This Day in History: The Bloodiest Land Battle in the War of 1812
On this day in 1814, Americans consider renewing a battle that had begun the day before, but they decide to retreat instead. The Battle of Lundy’s Lane was the bloodiest land battle of the War of 1812. It was fought after American forces led by Major General Jacob Brown invaded Canada near the Niagara River.
Yes, you read that right. We invaded Canada!
And that invasion was going pretty well at first. On July 3, Americans captured Fort Erie with relatively little effort. A few days later, they won a major victory at Chippawa against British Major General Phineas Riall.
Reportedly, Riall had underestimated the Americans in that battle because so many of them were wearing grey. He thought they were militia! Instead, the men in grey were a part of Brigadier General Winfield Scott’s well-trained force. (They’d simply run out of blue cloth to make uniforms.) Riall was heard to shout during the battle: “They are regulars, By God!” Some heard him say, “Why, these are regulars!”
According to legend, West Point uniforms are grey because of this battle.
After Chippawa, Riall was forced to retreat to nearby Fort George. The American commander, Major General Jacob Brown, wanted to pursue the British and press his advantage, but he was waiting for naval reinforcements. They never showed. Unfortunately, the long delay gave Riall time to improve his defenses. It also gave him time to receive reinforcements from Lt. General Gordon Drummond, an officer who was ready to be more aggressive against the American forces.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, then, the two sides ended up locked in battle, just as Brown was considering a retreat. The battle began late on July 25, near Niagara Falls, close to Lundy’s Lane. “The confused and bloody battle,” historian Donald R. Hickey writes, “raged into the night, drowning out the roar of nearby Niagara Falls.” One participant, Lt. Colonel James Miller, called the battle “one of the most desperately fought actions ever experienced in America.”
The battle—basically a stalemate—came to an end when Brown ordered a withdrawal late in the night. Senior officers on both sides of the battle had been wounded, including Brown. Scott was so badly wounded that he would not be able to fight for the rest of the war. Riall had been captured by the Americans.
The next day, Brown was ready to renew the battle, but his battle wound prevented him from leading the forces himself. His successor-in-command, Eleazar Ripley, knew that the Americans were in no shape to fight, and his intelligence indicated that he was outnumbered. He ultimately withdrew to Fort Erie instead.
Drummond, of course, decided to pursue Brown. But that is a story for another day.
David S. Heidler & Jeanne T. Heidler, The War of 1812 (2002)
Donald R Hickey, The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict (2012)
John D Morris, Sword of the Border: Major General Jacob Jennings Brown, 1775-1828 (2000)
Robert P. Watson, America’s First Crisis: The War of 1812 (2014)