In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,
With a glory in His bosom that transfigures you and me:
As He died to make men holy, let us live to make men free,
While God is marching on!


Monday, July 5, 2010

"Regulars, by God!"--The Battle of Chippawa

Today is the 196th anniversary of an important battle that, almost certainly, you never heard of: the Battle of Chippawa on July 5, 1814. It was part of the Niagara Campaign in the War of 1812, which aimed at seizing control of Upper Canada (the southern part of today's Province of Ontario) which, Americans widely believed, Canada's British masters had been using as a base for promoting and facilitating Indian attacks on American settlers moving into the Northwest Territory. That campaign proved to be the longest and bloodiest military operation of the War of 1812, and was decisive in determining the future political shape of North America.

The battle pitted about 3500 United States regular troops, militia, and Indians led by Brigadier General Winfield Scott--future hero of the Mexican-American War and commander-in-chief of all Union forces at the outbreak of the American Civil War--against about 2100 British regulars, Canadian militia, and Indians led by Major General Phineas Riall. The engagement took place across open fields a few miles south of the village of Chippawa on the Canadian side of the Niagara River just a short distance from Niagara Falls. This site is only about 3 miles, as the crow flies, from where I grew up on Grand Island, NY, which is located just across the Niagara on the American side (here's a map showing these locations). Had my family lived there at the time of the battle, I would have been able to hear the roar of cannon and the ripping of musketry from my house!

For several months prior to the battle General Scott had been drilling his green troops relentlessly in a camp at Flint Hill near Buffalo, NY, which town the British had burned to the ground just four months earlier. Scott recognized that without hard training and discipline his men would be in no position to face the British army, then the world's best. In a significant departure from frontier military practice at the time, he fought with army bureaucracy to ensure that the men were properly fed, clothed. and equipped, and enforced rigorous health and sanitary measures in the camp, which kept sickness to a minimum. His standards were thwarted only by the government's failure to supply the troops with proper blue uniforms; only short gray jackets typical of untrained militia were all that could then be provided.

To greatly simplify events: The Americans crossed the Niagara on July 3, and quickly captured British-held Fort Erie opposite Buffalo. On July 4, after firing a salute to America's 38th birthday, they moved north along the west side of the river and, late in the afternoon, encountered advance elements of Riall's force along Chippawa Creek. Following a brief exchange of artillery fire, Scott withdrew a few miles to camp along Street's Creek to the south. The next morning the British force advanced south and collided with Scott's brigade, which was just starting north. The clash opened with the American artillery battery all but wiping out out Riall's guns along the portage road along the river. Meanwhile, Scott formed his line into a "U" shape as the British line advanced, which allowed the American flanking units to catch Riall's advancing troops in a deadly crossfire. Riall had thought that the American line was composed of grey-clad militia troops apt to fall back in disarray after the opening volleys, but as Scott's men held steady under British artillery fire, Riall realized his mistake and supposedly exclaimed, "Those are regulars, by God!" After the two lines had punished each other with continuous volley fire for almost a half hour, at a distance of less than 100 yards, Riall ordered his men to withdraw back north. Only effective covering fire by British artillery kept the Americans from pursuing Riall's force all the way back to Chippawa (here's a detailed map showing locations and troop movements involved in the battle).

The British/Canadian/Indian force suffered an approximate casualty total of 106 killed, 325 wounded, and 90 taken prisoner---one-quarter of their entire strength. The American official casualty return stated their loss as 60 killed, 249 wounded and 19 missing, or slightly less than ten percent.

The two forces would meet again 19 days later and a few miles further north in the even more bloody Battle of Lundy's Lane, at the site of present-day Niagara Falls, Ontario. There too, the British/Canadian brigade would suffer a tactical defeat, although by this time American forces were so tired and depleted that they had to retreat back across the Niagara, without effecting the hoped-for conquest of Upper Canada.

Nevertheless, as noted by historian Donald E. Graves (the foremost authority on the Niagara Campaign), the Battle of Chippawa was the "first time during [the War of 1812] that American infantry had met and defeated British infantry in open battle." [Where Right and Glory Lead! The Battle of Lundy's Lane, 1814 (2d ed. 2003, p. 92)]. The American victory, made possible by General Scott's careful preparation of the troops at Flint Hill and his skillful leadership on the battlefield, showed clearly that the new nation's army had become a professional military force able to hold its own against the world's finest. Graves and many other historians thus suggest that Chippawa, rather than Valley Forge, might be considered the birthplace of the modern American army. Indeed, tradition has it that gray uniforms were later adopted for cadets at West Point--and are still worn today--in recognition of what Scott's brigade achieved at Chippewa.

So--WHY WASN'T I TAUGHT ABOUT THE BATTLE OF CHIPPAWA IN SCHOOL? On Grand Island, our little fannies were sitting not 5 miles from where the battle was fought! The main American force was led by a man who, cutting his teeth on that field as a newly-minted brigadier, later became one of the foremost military leaders in our nation's history! By the time of Chippawa there wasn't a corner of western New York that hadn't been hit hard by the war, between marauding British troops and refugees fleeing east by the thousands. The struggle along the Niagara in 1814 would determine the political future of this continent. And much of it happened literally in our back yards!

It's a shame that such events aren't taught more completely and effectively in our schools, especially when they're so immediate to the places where we live. If history is taught as if by reading from a telephone book--mere names, dates, places--young people (as well as old) can't help but be bored to death. They won't care about it and will never grasp the significance of what happened or be able to apply history's lessons in helping guide our country's future. But if history is made local and literally brought "home" to them--if it's made as familiar and immediate as their school building or the street on which they live--children will be captivated by how "real" it is and how directly it has affected their own lives. Only then will they gain the knowledge, experience, and perspective they'll need as future leaders to steer America on the right course.

POSTSCRIPT: You can visit the Chippawa Battlefield Park today and see the site almost exactly as it was on July 5, 1814--just an open field ringed by woods, yet now the eternal resting place for scores of men who fell that day, on both sides. An impresive monument (fittingly, one for both forces) commemorates their valor. I've been there, and the quiet is truly sobering when one thinks of the desperate struggle across that very ground so many years ago.


It's A Wonderful said...

Where is this park? I don't recall ever being there. You're right, we didn't learn about local history...thanks for the lesson!

Anonymous said...

I wish we heard about this important battle in school too! How blessed you were to be brought up within a literal stone's-throw!!