CMH - 200th Anniversary
The Battle of Chippewa
July 5, 1814
July, 2014 | CMH
In the War of 1812 against Great Britain, the early fighting had yielded mostly disappointing results by the U.S. Army. That year, however, new leaders had risen at all levels to correct the mediocrity and organizational shortcomings that had plagued the force for two years. No example better illustrates the dramatic change than the 5 July 1814 Battle of Chippewa. As Brig. Gen. Winfield Scott formed his brigade to drill in a nearby meadow, a British force approached to give battle. Unlike previous engagements, equal bodies of regular troops met face to face in an open field in broad daylight where neither side enjoyed the advantage of position. The intense fighting ended when the British retreated. For the rest of the war, American regulars would not show themselves as tactically inferior. In the words of historian Henry Adams, the battle "… gave to the United States Army a character and pride it had never before possessed."
The Left Division of the U.S. 9th Military District began crossing into Canada after midnight on 3 July. Maj. Gen. Isaac Brown had kept that date a secret, even accepting an invitation from his staff for a gala Fourth of July dinner. He knew that if there was a celebration of national independence, it would take place in a foreign land. A dense fog on the water delayed the movement. British pickets discovered Brig. Gen. Winfield Scott's brigade as it landed on the western shore of the Niagara River and rushed back to warn the garrison of Fort Erie. The pilots of the vessels carrying Ripley's brigade across Lake Erie lost their way and found the Canadian shore only after dawn. Scott's and Ripley's brigades surrounded Fort Erie, and the British commander surrendered his garrison of 137 soldiers late in the afternoon. All that night vessels went back and forth over the Niagara River ferrying Porter's brigade, wagons, cannon, animals, and tons of supplies. The major campaign of 1814 had begun.
Alerted to the U.S. invasion but still unaware that Fort Erie had fallen, Maj. Gen. Phineas Riall, commanding the Right Division of the British Army of Upper Canada, directed reinforcements from Fort George to move south to the Chippewa River. He also sent orders to York for the 8th Regiment of Foot to sail immediately for Fort George. Lt. Col. Thomas Pearson, a particularly competent and experienced British officer, assembled a small force of infantry, native warriors, and dragoons to contest the American movement north from Fort Erie. Brown designated Scott's brigade as the advance guard, and Independence Day found Scott's and Pearson's men disputing every stream crossing along the western shore of the Niagara River as the Americans pushed relentlessly northward.
Pearson's troops drove off cattle and horses and destroyed every bridge over the numerous streams ahead of the advancing Americans. Fortunately, the water levels were low and allowed Scott's men to ford with little difficulty. One particular incident in the approach caught Scott's attention. He had sent Capt. Turner Crooker and his company of the 9th Infantry across a stream to cut off a party of Pearson's men. The British withdrew before Crooker arrived. Scott watched from the south side of Black Creek as Crooker's men crossed an open area north of that stream. Seemingly from nowhere, a detachment of British dragoons charged out of the woods heading directly for Crooker's company. The captain immediately ordered his men to fall back to the shelter of a small house, from where the heavy fire of the infantrymen eventually drove back the dragoons. Scott asserted, "I have witnessed nothing more gallant in partisan war than was the conduct of Captain Crooker and his company." Crooker won the first of many brevet promotions during the long campaign.
Scott's brigade reached the Chippewa River. When Scott noted the strong defenses on the north bank, he moved south of Street's Creek and established camp. During the evening, Ripley's men arrived and pitched their tents as well. Both commanders sent out pickets to provide early warning of any British activity. Brown planned to attack the British position on the Chippewa on 6 July after the arrival of Porter's brigade. Riall had other ideas. He believed that the American units were fragile and would not withstand a determined assault. He resolved to strike as soon as the 8th Foot arrived.
Flat meadowland defined the area between the two camps. The long convex shore of the Niagara bordered the battlefield on the north and east while the Chippewa River, too wide to ford, lay to the northwest. A primeval forest, heavy with deadfall, lay to the southwest, and fordable Street's Creek completed the perimeter of the battlefield. Of particular note, a long tongue of the forest extended to within a quarter mile of the Niagara, forming a natural defile between the camps and cutting the view between the bridges over the Chippewa and Street's Creek.
Early on 5 July, Riall sent Indian warriors and Canadian militiamen into the forest to determine the U.S. strength. From their reports, Riall estimated that he faced only two thousand Americans. The 8th Foot had just conducted a grueling eighteen-mile forced march from Fort George. Riall planned to attack at 1600 after the newly arrived infantrymen had an opportunity for a short rest. Meanwhile, Porter's brigade approached the American camp from the south.
Brown conferred with Porter and directed him to clear the forest of the enemy. Porter assembled his brigade late in the afternoon and issued his orders. He formed a long thin line perpendicular to the Niagara River with the Iroquois on the left and the Pennsylvania militiamen on the right. Pennsylvania militiaman Private McMullen watched as the native warriors readied for the fight. "One of their chiefs in a speech, which for gesture and strength of lungs I had never heard equaled, was preparing them for a bloody battle." The Iroquois put on red and black war paint and white headbands, while the militiamen removed their hats to better identify friend from foe. Leaders stepped ahead of the line and put out scouts even farther forward. On Porter's command, the brigade, about eight hundred strong, entered the dark forest. As the extended skirmish line crossed Street's Creek, it overwhelmed a body of British-allied Indians. Riall sent a small battalion of Canadian militiamen and more native warriors into the forest from the north. Porter's line disintegrated as small bodies on both sides rushed one another in close combat. While the desperate no-quarter fighting continued in the forest, Brown spotted dust rising from the direction of the bridge over the Chippewa, indicating Riall's advance had begun.
General Scott was forming his brigade in camp to drill in the meadow north of Street's Creek when Brown rode up and ordered him to cross the creek and fight the approaching British. At first, Scott could hardly believe that the British would leave their strong defensive line to give battle. However, British cannonballs flying over the head of Maj. Henry Leavenworth's battalion persuaded everyone that a battle was in the offing. Leavenworth's combined battalion of the 9th Infantry and 22d Infantry led the brigade across the Street's Creek bridge followed by Col. John B. Campbell's 11th Infantry and Maj. Thomas S. Jesup's 25th Infantry. Meanwhile in the forest, Colonel Pearson led a battalion of British light infantry into the fray, routing the Americans and their Iroquois allies. As they retraced their steps through the forest, Porter's men passed over the bodies of eighty-seven British-allied Indians and eighteen Canadian militiamen. The Americans had lost twelve dead in fighting.
General Riall carefully brought his brigade through the defile and placed two battalions forward, the 100th Regiment of Foot on the right and the Royal Scots on the left. He then positioned small artillery batteries on each flank and maintained the 8th Foot in reserve. For his part, Scott positioned Leavenworth's battalion on the right of the line. Campbell moved his men to the left of Leavenworth. After he collapsed with a severe knee wound, Campbell was quickly evacuated, and command of the 11th Infantry passed to Maj. John McNeil. Scott, watching Porter's men streaming to the rear along the wood line, sent Jesup and the 25th into the forest to secure the left flank of the brigade and to work their way around the British right flank. Capt. Nathan Towson, Scott's artillery commander, brought his guns up between Leavenworth's line and the Niagara River and soon returned British fire. The British approached the American line, and the musketry volleys commenced.
When he first saw Leavenworth's gray-jacketed troops crossing the bridge, Riall remarked to the commander of the 100th Foot that he would have no trouble, as the troops were obviously militiamen. However, as Scott's brigade deployed into line heedless of the screaming shot and shell, Riall realized his error and remarked, "These are regulars!" Both sides were quite evenly matched. Not counting Porter's brigade or Pearson's command fighting in the forest, Riall had about 1,400 infantrymen and 6 pieces of artillery on the Chippewa plain, while Scott had 1,350 infantry and 7 guns.
Hardly an opening existed between the two leading British battalions as they pressed forward. Scott had left a sizable gap between Leavenworth's and McNeil's battalions; thus, they overlapped the flanks of the oncoming British. Scott saw an opportunity and ordered McNeil to throw his left flank forward. Soon the 11th Infantry faced the 100th Foot at an oblique angle, and, as the British approached, U.S. fire was striking them in the flank. The two sides fired furiously at one another. Every American cartridge contained three buckshot and a musket ball, which caused greater destruction than the British ammunition. Although the British decried "buck and ball" as ungentlemanly, they could not dispute its effectiveness. A British artillery shot severed Capt. Thomas Harrison's leg below the knee, but he refused attention until after the battle. Scott noted that "so glorious a display of fortitude had the happiest effect." Lt. Col. John Gordon, leading the Royal Scots, was shot through the mouth and unable to give commands. When an American bullet severed the Achilles tendon of the Marquess of Tweeddale, commander of the 100th Foot, his men placed him on a horse so that he could remain effectively in command. Neither side would budge. It all came down to the two regiments not yet in contact: the British 8th Foot and Jesup's 25th Infantry.
Riall ordered the commander of the 8th Foot, Maj. Thomas Evans, to bring his men into the fight on the far right of the British line. However, before Evans could do so, Jesup marched his men out of the forest and onto the British right flank. Jesup had his men fire three quick volleys and then attack into the British. McNeil saw the 25th advancing and ordered his battalion forward. Soon, Leavenworth had his men assault as well. The British line lost cohesion as soldiers withdrew, bringing many of their wounded with them. Soon, Riall's brigade was back across the Chippewa River, with the men removing the bridge planking as they retreated. The Battle of Chippewa was over, and the Americans were exultant.
Among regulars, Indians, and militia, Riall had between 2,130 and 2,280 in the fight on 5 July. Of these, approximately 500 were killed, wounded, or missing, which amounted to a casualty rate of about 22 percent. Brown's Left Division had 2,105 engaged and suffered 325 losses, or about 15 percent. However, soldiers and warriors were not the only casualties. After the battle, Capt. Benjamin Ropes of the 21st Infantry recalled that "our doctor was very angry after the action. The enemy hove a cannon shot through his marquee [large tent] in which lay his hospital stores. [It] struck a cask [of] wine and he lost the whole." Wine, of course, was used in various medical treatments during the nineteenth century.
In an oft-quoted passage, historian Henry Adams wrote,
The battle of Chippewa was the only occasion during the war when equal bodies of regular troops met face to face, in extended lines on an open plain in broad daylight, without advantage of position; and never again after that combat was an army of American regulars beaten by British troops. Small as the affair was, and unimportant in military results, it gave to the United States Army a character and pride it had never before possessed.
Scott stands out as the person most closely associated with this victory, not only for his inspirational battlefield leadership, but also for his work in training his officers and men during the months preceding the invasion. General Brown sent a report to Secretary of War Armstrong noting that "Scott is entitled to the highest honors our country can bestow to him, more than to any other man, am I indebted for the victory of the fifth of July." The troops idolized Scott. Capt. Rufus McIntire of the Corps of Artillery wrote to a friend that "Genl. Brown is a very industrious officer but I consider Genl. Scott as the life and soul of that army." Madison conferred brevet promotions for gallantry to Scott's three battalion commanders—Leavenworth, McNeil, and Jesup—and to three other officers.
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