The Battle of Châteauguay, by E.H. de Holmfield.
In the autumn of 1813, during the second year of the War of 1812, the Americans inflicted heavy losses on the Canadian and British forces, but they were foiled in an attempt to capture Montreal. A two pronged attack was planned. One American army under Major-General Wade Hampton approached from New York State along the Chateauguay River. Hampton’s force numbered about 4,000 men and was to proceed overland from New York State. The second army, 8,000 strong, and commanded by Major-General James Wilkinson, formed at Sackets Harbor and moved in boats down the St. Lawrence. Hampton’s army, poorly equipped and clad, turned back after the Battle of Chateauguay.
The Crysler’s farm battle ground was flooded during construction of the St. Lawrence Seaway, and the present Crysler Battlefield Park does not resemble the original site. The site of the Chateauguay battle, however, is upstream from Allans Corners and is a national historic park. The park is small, and it does not cover the whole of the battle ground, which stretched out from Ormstown to a spot some two kilometres downstream from Allans Corners.
Unlike most of the other battles of the War of 1812, Chateauguay was fought entirely by Canadians and Indians, without the backing of British regulars. The man who commanded the battle was both – a Canadian who was a professional British officer – Charles d’Irumbeny de Salabeny. His father was the Seigneur of Beauport, near Quebec City, and the de Salaberrys mixed freely with the British elite stationed in Canada. Among the family friends was the Duke of Kent, Queen Victoria’s father, who had been stationed in Canada in the 1790s. The young Charles went to England and was commissioned in the 60th Regiment, rising to the rank of major in the 5th battalion under the command of Major-General Baron Francis de Rottenburg. After serving in the Napoleonic Wars, de Salaberry returned to Canada in April 1810. He came as an aide-de-camp to de Rottenburg, who had been appointed to the staff of the governor, Lieutenant-General Sir George Prevost.
With war clouds on the horizon, Prevost had to look to his militia to reinforce his meagre garrison of British regulars. Aware of Prevost’s dilemma, de Salaberry proposed that he raise a militia regiment to be called the Canadian Voltigeurs. Prevost, who harboured a dislike of de Salaberry formed while both men were serving in England, grudgingly accepted the offer. The War Office order, awarding de Salaberry a lieutenant-colonelcy and empowering him to raise the regiment, is dated 12 April 1812. Prevost set about forming other regiments of select embodied militia for full-time duty, and he ordered his sedentary militia – which was composed of every able-bodied man between sixteen and sixty – to hold themselves ready to be embodied when required.
De Salaberry’s second-in-command was Lieutenant-Colonel ‘Red Georgs’ Macdonell, then the commander of the 1st Light Regiment of Select Embodied Militia that was composed of flank companies of several regiments. Macdonell and his regiment had been stationed at Kingston when they were ordered to Chateauguay on 21 October. With his regiment he had endured a difficult journey in open boats down the rapids of the St. Lawrence. He had already had some success against the Americans, for he had defeated them at Ogdensburg, New York, that February.
General Hampton had tried to enter Lower Canada in September by way of the Richelieu River, but he turned back near Odelltown, mainly because the summer had been very dry and the stream levels were so low that he could not find enough water for his men and horses. He then moved to Chateauguay Four Corners, on the upper reaches of the Chateauguay River inside New York State and set up camp. On receiving orders from his superior, Lieutenant-General John Armstrong, to effect a junction with Wilkinson at the mouth of the Chateauguay, Hampton left camp with 4,000 troops on 19 October, taking some supply wagons and artillery. His second-in-command was Brigadier-General George Izard, a capable field officer. The main route lay along the north bank of the Chateauguay River. The army was not in high spirits. Hampton had not been able to move many supplies from his depot at Plattsburg, and his men were in their worn-out summer uniforms. He received orders to go into winter camp after he set out, but he could not act on them. His vanguard, under Colonel Robert Purdy, was too far ahead to be called back. Furthermore, Hampton’s sources of intelligence were faulty, and he did not know the size of forces that might oppose him.
Hampton’s first objective was Spears (Ormstown) where a Canadian picket was stationed. Hampton detailed Izard to lead some light troops in a flanking movement to capture the picket. Izard succeeded, but most of the Canadians eluded him and hurried to inform de Salaberry the location of Hampton’s force. On his part, Hampton knew that he was coming close to de Salaberry’s lines and he made camp. The Americans marched north in de Salaberry’s direction on 22 October. Some ten kilometres separated the two armies, but Hampton’s progress was slow. Canadians had felled trees to impede the Americans, and Hampton had to stop frequently while his men removed the trees and repaired the road.
De Salaberry had been watching Hampton since he crossed the border to Odelltown in September. Informers told him that Hampton would move along the Chateauguay River to meet Wilkinson, and de Salaberry moved his Voltigeurs and select embodied and sedentary militia to the Chateauguay and set up a headquarters at Sainte Martine. He also picked the spot where he would confront Hampton.
At a bend in the river was a ravine (west of Brysonville) that ran at right angles to the main road, where some cleared land made a satisfactory field of fire. There, on the northern edge of the ravine, he established a line of breastworks on each side of the river, with the stronger line on the west side. The site was also protected by a large swampy wood to the south, where Indians and a few buglers – for extra noise to suggest a large force – would be placed. When the Americans drew near, these breastworks of logs with abatis in front would be occupied by the light company of the Canadian Fencibles under Captain George Ferguson, two companies of Voltigeurs led by Captains Jean-Baptiste and Michel-Louis Juchereau Duchesnay, some Indians under Captain Joseph Lamothe, and a company of Beauharnois militia under Captain Joseph-Marie Longuetin. On the opposite side of the ravine, a small breastwork and abatis would serve as a vantage point to watch for Hampton’s vanguard.
At the breastwork on the south (east) side of the river he placed one company of Macdonell’s Select Embodied Militia under Captain Charles Daly, a company of chasseurs led by Joseph-Bernard Bruyère, and another company of Select Embodied Militia commanded by Captain de Tbnnancour.
About two kilometres downstream was Grant’s Ford, and this line on the south bank of the river would intercept American troops attempting a flanking movement to reach the ford and thus to cut off de Salaberry’s front line from his reserves. As a further measure, de Salaberry had his men build a lunette, a large two-sided log fortification.
Some 300-350 men were in these two front lines, one on either side of the river. Behind were the reserves numbering 1,400 and commanded by Red George Macdonell. The men had built barricades at intervals of from 200 to 300 metres. Behind the first barricade were Captains Benjamin I’Ecuyer and Dominique Debartzch (the seigneur whose home was later taken over for a rebel headquarters at St. Charles in 1837). Behind these were reserves from the 2nd battalion of embodied militia under Captain Jean Baptiste Hertel de Rouville. Protecting the right flank, in some woods, were sedentary militia from Boucherville and Beauharnois under Lieutenant-Colonel Louis René Chaussegros de Léry. Militia under Captain Philippe Panet guarded the ford over the river.
On Monday 25 October, scouts informed Hampton that only 350 Canadians manned de Salaberry’s front line on the main road. Hampton chose Colonel Robert Purdy to lead a flanking operation to march on Grant’s ford from the south shore, with a force of 1,500 from the 4th, 32nd, and 34th regiments of American infantry. Once Purdy had reached the ford and was ready to cut off de Salaberry’s front line from his reserves, he was to attack and when Hampton heard the shooting he would order Brigadier Izard to lead the frontal assault. The guides assigned to lead Purdy’s force complained that they did not know the way, but Hampton saw no alternative and trusted to luck. Purdy left on the night of the 25th, but his men did not make good time. Their guides led them, deliberately or not, through a hemlock swamp. In fact, they never did reach the ford; when they found the river bank they were far short of the ford, and in front of de Salaberry’s line on the south side of the river.
On the morning of the 26th, Hampton began his advance towards de Salaberry’s line on the north shore of the river, but he stopped and waited out of range for the shots from Purdy’s men that would tell him that his subordinate was in position. When Hampton did hear firing, Purdy was not at the ford, but exchanging shots with Captain Bruyère’s chasseurs armed with rifles. The time was perhaps 2.00 p.m. when Hampton went into action.
Some versions suggest that de Salaberry started the battle and fired the first shot. When an American officer who knew some French called on the Canadians to surrender, de Salaberry shot him, and the cheer that rose from the front lines resounded as the reserves took it up. Bugles sounding from the woods to the south, and from all the lines, added to the din. The shooting continued for hours, the front line on the main road holding its own, while the front line on the south bank was contending with Purdy’s confused force. Some time after 4.00 p.m. Hampton realized that Purdy was being battered and had no hope of reaching the ford to outflank de Salaberry, and disheartened, he ordered a withdrawal. De Salaberry had stood on a stump throughout the battle, and he later wrote to his father that at the battle he rode a wooden horse.
North of the battle ground, Sir George Prevost and Major-General Louis de Wàtteville were nearly at the line, with escorts but no reinforcements. Fortunately, de Salaberry would not need help, although he did not know that at the time. He fully expected Hampton to regroup and try again, and he kept his barricades manned and sent a force to pursue the Americans. However, Hampton had had enough.
Purdy led the rearguard, taking up a position beyond the bend in the road. Gradually he fell back, and pursuing troops found abandoned equipment strewn along the road. Indians following and lurking in the woods further unnerved the soldiers shivering in their inadequate clothing.
De Salaberry’s casualties were light. Four Select Embodied Militia were killed and four wounded, and three Voltigeurs had been wounded. Hampton estimated that fifty of his men had been killed, but his losses could have been higher. The Canadians buried forty American dead and the Americans buried some of their own. Thus ended the battle that may well have saved Montreal in October 1813.
The number of de Salaberry’s men that were engaged was about 300, and all were in the front line of breastworks. The reserves were used briefly, to reinforce Captain Daly on the south bank of the Chateauguay when Purdy’s force arrived, and after the battle in pursuit of Hampton’s army towards Spears, now Ormstown.
On 11 November, the other army making for Montreal met with disaster. Major-General James Wilkinson’s force that had been descending the St. Lawrence River was pursued by a smaller one under Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Morrison. Wilkinson’s rearguard was soundly defeated at Crysler’s farm near Morrisburg. When he received word that Hampton would not be on hand for a joint-assualt on Montreal, Wilkinson gave up the attempt and took his men to winter quarters. Thus, if de Salaberry had not won at Chateauguay, and Hampton and Wilkinson had captured Montreal, the course of the war would have been very different. Perhaps the Americans would have succeeded in conquering Canada at a time when Britain, busy fighting Napoleon, could not spare many troops for a Canadian defence.
The War continued for another year. One of the most bitterly contested battles was fought at Lundy’s Lane in the Niagara Peninsula on 25-26 August 1814, but the outcome was indecisive. As time passed, the issue that had sparked the United States declaration of war evaporated. With the first defeat of Napoleon, Britain no longer felt the need to press men for service in the Royal Navy. Thus the United States could no longer complain that British ships were seizing American citizens of British birth. By 1814 part of Wellington’s army was not needed in Europe, although the Battle of Waterloo had yet to be fought, and British regulars were reinforcing the Canadas in large numbers.
The Treaty of Ghent was signed on 24 December 1814, ending the war. By its terms, all captured territories were to be returned. Yet one bit of territory – Carleton Island – was not returned to Britain. Fort Haldimand, on the island, at the head of the St. Lawrence River, had a small caretaker garrison in 1812. A boatload of Americans rowed out from Millen’s Bay and seized the fort and declared Carleton Island part of New York State, and so it remains.