Part 4 in a Series by Mason Winfield:
It was the morning of July 4, 1814. The Niagara Campaign–the American invasion of the Canadian side of the river–was twelve hours old, and the sailing had been smooth so far. An important target, Fort Erie, had been taken without the loss of a single American life, and a large American force had camped the night safely outside it. The supply lines back to Buffalo were short and sweet, and it looked like American high commander Jacob Brown could keep his army armed, fed, and reinforced.
Brown’s ultimate goal was Kingston, the Ontario port town and naval base just south of today’s Toronto. If he could knock Kingston out of commission or even use it for himself, he had killed the British supply lines and won the war in the Great Lakes outright. He planned on paving the way for this by staging diversion attacks along the Niagara River to stretch the British forces out. A crew of wahoos with fireworks outside Fort George or Fort Niagara (then in British hands) could be as handy as an army if they made the redcoats think they were under siege and hunker down. No one might spot Brown’s main force zeroing in on the bullseye till it was too late. This was still a dangerous game. Brown was in a land of enemies with the big and hazardous river between him and home.
And Brown needed help against Kingston. If his frontal assault on the fort/port was going to work, somebody had to come in and goose it from the backside–Lake Ontario. Somebody had to shellack it from the water and keep reinforcements and supplies from coming in. But naval support Brown was not getting. (Yes, the war-long Jack-in-the-box of American leadership dysfunction could still pop up now and then.) Holed up at Sackett’s Harbor across the lake, American naval commander Commodore Isaac Chauncey insisted that he needed weeks to get his fleet ready, and he wasn’t putting out. The British would probably have shot one of their own who threw that kind of hissy-fit at crunch-time, but on the American side, well-connected high-ups still got to pull them.
American commander Brown did not have weeks. He was ringed with enemies. He rearranged his chess pieces and came up with a new strategy: moving out to meet the British before letting them pick the circumstances. It was better than waiting like a target by Fort Erie. Around noon on July 4, Brown cut short the celebration and sent young General Winfield Scott north with a brigade.
This contingent moved up the road everyone used along the Niagara and met a delaying action fought by a small British squad under Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Pearson. Pearson did his job. It was dusk when General Scott got near the British defenses, barely light enough for him to get a look. The British had set up behind a pair of bridges on the Chippawa River, which itself was 75 yards across near the Niagara. Anyone who wanted to come at them head-on had a big squeeze ahead with those two bridges. Anyone who wanted to go around them on the only available side, the west, a had an old-growth forest to contend with. On the east they were protected by the Niagara River, which Mother Nature would think twice about messing with. This was a very strong position.
Scott brought up a few cannon and shot the British a little greeting card from Buffalo. Major General Phineas Riall sent him a few salvos back courtesy of the Empire. Scott moved out of range and set up camp for the night at Street’s Creek, about a mile south. It may have been this that started his red-coated opponent down the wrong path.
Major General Phineas Riall (1775-1850) was an Anglo-Irishman described by Canadian dragoon leader William Hamilton Merritt as “very brave, near sighted, rather short, but stout.” His most famous portrait makes him look like a dark Irishman, with something familiar about the look that I can’t quite pinpoint. He reminds me of a shorter and more aquiline version of 1950s-era American actor Jackie Gleason, or a not-quite-so-broad-faced Mel Brooks. It’s significant that the two men who remind me the most of Riall’s portrait made their way in life as comics. Riall was by all accounts a most convivial fellow, the life of the party, when he was not engaged in trying to kill you. Riall was responsible for torching-massacres at Lewiston and Buffalo in the winter before, and the ravage of everything American within a mile east of the Niagara River. We’ll meet General Phineas again.
The American strategy for July 5 was to approach Chippawa Creek with the regular army and hold position while other units (militia and Native Americans) crossed to the west and came at the entrenched British from the north side. If all went well, this would be a surprise flank attack that would come in behind the ditches, cannon and other disincentives the British had set up. It was, in fact, about the only plan available. The Americans would get a surprise, though, come the morning. Riall was coming to them. He was already on their side of the bridges by sunup. Why would he give up such a strong position? The answer is that he didn’t believe he was facing good soldiers. He thought he could wipe the Americans out with a single move.
Riall and everyone else on the British side had seen grey uniforms on the men who’d traded shots with them the day before. American militia wore grey. American regulars were clad in navy blue. The big picture must have made sense to Riall, too; militia were being sent against him because the regulars were still outside Fort Erie, which therefore must still have held as it had been ordered to do. The American pullback on the day before must have seemed further confirmation that he was facing militia. No wonder Riall licked his chops.
In those days there was a massive difference between American regular soldiers and American state militia.
The British had learned respect for American regular soldiers. Units composed of American regulars had fought with pride and effectiveness. They had often been poorly led, and there were usually not enough of them to make a difference in the armies the British had met so far.
The British had learned to despise American militia. Join the club. Everyone else hated them, too. Militia were rookies, amateurs, pushovers, or at least they had been all the first two years of the war. Militia were recruited–rounded up, even shanghaied–out of bars, gutters, and their mom’s basements. Under-equipped, undertrained, and uninspired, American militia were the “Wayne’s World” of 19th century warriors. At least on the Niagara, American strike forces tended to be overloaded with them in the first two years of the war.
Militia could support regular forces, but they typically cut and run at the worst possible moments. They did it at Buffalo in December 1813 when the city was burned. They wouldn’t even cross the river to fight at Queenston in 1812. Volunteer companies weren’t trained, either, and they couldn’t slug it out with redcoats, but at least they were locals sticking up for their homes and families, and they wanted to be here. They had earned some respect. Militia were a big gang of armed malcontents dropped suddenly into a community, and expecting free room, board and often bar. With little loyalty to anything but their own skins, they could be more dangerous to their own citizens than the enemy. A mass of militia went on a riot in Buffalo in December of 1812 and had to be subdued by regular soldiers of their own nation. During the first year of their quartering in Buffalo, the citizens formed self-defense squads to protect themselves against nightly raids by the amateur soldiers who had been sent to protect them.
When Phineas Riall put all his information together, pushing back the men he faced and lifting the siege of Fort Erie looked easy. It was a home-run swing he couldn’t pass up.
The grey-clad Americans Riall had seen across the river were in fact General Winfield Scott’s Buffalo Brigade, regular soldiers Scott had been training all winter. Many of them were Western New Yorkers with a score to settle. (Look out for that combination.) The confusion over their uniforms came about in this way.
Grey is the natural color of wool. All American uniforms of the day were made grey, and they were generally delivered to the army in that state. Like the karate white belt, the grey outfit was given to starter-soldiers in the American system: cadets and militia. Regular American army uniforms were made identically but dyed a deep blue. The spring before, the uniforms arrived, somebody forgot to pack the dye with them, and because of the deprivation of Buffalo’s burning just months earlier, everybody in Buffalo was fresh out. I sympathize. Navy blue dye is one of the last things people will think to bother about when they are homeless in a Niagara Frontier winter. Do a few interviews at a local shelter this February and see if I am wrong. (My house is gone, my kids are cold, I haven’t eaten in five days… Now, what the heck did I do with that navy blue dye?) Unable to stain the training uniforms to look like the official ones, Scott’s brigade took the militia-grey as a badge of obligation, as if it reminded them of the humiliation of earlier defeats in this war. In a way, it was a new start.
By mid-afternoon on July 5, British commander Riall was making moves. Pro-British skirmishers led by Mohawk Scotsman John Norton were in the dense woods to the west around the American positions. They had been acting up from there all day, but as the British were getting ready to serve the main course, they delivered a little appetizer–harassing sniper fire–to the U.S. positions.
When the day started, the Americans had been planning to send their own jungle-fighters of militia and Iroquois warriors through the woods across Chippawa Creek to the west of Riall’s then-position. Now that Riall was on their side of the Chippawa and his men in these woods, Winfield Scott ordered these forces to sweep Riall’s guerrillas out of the picture. This they did, driving the advance British/Canadian force all the way back to the main core of Riall’s army. Then they wisely retreated. This sidelight to the main action was one of the most dramatic operations of the war. Its discussion is to come.
Still hooked on the idea that Americans couldn’t fight, Riall took the retreat of this force–whose size he couldn’t gauge because of the cover of the woods–as one more sign that just a bit of direct pressure would crack the foe he was facing.
Meanwhile, Scott’s grey-clad Buffalo Brigade was advancing in force. By 4:30, they say, the two sides were almost completely drawn up across a cleared plain that lay between them. This might have been the first time in this war that the Americans and British had faced each other in a European-style, open-field battle. The British specialized at this.
Scott had set up his artillery under the command of Captain Nathaniel Towson. It included three 12-pound cannons, so named for the weight of the ball they hoisted. A mass of redcoats marching down the road along the Niagara would make a big fat crimson bullseye for them, and they may have had a bit of height advantage over their opposite numbers. Scott formed his infantry around his own cannon and sat waiting for the still-advancing British. By 5 the two sides were in range and trading fire.
Sometime toward the end of the afternoon, possibly before 6, Riall’s supposition would undo him. Still thinking that it was part-time soldiers he faced, he ordered most of his own infantry to spread out, advance across the open field, fire just once, and then charge with the bayonet. This was a fairly contemptuous tactic that had worked for the Empire all over the world. Falling shells and charging bayonets had broken many formations before, and once an army broke, it was lost. If this one did so, lost also was Fort Erie, Buffalo, and the whole eastern side of the Niagara–again. This time the British had enough force on the Niagara to exploit it. This could have been the invasion of New York.
Riall’s attack force was comprised of his best units, the 100th Regiment and the 1st Battalion of the 1st Royal Regiment of Foot (the famous Royal Scots, often called “Pontius Pilate’s Bodyguard”). These two sturdy forces were the heart of Riall’s army, the core he could trust to follow orders under pressure and either hold position, advance under fire, or pull back sullenly, protecting a retreat and fighting all the while. Since these outfits, the 1st and the 100th, were such big players on the Niagara, especially the Royal Scots, a bit of a profile might be in order.
Military units shift their personnel often and their technology as the times dictate. Many of today’s mechanized outfits were converted out of cavalry troops. Still, companies of military units often develop a significant sense of unity. You see it with other American front-liners today. Police and fire companies of men and women who risk the ultimate sacrifice to protect those in their society often develop a great sense of loyalty to each other. It’s quite a noble thing to observe. Much like college sports teams, military units can even develop lineages, a sense of shared tradition and destiny that lasts past the lifespan of any of their members. These military lineages can last for centuries, and terminology–the naming–can mean something profound to them, like an in-joke that becomes a badge of honor that goes with them every step of the rest of a life. This sense of lineage could be negative, too. Ill-destined or apparently cursed outfits like the three legions annihilated in the Teutoberg Forest (AD 9, Germany) were simply never reconstituted. (It’s like 17, 18 and 19 were just dropped as numbers in the Roman military calculus.)
As for the two regiments making the Chippawa charge, the nickname of the 100th (“The Centipedes”) seems obvious. The derivation of the other is so curious that it begs development. A mostly-Scottish regiment often called the First Foot or the Royal Scots, this outfit could have been the oldest in the British military. First raised in 1633 to stick up for the Scottish-derived Stuart dynasty of England, they started calling themselves “Pontius Pilate’s Bodyguard” sometime later in the same century. (In post-Biblical tradition, Pontius Pilate, the prefect of Jerusalem who washed his hands of Jesus’ fate, was considered a Romanized Celt from northern England, hence figuratively, a Scotsman.) Apparently some Royal Scots got into a yo-mama contest about military lineages with a bunch of French soldiers from Picardy. (One wonders if it could possibly have involved alcohol.) It took imaginative directions. The French claimed that they went back to a troop of Gallic (Celtic) soldiers who had guarded the tomb of Jesus Christ between the Crucifixion and the Resurrection. The Royal Scots topped it by claiming that their military forbears had guarded the guy who had put Him there. Whatever the origin of the name, Pilate’s boys were due some payback on the Niagara, and they and the Centipedes were charging right into it.
To Riall’s shock, the Americans didn’t break. In fact, they stood and fought. Crossing the open grasslands, those red coats made easy targets. As Scots and Centipedes neared the American lines even the remaining British cannon teams stopped firing. They could no longer hit foe and miss friend. No such problem for the Americans, whose enemies were at the gates.
Captain Towson stamped his name on the local war as a bombardier. Once the British were close enough Towson switched from balls to something called canister, a gruesome version of grapeshot that spread out like shrapnel for short range killing. The canisters–sort of a coffee can dropped into a cannon–were filled with anything hard, scuzzy and available: old nails, rusty wire, chains and scrap metal. Cannon in those days were basically reverse-garbage disposals, anyway. Whatever you put into them would fly back out warp-speed and red-hot. Canister turned a cannon into a giant scattergun.
Imagine Riall’s horror as the picture cleared. “Those are Regulars, by God!” he’s said to have cried out. But once slipped from the leash, the dogs of war could hardly be called back. Riall had to watch the men he sent suffer and die under the American fire. By the time the British bayonetteers neared closing-distance with the Americans there were too few of them to do much about it, and they knew it. Still under fire, they limped back toward the British lines.
Worse for the British, American General Winfield Scott was all done playing rope-a-dope. He saw the opportunity to test the drilling his men had done all winter past, and advanced his 25th Infantry from the left and his 22nd from the right, leaving the middle of his formation standing its ground. Those American units moved as if of one mind and too fast for the still-recovering Riall to counter. Scott flanked the British in a dreadful crossfire, shooting at them from three sides.
Then–irony of ironies–the Americans launched a bayonet charge of their own. One can hear Scott’s voice rising above the battlefield as he is quoted to have proclaimed: “The enemy say that we are good at the long shot but cannot stand the cold steel!” Probably no one past ten feet away would have heard him, but the line is remembered, and the effect immediate. Aha, this was the Empire’s game! Tenderize the roast, then stick in the fork!
Even under all this the British held–those who didn’t die. They didn’t break, and they didn’t run. They just fell. Even General Riall, the old diehard, stood firm as his men limped past him, refusing to give ground, barking out commands to a thinning staff. Only when the man beside him dropped dead and an American shot nipped a black-edged hole in the loose sleeve of his fine coat did he acknowledge the day was done.
Another veteran regiment, the 8th Kings, had been held in reserve, and it came up and covered the retreating British troops. It fought a solid action all the way back to Chippawa Creek on whose far side fresh British cannon waited. Unless Scott wanted to make Riall’s mistake, he had to break off his pursuit. This he wisely did. He stood back to see what he and his new, young army had done.
The Americans had won the day. U.S. infantry had stood up to a superior British force. Their commanders had made good decisions, and they had responded to them on the fly. The name of the guy who’d done the heavy lifting, Winfield Scott, would become a household term. The man himself had won the first clear American victory against a roughly equal force in two years of war. As far as land battles were concerned, the Battle of Chippawa Creek was a turning point, a major shot in the arm for the U.S. war effort, a serious setback for the British, and one more sign that the U.S. Army was coming of age. The Buffalo Brigade had saved the face of the U.S. Army.
Things were different for Scott’s counterpart. This was a battle Riall should have won, and he knew it. Though total numbers of combatants were about even–most sources say 2000 apiece–Riall had started the day with an edge–1500 veteran British troops against Scott’s untested 1300 regulars.
As with almost every fact or figure in this war, there’s wide discrepancy over the casualty tallies at the end of the day on July 5th, 1814. Some British troops listed as dead turned out to have been captured. For sure the British dead were over a hundred, probably over 150. The captured included 50 to 110 soldiers. At least 350 were wounded, many incapacitated. The Americans lost 61 killed and 255 wounded.
Two years after the Battle of Chippawa West Point changed the uniform of its cadets to grey in honor of Scott’s Buffalo Brigade. The first variation from regulation blue, it holds today. The coordination and decision making of the U.S. officers at Chippawa is exactly what West Point emulates in training. And as for British General Riall’s anguished snarl, in a shortened form it survives. “Regulars, by God!” was taken for a rallying cry for U.S. soldiers during the last year of the war, and it’s still the official motto for the 6th Infantry, an outfit that evolved out of one of these fighting at Chippawa.
North of the border, the Battle of Chippawa Creek was “The Forgotten Battle,” which is funny because they like to celebrate their heritage up there. Maybe that’s because it was one of the few 1812-era encounters on the Niagara that even British-Canadian homers can’t argue to be at worst a tie. The battleground itself has been field or golf course since 1814, without even a marker most of that time.
After the last shots were fired on July 5th, 1814, the sun dipped toward the treeline to the left of the Americans as they surveyed the field littered with the dead and dying. On this scene of wonder and horror, it’s said that a faint, warm rain, a sun-shower, fell on this ground a few hundred yards over the river from Black Rock, and that the light of the distant orb that gives life to the earth may have pitched a tangerine glow into its flight and gilded its landing. It was as if the end of this day was a new dawn for the American military, which would never again be shocked by victory. A terrible beauty was indeed born.
About the author: The founder of Haunted History Ghost Walks, Inc., a Buffalo-based tourism company, Mason Winfield is the author of eleven books, including ghosts of 1812 (2009, Western New York Wares).
Battle image: Wikipedia