The Battle that Saved Canada

The Battle of Crysler’s Farm, fought on muddy ploughed fields beside the St. Lawrence River on November 11, 1813, was a crucial moment in the history of Upper Canada and marked the end of the most serious attempt to that time to invade Canada.

The campaign of 1813 focused on the St. Lawrence frontier with two powerful American armies poised to meet at Montreal and cut British lines of communications on this lifeline into the heart of the continent.

Credit: Wendy Stevenson

© Wendy Stevenson

An army commanded by Wade Hampton stood ready to move from the south, up the traditional invasion route of the Champlain Valley, and the other readied itself under the command of James Wilkinson at Sackets Harbor on Lake Ontario, ready to descend the river. The two were to meet at Montreal and choke all British settlements and garrisons west of the confluence of the St. Lawrence and Ottawa Rivers.

Outnumbered but not Out-fought

Hampton’s army numbered just under 4,000; Wilkinson’s close to 8,000, as they prepared to catch Montreal in a pincer movement.

Fortunately for the British and both Upper and Lower Canada, they were opposed by small but highly trained – and motivated – armies under the commands of brilliant officers, Colonel Charles-Michel d’Irumberry de Salaberry in Lower Canada and Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Wanton Morrison in Upper Canada.

Credit: Wendy Stevenson

© Wendy Stevenson

de Salaberry met and defeated Hampton’s much larger force at the Battle of Chateauguay on October 26, forcing the southern invaders back on their base in the U.S., from which they eventually retired in disarray.

The invasion down the St. Lawrence was to be a much more serious affair.

Morrison commanded a 1200-man-strong ‘corps of observation’ nipping at the heels of Wilkinson’s army as it traveled down the St. Lawrence from Sackets Harbor. Aided by William Howe Mulcaster’s detachment of gunboats, they harried the invaders as their flotilla of batteaux and smaller gunboats made their way to Montreal.

Swatting Away

Wilkinson, who detested Hampton with a fervour that was reciprocated, was unaware of the check that had been dealt to U.S. invasion hopes at Chateauguay until well after the fact and he disembarked his army on the Canadian shore east of the Galop Rapids in readiness to shoot the Rapids du Plat and Long Sault Rapids, between Morrisburg and Cornwall.

Credit: Wendy Stevenson

© Wendy Stevenson

His army fought a brief and confused rearguard action against Morrison at Hoople Creek on November 10 and the following day it turned to swat away the Anglo-Canadian army as its vanguard continued on to occupy Cornwall.

Morrison’s command, consisting of companies of the 49th and 89th Regiments of Foot, three guns and crews of the Royal Artillery, the Canadian Fencibles, Canadien Voltigeurs and 30 Mohawk warriors from Tyendinaga, near Belleville, and Mississauga warriors from the Peterborough area, as well as the Dundas County Militia, took their positions on ground chosen by the commander and waited for the Americans to come on.

Poorly led and poorly trained, suffering from cold and hunger and their numbers depleted by disease, close to 4,000 American troops attacked Morrison’s corps of 1200. The American troops were committed piecemeal to the battle and their officers proved no match for their battle-hardened counterparts. The result was an uneven match-up despite the Americans’ overwhelming numerical superiority and after close to three hours of hard fighting, they withdrew from the field leaving 400 casualties – killed, wounded and captured – and beat a hasty retreat to the U.S. side of the river.

Victory Paid for in Blood

Morrison’s victory was paid for in blood. His ‘corps of observation’ suffered 200 casualties, or about one-sixth of his total force. The greatest percentage of casualties was taken by the Canadian Fencibles, a regiment raised in Quebec and whose ranks were about 50 per cent francophone. They suffered a casualty rate of nearly 33 per cent. Of note is the fact that of the 270 Canadian regulars under Morrions’ command that day two-thirds were French-speaking soldiers from Quebec.

Credit: Wendy Stevenson

© Wendy Stevenson

Stunned by the ferocity of the Anglo-Canadian army and their Mohawk allies, Wilkinson’s broken and dispirited army went into winter quarters at French Mills (present day Fort Covington), ending the threat to Canada.

The Three Founding Peoples

While not of a European scale, the battle fought on the ploughed fields of John Crysler’s Farm was an epic event in Canadian history, ending as it did the American campaign of 1813 with the British firmly in control of both sides of the St. Lawrence and dashing the hopes of those in Washington who had boasted that the conquest of Canada would be a ‘mere matter of marching’.

The Battle of Crysler’s Farm was perhaps as important to posterity for those who fought as it was for its result. (NOTE – The British headquarters was situated at John Crysler’s home, but the battle was actually fought on farmland belonging to the Fetterely, Haines, Loucks, Atkinson, Casselmann, Boush, and Jones family farms.)

British regulars stood with Canadians of both English and French heritage and with them were the Mohawk warriors of Tyendinaga and Mississauga warriors as our three founding peoples stood shoulder to shoulder in defence of this new country.

You can learn more about the Battle of Crysler’s Farm by visiting the site and by reading Field of Glory: The Battle of Crysler’s Farm, 1813 by Donald E. Graves. It is published by Robin Brass Studio of Toronto.