Two hundred years ago, the U.S. Army proved its mettle against British Regulars.
“To give immediate occupation to your troops and to prevent their blood from stagnating,” U.S. Secretary of War John Armstrong cavalierly suggested to Brigadier General Jacob Brown, “why not take Fort Erie?” Yet much more was involved in the undertaking by Brown’s forces near the United States’ northern border than was indicated by the casualness of Secretary Armstrong’s suggestion. For starters, it meant invading Canada.
It was the summer of 1814, and the War of 1812 between the United States and Britain had raged for two years. That part of the war being fought along the United States-Canada border had been a seesaw affair from the beginning, with neither side able to gain and hold a decisive advantage. But that balance was about to shift.
French Emperor Napoleon’s defeat that spring in the War of the Sixth Coalition had freed British resources – men, money and ships – for Britain’s war against the United States. Sixteen British army regiments, battle-hardened by the fighting in Europe, were being reassigned to Canada, and six more regiments were sailing to the Chesapeake Bay to raid the U.S. Eastern Seaboard. (See Battle Studies, January 2014 ACG.) The capture of Fort Erie on the Canadian side of the Niagara River international boundary would gain the United States a decisive advantage along its northern border before all of those seasoned British reinforcements could arrive.
Brown initiated the series of actions collectively known as the Niagara Campaign on July 3, 1814, when he led 4,500 troops across the Niagara River into Canadian territory. (See U.S.-Canada Niagara Frontier map, p. 37.) His force included several regiments of U.S. Army regulars and a brigade of 753 militiamen under Brigadier General Peter B. Porter, along with 600 Iroquois Indian allies, among them the famous Seneca leaders Red Jacket and Corn planter. The Americans easily landed under only scattered British fire. Brown planned to take Fort Erie and then march north to capture the strategic bridge over the Chippawa River. Eventually, with the help of U.S. Navy ships under Captain Isaac Chauncey, naval commander on Lake Ontario, Brown intended to take British-controlled Fort George, strategically located where the Niagara River empties into the lake.
This would be the United States’ last invasion of Canada, and it would fail. Yet in combat against British regulars during the campaign,the U.S. Army would establish a reputation as a well-trained and disciplined professional force that could hold its own against the best army in the world.
When Brown invaded, Fort Erie was still unfinished – it was open on the landward side – and was garrisoned by only 137 soldiers under Major Thomas Buck. After the Americans had crossed the river,Buck fired a few shots from his cannon and then quickly surrendered.Judging the surrender to have been too hasty, Buck’s superiors later court-martialed him. For the loss of only 10 casualties, Brown had accomplished Secretary Armstrong’s objective, and he wasted no time setting out to accomplish the next one.
On July 4, Brown headed north from Fort Erie on a portage road alongside the Niagara River with a brigade under recently promoted Brigadier General Winfield Scott in the lead. The Americans met only weak resistance from a British force that had been sent to delay their advance. Numerous streams crossed the area, and at each of them the British attempted to halt the Americans but were quickly routed.Scott’s men also prevented the British from destroying the Chippawa River bridge and scattered the defenders before they could cut down trees to block the portage road.
Meanwhile, Brown had sent Porter’s volunteers into the woods to the west of the road, where they routed additional British troops. The woods, Porter later wrote, were filled with “scenes of frightful havoc& slaughter,” with the British being “cut down by the tomahawk, or,turning upon their pursuers, [fighting] hand-to-hand until the last.”
By dusk, the British had withdrawn north beyond the Chippawa River to the main British camp, where additional reinforcements had been arriving. With reinforcements, the force, designated the Right Division of the British Army in Upper Canada, numbered about 2,300 men and was under the command of Major General Phineas Riall. However, since some of the division’s men had been detached to serve in the garrisons of Fort George and Fort Niagara at the river’s mouth, Riall had about 2,100 – regulars, militia and British-allied Indians – near the Chippawa River bridge. He deployed a battery of artillery on the south side of the river among a scattering of buildings in the hamlet of Chippawa and formed the rest of his army on the north side of the river.
Riall’s troops were dug in and they occupied a strong defensive position. The river was too deep to ford and there was no other bridge for miles.
THE BATTLE OF CHIPPAWA
After a brief exchange of artillery fire, Scott withdrew his brigade about a mile south to Street’s Creek. The Americans had approximately 3,500 men, mostly regulars, with additional troops on the way. By the morning of July 5, the American force totaled about 5,000, including a sizable number of Indian allies. Between the Americans at Street’s Creek and the British at the Chippawa River was a broad plain bordered on the east by the Niagara River and on the west by heavy woods.
Riall mistakenly believed that Fort Erie was still holding out and expected that the fort’s garrison would delay the main American offensive for at least two or three days. Based on this faulty assumption, Riall estimated that he faced only about 2,000 of the American force’s troops. He also assumed that they were mainly ill-trained and inexperienced militia of poor fighting quality. He was wrong on both counts.
In response to the humiliating American loss at the Battle of Queenston Heights in October 1812, then-Colonel Scott had established a “Camp of Instruction” to rigorously train his U.S. Army regulars. He had instituted a uniform drill manual (the French army manual of 1791) and drilled the men for 10 hours a day. Scott also had established camp discipline, enforced well-regulated sanitary arrangements – which greatly reduced losses from disease – and purged his ranks of inept, politically appointed officers.
Scott’s only failure had been his inability to procure for his troops the regulation blue uniforms worn by U.S. Army regular soldiers. A shipment of such uniforms had been mistakenly sent to Plattsburgh and could not be returned to Scott before the campaign began. Instead, Scott had to clothe his regulars in the undyed (gray) uniform jackets worn only by militia troops. Thus, the force that Riall faced at the Chippawa River was not the inexperienced militia he expected and which it appeared to be based on the color of the men’s uniforms. Rather, it was a force of well-trained, superbly disciplined American regulars.
On July 5, British troops and their Indian allies crossed the Chippawa, moved into the woods west of Scott’s force and began sniping fire at his outposts and camp. About noon, Brown, who by now had caught up to Scott, became exasperated by the annoying skirmishing and sent Porter’s brigade of Pennsylvania militia and Indians to clear the woods. Meanwhile, Riall was preparing for an all-out attack and had deployed a group of British-allied Indians into the same woods to guard his right flank. Porter was having little trouble clearing the woods until he realized that he was about to be caught between the advancing Indians and the British regulars on his right. He quickly turned his brigade and headed for the rear.
The sound of firing from Porter’s retreat alerted Brown that the British were attacking. Brown in turn alerted Scott, who moved his men north over Street’s Creek bridge and deployed Captain Nathaniel Towson’s three 12-pounder guns onto the portage road to his right. Riall’s two light 4-pounder guns and a 5.5-inch howitzer began firing on Scott’s men as they formed in line, and the British crossed the Chippawa River bridge onto the plain. At this point, Riall spotted the gray jackets of Scott’s troops, which he believed confirmed his assumption that he was only facing American militia.
Scott formed his U.S. infantrymen in line,with 25th Regiment on the left near the woods,11th Regiment and 9th Regiment in the center,and 22d Regiment on the right. His men then began advancing toward Riall’s force through British artillery fire. Scott’s months of drill paid off – the American regulars advanced steadily and in disciplined order through the enemy fire, halting to load and fire and then moving on again. On Scott’s left, Major Thomas Jesup moved his 25th Regiment into the woods that Porter had recently vacated and was able to turn the British right flank.
Watching the Americans advance steadily while under galling fire, Riall realized his mistake and exclaimed, “Those are regulars,by God!”
Towson’s artillery guns had by now begun firing as well, and one of his shots hit and exploded a British ammunition caisson, shattering much of the British position. His 12-pounders silenced the remainder of the slower-firing British guns.
Riall advanced his British infantrymen toward the Americans,but they moved forward awkwardly, forming a ragged line that became bunched and disordered. Although advancing in line formation normally means increased firepower since all soldiers can fire at the enemy, Riall lost that advantage because of the disorderly advance and by ordering his men to fire only a single volley as they approached the enemy.
After silencing the British artillery, Towson shifted his guns to the advancing British infantrymen and began firing canister that tore huge holes in their line. Once the opposing sides had closed to within 100 yards, Scott moved forward his left and right flank regiments,25th and 22d infantry, forming a shallow “U” shape that caught Riall’s advancing troops in a heavy crossfire. Both lines stood and fired repeated volleys, with the British being raked by Scott’s infantry musket crossfire and by Towson’s artillery fire until Scott ordered his men to conduct a bayonet charge. The British line dissolved, Scott later wrote, “like a rope of sand.”
After about 25 minutes, Riall, whose coat had been pierced by a bullet, ordered a withdrawal. As the British fell back, he brought up three 6-pounders across the Chippawa River bridge to cover his retreat while two more 6-pounders fired from entrenchments north of the Chippawa. Faced with these guns, Scott halted his brigade, although some of Porter’s Iroquois continued to pursue the British.
The Americans returned to their Street’s Creek camp, and the day ended with the two forces in much the same positions as they had been in that morning. Yet Scott had won a smashing victory. His 1,400 U.S. regulars had broken Riall’s 1,500 British regulars, proving that the Americans could stand against – and defeat – the best army in the world.
British casualties as a result of the battle were 148 men killed, 221 wounded, and 46 captured or missing. Scott’s losses were 44 men killed and 224 wounded. Porter’s brigade had suffered an additional 54 casualties.
As news of Scott’s victory at the Battle of Chippawa spread through the United States, a rush of jubilation and national pride spread with it. But the Niagara Campaign was far from over.
THE BATTLE OF LUNDY’S LANE
Two days after the battle, Brown discovered a logging road through the woods and the American army crossed the Chippawa upstream of Riall’s defenses. This maneuver turned the British flank and forced Riall’s army to fall back to Fort George. Brown took Scott’s and Porter’s brigades and retired to the village of Queenston, sending detachments farther north to Fort George, where they tried to dislodge the British from the fort. The detachments failed, however, and Brown settled down to wait for Captain Chauncey’s fleet.
Yet with no American unified command existing then to control Army-Navy joint operations, no one could order Chauncey and the fleet out. The naval commander proved reluctant to risk his ships at the Army’s bidding while a strong British fleet patrolled Lake Ontario. Chauncey claimed to be bedridden with a fever, but he refused to hand over command to a healthy officer. Consequently, the American Navy ships that Brown needed never showed up. Since a successful attack on Fort George was impossible without the U.S. Navy’s help,Brown was forced on July 24 to withdraw to Chippawa.
Meanwhile, the British had been able to bring in reinforcements under Sir Gordon Drummond, Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, who took command. Strengthened by fresh British troops and provided freedom of action by Brown’s withdrawal, Drummond led the 1,800-man British force south out of Fort George on the morning of July 25. He halted his men near where Lundy’s Lane ran into the Niagara portage road about three miles north of Chippawa.
Unaware of the strength of the British force, Brown sent Scott north at about 5 p.m. with 1,200 men, including Towson’s artillery and a few cavalry. On the way, the Americans encountered a local tavern and were told by the proprietor that the British were a mile ahead at Lundy’s Lane. More importantly, the tavern keeper told
Scott that the force contained only 800 regulars, 300 militia and two artillery guns. This misinformation may have been a deliberate British deception plan.Scott advanced his men and moved them onto open ground where he could see the enemy force. He immediately realized the British were in much greater strength than he had been led to expect. Scott quickly sent word back to Brown asking for reinforcements. Yet rather than wait for those reinforcements, Scott attacked.
The British troops were deployed on a high knoll topped by a red brick church that dominated the ground around it. They were aligned in a crescent formation with seven artillery guns deployed in the center. The only cover for the Americans was an orchard on the left and woods on the right. The rest was open ground, giving British defenders excellent fields of fire.
Scott placed Towson’s guns on his right near the portage road, sent out skirmishers,and ordered Major Jesup’s regiment into the woods along the Niagara River. Jesup moved north through the woods, coming back to the portage road beyond Lundy’s Lane and almost behind the British position. However, his regiment was too weak to break through and was held in place by the British force. The fighting there continued into the night, when in the dark Riall blundered into a group of Jesup’s Americans and was captured.
Meanwhile, Scott and his men had been caught in the pocket formed by the British positions and were fighting desperately to hold their ground when Scott’s call for help was answered. Brown arrived on the field with 1,200additional men. He pulled back the remnants of Scott’s battered regiments and then threw Lieutenant Colonel James Miller’s 21st U.S.Infantry into the fight. Miller, leading his men in the dark, quietly made his way to a rail fence from which he could see the glow of the “slow matches” British gunners used to fire their cannon. Resting their muskets on the fence and aiming carefully, Miller’s men killed a number of the enemy gunners and routed the rest in a single volley and were able to overrun the enemy guns.
By then it was 10 p.m., and fierce fighting developed for possession of the knoll and the British guns – fighting that one British officer described as “a desperation bordering on madness.” Men blinded by the dark fired at the muzzle flashes of enemy muskets and then clashed in repeated bayonet charges. The chaotic, confused struggle centered around the brick church on the knoll. The two sides’ troops intermingled in the darkness, and the melee combat featured close-quarter fighting with clubbed muskets, bayonets and point-blank musket fire.
A British column under Colonel Hercules Scott arrived on the battlefield from the north and stumbled into the center of the newly formed American line that had been created along Lundy’s Lane after Miller’s attack. The British column was driven back in disorder with the loss of its three 6-pounder guns.
As the Americans struggled to deploy their artillery among the captured British guns, Drummond, who had been wounded in the neck, mounted a counterattack to retake his cannon but it was beaten back. A second British attempt was also repulsed. While this was taking place, Scott led his depleted brigade in an attack against Drummond’s center, but a well-placed British volley sent the Americans back in disorder pursued by British bayonets. It was only when the British mistook Scott’s men for their own that the Americans were able to escape.
Scott, however, had taken a musket ball wound that shattered his shoulder joint. In addition, he already was suffering from bruises he incurred when two horses were shot out from under him and from a spent cannon ball that struck him in the side.
Brown had been injured as well. He was hit in the thigh by a musket ball, yet he stayed on his horse until, like Scott, he was struck by a spent cannon ball. Too badly hurt to continue directing the battle, Brown turned over command to Brigadier General Eleazar W. Ripley.
Shortly before midnight, Drummond launched a third counterattack on the American position. This effort evolved into more brutal fighting in the area of the captured British guns before the exhausted Americans were finally forced back from the knoll. The British,however, were also spent and remained with their recaptured guns instead of launching another attack against the Americans. In the dark and the smoke, both sides had lost many casualties to friendly fire and numerous others when men had mistakenly wandered into the wrong side. A British lieutenant at the battle later wrote,“From going in among the enemy in the Dark,and from speaking the same language, once separated, we could not distinguish friend from foe.”
Ripley ordered a retreat, leaving the Lundy’s Lane battlefield to Drummond’s British force. The Americans trudged wearily back south to their Chippawa camp, while the equally spent British troops camped where they were, amid the groans and screams of the wounded and dying. A British surgeon wrote of the Lundy’s Lane battlefield: “[S]uch a scene of carnage I never beheld … red coats and blue and grey were promiscuously intermingled, in many places three deep, and around the [knoll] the carcasses of 60 or 70 horses disfigured the scene.”
The following morning, Ripley declined to initiate any further action and – despite Brown’s objections – retreated from Chippawa south to Fort Erie. Although both sides claimed victory in what was then the bloodiest battle of the war, the Battle of Lundy’s Lane was a tactical draw. However, since the British remained in possession of the battlefield and the Americans had withdrawn all the way back to the Niagara Campaign’s starting point at Fort Erie, the battle resulted in a strategic victory for the British.
The official British casualty return listed 84 men killed, 559 wounded, 42 captured and 193 missing. The Americans, meanwhile, had lost 171 dead, 572 wounded and 110 missing. Of the American casualties, 516 were Scott’s men.
For several months after the battles of Chippawa and Lundy’s Lane, the Americans remained at Fort Erie, successfully withstanding a months-long siege by Drummond’s army. On November 5, however, with supplies running short and seeing no possibility of mounting further offensive actions against the British, the Americans blew up Fort Erie and withdrew across the river to the United States. The Niagara Campaign was over. The U.S. never invaded Canada again.
Despite the Americans’ strategic failure in the campaign, at the battles of Chippawa and Lundy’s Lane, U.S. Army regulars had stood and faced British regulars – soldiers hardened by service in the wars against Napoleon – in open, head-to head confrontation, and the Americans had more than held their own. Many historians cite these battles as the birthplace of the modern American army.
Jacob Brown and Winfield Scott each eventually became “commanding general of the U.S. Army.” Brown, the Army’s senior ranking officer from June 1815, held the post first, when it was created in 1821, and was still holding it when he died in office in 1828. Scott became commanding general in 1841 and held the post for over two decades – longer than any other American general – until his retirement in November 1861. He died in 1866 and is buried in the U.S. Military Academy cemetery at West Point.
Chuck Lyons is a retired newspaper editor and a freelance writer who has written extensively on historical subjects, and his work has appeared in numerous periodicals. Lyons resides in Rochester, N.Y., with his wife, Brenda, and a beagle named Gus.
Originally published in the January 2015 issue of Armchair General.