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T
he "Alamo" Britain Won: The Battle of Lacolle Mill, 1814

By Robert Henderson

 
13th Regiment of Foot Grenadier.  He carries his
 musket at the "Port Arms"; the position used in a bayonet charge.
(Watercolour Sketch by Robert Henderson)

The following article is a synopsis of the battle.   The author is presently writing a small book on this almost forgotten clash of arms.  Considering the dramatic bravery exhibited on both sides of the battlefield, it is somewhat surprising this event has been lost in the sands of time.  After military setbacks the previous Autumn and a winter of extreme privation, the American soldier had emerged from the ashes as a professional warrior.  Lacolle is an important link in this painful evolution.  Wilkinson's plan was the flaw, not the U.S. soldier.        

   After his defeat at Cryslerís Farm by a vastly inferior in number enemy and a poorly handled retreat from French Mills on the St. Lawrence river in February, Major General James Wilkinson in March 1814 was again planning an invasion of Canada. The dishonoured general hoped that a quick victory against a small British force, would help him avoid condemnation by his superiors in Washington for his previous campaign.

     Leaving Plattsburg, NY and moving up along Lake Champlain, Wilkinsonís army of four thousand men crossed the Canadian frontier on March 30th and to attack a small outpost at Lacolle Mills. After taking the wrong road, the US riflemen leading the advance fell in with the  Canadian Voltiguers supported by the Grenadier company of the Canadian Regiment.  Realizing their mistake the US army countermarched and put itself upon the correct road to Lacolle.  It was during these initial encounters that the Congreve rocket was first used on a North American land battle.

     With the main road blocked by abattis, a running fire fight ensued with the Canadian Frontier Light Infantry and Mohawk warriors through the woods along a sleigh path that emerged at the US army's target.   Housed in a stone mill and a wooden blockhouse were a company of 13th Regiment of Foot numbering 70 to 80 men and a detachment of Royal Marines. These troops were reinforced by the 13th Regimentís Grenadier and Light companies from Isle aux Noix, a distance of seven miles.  Meanwhile Wilkinsonís force quickly established a battery of a 12 pounder iron gun and, for a brief period of time,  a 5 Ĺ inch howitzer, in hopes of dislodging the members of the 13th barricaded in the stone mill.  A rapid thaw of that day had made roads horrible resulting in damage to the 18 pounder cannon which kept it out of the action.


13th Regiment Battalion Company Officer and Private (should also have Grey Trousers) LAC

    Assessing the battery to be the chief threat to his position at Lacolle Mills, the British commander Major Handcock ordered the 13th flank companies to attack the guns. After a spirited charge lead by the Grenaders, Handcock withdrew with a number of casualties. The small garrison maintained a brisk fire upon the US Light Artillery and Infantry positions resulting in considerable casualties amongst the cannon crew.  At one point both the officer commanding the US Artillery and his successor fell wounded. Hearing the noise of Wilkinsonís investment of Lacolle, the Canadian Voltiguers and Canadian Grenadiers on the other road, two miles distant, moved to reinforce Handcock. With the spring thaw, these were forced to wade at time up to their waists in icy water as they made their way to the action. Making their way through a hole in the US lines, Captain Cartwright of the Canadian Fencibles, in charge of the small Canadian force, ordered an immediate attack on the guns. The heavy US infantry support of the battery checked this new attempt and regained the artillery that momentarily fell into enemy hands.


Canadian Voltigeurs on the march to reinforce Lacolle Mills
(painting by G.A. Embleton, copyright Parks Canada)

 

     The battery in the end proved ineffective in breaching the walls of the mill. After hours of little success and with Lacolle reinforced to over 500 men and supported by Royal Navy gunboats, Wilkinson decide to withdrew.  When the US Army left the battlefield, the expectation was they would return the following day to complete their work.   Mother Nature however intervened with torrential rain that night and the following day, effectively ending the enterprise.

     The losses to the Americans were 13 killed, 128 wounded and 13 missing. The British casualties were lighter with 11 killed, 46 wounded, and 4 missing; the majority of which coming from the 13th Grenadier and Light Company attack on the guns.

British Report on the Engagement

       The following is a letter written by the lieutenant colonel of the 13th Regiment to Major General Vincent, in command of the region south of Montreal providing further details of the battle including the active participation of the Royal Navy and Marines in the engagement:

ďLa Cole, March 31st, 1814

Sir,

I beg leave to acquiant you that I have just received from Major Handcock of the 13th Regiment Commanding at the Block house on La Cole rvier, a report stating that the out Post on the roads from Burtonville, and La Cole Mill leading to oDell Town were attacked at an early hour yesterday morning by the Enemy in great force collected from Platsburg, and Burlington under the Command of Major General Wilkinson. The attack on the Burtonville road was soon over, when the Enemy shewed themselves on the road from the Mill that leads direct to oDellTown where they drove in a picket stationed in advance of La Cole about a mile & half distantand soon after the Enemy established a Battery of three Guns (12 pounders) in the Wood.--with this Artillery they began to fire on the Mill.--when Major Handcock hearing of the arrival of the Flank Comapnies of the 13th Regiment at the Block house he ordered an attack on the Guns which however was not successful from the wood being so thick and so filed with men; soon after another opportunity presented itself when the Canadian Grenadier Company and a Company of the Voltigeurs attempted the Guns but the very great superiority of the Enemyís numbers hid in the woods prevented their taking them-- I have to regret the loss of many brave & good Soldiers in these two attacks, and am particularly sorry to lose the services for a short time of Captain Ellard of the 13th Regiment from being wounded, while gallantly leading his Company.

The Enemy withdrew their Artillery towards night fall, and retired towards morning from the Mill taking th road to Odell Town.

Major Handcock speaks in high terms of obligation to Captain Ritter of the Frontier Light Infantry who from his knowledge of the country was of great benefit. The Marine detachment under Lieuts. Caldwell & Barton, The Canadian Grenadier Company, and the Company of Voltiguers, as well as all the troops employed the Major expresses himself in high terms of praise for their conduct so honorable to the Service--

Major Handcock feels exceedingly indebted to Captain Pring Royal Navy for his ready & prompt assistance in moving up the Sloop and Gun boats from Isle aux Noix to the entrance of the La Cole river, the fire from which was so distructive. Lieut. Creswick & Lieut. Hicks of the R.N. were most zealous in forwarding the Stores, and landing two Guns from the Boats and getting them up to the Mill.

To Major Handcock the greatest praise is due for his most gallant defence of the Mill against such superior numbers, and I earnestly trust it will meet the approbation of His Excellency, The Comr. of the Forces. I have the honor to transmit a list of the Killed & wounded of the British that of the Enemy from all accounts I can collect from the Inhabitants must have been far greater.

I have the honor to be Sir

Your most obedient Humble Servant,

William Williams
Lieut. Col. 13th Regt
Comg. At Saint Johns"

[Library and Archives of Canada, Record Group 8, Series I, vol. 682, p.289]

 

 

Copyright The Discriminating General 1998


 


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