During the American Revolution the federal government was fixated on capturing Canada. In the decades following the war the British sent their Indian allies on raids south of the border, and with the 1812 declaration of the “Second War of Independence” these raids increased. The seizure of Canada once again became an American priority.
Subsequent efforts to capture British strongholds in Canada generally ended in disaster, largely because the U.S. Army itself was a shambles. Fearful of maintaining a large standing army, Congress had failed to sufficiently recruit, train or equip its soldiers. The Regular Army, such as it was, was officered by doddering old men and incompetent political appointees.
Things changed in early 1814 when Secretary of War John Armstrong assigned Brig. Gen. Winfield Scott to train the Army of the Niagara. Scott ordered regulation blue uniforms but, due to a shortage of material, had to settle for the hated gray jackets of the militia. Undeterred, he removed inept officers and incessantly drilled his men. Impressed, Maj. Gen. Jacob Brown gave Scott command of four infantry regiments and two artillery companies—nearly 1,400 of the best-trained men in the Army.
Shortly thereafter a plan was hatched for yet another American invasion of Canada. It entailed crossing the Niagara River, seizing Fort Erie, then moving north to Chippawa and, if possible, Forts George and Niagara. On July 3 Brown led Scott’s and Brig. Gen. Eleazer Ripley’s brigades and four artillery companies across the Niagara. They quickly took weakly defended Fort Erie. Next day Brown ordered Scott to march his brigade up the Niagara to Chippawa Creek and cross it before the British could stop him. Scott’s brigade reached the creek, but a 2,100-man British force under Maj. Gen. Phineas Riall stood waiting on the opposite bank.
Scott withdrew to Street’s Creek, and—with Brown still upstream— decided to stage a Fourth of July celebration for the troops. Meanwhile, Riall crossed the Chippawa, and as Scott was forming up for parade, Brown sent word of the imminent attack.
Scott immediately deployed his brigade into line, his four-gun battery to the right on the Niagara, the 25th Infantry to the left near the woods. For his part Riall believed the Fort Erie garrison was still fighting the Americans, and that only a small enemy force opposed him. Noting their gray jackets, he assumed he was facing militiamen, whom he expected to run at the first volley. He fired three volleys into the Americans, and when they stood their ground, Riall reportedly exclaimed, “Those are Regulars, by God!” Still, he marched his troops out of the woods, exposing them to deadly flanking fire from Scott’s 25th. Scott then ordered his three remaining infantry regiments to turn inward, creating a concave formation. When Riall ordered his men forward, the infantry caught them in a brutal three-way crossfire, as Scott’s artillery raked them with canister. Under such withering fire the British withdrew. The Americans suffered some 300 casualties, while the British casualty list topped 500.
Although the campaign ultimately ended in failure, Scott became a national hero. And legend has it the fledgling U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York, adopted gray as the color of the cadets’ jackets in honor of Chippawa.
■ Learn from history. The United States hadn’t been able to take Canada 40 years earlier, and nothing had changed.
■ Never underestimate your enemy. Through ignorant of Fort Erie’s fate, Riall badly miscalculated the Americans’ numbers.
■ Clothes don’t always make the man. By assuming the Americans’ gray coats defined them as militia, Riall further underestimated their resolve.
■ When you gain intelligence, apply it. Once realizing he faced disciplined Regulars, Riall continued to disdain them.
■ Win first, party later. Scott’s decision to throw a celebration without first determining the enemy’s position nearly cost him the day.
■ Stop invading Canada! The Canadians weren’t even slightly interested in supporting an American invasion or becoming part of the United States.
Originally published in the November 2012 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here.