January 30, 2013

The Maid of Orleans

Betsy Doyle was a military wife married to Private Andrew Doyle of the First U.S. Artillery Regiment. Andrew, along with Betsy, was stationed at Fort Niagara when war broke out. Andrew was present during the Battle of Queenston Heights on October 13, 1812, when he was captured. Andrew was sent to Britain to stand trial for treason since he was still considered a British subject.

Betsy Doyle working the guns
As an army wife, Betsy worked as a laundress or nurse at Fort Niagara. However, on November 21, 1812, during an artillery duel between Fort Niagara and Fort George, Betsy performed the duties of an artillerist when she carried hotshot to the fort’s guns. Fort Niagara’s commanding officer, Colonel George McFeely, witnessed the actions of Betsy Doyle and remarked that she acted “with the fortitude of the Maid of Orleans,” a reference to Joan of Arc. Betsy’s story spread quickly and officers visiting Fort Niagara in 1813 were eager to meet her. Upon seeing Betsy, one officer remarked that she was disappointingly unattractive. 

After the war, Betsy continued to perform as a nurse for the army, a task she continued until her death in 1819. Unfortunately, it appears that Betsy was not reunited with her husband who was released in 1815. When Andrew returned to New York, he was unable to find Betsy and concluded that she died. Andrew remarried in 1819 and began a new life on a farm in Massachusetts until his death in 1875 at the age of 87. 
Make sure you visit Fort Niagara to learn more about this heroic woman.

January 23, 2013

The men are sick of the place

During the War of 1812, both the British and American armies suffered numerous desertions. Desertion was commonplace since many recruits were either forced into service due to poverty and others were simply tricked into the service.
Men from both armies often became dissatisfied with the army due to appalling conditions, presence of disease, homesickness and lack of pay, among other reasons. With Canada and the U.S. sharing a similar language and customs, many decided that desertion was a viable option. Overall, the U.S. army lost about 10% of its strength through desertion and at various times during the war the government was forced to issue blanket pardons for deserters. For the British it is estimated that the desertion rate was about 15%. Some regiments, such as the Glengarry Light Infantry, had a desertion rate as high as 25%. In fact, in Upper Canada the government passed a law in 1812 offering 4.5 pounds for anyone who brought in a deserter.
Major-General Riall

Desertion was particularly bad for the King’s 8th Regiment during their occupation of Fort Niagara in 1814. Major-General Phineas Riall reported that the men were afforded extra food and spirits to counteract the hard labour involved in improving Fort Niagara’s defences. Despite the extra amenities, Riall reported that, “The men are sick of the place, tired and disgusted with the labor to which they see no end.”

Punishment for desertion was severe during the war. Desertion was considered a capital offence in both the British and American armies, but many escaped a death sentence. British deserters were likely to be flogged and American deserters could be branded, have their ears cropped, or face some other unpleasant form of corporal punishment.
If you want to learn more about interesting topics involving the War of 1812, make sure you signup for the 2013 War of 1812 Bicentennial Symposium in Hamilton. Several well-known speakers will make presentations on numerous War of 1812 topics. Don’t miss this great event.

January 16, 2013

Scarcely left us power to breathe

Winter months in Canada have many hardships, from shovelling snow to bundling up on cold winter nights. Although, these hardships are nothing compared to what soldiers faced during winter in the War of 1812.

Soldiers prepared for the winter months in advance. Everything from cutting firewood to storing food was prepared well in advance of the first snowfall. Soldiers were placed in winter quarters where their primary enemy became Old Man Winter. Some winter days got quite cold as Lieutenant John Le Couteur described, “the cold had greatly augmented and the thermometer once more fell to 27 degrees below zero [Fahrenheit], together with a gale, a north-wester in our teeth, which scarcely left us power to breathe.” Some officer took the opportunity to go home during the winter to spend time with their family and friends, a luxury not afforded to regular soldiers.

Winter battles were rare during the War of 1812 but at times small raids were conducted by both the British and Americans to harass enemy positions. In the Niagara, both sides took advantage of the frozen Great Lakes to launch attacks across the water. Although large winter attacks were rare, there was one large winter campaign in January 1813.
Monument commemorating the Battle of Frenchtown

On January 18, 1813, the Americans launched an attack in and near Frenchtown in Michigan. The Americans attempted to retake Detroit with a large winter offensive. Unfortunately for the Americans, the plan quickly failed when British and native allies regrouped and launched a counterattack that saw over 350 Americans killed and hundreds taken prisoner. This battle is known by a few different names, including the Battle of Frenchtown, Battle of the River Raisin and the River Raisin Massacre. The last name comes from an incident that saw a number of American prisoners killed by native forces.
If you want to learn more about life during the winter months in the War of 1812, you can head to Fort Niagara on Saturday, January 19 for their Snowshoe Patrol event. There will be demonstrations of winter skills and games taking place, as well as an expedition into the woods at 2 p.m. Click here for more details.

January 09, 2013

British grenadiers

The British grenadiers have existed as a force in the British Army since the 17th century. Their role has evolved over the years, but the men of the grenadiers have been considered the elite of the British Army since their founding.
Grenadier, Royal Newfoundland Regiment

British regiments during the War of 1812 were normally composed of ten companies. Each company had, in theory, 100 men including officers. Two companies were considered the elite in a regiment and were know as the light company and the grenadier company.

Before the War of 1812, the grenadiers carried grenades into battle as one of their main offensive weapons. These men were tasked with assaulting fixed positions, such as fortifications. By the time of the War of 1812, the grenadiers lost their grenades and evolved into the ‘shock troops’ of a regiment. Generally composed of the toughest and largest men, the grenadiers were used to smash enemy lines with devastating fire and to harass enemy flanks. 
The British grenadiers quickly became popular in the army, so much so that a song emerged in the early 18th century called The British Grenadiers.

During their year’s re-enactments, make sure you spot the various grenadier units who re-enact the elite of the British Army.