Up until early July 1814, the battlefield performance of the American army in the War of 1812 had been most notable for its incompetence, errors, amateurism and missed opportunities. Even on July 5, the 3,500 regulars who had encamped near the Niagara River in Canada wore the gray wool uniform of the state militias because there wasn’t enough regulation blue material to go around. As they dutifully followed orders to parade along the river to mark the nation’s 38th anniversary of independence, they remained oblivious to the fact that an enemy army was about to pounce on them. Potential disaster loomed. But on this day, largely because of the efforts of Brigadier General Winfield Scott, the army found its footing. The Battle of Chippewa created a legend, inspired generations of military professionals and even instilled such pride that gray remains the color of the uniform worn proudly by cadets at the world’s most esteemed military academy.
The U.S. Army was aging in 1812; it was largely led by veterans of the Revolution, a war more than 30 years past. While many of them were excellent battlefield commanders in their day, time had taken its toll. On the political side of the equation, the Democratic-Republican Party of Thomas Jefferson and many of the other heroes of American independence regarded a standing military as a threat to America’s liberty and an unnecessary expense. As a result, the U.S. Army had been constantly short of funds—it lacked uniforms and equipment for the duration of the War of 1812—and its officers were often chosen more for political connections than for competence.
The army’s shortcomings were further highlighted by the success of the U.S. Navy on the high seas. In contrast to the army’s geriatric leadership, the navy was dominated by men still in their 30s. Young, dashing and daring, the sailors’ recent combat with the Barbary pirates off the coast of Tripoli added to their growing reputation. Many of the navy’s wartime commanders were not professional officers but privateers, men who were authorized by the American government to attack enemy shipping and keep the profit of whatever they captured. These men had long made their living with their ship-handling and leadership skills. The very process of recruiting privateers weeded out the less competent. No one who doubted his ability volunteered to pit his skills against the world’s mightiest fleet, the British Royal Navy.
The U.S. Navy also benefited from a technical advantage that the U.S. Army did not. New England shipyards had been producing the finest frigates in the world since before the American Revolution, unmatched by even the best British shipbuilders. Another great advantage was that the merchant marine offered an ongoing chance for ambitious young men to hone their sea-faring skills, but ground combat could be practiced only in the underfunded and always too small army or, worse, in the state militias. Although the army’s numbers were greater than the navy’s, its training and discipline were deplorable. Militias generally elected their own leaders and assumed the right to “un-elect” officers if the situation seemed to justify it.
Of all the miscalculations of the War of 1812, perhaps the greatest was the Americans’ confidence that they could easily seize Canada and make it part of the United States. They had good reason for wanting to unite North America under the Stars and Stripes. The British had been using Canada as a base—to trade for furs with the Indians in the American-claimed Ohio territory and to encourage those same Indians to attack American settlements along the frontier. Military and civilian leaders alike firmly believed that the presence of the U.S. Army north of the border would inspire the Canadians to throw off the British yoke. The American perceptions and intelligence proved to be fatally flawed. In fact, the Canadians were determined to remain loyal subjects of the Crown.
Nevertheless, Canada appeared very vulnerable. Its population was relatively small, and large numbers were descendants of the French colonists the British had conquered just a few generations earlier. Meanwhile, the vast military might of Great Britain was concentrated on warring with Napoleon in Europe, and in Canada, reserves of food or supplies to support a large British expeditionary force were limited. (In fact British forces survived their first winter in Canada only because treasonous New England merchants and farmers sold them food, choosing to line their pockets at the expense of their countrymen.) Another American advantage was the long border, pierced by the Great Lakes and a number of navigable rivers that could support an invasion force. With all of the obvious benefits that would accrue to the victor and no apparent difficulties, the U.S. Army marched into Canada. Capturing it should have been easy for a well-disciplined, well-trained army. Unfortunately the U.S. Army of 1812 was neither.
The campaign to conquer Canada quickly turned into a debacle. The generally pro-British, pro-commerce Federalists opposed to the war were concentrated in the Northeast along the best invasion routes into Canada. They refused to support federal troops marching through their states, causing logistical difficulties. They refused to call up their state militias, claiming that the Constitution limited their use to defense against invasion. Hamstrung by poor logistics and undisciplined troops and burdened with slow, ineffectual leaders, the Americans suffered badly at the hands of the British regulars, supported by their Canadian and Indian allies. American advances were tentative. Timid commanders surrendered strong positions rather than fight, even when they had the numerical advantage.
The skills that made armies successful in the early 19th cen-tury have largely been relegated to the parade field in the early 21st. Many observers in the years since the invention of automatic, long-range weapons wonder in amazement at what appears to be little more than a formalized style of suicide on the battlefield. Recalling the Minutemen of the American Revolution—who fired their accurate rifles from behind rocks and trees and picked off British officers—modern Americans often assume that the British were using tactics that had no effectiveness outside Europe. They are wrong. The mastery of these tactics—and the discipline required to execute them—meant the difference between defeat or victory in battle.
Warfare in the time of the American Revolution and the War of 1812 was limited by the weapons both armies carried. The rifle was extremely accurate for its day and could kill at relatively long distances, but a good rifleman could load and fire no more than one round per minute. This slow rate of fire meant that while riflemen could pick off enemy officers, a large body of men in a tight formation could successfully charge forward with bayonets fixed and overtake the riflemen before they could inflict more than just a few casualties on the attackers.
The smoothbore musket, on the other hand, in the hands of a competent infantryman, could fire up to three rounds per minute. Speed, however, came at the price of accuracy; beyond 50 yards, striking a man-sized target was more a matter of luck than of marksmanship. The only way that a body of men armed with muskets could put out a credible amount of effective fire was to stand massed together so that their fire was concentrated in the small area before them. Once their officers gave the order to charge, they would rush forward with long bayonets attached to the muzzles of their muskets. It was the hope of every infantryman that the sight of so many charging soldiers would cause the enemy to panic, break and run. If they did not, then the battle became a bloody hand-to-hand fight with bayonets, swords, fists and rifle butts.
Discipline was key. The rational human being will always feel a strong impulse to flee the danger and destruction of the battlefield. Patriotism and concern for the opinions of his fellow soldiers or the folks back home may get a man to the battle, but discipline instilled through long hours of training and drill keeps him where the fire is hot and death close. The necessity of standing in tight ranks to give a credible fire meant that the soldiers themselves formed an easy target for the enemy. When cannons were added to the mix, it took a level of discipline that defies modern understanding to remain in formation and slowly move toward the murderous fire in ordered ranks.
Such discipline is not a question of innate personal courage, but rather the result of demanding, repetitive training. This was the regimen that drew the broad line of demarcation between militia and U.S. regulars in the War of 1812. The regulars’ entire existence was one long attempt to instill discipline. From the demand that every brass button be shined until it gleamed to the requirement that the barracks be kept as clean as a hospital, absolute, unquestioning obedience was what soldiers needed.
That was what Winfield Scott set out to give them. Aggressive, vainglorious and always self-promoting, Scott sometimes seemed to provoke as much conflict with his fellow officers as with the British. Like most of his fellows, Scott had no prior military service or background. Unlike most of his fellows, however, Scott understood the importance of study and professional competence. One of the few bright stars in the army’s otherwise poor performance in the summer and fall of 1813, Scott was promoted to brigadier general in March 1814, the youngest of several new generals appointed to rescue the situation.
Recognizing Scott’s superb skills as a trainer, his commander, Maj. Gen. Jacob Brown, entrusted the training of the entire Army of the Niagara to him, and Scott in turn threw himself into the task with vigor. He first set about personally instructing his officers in the requisite knowledge and then monitored them as they taught their men. No detail of military discipline or camp life was too small to escape his notice and correction. Cleanliness, security, order, military courtesy and custom all received his attention. Understanding the pride of the soldier, he made strenuous efforts to clothe his men in the blue uniforms of the regulars, not the gray wool of the despised militias. Here, however, Scott failed. His trained regulars would have to go into battle dressed in gray.
Scott instilled the strict discipline he knew his men would need to face the hardened British regulars; he did not hesitate to use the harshest measures to stamp out any challenges. When several men deserted, Scott had them shot. Only the youngest was spared, as the muskets pointed at him had been loaded with powder, but no balls. General Brown was so impressed with Scott’s skill that he gave him command of four of the six regular army infantry regiments he had trained. These, along with two companies of the 2nd Artillery, completed Scott’s brigade.
With spring 1814 now nearing its end and the American Army of the Niagara ready for battle, Brown began planning another invasion of Canada. The stakes were high. American defeats on the Canadian border and British cross-border raids had turned New England even more against the war. Leading citizens there were secretly discussing the possibility of secession from the United States and a separate peace with Great Britain.
Unaware of such details, but fully realizing that the United States could ill afford another defeat, Scott led his brigade across the Niagara River and into Canada early on the morning of July 3. By the end of that afternoon they had captured Fort Erie and made prisoners of its 170-man garrison. Brown urged Scott to move forward quickly to get across the Chippewa River before their British rival, Maj. Gen. Phineas Riall, could mass behind it and make a crossing impossible. To Scott’s dismay, his forced march and the running battles it entailed had all been in vain. Riall, who had been warned of the American crossing, was waiting on the north side of the Chippewa on July 4.
Convinced that there would be no action for another day or two, Scott ordered his men to encamp for the night to the south of Street’s Creek, which ran parallel to the Chippewa about a mile and a half south. He proposed a slightly belated Independence Day celebration to be held July 5. After a feast, Scott ordered his brigade to the flat ground north of the creek for a formal review and parade. As his men filed over a small bridge, they looked up to see General Brown galloping toward them. Shouting a warning that battle was about to begin, he raced to hurry along the rest of his brigade, which had encamped along the Niagara River south of Scott’s position. The British had crossed the Chippewa River and were advancing toward Scott in battle formation.
The cautious and conservative move would have been for Scott to take up defensive positions behind Street’s Creek and await reinforcements. On that day—and over the course of the next 45 years—“cautious and conservative” were words not applied to Scott. He ordered his brigade to form for battle on the north side of the creek. Scott sent his artillery off to the right, positioning it beside the Niagara so that it could not be outflanked, and moved his infantry units into a line extending out from the artillery. They were about to give the British a nasty surprise.
If Scott was confident, Riall was even more so. As he looked at the invaders across the open plain, he could see their gray cloth uniforms and felt victory was already his; these were merely militia, the men who could not stand up to the first artillery shell, let alone face a bayonet charge by the British veterans. But as he watched his cannon shot tear through the ranks of the Americans, a terrible realization dawned on him. These men were not running away. They were forming ranks and standing steady under the bombardment, waiting for orders to move forward.
“Those are Regulars, by God!” Riall exclaimed. Despite that revelation, Riall pushed on, and the two lines slowly closed the distance between them. As they came into musket range, soldiers halted to fire and reload before moving forward again. Again, Riall’s overconfidence got the better of him. He was so sure of victory that he moved his right flank forward and broke contact with the woods that had been protecting it.
Scott did not hesitate. He sent the 25th U.S. Infantry from the left end of his line forward and to the left. The troops outflanked the end of the British line, then wheeled back to the right and fell on the exposed British flank. Sensing victory, Scott now took one more gamble. He divided the remaining regiments of his brigade into two groups. The 11th Infantry on the left turned to the right while the 9th and 22nd on the right turned inward to the left, opening a small V-shaped gap between the two sections. Riall saw this weakness in Scott’s lines and drove toward it, intending to split the brigade in half. It was the opportunity Scott had hoped for. Riall suddenly found his forces caught in a murderous crossfire of three regiments. Scott’s artillery now added their fire to that of the infantry. It was too much even for hardened British veterans; they fell back leaving the field to Scott and his brigade. British casualties exceeded 500 while some 300 Americans fell.
After a seemingly endless series of defeats and humiliations, the American army had stood up to seasoned British regulars. Not only had the troops stood up, they had also fixed bayonets, charged the “thin red line” and driven it from the battlefield.
As soon as news of the victory on the Niagara reached New England, the mutterings of secession abruptly ceased. Winfield Scott and his American regulars had saved the country and shown what determination, iron discipline and hard training could do. Although the campaign to capture Canada would ultimately fail, the lessons that Scott and the army learned there would continue to reverberate down to the present day.
General Scott’s troop preparation began the transformation of the U.S. Army from a small, semi-amateur frontier force to a professional organization. The U.S. Military Academy at West Point, established in 1802, would soon become the army’s primary source of professional officers. In recognition of what Scott’s brigade achieved at Chippewa, cadets there adopted gray uniforms, a tradition that continues two centuries later. While the national debate over dependence on the regular army versus the state militias would be ongoing for years, the Battle of Chippewa taught Congress, and the nation, the importance of a full-time professional military establishment. More important, it showed all the American soldiers who followed Scott, both regular and militia, what good training, professionalism and discipline could accomplish.
This article was written by James B. Daniels and originally published in the October 2007 issue of American History Magazine. For more great articles, subscribe to American History magazine today!