The War of 1812: Militia and Civilian Life - Page Banner

The bulk of the inhabitants who served in the militia during the war had no previous experience at military life. Some of the senior officers had served in Loyalist regiments during the American War of Independence 30 years earlier or in regular British regiments before settling in the province. The organization of the militia was limited, prior to the war all able bodied males were officially members of the militia, the sedentary force, subject to call out. A much smaller force, the embodied militia, received some level of training but had little equipment. Personal issues intervened as well to limit the military value of the militia.

Family and property were at risk during invasions and they were called to serve elsewhere in the province. The supply system was not efficient partly due to theft of supplies, but mainly due to poor roads and the interception of supplies by enemy action. It was not always possible to ensure adequate shelter, clothing and food for the serving troops. This in turn led to problems between the military and civilians as they took what was required without worrying overmuch about payment.

Finally, and a point that is not always obvious, life as a soldier was unhealthy. They were exposed to inclement weather, poor food, and inadequate rest leading to long sick lists. The major killer in the War of 1812, as in all wars until late in the 19th century, was not battle wounds but disease. For all these reasons, desertion and avoiding service was a serious problem throughout the war.

Shortages

“(…) I begin to feel the want of cloth trousers it is a difficult matter to get my nakedness washed. And moreover the mornings are getting cool. And a fellow will soon begin to look funny in summer clothes. Get me a pair of grey trousers made like Robert Stanton's (…)”

Extract from an original letter from Thomas G. Ridout to his brother
George Ridout, September 4, 1813
Thomas Ridout family fonds
Reference Code: F 43, box MU 2390
Archives of Ontario



“I have furnished barracks for one hundred and twenty men and they are all on the spot, including the Rifle Company now on duty here. And all are in the greatest want of almost every necessary. And I have this day received a letter from Col. Vincent referring me to you for stoves, blankets, etc. and I must observe that we are in as great want of shoes, pantaloons, jackets, and watch coats for the Guard”

Extract from an original letter from Colonel Joel Stone to
Colonel Lethbridge, October 25, 1812
Joel Stone family fonds
Reference Code: F 536, MU 2892
Archives of Ontario

Sickness and Desertion

“Desertion has come to such height that 8 or 10 men go off daily. That black guard 104 first led the way. The army is not quite so sickly as it was …”

Extract from an original letter from Thomas G. Ridout (near Niagara)
to his brother George Ridout, September 16, 1813
Thomas Ridout family fonds
Reference Code: F 43, box MU 2390
Archives of Ontario

Letter from Lieutenant Colonel Benoni Wiltse to Colonel Joel Stone, April 13, 1813
Joel Stone family fonds
Reference Code: F 536, box MU 2892
Archives of Ontario

“Give me leave Sir to remark the duty I owe to my fellow creatures and as a true patriot to my country to remind you at the certain calamity that must befall us if the Militia are thus continued to be cawled [called] from their families. If they are cawled [called] one month or six weeks from their farms they can put no spring grain in the ground and the consequence will be that their families must inevitably suffer the famine even threatens before the ensuing harvest when there is but little sown that can be rept [reaped] if the farmers are prevented from putting in spring grain the famine will undoubted be dreadful.”

[Pension poster-Orphans] (details), 1817
Click to see a larger image (183K)
[Pension poster-Orphans] (details), 1817
Robert Nelles family fonds
Detail from a poster
Reference Code: F 542, box MU 2192
Archives of Ontario
[Pension poster-Widows] (details), 1817
Click to see a larger image (182K)
[Pension poster-Widows] (details), 1817
Robert Nelles family fonds
Detail from a poster
Reference Code: F 542, box MU 2192
Archives of Ontario

 


[Pension poster-Casualties] (details), 1817
Click to see a larger image (181K)
[Pension poster-Casualties] (details), 1817
Robert Nelles family fonds
Detail from a poster
Reference Code: F 542, box MU 2192
Archives of Ontario


Travelling

The easiest way of travelling in Upper Canada in the early 19th century was by way of water as roads were generally narrow and unfit for transportation of heavy loads. During the War, most troops had to go on foot. In this letter to his father, Thomas G. Ridout describes one such winter journey overland. Conditions were difficult for officers like Ridout, for enlisted men they would have been correspondingly worse.

“We have had a most harassing journey of 10 days to this place when we arrived last night in a snow storm. It has been snowing all day & is now half a foot deep. ...Frequently I had to go middle deep in a mud hole & unload the wagon & carry heavy trunks 50 yards waist deep in the mire & reload the wagon. Sometimes put my shoulder to the fore wheel & raise it up. One night the wagon [upset] going up a steep hill in the woods in one of the worst places I ever saw. Gee I carried the load up to the top whilst Mr. Couche rode on 3 miles in the rain for a lanthorn & about 11 o'clock we got it when we missed a trunk with 500 guineas [12 shilling coin] in it. Mr Couche & I immediately rode back 2 miles & found it in a mud hole but nothing lost ...”

Extract from an original letter from Thomas G. Ridout (Kingston)
to his father Thomas Ridout, November 1, 1813
Thomas Ridout family fonds
Reference Code: F 43, box MU 2390
Archives of Ontario



To listen to an excerpt from this letter in wav format (559K), click here.To listen to an excerpt from this letter in "wav" format (559K) click here. It is also available in "aif" format (559K).


War Weariness

“I am very anxious to know how things go on in your part of the world. … I will remember the many happy evenings I spent by your fire side, when we had nothing to think of but play cards, drink whiskey & watch the old horse by the window. … But these days are gone perhaps never to return.”

Extract from an original letter from Thomas G. Ridout
to his brother Samuel Ridout, December 3, 1813
Thomas Ridout family fonds
Reference Code: F 43, box MU 2390
Archives of Ontario



Financial Compensation

To preserve public stores captured from the enemy from destruction or looting, troops were paid on a sliding scale for the value of materials that would be of use to the war effort. The ranking officer in the unit, Captain J. B. Barthe, received 16 shares valued at £48; the ensign 8 shares totalling £24 down to privates receiving a single share.

Prize pay list for the […] capture of Fort Detroit n the 16th August 1812, 1815
Click to see a larger image (130K)
Prize pay list for the […] capture of Fort Detroit
on the August 16, 1812, 1815
Military records collection
Reproduction of a document
Reference Code: F 895, box MU 2036
Archives of Ontario

“[I] am concerned to say that my enquiries in favour of your nephew, Captain Henry Nelles, as regards prize money for Niagara, in December 1813, have received unsatisfactory replies. Lieut. Napier, a Deputy Assistant in my office, acts as prize agent for Captain [?], who is on leave in England; from him I leave that the grounds on which Major Simmons obtained a share was his having been called upon on the 14th Dec. at Burlington on duty by the General's orders, his having assisted afterwards in the conveyance of batteaux for the attack; whereas your nephew can claim for the Buffalo affair; from which, although highly creditable in every point of view, no prize money whatever arose; and in which many were employed, who could possibly share in the prior prize money of Niagara Fort. The 8th Regt. is in one instance of this; they were not at the capture of Fort Niagara, but were at Black Rock & Buffalo; yet they cannot share for Niagara.”

Extract from an original letter from Colley Foster (Quebec)
to Abraham Nelles, March 8, 1816
Abraham Nelles family fonds
Reference Code: F 543, box MU 2187
Archives of Ontario

Because the logistics system in Upper Canada was so poor militia officers were frequently compelled to provide equipment for the use of their men as well as themselves. They were also responsible for ensuring that the men under their command were paid for the service in the militia.

Claim 6 submitted by Merritt was for "pay due to private Andrew Donaldson and David McDonald of Capt. Merritts Troop while prisoners of war". The authorities allowed a payment of £15.3 for each man, for a period of 202 days. In the same claim Merritt received back pay amounting to £79.5.6 for 151 days of captivity.

Statement of claims made by Capt. Merritt of the Provincial Light Dragoons and
examined by a Board of Inquiry (…), 1815
William Hamilton Merritt family fonds
Reproduction of a claim
Reference Code: F 662, box MU 5849, package 4
Archives of Ontario

Civilian Life


Relations between civilian and military were not always smooth. Soldiers felt that civilians took advantage of them and charged high prices while civilians had to watch their possessions from friend and foe alike. Damage to personal property was a natural side affect of the war. Troops of either side stationed in a vicinity would use fence rails for fire wood, dig up gardens and steal livestock, particularly when the supply systems broke down. The government paid compensation for private possessions lost or damaged in military service and those destroyed by enemy or friendly troops.

“Tonight our dragoon is to make a grand attack on the onions. The nests are kept very nice and clean from eggs. The dragoon has just come in with a fine musk melon and a peck of onions. We feed a turkey at the door, which is doomed for our Sunday dinner”

Extract from an original letter from
Thomas G. Ridout to his father
Thomas Ridout, September 21, 1813
Thomas Ridout family fonds,
Reference Code; F 43, box MU 2390
Archives of Ontario

“We came to Thompson's the day before yesterday. I met with a most ungracious reception when Mr. Stanton went to the don. The old fellow told him he could not come in as his family occupied the whole house but that we might go into an old house a little distance of which was inhabited in the early periods of the world. Accordingly we shifted our Flag to the old wigwam, cleared it of rubbish, made a fire & fried a little Beef we had brought with us. In the Evening we cleaned out the dung & made a straw bed on the floor. We collect balm in the garden for tea. I carry on an extensive robbery of pears, apples, onions, corn, carrots [etc.] for we can get nothing but by stealing excepting some milk, which by the by is carefully measured. Bread & butter is out of the question. And to day we sent a Dragoon to the 12 after [their] articles. And Gee to the cross roads for beef and whiskey. Lewis cooked some & have bread yesterday."

Extract from an original letter from Thomas G. Ridout to
his brother George Ridout, September 4, 1813
Thomas Ridout family fonds
Reference Code; F 43, box MU 2390
Archives of Ontario



Letter from Thomas G. Ridout to
his brother George Ridout, September 4, 1813
Thomas Ridout family fonds
Reference Code: F 43, box MU 2390
Archives of Ontario

“We came to Thompson's the day before yesterday. I met with a most ungracious reception when Mr. Stanton went to the don. The old fellow told him he could not come in as his family occupied the whole house but that we might go into an old house a little distance of which was inhabited in the early periods of the world. Accordingly we shifted our Flag to the old wigwam, cleared it of rubbish, made a fire & fried a little Beef we had brought with us. In the Evening we cleaned out the dung & made a straw bed on the floor. We collect balm in the garden for tea. I carry on an extensive robbery of pears, apples, onions, corn, carrots [etc.] for we can get nothing but by stealing excepting some milk, which by the by is carefully measured. Bread & butter is out of the question. And to day we sent a Dragoon to the 12 after [their] articles. And Gee to the cross roads for beef and whiskey. Lewis cooked some & have bread yesterday."

Extract from an original letter from Thomas G. Ridout to
his brother George Ridout, September 4, 1813
Thomas Ridout family fonds
Reference Code; F 43, box MU 2390
Archives of Ontario

To listen to an excerpt from this letter in wav format (499K), click here.To listen to an excerpt from this letter in "wav" format (499K) click here. It is also available in "aif" format (499K).



Letter from Cathe Lyons (Chippewa) to Mrs. Thomas Ridout, October 16, 1814
Thomas Ridout family fonds
Reference Code; F 43, box MU 2391
Archives of Ontario

Fear of invasion caused uncertainty amongst civilians. The loss of home and possessions was a constant possibility.

Even in wartime, the civilian administration continued to maintain control over the traditional licensing laws.

“As to the authority of a commanding officer to establish such places of entertainment, I do not conceive that it can at all interfere with the laws of the Province respecting the vending of spirituous liquors by retail, or keeping an inn or public house; but that the penalty attaches equally upon all descriptions of people, and no military authority can protect them from it."

"If therefore a man, keeping a canteen in a military post by the sanction of his commanding officer entertains the people of the country, or retails liquors to them without the licence required for those purposes, I deem him unquestionably liable to the penalty, neither does it appear to me that is his custom be confined entirely to the soldiers of the garrison, he is at all less liable …”

Extract from a copy of a letter from J. B. Robinson to
John McGill, Inspector General, December 18, 1814
John Beverley Robinson family fonds
Reference Code; F 44, box MU 5911
Archives of Ontario

In this Exhibit -