“A Disposition to Carry on a Winter’s Campaign”: British Winter Military Operations during the War of 1812

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This is the eighth post in the Winter in Canada series edited by M. Blake Butler and Ben Bradley.

By December 1812, two seasonally late American invasions of Niagara had been repelled by a combined force of Britons, Upper Canadians, and Indigenous peoples at Queenston Heights and Frenchman’s Creek. It is no surprise that the commander of British forces in North America, Sir George Prevost, remarked that the Americans had shown “a Disposition to carry on a Winter’s Campaign.”[1] During the winters of 1812-1813 and 1813-1814, the British conducted at least three overland winter marches from Fredericton, New Brunswick to reinforce vulnerable points in Upper Canada and Lower Canada. Winter marches were conducted by the 104th Regiment and by the 8th Regiment and Royal Navy. The grandest march was the overland trek of the 104th Regiment from Fredericton to Kingston, Upper Canada, in February-March 1813. The secretary to Prevost wrote that “the march of the 104th Regt. has been effected with less inconvenience than was expected, from the severity of the Season in which it has been performed.”[2] The success of this march must be attributed to the environmental knowledge of its participants, particularly their use of snowshoes, but also to the support provided by Indigenous guides, Indigenous modes of travel, and civilian contractors.

Charles Hamilton Smith, Soldiers of the 1st Regiment of Foot. (c.1812). National Army Museum, 1950-11-33-29. A private (left) and sergeant (right) wearing two-ply wool overcoats called “greatcoats” for service in Britain and Europe. Soldiers in British North America would have required significantly more clothing and snowshoes on a winter march. Le Couteur recalled being gifted various pieces of winter clothing from the New Brunswick family that billeted him: “various furs, a Cap, leather Jacket, thick flannels, and a variety of Comforts.”

The soldiers participating in these overland winter marches contended against harrowing weather exacerbated by the “Little Ice Age,” and specifically the “Dalton Minimum,” a period of regional cooling in the North Atlantic that persisted from around the fourteenth to mid-nineteenth century.[3] Numerous volcanic eruptions took place between 1808-14 that further cooled the North Atlantic through the emission of atmospheric dust which blocked sunlight. John Le Couteur, an officer in the 104th Regiment, wrote that previous to their departure from Fredericton, “[t]here had already fallen a greater quantity of snow than had been known during the nine preceding years and the weather was remarkably cold. On the 4th or 5th of February [1813], the thermometer had been as low as 17 degrees below zero.”[4]

British soldiers relied on Indigenous material culture, particularly snowshoes, to contend against such difficult weather. Thomas Wickman shows that through the use of snowshoes, “[w]inter was a season of power and independence for indigenous peoples of the American Northeast.” Peoples of the Wabanaki Confederacy expertly used various types of snowshoes to devastate British communities during the Anglo-Wabanaki Wars, adeptly retreating to distant hunting grounds before their enemies could retaliate. By the Third and Fourth Anglo-Wabanaki Wars from 1703-13 and 1722-25, the British had successfully adapted to winter warfare and formed snowshoe companies to combat the Wabanaki Confederacy more effectively.[5] Snowshoes were increasingly relied upon by British-Americans through the eighteenth century and into the nineteenth.

Most histories of the War of 1812 mention winter in passing; it is never the central point of analysis. For British military officials, though, winter was at the forefront of their minds. The British began preparations for winter operations in September 1812, when an order directed that the military storehouses at Chambly, La Prairie, St. Johns, and Montreal in Lower Canada be issued 2000 pairs of snowshoes and moccasins.[6] In January 1813, Prevost directed the commander in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick with “Confidential Instructions” to prepare the 104th Regiment for an overland winter march to fortify vulnerable positions in the Canadas.[7] The men were tasked to march overland from Fredericton to Kingston for three reasons: because ice-clogged waterways, such as the St. Lawrence River, prohibited easy navigation, because close quarters aboard ship facilitated sickness and disease amongst soldiers, and because transport by horse was near impossible in the deep snow.[8]

General Orders by Edward Baynes, the Assistant Commissary General, issuing snowshoes and moccasins to be directed to military storehouses.

The soldiers of the 104th Regiment relied on themselves and certain tools, like snowshoes, to ease the trek. Snowshoes were, and are, tools that require familiarity and practice. Le Couteur remarked that the men had been practicing on snowshoes in advance of their marching orders.[9] Marshall MacDermott, who would perform a similar winter march along the same route with the 8th Regiment the following winter, wrote that marching on snowshoes was a “labour to those unpractised.”[10] Soldiers of the 104th Regiment may have had an advantage using snowshoes compared to the 8th and other regiments, however. Sixty percent of the soldiers in the regiment were listed as “British Americans,” from New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Newfoundland, or the Canadas.[11] Due to their familiarity with winter in northeastern North America, the 104th Regiment undoubtedly had an ecological advantage over regiments predominantly composed of Britons. Le Couteur observed that the numerous British Americans in the regiment made them “admirably composed for the service,” being “indigenous to the country,” and “thoroughly fitted to endure cold and hardships… many of them as expert as Indians in a canoe, and as alert as hunters on snow-shoes.”[12]

Subtle hints in the documentary record reveal how differently British soldiers viewed and used snowshoes compared to Indigenous peoples. To Eastern Algonquian peoples, snowshoes were most effective when tailored to the individual and environmental circumstances. Large snowshoes were worn by bigger people, and smaller ones for smaller people, to more appropriately distribute the weight; different snowshoes were worn depending on the weather, topography, and activity.

By contrast, British forces wore fairly standardized snowshoes. In the winter of 1813-1814, Lieutenant Henry Kent, Royal Navy, marched overland with a contingent of sailors from Fredericton to Kingston to reinforce the Royal Navy on the Great Lakes. According to Kent, each sailor was furnished with a pair of snowshoes described as being “of a singular shape,” indicating that the snowshoes were issued en masse rather than customized and fitted to the individual.[13] Kent recalled marching 15-20 miles daily “and though that appears but a little distance, yet, with the snow up to our knees, was as much as any man could do.”[14] That so many miles were traversed daily is testament to the value of snowshoes to winter military operations, but their effectiveness was at least somewhat hindered by their mass issue without consideration for the wearer. This may be further reinforced by one officer in the 104th Regiment having described the provided snowshoes as “miserably made.”[15] It is difficult to say whether the snowshoes were actually poorly made, or simply ill-fitted to the individual.

Having improperly fitted snowshoes was better than having none at all, however. The commander at Kingston in December 1812 wrote to Prevost’s secretary that he was “much dispirited by the arrival of the Brigade without Snow Shoes – having wrote to Montreal some time back that they were absolutely necessary at this port and could not be furnished by the Indians.”[16] It is no surprise that the local Haudenosaunee and Mississauga populations could not furnish many snowshoes to the soldiers at Kingston. Doing so would have been an immense task that required numerous environmental and individual considerations; they were not something to be mass-produced on short notice without well-developed relationships.

In addition to snowshoes, the overland march of the 104th Regiment was facilitated by Indigenous guides and winter travel techniques. Andrew William Playfair, another officer in the 104th Regiment, noted that the first company to leave Fredericton on the overland march in February 1813 was accompanied by Maliseet guides.[17] Both Le Couteur and MacDermott recalled their men marching in “Indian file.” The soldiers marched single-file, “the first pair of snow-shoes had to break a path in front, the second pair improved the track of the first, the third and every succeeding rendered it firmer and harder.”[18] This method was long-used by Eastern Algonquian peoples like the Abenaki, Maliseet, Pequot, and Narragansett.[19]

A miniature portrait of John Le Couteur, a lieutenant in the 104th Regiment that participated in the overland winter march from February to March 1813. Le Couteur was a well-educated aristocrat endowed with scientific interests, and thus his memoirs are particularly valuable for environmental historians. During the war, Le Couteur nursed a malnourished tabby cat back to health using, according to the regimental doctor, “Aesculapian skills… friction, warmth, and light diet in all proportions.” In later life, he wrote three separate agricultural treatises: On the Varieties, Properties, and Classification of Wheat (1836), On the Use of the Jersey Trench Plough (1842), and On the Rise, Progress and State of Agriculture in Jersey (1852).

These laborious winter marches were facilitated by food and drink which helped nourish the men, albeit somewhat inadequately, for the task. Civilian contractors helped provide additional food beyond the salted pork or beef and bread issued to soldiers daily. Anthony Anderson of Quebec City, for example, provided transport and provisions for the soldiers and sailors performing these overland marches. In an 1824 petition made a decade after the overland winter marches took place, he declared:

That from the intimate knowledge your Petitioner possessed of the whole tract of [Arinsty?]… and his personal acquaintance with the most respectable of the Inhabitants, your Petitioner was enabled… to render most essential Service to His Majesty’s Government, by facilitating the speedy and safe arrival of the said Officers, Troops and Crew at Quebec, and by procuring the best provisions and Quarters the Country afforded, (which from the inclemency of the Season, was of considerable consequence) your Petitioner added materially to the comfort of the said Officers, Troops and Crew, and eminently contributed to their subsequent safe arrival at Quebec.[20]

The veracity of his petition is reiterated by memoirs which mention civilian aid along the St. Lawrence.[21] The additional provisions (fresh fowls, hams, veal, and wines) would have been a welcome, and perhaps necessary, addition to the soldiers’ measly regular rations.

These overland winter marches attest to the precarity of British strength in the Canadas. The soldiers that participated in these marches later went on to defend the Niagara Peninsula, the most hotly contested region of the conflict. The numerical superiority of the Americans meant that the British relied heavily on Indigenous peoples and “Canadian” civilians. These combatants supplemented the small British force in the Canadas but, more importantly, they provided essential environmental knowledge and logistical support that facilitated British military operational success. To use an environmental metaphor, the British tapped into a deep vein of local knowledge about winter travel and warfare which ultimately made them “richer” than their American counterparts.

[1] Letter from Sir George Prevost to Earl Bathurst, Quebec, 16 January 1813, in Library and Archives Canada (LAC), RG 8 C, Vol. 1220, C-3526-616.

[2] Letter from Noah Freer, Military Secretary, to Adjutant General, Horse Guards, Quebec, 11 March 1813, in LAC, RG 8 C, Vol. 1220, C-3526-674-675.

[3] Dagomar Degroot, The Frigid Golden Age: Climate Change, the Little Ice Age, and the Dutch Republic, 1560-1720 (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018).

[4] John Le Couteur, Merry Hearts Make Light Days: The War of 1812 Journal of Lieutenant John Le Couteur, 104th Foot, edited by Donald Graves (Montreal: Robin Brass Studio, 2012), 93.

[5] Thomas Wickman, Snowshoe Country: An Environmental and Cultural History of Winter in the Early American Northeast (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2018), 3, 7-9, 10, 92, 194-195.

[6] General Orders by Edward Baynes, Adjutant General, Montreal, 23rd September 1812, in LAC, RG 8 C, Vol. 1168, C-3502-283.

[7] Prevost to Bathurst, 16 January 1813, LAC, RG 8 C, Vol. 1220, C-3526-616.

[8] Tanya Grodzinski, The 104th (New Brunswick) Regiment of Foot in the War of 1812 (Fredericton: Goose Lane, 2014), 43, and William Austin Squires, The 104th Regiment of Foot (the New Brunswick Regiment) 1803-1817 (Fredericton: Brunswick Press, 1962), 120.

[9] Le Couteur, Merry Hearts, 92.

[10] Marshall MacDermott, A Brief Sketch of the Long and Varied Career of Marshall MacDermott (Adelaide: William Kyffin Thomas, 1874), 7.

[11] Grodzinski, The 104th Regiment, 39.

[12] Le Couteur, Merry Hearts, 93.

[13] Henry Kent, “Extraordinary March… from St. John’s, New Brunswick, to Kingston, in Upper Canada, being a distance of 900 Miles, in the depth of Winter,” The Naval Chronicle, for 1815: Containing a General and Biographical History of the Royal Navy of the United Kingston; with a Variety of Original Papers on Nautical Subjects Vol. 33. from January to June (London: Joyce Gold, 1815), 124.

[14] Ibid., 125.

[15] Charles Rainsford, “Captain Charles Rainsford’s Winter March Across Lake Temiscouata: A Thrilling Incident of the War of 1812,” Saint John Daily Sun, 1889, No. 202.

[16] Letter from John Vincent to Noah Freer, Kingston, 4December 1812, in LAC, RG 8 C, Vol. 515, C-3062-38.

[17] Andrew William Playfair, Letter to the Editor of the British Standard, 20 January 1862; W.E. (Gary) Campbell, “The St. John River Society Commemorate Canada Grant: Mapping the March of the 104th (New Brunswick) Regiment of Foot,” The St. John River Society (2011): 3.

[18] Le Couteur, Merry Hearts Make Light Days, 95; MacDermott, A Brief Sketch, 8.

[19] Wickman, Snowshoe Country, 33.

[20] The Petition of Anthony Anderson of the City of Quebec, Quebec, 16 April 1824, in LAC, RG 8 C, Vol. 94, C-2673-474-475.

[21] Of Anderson, Le Couteur recalled “that both men and officers were heartily rejoiced when they beheld a worthy gentleman of the commissariat with a horse in a sleigh who had been sent from Quebec to receive us and, in addition to the Government rum and rations provided for us, he kindly and considerately brought with him an ample supply of fowls, hams, veal and wines three miles into the portage, which afforded us the best meal we had ever tasted, and gratitude proclaimed our worthy friend ever after, a standing toast among us.” Le Couteur, Merry Hearts, 101. MacDermott warmly recalled that “the spontaneous kindness of the French Canadians could not have been exceeded. The carrioles, sleighs, and sledges of the whole district were assembled, and no man was suffered to march. They also fed the whole regiment during the route.” MacDermott, A Brief Sketch, 8-9.

Feature Image: The mouth of the Niagara River, looking toward Fort Niagara and New York State. Photograph by the author.
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Jake Breadman

Jake Breadman is a second-year PhD student in the Department of History at Queen's University in Kingston, Ontario. For his dissertation, he has proposed to write an environmental history of the War of 1812 in the Great Lakes region.

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