4 July 2009


On the shores of the Niagara River, just a few miles to the west of the Falls, near the town of Chippawa, lies the best preserved battlefield of the War of 1812. Which is a fancy way of saying it was an empty field then, and is an empty field now. July 5th is the 195th anniversary of the desperate battle which took place there.

The origins of the Battle of Chippawa lay in the events of 1813. That year began with many successes on the part of the Americans, resulting in the capture and destruction of Forts York, Erie and George. Admiral Perry has soundly defeated British forces on the lakes, and the Americans were in control of the Niagara Frontier. But as the year wore on, the Americans were repeatedly defeated by smaller British forces, and one by one, they lost every gain they had made that year, so as 1813 drew to a close, they had not only lost every gain made earlier in the year, they had suffered an invasion of their own, and the area around Buffalo, including Fort Niagara, were in the hands of the British.

The Americans had to wonder why they had suffered so many losses to smaller British Forces. General Winfield Scott believed it was a lack of experience and discipline on the part of the American forces that lead to their repeated defeats. He set up a camp of instruction where his troops were drilled for ten hours a day. He used a single manual, the French Army manual from 1791, rather than a series of manuals s was the practice before, which made it difficult for various units to maneuver together. The only problem he found was that he could not get enough of the the blue regular army uniforms, and his men were outfitted in the grey of the militias.

On July 3rd, the Americans crossed the Niagara river and surrounded and captured Fort Erie, which was defended by two small companies, virtually without a fight. After securing the position, Scott prepared to give his men a Fourth of July Parade for the next day.

Meanwhile the British General Phineas Riall prepared to move against the Americans. Riall mistakenly believed Fort Erie was still holding out against the Americans, and therefore the Americans would have to split their forces to meet his. Having dealt several defeats to the Americans, he was confident in his ability to defeat Scott. He would cross the Chippewa river, drive the Americans back across the Niagara, and relieve Fort Erie.

The forces met on July 5th. The first contact was between a few British regulars and Indian allies who crossed the Chippawa ahead of Riall's main force and began sniping at the Americans from the cover of the woods. Scott ordered the woods to be cleared. A party of his men did so, but in driving the snipers out they ran into Riall's main force, and rushed back to Scott with the news of the British approach. Scott was already approaching. Both sides deployed and began firing volleys and artillery. Riall, believing he would only be facing a fraction of the American invasion force, expected the Americans, whom he believed to be militia units on account of their grey coats, to fall back in disarray after a few shots. Instead, legend has it that as he watched the Americans close ranks and maneuver as they held their line, he cried out 'Those are regulars, by God!"

Riall gave a series of inept orders, including ordering the men to perform a bayonet charge after firing only one volley. As the redcoats charged through the long grass their own artillery ceased firing in order to avoid hitting them, while the American artillery could mow the men down, unhindered by any return fire. Scott, on the other hand, competently ordered maneuvers which put the British in a crossfire. Their cannons switched from roundshot to canister (effectively turning into the cannons into giant shotguns) and the British suffered terrible losses.

Riall was forced to sound a retreat. British cannons again began firing to cover the withdrawal, and the men left the field in good order and retreated back to Fort George. The Americans were unable to pursue, nor were they able to attack the British there.

But for now, they held the field, and the advantage of the war was in their hands. They had proven they could hold their own against the British, and the British now licked their wounds, aware of the disastrous effects of overconfidence. The stage was set for another, bloodier battle, perhaps the climactic battle of the war, and both sides knew they could not afford to lose this one.

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