Re: Re: The War of 1812

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Bench Strength – How the British-Canadian side deals with the loss of two key leadersWith two of the greatest commanders on the British-Canadian-First Nations side dead, the depth of the bench, as they say in sports terms, was tested.And at times it could rise the occasion and at times not so much.One of the shining lights was a guy who just didn’t look like the hero type.Major Charles Plenderleath – his narrow chest and rather weak chin made him look more like a teacher in a boys’ school.But looks are deceiving.Plenderleath was in the 49th Regiment of the British Army – the unit General Isaac Brock brought to Canada and led to capture Detroit. Although Brock died at Queenston Heights, the 49th was a tried and tested unit and Plenderleath an experienced veteran.That experience told him his men were in trouble at Stoney Creek. The British had gambled on a daring night attack on the superior American camp. They had approached with unloaded muskets in what was supposed to be a fairly quiet bayonet assault and crept in the darkness right into the lines of the enemy. But on first contact, cheering British officers alerted American forces they were under attack and the Americans quickly rallied, loaded their guns and began firing. The British troops were in a quandary. They had partially disassembled their muskets – removing the firing mechanism to prevent an accidental discharge – so they had to re-install their flintlocks and load their muskets. Staying to do that meant they would be easy targets for the Americans. But fleeing meant they could be routed in the dark or attacked in the morning by the stronger American force they’d been hoping to stop.Plenderleath did neither. He’d heard heavy cannon firing from nearby his position. Very nearby. The following extracts are taken from an account of Stoney Creek given by Lieutenant James Fitzgibbon, 49th Foot, in a private letter, dated 7 June 1813, to the Rev. James Somerville, of Montreal:`Major Plenderleath came immediately after to that portion of the line which I had quitted, and, with the men I had left in charge of a sergeant, and a few others, he rushed forward against the guns andtook four of them... Major Plenderleath pushed on with about 20 men, following the main road, the men stabbing every man and horse they met with... This handful of men with Major Plenderleath took at this dash, besides the two generals [Chandler and Winder], five field officers and captains, and above 100 prisoners, and brought them off.'`I am of opinion that, had not Major Plenderleath made the dash he did, the Americans would have kept their ground and our ruin would have been inevitable.'But Plenderleath went on to further successes.He is the de facto commander of the 49th as he leads it into battle at John Crysler’s Farm.Here he is ordered to charge and capture American artillery – which he does while fending off a counter-attack by American dragoons which is a fancy name for cavalry.He left the service as Lieutenant-Colonel Plenderleath and was placed on  Half Pay and saw no further active service. He died in 1854.The bench strength didn’t stop at the officer corp.Take Alexander Fraser for example. He not only captured two American generals in one day during the Battle of Stoney Creek, he also turned the tide of the battle from a British and Canadian defeat into victory.And he did it with his only weapon, a bayonet mounted on his unloaded musket.Fraser and his brother, Peter, served in General Isaac Brock’s old regiment, the 49th. It has been described as an ‘Irish Regiment’ but included plenty of Scots and English, many of whom stayed on in Canada after the war.That regiment had been retreating from the battle at Niagara Falls, planning to continue to the stronghold of Kingston. When they arrived at Burlington Bay, they knew the American forces following them could use their superior numbers to send the British and Canadians reeling back around Lake Ontario as far as Kingston. But when the British saw that the Americans, led by two inexperienced generals, had camped in a disorganized sprawl with plenty of campfires to allow British and Canadian scouts to find them, they reconsidered. The night attack began.It started off well for the British, bent on surprising and blunting the American forces before they could organize. As the battle progressed, the British plan for a quick, quiet mission was ruined by cheering, started by officers when the first British successes against the American main force became apparent. The Americans, outnumbering the joint British forces by almost two to one, rallied and began firing into the attacking redcoats.The redcoats had removed the flints from their muskets to prevent accidental discharges during their silent advance under cover of darkness. While the British refitted their weapons with flints, the Americans fired away, ripping apart the attackers.Scottish-born Major Charles Pleanderleath was tracking the firing to determine where the Americans were when he heard cannon fired from very near his position. He decided to charge the cannon before they were reloaded. The Fraser brothers led the charge – down a dark farm lane they didn’t know in the middle of a moonless June night towards a detachment of American artillery – with no ammunition in their muskets.As the brothers crashed into the American artillery, Alexander Fraser promptly bayoneted an American soldier who had just fired one cannon. The Americans attempted to fire a second cannon but the damp powder prevented it from igniting. Peter Fraser killed four Americans with his bayonet. When American General John Chandler, who had been reportedly playing cards with fellow General William Henry Winder, arrived on the scene, he thought the artillery unit was falling apart and set about rallying the troops. But the bayonet held at his chest by a giant Scot quickly made it apparent the artillery had been captured. Winder was also taken prisoner by Alexander Fraser moments later.Fraser continued his brave service, but was unable to surpass his night of capturing two generals with only a bayonet. When he retired from military life, he moved to a farm in Perth where he fathered 13 new citizens of Upper Canada.The American side didn’t quite have the bench depth their opponents had, with some exceptions. One of the weak links was the aforementioned lawyer who lost Washington. That wasn’t his first brush with failure. General William Henry Winder was one of the two generals captured at Stoney Creek.Winder was one of the most successful lawyers in Baltimore, and he knew how to argue but it’s arguable he knew much about fighting.Winder was commissioned as a colonel in 1812 when the war was declared, so he didn’t have far to go to become general. Despite receiving one of the worst reports of any unit in the American army, he held the position of brigadier general by the time he was captured at the Battle of Stoney Creek. And that wasn’t even the low point of his career.In the fall of 1812, camped out near Buffalo, NY, Winder was in command of the Fourteenth Infantry.“They are mere militia, and if possible, even worse, and if taken into action in their present state, will prove more dangerous to themselves than to their enemy,” the army inspector wrote in his report.Even so, four weeks later Winder was leading 250 of them across the Niagara River from Black Rock in the Americans’ second try at invading Canada that year. A superior British force killed six, wounded 28 and forced Winder’s men to retreat before they could capture Frenchman’s Creek. That outing was described by one witness to Winder’s attempt as “worse than useless.”Regardless, he was promoted to brigadier general in March of 1813. So when he was captured in the Battle of Stoney Creek later that year, it was quite a coup for the Canadian-born militia who took him and another American general prisoner.But Winder’s real claim to fame was losing the battle to defend Washington. Winder was traded in a prisoner exchange about a year after he was captured and was then put in charge of defending Baltimore and Washington. That battle – between the British and American forces in August of 1814 – was called the Bladensburg Races after the nearby community where the battle took place and because the defending forces could not get away from the British fast enough. There was good reason to flee. By April of 1814, Great Britain had exiled Napoleon Bonaparte from France, so had a large number of  battle-hardened soldiers at its disposal. It started sending them to North America. General Robert Ross had fought with Wellington against the French. He was an aggressive, clever commander and his troops were well-trained and battle-tested. That and the ability of the Royal Navy to move up the Delaware River to provide support and supply to the army attacking Washington was a lethal combination.The heat and humidity were more of a problem for the British than anything Winder could throw their way. The British suffered 64 dead and 185 wounded – many of the dead were killed by the exertion of battle in wool uniforms and the heat and humidity of the late August Washington summer. The Americans had about a dozen killed, three or four dozen wounded and 100 captured. The American militia ran through the streets of Washington in retreat. Bladensburg was called the greatest disgrace to ever be visited upon the American army.The British, with instructions from Sir George Prevost, British commander in Canada, paid the Americans back for the raid on Port Dover, where that Canadian town was burned down – including private homes.Public buildings in Washington were put to the torch. While the men of government fled along with the military, Dolley Madison, the First Lady, removed valuables from the White House before it was set on fire. A Frenchman and the president’s gardener removed a portrait of George Washington from the White House.Winder was court martialed for his loss of the Battle of Bladensburg but was acquitted of all blame. Apparently, the war to save his reputation was one he was better trained to handle.It wasn’t all skittles and beer for the British, even when they were successful.James FitzGibbon was an outstanding soldier and a hero of the War of 1812, but his rise in the military cost him. He was another of Brock’s protégés.Born in Ireland in 1780, he was not quite 32 when the War of 1812 was declared.It was not his first war. By 1812 he had already distinguished himself in Brock’s 49th Regiment in Europe. Brock was his commanding officer, Lieutenant Colonel of the 49th Regiment. At the time, officers were usually men from wealthy families who “bought” their commissions and promotions. But Brock promoted FitzGibbon because he was intelligent and hard-working – from sergeant major in 1802, to ensign and adjutant in 1806, and lieutenant in 1809. However, as an officer, FitzGibbon had to equip himself, and every promotion led to more expenses.FitzGibbon managed impressive feats as a young officer. After the War of 1812 began, he brought a small fleet of boats from Montreal to Kingston, including through the rapids in full view of the American side of the St. Lawrence River. In the dead of winter, he led 45 sleighs of supplies from Kingston to Niagara.After acting as a company commander at the Battle of Stoney Creek in 1813, FitzGibbon took 50 “chosen men” into action with the mandate to “be employed in advance of the Army, and with the authority to act against the Enemy as he pleased and on his responsibility solely.”FitzGibbon and his men harassed the American troops so effectively the Americans sent an expedition to take him out of action. Led by Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Boerstler, the Americans camped at Queenston for the night and marched towards Beaver Dams the next morning.Warned of the attack by Laura Secord, FitzGibbon dispatched about 400 First Nations warriors to intercept the Americans. The First Nations warriors, led by Captains William J. Kerr and Dominique Ducharme, both Métis, attacked at the beech woods. After three hours of fighting in the bush, FitzGibbon approached  the Americans. Taking a page from Brock’s playbook at Detroit, he led the Americans to believe they were vastly outnumbered by his troops and in danger of falling into the warriors’ hands.Boerstler surrendered and 462 Americans were marched away by 50 British and Canadian soldiers.General Edward Baynes praised FitzGibbon for his “most judicious & spirited exploit,” and the press of the day, the Montreal Gazette, cheered “the cool determination and the hardy presence of mind evinced by this highly meritorious officer.”He was promoted to captain in the Glengarry Light Infantry Fencibles, where for the rest of the war he and his men acted as scouts for the army. After he resigned his commission as an officer, he held a number of public service jobs in Canada. But in addition to his officer’s expenses, FitzGibbon frequently lived beyond his means and his debts were mounting.During the 1837 rebellion against William Lyon Mackenzie, FitzGibbon managed to whip a poorly trained rabble into shape to meet – and stop – the rebel menace marching down Yonge Street towards Toronto. In gratitude for “rescuing them from the horrors of a civil war”, Toronto citizens proposed a reward but it never materialized. The Upper Canadian legislature requested a 5,000 acre land grant from the queen, but it was suggested FitzGibbon instead be given money for his civil and military services. However, it wasn’t until 1845 that the legislature rewarded him with the sum of £1,000, half of what he owed and nowhere near the value of the proposed land grant. FitzGibbon returned to Britain in 1847. He became a knight at Windsor Castle, an honorary position with a pension, and lived there until his death at the age of 83.To the east, French Canadiens were also distinguishing themselves.Americans thought that French Canadiens would welcome being ‘liberated’. This was true during the American Revolution and the War of 1812. In both cases they were wrong.Like father, like son. And then some.Ignace de Salaberry, from a French-Canadian family with a long history of military service, joined the British Army and was a proud member of the 44th Regiment. So it was no surprise that’s the regiment his son joined – at the age of 14.Eventually, Charles-Michel de Salaberry changed to the 60th Regiment and saw action in the West Indies (where he was recognized for bravery) and Belgium. He became a captain-lieutenant in 1799 and was given a company command in 1803.By 1810 he had been recalled to Canada as a lieutenant-colonel and aide-de-camp to Major General Francis de Rottenburg. In 1812, just before the war, de Salaberry was a given a new command – as chief of staff for the militia and direct command of the Canadian Voltigeurs light infantry, a new corps of predominantly French Canadien volunteers.While his unit was militia, de Salaberry’s experience with British Army units led him to train his men as regular soldiers. They became some of Canada’s best soldiers, and the Americans soon realized this fact.American politicians and army commanders had seen Quebec as the weak link in the British line – a conquered people straining to be free of the yoke of British imperialism. But after the Seven Years War, the British had told the French Canadians they could keep their language, their traditions, their legal system and their religion, as long as they swore allegiance to the British Crown. While some resistance to the British remained, many French Canadians embraced the change, as de Salaberry’s father demonstrated. Under Benedict Arnold, the Americans attacked Quebec City during the American Revolution, believing once they liberated that city, the whole French section of the country would join them. Ignace de Salaberry fought against the American “liberators” and successfully repelled them.Charles-Michel fought in the battle at Crysler’s Farm (called by some the battle that saved Canada) but his most famous battle was at Chateauguay in October of 1813. That victory caused the Americans to abandon the Saint Lawrence campaign, their major strategic effort that autumn.The Americans had a force of 4,000 men under General Wade Hampton. Even with only 250 men of his Voltigeurs and 50 Mohawk warriors (with another 1,500 men in reserve), de Salaberry was so confident of victory he gambled by not informing his superiors of the impending battle. He anticipated the American force intended to advance toward Montreal. With the friendly local population providing a stream of intelligence on the American advance (including numbers, condition of the troops and morale) de Salaberry was easily able to estimate Hampton’s speed and direction, and form his strategy. The Chateauguay River is a natural defensive position south west of Montreal. De Salaberry used a tried and true method of building a quick bush fort of “abatis” by felling trees with the branches facing the expected advance of the enemy and then sharpening the branches. He built the ancient barbed wire style defence in strategic positions like ravines and trails through the woods. When Hampton’s men walked into the barricades, he tried to surround the Canadiens with 1,500 men. Using the darkness of twilight and the forested, hilly ground, de Salaberry had buglers stationed in various positions in the woods sound calls to make his force seem larger than it was, which confused the Americans trying to surround them. As the Americans blundered about in the ravines and dead ends caused by the felled trees, the Voltigeurs and Mohawks fired into them, killing and wounding many. Hampton retreated across the border.Although he could have been court-martialled for failing to keep his superiors informed of the American advance, de Salaberry’s victory at Chateauguay gave him rock star status in Quebec after the war. Today, his family name survives in Ontario and British Columbia and his deeds are remembered with a town named after him, and a number of statues commemorating him, including one in Ottawa. His home in Chambly, where he died in 1829, is a historic site.End of Part Two