The War of 1812 Magazine
Issue 10: October 2008
Documents, Artefacts and Imagery
General Sir Phineas Riall
By Major John Grodzinski
Phineas Riall is perhaps best known to students of the War of 1812 as the commander of the British Right Division in Upper Canada from the fall of 1813 until his capture by American forces at Lundy’s Lane on 25 July 1814. Details of his service however, are not as well known.
Phineas Riall was born in Ireland on 15 December 1775 and entered the army as an ensign in the 92nd Foot in January 1794 and be the end of the year attained the rank of major, through purchase in the 128th Foot, serving with that regiment until it was reduced in 1797. Riall remained on half-pay for the next seven years and in May 1800, Riall transferred to a majority with the 15th Foot.
Riall was with the 15th Foot in the West Indies in 1805 and in 1809 commanded a brigade at Martinique under the future commander in chief of British North America, Lieutenant General Sir George Prevost. Following this campaign, Prevost returned to Nova Scotia, but Riall remained for the attack on Guadeloupe, before returning to England in 1810.
In June 1813, Riall was promoted to major general by seniority and sent to Canada, firstly in command of the troops around Montreal and then to replace John Vincent as commander of the Right Division, a geographic command extending from the Niagara River to Kingston.
During the winter of 1813 and 1814, Riall commanded forces during the Lieutenant General Drummond’s Winter Campaign, aimed at clearing American forces from the Canadian side of the Niagara River and wreaking havoc along the American shore in retaliation for the destruction of Newark by forces under U.S. command. In the latter part of December 1813, Riall commanded the raids on Lewiston, Manchester, Black Rock and Buffalo.
During 1814, Riall was the first British formation commander to oppose Major General Jacob Brown’s Right Division. At Chippawa, his improperly conducted reconnaissance of the American camp resulted in his underestimating the quality of the troops he faced and he was defeated there on 5 July 1814.
As Brown advanced north, Riall instructed the garrison at Fort George to hold firm, while he withdrew Burlington Heights. When Brown later retired to Chippawa, Drummond ordered Riall to move forward. It was during this time that he reorganized his command into a field division of four brigades.
On 25 July 1814, when Brown renewed his advance northward, Riall retreated from his position at Lundy’s Lane, but was then ordered to reoccupy that position. During the early stage of the battle, Riall went forward to stabilize the British left flank, during which time he was severely wounded in the right arm. While riding back, Riall was surrounded by soldiers belonging to Captain Daniel Ketchum’s company of the 25th U.S. Infantry and along with Canadian Captain Hamilton Merritt and Captain Robert Loring, one of Drummond’s aides, became a prisoner of war. Efforts to convince Major Thomas Jesup, commander of the 25th Infantry to allow him to seek medical aid from his surgeon proved fruitless and Riall was escorted to the rear of the American position.
Riall was eventually confined in Massachusetts and was returned to England on parole in December 1814. He never held an active command, but was governor of Grenada from 1816 to 1823. In November 1841, he rose to the rank of general through seniority. Riall was knighted in 1833 and passed away in Paris on 10 November 1850.
The image depicts Riall as a general officer and has been provided through the generosity of Nicholas Riall, several times “great” nephew of Phineas Riall, who has also provided the following anecdote on it:
This portrait has been in the family since it was painted, probably done in Dublin, c.1815, to commemorate his safe return from British North America and America. The painting was made for his brother, Charles Riall, banker of Clonmel in Co Tipperary, Ireland; and hung in family homes in Clonmel until the 1960s when it was given to my grandfather (Malcolm Riall), who brought the picture to England.
Specific details about the general officer’s tunic are as follows;
From 1 July 1811, epaulettes were ordered abolished and replaced by a rich gold aiguillette on the right shoulder. This was probably changed in North America in the course of 1812 or even later. The spacing of the buttons and embroidered buttonholes on the lapels, sleeves and tails denoted rank. Lieutenant generals had them set three by three, major generals by pairs. Brigadier-generals were to have the same coat as major generals but with the buttons and embroidery on the sleeves and tail set two over one.
Special thanks to René Chartrand for providing details on period dress.
Graves, Donald E. Where Right and Glory Lead: The Battle of Lundy’s Lane. Toronto: Robin Brass Studio, 1997, p 138-139.
Malcomson, Robert. Historical Dictionary of the War of 1812. Lanham: Scarecrow Press, 2006, p. 472-473.
Sutherland, Stuart. His Majesty’s Gentlemen: A Directory of British Regular Army Officers of the War of 1812. Toronto: ISER Publications, 2000, p. 311-312.
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