The Myth of the ‘Militia Myth’

Robert Henderson is the former Military Curator for Parks Canada and manages a Heritage products and services company for museum, collector and film industry clients in more than twenty countries. He operates the popular website, Warof1812.ca, and his next book is Desperate Bravery: The Last Invasion of Quebec, 1814.

Bullets began to whistle by him as Captain John Jenkins neared his target. Drifting snow impeded his every step. Opening the front of his long woollen greatcoat had helped his movement but still it was a struggle. Jenkin’s men of the Glengarry Light Infantry Fencibles had kept pace with him, along with the detachment of Canadian militia under his command. The plan that morning of February 22, 1813 had his force crossing the frozen St. Lawrence River to cut off escape by the American forces at Ogdensburg, New York. However from the increasing muzzle flashes ahead, it was clear his column, and not his commander’s, would face the brunt of it.

With his sleigh-mounted six-pounder artillery piece stuck in a snow drift, hopes of laying down significant suppression fire to ease his advance had been dashed. Undaunted, the New Brunswicker called for his men to fix bayonets and prepare to storm the enemy position. American riflemen kept up a continual fire, sniping from behind their barracks buildings and palisade. The New York Militia artillerymen had allowed the wheels of their artillery pieces to become frozen to the ground. They had worked frantically to correct their mistake, and were now moving their guns to answer the threat from Jenkins’ force. With a wave of his sword, 27-year-old Jenkins cheered his men forward as he led the attack.

Now in position to create crossfire, the American artillery let fly. Grape-shot spewed out into the advancing column. One of the small iron balls struck Jenkins, shattering his left arm. Rising to his feet, Jenkins was powered forward by adrenaline. Continuing to wave his sword and cheering his men on, the gallant young officer slowly closed the distance. Loaded with case-shot, a cannon muzzle exploded with a flash, launching a moving wall of musket-balls. Jenkins’ right arm was hit and his sword tumbled into the snow. One Glengarry Light Infantryman from the Kingston area remembered: “Here were my fellows falling on my right and on my left, some dead and some wounded. Just before we reached the shore on the enemy’s side of the river, I received a shot a little below my ankle joint, which brought me down on the ice.”1

Still Jenkins moved forward, calling for his men to follow, but the blood-loss and fatigue were too much. Helped from the battlefield, Jenkins was ferried back across to Prescott for medical attention. Assessing Jenkins’ state, Assistant Surgeon David Griffiths determined his right arm could be saved but his left would have to be removed. Griffiths’ knife quickly sliced the skin were the saw blade would pass. Handed his amputation saw by an attendant, Griffiths quickly cut Jenkins left arm off near the shoulder. How Jenkins handled himself during this operation is unknown. After his stump and right arm were treated and bandaged, he was carried to hospital to rest with the other wounded.

Though the soldier’s wives-turned-nurses were attentive, the room’s temperature fluctuated from overpowering heat to freezing cold. According to Griffiths, the amputees suffered the most from poor conditions in the hospital.2 Near Jenkins’ bed lay Lieutenant Philip Empey of the Stormont Militia from Cornwall, Upper Canada. Empey had also fallen victim to American artillery, his right leg amputated by Griffiths’ busy saw. How he would tend his farm and provide for his family he would have to address later.

While victorious that day, the British and Canadians had suffered seven killed and upwards of forty-five wounded in the Battle of Ogdensburg. The only British unit in the engagement, the 8th Regiment of Foot, had one killed and fifteen wounded. The rest were Canadian. This isn’t surprising, since 77% of the total attacking force was made up of Canadian units. The victory itself removed a key threat to the exposed supply line to Upper Canada for the rest of the war.

After recovery, Jenkins returned to his native New Brunswick, taking up the post of Fredericton’s town Major, supervising locally-stationed troops. He married Penelope Winslow soon afterwards, and one could presume thereafter a happy end to Jenkins’ story. His wife revealed otherwise: “the poor fellow has returned from the wars covered with laurels but he has the loss of an arm to lament and the other severely wounded which remains very troublesome yet.”3 His damaged arm continued to torment him. In 1817 Penelope said the arm “is better, at least it has healed but I think he suffers more pain from it than he did while it was open.”

The following year Lt. James MacAulay, the officer who had taken command when Jenkins was wounded, knew he “has suffered too much from his unfortunate wounds to find pleasure in writing.”4 He went on to describe his former captain as “one of the best fellows ever I knew and I should be sorry to forget him.” John Jenkins died on February 9, 1819, almost six years to the day he had charged across the frozen St. Lawrence.

Jenkins’ story is but one of hundreds like it. MacAulay’s lament, lest we forget his gallant company commander, is poignant and commands attention even today.

But have Canadians forgotten?

In a debate last fall in Ottawa, historian Jack Granatstein and the Globe and Mail’s Jeffrey Simpson both downplayed the Canadian role in the War of 1812. Simpson asserted that tracing Canadian regiments’ roots back to 1812 represents “a complete rewriting of history, such as we might expect but do not deserve. … There was no Canadian army, although there were Canadian volunteers serving with the British …” Granatstein agreed, saying: “The Canadian militia, their successor regiments now getting largely unearned battle honours, did almost nothing and sustained very light casualties.”

In fact it is Simpson and Granatstein who are mistaken. In fairness, their desire to downplay the Canadian role is understandable because that role has been exaggerated in the past. What they are responding to is the age-old Canadian “militia myth.”

Where did the “militia myth” come from? Throughout the nineteenth century the story of the War of 1812 was told with great patriotic fervour. The romantic notion of the modest Canadian farmer standing up to and kicking a gang of American ruffians out of Canada had great appeal. Cultivating pride in Canadian valour also helped some political and ecclesiastical leaders gain power and influence. Facts slowly became distorted, overstating the role of the Canadian Sedentary Militia (units of citizen soldiers who had little or no training and were called out only in emergencies). With the threat of attack from the United States always in the background, one cannot fault the leaders of the day for being free with the facts. However, a myth had been born: the myth that the Canadian militia faced down the Americans with little help from the British or First Nations.

The first historian to debunk that myth was Ernest Cruikshank in “Records of Canadian Regiments in the War of 1812,” published in 1915. He delved into primary sources and published thousands of original documents. Fact began to replace fiction — helped by the efforts of Canada’s first Dominion archivists, Douglas Brymner and Sir Arthur Doughty, who tirelessly unearthed Canadiana. Boxes upon boxes of material from the War of 1812 were collected and made accessible to Canadians with the opening of Public Archives of Canada in 1906. In the latter half of twentieth century, historians like C.P. Stacey, J.M. Hitsman, and G.F. Stanley dismantled romantic misconceptions. In the 1960s, American historians challenged similar notions in their own historiography. It was they who coined the phrase “the militia myth” to underline that trained soldiers, not militia minutemen, had won the American War of Independence.

Unfortunately, as Granatstein’s comments clearly show, the pendulum has swung too far in that direction. Too many in the media and in social media now bark about “the militia myth” and how the British did the “real” fighting. We have come a long way from merely debunking the myth of untrained Canadian yeoman saving the country. Now we debunk the very idea that Canadians fought significantly at all. This explains why, when the Government of Canada announced the creation of battle honours for the War of 1812, there were grumblings that the honours were “undeserved.”

This table [Figure 1 - Canadian Soldiers as % per 1812 Battle] shows how badly wrong are Simpson and Granatstein and their followers: Canadians did play a significant role in deciding the outcome of the War of 1812. The numbers do not lie. The chart shows what percentage of Canadian units* made up the total number of effectives at each battle. Only participating British and Canadian units have been compared. (Aboriginal contributions rest outside the scope of this article.) [*Note: Defined as War of 1812 regiments perpetuated by the Canadian Forces. There are two exceptions. The capture of Michilimackinac in 1812 involved Canadian volunteers not embodied and not yet perpetuated. The Provincial Marine was technically a logistics unit under the Quartermaster General’s department of the Army and therefore included in the capture of Detroit and the Battle of Lake Erie. Their role at the Battle of Maumee and Frenchtown has not been quantified in the chart]

What Figure 1 shows is that in 1812, as many as 70% of all non-Aboriginal soldiers involved in battles were Canadians — including 76% in the capture of Detroit and 48% in the Battle of Queenston Heights in which Brock fell. It is also notable that in the Battle of Beaver Dams, in which Laura Secord’s intelligence coup played a role, 59% of the victorious soldiers were Canadians. At Chateauguay, the non-Aboriginal forces were 100% Canadian, and at Lundy’s Lane in 1814, over one-third, 39%, of troops present were Canadian. These figures reveal how absurd are the declarations of 1812 sceptics.

The chart also suggests a dramatic decline in Canadian participation, as a percentage, as the war progressed. To a degree this is misleading. With the influx of Wellington’s veterans, especially in 1814 after the surrender of Napoleon in Europe and his exile to Elba, the Canadian portion shrank. But the real numbers of Canadian soldiers in the field decreased only slightly. With the exception of the Niagara campaign and Western Upper Canada, the Sedentary Militia were no longer needed in 1814. However the use of Fencible regulars and provincial embodied militias (full-time, trained Canadian soldiers) did not change. It is important to point out that the Battle of Plattsburgh alone distorts the analysis of the last year of the war because so many British regulars took part.

While suffering casualties was not in itself a determining factor in awarding 1812 battle honours, it is a measure of extreme sacrifice. Even so, courage and bravery are not exclusive to engagements with great carnage. For example, one cannot deny the courage of the outnumbered British and Canadian soldiers who prepared to storm the American fortifications at Detroit. After all, every General’s goal is to inflict maximum damage on the enemy without depleting the strength of his own force. Therefore a high casualty rate can often be an indicator of poor leadership. During a skirmish in Michigan on January 18, 1813, fifty French Canadians of the Essex Militia, with a hundred Aboriginal allies, inflicted 67 casualties on a vastly superior American force. None of the Canadian militiamen were injured — proof that the number of casualties absorbed is not always a measurement of military success.

Still, casualty numbers can sway decision-makers into publicly recognizing the valour of troops, as was the case with the Dieppe battle honour in the Second World War. In the War of 1812, battles at York and Fort George, and on Lake Erie, were fought with little chance of success and with heavy casualties compared to the total colonial population.

In considering the impact of the war it helps to compare casualty figures from the War of 1812 with those of other conflicts. This is not to diminish in any way the honours awarded to Canadian units in other wars; honours recognize achievement but not necessarily sacrifice. The chart in [Figure 2 - Fatalities per Canadian Regiment] gives some indication of the impact of fatalities represented as a percentage of the total population.

The figures give some insight into Canadian sacrifice. The War of 1812 ranks third in terms of total body count. However on a per capita basis the death toll in the War of 1812 had a greater impact on the Canadian population than any other conflict. Seen in this light, the number of 1812 battle honours awarded in 2012 by the Harper government appears to be quite well-balanced with the rest of the history of the Canadian Army.

When looking at fatalities from 200 years ago, death by disease was high. Only the South African war had comparable rates. The third chart [Figure 3 - Canadian Deaths as % of Population] breaks down the casualty numbers of four heavily-engaged units now perpetuated by the Canadian Army.

Thanks to historical researchers, more accurate numbers on casualties are coming to light each year, revealing the price paid by Canadian units during the war. Take for example the Lincoln Militia on the Niagara peninsula. That force alone had 44 men killed in action, 80 deaths from disease, 101 wounded and 94 prisoners of war in squalid American camps. Similar attrition was experienced by the Royal Newfoundland Fencible Regiment. At the opening of the war the regiment had 483 effectives. However just 18 months later, only 210 Royal Newfoundlanders could be mustered. In the first six months of 1813 alone the regiment had more killed in action than the entire Canadian army (i.e., the Permanent Active Militia) in the North-West Rebellion of 1885.

There are many stories of bravery by Canadian units in the war. The Incorporated Militia of Upper Canada, for example, suffered seventeen killed and 44 wounded in the Battle of Lundy’s Lane. Smashing an American infantry column and charging “the enemy with such effect that the enemy was thrown back in great disorder and with loss” was part of the unit’s accomplishment that day.

Among the wounded was Private Jacob Snyder who was hit with three musket balls: one through the hand, another breaking his shoulder and the last through part of his skull behind his ear, causing him pain for the rest of his life. Many others told similar stories, such as Lieutenant George Ryerson of the Norfolk Militia, shot in the face while repulsing the American invasion at Frenchman’s Creek in 1812. The bullet shattered Ryerson’s jaw, taking away part of the bone and his front teeth. Despite this gruesome wound, Ryerson continued to actively serve in the defence of his province for the rest of the war.

Unfortunately the exact number of British casualties for the War of 1812 has not yet been calculated. But if British casualty numbers did far exceed Canadian ones, why would this diminish the honourable service of Canadians? A case in point is that the gap between Canadian and British casualties in the First and Second World Wars was far greater than the gap in the War of 1812. Will future Canadian historians therefore conclude that the British regiments and navy “did almost all the fighting” in the world wars? The danger of this line of thinking to Canadian historiography is clear enough. Messrs. Simpson and Granatstein, take note.

Today some argue that because Canadians were mere colonials under British command. The War of 1812 was therefore not really fought by Canadians units because these effectively “did not exist.” One must wonder if the same argument will surface for First World War engagements during the one-hundredth anniversary from 2014 to 2018. What if that faulty logic were applied to Sir Julian Byng’s command of the Canadian Corps at Vimy? The fact remains that in South Africa and the Great War, Canadian units also fell under the overall command of British generals.

In 1812, of course the units that fought were “Canadian” — at the very least because they were legislated into existence by provincial parliaments. These are to be distinguished from “Fencible” Regiments, which were not created by provincial legislation but were raised in North America by the British; their service was restricted to this hemisphere but they belonged to the British Army establishment and were equal to other Regiments of the Line. A variant on this distinction was the Canadian Voltigeurs, a unit created by provincial legislation yet with their officers holding equal status with those of Line Regiments. (Two other Lower Canadian militia companies were recruited and made part of the British 103rd Regiment of Foot, though they continued to be governed by provincial legislation.)

When we take a closer look at the previous military service of Fencible officers we find a direct link between 1812 Fencible units and the provincial corps raised in the 1790s and during the American Revolution. American loyalist units were also considered part of the British Army establishment and their officers received the pension benefits of British officers. Understanding this, it becomes absurd to label Fencible units as somehow ethnically “British” — rather like labelling as “British” the Greek Light Infantry fighting for the British in the Mediterranean in the Second World War. Regardless, thanks to government’s decision to perpetuate War of 1812 units, Fencible regiments are now part of the history and heritage of the Canadian forces.

But on second thought, just how “British” were the men in command in the 1812 War? First of all, the Commander of the Forces in North America was Sir George Prevost, born in New Jersey before the American Revolution to French-speaking Swiss parents. He was not your “typical” British General in the War of 1812. Or was he?

The chart in [Figure 4 - Place of Birth of Officer associated with a 2012 Battle Honour] tells an interesting story about those commanding British and Canadian forces at the victories that resulted in six Battle Honours awarded to Canadian forces. While place of birth is only one factor in establishing nationality, these facts are useful at least in challenging the stereotype that “British” military leaders in Canada during the War of 1812 came primarily from the English aristocracy.

British commanders themselves played a part in skewing our understanding of Canadian participation. One newly-appointed major wrote this put-down to a friend in 1815: “You know, many a man has got a Lieut-Colonelcy for writing a good dispatch.” Evidence continues to surface of bias – favouring British units over Canadian ones when official dispatches were written. At the Battle of Ogdensburg, the commander, Lieutenant-Colonel George Macdonell, born in Newfoundland, was later criticized for downplaying the role of the Canadian militia in the fighting. Considering that the militia suffered the highest casualties in that battle, Macdonell’s inflated praise of the only British regiment present must have been galling.5

The same was the case in the thwarting of the American invasion of Lower Canada in March, 1814. That Canadian troops had fought the enemy’s advance for most of the day was omitted the British commander’s official report. It seems that if a British officer was not present, the engagement “didn’t happen.” American dispatches on the First Battle of the River Raisin of January 18, 1813 — in which the Essex Militia was quite involved — was virtually ignored in British dispatches. Compounding this bias was almost certainly the age-old snobbery of regulars belittling the militia.

The lack of recognition of Canadian gallantry in the War of 1812 was obvious to one contemporary British commentator, writing in 1821. He felt their bravery “which was brilliantly conspicuous on many occasions, has neither been sufficiently known, nor duly appreciated, on the other side of the Atlantic” and that the gallantry of the soldiers of Canada “has been kept in the back ground” by a “want of generosity which prevails among the [British] regular troops.”6

The Harper government’s decision to award 1812 battle honours goes a long way in correcting a two hundred year old imbalance in recognition. Over the next century Canadian historians will have an opportunity analyze the body of research that went into this decision — some of which is revealed in this article for the first time.

In the information released by the Department of National Defence in September 2012, it is clear that these honours were solidly grounded the same body of information as other Canadian battle honours. Great pains were reportedly made to avoid being “over-generous.” For example, the decision to award the emblazoned theatre honour, The Defence of Canada 1812-15, only to units that participated in a successful engagement followed considerably more rigid criteria than is normally the case in these assessments.

To understand the decision further, it is helpful to look at the battle honour Detroit. As Sun Tsu put it, “To fight and conquer in all your battles is not supreme excellence; supreme excellence consists in breaking the enemy’s resistance without fighting.” This is what Isaac Brock accomplished at Detroit in 1812 when he persuaded a superior number of Americans behind the walls to surrender by making the enemy believe that he had the numbers and determination to take the city.

Without Canadian participation, Detroit would not have surrendered. Canadians manned the Provincial Marine vessels blockading Detroit, Canadians worked the guns of the Royal Artillery at the batteries bombarding American positions, and Canadian units made up two of the three columns of attack deployed by Brock, and in total accounted for 76% of the troops present that day. This puts in proper perspective the battle honours awarded in 2012. [(c) The Dorchester Review Spring/Summer 2013]

Notes

1. Thaddeus Lewis, Autobiography. (Picton, 1865) p. 22.
2. John Douglas, Medical Topography of Upper Canada. (London, 1819) p. 99.
3. Penelope Jenkins to Edward Winslow, Jr., March 20, 1814, Winslow Papers, University of New Brunswick, vol. 15-138.
4. J.B. MacAulay to John Winslow, July 25, 1818, Winslow Papers, vol. 16-15.
“The Capture of Ogdensburgh,” James Holmes, ed. The Literary Garland (Montreal, 1849), p. 31.
5. John Howison, Sketches of Upper Canada, Domestic, Local, and Characteristic, Edinburgh, 1821, p. 78.

Charts
Fig. 1 Canadian Soldiers as % per 1812 Battle

Fig. 2 Fatalities per Canadian Regiment

Fig. 3 Canadian Deaths as % of Population

Fig. 4 Place of Birth of Officer associated with a 2012 Battle Honour

12 Responses to “The Myth of the ‘Militia Myth’”

  1. Alastair Sweeny
    October 31, 2013 at 7:03 am #

    Robert:

    Excellent work. You should expand this into a book.

  2. Robert Henderson
    October 31, 2013 at 4:28 pm #

    Very kind of you to say Alastair. If only I had more time…

  3. Robert Stewart
    November 5, 2013 at 6:43 pm #

    I can see Mr Granatstein writing a column entitled, “The Myth of the Myth of the Militia Myth”. (:^D

    • Robert Henderson
      November 13, 2013 at 7:02 pm #

      Thanks Robert. Very witty. My only regret is I am too harsh with Mr Granatstein in my article. I have tremendous admiration and respect for him and his contributions to the preservation and promotion of Canada’s 20th century military heritage.

      Robert

    • Robert Henderson
      November 13, 2013 at 7:06 pm #

      Thanks Robert. Very witty. I regret my harsh tone with regards to Mr Granatstein’s interpretation of Canadians in 1812. I have tremendous respect for him and his noble contributions to the preservation and promotion of Canada’s 20th Century military heritage. His learned insights into the World Wars during the upcoming anniversaries will be most welcomed.

    • john dunbar
      November 30, 2013 at 3:38 pm #

      He doesn’t need to write such a column as his impeccable historical case for the use of these kinds of Canadian myths to spin historically inaccurate tales of Canadian heroism and heroics is presented in his superb book `Yankee Go Home’.

  4. Rod Schwager
    November 10, 2013 at 6:54 pm #

    Robert many thanks for an outstanding article. The more I read War of 1812 history the more I realize how much Canadians were involved in a wide variety of combat operations but invariably under reported as you contend. You have succinctly and eloquently put this aspect into a thought provoking article. Notwithstanding your previous comment, this article must be expanded into a well researched book and you are the ideal person to write it.
    P.S. I can’t wait to read your new book.
    All the best.

    • john dunbar
      November 30, 2013 at 3:35 pm #

      Back to the library for your, Mr. Schwager. If you read the article on my website at CriticalHistoricalReview.com you’ll find out how and why all this talk about `Canadian Heroics’ during the War of 1812 is so much post facto contrived nonsense . To begin with, there were not any `Canadians’ that you refer to that fought the war: the war was between the United States and Great Britain with native Canadians playing a pivotal role in British victories (when they occurred). In the end, all this `victory talk.this is Jingoist History utilized by a monarchist loving Tory government to reinforce what they assume was our beneficial links to British Imperialism when quite the contrary is the fact. Historically later, real `Canadians’ became participating stooges in all the mayhem, blood letting and oppression of occupied people perpetrated by the British.

  5. Robert Henderson
    November 13, 2013 at 6:55 pm #

    Thanks for your kind words and encouragement Rod. There is a hope that an 1812 Book of Remembrance can be compiled to put “flesh” to the statistics. There are many other moments in Canadian History we need to re-introduce to our fellow citizens. For example today is the 175th of the Battle of the Windmill. On this day in 1838, the Lancaster Regiment of Glengarry Highlanders (an embodied unit under the provincial Militia Act of 1829) suffered 25% of its strength in casualties fighting invading American insurgents. They should as well be perpetuated by the Canadian Armed Forces.

  6. John Dunbar
    November 14, 2013 at 1:21 pm #

    Nice try but no sale ! The facts remains that the criticism of traditional and received views of the war are correct. You can’t even get started on trying to resurrect them because there was no such a nation as Canada and no Canadians to do the fighting. Your fundamental ignorance of history is revealed in you dismissing that claim by stating that `Parliaments legislated them as such. But there was no Canadian parliament then and doing it after the event hardly counts as legitimation. The whole show was between Brits and Americans with the native Indians winning most of the battles at which they were present, not to mention the fact that the Americans managed to lose most battles themselves through their own incompetence. At the start of the war they had no professional military, congress improperly funded everything, President Madison had no virtually no professional officer corps etc. At the end when they final started to get organized they started to trounce the British (e.g. at Baltimore) just as they did in the Revolution. It’s also interesting that those American naval victories on the Great Lakes are not always mentioned in Canadian accounts of the war.

    The whole Canadian effort to make it a legend of Canadian heroism and achievement is largely bogus but hardly surprising in light of the fact that the worst offenders such as our benighted leader are fanatical Royalist who think that Britain did no wrong. In fact, the British at the time were ruling their various colonies largely by the sword and continued to exploit and oppress people for the next hundred years while the United States matured in to the most glorious bastion of political freedom in history and the greatest military power that has ever existed. In the meantime, Canada `chugged along’ toward a quasi-democratic state that to this day shows an unhealthy respect for the British.

    You wil shorty be able to read more of my debunking of all your kind of rubbish on my website at Critical Historical Review. com

    p.s. people like you can’t hold a candle to intellectual giants like Jack Granatstein

  7. Elliot Reay
    December 10, 2013 at 3:25 pm #

    Hi Robert a very interesting piece! I m a Postgraduate Student at the University of Leeds in the United Kingdom and my thesis is on the role of domestic Canadian forces during the War of 1812. As such i was wondering if you could tell me where you found the data in the graphs you included in your piece?

    Thanks

    • Robert Henderson
      February 25, 2014 at 6:28 pm #

      Hi Elliot,

      Thanks! Sources for the data are numerous and varied. All come from primary sources either directly or through scholarly achievements of other historians. For example the Fencible units stats for casualties are in the NA in London in WO12 and WO25. WO17 monthly returns were also helpful. Prize money lists are also useful when determining who was actually at the battle. In Canada battle reports of commanding officers, listing who was under their command, are in the LAC under RG 8 Series I. RG 8 is extensively indexed and a breeze to use. Militia rolls are in the RG 9 and the widow and disabled pension documents are in the Ontario Archives. Initial lists of widow pensions were published in Upper Canadian newspapers in 1815 but are incomplete. This of course is far from a complete list of sources.

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