Wednesday, April 18, 2012

War of 1812 Wednesday, Part IV, 1814, the Third Year of the War

Continued from Part III

As the United States looked back on 1813 they saw only frustration. Although they had recovered some of their dignity with victories on the Thames and Lake Erie, and had managed to take a little vengeful satisfaction in the destruction of Toronto, their overall goals had failed to be met. The Crown forces had bested them at Frenchtown, thrown them back from Montreal and defeated them at Ft Niagara. All of this finally seemed to prove to the arrogant political leaders that they had, perhaps, drawn the wrong conclusions from the Revolutionary War. The civilian militia fought bravely in many instances, but had also proven to be undisciplined and at times inept. The fact that the New York militia had refused to come to the aid of the regulars across the river in Canada, watching them being destroyed by the British, finally drove home the fact that the United States needed a formally trained, disciplined regular army.

One of the men who led this revolution in American military thinking was General Winfield Scott, a man so devoted to discipline, protocol and military pageantry that he would one day be given the nickname "Old Fuss & Feathers". The U.S. army began to get serious about training and discipline and would soon prove themselves a more dangerous opponent. However, as far as any great victory goes, they had waited too late to learn humility. In Europe, Napoleon had been defeated and the British lion began to roar as America could now be given the full attention of London. Soon 18,000 veteran British troops, some of whom had served in Wellington's brilliant Peninsular Campaign, were on their way to America to put those upstart Yankees in their place.

General Riall
Anxious to strike a blow for American pride before these reinforcements reached Canada, US Secretary of War John Armstrong demanded an immediate offensive that would score some victory on Canadian soil to make up for the recent failure before Montreal. Major General Jacob Brown and Major General Winfield Scott joined forces to form the Army of the North with roughly 3,500 troops. Fort Erie was captured on July 3 and the US forces soon crossed over into Ontario. British General Phineas Riall, with about 2,000 men including British regulars, Canadian militia and Iroquois Indians moved to counterattack the American force. The two sides met on July 5 at the battle of Chippewa. General Riall sent his men forward in a bold attack, expecting the US militia to panic and retreat as they so often had done in the past. However, these were not militia he was up against but US regulars whom General Scott had whipped into an effective force. The Americans stood their ground and when their heavy fire began to weaken the British line, General Scott ordered a bayonet charge that broke the British lines and sent them into a hurried retreat.

The Americans were buoyed by this victory and Brown and Scott continued their invasion northward confident of success and thinking that, finally, Canada was theirs for the taking. Yet, they were to meet a much more formidable force in their next engagement. The Crown Forces gathering to oppose them included British and Irish regulars, Canadian militia, Swiss mercenaries and Indian volunteers bringing their numbers to fully equal those of the United States. This army was under the command of Lieutenant General Sir Gordon Drummond, a very competent officer, but also a Canadian. He had earlier led the Crown forces that took Ft Niagara and the benefit of having a Canadian officer in command of the troops defending his native soil was important and especially good for the morale of the Canadian militia.

General Drummond
On July 25, 1814 the two sides met at the battle of Lundy's Lane, one of the bloodiest battles ever fought on Canadian soil. General Scott and his brigade were the first to advance, but they were cut down by withering fire from the Royal Artillery which had been placed in a cemetery on high ground overlooking the battlefield. The US troops fell back, but counterattacked under cover of darkness when more reinforcements arrived. With terrible visibility many men fell from friendly fire, but the Americans managed to fight their way up the hill and capture the British guns. Crown reinforcements arrived later in the night and launched three furious assaults on the cemetery, all of which the US forces managed to repulse. Around midnight, lack of visibility and sheer exhaustion finally brought an end to the battle in which casualties had been heavy. 878 Crown troops and 860 Americans were dead, wounded, missing or had been taken prisoner. Generals Scott, Brown, and Drummond were all wounded in the fight and General Riall had been taken prisoner. The battle had been inconclusive, but it was the American forces who retreated the following day, burning bridges behind them to slow any British pursuit. Many of the British troops who were hardened veterans of the war against Napoleon said the battle of Lundy's Lane was the most horrific they had ever witnessed.

Although the United States had improved in fighting ability, it was clear with this defeat in Canada that the initiative had slipped from their grasp. General Drummond pushed on in pursuit, and despite being stung at the siege of Ft Erie, the US forces eventually withdrew and the Canadian frontier on the Niagara was secured. With more troops arriving from Europe and across the Empire the Crown forces at last had enough strength to take the offensive against the United States. As the next phase of the war opened it would now be Crown forces invading the United States from Canada and from the sea. Sir George Prevost, the Governor-General of Canada, was charged with leading the counteroffensive into the American northeast.

Fortunately for the Americans, Lt. General Prevost was an extremely cautious man. Ironically enough, Prevost was one of the loyal Americans, having been born in New Jersey. He had been commander-in-chief in British North America since the outbreak of war, but had often clashed with his subordinates as he wanted all emphasis placed on defense while men like General Brock believed that only daring attacks would save Canada. Prevost, looking at the odds so heavily in America's favor, had refused any major offensive action and kept large numbers of reinforcements in reserve to guard Quebec City, though US troops never managed to advance anywhere close to that point. Nonetheless, as Governor-General of Canada the invasion of the United States was his duty and he did so with 11,000 troops and naval support down the Richelieu River. His goal was the control of Lake Champlain in order to give Britain control of the Great Lakes and Plattsburg, New York which had been the staging points for past American invasions of Canada. US forces in the area had been reinforced but still only numbered around 3,400 aided by a recently constructed naval flotilla on the lake.

Prevost started the movement south on September 4 and was fought every step of the way by American forces under General Alexander Macomb, desperately trying to buy time for the defenses around Plattsburg to be completed. Hampered by every manner of delaying tactics Prevost did not arrive until the sixth and held off his assault until his naval support arrived. On September 11, 1814 the British flotilla under George Downie met and engaged American naval forces commanded by Thomas McDonough. The fighting was fierce, both commanders were hit and both flagships severely damaged. In a moment of desperation, McDonough cut the bow anchors, allowing the winds to blow his ship, USS Saratoga, around so that their least damaged side faced the British. Opening a deadly fire into the most heavily damaged side of the British ships they were soon put out of action and forced to strike their colors. McDonough refused to accept their swords however, saying, "Gentlemen return your swords to your scabbards, you are worthy of them". Prevost, for his part, had made efforts to attack the city by numerous routes but was repulsed each time with heavy losses by American regulars and militia fighting from good cover. American artillery also slowed his efforts to approach the city and though a flanking movement from the west came close to succeeding, members of the Vermont militia were able to rush in and halt the British advance. When word came of the naval defeat on Lake Champlain Prevost called off the attacks and ordered his men to retreat.

Nonetheless, late 1814 had not been a good time for the United States home front. By August the American economy was in a state of near chaos. Public credit collapsed and banks suspended all specie payments. In the west, early in the year Canadian troops under Lieutenant Colonel Robert McDouall had made further inroads south to Georgia Bay and an attempt by the Americans to recapture Ft Mackinac failed when the attack force was ambushed by Indians. They briefly managed to disrupt the supply line established by McDouall in August at Nottawasaga Bay but the following month a raiding force of Crown troops in canoes and small boats boarded and captured both of the American gunboats. British forces also defeated an attack at Prairie du Chien led by a soon-to-be famous young American officer named Major Zachary Taylor. Despite the earlier American counteroffensive, the west was to remain mostly under British control for the duration of the war, thanks mostly to their policy of friendship with the Indians, which, although not as effective as when they were united by Tecumseh, still included enough tribes willing to fight the United States which was encroaching on their land.

General Robert Ross
In spite of surviving the invasion attempt by Prevost, the Americans were in a very unenviable strategic position. Although they were holding their own, they were checked along the Canadian border, tied down and barely holding on in the west, and facing an ever tightening blockade all along their coast. Additionally, British control of the seas meant that despite their invasion from Canada being blocked, Crown forces could be landed at will at almost any point along the eastern and southern shores of the United States. The Royal Navy had taken control of Chesapeake Bay, destroyed a great deal of the maritime infrastructure of the region and enabled them to strike at the heart of the American government. In August, British troops under veteran Major General Robert Ross, commander of all Crown troops on the east coast, landed in Maryland and marched on Washington DC. At the battle of Bladensburg Ross met a much larger American force commanded by the inept General William Winder. Despite taking heavy fire, the disciplined British troops pressed on and totally routed the American army, sending them fleeing madly in a panicked flight that was jokingly called the Bladensburg Races. President Madison had been on hand to witness the embarrassment as his army disintegrated into a disorderly retreat with only the U.S. Marines holding their ground to the end. Soldiers and politicians alike fled the field and the British troops marched unopposed into the American capitol.

Governor-General Prevost was determined to pay back the United States for pillaging and burning Toronto and the actions of the troops in each case is worth comparing. Advance units under Ross reached Capitol Hill on August 25 but when a British party was sent to parley under a flag of truce, they were fired upon by American partisans. The house was quickly destroyed and the British flag was raised over the city, it would be the first and only time in American history that an enemy nation would control the capitol city. However, whereas at Toronto American troops had gone on an uncontrolled rampage, at Washington discipline was retained and only government buildings were destroyed. In fact, the commanding British Admiral, George Cockburn was dissuaded from burning down the office of a notoriously anti-British newspaper when local ladies prevailed upon him the danger of the fire spreading to nearby houses. However, the Senate, House of Representatives, the Library of Congress, United States Treasury, Washington Navy Yard, the Patent Office and the Whitehouse itself were all put to the torch in retaliation for the destruction of the Canadian capitol.

Francis Scott Key
The results of this attack were both good and bad for the Crown forces. The benefit was that the American command had been severely disrupted and it would take considerable time for the capitol to recover as the center for civic and military leadership in the country. The downside was that it infuriated the American public and many who had refused to fight in such an unpopular war were motivated to enlist in the army that was assembling to the north as General Ross continued his advance toward Baltimore. On September 12, 1814 after landing at North Point, General Ross paid the price for being such a brave commander when he was shot by an American sniper. His forces nonetheless won the battle and pushed on to Baltimore but were met with overwhelming US numbers. Roughly 5,000 British soldiers were confronted by 15,000 Americans defending the city, plus Ft McHenry in Baltimore Harbor with a garrison of about a thousand men. Colonel Arthur Brooke, who had taken command after the death of Ross, knew that without help he could not possibly attack an enemy in a fortified position that outnumbered him three to one. Everything depended on the Royal Navy destroying Ft McHenry to come to his aid. However, despite a fierce bombardment from six vessels firing rockets and mortars the fort would not be silenced and a diversionary attack failed due to the darkness and bad weather on the night of September 13, the first day of the bombardment. By September 15, having thrown everything they had at the fort and with the large American flag still waving defiantly above it the British abandoned the attack. Brooke withdrew his men and the British fleet redeployed for their next attack, planned in the south. Probably the most famous consequence of the battle was the inspiration it gave Francis Scott Key to write "The Star Spangled Banner" which became the national anthem of the United States.

Continued next week with Part V - The End of the War

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for this very interesting series, MM. I knew nothing of the War, until i read Donald Hickey`s excellent book, The war of 1812: a forgotten conflict. It is clear that the true victor of this particular conflict was Canada, it`s existence had been continually threatened since US independence, yet it emerged from this war stronger, more unified and it`s borders secure (with one or two exceptions)The bicentennial anniversary is not being commemorated over here, but what of Canada and the US ?


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