Sharpshooting in the the War of 1812

by Fred Ray on July 18, 2011 · 0 comments

Since we’ve had some comments on the War of 1812 I thought I’d take the opportunity to post an excerpt from my sharpshooter book on the US Rifle Regiment—one of the few first-class US units. Virtually the only book on this important and nearly forgotten unit is John Fredricksen’s Green Coats and Glory: The United States Regiment of Riflemen, 1808-1821 (Old Fort Niagara Association, 2000). It is available from the Old Fort Niagara Association store and is well worth reading.

The US army abolished its rifle units after the war in 1783, but the idea lived on. They were re-raised briefly as part of General Anthony Wayne’s “Legion” in 1794, and participated in the battle of Fallen Timbers, but disbanded again in 1796. During the “Quasi-War” with France in 1798 Congress again authorized a “battalion of riflemen,” at George Washington’s behest, but it was never actually raised. Nevertheless, in 1803 Secretary of War Henry Dearborn ordered the Harper’s Ferry Arsenal to design a new infantry “short rifle” based on European jäger designs. The result was an elegant nine pound, .54 caliber rifle (that being the then-standard army bore). It was superior in range and accuracy to the British Baker, as well as being somewhat lighter, and unlike the Kentucky rifle it was field-rugged, although there was no provision for a bayonet. With tensions now running high with Britain, the Army formed the Regiment of Riflemen in 1808 and equipped them with these new rifles. This unit, in an ironic reversal, looked a great deal like the 5/60th and the 95th Rifles, right down to their distinctive green uniforms and reliance on British manuals and tactical doctrine.

The Rifle Regiment got its baptism of fire in William Henry Harrison’s 1811 Indian campaign, fighting (with smoothbore muskets) in the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811, then participated in the comic-opera intervention in Spanish East Florida the following year. When the War of 1812 broke out, however, the Rifle Regiment went to Canada, where it found many opportunities to ply its trade. One of the regiment’s most effective commanders, as well as its most colorful character, was a North Carolinian named Benjamin Forsyth. A modern historian, John Fredriksen, described him as “a consummate light-infantry officer whose reckless hauteur became legendary. Equally disconcerting for superiors was his appetite for plunder, which was rapacious and permeated his entire command.” The Tarheel captain “fulfilled his role as a partisan raider brilliantly and was equally revered or reviled for it,” said Fredriksen. “But, in an army destitute of military leadership, he proved too valuable an asset to dispense with.” The vast reaches of the Northeast frontier provided an ideal venue for the rifle regiment, and Forsyth was quick to take advantage of it. Shortly after reaching northern New York state, Captain Forsyth (then commanding a rifle company) led a raid into Canada in which he netted a number of prisoners and a haul of booty—an exploit that won him a promotion to major. In February 1813 he struck again, this time capturing most of the garrison of Elizabethville (now Brockville, Canada) while liberating a number of American prisoners held there. While these exploits had little overall effect on the war, they did provide a much-needed bright spot in the generally gloomy American military picture. As a reward Forsyth received a brevet to lieutenant-colonel, in spite of criticism that his he and his men “shoot the officers and as soon as they fall they do not stop to load again before they run up and plunder his epaulettes, watch, etc.—some of them have handkerchiefs full and have made several hundred dollars in one battle.…The officers generally attempt to prevent it, but Forsyth is a perfect savage himself, he, it is said, encourages it. He is as brave as any brute in the woods.”

Forsyth met his match, however, in the person of Lieutenant-colonel “Red George” MacDonnell, who after an exchange of insults led the Glengarry Light Infantry Fencibles in a raid on his base at Ogdensburg, whipping the Yankee riflemen after a hard fight and taking, among his other booty, Forsyth’s sword. Nothing daunted, the American commander and his riflemen spearheaded a raid the next April on York (modern Toronto), defeating a grenadier company sent to block them (one of whom admitted that he had “never experienced such sharpshooting”) and leading the American column into the town. While Forsyth and his men were praised for their “coolness and bravery,” they helped themselves to public and private property alike once the battle was over. A month later they settled up with the Glengarries (who lost 75 men) at the storming of Fort George, and cemented their reputation after the battle as “the wickedest corps in the army.” A fellow American observed that “one was never safe with them on the field of battle, friend or foe.” The Rifles’ most memorable victory, however, came under the leadership of Captain Daniel Appling, a Georgian. In late May of 1814 Appling and his riflemen laid a devastating ambush of a superior British and Indian force at Big Sandy Creek, killing or capturing almost 200 of them while losing only two of their own men. In short, as we shall see, Forsyth and Appling were the prototypes for the Confederate sharpshooters that were to follow.

Forsyth and his little corps could not, of course, make up for the generally miserable American generalship in the conflict, but the riflemen continued their outstanding service – sterling on the battlefield and scurrilous off it—even after their roguish commander’s death in battle on June 28th, 1814. Encouraged by their example, however, Congress authorized three more rifle regiments in that year, and these soon joined in the fighting in both larger engagements like Conjockta Creek (where the riflemen under Major Ludowick Morgan—a Marylander—distinguished themselves by repulsing a superior British force) and the seemingly endless war of outposts on the northern frontier. Indeed, Morgan himself fell in one of these minor exchanges in August, shortly before another conspicuous performance by the 4th Rifles at Fort Erie and the 1st Rifles (now under Lieutenant-colonel Appling) at Plattsburg.

It is also worthwhile to take a quick look at the riflemen’s opponents—the British army and their allied Canadian militia. In spite of their respect for the “unerring” American rifleman, the British sent none of their specialized rifle units to Canada. In general they followed European practices for light infantry, most of whom continued to be armed with smoothbore muskets. The Regiment of Fencible Infantry (formed in 1808) was a typical formation, comprised of a grenadier company, a light company, and eight line companies. Though the paper strength of the unit was over 1000 men, it numbered just over 700 at the war’s outbreak. In June, 1812, the flank companies (i.e. the grenadier and light companies) were detached and formed into an elite unit, the Flank Battalion. The light companies were grouped into an ad hoc unit under Major Charles Plenderleath, which afforded them opportunities for specialized skirmish drill. The next spring the Flank Battalion was “disembodied” and the its companies returned to their parent regiments. Nevertheless, “the practice of grouping flank companies was continued throughout the war whenever possible; especially with embodied militia flank companies.” To meet the American advance on Montreal, for example, the British fielded a force of “the Canadian Fencible light company, two Voltigeur companies, and the light company of 3rd Battalion of Embodied Militia” to feel out the enemy. After an indecisive engagement at the river Chateauguay, the Americans withdrew. Throughout the war the Canadian and British light infantry continued to spar with the Americans, and while their smoothbore weapons put them at a disadvantage against the American rifle units, they generally gave quite a respectable account of themselves.

There was a re-enactment of the battle of Ogdensburg earlier this year, and there is much more about the Riflemen here.


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