With all but a handful of British regulars tied down in the war raging in Europe against the ‘Little Corporal’ from Corsica, the defense of British North America in the face of American aggression fell to Canadian militia and a host of irregular units. Of all that motley collection, none was more unusual and colorful than the Corps of Canadian Voyageurs — hard drinkers, carousers and undisciplined rowdies, true enough, but invaluable in the conflict’s first critical year of campaigning.
The War of 1812 is an oft-overlooked conflict, perhaps because it ended in status quo, or maybe because it was overshadowed by the Napoleonic wars. For the young Canada, however, it was a defining moment in that future nation’s history.
There were several key issues behind the United States’ decision to declare war against Britain in June 1812. The British practice of stopping American ships at sea and arbitrarily impressing American seamen into Royal Navy service was the most widely decried, but perhaps the most contentious issue — and the one with greatest implications for the future — was control of the western frontier. American settlers were moving into Indiana and Michigan, brushing up against a hostile native confederation led by Tecumseh. Since the Indians were intimately linked to the fur trade enterprise of the British North West Company (NWC) and firmly allied with the British against American western expansion, many Americans blamed English mischief for the Indian troubles.
Along with the issue of who controlled frontier settlement was the revival of American hopes, first kindled in the ill-fated Quebec expedition of 1775-76, of extending their hegemony to the north. In August 1812, former president Thomas Jefferson wrote that ‘the acquisition of Canada this year, as far as the neighbourhood of Quebec, will be a mere matter of marching, and will give us experience for the attack on Halifax the next, and the final expulsion of England from the American continent.’
Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe had tried to warn Britain of the dangers of border conflict with the United States as early as the 1790s. He also recognized the inherent weakness of Britain’s reliance on the Great Lakes as lines of communication, since they could be interdicted by American naval forces at multiple points. Soon after war was declared, Simcoe’s concerns regarding the precariousness of the British position were proven accurate when Americans based at Ogdensburg, N.Y., began frequent interceptions of convoys headed from Lachine (Montreal) to the naval base at Kingston. This threatened the supply of all British forces farther to the west.
It was partly in response to this threat that the North West Company raised the Corps of Canadian Voyageurs from among its seasonal employees. On October 1, 1812, at least 500 voyageurs and their ‘bourgeois,’ the wealthy Scottish merchants in the company, offered their services to the governor-general, Sir George Prevost, who gratefully accepted the offer. The corps was designed to militarize the voyageurs, who — utilizing their secure French River route across northern Ontario (running west from the Ottawa River to Lake Huron) — were integral to keeping supplies moving from Montreal to the western outposts and maintaining the vital fur trade.
William McGillivray and Angus Shaw, both important officials in the NWC, served respectively as commandant and vice commandant of the corps. The unit consisted of a captain, 10 lieutenants, 10 ‘conductors’ (sergeants promoted from among the voyageurs) and some 400 privates. Only ‘the most robust and well made’ men were selected from the more than 500 who stepped forward, all of whom were expert boat handlers and adept hunters and woodsmen.
Originally, the British intended to dress the voyageurs in the distinctive red coatee of the army, but the men refused, saying they were impractical for their work. Instead, it was agreed that they would wear clothes more typical of their standard utilitarian dress. They thus wore a capot (woolen overcoat made from thick blankets) and red toque, with moccasins and loose-fitting leggings. In humid weather, these clothes were often stripped off, and the individual might wear only a shirt and breeches.
Standard equipment included a rifle, tomahawk or small ax and a knife. The Crown issued each man a sword, pike and pistol, but most voyageurs sold or simply discarded those extraneous items as soon as possible. Only the British officers retained those weapons.
The voyageurs were atypical soldiers, to say the least. Their independence made them very poor at parade ground tactics, and they were not amenable to uniformity. Moreover, there were numerous infractions of discipline owing to their ceaseless pranks, drunkenness and constant cheerfulness. British officers charged with instilling discipline in the corps were understandably aghast when the voyageurs appeared on the parade grounds with pipes in their mouths, unshaven for days or weeks, and with their rations of pork and bread stuck on their bayonets. ‘In this condition,’ wrote Ross Cox, a contemporary observer, ‘they presented a curious contrast to…the British soldiery with whom they occasionally did duty.’
Their impertinence sometimes led to temporary confinement, but such measures were usually in vain. The voyageurs were swindlers, bribers and charmers of the highest order, and often managed to convince their guards to pass them food or drink, or even slip them out for a brief leg-stretching. The British observer added that when a fellow voyageur was the sentry, a prisoner could even expect to be allowed out to carouse for the evening, to’sleep with his woman and come back early next morning.’
For all their ill-disciplined behavior, however, the Corps of Canadian Voyageurs played a valued role in the War of 1812. To a man they were skilled at handling boats, accustomed to life in the wilderness, and were naturally suited to the skirmishing that characterized the war in the west. Cox summarized their value by noting that ‘notwithstanding these peculiarities the voyageurs were excellent partisans, and, their superior knowledge of the country being of immense value to the British.’
After years of mingling, intermarriage and business dealings the voyageurs and Indians were on excellent terms. That too proved useful for gathering intelligence about American movements and for maintaining cordial relations with tribes being wooed by the enemy.
It was during one such diplomatic overture that the Corps of Voyageurs was first blooded. October 23, 1812, saw a 31-man detachment encamped at the Akwesasne village of St. Regis along the Lower Canada (Quebec) and New York borders. The Akwesasne, like the other Iroquois peoples, had remained neutral until then, and it fell to 43-year-old Lieutenant Pierre Rottote to determine where their allegiances lay. Serving alongside him was Sergeant John McGillivray, the 22-year-old son of corps Commandant William McGillivray.
Before dawn a 400-man detachment of American soldiers from Plattsburgh descended upon St. Regis and surprised the picket. Lieutenant Rottote and Sergeant McGillivray organized a hurried defense, but the numbers against them were overwhelming. The battle was over before it even began, but not before a total of eight voyageurs fell dead — McGillivray and Rottote among them (the latter earning the distinction of being the first British officer killed in the war). The surviving 23 defenders were captured, the village was plundered and homes sacked, and a Union Jack taken. The Americans boasted it was the first standard taken in the war.
Despite the loss of more than a tenth of its complement, the Corps of Canadian Voyageurs proved of immense value to the British war effort in the following months. It helped keep the isolated forts of the northwest supplied, especially Fort Michilimackinac, the key to controlling the vital region, and it was in no small part thanks to the corps that the British were even able to engage in limited offensives in the west, such as the attack on Frenchtown (or the Raisin River) in Michigan on January 22, 1813.
Successes notwithstanding, the corps was disbanded on March 14, 1813, when the British, deeming that a more formal and regimented unit would be more suitable for handling military resupply duties, gave the task to its army commissariat. Nevertheless, recognizing the voyageurs’ innate value, the commissariat authorized the raising of its own such corps. On April 8, 1813, the Provincial Commissariat Voyageurs officially entered service and for the rest of the war set about applying the old Corps of Canadian Voyageurs’ skills — with fewer of its lax habits — to maintaining the frontier outposts. As for Jefferson’s words of August 1812, they proved to be as misplaced as they were confident. After four years’ expenditure of blood and treasure in dozens of battles and skirmishes, the war ended with nothing gained by either side, save perhaps for the groundwork laid for a greater sense of national identity in both the United States and the future independent dominion of Canada.
This article was written by Andrew Hind and originally published in the January/February 2006 issue of Military History magazine.
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