During the fall of 1813, the American Northern Army received a new commanding general, James Wilkinson, and a new strategic plan: invade Canada, capture Kingston, and then assault Montreal. When Sir George Prevost sent reinforcements to Kingston, General Wilkinson canceled that part of his plan and ordered his divided army to advance immediately towards Montreal.
While General Wilkinson and the bulk of the Northern Army prepared to sail from Sackett’s Harbor, Major-General Wade Hampton and a 3,000-man detachment of regular infantry, cavalry, and artillery were traveling north from Four Corners (now Chateaugay), New York along the Chateauguay River. Directly across their path to Montreal were the remarkable British officer, Colonel Charles Michel d’Irumberry de Salaberry, and his Canadian Voltigeurs.
General Hampton Orders a Flank Attack
The mixed force of Canadian militia and native warriors had constructed log breastworks and abatis (logs with sharpened branches) in a thick woods along the Chateauguay. On the night of October 25, 1813, the American invaders were camped seven miles south of Colonel De Salaberry’s position.
General Hampton ordered Colonel James Purdy to cross the river with 1,000 men and spend the night advancing on the southern side of the river. At dawn, this strong detachment was to fight there way over a ford in the river and attack the rear of the Canadian defensive works while General Hampton made a frontal attack with the main body of troops.
Colonel Purdy and his men crossed the river after dark. They soon entered a wooded swamp and got hopelessly lost in the dark. Having spent hours struggling through the soaking wetlands, the colonel eventually called a halt and hoped they could find their way to the ford when the sun rose.
The American Frontal Attack
On the morning of October 26, General Hampton marched his 2,000 troops in column along a road towards the British fortified position. Around 10 o’clock, they pushed back the British picket line, then stopped and waited for Colonel Purdy’s surprise attack to begin. One hour later, they heard musket fire across the river.
Exactly what happened next is unknown. One Canadian version claims that a single American officer on horseback approached the enemy and exhorted the Canadians to lay down their arms. In reply, Colonel de Salaberry shot the officer out of his saddle. This was the signal for his troops to open fire. The front companies in the American column immediately returned fire while the companies behind formed into line.
More likely, General Hampton’s army simply formed into line and advanced to the attack. They pushed back a small line of defenders, stopped parallel to de Salaberry’s breastworks, and fired. Some accounts say the Americans began a rolling volley fire, where each regiment fired and then began to reload while the next regiment in line fired. Other accounts claim that de Salaberry’s men began a withering return fire, with every shot perfectly aimed.
Based on the low number of casualties during this engagement, neither version seems correct. The opposing forces were probably too far apart for accurate musket fire. The American attack was more like a parade ground demonstration than a determined effort to break through the Canadian defenses; a diversion while General Hampton waited for his flank attack to cause a panicked retreat.
De Salaberry Outwits General Hampton
During the afternoon, Colonel De Salaberry scattered ten or twelve buglers throughout the woods with orders to signal an advance to hundreds of imaginary troops. The trick worked. Hearing dozens of bugle calls, General Hampton believed his troops were in danger of being outflanked and overwhelmed by superior numbers. His army’s fire slackened while they awaited the expected attack.
The Flank Attack Fails
Meanwhile, Colonel Purdy’s men continued their struggle to reach the ford. Near 11 o’clock, they encountered Canadian sentries and exchanged gunfire. This is what prompted General Hampton to begin his frontal attack.
Colonel Purdy’s men next attacked a company of Canadian militia, who were soon reinforced by two additional companies. The determined defenders forced the fatigued Americans to begin a fighting withdrawal that lasted for hours. Around 2:30 in the afternoon, the Canadians suddenly charged with fixed bayonets. During the hand-to-hand combat that followed, both of the Canadian commanders were severely injured. Their companies retreated.
Colonel Purdy’s men felt they were close to victory. They shouted and pursued their retreating enemy, but unfortunately exited the woods directly across from de Salaberry’s breastworks. Two companies of militia along the riverbank fired a volley into the flanking force. The devastating fire from across the river routed the Americans, who ran back into the woods. Colonel Purdy’s ill-fated flank attack was over.
General Hampton Orders a Withdrawal
After his flank attack failed, General Hampton ordered his army to retreat, although they had suffered fewer than fifty casualties. The Canadians lost only two killed, sixteen wounded, and four missing.
The Battle of Chateauguay was more of a chaotic skirmish than a battle. Generally, proud Canadian’s praised Colonel de Salaberry’s heroic stand against a determined enemy that considerably outnumbered his forces, while embarrassed Americans claimed General Hampton’s effort was only a mock attack to divert troops away from General Wilkinson’s expedition.
The real story is probably somewhere in the middle. General Hampton loathed General Wilkinson and was unlikely to risk being killed or captured for him. If the flank attack had worked, he would have pushed through and continued to Montreal. Since it was a total failure, however, he withdrew, sent his troops into winter quarters, and resigned from the United States Army.