Many have previously recounted what took place at Drummond Hill on the night of July 25 – 26, 1814. Our narrative attempts not to reinvent the wheel, but to present a selection of excerpts that illustrate to what those who were here that fateful night bore witness.
For serious readers, Canadian Military Historian Donald Graves’ book Where Right and Glory Leads! The Battle of Lundy’s Lane, 1814 (Toronto: Robin Brass Studio ISBN 1-896941-03-6) is unexcelled.
Graves offers a very well researched and historically accurate account of the battle, fleshed out with details permitting his readers a more thorough understanding of what took place.
Of the British gunners atop the hill in Phase I of the battle, Graves writes (p. 128):
Maclachan [their officer] maintained a steady rate of fire… a slow, steady rate was preferred because it conserved ammunition, prevented loading accidents and allowed the thick, choking cloud of smoke created by each discharge to disperse before the gun was fired again. To reduce the amount of smoke, the guns were fired in turn, one after another, rather than in unison. Firing by rotation also meant that the target could be kept constantly under fire and there would always be a loaded piece to take advantage of opportunities.
And of those upon whom that fire rained unceasingly in Phase I of the battle (pp. 129-130):
The British artillery fire was relentless … Scott’s three regiments kept up their ineffective fire of musketry but he range was far too great … Although Maclachlan was probably firing at a conservative rate, several of the Americans likened it to a “hailstorm” of shot and shell. The casualties were constant …
But they did not waver. As roundshot came bouncing across the field and them scythed through them, or shells exploded overhead, the men of the First Brigade, formed in two ranks standing close enough that each man could touch his neighbours’ elbows, returned the fire …
The men loaded and fired on order as the casualties were dragged out of the ranks and the survivors were shifted in toward the colours … Choked by the bitter taste from the cartridges they tore open with their teeth, blinded by the dense clouds of smoke from each volley, deafened by the successive discharges an their uniforms scorched or even set on fire by the muzzle blasts of the weapons around them, the men of Scott’s brigade fired, loaded, closed in toward the centre and held their ground.
The effect of the British artillery was devastating: Graves recounts (p. 135) of the US force that, at the end of Phase I of the battle:
… Of the three regiments that had marched onto the field nearly an hour before, nothing but remnants remained and only darkness saved them from total destruction.
As the darkness enveloped the field, here was a brief lull in the fighting. The roar of the artillery, volleys of musketry, percussions, echoes and re-echoes reverberating all around subsided. Graves tell us (p. 147):
As the firing ceased, men began gradually to make out the low roar of the falls.
In that lull, both sides assumed the other was retreating. Neither did. The British remained, with their devastating artillery, on the hilltop. US reinforcements arrived from Chippawa.
The American commander had a choice to make: Retreat or attack.
He chose the latter.
What took place in the pivotal minutes which followed was recounted by Col. James Miller, who led the advance of the US 21st Infantry, in a letter to his wife:
Fort Erie, July 28th, 1814.
On the evening of the 25th instant, at the Falls of the Niagara, we met the enemy and had I believe, one of the most desperately fought actions ever experienced in America. It continued for more than three hours stubbornly contested on both sides, when about ten o’clock at night we succeeded in driving them from their strong position. Our loss was severe in killed and wounded. I have lost from our Regiment in killed, wounded and missing, one hundred and twenty six. The enemy had got heir artillery posted on a height in a very commanding position, where they could rake our columns in any part of the plain, and prevented their advancing. Maj. McRae, the chief engineer, told Gen. Brown he could do no good until that height was carried and those cannon taken or driven from their position. It was then evening, but moonlight. Gen. Brown turned to me and said: “Col. Miller, take your regiment and storm that work and take it.” I had short of three hundred men with me, as my regiment had been much weakened, by the numerous details made from it during the day. I, however, immediately obeyed the order. We could see all their slow matches and port fires burning and ready. I did not know what side of the work was the most favorable of approach, but happened to hit upon a very favorable place notwithstanding. We advanced upon the mouths of their pieces of cannon. It happened there was an old rail fence on the side where we approached undiscovered by the enemy, with a small growth of shrubbery by the fence and within less than two rods of the cannon’s mouth. I then very cautiously ordered my men to rest across the fence, take good aim, fire, and rush, which was done in good style. Not one man at the cannons was left to put fire to them. We got into the center of their park before they had time to oppose us. A British line was formed and lying in a strong position to protect their artillery. The moment we got to the center they opened a most destructive fire on us, killed a great many and attempted to charge with their bayonets. We returned the fire so warmly that they were compelled to stand. We fought hand to hand for some time, so close that the blaze of our guns crossed each other, but we compelled them to abandon their whole artillery, ammunition, wagons, and all …
Dr. Ron Williamson of Archaeological Services Inc. summarized what followed in a June 1998 report (Archaeological Resource Assessment Component of the Lundy’s Lane Management Plan, p. 8):
For the American soldiers the rest of that night was a murderous nightmare. Soon after they reached the hilltop the British launched a determined counterattack. The U.S. soldiers heard them coming, but they couldn’t see them, and could only aim at the musket flashes that pierced the gloom on the slope below. Then the British charged, and there was confused and desperate hand-to-hand combat. Men stood toe to toe, slashing at one another with 18 inch bayonets and smashing skulls with gun butts. In the darkness it was hard to tell a shadow from an enemy soldier and an enemy soldier from a friend. Three times the British charged, but the Americans held the hill. The General Brown, aware that his men were exhausted and running short of ammunition and water, decided to withdraw, taking the captured guns with him. The operation was timed so poorly that before the guns could be dragged away the British recaptured the top of the ridge. The Americans had thrown away both the high ground and the heavy artillery that they had won at such heavy costs.
Graves’ Where Right and Glory Leads! The Battle of Lundy’s Lane, 1814 citing The Journal of John Norton, 1816 (Toronto: Champlain Society, 1970) describes (p. 163) the lull, whilst officers prepared for the next, between those counterattacks:
“The night,” remarked Norton, “resumed its natural tranquility” and the low roar of the falls could again be heard. That sound must have been sweet torture to men with throats parched by the bitterness of black powder, exertion and tension. But, other than those fortunate few who still had refreshments in their canteens, there was no relief as the closest water was the Niagara River a mile away and men could not leave the ranks.
Even worse was the plight of the wounded lying in the darkness – groaning with pain, pleading for help and begging for water.
Graves, citing various battle participants, described (pp. 188 – 189) the dawn that followed:
Between 4:00 and 5:00 A.M., the sky began to lighten. As the field became revealed, the “scene of the morning was not more pleasant than the night’s horrors.” Hundreds of men lay sprawled where they had fallen. In places the lines had been so close that Le Couteur noted our “Men’s heads and those of the Americans were within a few yards of each other.” Another witness remarked “… Red coats, blue & grey were promiscuously intermingled, in many placed three deep & around the Hill … the carcasses of 60 or 70 horses disfigured the ground.” … “mutilated human bodies scattered over the battleground, mean and horses nearly cut in two by our rockets …”
While “the British and Canadian corpses were placed in trenches hastily dug in the sandy soil of the hill … the greater part of the American dead were burned.”
A century ago, Ernest Green, in Some Graves on Lundy’s Lane (Niagara Historical Society publication No. 22, 1911) reflected on the same scene:
One Night’s Work.
What a scene must that have been when the hot, dry morning of July 26th, 1814, broke, and the sun’s red glare revealed in detail the effect of the night’s dreadful work ! The soft turf torn and ploughed by shot and shell, wheel and hoof ; the fair young orchards broken and wasted by the iron hail that had lashed them for hours ; those great oaks which still line the Lane, west of the Church, scarred and stripped, fences leveled, buildings pierced and shattered,– and figures of those who had fought their last fight. Dead men, dead horses, broken wagons, arms and accoutrements littered all the slopes of the hill and from among this wreckage of war gaunt specters of men, caked with blood and dust, grimed with smoke and clad in rags, staggered, groaning, toward the still greater horrors of the field hospital …
In 1997, Donald Graves received an email inquiring about “the nasty question of who won.” He responded (09 August 1997):
… If the world had ended at midnight, 25 July 1814, LL would have been an American tactical victory. By withdrawing from the field, however, and allowing the British to repossess themselves of their artillery, Brown gave up the fruits of that victory.
At the operational level (effect on outcome of campaign) it is even more hazy. Brown wanted an open field fight with the British, he got it and ended up withdrawing to his crossing place into Canada, thus, a British success. On the other hand, by allowing Brown three to four days grace, Drummond permitted the Americans to entrench at FE and although he had got them back to their crossing point, he couldn’t drive then out of Canada.
On the strategical level (outcome of war) the battle had no effect whatsoever …
Citizen-led commemoration has been the hallmarkof this battlefield for the past 200 years.
Early visitors took tours led by veterans of the battle. During the heyday of Lundy’s Lane battlefield tourism (1815-1860) several taverns in the area catered to this trade. The Friends of the Lundy’s Lane Battlefield restored one of these taverns (Fralick’s) in 2000-2001 through our Canada Millennium Partnership Project. It now operates as the Battle Ground Hotel Museum.
In the 1860s the US Civil War intervened. In its aftermath, US visitation to Lundy’s Lane all but ended: Americans had fresher battle sites to tour, sites to which they were now more closely, often tragically, connected.
By 1887, the small graveyard where the British guns had been placed was becoming overgrown with vines. The first task of the Lundy’s Lane Historical Society, formed that year, was to cut back the undergrowth and tidy the graves.
Next the Society began lobbying and raising funds to erect a memorial to the battle; publishing historical writings on the battle and the War of 1812; and collecting artifacts. The latter are now on display in the Niagara Falls History Museum, founded by the Society.
The Lundy’s Lane Historical Society organized the centennial and sesquicentennial observances in 1914 and 1964, and continues to hold an annual memorial service on the Sunday closest to the battle anniversary.
Development in the area was already underway by the time the Society formed in 1887. It continued apace to the present day. The site was not given the full reverence that was its due.
The Village of Niagara Falls grew on and around the battlefield. Its 1904 amalgamation with the adjacent Town of Niagara Falls formed the present City. The Lundy’s Lane battlefield lies today in the heart of that now greatly expanded City.
In the late 1960s, local high school teacher Ruth Redmond (1902-1999) was appalled at the cutting of the ancient trees lining the Lane to expand the roadway, and the establishment of motels on its slope. She began buying up properties on the battlefield to protect them from redevelopment.
Miss Redmond gave her lands to the City of Niagara Falls in 1996, having successfully protected much of the Phase III British-Canadian position on the north side of the Lane. She did this because she believed passionately in this battlefield’s importance to Canada.
It was her tribute to “the boys.” Her donation included the 1830s Fralick’s Tavern.
In 1995 another local citizen, Janice Wing, stepped forth in fierce opposition to a proposal to rezone for townhouses a large open space along the southern border of the Drummond Hill Cemetery. She led a successful petition campaign against the project: City Council turned down the proposal, which was promptly appealed.
Along with two others, Wing founded The Friends of the Lundy’s Battlefield in late summer of that year. Eventually the City acquired the Drummond Hill Cemetery from the Niagara Parks Commission and used the perpetual maintenance funds provided to purchase the adjacent lands.
The Friends transformed, in gratitude, into a service organization. A program of battlefield clean ups, edging back turf growing across flat graves in the cemetery, and fundraising began. The Friends provided benches for battlefield visitors, decorative fencing, and restored Fralick’s Tavern.
Burnt out upon completion of the Canada Millennium Partnership Project, the Friends fell into dormancy. Quickly revived after a decade, the Friends are now tackling a new, tremendously important project: The restoration of the US position on the central battlefield and creation of a commemorative park thereon.
Interested in learning about the Black, Aboriginal and Women’s History associated with the Lundy’s Lane battlefield? Or more about the central battlefield environs? Be sure to visit our page “The Current Project” for more history …