July 03, 2013

A brave and rash commander – Phineas Riall

Phineas Riall was the younger son of an Anglo-Irish banking family. He entered the army at the age of 18 where he quickly rose to the rank of major through the purchasing system. He served in the 128th Regiment of Foot but went on half pay in 1798 when the regiment was disbanded. Riall served during the Irish ‘troubles’ but gained most of his experience as a major of the 15th Regiment of Foot in the West Indies in 1803. He was promoted to colonel in 1810 and made a major-general two years later.

By 1813, Riall was sent to Upper Canada to serve under Lieutenant-General Drummond. Riall proved to be an aggressive commander and he won a number of small engagements against the Americans in 1813. William Hamilton Merritt described Riall as “very brave, near sighted, short but stout. Is thought by some rather rash, which by the by, is a good fault in a General officer.” Riall was well known for his brash style of command, which won him many victories in the past. However, at the Battle of Chippawa his brash style was not successful.
Phineas Riall
On July 5, 1814 at the Battle of Chippawa Riall was in command of all British forces. Two days prior an American army of about 4,000 strong crossed the Niagara River and captured Fort Erie. Riall opted to come out from the defences behind the Chippawa River in order to engage the Americans. Riall decided on this course of action since he was unaware that Major Buck had surrendered Fort Erie. Riall did not wait for reinforcements since he believed his force was more than capable of defeating the American army. During the battle both the British and the Americans had roughly equal numbers but the Americans were able to outflank the British forces and push them back across the Chippawa River.

The aftermath of the battle showed that the British suffered around 500 casualties to roughly 300 American casualties. British regulars had for the first time in years been clearly beaten in a stand-up fight of roughly matching strength. Merritt wrote about the aftermath of the battle, “It certainly is a very delicate thing to censure a Commanding Officer, particularly so popular and brave a Man as General Riall, still in this case, he acted hastily, neither did he employ all the Means he had in his power.”  

After the defeat at Chippawa, Drummond assumed direct command of the forces in the Niagara. Riall participated in the Battle of Lundy’s Lane where he was hit by a musket ball in the right arm. As he rode to the rear, he was caught by American forces and was eventually sent to the U.S. as a prisoner of war.

After the war, Riall never held an important military command again, but he was promoted to lieutenant-general through seniority in 1835 and full general in 1841. From 1816-1823 he was Governor of Grenada. Riall was married in 1819, knighted in 1831, and died in 1850 at the age of 75.

This Friday you can join the Niagara Parks Commission and the Chippawa Branch 396 of the Royal Canadian Legion as they honour those who served at the Battle of Chippawa. A ceremony will be held on the battlefield at 7 p.m. and all are welcome to attend. Click here for more information.

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