In August 1813, the United States had replaced General Henry Dearborn with General James Wilkinson in hopes that he would be more successful than his predecessor had been. He was not. His first campaign, the invasion of Canada to capture Kingston and Montreal, had been a complete disaster. A detachment of his Northern Army was defeated at the Battle of Chateauguay, and his subsequent loss at the Battle of Crysler’s Farm ended the campaign. Even more significantly, his invasion of Canada had left his forts in the Niagara frontier exposed to attack, and the British captured Fort George and Fort Niagara in December.
As spring approached, General Wilkinson was anxious to restore his reputation. He planned to invade Canada again in March of 1814.
The American Army Invades Canada
After gathering an army of 4,000 men in Champlain, NY, General Wilkinson held a war council with his officers on March 29. During the meeting, the army leaders agreed to attack north towards La Colle Mill (now Lacolle, QC) and Isle Aux Noix (now L’ile-aux-Noix, QC).
General Wilkinson’s attacking force consisted of approximately 3,600 regulars, 100 cavalry, and 300 artillery with 11 guns. He believed American troops would outnumber the British and Canadian forces by nearly 2 to 1. His intelligence reports were wrong. There were less than 1,000 regulars and 500 militia within twenty-file miles of La Colle Mill. During the upcoming battle, U.S. forces would outnumber the enemy by nearly 10 to 1.
The following day, the army divided into three brigades and advanced the seven miles towards La Colle Mill. This British outpost defending Lower Canada consisted of a fortified stone mill on the southern bank of the La Colle River, and a wooden blockhouse and barn on the northern bank of the river. Major Richard Handcock commanded the garrison of 180 men, including soldiers of the 13th Regiment, 70 marines, and 4 artillerists with a new weapon, the highly-inaccurate Congreve rockets.
The Second Battle of Lacolle Mill
When his army reached the mill, General Wilkinson sent a flanking force of 1,200 men northwest in an attempt to get behind the troops in La Colle. Their mission was to cut off the garrison’s line of retreat and to block reinforcements from Isle Aux Noix. The remainder of his men spread out in the woods and fields that fronted the mill. A broken gun carriage prevented the artillerists from using their heavy 18-pounder fieldpiece; however, they placed a 12-pounder cannon, a 6-pounder cannon, and a 5.5-inch howitzer at the edge of the woods. These guns opened fire on the mill in hopes of breaching the stone walls.
Major Handcock responded with musket fire concentrated against the American artillery. His Congreve rockets frightened the attacking men and their horses but did little damage. More effective was the fire from Royal Navy gunboats that arrived from Isle Aux Noix and anchored near the mill.
Two reinforcing companies of the 13th Regiment, slightly more than 100 soldiers, eluded the flanking force and arrived from Isle Aux Noix. Major Handcock, who did not realize his force was heavily outnumbered, immediately ordered the new arrivals to attack and capture the Americans’ guns. They made a brave attempt but were forced to withdraw.
When a company of Canadian Fencibles and another of Voltigeurs arrived, they joined the two 13th Regiment companies and attacked the American artillery again. During this sharp firefight, the Canadians managed to rout the gunners but were pushed back by U.S. regulars before they could capture the cannons. The artillery continued to fire but had no effect on the mill’s well-built stone walls. Darkness ended the fighting.
Results of the Conflict
American troops withdrew the following day. Their casualties were 13 killed, 128 wounded, and 13 missing. The British and Canadians had suffered 11 killed, 44 wounded, and 4 missing. Although the battle was technically a draw, the British held their positions, and General Wilkinson and his army returned to the United States. Major Handcock had successfully blocked the American invasion of Canada with approximately 400 men against an attacking force of 4,000.
General Wilkinson was relieved of duty on April 11. He was later court-martialed but acquitted because he had been acting under the orders of the Secretary of War, John Armstrong.