Posted on Thursday, June 23, 2016 at 11:30 a.m.
Commemorating the battle that saved Canada
November 11, 1813 started like any other day for the close to 900-strong British regulars, Canadian militia and Native American allies who had taken refuge at Crysler’s Farm, an area located between Cornwall and Morrisburg.
Yet, by the end of the snowy wet day, the group had fought off a 4,000-strong force of Americans hell bent on conquest, wanting to solidify their stronghold on the St. Lawrence River. “It’s a battle the Americans sometime forget,” explained the past president of The Friends of the Battle of Crysler, Bob Irvine. “It certainly is a hot debated topic.”
The organisation, whose sole purpose is to promote the importance of the battle and save its heritage, is operated by several hard working and dedicated volunteers. “It’s a matter of keeping it fresh,” said Irvine. “This is a battle that saved Canada. Leading up to it, we didn’t know what we were, but we certainly knew we didn’t want to be American.”
Often compared to the Battle of Chateauguay, which saw the defeat of a group of American soldiers at the hands of an all Canadian contingent, the battle of Crysler’s Farm is regarded as a David versus Goliath type of showdown.
“They outnumbered us by quite a lot,” pointed out Irvine. “But our troops were well trained, whereas their American counterparts were often far from home and eager to get back.”
The decisive land battle in the War of 1812 was fought on a farmer’s field along the shores of the St. Lawrence River. The Battle of Crysler’s Farm was the Americans’ last attempt at capturing Montréal, and it was considered by many to be a disastrous defeat for their army.
Under the command of American General James Wilkinson, a flotilla of well-armed ships had been making their way down the St. Lawrence to combine forces with General Wade Hampton, who was marching toward Montréal from the south. Suffering illness and incapacitated by the heavy use of the medicine laudanum, Wilkinson remained on board his ship and delegated authority over cavalry, artillery and approximately 2,500 infantry to Brigadier-General John Parker Boyd, a senior but thinly respected officer from Massachusetts.
“After not being able to conquer much of the Niagara region, the Americans turned to the St. Lawrence River,” indicated Irvine. “If they controlled the Great Lakes, they could then turn to Western Canada. By controlling the St. Lawrence River, they could access the lakes relatively easily. But during the battle, their commander wasn’t even on the field with them.”
To make matters worse for the American army, Boyd’s troops were constantly harassed by a small force of British regulars, Canadian Voltigeurs and Tyendinaga Mohawks, all under Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Wanton Morrison. Having had enough of these doggedly attacks, Boyd decided to confront the 900-strong force.
The ground which the two forces collided on was owned by John Crysler, a wealthy Loyalist and captain in the Dundas militia. Morrison had tactical advantage during the battle, the Americans forced to trudge through two large ravines to reach the field, which was itself inconveniently decorated with split-rail fences and wedged between a pine forest marsh and the St. Lawrence. On the river, a small flotilla of gunboats backed the British position. Meanwhile, Boyd’s contradictory and inconsistent leadership exacerbated the confusion and lack of discipline among the American infantry.
By the time the American artillery and cavalry arrived, most of the soldiers had begun to retreat, their ammunition spent. While the American artillery did have a devastating effect, they were unable to overcome the well-coordinated efforts of the British artillery and musketry, or their bayonets. Boyd eventually called a retreat.
A battle that still resonates in the area
But how does one commemorate such an impactful event? “We try to organize a large scale re-enactment every two to three years,” stated Irvine. “Our last big one was in 2013, where we celebrated the 200th anniversary of the battle.”
On July 9 and 10 at 1:30 p.m., the big, empty and well-kept fields of the provincially owned land that surrounds the now underwater battleground will resonate once more with the sound of musket fire and cannon shots. “We’re going to have around 200 to 300 re-enactors,” said the past president, as he installed signs announcing the event. “They use real gunpowder. You can smell it in the air during the battle.”
It’s in a small field next to the giant hill housing the Battle of Crysler’s Farm monument that groups of Canadian and American soldiers will once more fight. Yet, there isn’t as much animosity this time around. “We give them two breakfasts, a supper and all the water they want. There’s a lot of friendship built during these sorts of events.”
Prior to the battle, re-enactors camp in the surrounding areas, much like period soldiers. They have small tents and are given firewood. “It’s very neat to see. They really get into their roles before the event. They even sleep in separate camps.”
The re-enactment attracts around 2,000 to 3,000 visitors, much to the delight of The Friends of the Battle of Crysler’s Farm. “We just want to let people know about what happened here and why it’s important.”
But several visitors to the sacred battleground are quite surprised when they learn that the big hill overlooking the St. Lawrence as well as the surrounding lands weren’t used during the battle. “The actual fighting took place in a spot now located under the St. Lawrence,” explained Irvine. “It was flooded during the Seaway project. The monument was actually down there.”
The massive obelisk was moved to its current emplacement and is surrounded by two period British cannons, pointed in the direction of the United States. “A lot of people don’t realize that the land that was used to make the hill came from the battleground,” he said, smiling.
While doing so, workers found musket balls, cannon balls and even remains. The battle’s artifacts were moved to museums, whereas the bones of the fallen fighters were placed under the monument, a fitting final rest for the deserving soldiers.