31 July 2016

Lundy"s Lane

Last week had the 202nd anniversary of Lundy's Lane, the bloodiest single day (or night) battle of the War of 1812.  Here's  little background information.

About a mile due north of the mighty cataracts of Niagara Falls is a cemetery. Among the stones stands an unusually large monument, raised in honour of the many who died close to that spot all those years ago. It was raised in memory of the Battle of Lundy's Lane, one of the final battles of the War of 1812, and one of the bloodiest battles ever fought on Canadian soil.

After their defeat at the Battle of Chippawa on July 5th, the British retreated to their forts along the Niagara, and attempted to contain the new American invasion. The Americans lacked the guns and naval support to attack British entrenched positions. After a few weeks of unsuccessful skirmishing, the American commander, Major General Jacob Brown, fell back to Chippawa to gather and secure the supplies necessary to launch an attack on Burlington. As Brown retired back to Chippawa, the British general Phineas Riall moved to Lundy's lane, about 4 miles from Chippawa, which allowed his light infantry to harass Brown. When Riall heard Brown was marching in force on Lundy's Lane, Riall prepared to return to Fort George. His order was countermanded by the new Governor General of Upper Canada, Gordon Drummond. Lundy's Lane was to be held against the Americans. The Battle was on.

The British position was on a long slow ridge which gave a good view of the field below. Their artillery was positioned inside the cemetery at the highest point on the ridge. The first American attack on the ridge was carried out around six o'clock in the evening by Winfield Scott, who was the victor at Chippawa a few weeks earlier. On this day, however, his brigade was badly mauled by British artillery. The brigade made some gains, but the British still held. More Americans advanced on the British. The armies came to within twenty yards of each other before firing. Bayonets were fixed and charges were sounded in the gathering dusk. The Americans pushed the British off the ridge, and the British pushed back. Men fired their guns muzzle to muzzle.

As night fell chaos reigned supreme. In the confusion of the night each side repeatedly shot at its own men. So complete was the chaos that, when Riall fell wounded, his stretcher bearers carried him to the American surgical area, where he was taken prisoner. Drummond ordered attack after attack to re-take the guns captured by the Americans. By the end he was gathering what men he could find, no longer organised into units, and ordering them to attack.

With the dawn Drummond, wounded in the neck, stood at the heights of the cemetery, once more in command of the field, awaiting another attack. It never came. The Americans had suffered heavy casualties that night, including two generals wounded. They had about 700 men still capable of fighting out of 2500, and those men were spent from the battle. Their supplies low, they began a withdrawal back to Fort Erie, and from thence back across the Niagara River and America. Drummond, his own forces badly depleted that night, was content to let them go. He withdrew his own forces back the British forts to await reinforcements.

As is typical of the war of 1812 as a whole, it is not clear what effect this battle had. Both sides claimed victory, though it was a Phyrric one for both. In the aftermath, Drummond awaited for his reinforcements, and proceeded so slowly that the Americans had time to prepare for the defence of Fort Erie, and this is partly the reason why the Battle of Lundy's Lane is really only the second bloodiest battle on Canadian soil. The Siege of Fort Erie, soon to come, was bloodier.

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