Skip to content

The redcoats are coming (and some greencoats too)

The final instalment of the Fort George speaker series known as Fireside Fridays focused on the uniforms worn by British and Canadian soldiers in the War of 1812

History buffs gathered at Navy Hall last Friday to learn about the soldiers clad in green who fought for Upper Canada during the War of 1812. 

The session, led by husband-and-wife Parks Canada employees Peter Martin and Elizabeth LeBlanc, presented It’s Not Easy Being Green: The Canadian Regiments of the War of 1812, the final event in the Fireside Fridays speakers series offered for March.

The common perception, admitted Martin, is that the British army all wore red uniforms back then. 

“Of the 116 numbered British regiments that existed during that period,” a green-clad Martin explained, “114 of them wore red. When I walk around Fort George people will come to me and ask ‘what are you?’. That’s one of the reasons I wear this (officer’s) uniform because it’s a story not often told.”

Martin explained that two of the main reasons that some soldiers wore green were the availability of green dyes and for camouflage purposes.

Despite the accompanying display of intricate examples of the uniforms in question, the session turned out to be about much more than military fashion, as Martin and LeBlanc regaled the audience with the history of two specific regiments that wore the darker colour - the Glengarry Light Infantry and Caldwell’s Western Rangers. 

Lieutenant Colonel John MacDonnell proposed the assembly of the Glengarry Light Infantry as early as 1806. His goal was to have a small band of soldiers in Glengarry County (the Kingston-Cornwall area) with Scottish heritage. The Glengarrys finally came together as a unit once the threat of war became more imminent in late 1811 or early 1812.

The regiment recruited from other units across both Upper and Lower Canada, said Martin, with about 800 soldiers part of the unit in the first year. Although they were a light infantry regiment, they worked closely with First Nations units and did a lot of scouting, like the Rangers did. 

“As for their weaponry, there is some debate as to what they carried into battle,” Martin explained. “They may have had a few rifles, but what we know for the most part is that they carried regular, standard, smooth-ball muskets.”

Originally, the regiment was supposed to be dressed in full Highland attire, including kilts. As Martin pointed out, it was soon evident that with Canada’s climate, that would have been very inconvenient. 

“I don’t mean just the winter,” Martin laughed, “but also the summer, when you have flies and mosquitoes that are so big. And diseases borne by black flies and mosquitoes were a big problem.”

Because of the job the infantry was expected to do, he added, green made more sense for their uniform due to the camouflage element. 

Locally, the Glengarry Light Infantry fought in battles at both Fort George and Lundy’s Lane, both of which resulted in many casualties. 

Out of 376 who fought at Lundy’s Lane, three were killed, 31 wounded, eight went missing and 17 were captured by the enemy. Out of 90 Glengarrys at Fort George, 27 died, 31 were either wounded or captured, and 26 went missing. It was the single most costly engagement for the Glengarrys, who were disbanded in Kingston in June 1816. 

One American attendee, Mark Hersee, a former staff member at Fort Niagara in the 1990s, was wearing a Glengarry Light Infantry sweatshirt.

“I think I bought this in 1993 or 1994," he said. “I bought it at Fort Erie because I thought it looked cool. We used to come over to participate in events here and I’ve always maintained an interest in the period. Those days were a lot of fun.”

Matt Lanteigne, an 1812 reenactor from Smithville, was drawn to Friday’s event because of his interest in the Glengarrys but was pleasantly surprised that the session presented by Martin and LeBlanc also shed light on Caldwell’s Western Rangers. 

“They played a huge part in the War of 1812 but few people know about them,” said Lanteigne, a former member of the Lincoln and Welland Regiment. “I was surprised that Elizabeth talked about them. There’s very little literature about them, so it was nice to hear from an expert on them.”

Lanteigne has assembled his own Rangers uniform, in green of course, and was appreciative of the chance to learn he was on the right track.

LeBlanc took over for the Caldwell’s Rangers portion of the talk. The unit was named for William Caldwell Sr., who had been a captain with Butler’s Rangers in Niagara and Detroit during the Revolutionary War and settled near Amherstburg. 

After the Battle of the River Basin in Frenchtown (near Detroit), where the British and Canadian militia and Indigenous warriors fought seamlessly together to push back the Americans, Major General Henry Procter called on Caldwell to assemble the special corp.

“It was to be formed of as many fit men that could be raised in the western district who did not belong to the militia of any other district,” explained LeBlanc. “A bit of a difference from the Glengarry Light Infantry, who poached left, right and centre.” 

According to LeBlanc, Caldwell insisted that his elite force be paid double the usual rate of regular forces. The plan was to have between 200 and 500 men divided into 60-man companies that would show the military’s commitment to working with Indigenous allies.  

LeBlanc brought along examples of both muskets and rifles used by soldiers during the War of 1812, taking a moment to explain the differences. 

“It’s hard to nail down exactly what it was that they were carrying,” she said of the Caldwells. “It was so fluid and flexible. And they captured over 1,200 American muskets when they seized Fort Detroit.”

The Caldwells, said LeBlanc, were involved in many battles during the war, and were in Niagara for the recapture of Newark, the capture of Fort Niagara and the Battle of Lundy’s Lane. They were disbanded in 1815 and have since been thought of as little more than a footnote in Canadian history. 

“Their battle honours are associated with, and they continue to live on in the Essex and Kent Scottish Regiment,” concluded LeBlanc. 

For the fourth straight February Friday, the fireside chat, a fundraiser for the Fort George National Historic Site, was sold out.

“I love it,” Fort George manager Dan Laroche told The Local Friday. “This is the second straight year. You can expect the same thing happening next year, too. We’re thrilled.”

Reader Feedback

Mike Balsom

About the Author: Mike Balsom

With a background in radio and television, Mike Balsom has been covering news and events across the Niagara Region for more than 35 years
Read more