In the days of lace-ruffles, perukes and brocade
Brown Bess was a partner whom none could despise–
An out-spoken, flinty-lipped, brazen-faced jade,
With a habit of looking men straight in the eyes–
At Blenheim and Ramillies fops would confess
They were pierced to the heart by the charms of Brown Bess.
In 1814, the best soldier in the world was the British redcoat, at
least when fighting in a critical mass and with a clear objective. Even
Napoleon never beat a redcoat army without at least a bit of a
numerical edge. Like the Roman legions upon which so many British
tactics were modeled, most of these regiments had fought in far parts
of the world. They’d seen almost everything the world had to throw at
them. Not all British generals were quick to adapt the tactics they had
settled on, but they had certainly seen these tactics imposed against
lower-tech or less-scrappy foes.
As with the Roman legionnaire – another of the world’s legendary
soldiers – one reason the redcoat was successful was his determination.
A redcoat army would stand and trade shots with anyone. Its units
maneuvered quite well en masse, continually confounding its foes and
exploiting its own position. When the other side finally blinked, it
could move inexorably forward, a red tide with 19-inch bayonets. That
red coat (so often faded into an adobe shade, they say) might have been
meant to make the man wearing it a walking challenge: Shoot me if you
can, but I’m coming. Few pre-20th century armies would stand against
that that grim charge, and once an army broke its formation, the
slaughter began. All the redcoats who had fallen during the
shooting-gallery march were avenged tenfold at that point. Not until
the next revolution in firearms did this become a losing tactic.
Contrast that with the Americans. Many Revolutionary soldiers and
commanders had been veterans of British training. They knew what they
were up against, and they could fight with some of the same fire. By
the end of the war the American armies had become hardened forces who
took advantage of terrain and situation and won decisive battles. But
that was the last action the nation had seen. At the start of the 1812
war, the standing U. S. Army was tiny. Its soldiers and most commanders
were utter rookies, learning on the job. For the next two years it was
generally a laughing stock.
While the U.S. Army’s regular soldier, the bluecoat, fought pretty
well, he hadn’t been put into winning positions. His supply lines were
often deficient. His backup–state militia and volunteers–were
disorganized and sometimes craven. (For instance, the October 1812
Battle of Queenston Heights is still widely celebrated as a
British-Canadian victory against overwhelming odds. It pitted a few
hundred Americans stranded on a hill against 1200 professional British
soldiers and a bunch of riled-up locals. The 4000-plus American backups
of volunteers and state militia were too chicken to fight. They never
even crossed the Niagara.) And American leadership could be simply
outrageous. Some of the most laughable knaves and numbskulls in
military history were American commanders in the war’s first two years.
I could put together a top ten loonies list on the Niagara alone. 1814
was starting out differently, especially in Western New York.
The Army on the Niagara had a smart, charismatic young high commander,
Major General Jacob Brown (1775-1828). Largely due his service on the
Niagara, Brown would become a revered military officer and eventual
Commander in Chief of the American army. Brown, alas, would never shed
nicknames like “Smuggler-” or “Potash” Brown for his pre-war endeavors
in freelance commerce (some in potash, that byproduct of fire-clearing
forests that was used in so many settler-era commodities). Over the
winter of 1814 he had appointed young Brigadier Generals Winfield Scott
(1786-1866) and Eleazer Ripley (1782-1839) to train the Army of the
Niagara. This they did, hardening all components of the American force.
They drilled ceaselessly in marching and moving units of men en masse.
The reason this was so important as a military tactic can only be
understood by understanding the day’s weaponry.
The standard firearm of the age was the British Long Pattern Land
Musket or some nearly identical variant thereof. Fundamentally
unchanged since the early 1700s, this five-foot, ten pound,
wooden-stock widow-maker could be outfitted with a long, grisly bayonet
and used in charges and close-quarters work. Nicknamed “Brown Bess,”
the British Long Pattern Land Musket was immortalized with many a
tribute like that of Rudyard Kipling in the epigraph of this piece.
Grimly likened to a lady of dubious virtue but redoubtable clout–a camp
whore, in short–Bess made her way all over the world and served any man
or nation who held her. This was the day’s AK-47, the weapon we see in
the hands of Russian soldiers in World War Two and today’s ISIS
fighters in Iraq. It was not unusual to find combatants on both sides
of a conflict having their way with Brown Bess. An easy mistress, Bess
was also a harsh one. She decided most of the famous battles of the
18th century, including those of the Revolution. Still strutting her
stuff, she made a special tour of the Niagara in the War of 1812.
Brown Bess was a slow-shooter, a muzzle-loader with a slow preparation
and a fickle delivery due that almost cartoonish, steampunk-style
flintlock firing mechanism. The stats say they could shoot her 3-4
times a minute, but I can’t believe the fire rate was anything like
that in real-world conditions. (In the hotly contested 3-hour Battle of
Lundy’s Lane whose discussion is coming up, one soldier reported
starting the battle with 20 musket balls in his pouch; he had one left
at the end.) But if the flint hit the frizzen and the powder took the
spark, Bess was deadly at reasonable range. She was fairly accurate up
to a few dozen yards, too, but forget the image of deadeye Jed Clampett
or Fenimore Cooper’s Deerslayer. This Long Pattern musket everyone
called “Bess” wasn’t a true rifle–a gun with a “rifled” barrel.
Bess was what they call a “smooth bore” gun, meaning that the inside of
the barrel was like a test-tube or a pint-glass. It lacked the
spiral-groove that every gun has today. By the time of the Civil War,
that rifling would be standard, and it would impart a controlled spin
to a launching black-powder ball that would lend it a straighter flight
and a lot more zip. It was the difference between a Jim Kelley spiral
and the fluttering-duck most of us would pop up under the rush of an
NFL lineman. During the 1812 war, that little hunk of lead Bess spouted
could freelance like a bat. Past 50 or so yards, you took your chances.
You were as likely to miss high as low or wide.
The gun’s slow fire-rate and notorious unreliability accounted for the
way the day’s armies fought. They drew up in range and filled the air
with lead in each other’s general direction. Nobody really aimed.
Armies acted like group shotguns, simply hoping to hit as many foes as
possible. Once one side started wavering, the other typically launched
its bayonet charge, which usually settled the day. The British–their
generals, anyway–were particularly fond of these “cold-steel” rushes.
It was probably as close as they could get to re-enacting the
spear-work of the Homeric literature upon which they’d all been raised.
That charge would disappear as a practice once the guns changed, too.
Getting your enemy to crack first, though, and opening them up to the
charge was the trick. The main tactic of the day was “flanking”:
drawing some of your troops to the side of your foes so that highly
inefficient musket fire was coming at them from two different levels
and directions, lessening the chances for those meandering musket balls
to miss. If you could flank someone’s army, your hit rate went
dramatically up. Armies that were flanked usually gave up the field.
Armies that were or believed themselves surrounded usually surrendered
Of course the British were masters at the sort of maneuvering that
would achieve flanking or prevent being flanked. When somebody made a
move at one side (flank) of their formation, they gave a quick signal
and moved a couple companies of men to counter it. Back to deuce. The
Americans hadn’t been very good at flanking, much less
counter-flanking, for the first two years of the 1812 conflict. As army
units, they were confused and panicky, which was part of the reason
they couldn’t whip a British army. But that would change in the war’s
All the winter and spring of 1814, General Winfield Scott drilled his
men at their camp in Williamsville and at several training grounds in
Buffalo. The bluecoats did a lot of muttering about it, even nicknaming
Scott “Old Fuss and Feathers” for his jazzy outfit and fixation with
detail. But he had his units whistling about the field by the summer of
1814. They’d be a far cry from earlier forces the British had faced,
and they knew it. Their confidence soared. In just a few months,
several thousand personally scrappy but collectively dispirited men
were ready for an enemy. The American force under Winfield Scott
touched down in Canada on July 3. Their goal was Fort Erie.