Military Subjects:  War of 1812

The War of 1812 Magazine

Issue 17: January 2012


Reviews: Books, Film, Collectables and Ephemera

A Scarlet Coat. Uniforms, Flags and Equipment of the British Forces in the War of 1812

Reviewed by Donald E. Graves

René Chartrand. A Scarlet Coat. Uniforms, Flags and Equipment of the British Forces in the War of 1812. Service Publications, Ottawa, 2011Hardcover, 228 pages, 400 illustrations ISBN 978-1-894581-59-2. C$69.95 (US$67.85).

For the student of the War of 1812, the past year has been a notable one in terms of the appearance of authoritative uniform reference books. First came René Chartrand's splendid book, A Most Warlike Appearance, which surveyed the subject of American military and naval dress of the conflict and now the same author has given us A Scarlet Coat, which covers the British and Canadian forces..

This new book has a similar format to A Most Warlike Appearance but its scope is even more extensive as not only does it cover British and Canadian regular, fencible, and militia cavalry, infantry and artillery dress, it also includes the uniforms of foreign and West Indian regiments, the Indian Department and the Royal Navy and Provincial Marine. And that is not all. Chartrand has included separate chapters on winter dress (important in the Canadian theatre), arms, accoutrements, Colours and flags, the medical service, the civil departments (barrackmasters and ordnance storekeepers and, finally, a chapter on the soldier's wife. The text is professionally documented and the 400 illustrations are a mixture of period artwork and portraits, photographs of actual artefacts and accurate reconstructions by the best modern military artists. There are many pages of colour including representations of the drummer's lace of the most prominent British units of the war. Three appendices contain an excellent selection of photographs of shako plates, belt plates and buttons while a fourth has lengthy extracts from the 1802 "Uniform Regulations" (and the author explains in his text why that phrase should be placed within quote marks).

It is difficult to talk about this book without lapsing into hyperbole. The reviewer is familiar with all of the major reference works on British and Canadian War of 1812 uniforms published in the last seven decades but none compare in scope or quality with A Scarlet Coat, which is the result of 45 years of work on the part of Chartrand in American, British and Canadian archives, libraries and museums. Among uniform experts, Chartrand is unique because, being for many years the chief curator of the Canadian National Historic Sites Service, he actually commissioned much of the fine uniform paintings by such modern artists as Courcelles, Embleton, Leliepvre, Marrion and Troiani that grace the pages of this work. In addition, he was a close personal friend of the great British uniform researcher, W.Y. Carmen, who permitted Chartrand to freely access that gentleman's personal archives, which date back to the 1920s. The result is a very fine reference work.

All that being said, I do have some quibbles. Because the British regiments of foot differed only in their lace, facings and button material, I think these components of their dress might have been covered in a chart that would have served as a quick reference for the researcher. Secondly, I did note a fair number of minor typographical errors -- the most glaring being a private man of the Upper Canada coloured company being miscaptioned as an officer of the Select Embodied Militia of Lower Canada. The author and publisher, however, have had the very bright idea of setting up a website that not only lists and corrects such errors as have been found but also includes additional information that Chartrand has discovered since A Scarlet Coat went to print and that new material is currently five pages long and growing. See http:www/ for more details

In sum, because of the depth and breadth of its research, A Scarlet Coat will not only become the definitive source on British and Canadian uniforms, arms and equipment of the War of 1812, it will be a very authoritative source on those facets of the British army in the last decade of the Napoleonic Wars. This is thus a book that belongs in the library of not only those historians, curators, re-enactors, figure modellers and wargamers of the War of 1812 but also on the bookshelves of anyone interested in the British army of the Napoleonic wars.

For its price, A Scarlet Coat is not cheap but on the other hand it is worth every single penny.



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