August 27, 2014

Bid my dear and loving wife adieu

The War of 1812 separated loved ones, causing anxiety for those who did not know if their loved ones would return. One couple that found the war disruptive to their relationship was British Lieutenant Maurice Nowlan and his wife Agathe. Maurice and Agathe were newlyweds who were separated by the war after only six months of marriage.

Maurice wrote that he most enjoyed being alone reading Agathe letters than amongst the jovial society functions. Although Maurice longed for his wife, he firmly believed that a military camp was no place for a woman. Agathe was desperate for letters from Maurice and complained that she did not hear from him as much as she liked.

British soldiers at Fort Niagara
The couple’s situation became worse when Maurice’s regiment, the 100th Foot, was transferred to the Niagara in autumn of 1813. As their distance grew, Maurice wrote “Nothing on Earth could give me more pleasure than to have the infinite happiness of pressing you to my Heart.” During their separation, Maurice attempted to reassure his wife by writing “Try to be a little more patient,” while asking, “what can I do my dear so far away?”

On December 10, 1813, Lieutenant Nowlan was about to take part in the night attack on Fort Niagara. Although his was confident that he would survive, Maurice found it difficult “to bid my dear and loving wife adieu and perhaps the last time.” He went on to write,

My dearest jewel don’t torture yourself with grief if you should chance to get this before I have time to write you again. Hope for the best, my only Heart. You know you are my only care, it’s but for you I live, may the Almighty bless you, my only wife.

Sadly, Maurice was killed in action during the attack. There is no record of how Agathe coped with her husband’s death but she could take small comfort in knowing that she was loved by a devoted and brave officer.

This weekend head out to Old Fort Niagara for their annual 1812 encampment. You can find out more about Fort Niagara’s role during the war with activities happening during the day, and at night with the British storming the fort. Click here for more information.

August 20, 2014

For honour’s sake

At the start of the War of 1812, the U.S. officer corps lacked combat experience and many American officers were lawyers, merchants and clerks in commercial society. Winfield Scott described most of his fellow officers in 1812 as “imbeciles and ignoramuses.”

This crop of new officers came with an extreme sense of honour and many American officers would “devote every thing to the service of his country, except his honor.” This new officer corps readily insulted others and quickly felt slighted compared to their British counterparts who had a keen sense of duty and their place in class hierarchy.

For the Americans, the newspapers were another important battleground as they published accounts of battles as well as battle reports from commanders. These reports invariably cast the best possible light on the commanding officer, since they were the ones writing them, and on their favoured subordinates. Officer who felt slighted by these reports submitted letters to the newspapers, which often created rivalries and feuds.
Militia Officer, New York State

The winter season provided a great opportunity for officer to secure furloughs for leave to Washington in order to advance their own interests. In March 1814, one congressman wrote, “So great has been the resort of epaulettes here that many have inquired who were left with the Troops?” Leaving the troops behind squandered a great opportunity to train the troops, who resented the fact that they could not go home.

Courts-martial were far more abundant in the American army than in the British. Many officers pressed charges against one another, causing General George Izard to lament, “It is wonderful how much valuable time these Courts Martial engross.” Of course duelling was another way to settle disputes between officers.

Although duelling was prohibited in the U.S. Army, it did take place and some generals even encouraged this practice. With honour as a paramount concern, duellists shot at each other instead of the enemy. In the spring of 1813, two officers crossed the Niagara River to duel in order to leave New York’s legal jurisdiction, but were taken by surprise by the British and captured. At Fort George in 1813, Lieutenant Smith killed Dr. Shumate in a duel, depriving the camp of a much-needed surgeon during epidemics of malaria and dysentery.

Politics, war and honour proved a bloody mix for officers, since fighting each other was easier than fighting the British. Although the American officers retained their sense of honour as a paramount concern, their officer corps did improve during the war. By the time of the Niagara 1814 campaign, younger energetic officer took over and focused on training their men for the task at hand. A renewed sense of duty and training ensured that the Niagara 1814 campaign was the most successful for the American Army during the War of 1812.

This weekend you can head to Fort George for their annual timeline event with interpreters and animators representing the War of 1812, WWI, WWII and more. Click here for details.

August 13, 2014

From Garryowen and glory

The song Garryowen today is best associated with the U.S. Civil War and later as the regimental marching song for George Custer’s Seventh Calvary. The song actually originates from the Irish city of Limerick in the 1780s.

Garryowen was sung by a gang of wealthy troublemakers who enjoyed drinking in the popular and fashionable Limerick suburb of Garryowen (translated as “the garden of John”). The young hooligans enjoyed smashing property that did not belong to them. The song eventually became popular in the British Army since many Irishmen were recruited. During the wars with France between 1793-1815, Garryowen became the second most popular song in the British Army, after British Grenadiers

The lyrics for Garryowen:

            Let Bacchus’s sons be not dismayed,
            But join with me each jovial blade,
            Come, booze and sing and lend me aid,
            To help me with the chorus.
                        Instead of spa we’ll drink down ale,
                        And pay the reckoning on the nail,
                        For debt no man shall go to jail,
                        From Garryowen and glory.

            We’ll break windows, we’ll break doors,
            The watch knock down by threes and fours,
            Then let the doctors work their cures,
            And tinker up our bruises.
                        Instead of spa we’ll drink down ale, etc.

            Our hearts so stout have got us fame,
            For soon ‘tis known form whence we came,
            Where’er we go they dread the name,
            Of Garryowen in glory.
Instead of spa we’ll drink down ale, etc.

If you want to hear this song and many more, head out to the annual Fife and Drum Muster and Soldiers’ Field Day this weekend. Fife and Drum corps and infantry units from historic sites across Canada and the U.S. will be at Fort George. Click here for more information.

August 06, 2014

Brilliant achievement – Commander Dobbs’s raid

Only a short distance away from Fort Erie, Lieutenant-General Drummond faced a tough situation with supply lines becoming stretched due to the renewed American presence on Lake Ontario, forcing supplies to be diverted around the lake. Commander Alexander Dobbs of the Royal Navy found that his usefulness on Lake Ontario was now limited and he decided to move his forces to Fort Erie to assist Drummond.

Dobbs joined the Royal Navy as a midshipman at the age of 13 and saw service in the Mediterranean and Atlantic before coming to North America. At the age of 30, Dobbs was promoted to Commander in February 1814 and in the same month, he married Mary Cartwright, the daughter of Richard Cartwright of Kingston who was a prominent merchant and political figure in Upper Canada.

Dobbs assembled a force of 70 seamen and marries to capture three American vessels near Fort Erie. His small force portaged from Queenston to Chippawa where five boats and a gig were loaded onto wagons and transported eight miles around the American position at Fort Erie.
Fort Erie in peacetime

On August 11, 1814, one day before Dobbs launched his attack, a deserter from the De Watteville Regiment swam across the Niagara River and told the Americans of Dobbs’s plan. Colonel George McFeely in command at Black Rock warned Lieutenant Augustus Conckling, captain of the USS Ohio, of the impending attack. McFeely noted that Conckling did not take the threat seriously and that he, “scarcely condescended to listen, turned on his heel and said he would desire no better fun than to see twenty or thirty boats coming to take him.” Conckling did not have to wait long to get his wish.

On the evening of August 12 Dobbs began his mission. As his force approached one of the American schooners, a sentry hailed them, but the British force replied that they were provision boats. An American officer reported that this “deceived the Officer of the Deck, as our Army boats have been in the habit of passing, and repassing throughout the night.” In a few minutes, Dobbs’s men boarded the Ohio and Somers quickly capturing the vessels. A third vessel, USS Porcupine, cut its cable and escaped.

At the cost of only two killed and two wounded Dobbs managed to capture, as reported by Lieutenant Mermet of the De Watteville Regiment, “a long 18-pounder gun – two long 12-pound guns – munitions, two pretty Schooners, five naval officers and seventy-five sailors.” Lieutenant Conckling was also wounded and captured during the operation, a fact that Colonel McFeely was not entirely displeased with reporting that Conckling was taken prisoner before “he got on his clothes.”

Drummond issued a general order praising Dobbs and his men for their “brilliant achievement” and went on to note that he had a mission for the rest of the division. On August 15, 1814, the British launched a three-pronged attack to retake Fort Erie. During the failed attempt, Dobbs commanded a detachment of sailors and marines under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel William Drummond. Dobbs survived the war and went on to serve as the commander at Isle-aux-Noix in late 1814. By 1819, Dobbs was made a post captain but later died in Malta in 1827.

To find out more about Commander Dobbs and the Siege of Fort Erie, head to Old Fort Erie on August 9 & 10 for the 28th Annual Siege of Fort Erie, commemorating the 200th anniversary of the siege. Click here for details.