The Militia Myth in the War of 1812

The War of 1812 is a heavily mythologized event in the collective historical conscience of Canadians.  There are numerous legends surrounding the War of 1812, and each year thousands of school children learn the stories of General Isaac Brock, his tragic death and the valiant defence of Upper Canada by Canadian militia.  This interpretation has given rise to the Canadian “militia myth,” the idea that much of the credit for the defence of Canada in the War of 1812 can be attributed to the actions of Canadian soldiers.  Historically, the sedentary militia in Upper Canada during the War of 1812 played an integral but often misunderstood part in the defence of Canada, given the limited role they were assigned during the war.  These citizen soldiers, drawn from the ranks of society aged anywhere from sixteen to sixty years old, primarily from the small garrison town of York, were called upon to defend their homes in a time of war.

This paper will focus on why popular histories of the war have portrayed the importance of the sedentary militia in a way that differs from the historical interpretations of their performance and usefulness in the War of 1812. The discrepancies between these interpretations can be linked to existing political, social and economic factors in Upper Canada before and directly after the war.  By examining the sedentary militia units from York, and juxtaposing the actual war service records against public reaction and contemporary popular opinion, the reasons for political and military manipulation of these events will become clear.  This review will give an understanding of how aspects of the York political and social culture contributed to the initial dissemination of the Canadian militia myth.

Before examining the performance of the Canadian sedentary militia during the War of 1812, it is important to first understand their composition and structure.  The local units in the Home District, comprising the town of York and its environs, were the 1st, 2nd and 3rd York Militia Regiments.  These regiments were “composed of all eligible men between 16 and 60 living within,” the district, although the numbers were in actuality much lower than the theoretical maximum due to low turnout and non-enforcement of the militia law.[1] Besides the regular British army soldiers garrisoned sporadically throughout the province, these militiamen constituted the sole line of defence against attack.  Organized much like other militia units throughout Upper Canada, the York “militiamen who were called out and either volunteered or were drafted to serve for a defined (and relatively short period, generally no more than a month) were described as ‘embodied militia.’”[2] These citizen soldiers for the most part lacked any formal military training.  Recognizing that “it was not possible to effectively train all of the 13,300 Upper Canadian men available for militia duty in the early months of 1812,”[3] General Isaac Brock, chief in command of the British military in Upper Canada and acting Lieutenant- Governor of the province, worked on correcting this major deficiency.  Brock “called for the formation of unpaid volunteer companies called flank companies that were to be armed, accoutred, and partially trained,” who could “provide a body of loyal young men that could be called on in an emergency.”[4] Additionally, select groups of sedentary militia volunteers were organized into artillery and mounted companies.  York militia units, by the beginning of the war in June 1812, in addition to having standard sedentary companies, were further supplemented by trained flank companies, a Troop of Horse, and a Rifle Company.[5] These improvements made on the eve of the conflict would prove militarily beneficial for the British throughout the war.

Given the partial training and small size of the York militia units, their value to the British command throughout the war was limited but overall fairly admirable.  The Battle of Queenston Heights, fought against an American invasion in October of 1812, is a primary example of how the militia’s role was viewed throughout the war.  The attention the battle received after the war is attributed in part to the fairly large number of troops involved on both sides, and to the death of General Brock.  The militia’s involvement in this engagement gave them a higher profile than they likely deserved.

In the tense days before October 13, 1812, the flank companies and other elements of all three York militia regiments were stationed on the Niagara frontier, spread out in the vicinity of Fort George and the village of Queenston.  Upon discovery of the American invasion in Queenston in the early morning hours, elements of the York militia were called into action.  As American soldiers came ashore, “flankers from the 2nd York Regiment were also on hand,” with the detachment of regular troops and Niagara militiamen, “and brought forty men to the fight,” for the village.[6] Nearby, other detachments of York militia were engaged with manning and guarding batteries aimed at the American side of the river.  Three miles distant from Queenston, “a portion of the two flank companies of the 3rd York militia was encamped at Brown’s Point serving a 9-pdr. long gun.”[7] Unclear of their orders, “after some deliberation over the apparent severity of the fighting,” in the distance, they decided to “head for Queenston,” and assist in any manner required.[8] Another detachment of the 3rd York under Lieutenant Archibald McLean, guarding a similar battery up the road at Vrooman’s Point, viewed General Brock speeding down the River Road to Queenston from Fort York.  Following the arrival of his comrades from Brown’s Point, McLean decided to bring his detachment to the scene of the battle as well.  Though they had high expectations and acted in a spirit of patriotism and in an earnest desire to lend meaningful assistance, their overall contributions to the battle raging in Queenston were marginal.

Arriving in force shortly after Brock’s fatal charge up the heights, “the two flank companies of York militia,” under Lieutenant-Colonel John Macdonell, Brock’s aide-de-camp, “launched a second attack.  It managed to recapture the redan and drive the enemy up the hillside.”[9] At this juncture, Lt-Colonel Macdonell was mortally wounded.  Owing to the ensuing confusion among the militia, “they again retreated,” back down the hill into the village “by the ground in the rear of the town,” where they and the British regulars hunkered down to “await the expected reinforcement from Fort George.”[10] For the men of the York militia, the remainder of their service at Queenston Heights was limited.  Parties took care of wounded soldiers and rounded up the occasional prisoners.  Later in the afternoon, General Roger Hale Sheaffe, replacing Brock as commander of the forces, led a counter-attack against the Americans on the heights.  In the line of battle, the York regiments along with other local “militia were intended to form in a line behind and to the left of the main body of regulars,” and act in a support of the attack as it moved against the American lines.[11] Sheaffe’s offensive was a success; soon the York militia found themselves in command of the Heights along with the army.  The battle was over.

The outcome of the Battle of Queenston Heights for the men of the York militia regiments was a relative success.  The three regiments combined only suffered four deaths and three wounded, a considerably smaller toll than the British or American forces.[12] The militia came away from the battle “with a pride in having fought in a victorious major battle,” and the knowledge they had successfully assisted in the defence of “their families and homes.”[13] However, the Battle of Queenston Heights represents both a typical and atypical example of militia service.  In most other battles of the war, the role of the militia was considerably limited in comparison to Queenston Heights.  This is understandable, as the Upper Canadian militia “was not intended to be the primary line of defence,”[14] for the province in any military undertaking.  Throughout the rest of the war, the militia was relegated to the important (but not primary) role of supporting the war effort off the battlefield.  These efforts that often “do not appear in the official dispatches,” included such tasks as manning “the different garrisons, so allowing the regular troops to act in the field,” as well as doing much of the manual labour required in building “fortifications and blockhouses.”[15] It is through an understanding of these roles played by the militia throughout the war that the “militia myth” has been brought into proper focus. In general, the militia was “significant and proved vital to the ultimate success of the forces of the Crown,”[16] but they did not operate in a vacuum.  The militia always acted in a supporting role to the British regulars.  Yet in order to understand the origins and motivations behind the initial promulgation and construction of the militia myth in Upper Canada, one must focus on the perception of battles such as Queenston Heights among citizens of the village of York during and after the war.

Initial interpretations of the significance of the York militia at Queenston Heights by one prominent citizen had a huge impact on the psyche of Upper Canadians.  The battle represented both a major victory as well as a major loss with the death of General Brock.  In the community of York, citizens were dazzled by “the exploits of the militia flank companies which had accompanied Brock,” and who had selflessly “fought as auxiliaries at Queenston Heights,” reports that “were soon exaggerated by local patriotism.”[17] This enthusiastic interpretation found its greatest articulator in Bishop John Strachan, Anglican Archbishop of York.  He was referred to as ‘John Toronto’ by some historians due to the enormous influence and impact he had on the early political and social development of the city.  In November of 1812 he made a statement after his sermon that has come to represent the beginning of the historiography of the Upper Canadian militia myth.  Strachan famously declared that:

It will be said by the future historian, that the Province of Upper Canada, without the assistance of men or arms, except a handful of regular troops, repelled its invaders, slew or took them all prisoners…And never, surely, was greater activity shewn in any country, than our militia have exhibited, never greater valour, cooler resolution, and more approved conduct; they have emulated the choicest veterans, and they have twice saved the country.[18]

This assertion of the primacy of the militia’s role in defending the province, coming so soon after the Battle of Queenston Heights, raises some interesting questions about why Strachan’s generous and favourable interpretation was never criticized, in particular by British authorities or even by the general public.  Rather, Strachan’s views were adopted into the popular history of the province.

One possible explanation for this discrepancy has been proposed by the Canadian historian R. Arthur Bowler.  In “Propaganda in Upper Canada in the War of 1812,” Bowler suggests that Upper Canadians were intentionally misled about the performance and role of the sedentary militia to serve British political interests as part of a major propaganda war waged by both sides during the war.  An examination of the War of 1812 era reveals a “British propaganda effort,” that was both “extensive and relatively sophisticated.”[19] The media in Upper Canada was fairly limited during this period.  Yet the local “newspapers which in times of peace were usually dull compilations of advertisements,” were oftentimes transformed by the British “on occasion into little more than patriotic handbills, featuring editorials and prominently displayed and carefully composed letters to the editor,” that argued patriotic cases for continued pursuance of the war.[20] Even sermons by John Strachan, whose limitless patriotism has already been noted, were published in the York newspaper, the Upper Canada Gazette.  Though this media focus on the positive aspects of the conflict, particularly concerning the achievements of the militia, is rooted in “the very natural instinct to conceal failure and advertise success,” Bowler argues “it is possible to go beyond that.”[21] Though the media was used extensively to promote the British cause, other government efforts were made to enhance the militia’s image.

In particular, the official position of the Upper Canadian government throughout this whole period was also crucial in influencing public perception of the militia. One of Brock’s major contributions while serving as Lieutenant Governor was the “public stance he maintained in the face of the widespread defeatism and disaffection he found,”[22] among Upper Canadians.  While his private correspondence with Sir George Prevost, Governor-General of the Canadas, reveals significant concerns about the loyalty of the Upper Canadian militia, in his speech to the legislature he commended the militiamen for “the promptitude and Loyalty of their conduct.”[23] By maintaining the appearance of militia loyalty, Brock hoped to quell any attempt to stir up disaffection or treason in the province.  The efforts of the government, centred in the capital York, to portray the militia in a positive light throughout the War of 1812 had a direct impact on York’s public perception of the militia’s importance to the conflict.

Psychological factors also had considerable influence on public assessments of the York militia regiments.  Word of “the first Anglo-Canadian victories must have instilled a sense of pride in the residents of Upper Canada.”[24] For the first time in the province’s young history, residents of York and other small towns finally “had a Canadian hero who embodied the ideals of British justice, fortitude, and courage in the defence of their own homes.”[25] The impact of this idealistic pride cannot be understated.  These new ideals and “currents of thought and feeling that course through and invigorate,”[26] the life of a colony like Upper Canada have long lasting historical reverberations. National unity was severely lacking in Upper Canada prior to the beginning of the War of 1812, and the conflict provided an opportunity for increased provincial integration.  By associating the victory of the Anglo-Canadians in the War of 1812 with the superiority of their values and virtues, Upper Canadians reinforced their own sense of nationality and self-worth.  Provincial popular culture through the rest of the nineteenth century continually harkens back to these founding values, perpetuating the myth that “in town, village, and sparsely populated townships, the staunch Canadians rose as one man, determined, at all hazards, to stand by the old flag, and go forth, under that venerated ensign, to fight to the death for king, country and home.”[27] An intense desire for nationality and unity firmly entrenched these ideals into the Upper Canadian psyche, however misrepresentative of the York militia’s actual service record they were.

The subsequent treatment of Upper Canadians by American forces during the war provided something for residents to rally around.  The village of York was captured by an American army in 1813, and many of the public buildings and garrisons were burned to the ground, giving “the town a severe shock.”[28] Many recent immigrants from the United States living in the Upper Canada, those most suspected of harbouring treasonous intentions towards the British, were further driven to adopting and perpetuating a distinctly Upper Canadian identity by “the depredations of the American military,” that made very “clear to these former Americans who they were not, and in the defence of their new homeland they would fight with formidable determination.”[29] However, the psychological impact of the war’s atrocities on the York citizenry was slightly overstated.  After the war, “traces of destruction were hard to find within months of the peace.  Maimed veterans, surviving on meager pensions and charity from the Patriotic Fund, were easily forgotten.”[30] Nevertheless, Upper Canadians centred on York at the focal point of this previous ‘American threat,’ real or imagined, continued to advocate the belief that the War of 1812 helped to forge the origins of Upper Canadian nationality.

In explaining this, it is important to examine the economic and political aspects of Upper Canada throughout the post-war period.  For many Upper Canadian businessmen, “the war years had in fact been a time of considerable prosperity, when large amounts of money had been spent to carry on the conflict.”[31] However, that time of marked prosperity ended with the war.  Most of “the years after the war were a time of economic frustration for the people of Upper Canada, not made easier by the knowledge that their republican neighbours were ‘going ahead’ at a rapid rate”[32] of economic growth.  This period of economic stagnation left many businessmen longing for the ‘golden years’ of the war.  York business, like other “farmers and merchants,” throughout the province “soon mourned the years when British agents bought anything they could provide and paid in army bills faithfully redeemed at par.”[33] Economic difficulties in the wake of the War of 1812 further perpetuated the idea of the war as ‘golden years,’ which in turn enhanced the credibility and believability of the militia myth for many Upper Canadians.

The political interests of prominent Upper Canadians after the War of 1812 also had direct linkages to the solidification and preservation of the militia myth.  A pervasive “suspicion of American republicanism increased generally throughout the province,” a view promoted by those “highest among those in or close to the government,” of the province.[34] These leaders used the suspicions aroused by the war and their own war services to promote both their political careers and by association, the reputation of the York militia.  Such individuals, particularly “men such as John Strachan and his former pupil John Beverley Robinson,” who was present as Lieutenant in the 3rd York Militia Regiment at the Battle of Queenston Heights, “emerged from the conflict convinced that they had narrowly escaped absorption from the United States.”[35] They crafted a conservative minded and exclusive government advisory body, later known as the ‘Family Compact’ in Upper Canadian history.  Most of the prominent political figures in the early to mid-nineteenth century political arena in Upper Canada, were veterans of the York militia at Queenston Heights.  Robinson would go on to become Attorney-General of the province[36], while other militia veterans such as William Hamilton Merritt and Archibald McLean also rose to prominence.  Service in the militia during the War of 1812, particularly in the “brave York volunteers,”[37] as Brock had supposedly referred to them on the morning of the battle, became a successful means of self-promotion for many prosperous Upper Canadians in early nineteenth century politics.

The Upper Canadian militia myth is intertwined with several aspects of politics, social conditions and the economics of the early nineteenth century.  The York militia regiments, unprepared and untrained for the outbreak of hostilities, played an important yet misinterpreted role in the defence of the province.  The Battle of Queenston Heights illustrates many of the militia’s typical roles throughout the war, particularly those involving support operations of the main British forces’ activities.  However, particular elements of the battle, specifically the York militia’s brave assaults of American positions in coordination with British regular soldiers, have stood out more prominently within the historical memory of Upper Canadians.  Reinforced by the positive and overgenerous interpretations of leading citizens such as John Strachan, as well the deliberate propaganda of the British government, residents of York began to develop a heightened sense of the militia’s performance in the war.  The growth of nationalism in Upper Canada, influenced in turn by both the incorrect assessment of the militia’s performance and popular depictions of a strong and distinct ‘Canadian’ character in literature, solidified the myth’s place in the historiography of the war.  The psychological and economic impact on the citizens post-war sharpened these feelings.  Opportunities for political advancement by some prominent York militia veterans further disseminated the militia myth in popular Canadian history.  The Upper Canadian militia myth developed as a result of a deliberate and sometimes expedient reinterpretation of events that served a political and social usefulness during and after the War of 1812.

Endnotes


[1] William Gray.  Soldiers of the King: the Upper Canadian Militia 1812-1815.  (Erin: Boston Mills Press, 1995)  pg. 11

[2] Gray, pg. 12

[3] Robert Malcomson.  A Very Brilliant Affair: The Battle of Queenston Heights, 1812.  (Toronto: Robin Brass Studio, 2003)  pg. 47

[4] Gray, pg. 20

[5] Ibid.  pg. 15

[6] Malcomson, pg. 135

[7] Ibid. pg. 146

[8] Ibid.

[9] J. Mackay Hitsman.  The Incredible War of 1812: A Military History.   (Toronto: Robin Brass Studio, 1999) pg. 96

[10] Major John Richardson.  Richardson’s War of 1812.   Ed. Alexander Casselman.  (Toronto: Historical Publishing Co., 1902) pg. 109

[11] Malcomson, pg. 186

[12] These represent the most accurate numbers that have been compiled by Malcomson from several sources, including Gray.  Malcomson, pg. 271

[13] Ibid. pg. 214

[14] Gray, pg. 43

[15] Ibid. pg 44

[16] Ibid. pg. 43

[17] Hitsman, pg. 103

[18] Attributed to an exhortation of John Strachan.  Report of the Loyal and Patriot Society of Upper Canada.  CIHM Microfiche 55056 (WD Jordon)

[19] R. Arthur Bowler,  “The War of 1812.”  from  J.M. Bumsted, Interpreting Canada’s Past: Volume One.  (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1993) pg. 320

[20] Ibid.

[21] Ibid. pg. 322

[22] Ibid. pg. 326

[23] Quoted in Bowler, pg. 326

[24] Jane Errington, “A Developing Upper Canadian Identity: Kingston’s View of the United States and Great Britain, 1810-1815.”  Unpublished MA Thesis.  Queen’s University at Kingston, 1980. pg. 96

[25] Ibid.

[26] A.G. Bailey.  Culture and Nationality.  (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1972) pg. 180

[27] Agnes Machar.  For King and Country.  (Toronto: Adam, Stevenson & Co., 1874) pg. 167

[28] C.P. Stacey.  The Battle of Little York.  (Toronto: Historic Fort York, 2002) pg. 21

[29] Victor Suthren.  The War of 1812.  (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1999) pg. 24

[30] Desmond Morton.  A Military History of Canada.  (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1985) pg. 70

[31] Gerald Craig.  Upper Canada: The Formative Years.  (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1963) pg. 86

[32] Ibid.

[33] Morton, pg. 70

[34] Craig, pg. 85

[35] Ibid.

[36] William Smith.  Political Leaders of Upper Canada.  (Toronto: Thomas Nelson & Sons, 1931) pg. 58

[37] Attributed to General Isaac Brock on his ride to Queenston the morning of 13 October 1812.  Quoted in Malcomson, pg. 147

8 responses to “The Militia Myth in the War of 1812

  1. David Crombie

    Are there published lists of the York Militia? Specifically the 3rd Regiment? My gt gt grandfather was supposedly part of this Regiment and was among those captured by the American Forces at the Battle of York. His name was EBER WHITE. Thank you very much.

    • Published lists are available through various archival sources. For you a good start might be “Soldiers of the King: The Upper Canadian Militia 1812-1815″ by William Gray, which contains lists of active members of the Upper Canada militia throughout the war and various information related to them. Good luck!

      • Dear Mr. Bennett, What can you tell me about the citizen soldiers of Upper Canada Militia? Is there a list of who were theres soldiers & what area where they were living durning the war of 1812 ( Niagara Region )? I had a ancestor who lived in the Niagara Region about 1809 & serviced in this war also.

  2. Fred Blair

    Please note that William Gray’s book contained lists of only the two flank companies in each regiment. A militia regiment may have had as many as eight other companies. I have transcripts for the 2nd York, recruited from what was then the western portion of York County or the Head-of-the-Lake, published online at http://www.ogs.on.ca/services/1812-militia.php. Looking at the transcripts you will note that men served in more than one company during the war. Some men also had exemptions from militia service. There is information there for accessing the militia payroll microfilms held by Library and Collections Canada in Ottawa through inter-library loan. You may also find information on using this material in the November issue of the Ontario Genealogical Society magazine Families.

  3. My g.g.g. grandfather was Sargeant Wm Ellis, Second York, Second Flank under Captain Applegarth. I am attempting to replicate the uniform they had during the war. No one seems to know what the uniform consisted of. Lt Colonel Drummond in 1814 proposed to give them the same uniform as the Glengary Light Infantry. In 1812 they apparently wore a dark buttoned civilian coat, pantaloons for the season and a top hat with a white handkerchef tied around their left arm. General Brock said one third were in their bare feet. Does any one know what uniform was issued to these soldiers?

  4. Adam

    That is an excellent piece. Thank you.

  5. J Cline

    Thank you. This whole “Canadians burnt your capital” thing has gone a bit too far, an easy slur for the intellectually lazy.

  6. Steven..I came across your blog doing some research in the European nationalities and religious faiths present in Canada during the War of 1812. My studio Thomas+Guinevere has been commissioned by Luminato and the City for the War of 1812 Commemoration to do The Encampment (www.thomasandguinevere.com). We are in the process of our Call for Public Participation. If you are interested to know more, let’s get in touch. Thom

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