Saturday, April 21, 2012

Battle of the Chateauguay

The Battle of the Chateauguay was a battle of the War of 1812. On 26 October 1813, a force consisting of about 1,630 French Canadian regulars and militia and Mohawk warriors under Charles de Salaberry repulsed an American force of about 4,000 attempting to invade Canada.

The Chateauguay was one of the two battles (the other being the Battle of Crysler's Farm) which caused the Americans to abandon the Saint Lawrence Campaign, their major strategic effort in the autumn of 1813.

Late in 1813, United States Secretary of War John Armstrong devised a plan to capture Montreal, which would have led to the conquest of all Upper Canada. Two divisions were involved. One would descend the St. Lawrence River from Sackett's Harbor on Lake Ontario, while the other would advance north from Plattsburgh on Lake Champlain. The two divisions would unite in front of the city for the final assault.

The Americans around Lake Champlain were led by Major General Wade Hampton, who had taken command on 4 July 1813. Hampton had several misgivings about the plan. His own troops, encamped at Burlington, Vermont, were raw and badly trained, and his junior officers themselves lacked training and experience. There were insufficient supplies at his forward base at Plattsburgh as the British had controlled the lake since 3 June. On that day, two American sloops pursued British gunboats into the Richelieu River and were forced to surrender after the wind dropped and they were trapped by gunboats and artillery firing from the river banks. The British had taken over the sloops and used them in a raid against many settlements around Lake Champlain. In particular, they captured or destroyed quantities of supplies in and around Plattsburgh. Although the British crews and troops involved in the raid were returned to other duties after the raids, the American naval commander on the lake, Lieutenant Thomas Macdonough, was unable to construct a flotilla of gunboats to counter the British vessels until late August.

Finally, Hampton, a wealthy southern plantation owner, despised Major General James Wilkinson who commanded the division from Sackett's Harbor and who had a reputation for corruption and treacherous dealings with Spain. The two men, who were the two senior generals in the United States Army after the effective retirement of Major General Henry Dearborn on 6 July 1813, had been feuding with each other since 1808. Hampton at first refused to cooperate with Wilkinson, but was eventually persuaded to take part in the joint expedition as Armstrong proposed to lead it personally.

On 19 September, Hampton moved by water from Burlington to Plattsburgh, escorted by Macdonough's gunboats, and made a reconnaissance in force towards Odelltown on the direct route north from Lake Champlain. He decided that the British forces were too strong in this sector. The garrison of Ile aux Noix, where the British sloops and gunboats were based, numbered about 900 but there were in addition large numbers of outposts and light troops in the area. Also, water on this route was short after a summer drought had caused the wells and streams to dry up, though this excuse caused some amusement among Hampton's officers as Hampton was known to be fond of drink. Hampton's force marched west instead to Four Corners, on the Chateauguay River.

As Wilkinson's expedition was not ready, Hampton's force waited at Four Corners until 18 October. Hampton was concerned that the delay was depleting his supplies and giving the British time to muster forces against him. Hearing from Armstrong that Wilkinson's force was "almost" ready to set out, he began advancing down the Chateauguay River. A brigade of 1,400 New York militia refused to cross the frontier into Canada, leaving Hampton with two brigades of regulars numbering about 2,600 in total, 200 mounted troops and 10 field guns. Large numbers of loaded wagons accompanied the force. Hampton's advance was slowed because the bridges across every stream had been destroyed and trees had been felled across the roads (which themselves were little more than tracks)

The Swiss-born Major-General Louis de Watteville was appointed commander of the Montreal District on 17 September. In response to reports of the American advance, he ordered several units of militia to be called up. Reinforcements (two battalions of the Royal Marines) were also moving up the St. Lawrence from Quebec. The Governor General of Canada, Lieutenant General Sir George Prevost, ordered Lieutenant Colonel George MacDonnell to move from Kingston on Lake Ontario to the front south of Montreal with his 1st Light Battalion of mixed regular and militia companies. Already though, the commander of the outposts, Lieutenant Colonel Charles de Salaberry, had been organising his defences. De Salaberry had many informants among the farmers in the area and had accurate information about the strength of Hampton's force and its movements, while Hampton had very poor intelligence about Salaberry's force.

In addition to his own corps, the Canadian Voltigeurs, and George MacDonnell's 1st Light Battalion, de Salaberry had called in several units of the Select Embodied Militia and local militia units. Facing a ravine where a creek (the English River) joined the Chateauguay, de Salaberry ordered abatis (obstacles made of felled trees) to be constructed. Behind these he posted the light company of the Canadian Fencibles under Captain Ferguson (50); two companies of the Voltigeurs under Captain Michel-Louis Juchereau Duchesnay and his brother Captain Jean-Baptiste Juchereau Duchesnay, totalling about 100 men; an elite militia company from Beauharnois under Captain Longuetin (about 100) and perhaps two dozen Mohawks nominally commanded by Captain Lamothe. To guard a ford across the Chateauguay 1 mile (1.6 km) behind the abatis, he posted the light companies of the 2nd and 3rd Battalions of Select Embodied Militia under Captains de Tonnancoeur and Daly, and another company of Beauharnois militia under Captain Brugière (about 160 in total). In successive reserve positions, stretching a mile and a half along the river from the abatis to the ford and beyond, were another five companies of the Voltigeurs (about 300); the main body of the 2nd Select Embodied Militia (480), 200 more local "sedentary" militia; and another 150 Mohawks. De Salaberry commanded the front line in person, while the reserves were commanded by Lieutenant Colonel MacDonnell.

All of de Salaberry's forces were raised in Lower Canada. The Canadian Fencibles were raised as regulars, though liable for service in North America only. The Voltigeurs were volunteers and were treated as regulars for most purposes. The Select Embodied Militia contained some volunteers but consisted mainly of men drafted by ballot for a year's full-time service.

De Salaberry had been so confident of victory that he had not informed his superiors of his actions. De Watteville and Sir George Prevost rode forward and "approved" de Salaberry's dispositions, even as the fighting started.

Hampton knew of the existence of the ford and, late on 25 October, he decided to send 1,000 men of his first brigade (including most, if not all, of his light infantry) under Colonel Robert Purdy, to cross to the south bank of the Chateauguay, circle round the British position and outflank them by capturing the ford at dawn, while 1,000 men of his second brigade under Brigadier General George Izard were to attack them from the front. The remainder of the forces were either sick or were left to guard the baggage and artillery.

After Purdy set off, Hampton received a letter from Armstrong, dated 16 October, informing him that Armstrong himself was relinquishing overall command of the combined American forces, leaving Wilkinson in charge. Hampton was also ordered to construct winter quarters for 10,000 men on the Saint Lawrence. Hampton interpreted this instruction to mean that there would be no attack on Montreal that year and the entire campaign was pointless. He would probably have retreated immediately, except that Purdy would then have been left isolated.

Purdy's men spent a miserable night marching through swampy woods in pouring rain, becoming quite lost. As dawn broke on 26 October, they located the correct trail, but inexperienced or unwilling guides first led them about mid-morning to a point on the river opposite de Salaberry's forward defences. Some time after noon, Purdy's brigade encountered the detachment de Salaberry had posted to guard the ford. Captain Daly, leading the light company of the 3rd Select Embodied Militia, launched an immediate attack against the Americans, while other Canadian troops engaged them from across the river. Captain Daly and Captain Brugière were severely wounded but the Americans were driven back.

After Purdy's force had been in action for some time with no obvious signs of American success, Izard's force marched into the ravine facing de Salaberry's defences and deployed into line. Legend has it that at this point, an American officer rode forward to demand the Canadians' surrender. As he had omitted to do so under a flag of truce, he was shot down by de Salaberry himself.

Izard's troops began steady, rolling volleys into the abatis and trees. These conventional tactics, better suited to pitched battles between regular forces in open terrain, were almost entirely ineffective against the Canadians. The defenders replied with accurate individual fire, though surprisingly few Americans were hit. On the Canadian right, the light company of the Fencibles were outflanked and fell back, but either on de Salaberry's orders or on their own initiative, several companies from the reserve were already making their way forward. They did so with bugle calls, cheers and Indian war whoops. De Salaberry is also credited in several accounts with sending buglers into the woods to sound the "Advance" as a ruse de guerre. The unnerved Americans thought themselves outnumbered and fell back 3 miles (4.8 km). Hampton did not order any guns to be brought forward to destroy the abatis.

Purdy first fell back to the river bank opposite De Salaberry's front line, expecting to find Izard still in action, so that he could ferry his wounded across the river. Instead, he once again found himself under fire from De Salaberry and was forced to retreat through the woods to his starting-place.

Once Purdy had extricated himself after another dismal night in the woods, the American army withdrew in good order. De Salaberry did not pursue. Salaberry reported 5 killed, 16 wounded and 4 missing but 3 of the men who had been returned as "killed" later rejoined the ranks unharmed, giving a revised Canadian loss of 2 killed, 16 wounded and 4 missing. The American losses were officially reported by Hampton's Adjutant-General (Colonel Henry Atkinson) as 23 killed, 33 wounded and 29 missing. Salaberry reported that 16 American prisoners were taken.

Having reunited his forces, Hampton held a council of war. This unanimously concluded that a renewed advance stood no chance of success. Furthermore, the roads were becoming impassable under the autumn rains, and Hampton's supplies would soon be exhausted. Hampton ordered a withdrawal to Four Corners and sent Colonel Atkinson to Wilkinson with a report of his situation.

Wilkinson's own force had reached a settlement named Hoags, on the Saint Lawrence River a few miles upstream from Ogdensburg, when they received this news. Wilkinson replied with orders for Hampton to advance to Cornwall, bringing sufficient supplies for both his own and Wilkinson's division. When he received these orders, Hampton was convinced that they futile and impossible to comply with, and declined to follow them, retreating instead to Plattsburgh. Before his reply could reach Wilkinson, Wilkinson's own force was defeated at the Battle of Crysler's Farm on 11 November. Wilkinson nevertheless used Hampton's refusal to move to Cornwall (in a letter which he received on 12 November) as a pretext to abandon his own advance, and the projected attack on Montreal was cancelled.

Hampton had already submitted his resignation the day before the battle of Chateauguay, in his reply to Armstrong's letter of 16 October. He was not employed again in the field.

On the British side, the victorious troops at Chateauguay held their existing positions and endured much discomfort for several days before Indians reported that the Americans were retreating, which allowed them to retire to more comfortable billets. The hot-tempered de Salaberry was furious that Major General de Watteville and especially Sir George Prevost had arrived on the field too late to take part in the fighting but in time to submit their own dispatches claiming the victory for themselves. He considered resigning his commission but was later officially thanked by the Assembly in Quebec. He and Lieutenant Colonel MacDonnell were made Companions of the Bath after the war for their parts in the battle. Sir George Prevost's dispatch, which claimed that 300 Canadians had put 7,500 Americans to flight nevertheless contributed to the battle becoming legendary in Canadian folklore.

Eight currently active regular battalions of the United States Army (1-3 Inf, 2-3 Inf, 4-3 Inf, 1-5 Inf, 2-5 Inf, 1-6 Inf, 2-6 Inf and 4-6 Inf) perpetuate the lineages of several of American infantry regiments (the old 1st, 4th, 25th and 29th Infantry Regiments) that took part in the Battle of the Chateauguay.

The site was designated a National Historic Site of Canada in 1920.

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