Dispatches From the War of 1812 - Table of Contents

Dispatches from the War of 1812
"Guerrillas in a Thrilla:  The Battle of Chippawa, Part 2"

By Mason Winfield
Aug 15, 2014

Reprinted from Buffalo Rising, with permission.

Chippawa, ONT July 5, 1814

I would as soon be besieged by hobgoblins as by the Iroquois. - Father Vimont, S. J.

It’ll be a killa and a thrilla and a chilla when I get the gorilla in Manila! - Muhammad Ali

Battle map of Chippawa, 1869, by Benson J. Lossing


It was mid-afternoon on July 5, 1814. On the Canadian side of the Niagara a bit north of today’s Peace Bridge, two armies were drawn up at opposite ends of a cleared area a couple football-fields in size. To their west was dense, old-growth forest. They were sandwiched between two substantial creeks, the Chippawa and Street’s Creek, both feeders into the mighty Niagara to their east.

In just a little while what’s remembered as the Battle of Chippawa would be underway as a Napoleonic-era style army clash between 3300 redcoats and bluecoats. Give a bit of an edge in number to the boys in scarlet, the veteran professional soldiers commanded by Major General Phineas Riall. Riall was an Irish-born Englishman who had given Western New Yorkers many scores to settle. The bluecoats - shorthand for “American Army regular soldiers” - were actually wearing grey for the day due to a uniform mixup. The situation benefited the Americans, as Riall would mistake them for the typically-chicken militia soldiers (who wore the grey uniforms) and overplay his hand upon that presumption. It would cost him the day, but all that would be hours in the future.

Like the “play within the play” we see in Shakespeare’s Hamlet and “Midsummer Night,” the Chippewa clash had its own noteworthy sidelight so often bypassed in the history texts. It took place in those woods to the north and west of the main theater along the Niagara River. Few but its participants could have seen what went on, and not many survivors also chanced to become writers; but this battle-inside-a-battle is one of the most evocative events of the whole war.

This was a deadly bungle in the jungle, a deep-woods type of fighting that European-style armies of the day with their ungainly long rifles, clattering cavalry and cumbersome cannon would have avoided like the plague. It was a guerrilla action (meaning “little war,” from the French word guerre), fought largely by non-uniformed combatants, in this case Native Americans, paramilitaries and local frontiersmen. It could quite well have been the pivot-point of the pivotal battle to come. It also turned out to be a sort of surprise civil war within the Iroquois Confederacy/Hodenosaunee League of Six Nations that rocked the Iroquois soul.

The role of the Native Americans in the pre-20th century wars is a complex one. The European takeover of North America is often stereotyped as a vast culture-clash of white versus red, but in every war I can think of, there were Native Americans on both sides. Native nations had their rivalries and grievances with each other. They didn’t all like their neighbors, and when a new power came in (like the whites), someone could always be found willing to help the foe of a foe. Even the oft-detested Conquistador (conqueror) of Mexico, Cortez, would have been lost without his translators, guides, scouts, spies, and vast contingents of Native allies. (The Aztec Empire - the top dog in the Valley of Mexico - had made few friends.)

One of the great miracles of pre-Contact North America, in fact, was the Iroquois Confederacy, the League of Five (then Six) Nations in upstate New York. The Seneca, Cayuga, Onondaga, Oneida, Mohawk and late-coming cousins the Tuscarora preserved their national identities but held together against outside forces. This unique political alliance held for centuries even after the arrival of the whites. It was probably the model for our United States.

Native American allegiances could also shift by the generation. For instance the Iroquoian Seneca fought against the French in the 1600s, against the British during Pontiac’s Rebellion and for the British during the Revolution. By the 1812 war they were firmly on the side of their New York brothers and sisters. The Iroquoian Mohawk had such devout loyalty to the Empire that after the Revolution, most of them went to Canada with other Loyalist parties.

By the time of the 1812 war, many white Americans had been raised on farms and in cities far from the frontier and had little understanding of Native Americans. The image of Native Americans, especially the Iroquois, as kill-crazy barbarians had come to permeate white society to an extent that would seem ludicrous today. Because of it, the U.S. military didn’t want to use Native Americans in the 1812 war. They wanted to win against the British and Canadians without the chance of letting their own Native allies loose on civilian populations or defeated and disarmed armies. As much as the British laughed at this quirk in the Americans, they also exploited it, implying that if an opponent were defeated after a grueling fight, there was no certainty they could keep their own by-then blood-mad Native allies from perpetrating a massacre. Better to surrender too soon than too late.

Partly due to the effectiveness of Native allies as scouts and skirmishers and partly due their value as intimidators, the Americans lost battle after battle in the 1812 war to British-Canadian forces aided by them. By 1814, the American high command began to feel that they would not win the war on the Niagara without Native allies, at least as a counterbalance to those of the enemy. The Seneca, Tuscarora, and Cayuga of Western New York had already assisted the U.S. in defensive clashes on the Niagara Frontier, and a few had crossed over in the summer of 1813 to aid the Americans in the forest-fighting outside Fort George. Until the Burning of Buffalo in December 1813, the Seneca had not really been riled up. The Battle of Chippawa was the first time they crossed the river in force and went on the offense. It was also a bit of a shock, because it would end up pitting them directly against their brother-nation, the Mohawk.


The morning of July 5 should have been exultant for the Americans on the west side of the burly river. The day before, American General Winfield Scott and his troops had gained a foothold on Canadian soil–on Independence Day! - without losing a man. A heavy portion of the U.S. force had moved north out of Fort Erie toward the British bases along the Niagara. Toward the end of the day on the Fourth they had met a robust British force dug in on the other side of the Chippawa Creek. The Americans decided to camp out for the night and figure out what to do the next morning. All well and good. But General Winfield woke up grumpy. He had had a rotten night’s sleep.

In fact, no American in Scott’s camp had slept well on the night of July 4-5. A pro-British guerrilla force had badgered the American perimeter. Sentries had disappeared, “pickets” (patrols) had come under fire, black-powder balls whistled through soldiers’ tents and a gleeful mess of yipping and howling in the woods to the north and west of their camp had kept them up all night. It sounded like a host of clowns and banshees had been put in charge of the Fourth of July fireworks. The culprits were a mixed bag.

John Norton

They were mostly Native Americans, Mohawk and Great Lakes nations warriors under the command of Mohawk Scotsman John Norton (1765?-1830?). This Norton was an especially colorful character with a mysterious origin and an obscure end. He was a big player on the Niagara all through this war, but it is doubtful that Norton had any Mohawk in him. What Native blood he had was probably Cherokee courtesy of his dad, a Native boy adopted by the redcoats from the American southeast and brought up in Scotland. Norton’s connection to “the Flint People” (the Mohawk) seems to have derived from a guy-crush he developed on the legendary war-chief Joseph Brant (1743-1807). Everyone found Brant an inspiring figure, and the Iroquois were adopting nations, so neither end of Norton’s conversion was unique. And maybe some of Brant wore off on him, because Norton was charismatic. His portraits (see inset) make him look like a cross between Monty Python’s Terry Jones and Lord Byron in his corsair-outfit, and Norton would go on to an odd post-war career. The leader of the Christian Mohawk (the variously-spelled Kanawaga), Norton would become a trader, traveler and author and eventually translate the Bible into Mohawk. As for the fighters he sent in the wee hours of July 5, there were probably only a few dozen of them at a time, and they probably operated in shifts.

An uneasy sleep wasn’t all General Winfield Scott had to complain about. Early on the morning of July 5, Scott had been getting himself outside of a farmer’s breakfast in a house not far from the American position when he looked up to notice a group of the aforementioned party coming into the cleared area around his makeshift diner. Scott had just time to hop onto his horse and scoot booty out of there. These irregulars probably recognized the outfit of a high-ranking American of exceptional size (6’5”), but quite likely never knew the name of the big fish that got away. They would be hearing from him later.

All the rest of the morning and early afternoon of July 5 the Americans were pestered from the west and north by these ragtag combatants. Soldiers were dropping due to shots from the dense old-growth wood. The occasional team-howling of these invisible, uncountable opponents was keeping everyone on edge. As Union Civil War veterans said of another famous battle cry, “the Rebel Yell,” if you say you’ve heard the Mohawk war whoop and didn’t feel a tremble, you haven’t heard it.

By three in the afternoon, John Norton had positioned three companies of his combatants in different parts of the woods. Though the Americans didn’t know it, his force had grown to 200 to 300 men, and it was planning to strike a first blow, a sudden onslaught out of the woods that could have crashed the left flank of the American force at just the right moment.

Surely the bulk of Norton’s Native Americans were Mohawk. General Riall probably threw in some of James Fitzgibbon’s white paramilitary squad alternately nicknamed, “the Green Tigers” and “the Bloody Boys.” All good forest-fighters, these rambo-Robin Hoods were picked soldiers from Isaac Brock’s legendary 49th Regiment. They never liked to be far from the action.

Surely Norton’s force included Canadian locals who knew the terrain and were used to hunting on the land. It could quite well have included fighters of African-American ancestry who had fled the young United States and felt little gratitude to it. (The British Empire was not known universally for its tenderness, but as of 1812 it lacked the sin of slavery.) Whatever its composition, the Empire’s force in the woods never suspected that it itself was stalked.

American generals Jacob Brown and Winfield Scott had had enough of these wing-nuts and called over the leaders of their own guerrilla squad. Militia commander Peter Porter – yes, he of the avenue and so much else in Buffalo – and the likewise oft-commemorated Seneca chief Red Jacket were told that it was time to earn their keep. Around 300 Native American Seneca and Cayuga warriors and about 250 white Americans, both militia and regulars, commenced one of the most interesting actions of the 1812 war just as the two main bodies of the armies, British and American, were drawing into formation for their own clash. Nothing in any big-budget action film has anything to surpass what was to come, this war-within-the-war outside Fort Erie.

All Native Americans were renowned for knowing their environments. Only a few white frontiersmen could rival them. The Iroquois of upstate New York stood out too as warriors, and the classic technique of the Iroquois ambush was both famous and dreaded throughout the Northeast. It’s remarkable to get a look at this tactic from the inside. The only account I know of it comes from Peter Porter’s memoirs of this clash outside Chippawa.

Red Jacket Monument @ Forest Lawn

The famous orator Red Jacket (1770-1830) led one wing of the mostly-Seneca attack force, and this is a bit apart from the reputation Red Jacket has left to the surface of history. Witch, wit, wino, word-genius… At least when it came to fighting with anything but lingo the great Sagoyewata (“He Keeps Them Awake”) is often portrayed as a bit of a coward. This seems unjustified, and like the accusations of witchcraft, was probably perpetuated by his political opponents like Mohawk Joseph Brant and Seneca chief Cornplanter (1750?-1836). Apparently the subject of contention was land sales to whites and other aspects of acculturation. Those two were fairly progressive on the matter; Red Jacket was a staunch traditionalist. Anyone who would say “boo” to those two battle-axes was far from a wimp, and Red Jacket’s role in this forest-fight seems to belie any such charge. Even on the surface, the theory that Red Jacket was a coward seems absurd. He was Seneca.

The attack Red Jacket co-captained unfolded like this.

The near-600 Americans moved stealthily into the woods, almost certainly by creeping off to the south, crossing Street’s Creek as if heading back to Fort Erie, then entering the natural cover of the massive forest well out of sight of their opponents. From there they headed west and then north, then crossed the creek again. With them were some militia and volunteers under Brigadier General and militia commander Peter Buell Porter (1773-1844). Porter’s reputation had taken a few hits in recent seasons, but he came out of this war a hero, and went on to be a vastly powerful lawyer and politician. A few American regular soldiers may have rounded out the strike force.

Surely many of these men had black-powder pistols, and a few of the whites coming up the rear may have had long guns like the vaunted “Brown Bess” that was standard on both sides of the American Revolution. But those flintlocks would have been good for one shot apiece and nothing but dead weight once the scrum was on. Everyone had a favored close-quarters weapon. Knives, tomahawks, cutlasses and clubs would have been common, as well as even the iconic “gunstock club,” basically a hockey stick with a spike like the one Chingachkook used to fix Magua’s hash at the end of the 1992 film Last of the Mohicans. Why anyone would bring a knife to a swordfight – or one with tomahawks! – is a question still in my mind. But my friends with both military and martial-arts backgrounds assure me that in an environment like these woods, a long swing arc is not always an edge. If the fighting gets inside, the shorter weapon wins.

Once the leaders of the American force were sure they had come undetected to the outskirts of their enemies’ position, they spread out until fairly certain they had enclosed it. Then they started drawing in, moving forward in three arcs, each a single man deep.

The first and by far the smallest of these human formations moved a few yards – 20 paces, they say – in advance of the rest. These were a score or so of Seneca leaders, including Red Jacket on one of the flanks. They walked upright but low, and with remarkable stealth.

Most of the Native Americans were in the second line, likewise a man deep, but in a far bigger arc. They may have started their march up to 50 feet apart and, like the digits on a shrinking clockface, drew closer together as their formation zeroed in. Every member of it watched the leaders in the first line fixedly. When the leaders stood and crept forward, the rest followed. When one raised a hand and dropped under cover, so did everyone else.

It’s said that the whites–volunteers like Peter Porter and a small crew of professional Army men–came farther back in the third ring. The pro-American Iroquois had all been fitted with white hankie-hats so that once things got heated, the whites among them would know which Native Americans not to hit or shoot. In melee combat like this, friend was going to be hard to tell from foe.

This unique formation steadily tightened and came within closing range of its quarry, still undetected. Once certain they had their foes penned, every American with a gun would have picked a target, then fired all at once. The clicking of the flints, the almost instantaneous crack of the firing, and the drop of a score of them would have been the Empire’s fighters’ first warning that they were under attack. Some of the defenders would have fired back, probably aimlessly. Those caught with unloaded guns would have flashed reflexively to the edged or impact-weapon, the persuader each of them would have carried. Then the surge came. From here it was all close-quarters.

Knife met tomahawk, and club clashed with blade. Men dueling from the front were cut down from behind. Blows came from around trees, and the strikers melted back into invisibility behind them. Men struggling with foes looked into each others’ faces, fully caught in the most vivid emotions of a lifetime, then as blade entered or blow fell, watched the eyes through the moment that life and focus had fully left.

Some of the Mohawk, Canadians and British charged their attackers and fought till they were felled. Others stood and slashed where they were until they were cut down. The mass of the rest broke through the American line and sped at a breakneck run through the forest back toward the British base. They were pursued. They fought as they ran, when they were caught, or when they were headed off. Shocked, surprised, half-fighting, half retreating, how the flight must have been dizzying to them! The trees surely seemed to sprout daggers and hook and bat them with branches. They say that none on the British side surrendered, presuming that they would be killed anyway. It must have looked as though even the woods had come alive and turned on them. In the mad dash of fight and flight, the incapacitated of both sides were left where they dropped.
This was one of the costliest, grisliest actions of the whole war.

Peter Porter reported pursuing with the rest, though failing to be in the forefront. I would consider this less a judgment of martial zeal than one of fat-to-muscle ratio. Porter was a good swordsman, but the high life had left him some girth around the girdle. Porter closed, heard firing up ahead, then was shocked to see his comrades running past him hell-for-leather the opposite way. None stopped to explain themselves, and Porter chose the better part of valor and ran with them. When he got back to his own lines he found out what had caused the bounce-back.

The speediest of Porter’s Seneca had chased their foes through the wood into an open field and run right into a full British brigade with guns raised, their former quarry lurking behind it in safety. It fired as they broke the treeline. The volley was as well timed to their sudden emergence as if it had been staged. Some of them dropped; and then the redcoats launched an instant bayonet charge. The Seneca made tracks the other way, possibly even chased by some of those they had been chasing.
Porter had reached his own lines with full safety but compromised dignity. He was also disgruntled. He had been assured that there were no British south of the Chippewa Creek and had just run into a full army of them. No matter. The work of these American irregulars had been done.

The woods were clear. The rest of the day’s battle was between the armies, and the quick retreat Porter’s Seneca made could even have been good for the American cause. It kept Major General Phineas Riall believing that a little pressure would crack his American opponents. He would gamble upon it and lose.

After the battle, the New York Iroquois mopped up in the woods. They found the bodies of a dozen of their own and around 90 of their foes, as well as unlisted numbers of incapacitated on both sides. They slit the throats of the enemy wounded and at the end of the day handed Peter Porter a string of British-Canadian scalps, rather hoping for the bounty that some remembered as customary for settlers’ scalps during the Revolution under the British. Outraged, Porter took them to task. The ones facing him were contrite, though possibly tongue-in-cheek. “It was hard to put these men to death,” summarized “Cattaraugus” Hank Johnson, a white who lived with the Seneca and often served as interpreter. “But we hope you will consider that these are very hard times.” Porter was unmoved, and some pro-American Seneca pulled out of the war effort on the spot.

There was more fallout. After the battle, some American Seneca brought a captured chief to the camp of the pro-British Canadian Mohawk, ostensibly hoping to trade him for a certain Seneca the Mohawk held. It was probably a call for parley, and welcomed by both sides. There were no whites around to record exactly what was said, but word has it that the tragedy and terror of Iroquois fighting Iroquois had rattled them all to the core. None were afraid of battle or risk, but the sheer efficiency of the killing had been appalling. A great number of the Iroquois vowed to pull out of this “white man’s war,” and others who felt compelled to stay in decided to avoid battles that might pit them against other Iroquois. With the Iroquois involved on neither side of the war, the whites to whom they felt loyal were at no disadvantage. Let the whites duke it out, anyway. They started it.

It seems that this is what transpired. There were not as many Native Americans involved in famous battles to come at Lundy’s Lane, Scajaquada and Fort Erie. The names of the Empire’s Native Allies that do appear in the annals seem to be mostly members of western Great Lakes nations who believed that if the Empire won, they could still keep their lands from the Empire’s avidly-encroaching enemy. Those who had known the whites on both sides a century longer, the Iroquoian Mohawk and Seneca, knew that that battle was already lost.

The brutal day yet had its poetry. The Seneca cleanup crew had found one grievously wounded Mohawk chief who had doubtless been a friend to a chief of their own, and maybe a clan-brother to some of the men he had just fought. He had hours, if not moments, of breath ahead. They visited with him for awhile and gave him some water. Then they left him among the woods he had loved in his life. One wonders at his thoughts and reflections on the glorious midsummer twilight as his life ebbed. I would suggest that his bones could still rest under the same tree were the area of this skirmish not, as best I can figure it, completely paved, even a strip mall at this moment.

Text  2014 Mason Winfield
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