The War of 1812: Soldiering in Canada (1812-1814) - Page Banner

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Blockhouse and Battery in Old Fort, Toronto, 1812, [ca. 1921]

Who Served in Upper Canada?

Letter The professional core of the defenders of Upper Canada during the War of 1812 were the British regulars who garrisoned the forts and smaller posts from Cornwall to Fort St. Joseph on Lake Huron. They were augmented by "Fencibles units" which were colonial regulars raised in the various parts of British North America, the most prominent being the Newfoundland Fencibles and the Voltigeurs raised in Lower Canada. The last and largest component of the military in Upper Canada were the local militia.


John Le Couteur followed a typical path as an officer during the War of 1812. He was born on Jersey, a Channel Island, in 1794, the son of General John Le Couteur, marking him for a military career. The beginnings of formal military training for prospective officers, still gentry, corresponded to the start of Le Couteur's military career. He was an early student of the Royal Military College and graduated with the rank of ensign in 1810, serving first in the 96th Foot.

In 1812 he was transferred to the 104th Regiment which was already stationed in Canada with the rank of Lieutenant. As an officer and a gentleman, Le Couteur was required to pay for his own equipment, food and uniforms out of his limited pay and whatever allowance or income he could obtain from his family. He was stationed in various parts of Upper Canada during the war, and was present at the Battle of Lundy's lane. Le Couteur survived the war and returned to England in 1817 with the rank of Captain. footnote #1


One of the advantages to serving as an officer was the option of resigning ones commission or selling it to a lower ranking officer for a profit. In wartime, not surprisingly, resignation would only be with the permission of a senior officer otherwise they would face sanctions for desertion. The standard of living available to officers depended upon their personal wealth, as pay, although far better than that of a private or sergeant, was generally inadequate to meet the social obligations and style that was expected of an officer and a gentleman.

The militia officer corps was drawn from the Upper Canadian equivalent of the British gentry. Property owners like William Hamilton Merritt were expected to serve in a leadership capacity, in his case as a Captain in the Provincial Dragoons (cavalry). Like regular officers they had to provide for themselves many articles of equipment and only the wealthier members of Upper Canadian society were in a position to do so. As the war progressed and became more intense militia officers faced a new kind of threat. They were targeted by pro-American inhabitants for punishment during periods of enemy occupation and at times they were taken from their homes by raiders and transported to the United States and imprisonment for the duration of the war.

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The Enlisted Men

Letter The ordinary private, the Tommy Aitkins of British tradition (a fictional character), came from a much different social and economic strata of society. Great Britain had no conscription in the 18th or 19th century but the difficult economic conditions faced by the rural and urban populations made enlistment an option for many who had few prospects. A man who accepted the "King's Shilling" on enlistment was subject to a long term of service, generally 20 years or more and could be transferred for service to any part of the British Empire or one of the theatres of war with France or the United States, including the backwoods of Upper Canada. In the field, the standard daily ration issued to each man consisted of a pound and a half of bread, a pound of fresh or salt beef and a half gill of rum (2 ounces or 70 ml). In addition to the monotony of this diet, the caloric intake for men doing heavy work was inadequate. The estimate of the daily ration was 2697 calories, while the current recommendation for modern, sedentary adult males is 3000 calories. footnote #2 The energy expended in the field would have far exceeded these levels.

Troops in garrison had better access to fresh food and vegetables, but shortages were a constant problem. The ordinary soldiers were housed in barracks that also served as strongpoints in the various forts. The blockhouses at Fort York and Fort George were the sleeping, eating and living quarters for the enlisted men. These log structures were loop-holed to allow defenders to fire out against attackers who had penetrated the main defences, leaving them drafty and difficult to heat. In the field, tents were seldom available for troops or officers so, unless a house or barn was available for temporary shelter while on campaign, men slept in the open.

Blockhouse and Battery in Old Fort, Toronto, 1812, [ca. 1921]

Click to see a larger image (77K)
Blockhouse and Battery in Old Fort, Toronto,
1812, [ca. 1921]
C. W. Jefferys
Pen and ink drawing on paper
Government of Ontario Art Collection, 621228

In return for this the private soldier was paid 1 shilling per day (frequently in arrears). In addition he was issued new clothing on a regular basis to replace worn-out uniforms. Le Couteur would have paid for his uniforms and rations out of deductions from his pay. Le Couteur received 4 shillings and 8 pence a day.


One of the things that separated officers from the enlisted men most graphically was the nature of punishment . An officer could be reduced in rank or forced out of the military or in extremely rare situations, face imprisonment or execution. Enlisted men faced a long list of corporal punishments for minor and major infractions of military discipline. The most common punishment was flogging, the number of strokes depending on the seriousness of the offence. Deserters faced severe floggings if recaptured, and in repeat cases execution by firing squad. Similar penalties applied for offences considered mutiny, such as striking a superior officer or defying orders.

The ordinary militiaman on duty received much the same pay and rations as his regular counterparts, but did not face the same severity of punishments. Most often he was a small farmer with no military experience or training and little interest in the military life. The ability to obtain service from the militia from coercion was limited as desertion into the home community was always an option for locals. Obtaining parole from further military service in areas occupied by American forces was also an option for many residents who did not relish active service, whatever their broader attitudes toward the war. Although technically obligatory, service in the militia was more an act of personal conviction in the Upper Canadian context.

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The Tactics

Letter The standard tactics used by the British infantry at this time was the line of battle. Men stood in two lines, shoulder to shoulder, and fired their smooth bore muskets in disciplined volleys. This tactic was dictated by the inaccuracy of the standard "brown bess" musket, and the need to achieve concentrated fire against a similar line of enemy troops. Also, a 19th century battlefield was a confused place. The muskets and artillery discharged a heavy white smoke that obscured opponents and messages from a commander to specific parts of the line could only be transmitted in writing or orally. It was not unusual for this "fog of war" to take control of the battlefield from the commanding officers and place it in the hands of chance and the individual soldiers. Theoretically one side would give way before the musketry or a final bayonet charge.

The fire of the infantry would be supplemented by light field artillery, these guns were identified by the weight of shot fired, from 3 pounds to 12 pounds, which were designed to batter defences or cut through the enemy infantry. At close range the guns could be loaded with "cannister" which turned them into large shotguns, spreading dozens of small iron balls or fragments in a wide path. First Nations warriors were employed as light troops which sought to turn the flank of an opponent. Of course in the heavily forested Upper Canada of 1812-1814, the formal tactics were not always applicable. Militia, First Nations and Regulars would take advantage of the cover offered by the trees and it was difficult to maintain the strict lines except in open fields. These tactics could result in heavy casualties, relative to the number of troops engaged.

Drawing: The Battle of Lundy's Lane, [ca. 1921]

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The Battle of Lundy's Lane, [ca. 1921]
C. W. Jefferys
Pen and ink drawing on paper
Government of Ontario Art Collection, 621234

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Footnotes:

  1. Donald E. Graves editor Merry Hearts Make Light Days: The War of 1812 Journal of Lieutenant John Le Couteur, 104th Foot. Ottawa: Carleton University Press, 1993. [Back]
  2. George Shepard. Plunder, Profit and Paroles: A Social History of the War of 1812 in Upper Canada. Montreal: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1994, p. 109. [Back]
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