THIS WEEK in the War of 1812 (June 29-July 7, 1814)
On to Canada (Again).
Despite thousands of British troops — newly freed from fighting Napoleon in Europe — massing in Canada and Bermuda in the spring and early summer of 1814, U.S. President James Madison and his war cabinet decide it’s a good time to invade Canada again. Seizing what is then known as Upper Canada (southern Ontario) is seen as a possible bargaining chip at the peace table – and a way to repair national honor bruised by many failed U.S. invasions of Canada since 1812.
Madison orders Major General Jacob Brown, commander of the Northern Army’s Left Division, to cross the Niagara River in force and attack Fort Erie, which overlooks Lake Erie at the head of the Niagara across from Buffalo, New York. Brown, a New York militia general who was born and raised a Quaker, is one of the most successful generals on the Northern Frontier and is made a brigadier general of regular Army troops in 1813. After capturing the fort, Brown is supposed to march north, attack the British near Chippawa Creek, and move on to capture Fort George at the other end of the Niagara River near Lake Ontario.
While the American Navy controls Lake Erie, it is not master of Lake Ontario where the British and Canadians have a strong naval presence. Brown will have no naval gunfire support in this campaign.
On July 2, 1814, Brown orders a night attack on the lightly defended Fort Erie. The 3,500 Americans surround and overwhelm Fort Erie’s 137 defenders, who surrender after firing just a few canon rounds.
Establishing control at Fort Erie, Brown’s troops march north toward Chippawa Creek. The Anglo-Canadian commander, Major Gen. Phineas Riall opposes the Americans with 1,350 British regulars, 200 Canadian militia and about 350 Native Americans (Indians).
On July 5, the British attack Brigadier General Winfield Scott’s brigade of 1,300 regulars from the U.S. Army’s 9th, 11th, 22nd and 25th Infantry Regiments. Largely untested, they are nevertheless considered the best trained troops in the American army due to Scott’s relentless drilling and discipline in camp. Because the American suppliers have run out of blue uniform cloth, Scott ordes up short gray uniform jackets to clothe his men.
Riall mistakes the gray uniforms for militia. He and his men expect the Yankees militia will break and run shortly after coming under fire. Instead the U.S. troops stand and fight. “Those are regulars, by God,” Riall exclaims – according to legend. It is the first time regular American Army troops go toe to toe with European regulars in open battle. They take a beating but inflict a worse one on the British troops.
As Scott’s left and right wings spread out, they curve in to catch the advancing ranks of the British 1st (Royal Scots) Regiment of Foot, the 100th Foot and the 8th (King’s) Foot in a virtual cross fire of muskets and canon.
Riall withdraws across the Chippawa to fight another day. The battle toll is heavy on both sides. The British lose 485 killed, wounded, missing and captured. The U.S. losses in killed, wounded and missing total 319. The bloody Niagara campaign of 1814 is just getting underway, however, as Brown begins to march north.
Another legend has it that the cadets of the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, New York wear gray dress parade uniforms to honor the victory of Scott’s troops at Chippawa. Some historians dispute that story, saying it may have been started by Scott himself.
Entry filed under: National Security and Defense, Skills and Training, THIS WEEK in the War of 1812, Traditions. Tags: Battle of Chippawa 1814, Brig. Gen. Winfield Scott, Canada, Capture of Fort Erie 1814, Maj. Gen. Phineas Riall, Maj. General Jacob Brown, New York in War of 1812, Topics, War of 1812 Bicentennial, West Point cadet uniform.