Field of Glory: The Battle of Chrysler's Farm, 1813
The War of 1812 is a long-neglected aspect of the Napoleonic period and generally a conflict not associated with the larger, more deadly, sweeping, and dramatic events in Europe. Yet, it drew off a significant portion of Britain's combat power, keeping some veteran outfits from the climactic campaign in Belgium in 1815.
Canadian historian Donald Graves has filled this void, in at least one aspect, by skillfully writing about the battles of Chrysler's Farm, Chippawa and Lundy's Lane and giving us a picture of the savage fighting between Briton and Canadian on one side, and Americans on the other, that is seldom seen in print.
Graves has produced three excellent accounts of the fighting on the northern, or Niagara frontier. Field of Glory: The Battle of Chrysler's Farm, 1813, Where Right and Glory Lead (a new edition of the earlier The Battle of Lundy's Lane), and Red Coats and Gray Jackets, The Battle of Chippawa-5 July 1814. All are written in a crisp, highly readable, witty style, and thoroughly documented by myriad first-hand accounts, and excellent research.
The Battle of Chrysler's Farm tells the story of General James Wilkinson's ill-fated attempt at invasion and the taking of Montreal, which was an abject failure. While the troops employed by the Americans were Regulars, they were both ill-trained and badly led, these rookies having a generally hard time campaigning in the rugged Canadian wilderness, and being roughly handled by a smaller number of experienced British Regulars and Canadians.
Wilkinson himself was a political hack, a 'confidence man in uniform,' who, as second in command to Anthony Wayne with the Legion of the United States in 1794, had tried to backstab that very competent general in his campaign to defeat the tribes in the Old Northwest. More interested in his own comfort, and happy to cheat his men out of their rations to fill his own wallet, Wilkinson set the stage for disaster in this abortive offensive, that former President Thomas Jefferson remarked would 'only be a matter of marching.'
The Battle of Chippawa is covered just as expertly, Graves covering the reorganization and training of the American 'Left Division' by Jacob Brown, and his difficult, hard-working, and brilliant subordinate, Winfield Scott. Scott takes the army, such as it is, retrains it on the French model, being able to maneuver and fight in the open, and goes looking for a fight with his brigade, now clothed because of a shortage of blue cloth in militia grey. The British commander, Drummond, obliges him and the result is the first American victory in the open over British Regulars in the war, largely by fire. Ably supported by his attached artillery, Scott maneuvers and leads his brigade to attack and defeat his opponents, shocking Drummond, who thought he was facing unreliable militia, into his famous exclamation, 'Those are Regulars, by God.'
Graves' last book on Lundy's Lane is perhaps the best of the three, although trying to rank these books in order of merit is difficult, as they are all equally researched and well-written. Lundy's Lane was a slugfest between two relatively small armies, locked in deadly close-quarter fighting, where, it seemed to some of the participants, everybody was becoming casualties. One British junior officer remarked that it was the deadliest, most savage fighting he had seen, and he had been engaged previously in fighting the Grande Armée in Europe.
Taken individually or together, these books by Donald Graves are a must for any student of the period. Graves' research is flawless, his prose spellbinding, and he has set a standard for battle studies that will be hard to match in the future.
Reviewed by Kevin Kiley
Placed on the Napoleon Series: June 2000
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