During the fall of 1813, General James Wilkinson ordered an invasion of Canada to capture Montreal. His campaign failed when his armies were defeated at the battles of Chateauguay and Crysler’s Farm. Although every preceding attempt had failed, the United States once again invaded Canada in the summer of 1814.
Major General Jacob Jennings Brown, the 39-year-old hero who had saved Sackett’s Harbor, was in command of the invasion forces. His army consisted of approximately 3,500 soldiers, mostly U.S. Infantry, and 600 Native Americans. With some tactical maneuvering on July 3, his army was able to cross the Niagara River and capture lightly-defended Fort Erie while suffering fewer than ten casualties.
General Winfield Scott Leads His Brigade North
The next day, on the Fourth of July, a brigade of U. S. Infantry advanced north towards the British army at Chippawa (now part of Niagara Falls, ON). Although they had never experienced combat, the American troops had been well trained by their 28-year-old leader, the remarkable Winfield Scott, who had recently been promoted to Brigadier General.
British Regulars opposed General Scott’s troops, but the Americans were able to push forward sixteen miles. They encamped for the night on the south side of Street’s Creek, just two miles from the British positions on the north side of the Chippawa River. Between the two armies was a level plain, bordered on one side by the Niagara River and the other by a forest. This would be the Chippawa battlefield, roughly four miles south of the Canadian Falls.
The Battle of Chippawa Begins With Skirmishing
On the morning of July 5, Canadian militia and native warriors occupied the forest and began skirmishing with sentries on the U.S. army’s left. Soon after noon, General Brown ordered Brigadier General Peter Buell Porter’s brigade of militia and Native Americans to chase them away. This operation was successfully executed, and the enemy was forced to make a fighting withdrawal almost to the banks of the Chippawa River.
General Porter’s advance was stopped, however, when the militia and warriors he had been fighting were reinforced by British Regulars. Major General Phineas Riall, in command of over 2,000 men and 9 heavy artillery pieces, had crossed the river and was assembling his army on the plain. The American brigade was quickly forced to withdraw, and their retreat became a rout.
British and American Regulars Meet on the Open Plain
The time was about 4 o’clock when General Brown, realizing that the British army was advancing, ordered General Scott to cross Street’s Creek and assemble his brigade on the plain. The commanding officer then left to bring the rest of the army forward in reserve.
Although under constant artillery fire, the well-trained troops crossed the bridge and expertly formed into line parallel to the British line. General Scott placed the battalion of Major Leavenworth to the right and Major McNeil’s battalion to the left. Major Jessup’s battalion was sent into the forest to protect his left, while General Scott positioned his three artillery pieces under Captain Towson to his right.
Due to wartime shortages, General Scott’s Regulars were wearing gray uniforms instead of the traditional blue. For this reason, the British Redcoats believed they were facing poorly-trained American militiamen who would run away when attacked by professional soldiers. They were about to learn a hard lesson.
The opposing lines advanced towards each other. Both sides fired a volley, walked forward as they reloaded, and then halted to fire again. General Scott expertly maneuvered his battalions to overlap the British battalions. Preparing for a charge, he slanted his lines so that the ends of the British line would be attacked first, from two sides, with the intention of collapsing the British line from the sides to the center.
When the opposing forces were approximately 80 yards apart, the Americans fixed bayonets and charged. General Scott’s tactic worked perfectly, and the entire British line was forced to withdraw.
Results of the Battle of Chippawa
A popular legend suggests that cadets at the United States Military Academy at West Point wear gray uniforms as a tribute to General Winfield Scott’s men and their victory at the Battle of Chippawa.
The British attacking force of 2,100 soldiers had suffered more than 500 casualties with approximately 148 killed and 365 wounded or missing. The 1,900 American soldiers engaged in the battle lost slightly more than 50 killed and 260 wounded or missing.
After the attack, the British reoccupied their entrenchments north of the Chippawa River and destroyed the bridge. On July 7, General Brown advanced his men up a logging road through the forest, crossed the Chippawa River near its junction with Lyon’s Creek, and outflanked the British forces. General Riall immediately withdrew his army north. Less than three weeks later, on July 25, the two armies met again on the War of 1812’s bloodiest day at the Battle of Lundy’s Lane.