History of the Late War between Great Britain and the United States by David Thompson: Chapter 30
General Brown meditates a Retreat—He is intercepted by a Part of the British Army at Lundy's Lane—Severe Contest for the Advantage of that Position—British Reinforcements arrive—The Armies close to a general Action—The Engagement assumes a sanguinary Aspect—Loss sustained on both Sides—Remarks.
The British army, at the time General Brown commenced his retreat, was scattered in small cantonments over twenty or thirty miles of country; but, like a well ordered and systematic machine, every part was in a moment simultaneously in motion, to concentrate their united strength at a point where they would be likely to intercept the enemy.
Detachments of the Royal Scots and 41st regiments and a small body of Indians, amounting in all to about five hundred men, under the command of Colonel Tucker, (supported on the river by a party of seamen and marines, under the direction of Captain Dobbs of the Royal Navy,) passed over to the American side of the River Niagara, with a view to disperse or capture a body of the enemy stationed at Lewiston. The object of this movement being accomplished, the troops were again withdrawn at Queenston. The 41st and 100th regiments, under Colonel Tucker, were sent back to garrison Fort George, Mississagua and Niagara: General Drummond moving on towards the Falls, with a force ot about eight hundred strong consisting of detachments of the Royal Scots, 89th and King's, with the light company of the 41st Regiment, to join General Riall's division of the army as soon as it should arrive from the several bivouacs at which it had been stationed.
As soon as the column of the British army under the command of Lieutenant Colonel Morrison had arrived at the rising ground near the end of Lundy's Lane, on the main road leading from Queenston to Chippawa, the enemy was just taking possession of that position. Without a moment's delay, the troops which had arrived on the ground were formed in line on the north-east side of the height, their left resting on the Queenston road, and the conflict commenced.
The troops from the Twelve and Twenty Mile creeks together with a detachment of the King's Regiment, as they arrived, were formed on each side of Lundy's Lane. This line was supported, in front by two twenty-four pounders, [field guns,] which were covered by a small squadron of the 19th Light Dragoons and a detachment of infantry.
The British line being thus disposed, notwithstanding the superior strength of the enemy, in about ten minutes dislodged him from the position he had first taken at the point of the bayonet. The sun was now fast descending towards the western horizon; and detachments of the 1st and 2d Lincoln militia continued to arrive from the different out-posts they had been occupying, who joined in maintaining the summit of the hill until the whole of General Riall's division should come up.
General Drummond, after dislodging the enemy from the partial possession he had gained on the hill, again formed his line with as much despatch as existing circumstances would admit, placing his artillery which consisted of two twenty-four pounders, two six pounders [brass field pieces,] and a rocket party, in front of the centre of his position, near the right side of Lundy's lane leading down the hill to the Queenston road, supported by the second battalion of the 89th Regiment under Colonel Morrison. Scarcely had this arrangement of the British forces been completed, before the position was furiously assailed by General Scott's brigade, at the point of the bayonet; but the enemy was repulsed with great slaughter. A tremendous fire was then commenced on the crest of the British position, by the first brigade of the enemy stationed near a copse between Lundy's Lane and the Falls of Niagara; and the 9th, 11th and 22d regiments and Captain Towson's brigade of artillery, stationed on the Queenston road.
During this stage of the engagement, the light company of the Royal Scots arrived on the ground from the Twenty Mile Creek; and a courier was despatched to countermand the route of the 103d Regiment and detachment's of the King's and 104th regiments, who had, in a mistake, taken the road to Queenston from the Beach-woods, and to hasten their movement to the field of action.
On the brow of the hill at the east end of Lundy's Lane, for the possession of which the armies hitherto had principally contended, General Drummond now planted his artillery, as it appeared to form the key to the position. On this quarter, therefore, the enemy for a length of time directed his whole efforts; and notwithstanding the carnage was truly appaling, no visible impression had yet been made. Still, on this part of the field did the whirlwind of the conflict continue to rage with awful and destructive fury: columns of the enemy, not unlike the undulating surge of the adjacent cataract, rushed to the charge in close and impetuous succession.
In this fearful and tremendous stage of the contest, the British forces both regular and militia, finding themselves pressed by an overwhelming force, simultaneously closed round the guns, apparently determined to contest their possession with the last drop of British blood on the ground, fully assured of their importance to a favorable termination of the engagement—in short, both armies appeared to be roused to a state of desperation for victory.
The enemy at length succeeded to make a slight turn on the left of the British position; at which period, General Riall, who commanded that division of the army, was severely wounded in the arm, and having passed to the rear for the purpose of having his wound dressed, in his return to resume the command, was intercepted by a column of the enemy and made prisoner of war.
It was long before this crisis of the engagement that the curtains of night had enveloped the scene; but instead of that circumstance tending to abate the fury of war which had now completely drenched the field with the blood of the combatants, the rage of battle appeared only to increase as the night advanced. Still did the enemy continue to direct his strongest force against the crest of the British position; but his repeated charges were as often received and repelled by the regular, fencible, and militia forces engaged, with that intrepid gallantry for which the British army has ever been characterized. Charges were made in such rapid succession and with such determined vigor that often were the British artillerymen assailed in the very act of spunging and charging their guns; and often were the muzzles of the guns of the contending armies hauled up and levelled within a few yards of each other: the havoc of lives on both sides, under such circumstances, may be better conceived than described.
The battle having raged with almost unprecedented fury for upwards of three hours, both sides appeared for a time mutually to suspend hostilities; during which the British troops were supplied with fresh ammunition, and the enemy employed himself actively in bringing up his reserve columns; after which, the fire was recommenced from the Queenston road on the left of the British column; however, it was discovered that this was only a diversion to mask the intention of a large body of the enemy's fresh troops, which was actually moving on the right of the British position, to outflank it. General Drummond commenced immediately to draw his strength towards this flank of his army, forming a line in a field of grain, upon which the enemy were seen to advance in slow and silent pace. The British line formed to repel this new attack, was directed to kneel sufficiently low to prevent being perceived by the enemy; but scarcely had General Drummond completed this order of arrangement, before the enemy's column made its appearance and advanced within a few yards of the British line, when the signal was made to fire a volley and charge—the effect of that single fire upon the enemy's ranks was awful in the extreme—those of the enemy who were able made a precipitate retreat.
"The enemy's efforts to carry the hill," says General Drummond in his. despatches, "were continued until midnight, when he had suffered so severely from the superior steadiness and discipline of His Majesty's troops, that he gave up the contest and retreated with great precipitation to his camp beyond the Chippawa, burning, as he passed, the flour mills at Bridgewater. On the following day he abandoned his camp, threw the greatest part of his baggage, camp equipage and provisions into the rapids above the falls; and destroying the bridge at Chippawa, he continued his retreat in great disorder towards Fort Erie."
"The loss sustained by the enemy," adds Sir Gordon Drummond, "in this severe action, cannot be estimated at less than fifteen hundred men, including several hundred prisoners left in our hands.*. Generals Brown and Scott were among the wounded. His whole force, which was never rated at less than five thousand men, was all engaged."
In General Drummond's report of this action, his return of killed, wounded and missing is as follows, namely:
By the regimental returns of the British army, including those of the militia both before and after this engagement, the whole British force consisted of two thousand eight hundred; but before the arrival of the troops under Colonel Scott of the 103d Regiment, it did not exceed sixteen hundred.
Of all the battles (says a writer on this subject,) fought in America, the action at Lundy's Lane was unquestionably the best sustained and by far the most sanguinary. The rapid charges and real contest with the bayonet were of themselves sufficient to render this engagement conspicuous. Traits of real bravery and heroic devotion were that night displayed by those engaged, which would not suffer in a comparison with those exhibited at the storming of St. Sebastian, or the conflict at Quatre Bras.
Both the belligerent armies have offered their claims for victory in this engagement—upon what grounds the American general could propose such a claim are best known to himself. The result of the action, compared with General Brown's first instructions as set forth in his despatches to the American secretary of war, contradicts in the most pointed terms even the slightest suggestion of a victory on the part of the American arms. "It is proper here to mention," says General Brown in the despatches alluded to, "that having received advices as late as the 20th, from General Gaines, that our fleet was then in port and the commodore sick, we ceased to look for co-operation from that quarter, and determined to disencumber ourselves of the baggage and march directly for Burlington Heights. To mask this intention, and to draw from Schlosser a supply, I fell back upon Chippawa. As this arrangement, under the increased force of the enemy, left much at hazard on our own aide of the Niagara; and as it appeared, by the before stated information, that the enemy was about to avail himself of it, I conceived that the most effectual method of recalling him from this object, was to put myself in motion towards Queenston."
Now, a question very naturally presents itself—Did General Brown or the army under his command, in pursuance of the declared intention of the general, make a solitary effort after the action, to force a passage to Burlington, or even attempt to maintain the ground he hold during the action? The reverse was the case. Let General Brown speak for himself. "I therefore believed it proper," says that general in another part of his report, "that General Ripley and the troops should return to camp," that is, beyond Chippawa, a distance of nearly four miles from Lundy's Lane, the field of action, leaving the British troops in peaceable possession of the ground they had gained, and during the arduous contest maintained by their prowess and steady discipline; and, next day, the American forces continued their retreat in great disorder towards Fort Erie*." Here was victory with a witness; and just such a victory did Buonaparte gain at Waterloo.
General Brown not only abandoned the plans of operation which he had formed previous to the action at Lundy's Lane, but "retreated in great disorder towards Fort Erie," where his egress from the British territory might be more easy; and in his way destroyed the bridge across the Chippawa, in order to retard the advance of the British light troops on his rear.
*In General Brown's report of this action, his return of killed, wounded and missing is as follows:
*General Drummond's Report of the Action.