We have talked about the strange career of General James Wilkinson. He has been mixed up with a Spanish conspiracy to control the “west” after the revolution (Please see this post: http://www.historynaked.com/the-spanish-conspiracy/ ), as well as his involvement the machinations of Aaron Burr after his duel with Alexander Hamilton (Please see this post: http://www.historynaked.com/aaron-burr-part-ii-king-america/). He has even been implicated in the death of Meriweather Lewis (Please see this post: http://www.historynaked.com/murder-mystery-frontier-death-meriwether-lewis/ ) The final chapter of this enigmatic figure, features prominently in the saga of the failed American invasion of Canada during the War of 1812.
No one is really sure how after all his escapades, Wilkinson kept the confidence of those in Washington, including Presidents Jefferson and Madison. He must have been one hell of a talker or we were just that desperate, because he did. Wilkinson was put in charge of the northern frontier after General Dearborn was relieved of his command. No one was very thrilled with this replacement. One quote was, “Age and fatuity was being replaced by age and imbecility”.
America had tried to invade in the first part of the war, but were held off by the military genius of General Isaac Brock and native leader Tecumseh. However, Brock was killed was killed at the Battle of Queenston Heights and Tecumseh was killed at the Battle of the Thames. General Henry Proctor, who replaced Brock, was not as able a commander. After the death of Tecumseh, sixty-two native chiefs signed a treaty with the victor of the Battle of the Thames, William Henry Harrison, taking them out of the fray. This was a prime opportunity of to achieve where they had failed before- taking the fertile land of Canada.
President James Madison sent one army of 7,000 down the St. Lawrence River under Major General James Wilkinson to Montreal and an army of 5,000 across Lake Champlain and up the valley to meet with him at Montreal. This force was under Major General Wade Hampton of South Carolina. The two men hated each other with a passion, and actively worked to undermine each other. They never worked together. Hampton met a Canadian force at Chateauguay and were decidedly beaten. They packed up and went home leaving Wilkinson out to dry. Wilkinson for his part was advancing down the St. Lawrence in the slowest pace possible. The joke was a log would get to Montreal faster than Wilkinson’s fleet. To make things worse, Wilkinson began dosing himself with laudanum, a mixture of opium and brandy, to treat his dysentery. The good General had built up quite an addiction to the stuff, so to treat his illness he upped his dose. Because of this, he began issuing contradictory orders to his staff and would break into song and tell humorous stories. It did not help that Wilkinson had never commanded any troops during a battle and expected the very worst. “In case of misfortune, the army must surrender,” he declared. So we have a high, treasonous coward in charge of our forces. What could go wrong? Just about everything.
On November 11, 1813, the two forces met at Chrysler’s Farm. Wilkinson did not even bother to show up to lead his troops. Because of the rain that day, the field of battle was a mud pit and the Americans had to attack through it. After volley after volley of withering fire, the Americans were driven back. Wilkinson didn’t have the heart or the stomach to continue despite the fact he outnumbered the British. The army was not destroyed, Wilkinson was just a coward. He slunk back down the river to safety.
Hampton simply resigned his commission in disgrace. Wilkinson was relieved of duty and faced a court martial, but somehow was able to get off again. He retired to Mexico and died of a drug overdose in 1821.
This battle was quickly forgotten in America, however, in Canada it solidified the national identity of the country.