The American plan
Late in 1813, United States Secretary of War John Armstrong devised a plan to capture Montreal, which might have led to the conquest of all Upper Canada. Two divisions were involved. One would descend the St. Lawrence River from Sackett's Harbor on Lake Ontario, while the other would advance north from Plattsburgh on Lake Champlain. The two divisions would unite in front of the city for the final assault.
American forces during the battle were led by Maj. Gen. Wade Hampton
. He took command of the American forces around Lake Champlain
on 4 July 1813.
The Americans around Lake Champlain were led by Major General Wade Hampton, who had taken command on 4 July 1813. Hampton had several misgivings about the plan. His own troops, encamped at Burlington, Vermont, were raw and badly trained, and his junior officers themselves lacked training and experience. There were insufficient supplies at his forward base at Plattsburgh as the British had controlled the lake since 3 June. On that day, two American sloops pursued British gunboats into the Richelieu River and were forced to surrender after the wind dropped and they were trapped by gunboats and artillery firing from the river banks. The British had taken over the sloops and used them in a raid against many settlements around Lake Champlain. In particular, they captured or destroyed quantities of supplies in and around Plattsburgh. Although the British crews and troops involved in the raid were subsequently returned to other duties, the American naval commander on the lake, Lieutenant Thomas Macdonough, was unable to construct a flotilla of sloops and gunboats to counter the British vessels until August.
Finally, Hampton, a wealthy southern plantation owner, despised Major General James Wilkinson who commanded the division from Sackett's Harbor and who had a reputation for corruption and treacherous dealings with Spain. The two men, who were the two senior generals in the United States Army after the effective retirement of Major General Henry Dearborn on 6 July 1813, had been feuding with each other since 1808. Hampton at first refused to accept orders from Wilkinson, until Armstrong (who had himself moved to Sackett's Harbor) arranged that all correspondence regarding the expedition was to pass through the War Department.
On 19 September, Hampton moved by water from Burlington to Plattsburgh, escorted by Macdonough's gunboats, and made a reconnaissance in force towards Odelltown on the direct route north from Lake Champlain. He decided that the British forces were too strong in this sector. The garrison of Ile aux Noix, where the British sloops and gunboats were based, numbered about 900 and there were other outposts and light troops in the area. Also, water on this route was short after a summer drought had caused the wells and streams to dry up, though this excuse caused some amusement among Hampton's officers as Hampton was known to be fond of drink. Hampton's force marched west instead to Four Corners, on the Chateauguay River.
As Wilkinson's expedition was not ready, Hampton's force waited at Four Corners until 18 October. Hampton was concerned that the delay was depleting his supplies and giving the British time to muster forces against him. Hearing from Armstrong that Wilkinson's force was "almost" ready to set out, he began advancing down the Chateauguay River. A brigade of 1,400 New York militia refused to cross the frontier into Canada, leaving Hampton with two brigades of regulars numbering about 2,600 in total, 200 mounted troops and 10 field guns. Large numbers of loaded wagons accompanied the force. Hampton's advance was slowed because the bridges across every stream had been destroyed and trees had been felled across the roads (which themselves were little more than tracks).
The Swiss-born Major-General Louis de Watteville was appointed commander of the Montreal District on 17 September. In response to reports of the American advance, he ordered several units of militia to be called up. Reinforcements (two battalions of the Royal Marines) were also moving up the St. Lawrence from Quebec. The Governor-General of Canada, Lieutenant General Sir George Prevost, ordered Lieutenant Colonel George MacDonnell to move from Kingston on Lake Ontario to the front south of Montreal with his 1st Light Battalion of mixed regular and militia companies. Already though, the commander of the outposts, Lieutenant Colonel Charles de Salaberry, had been organising his defences. In addition to his own corps, the Canadian Voltigeurs, and George MacDonnell's 1st Light Battalion, he had called in several units of the Select Embodied Militia and local militia units.
De Salaberry had many informants among the farmers in the area who provided accurate information about the strength of Hampton's force and its movements, while Hampton had very poor intelligence about De Salaberry's force.
- The road along which Hampton was advancing followed the north bank of the Chateauguay. Facing a ravine where a creek (the English River) joined the Chateauguay, de Salaberry ordered abatis (obstacles made of felled trees) to be constructed, blocking the road. Behind these he posted the light company of the Canadian Fencibles under Captain Richard Ferguson (50); two companies of the Voltigeurs under Captain Michel-Louis Juchereau Duchesnay and his brother Captain
Jean-Baptiste Juchereau Duchesnay, totalling about 100 men; a company from the 2nd Battalion Sedentary Beauharnois Militia under Captain Longuetin (about 100) and perhaps two dozen Native Americans (Abenaki, Algonquin and Iroquois) nominally commanded by Captain Lamothe.
- To guard a ford across the Chateauguay 1 mile (1.6 km) behind the abatis, de Salaberry posted the light companies of the 2nd and 3rd Battalions of Select Embodied Militia under Captains de Tonnancoeur and Daly, and another company of Beauharnois militia under Captain Brugière (about 160 in total).
- In successive reserve positions, stretching a mile and a half along the river from the abatis to the ford and beyond, were another five companies of the Voltigeurs (about 300); the main body of the 2nd Select Embodied Militia (480), 200 more local "sedentary" militia; and another 150 Kahnawake and Mohawks and other Native Americans commanded by Captains Lorimier and Ducharme, among others.
De Salaberry commanded the front line in person, while the reserves were commanded by Lieutenant Colonel MacDonnell.
All of de Salaberry's forces were raised in Lower Canada. The Canadian Fencibles were raised as regulars, though liable for service in North America only. The Voltigeurs were volunteers and were treated as regulars for most purposes. The Select Embodied Militia contained some volunteers but consisted mainly of men drafted by ballot for a year's full-time service.
De Salaberry had been so confident of victory that he had not informed his superiors of his actions. De Watteville and Sir George Prevost rode forward and "approved" de Salaberry's dispositions, even as the fighting started.