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The War of 1812 Magazine

Issue 3: June 2006

Reviews: Books, Film, Collectables and Ephemera

Johnston, H. Winston. The Glengarry Light Infantry, 1812 1816: Who Were They and What Did They Do in the War? Charlottetown, P.E.I.: Benson Publishing, 2002 ( 1998). 363 pages; eight appendices, bibliography, index, maps and illustrations. ISBN# 0973050101. Softcover. Available from the author. C$25.00 (Canadian).

GLI Cover

"Perhaps there can be no military scene more fit for the pencil than a body of light infantry awaiting an attack. The variety of attitudes necessary to obtain cover the breathless silence the men attentive by eye and ear every glace (furtively lowered) directed to the point - some kneeling some lying down and some standing straight behind a tree the officer with his silver whistle in hand ready to give the signal to commence firing, and the bugle boy looking earnestly in his officer's face waiting for the next order" --Surgeon William Dunlop, on light infantry in the 1814 Niagara Campaign.

The militia and embodied regiments raised in Canada during the War of 1812 are among the least understood of the forces that fought in the war and the telling of their story has not been aided by the efforts of several professional historians forgetful of the fact that the writing history demands primary source research and not the repetition of work by earlier historians. While this review does not intend to recount the history or structure of the Canadian soldiers during the War of 1812, readers of this magazine may not be aware that between 1812 and 1816, six "regular" Canadian regiments[1] were raised in Upper and Lower Canada and the Maritimes. Five of these gained coveted positions on the Army List, albeit their seniority came after the Garrison and Royal Veteran battalions. Their status equated to that of "regular" troops and whose performance during the war was, in a word, superb. It is amazing that any lineage or battle honours these units might bestow to units currently on the order of battle were made null by an administrative decision in the Canadian Army Historical Section in the 1960s. To some functionary's mind, this period was not "Canadian." Why does history and heritage have to be so complex and subject to politics?

Like so many amateur historians, Dr Johnston's study derives from a passion for history and a lifelong interest in his subject. Indeed, Johnston chose early retirement from a successful career as a research scientist with Agriculture Canada to complete this book. Over the years, the author combed archives in Canada and the United Kingdom and many of the documents he found are reproduced throughout the text, while other are noted in the extensive endnotes. For those interested in genealogy, the list of officers and non-commissioned personnel provides a gold mine of information.

The Glengarry Light Infantry was formed just before the War of 1812 began to augment the British garrison in Canada. Although authorised as a line battalion, it received training as light infantry, employing tactics and wearing dress different to that of the red-coated line regiments. Its primary weapon was the smooth-bored India Pattern Musket, sporting one unique difference: affixed sights, a feature not normally available with the Brown Bess. During the smoothbore era, the effects of fire considerable smoke - made observation difficult and aimed fire virtually impossible after the first round. Consequently smooth bore weapons were not produced with sights (although some units did modify their weapons) and aiming was not part of the drill when firing indeed the last word of command before firing was not "aim," but "present," during which a soldier "levelled" his weapon at the target area based on the probable range. Since light infantry tactics demanded dispersion, the obscuration encountered by the tightly packed line companies after fire was less severe and increased the possibility and need - for aimed fire. Several of the coveted Baker Rifles, the primary rifled weapon of the British Army reserved normally for rifle regiments, may also have been issued to the Glengarrys (p. 58). Light infantry also demanded other skills of their soldiers, particularly as individual initiative was very important.

The Glengarrys were to have worn Highland dress and recruited exclusively from Glengarry County in Upper Canada. However, as war loomed, these plans were changed and it became a fencible regiment of the regular British Army, designated as the Glengarry Light Infantry Fencible Regiment, or more popularly as the Glengarry Light Infantry or simply the Glengarrys. Highland dress was discarded and recruiting area expanded to include all of Upper and Lower Canada, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island.

Between 1812 and 1816, some 1,400 men served in the ranks of the Glengarrys and of these, one-third became casualties. Period casualty reports were notorious for being incomplete and the author estimates that at least 53 died from battle injuries, a further 165 men were wounded in action, 140 lost to disease, another 48 captured and 17 were missing in action. Of those soldiers whose origin is known (about 50%), the majority came from Lower Canada, while the number of foreign born personnel reflects percentages found in other British regiments, with Englishmen, Irish and Scots and others born in the United States, Italy, Ireland, German, Poland and at least a dozen other countries. Many of its officers and non-commissioned officers came with experience from campaigns in Europe and elsewhere. The Glengarrys participated in many of the major actions in the northern theatre of operations including Ogdensburg, York, Fort George, the raid on Sackets Harbor, Lundy's Lane, Fort Eire and Cook's Mills. Individual officers and soldiers also participated in many other actions.

One of the more interesting campaigns in which the Glengarrys participated was the 1814 Niagara, during which they were often employed as screening or reconnaissance troops for the British Right Division. This intensive 125-day campaign included several major battles, minor actions and a siege that tested the fighting skill and administrative machinery of both opponents. During this campaign the American undoubtedly fielded their best trained division of the war. The most famous action therein was the Battle of Lundy's Lane fought on 25 July 1814, where the Glengarrys fought with a strength of 376 officers and men. At one point, in order to engage the Americans in the flank the battalion manoeuvred at a right angle to the British line. Consequently, when Lieutenant-General Drummond, commanding the forces in Upper Canada, ordered a realignment of the line, poor light conditions made the identification of the Glengarrys green uniforms difficult, resulted in their coming under fire from the 103rd and 104th Regiments - ironically, the latter regiment had also been recruited in Canada. American troops respected the Glengarrys fighting skill at Lundy's Lane and as one American soldier noted, the Glengarrys were "scattered according to the practice of irregular warfare, taking ev'ry advantage of which the open nature of the ground would admit" (p. 148).

The book also includes a good account of the rarely recounted action at Cook's Mills, which proved to be the last major engagement by the Glengarrys. Shortly thereafter, General Drummond concluded the unit was worn out and ordered it into winter quarters at Kingston and with a few months, the war ended.

Winston Johnson has written a superlative study of a fine Canadian unit. His research has overturned several popular myths regarding the Glengarry Light Infantry and the war itself. The research is impeccable and the writing is generally good. The only complaint this reviewer has is that while a great deal of data is presented, there is little analysis. For example it would haven been worthwhile to offer a comparison of the Glengarrys with other units raised in Canada or with British regiments. While some might argue this is beyond the scope of a regimental history, it would provide greater context and insight into the Glengarrys themselves. Nonetheless, this is an outstanding work that should find its way into personal and institutional libraries. Hopefully, The Glengarry Light Infantry, 1812 1816 will spur a number of other regimental histories from this war.

Reviewed by John R. Grodzinski


[1] Five which appeared on the Army List were the Royal Newfoundland Fencible Infantry, the Nova Scotia Fencible Infantry, the Canadian Fencible Infantry, the Glengarry Light Infantry Fencibles and the New Brunswick Fencibles. Another regiment, raised in Lower Canada and paid for by the provincial government was the Voltiguers Canadiens.