Authors: Jennifer Crump
Tags: #JNF000000, #JNF025000
The French Canadians were the wild card in the British deck of support. No one was really certain where their loyalty would lie in the coming conflict. The Americans were counting on the French Canadians to support them. They felt the French Canadians were repressed under the British and would be anxious to escape from British “tyranny.” But they were wrong. Most French Canadians disliked and distrusted American-style democracy. They were eager to protect their religion, culture, and language and the British had promised that those would all be protected under their administration.
In late September, the Americans began moving their troops into Lower Canada. This time, they had a sophisticated strategy: a two-pronged attack on Montreal. The plan was for one army to march along the banks of the ChÃ¢teauguay River, while a second, larger force made its way up the St. Lawrence River by boat. The two rivers run parallel to each other: the ChÃ¢teauguay runs slightly to the south and joins the St. Lawrence a few kilometres south of Montreal. The two armies met near Kahnawake, about 30 kilometres south of Montreal, to converge on the city. The invasion force was huge â there were more than 10,000 soldiers.
Spies During the War of 1812
During the War of 1812 both the Canadians and Americans relied heavily on
spies from both sides of the border. The Canadian “traitor” Joseph Willcocks was one
of the most valuable tools in the American spy arsenal. A member of parliament,
Willcocks became convinced that Canada was about to fall to the Americans. He
offered his services to the American Secretary of War and began to feed him infor-
mation about British troop movements. Eventually, Willcocks left Canada to join
the American Army as a colonel. He recruited a force of Canadians to accompany
him and in 1814, 15 of those men were captured by the Canadians and eight were
eventually sentenced to hang. After the hanging, they were decapitated and their
heads put on display as a warning to other potential traitors. Willcocks was still
safely fighting for the Americans. Toward the end of the war he led the Americans
in an attack on the undefended village of Newark, which he had previously repre
sented in the legislature. The village was burned to the ground in one of the worst
atrocities of the war.
The Canadians had their spies too. While the American General Wade Hamp-
ton was leading his 3,000 troops across the New York bush, intent on attacking
Montreal, two Canadian farmers were tracking his every move. Hampton knew all
about David and Jacob Manning. Early in October 1813, he had approached the
brothers hoping to enlist them as spies for the Americans. But his offer had not quite
elicited the response he had hoped it would. The Mannings were far more interested
in what Hampton revealed about American military intentions than in what he
was willing to pay them for their services. When Hampton finally returned to his
troops empty-handed the Mannings quietly headed in the opposite direction. Some-
where to the north, Charles-Michel de Salaberry was waiting with his Voltigeurs.
From the Mannings he learned that the Americans were massing on the border, he
also learned the size of the army and the route they intended to take. The informa-
tion supplied by the Mannings helped ensure de Salaberry's victory over the vastly
larger American troops.
The first army was led by General Wade Hampton. Its primary purpose was to divert attention from the main force that was massing at Sackets Harbour, New York, and preparing to sail up the St. Lawrence. As Hampton's troops headed towards the Canadian border, the spy David Manning counted the guns, wagons, and soldiers. But Manning had more than numbers to report to de Salaberry. To everyone's surprise, he also reported that 1,400 New York militiamen had refused to cross the border into Canada. By U.S. law, militiamen could not be forced to fight on foreign soil. The units from the northern states did not want to fight people they considered neighbours and friends. Nor were they anxious to be out in the elements during the harsh Canadian winter.
Many of the militia who decided to stay with their general were from the southern states. They were poorly clothed and completely unprepared to face a harsh Canadian winter. Manning also learned about the other American force that was heading up the St. Lawrence under the command of Major-General James Wilkinson. De Salaberry was pleased to have learned so much. Hampton, although furious about the loss of so many of his militia, still felt confident about the coming attack. After all, he had more than 4,000 men with him. On September 21, he created a diversion at the town of Odelltown, just inside the Canadian border. The Americans surprised the small group of British soldiers stationed there, killing three and capturing six.
De Salaberry knew that the Americans had crossed into Canada, but the force he commanded was far too small to launch any kind of counteroffensive. The best he could do was keep the Americans contained inside Odelltown. To that end, he sent out small units of Mohawks to intercept the American patrols. One of those units took down an American patrol. Fear of further encounters with the Native warriors kept the Americans inside the town. Thus, they remained ignorant of how very small de Salaberry's force really was. Faced with what they believed would be a long, tough fight, and hampered by a shortage of water, General Wade Hampton once again retreated back across his own border.
As soon as de Salaberry's scouts reported that Hampton's forces had abandoned Odelltown, de Salaberry led his men on a forced 24-hour march to the ChÃ¢teauguay Valley. He knew Hampton would return and would then take his troops along this valley. The Canadians wanted to be there to greet him. De Salaberry left detachments of soldiers along the way to serve as communication outposts. He finally reached the valley, where he set up camp and waited for Hampton. Meanwhile, Hampton had set up camp at Four Corners, a small town just inside the American border at the southern end of the ChÃ¢teauguay Valley, about 15 kilometres from de Salaberry's camp. When de Salaberry learned of the Americans' whereabouts from his spies, he sent a few units of warriors and Voltigeurs to pepper the encampment with sniper fire. They terrorized the camp every night for two weeks. The Americans were so alarmed that they would not venture outside the encampment at night.
In the meantime, Lieutenant-Governor Prevost, who was in Kingston, had finally realized that Montreal was the Americans' main target. He made plans to take reinforcements to de Salaberry by land. But first he went to one of his officers, Red George Macdonell, and asked him to get his first battalion to de Salaberry as soon as possible. Red George reached de Salaberry on October 24, but his even with his men the Canadians were still outnumbered three to one. Fifteen hundred Canadians speaking French, English, Mohawk, and even Gaelic were facing off against over 4,000 battle-hardened Americans. What de Salaberry needed was an edge. By that time, Hampton's troops were very close. Close enough to see what they thought were hundreds of reinforcements marching towards de Salaberry's camp. De Salaberry had used Brock's ploy of having the same men march back and forth wearing what looked like different uniforms each time. Not actually having any different uniforms, the men just turned their jackets inside out so the white linings showed.
Witnessing a near continuous stream of apparent reinforcements, Hampton was fooled into believing de Salaberry's force was twice the size of his own. Therefore, he dismissed the idea of a head-on assault. Instead, on October 25, 1813, he sent a force of 1,500 men into the forests to attack de Salaberry's flanks. The Voltigeurs scouts detected them. Red George and his men, along with a group of Voltigeurs, engaged the Americans and fought them off.
That afternoon, Hampton decided he would have to try a head-on assault after all. The American troops advanced toward the ravines. He had an officer call out an offer, “Surrender, we wish you no harm.” De Salaberry raised his musket and fired his response. There was a furious exchange of fire and de Salaberry ordered his men to take cover behind the
. Thinking that the Canadians and British were retreating, the Americans began to cheer.
De Salaberry encouraged his men to return the victory shouts. These shouts came from the top of every ravine. Then Red George's men picked up the shouts from their reserve position in the woods. The Mohawks added to the ruckus with their war whoops. The Americans had stopped cheering. They fired volley after volley into the woods at what they believed to be thousands of warriors. Finally, de Salaberry sent his buglers into the woods to sound an imaginary advance. Silence fell over both armies. De Salaberry called out to one of his Voltigeurs in French, warning him to communicate solely in French so that the enemy would not understand. The man replied that the soldiers who had attacked their flanks that morning had regrouped and were attacking again.
De Salaberry told him to draw the fight to the riverbank. When the Americans neared the river, the Canadians sank to their knees and began to fire. The Americans returned fire but the musket balls flew harmlessly over the heads of the Canadians. Of the Canadians aim, an American prisoner would later remark that they were horrifically accurate, few of their rounds failed to hit their mark. From across the river bank, de Salaberry and another corps of Voltigeurs also launched an attack on the hapless Americans. Finally, the Americans sent a messenger to Hampton to request permission to retreat. In the meantime, another American force had gathered in the clearing beneath the
and was firing ineffectually into the deep shadows of the forest where the ghostly cheers and war whoops from Macdonell's men and the Mohawks still reverberated. Hampton, outsmarted by his enemy once more, ordered a general withdrawal. In the haste to retreat, the American dead and wounded were left in the ravines. De Salaberry had the American wounded taken to a nearby field hospital, along with his own wounded.
While General Hampton was leading his troops back to the border, the other arm of the American invasion force, 7,000 men strong, was making its way up the St. Lawrence River in hundreds of light river boats. The flotilla made slow progress. From the Canadian side of the river they were bombarded by cannon fire. Their commander, General Wilkinson, was sick and in no state to rally his troops. The soldiers were not in a hurry to go anywhere either. It took eight days for them to cover 130 kilometres. Along the way, the American flotilla stopped to interrogate farmers on both sides of the border, hoping to get intelligence about the British and Canadian forces. The soldiers looted the homes and property of Canadian civilians, earning them the lasting enmity of the local population. When the Americans interrogated them, the Canadians fed them a series of outrageous tales that magnified the strength of everything from the rapids ahead to the size of the army they would face. This time, it was the civilians who tricked the Americans into believing they were up against a huge army. Finally, on November 11, 1813, the American force reached a farm (near the present-day town of Long Sault, Ontario) owned by a man named John Chrysler. They knew they could go no farther by boat until they had disabled the cannons that were still firing at them from the Canadian side of the river. The dangerous Long Sault rapids were ahead, and they could not hope to navigate them while under fire.
The Canadians and British, however, had expected the Americans to stop at Chrysler's farm. They told the Chrysler family to hide in their cellar, and then positioned their troops in the surrounding fields.
As always, the defending army was vastly outnumbered. Therefore, they scattered in small groups: a unit of Voltigeurs in the woods, a unit of Mohawks in a cornfield, and a unit of British regulars beyond the barns. Everywhere the Americans looked, they could see the enemy.
The Americans had already received word of Hampton's demoralizing defeat. When they saw the troops at Chrysler's farm, they realized they would have to engage them. Wilkinson, still too ill to leave his bed, ordered his junior officer to engage the British in a staid military fashion, fighting first one unit and then the next. The officer followed his orders and the effects were debilitating. The Americans were continually harassed; just as they appeared to dispatch one unit of the enemy, another stood up to engage. Finally, Wilkinson called the retreat. The exhausted soldiers willingly piled into their boats and retreated across the river to the American side. The attack on Montreal was a rout.
An equally savage war was being fought on the seas and the Great Lakes. If there is any debate about who won the War of 1812, there can certainly be no doubt as to who won the war on the eastern seaboard. By the time the Treaty of Ghent was signed, troops from Nova Scotia occupied no less than half of the state of Maine. Canadians privateers had captured four times as many ships as their American counterparts and placed a stranglehold on American trade that saw American exports reduced from $45,000,000 before the war to less than $7,000,000 when it ended.
And while the Canadian maritime economies enjoyed unprecedented prosperity during and immediately after the war, the American economy suffered a deep recession from which they were very slow to recover.
Over the course of the war 41 Canadian privateers ruled the waters between the Maritime colonies and states, taking literally hundreds of American ships as prizes. Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, and Newfoundland thrived on the profits brought in by these ships.
On August 25, 1814, the Canadians and British swarmed into the naval base at Bladensburg, New York, and easily disarmed the militia guarding that entrance to Washington, D.C. By nightfall, the capitol itself had been set afire. Public buildings were looted and documents littered the city streets. While that fire was ravaging the American capital, representatives of Britain and America were meeting in the Belgian town of Ghent to discuss possible terms for peace. As the politicians continued their negotiations, soldiers were fighting more battles on land, lakes, and sea.