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16641Lundy's Lane, another point of view

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  • R Feltoe
    Dec 24, 2002
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      Dear List,
      Salutations to all, and the best for the upcoming year.

      Following up on earlier accounts for the Battle of Lundy's Lane, I thought some of you might be interested in the following.

      As part of my ongoing studies I was able to find an original (1816) copy of General James Wilkinson's "Memoirs of my own Times". This (3 volume) work contains material on the Rev War and our own 1812-1815 conflict. Thus far I have only transcribed one chapter, dealing with Lundy's Lane, but what an interesting read it makes.

      Wilkinson presents numerous letters and accounts of the battle he had received and goes in to great detail of analysing the quality of leadership provided by Gen Brown and Winfield Scott. Now, before I go any further, it should be understood that Wilkinson was no great shakes himself and is certainly not the kind of guy that one would trust with the regimental silver, if you know what I mean (he had more enquiries about financial irregularities than we've had hot dinners). Furthermore, he had a chip on his shoulder the size of a 24 lbr cannon against everyone from the President on down. Not even Cruikshank, at his myopic Canadian patriotic best, put out such vitriolic slagging as this American officer against his fellow commanders and even his Commander in Chief. There is also the fact that in the strict sense of things, while much of what he documents is directly from original letters, there is also 'heresay' comments that must be taken with a grain of salt.

      That being said, however, his contemporary experience as a military officer and detailed analysis of the battle and therefore, some of his conclusions, do bear further scrutiny and I wanted to put some of this before the group. If anyone has any SOLID background documentation on Wilkinson and his obvious bias against Brown and Scott, I would be interested to see it as I want to place the "testimony" in proper context.

      For example, in reviewing the official account submitted by Brown, Wilkinson wrote. (and remember, this is a full, published, 3 volume book with maps etc.) (NB all bracketed material inside quotes are my comments)

      "...with a single remark I shall dismiss this dateless official letter of General Brown and pursue my narrative; whoever will take the pains to examine and compare it with the facts and circumstances herein detailed will find it more abundant in fictions and falsehoods than any public document of equal length extant in our language..."

      Wilkinson also is highly critical of the actions of Winfield Scott in the early elements of the battle when he kept his Brigade under constant enemy artillery fire for over an hour without being able to return fire on anything but the 'British' skirmishers i.e. the GLI and Embodied Militia, harassing his left flank and using up all his ready ammunition in doing so. He also records some interesting details about this time.

      With the arrival of the 2nd Brigade, Wilkinson writes,
      "...Lieutenant Riddle (19th Rgt)... reports that being on the left flank guard of the 2nd Brigade, the angle formed by the road as it enters the wood, threw him, when he had passed it, upon General Scott's left, at which time it was perfectly dark: that he first met with Major Leavenworth (1st Brigade) who ordered him to fall in on the left of General Scott's Brigade, which he had found formed across the corner of a field, and standing still, as well as he could judge, two hundred strong and about 400 or 500 yards from the enemy's battery on the height, ( this would place it around the line of Delaware, half way between Drummond and Main as I read things) which at the time was playing on General Scott, and a shrapnel shell knocked down four men and an officer near him.

      Soon after this the fire of the enemy ceased (not surprising if they had no visible target in the darkness), and the First Regiment was discovered marching up the road, on General Scott's right; the General ordered three cheers; the enemy again opened their battery, and Colonel Leavenworth stepped forward and asked "What damned scoundrel it was who gave orders for the troops to cheer?" Some person answered it was the general: on which the Colonel observed "it served to expose our position to the enemy" Again the battery ceased
      and shortly after, General Scott rode up and said "Good news my boys, General Rial is taken, three cheers!" and the enemy again opened their battery. (and took out an ammunition wagon of Hindman's artillery on the right flank of the First Brigade) A third pause ensued and a heavy fire of small arms was observed directly in front and word was brought that the battery of the enemy was taken, and General Scott ordered a third cheer..."

      Scott then reformed his broken regiments into a single body of 8 platoons, but without posting the available officers, instead they
      "...were directed to find their places as well as they could..."
      Scott's Brigade then moved forward and left until they were about 350 yards from the guns, which would correspond on the modern streetscape to the corner of Culp and Drummond.

      Following this, Riddle's detachment was sent to the left to keep an eye on the Indians hovering off to the left flank while Scott took his force onto the hill and made it's disastrous advance through the lines into Lundy's Lane during the second British counter attack, getting further shot to pieces for its trouble and fleeing west between the two lines until it could clear Porters troops and swing round into a laneway , modern Franklin St, and reform again .

      Whereupon Scott orders a further column advance against the third British counter attack and comes under a heavy fire from part of the British right flank, including part of the Incorporated Militia As a result,

      "...perceiving that his word of command, 'Battalion left wheel into line, quick march' was no longer heeded by his wearied and almost heart-broken ranks exclaimed in a voice of thunder 'Then you may all go to Hell'. ... General Brown, active it seems, if not skilful, retired with the troops...and received a flesh wound in the thigh, as he afterwards stated to Captain McDonald at Judge Barker's at the State of New York, adding emphatically at the same time that he had 'Got his wound through the damned rashness and folly of Scott'..."

      If this information is correct, I think it puts a different complexion of the opinions of the people involved that night and certainly shows Scott in a different light.

      Wilkinson then continues with his analysis of the ending of the battle by stating.

      "... that General Scott, finding his heroic little band cut to pieces, in his worse than Quixotic expeditions, with his maledictions as a reward for their devotion and sufferings, left them and retired to the rear of the line, when suddenly recollecting the 25th regiment, which had been long engaged, and had greatly distinguished itself under the gallant Jesup, he proceeded to join it, and like his Chief, received a lucky random shot..."

      However, there are hints that Wilkinson considered the possibility that Scott was not actually hit by enemy fire but was 'removed' by someone from his own side to prevent him destroying more of the 1st Brigade.

      As to Brown's leadership, Wilkinson states
      "... it is certainly a case without example in the annals of military history that the third in command should be suffered to fight a sharp, sanguinary, desperate general action, of two or three hours, without orders, direction, or assistance from his superiors actually on the ground... every corps of General Brown's command was closely and warmly engaged; no reserve was left for his direction, the darkness of the night prevented the exercise of command at twenty paces; the movements of neither army could be discerned; and his troops were several times pressed to an extremity beyond which everything would have been lost.

      Thus critically circumstanced, it does not appear that General Brown once met the enemy in combat, or exposed himself to the fire of their infantry, except when surprised in pursuit of General Scott (seemingly Brown had followed Scott's troops in the final column attack that failed and got himself shot as mentioned above) But although invisible to the troops who he should have animated by his presence, and encouraged by exhortation, he remained at no great distance under the hill, out of danger, retaining the command to the exclusion of the intelligence and discretion of those who braved the tug of war. Yet notwithstanding...I cannot discover that he took a single step to remove his wounded, or secure the captured artillery that constituted the bone of contention...

      ...In another instance, not so criminal indeed, yet highly culpable, General Brown betrayed great ignorance and neglect of duty. After receiving a flesh wound, which did not prevent his keeping his seat on horseback, he tells us in his dateless official letter that 'it became his wish to resign the command to General Scott' surely not because of the exemplary skill he had manifested in the action, but 'learning that he was disabled by his wounds' the commander actually left the field without communicating to the officer next in command (Ripley), who not knowing that the chief was either wounded or had retired, continued to hold himself responsible to a superior, and to maintain his position.

      Yet on retiring from the field, General Brown met Colonel Hindman, the commanding officer of artillery, advancing with a supply of ammunition for his guns on the hill, and after he had abandoned the command, contrary to every principle and every role of service, not content to leave Ripley in the dark with respect to his own movements, he, without the knowledge of that officer, undertakes to give Colonel Hindman the following extraordinary and peremptory order:- 'Collect your artillery as well as you can, and retire immediately; we shall all march to camp;' and adding, 'We have done as much as we could; nearly all our officers are killed or wounded, and I think it best to retire to camp'...

      ... What was the immediate effect of the is order? To withdraw from General Ripley his most powerful arm, whilst he was left with an exhausted band of 600 men, within three hundred yards of, at least quadruple force of the enemy (oh if only that had been true) The very critical situation of Ripley may be fairly inferred from the report of Colonel Hindman... because it proves unequivocally that the enemy were in possession of the ground a few minutes after our troops left it; making prisoners a party detached to bring off a twenty-four pounder, and capturing several wagons and horses which had been sent to bring away the wounded...

      ...It is deeply to be regretted...that by the incompetency of General Brown, and the inconsiderate rashness and folly of General Scott, on the 25th of July, 1814, a body of gallant troops, greatly inferior in numbers to the enemy, were committed to a destructive action, under every circumstance of disadvantage; that the artillery of the enemy, won by their valour, together with their wounded comrades, were, through the ignorance and remissness of the commanding General, left on the field of battle, and that the only trophy gained in this sanguinary nocturnal recontre, was a single piece of ordnance left on the ground by the American army, which cost the contending corps seventeen hundred men..."

      Wilkinson then also was less than impressed by Brown's subsequent order to Ripley to go back the next morning

      "... these gallant citizen soldiers...reached their camp about one o'clock in the morning of the 26th, faint and weak and reduced by death, wounds, and disability, at least one thousand combatants. At this hour the order is issued for them to be 'on the field of battle as the day dawned' Now as the day dawned there at that season of the year about fifty minutes after three o,clock, this... allowed the enfeebled troops barely one hour and fifty minutes to cook, eat, clean and refresh themselves, to draw ammunition, put their arms in order for action, and make a march, which, General Brown informs us. required an hour the evening before, when the troops were fresh. This order was given with an imperfect knowledge of his own strength, and entire ignorance of that of his antagonist; the movement was directed against strong ground, which had been left in possession of the enemy..."

      He concludes
      '...it is due to candour to acknowledge that the issue of the action resulted in the fruits of dear bought victory; and it follows that our pretensions to the triumph were without foundation, but in the vanity and ostentation of our chief and his coadjutor..."

      This condemnation is then reinforced by quoting Ripley's own statement, printed by the Office of the Boston patriot in 1815

      "...the artillery was captured. That it should at once have been removed to the rear is obvious; this could have been effected in one hour, merely by ordering up the spare horses that were with the reserve of artillery. It then would not have been subject to contingencies.

      Instead of that, less than half our force was defending it in a most desperate manner; that force by killed, wounded, and stragglers, continually lessened; the enemy was reinforced, and when he retired from the contest, simply retreated about 200 yards from our line. Our force had become so diminished, that the last charge compelled the whole line to recoil, and it was with unexampled difficulty that it was recalled..."

      I think it must be agreed that there are some interesting clues to otherwise unrecorded events in this already confusing battle and that even from the American viewpoint, the argument that the American's had won the 'victory' was anything but unanimous at the time.

      Regards
      Richard Feltoe.



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