War of 1812: Battle of Crysler's Farm

James Wilkinson
Major General James Wilkinson. National Park Service

 

The Battle of Crysler's Farm was fought November 11, 1813, during the War of 1812 (1812-1815) and saw an American campaign along the St. Lawrence River halted. In 1813, Secretary of War John Armstrong directed American forces to begin a two-pronged advance against Montreal. While one thrust was to advance down the St. Lawrence from Lake Ontario, the other was to move north from Lake Champlain. Commanding the western attack was Major General James Wilkinson.

Known as a scoundrel before the war, he had served as an agent of the Spanish government as well as was involved in the conspiracy that saw former Vice President Aaron Burr charged with treason.

Preparations

As a result of Wilkinson's reputation, the commander on Lake Champlain, Major General Wade Hampton, refused to take orders from him. This led to Armstrong constructing an unwieldy command structure that would see all orders for coordinating the two forces pass through the War Department. Though he possessed around 8,000 men at Sackets Harbor, NY, Wilkinson's force was poorly trained and ill-supplied. Additionally, it lacked experienced officers and was suffering from an outbreak of disease. To the east, Hampton's command consisted of around 4,000 men. Together, the combined force was twice the size of the mobile forces available to the British in Montreal.

American Plans

Early planning for the campaign called for Wilkinson to capture the key British naval base at Kingston prior to moving on Montreal.

Though this would have deprived Commodore Sir Jame Yeo's squadron of its primary base, the senior American naval commander on Lake Ontario, Commodore Isaac Chauncey, did not wish to risk his ships in an attack on the town. As a result, Wilkinson intended to make a feint toward Kingston before slipping down the St.

Lawrence. Delayed in departing Sackets Harbor due to bad weather, the army final moved out on October 17 using around 300 small craft and bateaux. the American army entered the St. Lawrence on November 1 and reached French Creek three days later.

British Response

It was at French Creek that the first shots of the campaign were fired when brigs and gunboats led by Commander William Mulcaster attacked the American anchorage before being driven off by artillery fire. Returning to Kingston, Mulcaster informed Major General Francis de Rottenburg of the American advance. Though focused on defending Kingston, Rottenburg dispatched Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Morrison with a Corps of Observation to harry the American rear. Initially consisting of 650 men drawn from the 49th and 89th Regiments, Morrison increased his strength to around 900 by absorbing local garrisons as he advanced. His corps was supported on the river by two schooners and seven gunboats.

A Change of Plans

On November 6, Wilkinson learned that Hampton had been beaten at Chateauguay on October 26. Though the Americans successfully bypassed a British fort at Prescott the following night, Wilkinson was unsure of how to proceed after receiving the news regarding Hampton's defeat.

On November 9, he convened a council of war and met with his officers. The result was an agreement to continue on with the campaign and Brigadier General Jacob Brown was sent ahead with an advance force. Before the main body of the army embarked, Wilkinson was informed that a British force was in pursuit. Halting, he prepared to deal with Morrison's approaching force and established his headquarters at Cook's Tavern on November 10. Pressing hard, Morrison's troops spent that night encamped near Crysler's Farm approximately two miles from the American position.

Armies & Commanders

Americans

  • Major General James Wilkinson
  • Brigadier General John Parker Boyd
  • 8,000 men

British

  • Lieutenant Colonel James Morrison
  • Commander William Mulcaster
  • approx. 900 men

Dispositions

On the morning of November 11, a series of confused reports led each side to believe that the other was preparing to attack.

At Crysler's Farm, Morrison formed the 89th and 49th Regiments in a line with detachments under Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Pearson and Captain G.W. Barnes in advance and to the right. These occupied buildings near the river and gully extending north from the shore. A skirmish line of Canadian Voltigeurs and Native American allies occupied a ravine in advance of Pearson as well as a large wood to the north of the British position.

Around 10:30 AM, Wilkinson received a report from Brown stating that he had defeated a militia force at Hoople's Creek the previous evening and the line of advance was open. As the American boats would shortly need to run Long Sault rapids, Wilkinson decided to clear his rear before moving forward. Fighting an illness, Wilkinson was not in a condition to lead the attack and his second-in-command, Major General Morgan Lewis, was unavailable. As a result, command of the assault fell to Brigadier General John Parker Boyd. For the assault, he had the brigades of Brigadier Generals Leonard Covington and Robert Swartwout.

The American's Turned Back

Forming for battle, Boyd placed Covington's regiments on the left extending north from the river, while Swartwout's brigade was on the right extending north into the woods. Advancing that afternoon, Colonel Eleazer W. Ripley's 21st US Infantry from Swartwout's brigade drove back the British skirmishers. On the left, Covington's brigade struggled to deploy due to a ravine on their front. Finally attacking across the field, Covington's men came under heavy fire from the Pearson's troops.

In the course of the fighting, Covington was mortally wounded as was his second-in-command. This led to a breakdown in organization on this part of the field. To the north, Boyd attempted to push troops across the field and around the British left.

These efforts failed as they was met by heavy fire from the 49th and 89th. All across the field, the American attack lost momentum and Boyd's men began falling back. Having struggled to bring up his artillery, it was not in place until his infantry was retreating. Opening fire, they inflicted losses on the enemy. Seeking to drive off the Americans and capture the guns, Morrison's men began a counterattack across the field. As the 49th neared the American artillery, the 2nd US Dragoons, led be Colonel John Walbach, arrived and in a series of charges bought sufficient time for all but one of Boyd's guns to be withdrawn.

Aftermath

A stunning victory for a much smaller British force, Crysler's Farm saw Morrison's command inflict losses of 102 killed, 237 wounded, and 120 captured on the Americans. His force lost 31 killed, 148 wounded, 13 missing. Though disheartened by the defeat, Wilkinson pressed on and moved through the Long Sault rapids. On November 12, Wilkinson united with Brown's advance detachment and short time later received Colonel Henry Atkinson from Hampton's staff. Atkinson brought word that his superior had retired to Plattsburgh, NY, citing a lack of supplies, rather than move west around Chateauguay and to join Wilkinson's army on the river as originally ordered.

Again meeting with his officers, Wilkinson decided to end the campaign and the army went into winter quarters at French Mills, NY. Following a defeat at Lacolle Mills in March 1814, Wilkinson was removed from command by Armstrong.