July 25, 2012

Beyond battle wounds

Soldiers faced many dangers during the War of 1812. Not only did musket and artillery fire threaten soldiers’ lives, but they also faced the greatest danger to a soldier’s life – disease.

During the war, the number one killer came in the form of disease and not from battle wounds. It is estimated that only 15 per cent of deaths during the war came from wounds sustained in battle. The majority of deaths came from infectious diseases such as dysentery, typhoid, pneumonia, malaria, measles and smallpox. Many military camps lacked strict sanitation procedures, which led to the increase in disease related deaths.

Plaque honouring 300 soldiers who died in Delaware Park
One American camp where disease was ramped occurred in the winter of 1812 at Flint Hill. The U.S. Army established a camp in preparation for an invasion that did not occur. The men suffered daily from the cold since many were under-dressed for the winter. These soldiers were plagued by poor rations as disease and sickness spread through the encampment due to improper preparations for the harsh winter.  

By November 1812, a U.S. surgeon reported that three to four men were dying each day, and that measles and dysentery were the two deadliest diseases. Today, 300 men are buried in Delaware Park who died during the winter of 1812. These men are currently recognized by a small plaque. The Buffalo Olmsted Parks Conservancy has started a fundraiser to plant 300 weeping willow trees in memory of the 300 men that died. These trees are meant to serve as a monument to the sacrifice of these men. If you would like to get involved with this campaign, please click here.  

July 18, 2012

Citizen soldiers

During the War of 1812, both the British and Americans used citizens to help serve in auxiliary military units known as the militia. The militia was primarily employed to help move supplies, garrison forts, and was used as auxiliaries to regular forces.

In 1793 the Legislature of Upper Canada passed the Militia Act that required citizens to take responsibility for the defence of their province. The Act required that all males between the age of 16 and 60 perform military service in peace and wartime. They were required to provide themselves with clothing, arms, ammunition and accouterment. Most militia units were not issued military uniforms and were forced to wear their civilian clothing on the battlefield. The lack of uniforms did cause some confusion at times since it was difficult to distinguish between British and American militia in some battles.

James Thompson's Militia Officers Coatee
By 1808 the Militia Act required eligible men to train about two to four times a year. Training mostly consisted of men proving that they could operate a musket, and then there would be a celebration with free beer for the rest of the day. Some men opted to join militia flank companies where men trained for six days a month and could be placed on full time duty for up to six months during war. Of course, certain religious groups could be exempt from militia service by paying a fee of five pounds per year in peacetime, and twenty pounds per year in wartime. By 1812 there were about 11,000 men eligible to serve in the Upper Canada militia, compared to 460,000 men eligible to serve in the U.S. militia.

Janet Thompson's Wedding Dress
Militia officers varied in quality in the Upper Canada militia. Most officers were chosen for their status in the community, such as lawyers, doctors or politicians. Some officers had previous military service in the British military and were chosen for the skill and knowledge that they possessed.

Throughout the War of 1812, the Canadian militia provided a vital role in support of the British Army. Whether it was serving on the frontlines or transporting vital supplies, the British Army would not have been able to function without the support of the Canadian militia.

If you want to find out more about the militia and see some great artifacts from the War of 1812, don’t miss the Grand Opening of the Niagara Falls History Museum. On display will be a militia officer’s coatee belonging to James Thompson. As well, they will have his wife’s, Janet Cooper Thompson, wedding dress on display. Don’t miss this great event! Click here for more details.

July 11, 2012

A mighty ship

In 1814, British naval commodore James Yeo sought to gain supremacy over Lake Ontario. Before 1814, both naval squadrons on Lake Ontario exchanged dominance over the lake. The fact that the Great Lakes are practically landlocked meant that any warships on the Great Lakes had to be built on the Great Lakes. At the start of the war, both the British and Americans converted various vessels on the Great Lakes into ships of war. As the war progressed, both sides built a number of ships in order to gain a permanent dominance over Lake Ontario. 

The importance of Lake Ontario cannot be underestimated. If the Americans had gained complete control over the lake, the British would have probably abandoned all of Upper Canada. With American dominance of Lake Ontario American troops could be deployed anywhere along the shores of Upper Canada.
If the British managed to gain control of Lake Ontario, they would have been able to wreak havoc upon New York State. If this were the case, the safety and security of Upper Canada would have been practically assured.

These thoughts plagued commodore Yeo’s mind. By 1814, Yeo commissioned the creation of a new ship, the grandest and largest ship Lake Ontario had seen – the St. Lawrence. This new vessel was the only ship of the line to be launched in fresh water. The St. Lawrence launched in September 1814 with 112 guns and more than 800 crewmembers. This monstrous ship was larger than Lord Nelson’s flagship Victory. 
The St. Lawrence on her maiden voyage
During the ship’s maiden voyage on October 19, the St. Lawrence sailed through a storm and was struck by lightning. The crew suffered casualties and the ship suffered damage, but the vulnerable gunpowder magazine was not struck and the voyage continued. The St. Lawrence never saw combat but she served her purpose. The American fleet was deterred from entering Lake Ontario for the remainder of the war.

Once the War of 1812 ended, the largest ship on the Great Lakes was unceremoniously decommissioned. The ship served as storage space before it was sunk in Kingston harbour.
If you want to see some period vessels in action don’t miss The Navy of 1812: Sailors on the Lakes re-enactment on July 13 – 15 at Navy Hall/Fort George.  Check out the details here.

July 04, 2012

Why, these are regulars!

The Battle of Chippawa fought on July 5, 1814 was a significant victory for the U.S. Army. Chippawa was the first time in the war that an American force defeated a veteran British force of equal size on an open battlefield. This battle proved that the American Army could not be underestimated.
American Soldier

Why were the Americans so successful at Chippawa? In part, it had to do with Winfield Scott’s grey-coated regulars. The traditional uniform of an American regular during the War of 1812 consisted of a solid blue coat with red cuffs and collars adorned with white lacing. However, due to supply shortages American uniforms during the war became much simpler and often varied in colour. Some American units during the war had brown, green or even red as their military coats. By 1814, Winfield Scoot decided to dress his regulars in grey work coats so that all his soldiers looked uniform on the battlefield.

At the Battle of Chippawa, Scott’s highly trained grey-coated regulars took on the British left flank and managed to maintain its formation even during heavy artillery fire. These grey coats managed to inflict heavy damage on the British left flank, causing the British to withdraw from the battlefield.

American Grey Coat
In Scott’s memoirs he claimed that upon seeing the grey-coated American infantry maintain their position after heavy artillery fire, that the British commander, General Riall, exclaimed “why, these are regulars!” Despite this colourful story, it is unlikely that Scott would be able to hear Riall say these words from across the battlefield.

Another claim by Scott is that the cadets at West Point adopted the grey uniform because of the American victory at Chippawa. Unfortunately, this is not the case. The cadets at West Point had already adopted the grey uniform before the Battle of Chippawa due to the shortage of blue cloth; although, the victory at Chippawa did provide a convenient excuse to retain the cheaper grey uniforms after the War of 1812.

If you want to learn more about the Battle of Chippawa, make sure you join the Niagara Parks Commission and the Chippawa Branch 396 of the Royal Canadian Legion as they honour those who served on the Chippawa Battlefield. The commemoration takes place on July 5 at 7 p.m. Click here for the event program.