Winfield Scott's Brush with Disaster

Winfield Scott’s Brush with Disaster

By Timothy D. Johnson
Autumn 1995 • MHQ Magazine

When Congress declared war on Great Britain in June 1812, the United States Army was small in size and antiquated in leadership, and the state militias–the second line of defense on land–were erratic and poorly disciplined. The army not only needed fresh leadership, but also a greatly expanded number of well-trained soldiers. It took time for new leaders to rise to the top ranks and for the country to mobilize and train both more regular army troops and a substantial number of citizen­ soldiers. Fortunately for the United States, the British were preoccupied early in the war with European affairs and could project but a small portion of their military power into North America. By 1814, American land forces began to flex their enhanced combat skill and muscle, as the Battle of Lundy’s Lane demonstrated. Fought in late July against a more numerous British force, this bloody brawl was to be important for the development of both the U.S. Army and one of its greatest commanders, Winfield Scott. Yet the future of each, Timothy D. Johnson writes, was risked when ambition overrode judgment.

Winfield Scott’s military career spanned more than half a century, including 20 years as commanding general of the army. He was recognized as one of the most capable commanders of the nineteenth century, with abilities as a tactician and strategist that stemmed from an extensive knowledge of mili­tary history and the art of war. The Mexico City campaign in 1847 was Scott’s crowning achievement. Its careful planning and brilliant execution demonstrated his maturity of judgment and accuracy of forethought. When it was over, the duke of Wellington proclaimed him “the greatest living sol­dier.” As a young man in the War of 1812, however, Scott was ambitious and impatient, sometimes immature and impulsive–though inarguably brave in action. His often rash behavior was personally damaging and, on at least one occasion, Lundy’s Lane, almost resulted in disaster for the men he commanded.

Accounts of the battle generally focus on the accomplishments of the American army and its ability to stand up to British regulars in an open-field fight. Plagued by humiliating defeats early in the war, the army acquitted itself well in July 1814 at both Chippewa and Lundy’s Lane, on the Canadian side of the Niagara River. Historians usually characterize these battles, fought within three weeks of each other, as a watershed for the regular army, demonstrating its tenacious fighting spirit and elevating its prestige. Scott, the ranking commander on the field during the early hours of fighting at Lundy’s Lane, has received almost unanimous praise for his role in training the army and leading it into battle. President James Madison’s annual message to Congress, delivered in September 1814, com­mended Scott and other officers for the two “splendid victories.” “These heroes,” Madison added, “triumphantly tested the progressive discipline of the American soldiery.” Despite the severity of the battle and the number of casualties, to most military historians Lundy’s Lane has become a sym­bol of the American tradition of rising to the occasion to meet uncommon challenges. It was, many contend, due to Scott’s foresight and guidance as well as the rigorous training he had put his men through the preceding spring that the army accomplished what it did during that bloody contest. Lost in most accounts of the battle is Scott’s recklessness in ordering his brigade to attack the British position without forethought or knowledge of the enemy’s strength. He also rushed into battle while the rest of the army was too far away to give immediate support. A few writers have made pass­ing statements suggesting that Scott may have acted hastily, but then they have offered no elaboration or reason for that haste.


WINFIELD SCOTT ENTERED THE ARMY IN 1808, hoping that military service would provide a vehicle for advancement and fame. Like many others after the British frigate Leopard fired on the Chesapeake in June 1807, Scott expected war to break out between Great Britain and the United States, and he intended to make a name for himself on the battlefield. The 21­ year-old Scott was consumed with ambition, but his first assignment proved disappointing. Ordered to New Orleans to serve under General James Wil­kinson, Scott spent the summer of 1809 in the now infamous army camp at Terre aux Boeufs, several miles away from the Creole City. In order to main­tain his business and social interests in the city, Wilkinson defied a War Department directive to move to a healthier location. His 2,000 men bivouacked in a marshy quagmire, where sanitation was nonexistent and mosquitoes abounded. A diet of spoiled beef and sour, worm-infested bread, along with brackish drinking water, resulted in widespread dysentery and scurvy. Within three months, 127 had died.

After witnessing the  careless way in which the army was handled, Scott altered his opinion of the officer corps; he particularly deplored Wilkinson for subjecting the soldiers to such unnecessary hardships. Fighting insects and disease had sapped his enthusiasm, and he realized that fame and glory could not be found on the swampy banks of the Mississippi River. Distressed by the faltering prospects of war, Scott considered resigning his commis­sion–but not before he indiscreetly called Wilkinson a liar and a traitor, and asserted that serving under the general was as disgraceful as being married to a prostitute. Scott found himself court-martialed and suspended from the army for a year without pay.

In June 1812–after years of tension over British attacks on U.S. ship­ping and impressment of American seamen, as well as American expan­sionist sentiment aimed at Canada and the northwestern frontier–Con­gress eagerly declared war on Great Britain. The United States now needed all the soldiers it could get, regardless of past indiscretions. Having previ­ously boasted of his desire to “write my history with my sword,” Scott accepted a promotion to lieutenant colonel and the command of an artillery regiment. In the fall, Scott rushed his regiment to the Niagara River and per­suaded General Stephen Van Rensselaer to let him participate in the attack on Queenston, along the Canadian shore. Scott was one of more than 900 Americans captured by the British, but up to that point he fought bravely, eventually becoming the ranking American commander on the field.

So courageous were his actions that the next year, following a prisoner exchange, he found himself serving as adjutant general on General Henry Dearborn’s staff. Not only did he draw up the plans for an attack in May 1813 on Fort George, near Lake Ontario, but he also accompanied the assault force ashore and boldly led the pursuit of the fleeing British army. After being ordered to stop the fight, Scott chafed with anger, proclaiming that he could have captured the entire enemy army. Again demonstrating a lack of good judgment, he characterized one of his superior officers as “vacillating and imbecile, beyond all endurance.”

Believing himself more capable than any officer he had ever served, Scott had been rash and  insubordinate. Nevertheless,  he had displayed the courage and boldness that were often missing in the struggling Ameri­can army. By 1814, Scott’s energy and aggressiveness had been duly noted in Washington, and President Madison promoted him to brigadier general. Scott, then 27, was the youngest general in the army. That spring, he put the army through rigorous training at Buffalo, before turning command over to General Jacob Brown. On July 5, as a brigade commander in Brown’s army, Scott led his unit onto a plain near the Chippewa (to the Canadians, Chippawa) River, facing the enemy. The steadiness and discipline that the Americans exhibited under fire surprised the British regulars, who were accustomed to routing their opposition in open-field battles. Within minutes, Scott gained control of the field by maneuvering his inferior numbers into a dominating position. The victory was quick and decisive. By the time General Brown arrived with the rest of the American army, the British had retreated from the field. Scott proved at the Battle of Chippewa that his aplomb was justified.

The British, commanded by General Phineas Riall, retreated north to Fort George. Brown followed and planned to assault the fort if he could get assistance from the navy; Scott, impatient and eager to enhance his growing reputation, urged that the Americans attack without the fleet. The navy never arrived, and on July 24 Brown took the army back to the Chippewa River, hoping to lure Riall out from his fortified walls.

This retrograde movement disappointed Scott and led to friction between him and Brown. In his unpublished “Memoranda of…the Cam­paign…,” Brown recalled what transpired. When the army arrived back at the Chippewa, “General Scott, ever ambitious to distinguish himself and his command,” asked that he be allowed to take his brigade in search of Riall, but Brown refused to divide his army. Scott repeated his appeal in a “tena­cious” manner the next morning, and he became “quite vexed” when Brown exhibited an equal degree of obstinacy. Brown, dubious of his brigadier’s motives, noted that “Scott honestly believed…he could cover himself with additional glory.” Scott need not have been impatient, for that very morning British troops were approaching nearby Lundy’s Lane. Later in the day, he would have all the glory he could manage.

After his exchange with Scott, Brown received word that four enemy vessels had landed on American soil at Fort Niagara and that British troops at Queenston were crossing the river to Lewiston. This disturbing news meant only one thing to Brown: The British intended to capture his supply base at Fort Schlosser. He decided to divide his army after all, ordering Scott to take his brigade and all the mounted troops to Queenston in an effort to draw the enemy back across the river.

Meanwhile, Major Henry Leavenworth, officer of the day, looked through his glass from a picket station just north of the Chippewa. In the distance, around the bend of the Niagara River, were red-clad troops, includ­ing what he thought was an unusual number of British officers. He galloped back to Brown’s headquarters to report the news and his belief that the main enemy force was still on Canadian soil a scant three miles away. Leavenworth was right: In fact, not only was Riall in the Americans’ front, but also reinforcements under Lieutenant General Sir Gordon Drummond were on the way. Drummond had indeed sent a force of 600 over to the American shore, prompting the report that Brown had received, but he had quickly withdrawn it in order to consolidate his forces at Lundy’s Lane. However, Brown persisted in the belief that Fort Schlosser was under threat of an enemy attack, and so he ordered Scott to advance.

When the van of Scott’s 1st Brigade rounded the bend in the river later that day, several British dragoons quickly mounted and scampered away, narrowly escaping capture. Two American officers then rode ahead to Willson’s Tavern, where the enemy had been milling about, to question the widow who owned it. Soon Scott and his staff arrived, and everyone went in to listen as he interrogated the woman. She reported the presence of over 1,000 British troops in the vicinity; but because of the earlier accounts of enemy crossings downriver, Scott was skeptical. Looking around the room, at length he fixed his eyes on Lieutenant David Douglass, whom he perceived to be the youngest officer present. “Would you be willing to return to camp, sir?” Scott asked. Not knowing if the general was testing his will to fight, the subaltern was momentarily speechless. Realizing what Scott wanted, Colonel Eleazer Wood, Douglass’s friend, broke the silence: “Lieutenant Douglass will, no doubt, be happy to bear your commands to General Brown.” Scott then instructed the lieutenant to ride back and tell Brown that the brigade might encounter a strong enemy force but was nonetheless pushing ahead.

Scott’s decision not to await reinforcements invites criticism. Although he commanded about 1,000 men, he did not know the enemy’s strength in his front. He probably thought that he would face the remnants of Riall’s broken army, or perhaps only an oversize reconnaissance party screening the supposed British crossing at Queenston. Possibly he thought that if he did encounter an enemy force, he could claim the victory before other units arrived, just as he had done three weeks earlier. He never conceived that he would face the bulk of the British army. One contemporary observer wrote that Scott always acted with “alacrity whenever honour was to be courted, and whereever [sic] danger awaited him.” Another way to put it is that Scott was aggressive–sometimes too aggressive. After the battle, Brown seemed irritated at Scott’s independent action, writing in a summary of the events that Scott had taken time only to report the British position in his front but not to await instructions.

Late in the afternoon on July 25, the Americans advanced through a wooded area until the road emerged into a clearing. There, along Lundy’s Lane, they first glimpsed the enemy-drawn up in battle line. Suddenly, the gravity of Scott’s decision hit him: He had blundered into an enemy force about 1,800 strong, including reinforcements under Drummond who were just arriving on the field. He thought of the wild rumors of enemy crossings downriver that had circulated through camp all morning, deceiving him into complacency, and was outraged at that “stupid report made by the militia colonel to his confiding friend Major-General Brown.”

He considered pulling back, but for Scott retreat was only a fleeting thought. Instead, he sent word back to Brown of his intention to hold his ground until the rest of the army could arrive. Later he justified engaging a stronger foe by explaining that because his soldiers were young and half­ seasoned, ordering a retreat might have resulted in a rout. This was a valid point; retreating within sight of an enemy force always leaves one danger­ously exposed to attack. But if he feared that his men were too inexperi­enced to handle a withdrawal, how could he expect them to hold up in the face of superior numbers?

The British opened fire with artillery before Scott could deploy his for­ward units in battle formation. Upon emerging from the woods, the Americans had to go over a fence before taking up their place in line, and many of them were shot off the rails as they climbed up. Scott struggled to get all his brigade through the woods and into the clearing. As the rear units marched toward the sound of the fighting, they met the wounded already filtering back down the road. A 14-year-old drummer boy, still a half mile from the battlefield, became unnerved when he met a trumpeter who had been shot in the head and had blood pouring down his cheeks. The boy thought twice but bravely marched on with his regiment. When he reached the clearing, he lifted himself up on the fence, and while he perched there, preparing to jump to the ground, grapeshot sprayed all around him. Pellets hit the rail on which his feet rested, splintered the rail on both sides of his hands, and severed tree branches overhead, but miraculously the youngster was not hurt.

While trying to rush his men into the clearing to take up their positions, Scott sent word to Major Thomas Jesup, whose 25th Regiment brought up the rear, to swing around to the right and try to tum the British flank. Scott liked Jesup and considered him an able regimental commander. A success­ful flank attack required skill and speed, and to execute it the general chose to rely on the same man who had so successfully carried out a similar move at Chippewa. “Pop through the wood,” he instructed the major, “and be gov­erned by circumstances.”

With all of his brigade in position, Scott, instead of simply holding his ground, ordered an advance into the most confusing and deadly carnage of the entire war. To his credit, he understood that going on the offensive can result in decisive victories, but in this instance he allowed the intensity of the mo­ment to force him into a rash decision. The Americans succeeded in pushing the British back, but additional reinforcements from Drummond’s command continued to arrived, stabilizing Riall’s line. With overwhelming numbers and a strong position, the British were able to beat back several sallies by Scott’s regiments.

At 6:30 p.m., after close to an hour of fighting, Scott’s brigade began to show signs of disintegration. Colonel Hugh Brady-commander of the 22nd Regiment, which was located on the right–was wounded, and his men began to run out of cartridges. Some of them panicked and ran to the rear, leaving a gap on the right of Scott’s line. In the center, the 11th Regiment-its ammunition also depleted; its commander, Major John McNeil, wounded; and all its captains dead or injured–followed the ex­ ample of the 22nd. But not everyone from these two units fled. The more resolute stayed on the field and replenished their ammunition from the car­tridge boxes of nearby corpses.

On the left end of the line, Scott instructed Major Henry Leavenworth’s 9th Regiment to attack,  but when he learned of the collapse on the right and in the center, he countermanded the order and told the major to hold his position until Brown arrived with  the reserves. A lull in the fighting afford­ ed Scott time to improvise a battalion made up of the  9th  and  remnants of the 11th and 22nd regiments. He instructed Leavenworth to take command of this provisional unit. While he was discussing the perilous situation with the major, Scott’s horse was shot from under him.

Darkness and smoke began to enshroud the battlefield. Still there was neither news of General Brown’s approach nor word from Jesup’s 25th Regiment. The major had not been idle, however. His men had eased along the riverbank undetected and, around dusk, succeeded in capturing over 200 British, including Drummond’s aide-de-camp and Riall himself. Many of the prisoners succeeded in escaping, but Jesup sent the rest to the rear while he continued to move stealthily on  the enemy’s left flank. When news of Riall’s capture filtered through Scott’s line, the Americans gave a cheer and renewed their resolve to hold their position.

Not until nine o’clock did Brown and the rest of the army arrive on the scene. The night was dark, but the flash from muskets made it easy to dis­cern the location of the opposing lines. The British fired the new Congreve rockets, originally invented by the Chinese and improved by a British offi­ cer. The rockets’ “red glare,” which would later gain immortality during the shelling of Fort McHenry, illuminated the sky; their shrill whistle pierced the ears. Not very destructive weapons, they were used more to inflict fear than casualties. Under this brilliant display, Brown’s brigades commanded by Brigadier Generals Eleazer W. Ripley and Peter B. Porter groped their way to the front to succor Scott’s shattered command. Brown located Scott and ordered him to pull back what was left of his brigade in order to reorganize and act as reserves.

After taking command of the field, Brown quickly perceived the need to capture a British battery located on a rise in front of Lundy’s Lane. It was an important objective that Scott either had failed to appreciate or had been unable to achieve. Brown located Colonel James Miller, commander of the 21st Regiment, and said, “Colonel, those British guns on the hill must be taken! Can you do it?” Miller gave a stem, laconic response: “It shall be done, sir” (or, according to some sources, “I’ll try, sir”). The colonel formed his regiment, charged the battery, and captured all seven guns. Fighting on the hill continued to rage for two hours as the British tried several times to retake the position.

Next, Brown started up the river road toward Lundy’s Lane in search of Jesup; neither he nor Scott knew the whereabouts of the 25th. After traveling a short distance, he spotted the shadowy outline of an enemy unit approaching. As he sat motionless on his horse, he heard a voice with a thick English accent shout, “These are the Yankees.” At that instant, a deadly fire poured into the British column, which turned and fled. A bewil­dered Brown then watched as Jesup’s regiment emerged from its concealed position along the side of the road. This action on the British left flank, cou­pled with the loss of their battery moments earlier, caused them to with­ draw and brought a few minutes of calm as both armies regrouped. The Americans pushed their line forward to link on the right with Jesup, whose regiment now occupied the junction of Lundy’s Lane and the river road.

Sensing that the battle was far from over, tired and hungry soldiers on both sides collected themselves during the short respite. An eerie quiet, broken only by the groans of the wounded, fell over the field. The tense Americans strained their eyes in the darkness, looking for movement in front of them. Soon their ears told them what their eyes could not, as the footfalls of hundreds of British soldiers interrupted the silence. Sitting motionless, the Americans waited until the enemy advanced to within 30 yards. Then the captured guns roared, belching fire at their former own­ers with what Brown later described as “awful…effect.” The battle raged at close distance for several minutes before the British retreated, leaving the American front strewn with bodies.

Brown’s little army had held up remarkably well thus far, convincing the general that he could maintain his position until dawn. But the most intense fighting lay ahead. When the British advanced again, Brown ordered Scott forward to help bolster the line. Scott, who had grown impatient in the rear, eagerly moved his brigade up-but instead of waiting for the enemy advance, he decided to attack first. Scott rode up to Leavenworth and shout­ ed over the noise of musket fire, “Are these troops prepared for the charge?” Without giving his subordinate time to respond, he said, “Yes, I know they are prepared for anything.” Scott resolved to attack the approaching British line by forming his brigade in column (a heavy, more compact formation numerous lines deep). By trying this “experiment,” as Scott termed it, he intended to pierce the long enemy line and get in behind it. To get his men into position, however, he inadvertently marched them across the front of other American units, resulting in friendly fire on his men. At the same instant, the British unleashed a volley into his front, and the cross fire cut his unit to pieces, forcing him to withdraw.

What followed was a series of attacks and counterattacks as the Amer­icans beat back repeated enemy advances. One writer described the late­ night fighting as “pure anarchy–a confused melee in which friend and foe…inextricably intermingled.” For both sides, there was “struggling in the darkness, clubbing one another to death with the butts of muskets, mistak­ing comrades for foes, stabbing at each other with bayonets, officers tum­ bling from horses, whole regiments shattered, troops wandering aimlessly, seeking orders.” At one point, Scott tried another flank attack, but General Drummond had hidden the 89th British Regiment in a grain field to guard against such an attempt. When the Redcoats fired a fusillade into Scott’s men from 20 paces, the Americans broke and ran. The British 103rd and 104th regiments saw them go by but mistook them for their own 89th and let them pass. On their way, the Americans stumbled into the Royal Scots, and a bloody hand-to-hand struggle followed. Eventually, Scott’s exhausted men made it back to their lines.

Sometime during the fracas, a cannonball  knocked a second horse out from under Scott. He quickly mounted another steed and continued at the head of his troops. Later a ricocheting ball struck him in the side, severely bruising his ribs, but still he refused to leave the field. The bravery that he exhibited at Lundy’s Lane could not help but inspire his men to greater exertions. He possessed the will or, as military historians call it, the moral courage to persevere. In an age when an army’s performance was in direct proportion to the willingness of its officers to stand in front of the line and lead the attack, Winfield Scott was a model of valor. He stayed with his brigade and fought beside his men until the waning minutes of the battle. He was on the right of the line, consulting with Jesup, when a nearby soldier was mortally wounded. Both officers rushed to assist the injured man, and while he was kneeling over the body, a musket ball ripped into Scott’s left shoulder, smashing the joint. He lay unconscious for a few minutes; then two of his men carried him to the rear and placed him behind a tree, where he would be safe from stray bullets.

At about the same time that Scott received his wound, Brown was hit in the thigh. Courageously, Brown remained in command until he was struck again, this time in the side by a ricocheting cannonball. The blow almost knocked him from his horse and made him so groggy that he had to relinquish command to Ripley. Both Scott and Brown were carried back to camp; before leaving, Brown sent word to Ripley to withdraw the entire army to the Chippewa River. It was nearing midnight when the weary Americans began dragging themselves back to camp. During the night, Drummond learned that the Americans had left the field, and at dawn he reoccupied the lane and claimed victory.

Although it took the initiative away from the Americans,  Lundy’s Lane was actually a tactical draw. The bloodletting lasted over six hours, at appalling cost to both sides: Each army had more than 800 casualties. Scott’s brigade accounted for an inordinate proportion of the American total–out of 860 killed or wounded, 516 came from his command. Consolidated, the 9th, 11th, and 22nd regiments could not muster 200 men when the battle ended. These figures alone indicate which units bore the brunt of the fighting. It was, in the words of Brown’s aide-de-camp, “a most severe conflict.”

One can only speculate as to how many lives might have been spared had Scott waited for the rest of the army to arrive instead of rushing head­ long into battle. Scott was personally ambitious, domineering, and aggres­sive, and these traits carried over to his generalship on the battlefield. His personality, and his ambition, dictated that he be assertive and forceful; he was not one to sit back and wait for an attack. He had advocated attacking Fort George, and later he had wanted to search out the British army and destroy it. At Lundy’s Lane, he very nearly took on more than he and his men could handle, and the result was that in the first four hours of fighting his brigade was shattered.

Why Scott did not wait for support is not the only question that needs an answer. Equally curious is why he did not silence the British artillery that fired from the hill in front of the lane. When Brown arrived on the scene, he quickly realized the necessity of doing so, yet there is no indica­tion that Scott had made a concerted effort to capture the position. In the early hours of the fight, Scott’s brigade was continually pounded by grape and shot; later, after the rest of the army arrived and captured the guns, American casualties decreased. Given his failure to seize the enemy can­non and his lopsided casualty figures, it is remarkable that Scott’s men held their ground as long as they did. Without the confidence that had resulted from the quick, decisive victory three weeks earlier at Chippewa, the army probably would not have endured the prolonged carnage along Lundy’s Lane. Scott would never admit it, but he knew that he had risked too much at Lundy’s Lane; otherwise, he would not have offered excuses in his Memoirs for his failure to withdraw.

Despite these criticisms, there was a positive side to Scott’s behavior. His advance at Lundy’s Lane was a result of his knowledge that benefits can accrue from aggressive action on the battlefield. He understood that the commander who takes the initiative is in a better position to dictate the course of events, and that is what Scott wanted–to be in control. What he had not yet learned, however, was that sometimes the fog of battle renders events uncontrollable.

The Americans could not rightly claim the Battle of Lundy’s Lane as a military triumph, but they could call it a moral victory. The battle helped bring about a metamorphosis in the United States Army by showing what trained and disciplined troops could accomplish. The battles of Chippewa and Lundy’s Lane were a source of pride for the nation. Their legacy endured for many years, making it possible for the military establishment to argue for continued reliance on the regular army rather than on the capricious militia. Scott was a key figure in bringing about this change, and in so doing he helped to enhance the army’s reputation–but at an awful price. The young general obviously learned from his mistake: Although he maintained an aggressive spirit and always preferred the offensive, never again would he enter combat without exhaustive planning.

Timothy D. Johnson is an assistant professor of history at Lipscomb Univer­sity. He is writing a biography of Winfield Scott.

This article originally appeared in the Autumn 1995 issue (Vol. 8, No. 1) of MHQ—The Quarterly Journal of Military History with the headline: Winfield Scott’s Brush with Disaster


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