In the autumn of 1812, U.S. Maj. Gen. Henry Dearborn finally decides to attack Montreal. The American strategy was to divide Upper and Lower Canada by cutting the St. Lawrence River supply line. But, Dearborn has been painfully slow in preparing his invasion of Lower Canada.
The American commander is extremely discouraged to find that recruiting for volunteers in New England is an uphill battle. New Englanders have little interest in attacking their neighbours and biggest trading partners. Most of the six thousand men that Dearborn finally gathers in Albany come from other states.
Hull’s embarrassing surrender at Fort Detroit, and the failed invasion at Queenston Heights, has made many Americans hungry for a victory. President James Madison is fed up with Dearborn’s procrastination. He orders the invasion:
“It is essential, notwithstanding the advance of the season and the difficulties thrown in the way, that the expedition against Montreal should be forwarded by all the means in your power.”
Dearborn moves a large part of his army north to Plattsburg. On November 27, 1812, the first American force to invade Lower Canada, crosses the border south of Montreal, near the town of La Colle.
A force of 300 Canadian Voltigeurs and 230 Kahnawake Mohawk warriors, under the command of Charles de Salaberry, huddle around a mill near the village. De Salaberry’s men resist the American advance fiercely but by nightfall the badly outnumbered Canadians and Natives are forced to retreat to safety. The Americans gain control of the mill and quickly make preparations for another advance.
During the night, the mill is attacked. A pitched battle rages on in the dark for hours. The break of day reveals the horrible truth of the battle to the U.S. troops: they have been fighting another American unit, which had crossed the border separately. Americans have been killing Americans. Stunned by these events, the shaken U.S. soldiers are caught off guard as de Salaberry launches his counter-attack.
The American militia units has never been particularly enthusiastic about invading Canada and this deters them completely. They retreat back across the border. The coming winter will prevent the Americans from making another attempt at Montreal.
The first United States invasion of Lower Canada turns into an embarrassing fiasco for the Americans. The disgraced General Dearborn wants to step down from his position as commander of the U.S. forces. He writes to President Madison: “It will be equally agreeable to me to employ such moderate talents as I possess in the service of my country, or to be permitted to retire to the shades of private life, and remain a mere but interested spectator of passing events.” The following spring, President Madison grants Dearborn his wish.