February 27, 2013

Fought like devils

With Black History Month coming to an end this post looks at some of the contributions made by African Americans during the War of 1812. In 1793, Upper Canada placed limitations on slavery, which was the first piece of legislation in the British Empire to limit slavery. During the War of 1812, African Americans served in British regiments and a separate ‘Coloured Corps’ was established know as Runchey’s Company of Coloured Men.

In the United States, slavery was still practiced during the war. The U.S. Army and Navy prohibited Black men from serving in the armed forces. However, as the war dragged on the U.S. began allowing Black men to serve. Many free Black men, as well as slaves, served on U.S. privateers and merchant ships during the war. The U.S. Navy also allowed Black men to serve and after the U.S. frigate Constitution defeated the H.M.S. Guerrière, Captain Isaac Hull of the Constitution said he “had never hand any better fighters. They stripped to the waist and fought like devils … utterly insensible to the danger and … possessed with a determination to outfight the white sailors.”
War of 1812 African American soldier in the U.S. Army

During the war, there were a number of runaway slaves. Most runaway slaves fled from the Chesapeake area in response to British proclamations that offered service in the British Navy or free settlement in North America or the West Indies. It is estimated that around 4,000 slaves escaped the U.S. during the war. Many runaways settled in the Maritime Provinces where many suffered from poverty. In Nova Scotia, many died from smallpox and malnutrition.

After the war, the U.S. and Britain disagreed on which runaways must be returned. Eventually both countries agreed to arbitration from the Czar of Russia who decided that the British must pay for all slaves that were removed at the end of the war. The British agreed in 1826 to pay $1,200,000 (£244,000). 

On Saturday, March 2nd, join several prominent War of 1812 authors and historians for the Living History Conference taking place in Hamilton. There will be many different sessions taking place covering several topics involving the War of 1812. Click here to learn more and to signup for the conference.

February 20, 2013

Winter survival

During the War of 1812, winter months challenged soldiers with harsh conditions. However, the British Army was well adapted to the harsh winter conditions in Upper Canada by the time of the war.

With the arrival of winter, soldiers changed their routine. Breakfast was served before the men went to work in winter months in order to give the men much needed energy to work outside. Soldiers also had more clothing to add in winter months. Normally British soldiers wore grey wool trousers along with a red wool coat. In the winter, a heavy wool grey overcoat known as a greatcoat was added to provide soldiers with some extra warmth. Although the coat provided extra warmth, it was cumbersome and difficult to work with it on.
William 'Tiger' Dunlop

At times the cold winter months proved quite treacherous for some. During the winter of 1814 to 1815, a British surgeon named Dr. William “Tiger” Dunlop found himself in Lower Canada. One day while in the woods Dunlop became separated from his party when he chased after some partridges. Dunlop was unable to find his way back to his party as the sun began to set. He endeavoured to keep moving in the snow in order stave-off the cold but soon he grew sleepy. Dunlop decided on a new plan:

“I took off my snow shoes, and poured a quantity of rum into my moccasins; I buttoned my jacket, secured my fur cap about my ears, drew on my fur gloves, and calling a little dog I had with me, and laying my hands over my face, I made him lie on the top of all.”

Dunlop managed to fall asleep but when the sun rose, he found his feet were frozen. He managed to work his way back to the camp where ‘some old French Canadians’ took off his moccasins and rubbed his feet with snow. Dunlop said he felt extreme pain, along with fainting, when the sensation returned to his feet. After three weeks of bed rest, Dunlop recovered from his ordeal. Unfortunately, his little dog, Moses, died shortly after reaching camp. 

On February 23, you can join Fort Niagara for their Winter Survival event. You can experience what life was like for soldiers stationed at Fort Niagara in the winter and learn some 1812 winter survival techniques. I’m sure these techniques don’t include pouring rum into your shoes. Click here for more information.

February 13, 2013

Soldiers’ rations

One of the benefits to joining in the British or American armies was the benefit of receiving regular rations. Although soldiers did not receive the best quality food, it was still better than nothing.

For the British a typical ration in Europe consisted of one pound of bread, or one and a half pounds of flour, a pound of beef or half pound of pork, and smaller quantities of peas, butter, cheese, and rice, issued weekly. Soldiers were also expected to receive a portion of rum daily. As for the American army, each soldier was to receive daily one and a quarter pounds (including bones) of beef, or three quarters of a pound of pork, 18 ounces of bread or flour, and a due portion of salt, soap, vinegar, and candles. As well, soldiers were to receive a daily ration of one gill (four ounces) of whiskey, rum, or brandy.

Map of the Battle of Lundy's Lane from Lossing's
The Pictorial Field-Book of the War of 1812
Naturally, both armies experienced shortages in standard rations at various points during the war. Soldiers were able to purchase more food, typically at high prices. An example of the high prices can be seen at Fort Meigs during the summer of 1813 where the authorized sutler price for bacon was 25 cents, soap and chocolate were 50 cents, coffee was 62 ½ cents, and molasses was $3. As well, for a bottle of whiskey the cost was $1.25 and for brandy or rum the cost was $4.50 per bottle. These prices were very high for a typical American soldier since privates were paid about $8 a month.
Sometimes during the War of 1812 soldiers could receive an unexpected treat. Lieutenant John Le Couteur talks about receiving chocolate after the Battle of Lundy’s Lane. Le Couteur writes, “We had to wait on our slaughterhouse till 11 before we got a mouthful – when a great Camp Kettle full of thick chocolate revived us surprisingly, though we devoured it among dead bodies in all directions.” A truly morbid experience after the devastating Battle of Lundy’s Lane.

This long weekend you can experience some 1812-food items by heading to the Niagara Falls History Museum on Family Day, February 18, from 1 to 4 p.m. They will be having food demonstrations, 1812 dessert items and a scavenger hunt for the kids! Click here to find out more about this event.

February 06, 2013

Bite the bullet

Numerous phrases that we use today come from the 19th century. The phrase bite the bullet is often cited as a term involved in 19th century surgery. 

During the War of 1812, military hospitals did not use anaesthetics when performing surgery on patients. One gruesome operation was the amputation of limbs. Part of the operation involved the patient being held to a table while he bit down on a strap of leather or a piece of wood. One possible origin of the bite the bullet phrase comes from the belief that surgeons would have patients bite on a musket ball if a leather strap or wood was unavailable.

War of 1812 surgery kit
This explanation is not accurate. For starters, patients often passed out during major surgery, such as amputations. In addition, surgeons would be unlikely to give patients a musket ball to bite on since they could easily swallow it. Clearly, choking on a musket ball or bullet does not contribute to healing a patient.

The origin for the bite the bullet phrase comes from the Indian Rebellion of 1857. The story goes that a group of soldiers recruited by the British, the Sepoys, refused to fight when a new rifle design was issued to them. The new rifle used a greased paper cartridge that the soldiers would need to bite in order to use. Many soldiers refused to do so because the Hindu soldiers feared the grease was made of cow fat and the Muslim soldiers feared that the grease was pig fat. The theory is that soldiers were told to ignore their religious beliefs and bite the bullet. 

If you want to learn more about surgery and other common phrases that we use today from the 19th century, you can visit Fort George on Saturdays and Sundays until the end of March. Help warm them up with some good questions.