This coming Christmas Eve the United States and Great Britain will be celebrating the end of the War of 1812. It was on December 24th, 1814 that the two powers signed the Treaty of Ghent that ended the conflict.
It is unclear at this point whether President Obama and PM David Cameron intend to mark the occasion with a grand ceremony. I doubt it. In fact, I bet that many Americans or Brits are even aware that 200 years ago the two countries fought a bitter little war that lasted about 30 months.
While barely remembered in Britain and the US the event has been extensively celebrated in Canada who see it as a type of independence day-an independence not from Britain but from the US because the US took the occasion of the war to invade Canada more than once in an attempt to make it part of the US.
The war party in Washington thought it was a good idea to invade Canada because it was the only way they could “get at” the British. In this they underestimated Canadian loyalty to the crown. Ontario had been partly settled by a large number of American loyalists who were driven out of the US at the completion of the Revolutionary War. They and their descendants were still bitter after 30 years. They supplied militia to support the few British regulars stationed in Canada. The Canadian militia units gave a good account of themselves in every battle they fought in.
This was in direct contrast to what transpired on the American side. The US regular army was small and as untrained as the more numerous militia-a militia that showed little enthusiasm for invading Canada (or even leaving their home state) often refusing to cross borders to support the regular army on campaign.
Americans had until fairly recently a distrust of big government and of large standing armies. This led to an over reliance on the fickle militia. It was believed they would be sufficient should an emergency arise. It was also believed that during the Revolutionary War the militia had bested the king’s armies rather forgetting it was a long war and the British won most of the battles.
The British held the Americans in such contempt that they didn’t significantly reinforce Canada until after they were victorious against Napoleon’s armies in Spain. In other words they never really feared losing Canada since the Americans were so inept.
According to the National Museum of the US Army the British called their American counterparts, “Cousin Jonathan” a pejorative meaning the Americans lacked discipline and skill. The term originated during the Revolutionary War. Loyalist Americans during that war were called “Brother Jonathans.” The terms are reflective of the fact that in both wars there was a dimension of civil war as people of the same language and heritage fought each other.
To make matters worse most American officers were not professionals and had little knowledge of their craft. The combination of amateur officers and an untrained army made for a series of defeats that culminated in the burning of Washington D.C. by a tough, veteran British Army in 1814 after the Battle of Bladensburg. The burning was in retaliation for the burning of York, Canada by American forces.
Some American officers began realize that at some point the US Regulars had to match the British Regulars in a stand-up fight if they were ever to win a major battle.
One junior officer who got the message was Winfield Scott. It was Scott who won the respect of the British at the Battle of the Chippewa and who put to rest the “Cousin Jonathan” pejorative.
Winfield Scott was a book-worm and his favorite subject was military history. He was bright, a thorough professional soldier (at a time when the US had few) and usually of sound judgment. On the other hand he could be given to impetuosity and he was argumentative. Scott’s career would eventually span into the American Civil War. Over all those years he managed to fight and argue with just about everyone.
Previous to the Battle of the Chippewa Scott served under Brigadier-General James Wilkinson in an ill-conceived expedition to seize Montreal from the British.
Scott was present at the Battle of Chrysler’s Farm during the Montreal campaign. Chrysler’s Farm was another American disaster against the redcoats. Scott was horrified at the performance of the US Regulars at the battle and the experience convinced Scott that what the US Army needed was training that equaled that of the British.
Wilkinson was replaced after the battle by a an unusual militia officer by the name of Jacob Brown. Brown was unusual because he realized the short comings of the militia but he also had the ability to get the most out of them and that included getting some to actually cross the border to support the regular army. Brown thought the war a hair-brained idea but he faithfully did his duty which says something about his character. Brown selected Scott as his second in command.
Brown and Scott seemed to get along well and had in common not believing the popular notion that the militia had won the American War of Independence. By 1814 folks in Washington were starting to wake up to the idea as well and so gave the two new commanders leeway in organizing and training their new army that was called the “Left Division.”
Brown left the drilling of the regulars in the hands of Scott who was firm but fair. He drilled them endlessly and turned them into units that had pride. Recognizing the importance of uniforms Scott noticed their old uniforms were worn out and the men a bit ragged. When he tried to get new blue uniforms he discovered he could get only gray. He made do and thus created a unique brigade of US Regulars who had their own special gray uniform.The Corps of Cadets at West Point wear gray uniforms to commemorate the brigade of US Regulars who fought at the Battle of the Chippewa.
Scott was also concerned about the men’s health and was ahead of his time when it came to sanitation and personal hygiene. He reduced sickness and death from disease for the soldiers under his care.
President Madison was negotiating with the British in the spring of 1814 and there was a sense of urgency regarding the negotiations.
When the British were tied up fighting Napoleon the US had little to fear since Britain could not afford to send many troops to North America. But now that the war in Europe was winding down Madison (probably luke warm on the war in the first place) felt the need to end it before the British poured their veteran army into North America. Although the British never intended to reclaim their lost colonies, at the time many people thought it a possibility, hence the urgency to end it.
It was thought that an American victory on the Canadian side of the border would strengthen the American hand at the bargaining table.
So with that in mind the War Department ordered a limited action on the Canadian side of the border that would involve the capture of a fort and an advance upon the Chippewa River.
So, in early July, 1814 Brown and Scott launched an expeditionary force of about 5000 men into Canada from New York. About 2300 were regulars and the rest militia.
Scott commanded most of the regulars in his First Infantry Brigade which consisted of the 9th, 11th, 22nd and 25th US Infantry.
When the expedition reached the place where the Niagara and Chippewa Rivers came together they found a British Army of about 2400 there to oppose them.
Although the Americans outnumbered the British on paper the British were not intimidated. Their order of battle included the 1st Royal Scots, the 8th King’s Regiment, the 100th (a line regiment later becoming the Royal Canadians) and two Canadian militia regiments of extraordinary quality having been recruited from among the descendants of loyalists who had been kicked out of the US at the end of War of Independence.
The British had little reason to fear the American’s numerical advantage realizing that the militia was next to useless and the regulars probably were as well. The British were commanded by Major-General Phineas Riall, a competent officer but not of the quality of Wellington’s Peninsular veterans.
What usually happened in battles between the British and Americans in this war and the previous one was that the more disciplined British would give a volley or two and charge with the bayonet. The Americans would rarely stand to meet the charge and a rout would ensue. When Riall spotted Scott’s brigade initially in their grey coats he dismissed them as “Buffalo Militia” believing that the American force would soon melt away as they usually did.
The battle heated up and Scott maneuvered his brigade into action under heavy fire. The regulars did not flinch and performed as if on parade. Riall, in observing them declared, ‘why, these are regulars.’
Although Riall was impressed, at that point he wasn’t worried because in the past regulars only stood just a little longer than the militia before routing.
Scott closed his brigade to within 100 yards of the two British Regiments opposite of them and delivered a volley that appeared to stagger their advancing line. The British recovered and advanced another 50 yards to return the fire. What followed was a stand-up, eye-ball to eye-ball musket fire fight at suicidal range with both sides reloading and firing with the precision of well-drilled troops.
The American fire (assisted by some American artillery) was so intense that the British officers could not fill the gaps in their lines quick enough in order to launch their customary bayonet charge. Eventually the American artillery moved up and began to shatter the 1st Royal Scots with canister shot, the artillery pieces acting like giant shotguns.
It was more than flesh and blood could endure and the British began to give ground. The Americans pursued but were in turn halted by British artillery fire.
The battle ended in a rare American victory. It was followed by the Battle of Lundy’s Lane which the British won. Scott’s brigade in that fight had been reduced to the equal of one regiment because of the casualties at the Battle of the Chippewa.
The war itself would fizzle out by year’s end and about the only thing the Battle of the Chippewa proved was that American Regulars were no longer a “Cousin Jonathan” and could win a stand up fight with the British professionals.
After the Battle of New Orleans, fought after the war ended, the two nations would never go to war with each other again, although it almost happened during the American Civil War, but that’s a story for another day.
For reading further I recommend Bryan Perrett’s excellent Impossible Victories, Chapter Two, The Battle of the Chippewa and Lundy’s Lane, July, 1814. I drew much of my summation from Perrett’s excellent account.
Other useful links