During the fall of 1813, the American Northern Army received a new commander, General James Wilkinson, who soon began an invasion of Canada. His strategic plan was to capture the British naval base at Kingston and then sail up the St. Lawrence River and assault Montreal. After Sir George Prevost sent reinforcements to defend Kingston, General Wilkinson canceled that part of his plan and ordered a two-pronged advance towards Montreal.
General Wilkinson’s bitter rival, General Wade Hampton, began marching his 4,000 soldiers north from Four Corners (now Chateaugay), New York, along the Chateauguay River. This ill-fated march would end in defeat when a mismanaged attack was defeated by the remarkable Colonel de Salaberry and his Canadian Voltigeurs at the Battle of Chateauguay.
At the same time, General Wilkinson, with an army of 8.000 men, embarked on ships and sailed from Sackett’s Harbor on October 17, 1813, towards Grenadier Island. While the Northern Army traveled north, Commodore Isaac Chauncey attempted to block the British Navy from leaving Kingston.
The American Forces Fight the British and the Elements
General Wilkinson’s flotilla had barely begun their voyage when a 36-hour gale destroyed 15 large transports and damaged many more. Most of the troops and the remainder of the boats arrived at Grenadier Island on October 20, in time for a series of storms that dumped 10 inches of snow.
General Wilkinson sent a brigade of infantry and his heavy artillery forward to establish an outpost at French Creek on October 29, while his flotilla regrouped and made repairs. On November 1, the British Navy discovered the outpost. During the ensuing Battle of French Creek, General Brown and his men successfully repulsed the British attack. Starting In early November, General Wilkinson began sending boats forward as they were repaired to French Creek.
General Wilkinson Receives Bad News
On November 5, almost 300 boats sailed down the St. Lawrence River, closely pursued and occasionally engaged by British gunboats. To counter militia resistance on the Canadian shoreline, Wilkinson landed Colonel Alexander Macomb with 1,200 elite soldiers as well as Lieutenant Colonel Forsyth and his riflemen. On November 7, General Wilkinson received word that General Hampton had withdrawn after his army lost the Battle of Chateauguay. He replied with an order to advance and join the rest of the army in St. Regis.
Soon General Wilkinson received more bad news: he was being pursued by detachments of the veteran 49th and 89th Regiments of Foot. They were approaching with two armed schooners, the Lord Beresford and the Sir Sydney Smith, and seven gunboats. The force had landed at Prescott on November 9 and increased in strength by the addition of 240 militia and dragoons. The British force, now almost 900 men strong, was soon marching in close pursuit of the Americans.
The British and Americans Meet on Crysler’s Farm
To strengthen his land forces, General Wilkinson added General Brown’s brigade, dragoons, and General John Boyd’s brigade to serve as a rearguard. On November 11, the rested British regiments caught up to the fatigued American army and quickly formed into a line of battle on the farm of John Crysler. General Wilkinson ordered General Boyd’s brigade to outflank them and capture their artillery. Soon six columns, with 2,000 American troops, were marching to battle.
British Colonel Joseph Morrison positioned his 900 men and three 6-pounder cannons in a strong defensive position behind a log rail fence. The St. Lawrence River and British gunboats protected the right side of his line. Militia, 30 native warriors, and a wooded swamp guarded his left. To the front was a wheat field with a series of ridgelines that were nearly impossible for artillery to cross.
The American soldiers advanced in column until they started taking fire from the British regulars and their artillery. After a long-range firefight, General Boyd ordered General Covington to outflank the British left with one of his regiments. The attackers marched north and worked around the end of Colonel Morrison’s line; however, veteran soldiers of the 89th regiment shifted their position to face north instead of east. The attack stalled under withering fire from the British muskets and a 6-pounder. General Covington and two of his senior officers were killed. General Boyd sent reinforcements, and for the next thirty minutes, the American troops suffered heavy losses but could not budge the British.
The British Army Counterattacks
When the Americans’ fire slackened, possibly because they were low on ammunition, General Morrison ordered an attack. The 89th Regiment advanced with fixed bayonets and forced the Americans back. To prevent the retreat from becoming a rout, General Boyd attacked the British right as a diversion. General Morrison, seeing the danger to his right, wheeled the 89th and quickly marched them towards this new threat. One volley and a bayonet charged routed the attackers. The 89th captured an abandoned cannon and a number of prisoners.
General Boyd realized he had lost the battle. To buy some time for his men to board the boats, he ordered dragoons to charge up the road along the river and get behind the British lines. This move failed, however, when the horsemen received a volley of musket fire from Crysler’s farm buildings. Shortly after 4 o’clock, General Morrison advanced his line. His troops were forced to halt when threatened by the American gunboats.
Results of the Battle of Crysler’s Farm
The engagement lasted nearly five hours, with the Americans and British fighting in cold, snowy weather. Another British victory, the Battle of Crysler’s farm ended as darkness approached. General Morrison’s small force had lost 22 killed, 147 wounded, and 12 missing. General Boyd’s casualties were 102 killed, 237 wounded, and 100 captured.
This battle virtually ended the 1813 campaign against Montreal. Additionally, General Wilkinson’s Canadian invasion had left his forts vulnerable to attack. As a result, British and Candian forces captured Fort George and Fort Niagara in early December.