not yield to these demands, the only honourable course of action would be a declaration of war. Others who favoured war believed the United States should expand, by capturing Canada and dominating the entire North American continent. Former president Thomas Jefferson, supporting this view, believed that the conquest of Canada would be a "mere matter of marching".
Finally, on the 18th of June, 1812, President James Madison signed the measure, marking the first time the United States had declared war on another nation. Support for the war in the United States was not unanimous. In New England, trade with Great Britain was valued, and the militia in Maine expressed a reluctance to attack British North America. Despite the two nations being at war, trade continued as normal across the borders in the New England states and Canada's eastern provinces. Essentially, the Canadian provinces of New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island had little participation in the war.
Major-General Isaac Brock
Photo by J. Gray.
In Canada, at the outbreak of the war, Sir George Prevost was Governor-in-Chief of British North America. A veteran officer of the British Army, Prevost was the former Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia, and also commander in chief of all military forces in Canada. He was known as a cautious leader, who did not favour going to war, and had attempted to negotiate peace with the United States in the years leading up to the war.
In Upper Canada, present day Ontario, all military forces came under the command of Major-General Isaac Brock. Unlike Prevost, Brock was known as an aggressive military officer, and a soldier more willing to take chances. Born on October 6, 1769, on the British island of Guernsey, Brock became a soldier at the age of fifteen, enlisting with the 8th Regiment of Foot as an Ensign. He steadily rose through the ranks, reaching the rank of Major-General. Although he desired to serve in Europe in the Napoleonic Wars, General Brock and his regiment were assigned to Canada, where he immediately began to train local militias and prepare defenses in the event of war with the United States. Many believe that Brock's leadership and preparations were crucial in early victories.
When war did erupt with the United States, General Brock, in addition to his military duties, was also acting as Administrator of the Province in the absence of Sir Francis Gore, who had returned to England. He was now head of both the army, and of the civil government. His army consisted of only six thousand British regulars, or full time soldiers, and 12,000 Canadian militia. Many of the militiamen were full time farmers and shop keepers, who were poorly trained and equipped, and Brock doubted the quality of these part time soldiers. In addition, many of the militia under his command were Americans who had fled to Canada following the Revolution, and he questioned the loyalty of many of them. General Brock believed his regulars were too few, and the militia too un-reliable, to successfully defend Upper Canada from an American attack. He realized that securing the Indians as his allies would be crucial to victory.
General Brock also knew to be victorious, he would need to strike quickly, and with the element of surprise. On the morning of July 2nd, the schooner Cuyahoga, carrying William Beall, quartermaster to U.S. General William Hull and thirty American soldiers, was making its way up the Detroit River, when Lieutenant Frederic Rolette, and a dozen armed sailors from the Provincial Marine, came alongside in a boat. Unaware that war had been declared, and with the soldiers weapons stored below, the American captain was surprised when the Canadians boarded his ship. The ship was captured, and Beall and the U.S. troops were taken back to Fort Malden, near Amherstburg. Among the items seized were personal papers and journals, belonging to General Hull, revealing his fear of Indians, which were forwarded to General Brock.
Hull's Invasion of Canada
"General Brock and Tecumseh", by David Geister
Used with permission of the artist
Early American strategy called for a four-pronged attack against Canada, with armies striking at Windsor, Niagara, Kingston and Montreal. It was believed that the British army would be spread too thin to defend all of these points, and, on July 12, 1812, forces under the command of General William Hull launched the first offensive. Hull, who had been serving as Governor of the Michigan Territory, was a veteran of the American Revolution. Commanding the army of the northwest, his troops consisted of regulars from the 4th U.S. Infantry, veterans who had experience fighting the Indians, as well as militiamen from Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky and the Carolinas. Crossing the Detroit river, Hull and his men landed in the small community of Sandwich without any opposition, and the general moved his headquarters into the red brick house of Colonel Francois Baby, a local Canadian militia officer. Despite the protests of the Canadian colonel, an American flag is raised in the front yard of his home.
By July 14th, the U.S. troops had built a fortified camp, in anticipation of an assault from the British troops at nearby Fort Malden, while others launched foraging raids on the nearby farms. Hull issues a proclamation, offering to free Canadians from the oppression of British rule, and warns men against fighting alongside Indians, under penalty of death. Despite urging from his officers and men to attack Fort Malden before it can be reinforced, General Hull delays and seems indecisive. Having visited Fort Malden during peacetime, Hull is familiar with the defences and garrison, and believes the right time to attack the fort is when his heavy artillery arrives, in two weeks time. As General Hull and his troops remain camped, awaiting the arrival of the artillery, he learns of the destruction of a supply train near the Brownstown River in Michigan. Led by Tecumseh, Indian warriors and British troops have captured supply wagons and massacred a large number of American troops. Two days later, a second column of U.S. soldiers engage the British and Indians and, while victorious, suffer heavy losses of both men and supplies.
Upon receiving news of Hull's invasion of Canada, Brock immediately goes on the defensive. In the waters of northern Lake Huron, news of the war has not yet reached the British commander at St. Joseph Island, or his American counterpart at Fort Mackinac. Brock immediately sends word to Captain Charles Roberts, the commander of St. Joseph Island, who prepares his forty four soldiers to attack. On July 17th, Captain Roberts and his men board the gunboat Caledonia, armed with two cannon, and accompanied by more than 400 Indians and some fur traders, and travel the forty-five miles to the American fort. Inside, the U.S. commander, Lieutenant Porter Hanks, is asleep. The Americans awaken to find themselves surrounded by the British troops, and their Indian allies, and surrender the fort without firing a shot. The British secure a supply of food, ammunition, furs and whiskey, as well as capturing a strategic American fortress. The U.S. troops are later "paroled" back to the United States. The loss of his men and supply trains, coupled with news of the fall of Fort Mackinaw, is too much for General Hull. He believes he is surrounded by Indians, with more coming from the north, and learns that British troops are coming to reinforce the garrison at Fort Malden. In a panic, he orders his troops to cross the river on August 7th, returning to the safety of Fort Detroit, a strategy criticized by his officers and men.
Following Captain Roberts' victory in the north end of Lake Huron, General Brock travels from York to Amherstburg, to personally oversee the Detroit campaign. It is here, in Amherstburg, that he is first introduced to Tecumseh, a Shawnee war chief destined to become one of Britain's greatest allies. The brother of the Shawnee known as Prophet, Tecumseh has a dream of uniting the Indian tribes into a single confederation, with their own homeland stretching from the Gulf of Mexico to the Great Lakes. Although Tecumseh and many of the chiefs are distrustful of the British, he harbours a deeper hatred for the Americans, and in particular General William Henry Harrison, Governor of the Indiana Territory. Years earlier, at Tippecanoe, Harrison's troops were responsible for an attack on Tecumseh's village, where Indian homes were destroyed, and many natives, including Prophet, were killed. Tecumseh has sworn revenge on Harrison and the Americans, and believes that by siding with the British, the Indians can one day have their homeland, free from the encroaching American settlers. He and General Brock form an immediate bond, and Tecumseh's influence will bring many tribes, some reluctantly, onto the British side. In return, Brock writes to the British government, urging them to fulfil their promise of an independent Native homeland once the war has ended.
The Capture of Fort Detroit, 1812
"General Hull at Fort Detroit", by David Geister
Used with permission of the artist
After retreating from Upper Canada, Hull and his army return to Fort Detroit, on the riverbank opposite Sandwich. In addition to several thousand militiamen under his command, the fort also houses a number of civilians, including Hull's own daughter and grandchildren. Although the Americans outnumber the British, Canadian and Indians nearly two to one, Hull continues to fear a massacre at the hands of the native warriors. Using the correspondence captured during the seizure of the Cuyahoga, General Brock is aware of Hull's deep fear of the Indians, and uses it to his advantage. Brock sends a demand to Hull to surrender Fort Detroit, and suggests that he may be unable to control the Indians who have joined his command, and cannot guarantee the safety of the occupants of the fort should they refuse to surrender. Tecumseh has only five hundred warriors with him, but has them circle around the fort, and double back again through a wooded area, giving the American sentries the impression there are more than 1,500 of them in the forests. Despite his fears, Hull refuses to surrender, and on the morning of August 15th, a British battery, supported by a naval gunboat, open fire.
The British bombardment, and his fear of the Indians, cause General Hull to surrender Fort Detroit, convinced it is the only way he can save the occupants from a slaughter. It is a humiliating defeat for the United States army, with many politicians and soldiers placing the blame squarely on Hull's shoulders. Casualties in the battle are fairly light, with the Americans counting seven dead, while the British have only two men wounded. Together, General Brock and Tecumseh ride into the fort, and accept Hull's surrender. British and Canadian troops capture more than thirty pieces of artillery, which is ferried across the river to Sandwich. A large quantity of stores are also seized, along with the warship Adams, which is re-named HMS Detroit. All of the militiamen are taken prisoner, and their weapons taken. They are paroled back to the United States, but Hull is held in Canada. When he is eventually exchanged, the American government court martial him for cowardice, and he is sentenced to death. The sentence is commuted by President Madison, but it is the end of Hull's military career.
The victory, and rich haul of supplies and weapons, turns General Brock into a military hero. His superior in Quebec City, Sir George Prevost, overlooks the fact that Brock disobeyed his orders not to go on the offensive. The general now believes the next U.S. attack will come on the Niagara frontier, and he is sure he will not be able to bluff them again.
The Battle of Queenston Heights, 1812
The redan at Queenston Heights
Photo by J. Gray, 2009
Following his victory at Detroit, General Brock has moved to Fort George at Niagara on the Lake, in anticipation of a coming U.S. invasion. He knows the Americans will soon be attacking, but unsure of exactly where they will land. The assault comes in the pre-dawn hours of October 13, 1812, when nearly six thousand troops, under the command of Major-General Stephen Van Renssealer prepare to cross the turbulent Niagara River near the small Canadian town of Queenston. General Van Renssealer, a militia officer, commands a force made up of three regular infantry divisions, a detachment of artillery, and five regiments of militia riflemen. Despite his rank within the New York militia, Van Renssealer has little military experience. Because of this, his superiors send Brigadier General Alexander Smyth to share command of the invasion, but the two officers clash immediately. Van Renssealer was determined to land at Queenston, while Smyth believed an assault from Buffalo would be more effective, and refused to move his 1,700 men. Van Renssealer decided to proceed without Smyth and his troops, and would attack from Lewiston, opposite Queenston.
When his first wave of six hundred men lands, during a rainstorm, it is just after four o'clock in the morning. A British sentry, however, has noticed the American boats crossing the turbulent river, and notified his commanding officer, Captain James Dennis. British troops and Canadian militia form up, and open fire on the Americans as they are landing. Numbering just forty-six British regulars, and a handful of Canadians, the defenders manage to kill or wound two hundred U.S. soldiers.
As soon as he sets foot on the Canadian shore, Lieutenant-Colonol Solomon Van Renssealer, cousin of the general, is wounded. Captain John Wool assumes command of the American invasion force, while British and American artillery exchange fire across the river. The U.S. guns force Captain Dennis' troops back towards the village, where they take cover among the stone houses. The British have one cannon mounted on a redan, on the heights above the village, and a second gun, known as Vrooman's Battery, located a mile north of the village. The two guns take a heavy toll on the U.S. boats in the river, and Captain Wool realizes that his troops have to capture and disable the artillery. Using a fisherman's path, American troops are able to reach the cannon on the heights. Before it falls into enemy hands, the British gunners spike the cannon, but the Americans are able to repair the cannon.
The fighting awakens Brock, who is sleeping at Fort George. Mounting his horse, he orders his second in command, Roger Hale Schaeffe to gather reinforcements and meet him at Queenston. Brock rides to the scene of the battle, where he joins the troops of his regiment, the 49th Regiment of Foot. He immediately realizes the importance of re-capturing the cannon on the heights, and personally leads his men towards the redan. As Brock rushes towards the redan, he is hit in the chest by an American bullet, and killed almost instantly. His Aide de Camp, Lieutenant-Colonel John MacDonnell, takes command of the 49th, but he too is fatally struck. Carrying the bodies of the their two officers, the British troops, numbering only seventy men, retreat to a farm north of the village. By this time, the U.S. Captain Wool had been badly wounded, and General Van Renssealer placed Colonel Winfield Scott in command of the regulars, while Brigadier-General William Wadsworth lead the American militiamen.
Back at the landing point at the edge of the river, more American boats have just come ashore when Mohawk warriors, led by John Brant and John Norton, rush forward. The war cries of the Indians terrify the U.S. soldiers on both sides of the river, and an attack wave preparing to cross are halted in their tracks. Fearing a massacre by the Mohawks, the militiamen refuse to cross, citing a regulation that militia are not required to fight on foreign soil. The Americans who have landed find no boats to carry them back across the river, and no reinforcements crossing to support them. Further reinforcements arrive when British troops commanded by Sheaffe arrive, and they are further supported by Captain Richard Bullock's men from Chippewa. By two o'clock in the afternoon, the British regulars, Canadian militia and Indians numbered nearly 800 men, and they had been successful in setting up two cannon, which continued to rain down on the Niagara River. With no reinforcements, and boatmen refusing to cross and evacuate the American troops trapped on the Canadian side, Colonel Scott is forced to surrender. The U.S. army suffers casualties of nearly one hundred dead, five hundred wounded, and over one thousand men taken prisoner, including Colonel Scott and seventy U.S. officers. Including General Brock and Lieutenant-Colonel MacDonnell, the British suffer casualties of only fourteen killed. The victory prevents another invasion of Canada, but the celebrations are marred by the loss of the general. His body is interred at Fort George, and Brock is posthumously awarded a knighthood.
The Battle of Queenston Heights, one of the largest battles fought on Canadian soil, shook American confidence, and it was no longer assumed the conquest of Canada would be a "mere matter of marching". Following the defeat, Van Rensselaer resigned, and was replaced by Smyth, and Major-General Henry Dearborn, commander of the U.S. north-east sector, was forced to postpone his planned assault against Montreal.
The Battle of York, 1813
Fort York, Toronto, Ontario
Photo by J. Gray
During the winter of 1813, both the Americans and the British had turned much of their attention to the lakes and to shipbuilding. Lake Ontario was considered to be of greater strategic value than Lake Erie, and the Americans believed that naval superiority on the lake could win the war. With the goal of capturing Kingston, and severing Britain's supply lines, the Americans began construction of a fleet at Sackets Harbor, New York. The British, also realizing the strategic value of the lake, were constructing frigates at Kingston and York (present day Toronto), the two largest settlements in Upper Canada. Major-General Dearborn was convinced that as many as five thousand regulars and militia troops were posted in Kingston, in preparation for an American attack. Although Kingston's troops only numbered 900, Dearborn and his naval counterpart, Commodore Isaac Chauncey, instead chose a smaller and safer target: York.
At the time, although it was the capital of Upper Canada, York had a population of only seven hundred, and was protected by a small garrison, posted at Fort York, and a few batteries of obsolete guns. The U.S. objective was to destroy the fort and garrison, and capture two ships in the harbour. One of the vessels, the Isaac Brock, was still under construction, and the second, the HMS Duke of Gloucester, was in poor repair. The Brock, however, was armed with nearly 30 guns, and would be a valuable prize for the Americans. By capturing York, the U.S. could also capture a quantity of stores and equipment destined for the British fleet on Lake Erie. With the approval of the U.S. Secretary of War, John Armstrong, Dearborn and Chauncey readied their fleet. As soon as the ice had thawed, they would be able to sail from Sackets Harbor.
It was on the evening of April 26, 1813, that the American fleet, consisting of a brig, a corvette, and 12 schooners, approached York. Over 900 sailors and 60 cannon were aboard Chauncey's warships, and the army component, under the command of Brigadier-General Zebulon Pike consisted of 1,800 soldiers. The fleet remained anchored off the Scarborough Bluffs, east of York, until the following morning. Sailing past Fort York, the American warships landed near the ruins of Fort Rouille, a former French fortification. Coming ashore and establishing a beachhead at what is today Sunnyside Park, the U.S. troops would march east, capturing Fort York and the town. Major-General Roger Hale Sheaffe, who had succeeded Isaac Brock as Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada, was responsible for the defence of York. Heavily outnumbered, Sheaffe had only 300 British regulars, and 300 militiamen, as well as a handful of Native warriors, to defend York.
Under the command of Major James Givins, Sheaffe dispatched a small band of Ojibway and Mississauga warriors to confront the attackers. Givins and the Indians were to be supported by the Glengarry Light Infantry, but the company became lost in the woods outside of York. By the time the Glengarry troops had reached their objective, a number of U.S. troops had come ashore. The Glengarries were cut down by the American troops, now advancing through the forest. A Grenadier company of the 8th Regiment of Foot was also sent to the area, and fell victim to sharpshooters. Of the 119 Grenadiers dispatched, only thirty survived. With his path now clear of defending troops, Brigadier Pike advances towards York, his men hauling two 6-pounder field guns through the forest.
At the Western Battery, equipped with obsolete and damaged cannons, British and Canadian gunners make an attempt to stop Pike's advance, while coming under fire from six of Chauncey's warships. During the fighting, a match falls into a wooden chest containing cartridges and gunpowder, and the resulting explosion destroys the gun platform, killing a dozen men. Many more are badly wounded, and the western battery falls to Pike. The last battery, known as the half moon battery, has no guns and is easily captured by the Americans. British regulars and Canadian militia fall back to Fort York, which is now coming under heavy bombardment from the American ships. Sheaffe makes the decision to sacrifice the fort and the militia, retreating with his regulars to Kingston. Leaving the citizens of York, and the militia, to fend for themselves, Sheaffe advises the officers to make the best surrender terms possible with the Americans, before he flees. Unknown to the citizens, or the militia, Sheaffe's troops had planned to explode the garrison's powder magazine. Packed with more than 200 barrels of gunpowder, cartridges and shells, the resulting explosion kills 38 Americans, including Brigadier Pike. A further 200 are wounded, and command of the U.S. troops is assumed by Colonel Cromwell Pearce. In addition to the detonation of the magazine, the British troops also set fire to the Isaac Brock, denying the Americans the prize, and attempt to destroy the naval stores located on the pier. By the time the battle was over, 62 British and Canadian soldiers were dead, and 95 lay wounded. The Americans reported 320 dead and wounded.
Negotiations for surrender were left in the hands of two militia officers, Lieutenant-Colonel William Chewett and Major William Allan, and the Reverend John Strachan. The American officers agreed to respect private property, and parole the members of the militia who had been taken prisoner, but all arms and public stores were to become property of the invaders, and all Canadian militia officers would be imprisoned. Despite the assurances U.S. troops would respect private property, many homes were looted, Reverend Strachan's church was plundered, and the lieutenant-governors house and parliament buildings were set on fire. Eleven days after York had been captured and the garrison driven out, the U.S. troops left. Heavily criticized for his actions, Sheaffe lost both his military command, and his public office, and he eventually returned to Britain.
The Battle of Lake Erie, 1813
"Great Lakes Broadside", by David Geister,
Used with permission of the artist.
Following the capture of the naval stores at York, the naval base at Amherstburg was in desperate need of supplies. Troops hadn't been paid in months, and many were threatening to desert. The civilians and Indians at the base were starving, with many of the Native warriors ready to abandon the British and return to their homes. Guns, ammunition, rope, canvas and tools, desperately needed by the Royal Navy, had been captured by the Americans and, despite the pleas of Fort Malden's commander, Brigadier-General Henry Proctor, Sir George Prevost refused to supply him with the money and equipment he so badly needed. The British had switched their focus to the defence of Quebec and Montreal, with Lake Erie now considered expendable.
The naval commander at Amherstberg, Captain Robert Barclay, had also been trying in vain to secure more ships, men and supplies for his fleet on Lake Erie. Barclay's flagship, HMS Detroit, was still under construction, and the cannons that were being shipped from England to arm his vessel had been expropriated to strengthen the defences at Kingston. Throughout the winter and summer of 1813, Barclay had been watching the Americans build a fleet on the opposite side of the lake, at Erie, Pennsylvania. Both Barclay and General Proctor wanted to destroy the fleet before it could be launched, but a lack of manpower prevented such an attack. They could only watch helplessly as American Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry constructed two large sister ships, the Niagara and the Lawrence. The ships, twenty gun brigs, would be supported by seven smaller vessels. Perry, however, was running into problems of his own, which slowed down the construction of his armada. The U.S. commander was also short on trained seamen, and supplies for his new ships had to be transported overland from such far away centers as New York, Philadelphia and Pittsburgh. A shortage of food, and a strike by shipbuilders, added to Perry's problems, delaying the launch of his warships. By the end of August and beginning of September, both naval commanders finally received some reinforcements. Perry welcomed a number of Kentucky sharpshooters, who he would employ as marines on board his vessels, while Barclay complained about the poor quality of men he had been sent. Calling the seamen "totally inadequate", Barclay was assured further reinforcements would be coming. When he sailed into battle, however, Barclay's crews would consist of a mix of seamen, soldiers, Canadian militia and men from the Provincial Marine.
Bruce County Museum, Southampton, Ontario,
Photo by Jason Gray
On the afternoon of September 13, 1813, Barclay knew he could delay no longer, and would have to make a run for Long Point to obtain provisions for the starving garrison. Commodore Perry was waiting for the British fleet near Put in Bay, just south of Amherstburg, and the two commanders would soon be engaged in the only battle ever fought on a Canadian lake. Captain Barclay commanded from his flagship, HMS Detroit, which sailed into battle un-finished. His cannons were an assortment of guns borrowed from the fort, all requiring different sizes of ammunition, and much of the sails and rigging were taken from other vessels. More of his crew were soldiers than sailors, and the flagship was short on trained gunners to fire the cannons. The second largest ship under Barclay's command was HMS Queen Charlotte, captained by Royal Navy veteran Robert Finnis. Four smaller ships accompanied them. Despite being outnumbered by Perry's fleet, The British had the advantage of longer range guns. Knowing this, Perry would have to fight the battle at short range, or his fleet would be blown to pieces.
Barclay's strategy was to attack Perry's flagship, the Lawrence, first. After disabling the American's most powerful vessel, they would then turn their attention on the smaller ones. Detroit and Queen Charlotte battered the Lawrence as the battle began, quickly disabling Perry's ship, and killing or injuring many of his crew. Travelling by rowboat, Commodore Perry transferred from Lawrence to its sister ship, Niagara, where he took over command from its captain, Jesse Elliott. The Americans turned their attention of Queen Charlotte, inflicting heavy damage and casualties on the British warship. Many of the senior officers, including Captain Finnis, lay dead, and command of the ship fell to a young Royal Navy lieutenant. The two large British ships, Detroit and Queen Charlotte, collided in the confusion, with their bowsprits, masts and rigging becoming hopelessly tangled. Unable to fire on the American warships, the two large vessels had been taken out of the battle. From the Niagara, Perry continued to inflict a heavy toll on the British fleet. The Lady Prevost had lost her rudder, and was now floating aimlessly. Many senior officers, including Barclay, had been killed or badly injured, and by 3 o'clock, were forced to surrender. Although both sides suffered heavy casualties in the bloody battle, it was a crucial victory for the Americans, who now controlled Lake Erie. General Proctor was forced to abandon and burn Fort Malden and the stores at Amherstburg, before retreating up the Thames River with his remaining troops and Indians. This tactic enraged Tecumseh and many of the Natives, who again threatened to abandon the British.
The Battle of Crysler's Farm, 1813
Crysler's Farm battlefield monument, Morrisburg, Ontario,
Photo by J. Gray
In the autumn of 1813, the American army again attempted an invasion of Canada, this time striking at the eastern end of Lake Ontario. Two armies, one commanded by Major-General Wade Hampton, and a second under Major-General James Wilkinson, would attempt to capture the city of Montreal in a pincher movement. Divided into two columns, the 4,000 men in Hampton's command would attack from the south, following the Champlain Valley, while Wilkinson's 8,000 troops would attack from Sackets Harbor, making their way up the St. Lawrence towards Montreal. The American commanders believed that the less fortified Montreal would be an easier target than Quebec City, and that by capturing it, they could sever the supply lines to Upper Canada.
Just south of Chateauguay, near Montreal, 4,000 regulars under General Hampton's command crossed the St. Lawrence River. For months, the Canadian commanders had been receiving intelligence from area farmers, and were aware of the American force, its size, and its movements. Under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Charles-Michel d'Irumberry de Salaberry, two companies of Canadian Voltigeurs, men from the Canadian Fencibles, and some militiamen established defensive breastworks on the north side of the Chateauguay River. Less than a mile to the north, at a ford in the river, three additional companies of Voltigeurs, Canadian militia and Mohawk warriors dug in, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel George Macdonnell. Aware of the Canadians positions, Hampton split his company, with 1,000 men under Colonel Robert Purdy, and another 1,000 under Brigadier-General George Izard. On October 26th, Purdy's men came under fire from the Canadians. Moving north, the Americans were attacked by Macdonnel's troops. Brigadier Izard, meanwhile, attempted to attack the troops entrenched in the breastworks, where they were defeated by the Canadian troops and Mohawks. General Hampton retreated towards Plattsburgh, New York, where his officers decided any further attacks would also result in failure, and abandoned their plans to assault Montreal. Commanding a force of only 470 men, all Canadian, Salaberry had defeated an invasion force eight times his size.
Two days later, on October 28th, Major-General Wilkinson knew nothing of Hampton's defeat at Chateauguay when he wrote to Secretary of War John Armstrong, complaining of sickness among his troops, and the inclement weather, and expressing doubt about the hopes of capturing Montreal. By October 30th, now sick himself with dysentry, Wilkinson decided an attack on Montreal would proceed, despite the protests of officers such as Commodore Isaac Chauncy, who favoured an attack on Kingston instead. Finally, the American troops began to move by boat, landing at Morristown, New York, on November 6th. Wilkinson knew his boats would have to pass the Canadian town of Prescott, who's large cannons protected the river. He had the army and their supplies march by land on the American side, bypassing the heavy guns at Prescott, while the nearly empty boats passed the fort under cover of darkness. They bypassed Prescott successfully, but the next day came under fire from snipers, and were soon being pursued by two Royal Navy schooners and seven gunboats.
Troops under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Wanton Morrison had been dispatched from Kingston and, after picking up reinforcements at Prescott, now numbered more than 1,400 men. Morrison's men set up camp near the farm of John Crysler, a local militia officer, just upriver from Wilkinson's flotilla. With supporting fire from the British gunboats, Morrison hoped to draw the Americans into battle on the open fields, the typical battlegrounds employed in European warfare. Although his force was highly outnumbered, Morrison held the advantage of commanding well disciplined British regulars. He also had some guns from the Royal Artillery, Mohawk warriors, Voltigeurs and Canadian Fencibles among his ranks. On the afternoon of November 11th, the battle came.
The first American attack came when Colonel Eleazer Wheelock Ripley, leading the 21st Infantry, attempted to attack from the rear. They were successful in driving back a skirmish line of Voltigeurs, but made the mistake of chasing them into an open field. Now facing the regulars of the 89th Regiment of Foot, the Americans were driven back. Three more American brigades attempted to attack, but were also driven back by the British regulars. U.S. Brigadier-General Leonard Covington was killed in the assault, and his second in command mortally wounded soon after. Following the loss of two more senior officers, the American troops began a retreat. American artillerymen attempted to get their guns into position, but were soon overrun by the men of the 49th Regiment of Foot. A cavalry attack by American dragoons also failed. After three hours of fighting, and with a storm coming, the Americans withdrew to their boats, crossing back to New York State.
Returning to their winter quarters at French Mills, the U.S. troops were short on food and supplies, and illness swept through their ranks. In his reports to Secretary of War Armstrong, General Wilkinson exaggerated the number of troops his men faced, and attempted to minimize his losses. Although the British were now in control of the St. Lawrence, Wilkinson claims the attack on Montreal has not been abandoned, but merely "suspended". He places much of the blame on Hampton, who resigns from the army. The remaining troops under Wilkinson's command are broken up, and divided among other American regiments. Although he remains with the army, Major-General Wilkinson's competency is questioned, and he never again holds significant command.
The Battle of Chippewa, 1814
Chippawa monument and battlefield, 2009
Photo by J. Gray
By April, 1814, U.S. troops had again formed along the Niagara frontier, with plans to launch a second invasion of Canada. Under the command of Major-General Jacob Brown, the army numbered 3,500, who were supported by nearly 600 Seneca Indians, led by the chief Red Jacket. Before he travelled to Sackets Harbor, Brown divided his troops into two commands, one led by Brigadier-General Winfield Scott, and the second by Brigadier-General Eleazar Ripley. In the absence of Brown, General Scott was determined to make the troops under his command the best in the American army. He prepared for the invasion by drilling his troops for hours a day, conducting mock battles to ready them for combat, and insisting on neatness and hygene at all times, with many of his officers and men receiving punishments for infractions. By July, General Brown had returned from Sackets Harbor, and the troops were ready to launch their assault across the Niagara River. In addition to the infantry troops, mostly regulars, Brown added 300 artillerymen and a handful of Pennsylvania volunteers to his force.
Two days after the battle, the British and Canadians retreated towards Fort George at Newark. Brown's men pursued them as far as Queenston, where they halted, and occupied the village. Brown had grown concerned about his long supply lines, and hoped that the navy under Commodore Chauncy would soon arrive on Lake Ontario, bringing him additional supplies and providing a bombardment on the British fort. Chauncy, however, feared the British were planning an attack on his naval base at Sackets Harbor, and elected to keep his ships here, a decision that angered General Brown. Still fearing his supply trains had been stretched too thin, and that he lacked enough heavy artillery, the American general failed to launch an attack on Fort George.
The Canadian side of the river was protected by less than 2,500 men under the command of British Major-General Phineas Riall, and were a force made up of regulars, Canadian militiamen, mounted dragoons, Indians, and men and guns from the Royal Artillery. General Riall's confidence remained high, and he believed the Americans would be no match for his army, placing most of his trust in the regular infantry he commanded.
The first attack came on July 3, 1814, when the Americans landed and surrounded Fort Erie, at the mouth of the Niagara River. The fort, under the command of Major Thomas Buck, was lightly defended and considered one of the weakest points on the Niagara frontier. Buck and his troops were forced to surrender, but not before a small number of dragoons escaped, quickly riding to inform General Riall of the capture. The following morning, led by Brigadier Scott's brigade, the American troops began marching towards the village of Chippewa, three kilometers north of Fort Erie. In an attempt to slow Scott's advance, British and Canadian troops burned all of the bridges between the fort and Chippewa. Slowed down by the destruction of the bridges, it took Scott's army seven hours to cover the distance, and they made camp that evening just south of Chippewa.
Riall had received reinforcements from the 8th Regiment of Foot, who had just arrived from York, as well as more artillery. Buildings in the village were burned, to deny the Americans shelter, and Riall dispatched a small number of Indians and troops to observe the enemy camp, but they soon found themselves in a short skirmish with American soldiers near Street's Creek (today known as Usher's Creek). Despite the short battle, Riall and his men were now entrenched on the north side of the creek, with the American camp to their south.
Underestimating the size of the invading force, Riall chose to attack on the July 5th. Many of Scott's regular infantry were wearing grey jackets, and the British mistakenly believed they were militia. The two armies opened fire on each other across an open field, at a distance of only one hundred yards. The battle was a bloody one, with musket fire supported by artillery on both sides. The battle lasted only twenty-five minutes, before General Riall ordered his men to fall back. The British and Canadians suffered casulties of 148 dead, 320 wounded, and 46 missing. The Americans counted 350 casualties, of which 60 were dead. Indian warriors fighting on both sides were horrified by their losses suffered in the short battle, and many abandoned both armies, making their way home to their villages. A few warriors, under the leadership of John Norton, remained allied to the British, but the battle of Chippewa effectively saw the Indians withdrawn from the war. The 2nd Lincoln Regiment, Canadian militiamen from the Niagara area, suffered more casualties at Chippewa than any other militia unit during the War of 1812.
The Battle of Lundy's Lane, 1814
Lundy's Lane monument, Niagara Falls, Ontario,
Photo by J. Gray
Following the American victory at Chippawa, and the British retreat back to Fort George, General Brown continued to occupy the village of Queenston. As he kept watch on Lake Ontario, still hoping to see the flotilla of Commodore Chauncey's warships, British Canadians and Indians continued to harass his supply line. The British also used the opportunity to transport reinforcements, and supplies, across the lake. As Brown remain camped at Queenston, and made a futile attempt to taunt British troops out of Fort George and into a fight, Major-General Riall marched a number of British troops from Burlington. He positioned his reinforcements a few kilometers north of Brown's position, on a road known as Lundy's Lane. The lane ran along sloping ground, which gave Riall an excellent view of the surrounding area, and military advantage. Brown still believed Riall was in Burlington, but soon learned that British infantry and a troop of dragoons were present at Wilson's Tavern, near the Niagara Falls. Winfield Scott and a force of 1,200 men were dispatched to the tavern, where they were noticed by British officers. The tavern owner reported to Scott that 800 British regulars, and 300 militiamen, had been present around the inn, a number which Scott failed to confirm. He sent word back to General Brown that he would be engaging the British, whom he believed he outnumbered, at Lundy's Lane.
Obtaining his intelligence on U.S. troop movements from Indian scouts, General Riall assumed that Scott and his 1,200 men represented Brown's entire American army. On the high point of the ridge at Lundy's Lane, Riall and Lieutenant-General Gordon Drummond began to place their artillery in a cemetery next to a church. As he moved into position at Lundy's Lane, Scott learned that he had been misled by the tavern owner, and the British-Canadian force was much larger than he believed. Scott briefly considered a retreat, but feared the effect such a move would have on troop morale. Just after seven o'clock, on the evening of July 25, 1814, the Battle of Lundy's Lane began.
Early in the battle, the casualties were almost exclusively American, with the British and Canadians enjoying a position of strategic advantage, and artillery support. Scott soon ordered the 25th United States Infantry to flank the enemy's left, where the British were caught redeploying. More significantly, the Americans captured General Riall. General Drummond, now commanding, was confident by the second hour of the battle. He believed he was fighting the entire army under Brown's command. At eight-thirty, U.S. reinforcements arrived from Chippawa, and the two sides were now roughly even, each fielding approximately 6,000 men. The battle continued to rage, in the heat and the darkness, and the battlefield was clouded by musket and artillery smoke. Men on both sides had difficulty determining friend from foe, and at one point, the Glengarry Fencibles came under fire from British regulars. General Brown had arrived, and ordered the 21st United States Infantry, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel James Miller to capture the British artillery. In a bayonette charge, Miller's men killed near all of the British gunners. Despite several attempts by Drummond to recapture the artillery, he was unsuccessful.
After six hours of bloody fighting, the battle came to an end. Men on both sides were injured and exhausted, and the British and Canadians suffered 800 killed or wounded. The Americans suffered similar casualties, and counted Winfield Scott and Jacob Brown among the injured. General Drummond also suffered from a wound to his neck. In the darkness, the Americans retreated. By dawn the next morning, the battlefield was littered with the dead and wounded. A force of 1,200 men, under Brigadier-General Ripley returned, but found they were outnumbered by British troops. Ripley withdrew without incident, and fell back towards Fort Erie with the remaining Americans. During the retreat, the Americans burned fortifications and bridges, before returning to the United States, ending their offensive into Upper Canada.
The battle of Lundy's Lane, in which both sides claimed victory, was the last major conflict fought in Upper Canada, as well as the bloodiest contest ever waged on Canadian soil.