April 24, 2012

Why those crazy red coats?

Many people ask the question: Why did the British wear those crazy bright red coats? As many re-enactors and those who work at historic sites know, this is a particularly popular question. 

British troops in a cloud of smoke

By the War of 1812, the red coat had been part of the British Army uniform for at least 150 years. There were two primary reasons for the use of red coats: cost and effectiveness.  The use of red dye is very cheap and readily available. In order to dye a coat with red dye the process is easier than other colours since other colours require more than one stage in the dying process. Red dye only requires one stage for dying coats and this makes the process less expensive.
Preparing to fire

The second reason for red coats had to do with the use of black powder weaponry. Muskets were the most popular weapon on the 1812 battlefield, and due to their inaccuracy and reliability problems armies during the War of 1812 employed line formations in battle. Line formations allowed armies to overcome the inaccuracy and reliability problems of the musket. However, by using line formations large clouds of smoke were produced from the concentration of so many muskets, not to mention all the artillery on the battlefield. With so much smoke, armies needed to quickly identify friend from foe as quickly as possible, and the best way to do that was to use bright elaborate uniforms. In fact, those who did not wear red or blue during the War of 1812 were often shot at by everyone on the battlefield.   

Now you know why they wore red, and yes, they are hot in those coats. Please stop asking. 

April 16, 2012

The Forlorn Hope

A forlorn hope was a group of soldiers who comprised the first wave of attack upon a fixed position. Their primary purpose was to establish a foothold in enemy defences so that reinforcements could be sent in. Since these men were the first wave in an assault, their survivability rate was very low.

The forlorn hope enters the bastion at Fort Erie
Members of the forlorn hope were chosen for their ferocity, bravery or criminality. Sometimes officers chose the undesirable individuals in their regiment to be part of the forlorn hope since it was unlikely that these men would survive. However, sometimes men volunteered to be part of the forlorn hope because those lucky enough to survive were often handsomely rewarded. Junior officers typically led the forlorn hope, and if these officers survived they would also be rewarded, often with a promotion.   

A massive explosion ends the assault on the bastion
Clearly in order to receive rewards from participation in the forlorn hope one must first survive. This can be difficult. Depending on the engagement, the chance of survival for members of the forlorn hope could be zero. One example of the poor survival rate comes from the Siege of Fort Erie.

On August 15th, 1814, the British launched an assault on the American held defences of Fort Erie. The British four-pronged assault culminated in massive casualties for the British. One of these assaults, led by Lieutenant Colonel William Drummond upon one of Fort Erie’s bastions, proved to be particularly devastating for the attackers. All members of the forlorn hope died during this assault. Most of the attackers never even made it into the bastion.

For more information on the Siege of Fort Erie, visit their website.

April 11, 2012

The young drummer Jarvis Hanks

This enterprising young lad joined the ranks of the U.S. army at the ripe old age of 14. Jarvis Hanks was an accomplished drummer and decided to join the ranks by accepting $20 bounty and the promise of 160 acres of land when his service was complete. His father accepted the impending perils that Jarvis may face, but his mother was less than thrilled about Jarvis's impending military service. Nevertheless, his parents permitted him to join because they were promised that Jarvis would not be in the front lines. Sadly this turned out to not be the case.

Jarvis witnessed harsh military justice, including men being forced to run the gauntlet while being whipped and men being hanged for desertion. Jarvis was not in the army for a long time until his first battle occurred. His mettle was tested during the long march towards Chrysler's Farm in November 1813. The weather was unforgiving with rain and sleet falling throughout the night. The American army did not fair well during the Battle of Chrysler's Farm and were forced into a retreat.

After the failed attack upon Chrysler's Farm, Jarvis and his regiment were transferred to Winfeld Scott's training camp near Buffalo. Harsh discipline and training occupied the men during their time at Scott's camp, but this training later proved to be invaluable during the Niagara Campaign of 1814.

On July 5th, 1814, Jarvis participated in the Battle of Chippawa. He spent the majority of the battle holding his sergeant's ramrod so that the sergeant could fire more rounds from his musket. After the Americans won the battle it was not long before Jarvis found himself in another fierce battle. On July 25th, 1814, the Battle of Lundy's Lane commenced in the night's late hours. During this battle, Jarvis was nearly killed while jumping over a fence. He considered this incident to be "the most narrow escape that I experienced while in the service." Hundreds were killed on both sides during the battle, and Jarvis considered himself lucky to have escaped the horror.

Unfortunately for Jarvis the Battle of Lundy's Lane was not the last time he witnessed the horrors of war. The American army proceeded to Fort Erie to await reinforcements, but the British arrived and began to lay siege to the fort. On August 15th, 1814, the British launched an assault on the American defences resulting in a catastrophic explosion. Jarvis witnessed the explosion and lamented "I counted 196 bodies lying in the ditch and about the fort; most of them dead; some dying." After the failed assault, the British continue to bombard the fort for weeks causing much hardship for the American defenders.

By May 1815, Jarvis received an honourary discharge from the army and returned home to his family. After the war, Jarvis eventually got married and started a family. He spent most of his time painting, and he became active in politics. He became a strong supporter and member of the Cleveland Anti-Slavery Society. Jarvis suffered from tuberculosis later in life and died in 1853 at the age of 54.

His personal account of the war remains one of the liveliest and captivating accounts of a soldier's life during the War of 1812.

April 05, 2012


Hello Everyone,

This blog will highlight a multitude of War of 1812 topics from famous people to obscure battles. It will also showcase different events happening in the Niagara Region.

Thanks for reading.