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The War from the Saddle:
The Diary of Lieutenant John Lang, 19th Light Dragoons, 1813-14

by Adam Norman Lynde

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Guidon for the 4th Squadron of the 19th Light Dragoons,1808-1816 (illustration by Samuel Milne)

    The William R. Perkins Library of Duke University, Durham, North Carolina, is renowned for its manuscript material related to the British Empire. Collections include the papers of both William Pitts, Charles Lord Townshend, Henry Dundas, the Marquis of Wellesley, the Duke of Wellington, and a multitude of both renowned and lesser-known politicians, soldiers, and bureaucrats who served the Crown across the globe. For students of the Anglo-American War of 1812-1814, the Library holds a unique manuscript in the form of Lieutenant John Lang’s diary of his service in the Canadas with the 19th Light Dragoons, written between the spring of 1813 and autumn of 1814. Too long for publication in a journal, too short for publication as a monograph, this "paper" is something of a non-fiction novella. It is divided into two distinct sections. The first introduces the manuscript to the reader, and follows it chronologically from the regiment’s arrival in Canada in the spring of 1813, its passage from Quebec through Montreal to Kingston, and its service on the Niagara frontier through the summer and autumn of that year before its return to Montreal for the winter of 1814. As the journal does not offer a continuous narrative --- a circumstance discussed in the second section --- Lang’s account is placed into the broader context both in the text and endnotes. To avoid too many digressions that might distract the reader, particularly interesting observations by the Lieutenant are discussed thematically in the second section. This first section is Lang’s view of the Canadas from the saddle, while the second part discusses the service of the 19th Light Dragoons in greater detail with reference to sources other than the journal. It is to be hoped that what follows will introduce scholars to the manuscript and encourage its use in the ongoing study of the War of 1812 in particular, and of the Canadas in the early nineteenth century in general.1

Part One.

     At the turn of the nineteenth century, when most British cavalry regiments found themselves on anti-invasion duty in the Home Islands, or on campaign in Flanders, the 19th Light Dragoons were taking an active role in the expansion of British power across the Indian Subcontinent. This was perhaps appropriate, as the corps had been raised specifically for East Indian service as the 23rd Light Dragoons in 1783, before being converted to the 19th in 1786. In August 1793, the regiment participated in the capture of Pondicherry on the Coromandel Coast; was present at the fall of Seringapatam in 1799 and served under Sir Arthur Wellesley in 1803 at Assaye and Argaum. What was perhaps the 19th’s greatest moment of East Indian glory came not on the battlefield, however, but among the bloodied ramparts of the fortress of Vellore, where on 10 July 1806 the regiment spearheaded the suppression of a vicious Sepoy mutiny with commensurate brutality.2

     The 19th Light Dragoons was thus familiar with service distant from Britain when ordered overseas as part of a general reinforcement of the Canadian command in early 1813. Also ordered from Britain were the 13th, 70th, 89th, 88th, and 103rd Regiments of Foot, the foreign corps of de Watteville and de Meuron, a company of the Royal Artillery, and members of the Royal Corps of Drivers and Royal Sappers and Miners. The Dragoons were among the earliest to sail, leaving Cork April 1813 with 550 men in the company of the second battalion, 41st Foot.3

     The regiment’s officers represented the social mixture of Britain’s ruling classes. Lieutenant-Colonel Richard O’Neill was the brother of Lord O’Neill, while Lieutenant Benjamin Burton was the son of Sir Charles Burton.4 Sir Charles was a testament to the heterogeneity of the Georgian ruling classes, as he was no more than a major in the 18th Light Dragoons when his death left Burton family affairs "in a state of progressive derangement." Perhaps because Sir Charles’ estate consisted primarily of a commission in a dragoon regiment, his son had taken only three months leave from the 19th in the seven years before 1814.5 Captain James Verner had served on the East Indian Army Staff and, when his troop was not ordered overseas in 1813, joined the six sent to Canada as a volunteer. Regimental surgeon John Murray likewise served as the corps’ assistant-surgeon throughout its service on the subcontinent.6

     Lieutenant John Lang, whose service diary is the subject of this article, joined the Dragoons aboard the HMS Majestic on 5 April 1813. With him were Lieutenant-Colonel O’Neill, Captain George Austin Moultrie, and Lieutenants J.R. Eustace and William Rhodes. Though weather delayed the convoy’s departure until 17 April, the crossing was uneventful. A man falling overboard, to be rescued by sailors, was one of the few entries made by Lang at this time. On 8 May, cod and halibut were caught off the Grand Banks, and three days later the convoy entered the St. Lawrence.7 The placidity of the voyage was perhaps providential, for the cold of a North Atlantic crossing in early spring made great physical exertion almost impossible. "The cold of this day," Lang wrote as the ship passed the southern coast of Newfoundland on 10 May, "was more severe than anything I ever experienced before and was accompanied with a drowness [drowsiness?] and stupefaction which it is hardly possible to bear up against."

     When Canadian pilots joined the convoy on 12 May, the travelers learned to their surprise that they were in fact 200 miles up river, "and yet we can barely distinguish the opposite coast." "But the one side is quite sufficient to engage our attention," Lang noted with admiration for his first view of Canada:

nothing can equal the grandeur of the scenery as we coast along … mountains opening into deep glens down the side of which innumerable torrents formed by the melting of the snow rush to the river in an unbroken sheet of foam, this contrasted with the deep brown of the woods forms a scene which no pen can describe.

Awed at the "one unbroken forest" and "one unpenetrable forest" that formed the Canadian shoreline, Lang’s relief was evident when civilization came into view on 15 May:

On rising this morning we were agreeably surprised at the new creation which seemed to have started into existence during the night. The river narrowed to a breadth of fifteen miles, the banks well cleared and covered with neat smiling cottages, with the plough going almost in every field, and here and there a tin covered spire peeping from among the trees, glittering in the beams of the rising sun, altogether formed a landscape most cheering to people who had been so long accustomed to see (on waking) nothing but sea and sky spread before them.

That afternoon the convoy passed "the beautiful Island of Orleans" and "the famous falls of Montmorencie" before, at five p.m., entering the Quebec basin. With that desperation to touch dry land that marks every Army officer, Lang and Colonel O’Neill "landed immediately and we walked about the town till dusk. The people, who never had seen dragoons before, followed us in such crowds that we could hardly get leave to move." However impressed the people of Quebec may have been with the appearance of the cavalry officers, Lang was "not much gratified with the appearance of the Canadian capital," disdainfully noting that "the streets are very irregularly laid out and in general narrow and dirty." "Viewed from the river as we approached, [the city] made a handsome and most curious appearance." On closer examination, "the public edifices … [did] not promise much, being generally plain stone buildings without any ornamental architecture whatever." There is no record of what the crowds who swarmed about them thought of the dragoon officers, but it may be imagined that the latter’s handsome and most curious appearance betrayed, on closer inspection, the effects, particularly the odorous ones, of more than a month’s sea voyage.

     The regiment came ashore on 16 May, the men being quartered in the fortress’s extensive barracks, the horses in the chateau’s riding school, and the officers in "very good accommodation at the two principal inns." Military duty at Quebec was light for the Dragoons, giving Lang time to attend church services and tour the town and its fortifications. With a soldier’s eye he observed that the lower town was badly situated for the purposes of defence, access to it being limited to "winding streets" or "long flights of wooden stairs." Weak as the lower town may have been in military terms, "the upper is a place of very great strength. We walked all around the fortifications in the evening, which are very extensive towards the land side and of immense strength." Despite this approval of the upper town’s defences, it is clear that for Lang the work of nature was clearly more impressive than the handiwork of man:

Cape Diamond is the most elevated part of the point, being upwards of one thousand feet above the level of the water. The view from this is grand beyond conception. The whole of the fleet which had brought us out lay in the basin directly under our feet. The evening was perfectly calm and the river which spreads out to the breadth of five miles like a mirror reflected the town and shipping. The eye could trace its course as far as the distant end of the Isle D’Orleans, where the prospect is terminated by stupendous mountains. The view from the Governor’s Garden (which runs along the edge of the cliff in rear of the Chateau) is equally beautiful but not so extensive as the elevation is not one third so great.

     For the officers of the 19th Light Dragoons, Quebec society bore more resemblance to its architectural than natural surroundings. Home to Lieutenant-General Sir George Prevost, Governor of Canada, and headquarters of the Canadian Command, in the spring of 1813 Quebec proved to be "particularly dull" as the Governor and his staff, "who compose the first circle of society in this place," were in Upper Canada. That Quebec would offer something less than the social stimulation needed after a long sea voyage was evident the moment the convoy entered the Quebec basin: "Our anchor was hardly dropped when the harbour master came on board. He begged some newspapers from us and told us they had not heard from England for four months and that we were the first arrivals after the breaking of the ice." Provincial simplicity was not without its compensations, however, and Lang’s quarters were kept "by a very communicative Frenchman" who surprised his British guests with a dinner of roast beef and boiled potatoes. His cook was Irish, which perhaps compensated for the charge of 8 shillings per bottle for madiera and port, 9 shillings for the claret, and 6 shillings 8 pence for three meals per day and the bed. Concluding his critique of the architecture and society of Quebec was the garrison, which to Lang’s eye matched the weakness of much of Quebec’s physical defences. "All the troops of the line had been sent to the upper country on the breaking out of the war," Lang found "the garrison duty here performed by the Canadian militia, and such a set of ragamuffins I never beheld."

     All things considered, it was perhaps fortunate for the Light Dragoons that their stay in Quebec was to be a short one. By late May 1813 the war’s second campaign was already underway, and already going badly for the British. The capital of Upper Canada, York, had been captured, looted and burned, and Fort George, guarding the entrance to the Niagara River from Lake Ontario, would soon share a similar fate. Thus it was not surprising that the Light Dragoons should have barely gotten ashore at Quebec when they were ordered to march west. The haste with which the passage was to be made meant that the horses would not immediately accompany the regiment, while if the transports became becalmed for more than two consecutive days, the troopers were to disembark and proceed on foot.8 Save for men detached to tend to the horses left behind, the entire regiment embarked on heavily crowded transports on 18 May, the discomfort of which situation can only have been confounded by an unidentified general officer’s admission that while the transports carried three days’ provisions, the voyage was likely to take as many weeks. Cramped into small transports, complete with kit and women, the fact that the horses were left behind could have been the only saving grace of quarters that were very close indeed. Uncomfortable, undoubtedly, but it was a situation not without moments of humour:

We therefore spread our mattresses on the floor and lay down in our clothes, [but] not to sleep, for there was such a noise of talking, laughing, scolding and singing, that it was totally impossible to rest one minute. Old Anderson [Captain Alexander Anderson] in vain attempted to exert his authority to keep order. He had no sooner worked out one of his God damns than he was saluted with a volley of pillows and bolsters which knocked off a large red nightcap that looked pale contrasted with his countenance.

     More serious than the shortage of berths was the shortage of provisions aboard ship. As early as 19 May, one day after embarkation, the regiment was sending ashore for supplementary provisions, only to meet with minimal if any success. "In only one house could we get any butter and that was so bad we could not eat it. The French Canadians do not know how to make it." The more general shortage of supplies, Lang was informed, was due to the bad harvest of 1812. As a good Anglo-Irishman of the early nineteenth-century, Lang had a different explanation: "[French Canadian] poverty is partly owing to their extreme idleness in not clearing more land and partly to the influence of their religion, which enjoins the observation of so many holidays." Despite this, on the morning of 20 May, Mrs. Rathbone, wife of Lieutenant James Rathbone, was able to provide the officers with a hearty breakfast of eggs and milk.

     As if these problems were not enough, on 21 May the regiment disembarked as per its orders, the transport having lain becalmed for two consecutive days in the river. Knowledgeable of French, Lang was ordered to liaise with local authorities for provisions and quarters. Most officials were helpful, among them a Captain du Milice who the Lieutenant found "sitting mending his shoes:" "I showed him my route which ordered him to furnish so many carts and to find billets for the men and with great alacrity he set about it. In half an hour he brought down the required number to the waters edge." Others, however, needed encouragement, such as the magistrate at Ste. Anne’s "who made some difficulty at first but on my telling him that we could not possibly answer for any violence the men might commit if they were not supplied, he exerted himself and procured us a bullock and two rations of bread per man."

     Even with the best efforts of their officers and local officialdom, the men of the 19th "were greatly distressed for want of provisions. It was with great difficulty that I could procure a few loaves of bread for the troop which I had charge of." Nor had the paymaster any funds with which they could buy food locally. "We were therefore obliged to purchase bread for the men out of our own pockets, and they laid an embargo on the milk pails as the women returned from the fields." Pillaging was thus tolerated on a minor scale and with the full knowledge of the officers. When a farmer arrived at regimental headquarters to complain of troopers stealing, slaughtering and consuming a pig and a calf, Lang’s investigation revealed only blood stained grass near a fire still burning in the forest: "the culprits had vanished and we did not take much trouble to discover them as we knew the men were literally starving." Such circumstances are not uncommon to war, be it fought in the early nineteenth or early twenty first century, but they more commonly occur during retreats through enemy territory, than advances through one’s own.

     After four days on the march, the regiment neared Trois Rivieres. One must pity the cavalrymen as, barely ten days in Canada and with yet a hair of the enemy in sight, they covered upwards of twenty miles a day in warm weather through rough countryside on bad roads with little or no provisions, all without the benefit of their mounts. At Trois Rivieres --- whose buildings Lang not surprisingly described as "generally small and mean" ---- a welcome change awaited the troopers. On 26 May the regiment boarded the one steamer then operating on the St. Lawrence, bound for Montreal:

We found the accommodations excellent. In the great cabin there were two rows of berths on each side with a curtain before them and in the middle a long table with benches on each side. It was worked against the stream in a calm at a rate of four miles an hour by an engine of sixteen horsepower and is capable of carrying five hundred passengers without inconvenience.

     After Quebec and the march to Trois Rivieres, the society aboard the steamer was as refreshing a change for the officers as they were joined for dinner by Lieutenant-Colonel Ralph Bruyeres of the Royal Engineers, the wife and staff of Brigadier-General Duncan Dorrock, and several ladies and gentlemen bound for Montreal.9 Lang accompanied Bruyeres ashore at Sorel on the afternoon of 27 May, writing afterward:

I learnt from him that it had been a thriving place before the war, but as its principal trade was carried on with the state of New York by the river Richelieu at the mouth of which it stands, it is falling off every day in consequence of the war.

     Disembarking at 6:00 am on 28 May, the Dragoons remained in Montreal until 16 July. Militarily, Montreal was far less impressive than Quebec: "It was formerly surrounded by a wall to keep off the Indians, but of this nothing remains but the gates." Lang’s criticism of Montreal was bridled, however, by the "very good accommodations" to be found in the city’s boarding houses, beds and meals purchased by officers at a rate no higher than that of the town’s hotels. The savings came at a cost, in particular that of being "tormented by bugs." Clearly, what motivated Lang to withhold the criticism that he had otherwise used unsparingly in Quebec was the social milieu he found in Montreal. The city of merchants contrasted starkly with Quebec’s population of bureaucrats, if for obvious reasons: "I found the Colonel had got acquainted with all the principal society of the place [of] which the best is the military, next to them the British merchants and residents and the French Canadians. The latter two seldom mix together, but the military are on good terms with both." Even the most serious military matters, therefore, had in Montreal a feel of Vauxhall Gardens rather than the Horse Guards:

A garrison parade in the evening [6 June 1813]. The General inspected the regiment. All the beauty and fashion of the place were assembled on the occasion on horseback, which is the usual mode for Canadian Ladies to take the air in summer.

     From the beginning of his journal Lang’s close relationship with O’Neill is evident. It was Lang who dined with the Colonel the night before the convoy sailed, and who had accompanied O’Neill on his tour at dusk of the Quebec fortifications. In Montreal, it was in a fine house on the riverside that the Colonel rented for a mere four pounds a month that Lang found a reprieve from his tormenting bugs, and it was Lang who benefited from the Colonel’s participation in high society, as posterity has from the record the young Lieutenant has left. The majority of Lang’s time was spent socializing and dining in the Colonel’s company at the Baroness Lougeuil’s estate on St. Helen’s Island --- "a perfect paradise" --- not to mention picnics on the Mountain and strawberry parties on Nun’s Island.10 Nor was foul weather without its charms, Lang noting that it was in Montreal that he experienced "for the first time the grand but awful spectacle of a Canadian thunderstorm."

It was in Montreal, in the Colonel’s company, and just two days after the regiment’s arrival that Lang encountered a feature unique to the Empire’s Canadian possessions: Native American warriors.

After church I went with the Colonel to see a body of Indian warriors who had just come to town with their wives and families. They collected around us and showed much surprise and admiration at our dress. One of their chiefs addressed us in a long speech not one word of which we could understand, but a gentleman who knew the language told us it was whether we came from their good father across [the] seas and if we were come to assist them to drink the blood of their enemies. We told them (through our interpreter) that we were and we then were obliged to shake hands with the whole circle and they got so fond of us that it was with some difficulty we could get away from them.

All in all, not entirely different from the Colonel and Lieutenant’s reception in Quebec two weeks before.

     Lang’s description of celebrations on the eve of the King’s birthday illustrate both the quality of Montreal’s social evenings and their effects on a young officer fresh from the Home Islands:

Dined at St. Helen’s Isle where we met a large party of both French and English society. We had the band in the evening and danced until a late hour. When we returned to town in batteaux the music followed us at a little distance and had the finest effect from the stillness and beauty of the night, the moon glittering on the tin spires of Montreal and reflected by the smooth glassy surface of the St. Lawrence, with the deep background of the mountain. The splashing of the oars keeping time to the music altogether formed a scene more resembling enchantment than reality.

The actual celebration of the King’s birthday on 4 June was cancelled when it was learned American forces were approaching Montreal. Aside from the impropriety of holding ceremonial parades with the enemy so near, Major-General Francis de Rottenburg feared that any parades would expose the numerical weakness of his command. To meet the attack, the 19th detached a sergeant and a farrier with a troop of volunteer cavalry that went out to reconnoiter the enemy, while, much to their chagrin, the remainder of the regiment surrendered their swords and carbines for muskets. The alarm being lifted on the morning of the 5th, "we gave up our muskets, much to the satisfaction of our men." That morning Lang and the Colonel breakfasted at St. Helens, and in the evening supped with "Mr. M.," "one of the most considerable merchants in Montreal," and a director of the Northwest Company.

     If the alarm of 4 June was an uncommon if perhaps unwelcome reminder that a state of war existed between the British Empire and the American Republic, regimental duties of a more mundane manner likewise prevented the 19th’s sojourn in Montreal from becoming one uninterrupted season of social frivolity. Horses were of particular concern to the officers, if only to prevent the regiment from being forced to serve dismounted. In ordering the 19th to Canada Colonial Secretary Lord Bathurst had "thought it … expedient" to send 150 horses with the corps for its commissioned and non-commissioned officers, hoping that Prevost would "have collected a supply of horses requisite for [the] men" by the time of the regiment’s arrival.11 Thus while Lang noted the general health of the horses on the regiment’s arrival at Quebec, the truth was that the 19th lacked sufficient horseflesh for its rankers. Indeed, the alarm of 4 June merely foreshadowed the fact that, due to a shortage of horses that would plague the regiment throughout its service in the Canadas, the troopers were often to find themselves serving on foot with the infantry.12 It was not that horses were rare in the provinces. Rather, the quality of what mounts were available did not impress the Army. O’Neill was especially sensitive regarding mounts: of 100 horses gathered for the regiment, he selected.13 Nor did the regiment’s problems end once horses of suitable quality were found. Veterinary Surgeon Bird struggled to provide the corps with adequate horseshoes and medicines, and found the cost of the latter "three times as high in Canada as in England."14

     The First Troop of the 19th had already marched for Kingston, and on 7 July was ordered to join the Centre Division "as soon as sufficient number of horses are received from Montreal."15 Four days later the entire regiment received orders for the upper province, and departed Montreal at 6 am on 16 July. It was now that the officers and men of the 19th realized the travellers’ horror stories for which Upper Canada was justly infamous:

About two miles beyond Cateau, it became necessary to embark the cart which carried our oats and baggage on board of a batteau to go the next twenty four miles, the road being through a swamp totally impassable for any kind of wheel carriage, and nearly so for horses. At one place the swamp is so bad that we were obliged to keep out in the Lake to avoid being smothered in the mud, up to our saddle skirts in water and often swimming the horses for quarter of a mile. At all times their footing was precarious from the number of roots and half sunk timber. In this way we passed through the water for six miles. The next eighteen miles was through a swampy wood where we were often in danger of losing our horses in the mud-holes which was up to their bellies every step. To add to our misfortunes it poured rain upon us the whole of the day in torrents.

It must have given Assistant-surgeon William O’Donnell pause for thought that, having survived the North Atlantic passage and transport by steamer from Trois Rivieres to Montreal, he and O’Neill’s servant George --- the latter mounted on "a pony about twelve hands high" --- both almost drowned on the march. Nor did matters improve appreciably with day’s end. Officers and men alike "wet to the skin [and] covered with mud," the corps discovered that their baggage batteau had not arrived by the time they reached their quarters for the night. How their host reacted to the arrival of the soaked and muddy Dragoons who he was legally obligated to billet can only be imagined. His concern at being required to provide a greatcoat a piece to the bedraggled troopers was however probably nothing compared to his efforts to keep the women of the house in doors when, in a scene reminiscent of War and Peace, the officers and men "went to the river where we stripped, bathed, and washed the mud off our clothes and appointments." Wretched weather and the failure of the bateau bearing fresh clothing to arrive until next morning made 17 July 1813 one of the most inglorious in the history of the regiment: "We were forced to sit in nothing but the linsey-woolsey greatcoats for the remainder of the evening."

     If the British Army, not to mention the French, experienced more grueling, more catastrophic marches on a vaster scale during the Napoleonic Wars, the passage of the 19th Light Dragoons from Montreal to Kingston was nonetheless a reminder that much in human affairs is conducted beneath the vast indifference of heaven. By 20 July, the regiment was finally nearing its destination, though it now seemed barely able to move. "The last fourteen miles," wrote Lang of the march to Ganannoque, "the Colonel walked lame footed through the mud and he certainly might have been taken for anything but a Lieutenant-Colonel of Dragoons." Though few in the regiment at this time could have had much inclination toward philosophical ruminations, the difficulties of the march to Kingston reflected an important transformation in the 19th’s service in North America. It was a passage not merely from one town to another, or even one province to another, but a passage from a peaceful, civilian existence, to a warlike, military one. During the fourteen days the regiment spent in the wilderness, the dragoons shed --- if not by fire then by mud and water --- the comforts of the life they had enjoyed in Montreal, and were reminded of the often brutish, often deadly profession in which they were engaged.

     This transformation was reinforced by the persistence with which the enemy made his presence felt. While alarms had been occasional, often false affairs, in Montreal, on the route to Kingston they became both more serious and more frequent. Arriving at Prescott on 19 July, Lang found the town in the state of alarm after the capture of several British provision bateaux by an American gunboat that morning. Two days later the officers and men were woken by the sound of angry gunfire from out on the Lake.

     The 19th’s destination likewise more symbolized their purpose in the Canadas, than had their point of origin. Kingston was first and foremost a military town. Closer to the front than Montreal, its population possessed a proportionately greater number of soldiers than did the merchant town on the St. Lawrence. Indeed, such was the abundance of military uniforms in the town that at the beginning of April a captain and sergeant from the American army were, in a passing disguise, able to conduct a tour of the town unnoticed.16 The Dragoons therefore knew that the reception in this military town would not be one of awe, as had been the case in Quebec or Montreal, but of critical profession judgment. It was due to this fact that, lame as he, his officers, men, and mounts were, tired and wet, dirty and hungry as all must have been, Colonel O’Neill delayed the regiment’s entry into the town until 10 p.m. on 21 July. His intent, as Lang makes clear, was to avoid the necessity of presenting a corps in such wretched condition to the cold eye of his colleagues at Army headquarters.

     This passage was reinforced once the regiment had settled into its quarters. In the absence of the strawberry parties hosted by the Baroness Lougueil, the social rounds of Kingston had a distinctly more military tone than had been the case in Montreal, as might have been intimated by the freshly arrived squadron Lang was surprised to find riding at anchor only a few yards from his window when he awoke on that first morning. During the four days that the regiment spent in Kingston, Lang was invited to dine with officers of the 100th Foot, and attend the launch of the brig Melville:

she went off in a beautiful style. We then went to Sir J[ames] Y[eo]’s flagship, where we found a table laid out under an awning formed of the colours of the squadron, with wine, tea, coffee, etc., etc., and after pouring copious libations to the success of the new ship and her commander we returned to the garrison.

In Kingston, the often mindless if polite babble of the salon was replaced by accounts of operations against the King’s enemies, including that of naval action among the Thousand Islands in which the British fleet was saved from an American ambush by the bayonets of the 100th Foot. During this action, Captain Milnes, ADC to Prevost, "was mortally wounded in the head and was brought in here this morning insensible." That Milnes conducted the garrison parade in which the 19th participated three days later is a testament to the hard-headedness, not to mention thick skulls, of British staff officers at this time. That this was war in the Canadas, and not peace in Montreal or even London, was further driven home by the location of these gatherings. The officer’s mess for the 100th Foot, for one, was conducted in a barn.

      On 26 July 1813, the regiment departed Kingston, and it soon became evident that the 19th’s transformation from a peaceable to a warlike footing was complete. Gone, with undoubtedly much relief to all concerned, animal as well as human, was the hellish terrain to be traversed. The Bay of Quinte was, in Lang’s view, "one of the most fertile and best settled parts of the upper province," while the lakeshore was formed of "the greatest variety of prospects." Though the route followed the lakeshore, and "the country principally wood and but thinly populated," Lang record few if any of the difficulties as the regiment had experienced on its march to Kingston. At Bates’ "small farm by the edge of the lake … we got some very fine bass for dinner, which they took in the shallows by spearing. The water is so transparent that you can see to the bottom at very great depths." If the threat from nature had diminished, that from man equally increased as the regiment moved away from Kingston: "we found ourselves in an enemy’s country and that it was necessary to advance with caution as the American fleet were active on the lake." This fact was driven home when the corps reached Pickering on 30 July, and were informed that a group of American prisoners of war had recently overpowered their guard and escaped across the lake. Within twenty-four hours, the proximity of the war would make itself so obvious that no one could deny it.

     As the provincial capital of Upper Canada, albeit one that had been set to the torch by invading Americans two months before, York should have been the last stopping point of any importance before they joined the Army on Burlington Heights. The stop was avoided, however, as on the morning of 31 July York was once again in the hands of the enemy. Early that morning the regiment had word that "the enemy’s fleet were off York and that our troops had left and gone to Burlington Heights to protect that post from their attempts." This report was confirmed "within a few miles of the town [where] we met the inhabitants flying out and the sick who had been left in the hospital making their escape." By this time O’Neill’s servant had recovered from his brush with a watery grave on the march to Kingston, though he now probably regretted his improved health: it was decided that he would be sent forward into the town to see if the regiment could "gallop through."

     Such recklessness was prevented by the arrival of "Mr. Jarvis, secretary of the upper province," who found a guide which the regiment mounted "on one of our led horses."

We told him that if he led us clear we would handsomely reward him, that if he betrayed us we would instantly shoot him. He led us at a gallop into the middle of the town and turned up a street to the right which led into the woods by which we avoided the enemy’s lading place which was a little lower down.

Their guide’s route took the regiment to a point six miles north of where the mouth of the Credit River opened onto the Lake. Crossing the Credit in the gathering dusk, they encountered a commissariat officer with Army cattle and an officer of the Glengarry Provincial Corps.

They were happy when we joined them, as it began to grow very dark and we had still above twenty miles to go through woods and glens where the path was so narrow that it was with great difficulty we could trace it. After many mishaps we got to Mun’s Tavern almost as weary as our horses, which we had ridden for 56 miles without dismounting. But our Glengarry acquaintance did not come up until late next morning, having separated form us in the woods, where he and his servant passed the night.

     The events of 30 July proved so exhausting for the officers, men, and mounts of the regiment, that the march was not continued until late on 31 July. It was not until the night of 1 August that the regiment had any further excitement, this time again involving the Colonel’s hapless servant, who was fired upon by an allied Native American warrior who mistook the blue coated dragoons for Americans. The next day, at Twelve Mile Creek, the column encountered Chief John Norton, then a captain in the Indian Department whose service to the Crown, Lang noted, had been one of "extraordinary intrepidity." The young Lieutenant was equally impressed with Norton’s wife, who he described as "the prettiest squaw I ever saw." Continuing its march a further eight miles, the regiment came to Army headquarters, stationed at Forty Mile Creek. There the regiment again met General de Rottenburg, who recommended "a very good house" at Stainford for regimental headquarters.

     If, despite the events of the previous days, any doubts remained, 3 August confirmed for the 19th that they were finally at the front. During dinner with de Rottenburg came news that Sir James Yeo’s fleet was finally out, while later that evening Commodore Isaac Chauncey’s fleet arrived from its recent re-occupation of York and began shelling the British positions on Burlington Heights. It was due to the presence of the American fleet that a rather disgruntled Lieutenant Burton tromped into the camp that night with the dismounted men of Captain Robert Lisle’s squadron. Sailing in transports to join the Army at Burlington, they had been forced ashore in the face of the enemy fleet and marched overland to the camp.

      Lang would remain with the Army on the Niagara from 2 August until 27 October. His experiences there were not unlike those of many soldiers in wartime: long period of mind-numbing boredom intermittently interrupted by brief moments of terror and excitement. Some diary entries, like those of 14 August or 3 and 4 September, noted nothing other than "all quiet." At other times "all quiet" was supplemented, as on 10 August, with "Colonel dines with officers." On 27 September Lang purchased a bottle of Irish whiskey: "Dine with Colonel and regale on whiskey." To kill the boredom, Lang spent much of his time in the saddle, riding to the Falls --- which he admitted doing before the other officers or horses were fully recovered from the march --- visiting the Whirlpool, hunting, or merely touring the Army’s positions. Being not only newly arrived from Montreal and Quebec, but the most recent arrivals from the Old Country, the officers of the 19th were popular dinner guests among the regiments of the lines, as is evidenced by Lang’s frequent trips to the messes of the 8th Foot and the Centre Division’s headquarters staff.

      This was the front, however, and the enemy was not shy to make his presence felt. Visiting Queenston and its Heights on 19 August --- as more a tourist than a soldier --- Lang and his party came under fire from American batteries. That day, too, a deserter’s warning led to the camp turning out at 2 am. The next day it turned out at 3 am, but on neither occasion did the enemy put in an appearance. Such preparations were by no means unreasonable. Lang noted that on 16 August a Dragoon corporal and four troopers surprised and took an American picket, while the next day a force of American riflemen, supported by Natives, attempted to penetrate the center of the British lines. Though the enemy was repulsed, a trooper of the Dragoons was captured while Lieutenant Gladwin mistakenly found himself in the midst of the enemy and escaped only after being severely wounded. The 24 August dawn attack on the enemy pickets of American-held Fort George included both mounted and dismounted elements of the 19th, and resulted in successful intelligence gathering but, noting the "ease with which the enemy might have defeated us," Lang admitted it was a "narrow escape from enemy rifles."

     Such raids seem to have been the order of the day for the armies in the autumn of 1813. On 6 September an American raid was repulsed with only a horse of the Dragoons wounded; that same night, Captain Ansley, 89th Foot, was mortally wounded leading a detachment of his regiment and the Dragoons against the American advanced picket. Nor was such excitement limited to the landward side of Burlington Heights. On 7 August Lang described a scene worthy of Turner:

Awoke in the morning by firing from the fleet. Camp under arms. March to lakeside. Fleets maneuver. Enemy visible. Turn out at midnight with 12 dragoons. Tremendous thunder and lightening.

The almost constant raiding across the no man’s land between American-held Newark and the British camp at Burlington is suggestive of the inconclusive nature of many of the war’s engagements, and ultimately of the war itself. While the British lacked the strength to deliver a knock out blow, the Americans similarly lacked, until very late in the conflict, both the will and the ability to drive the British from the Canadas. Thus both sides were reduced to small scale operations such as the raids of which Lang wrote, engagements that often seemed more directed by a tit for tat logic than any grand strategy conceived by generals on either side, with proper battles being a matter of chance if not outright error. The result was a war no less bloody, in proportion, than that being then fought in Spain or Germany.

      Sickness rather than enemy counter measures slowed the raiding in early September. On the 8th Lang noted "camp very sickly," and indeed little else is mentioned from then until the Lieutenant’s departure in late October. On 15 September, Paymaster Kingsley of the King’s Regiment died of fever; he was followed two days later by "Old Lewis," the quartermaster of the same regiment. On the 18th, Lang noted "Climate unhealthy, subject to ague," and by 3 October was himself ill. Still suffering the lingering effects of his illness on 4 October, Lang went out on a mounted hunt hoping to finally shake his fever. Of course, the damp autumn air only worsened it, for which he had to receive an emetic from Dr. Carr. Meanwhile, disease raged in the camp. Warned of an enemy assault on 26 September, Lang wrote: "Camp very sickly, force not more than 800 effectives." Still they managed to turn out at 3:00 am. When the assault did come, on 6 October, a barn of forage was burned and a party of the 19th ambushed. 7 October also brought news of the Battle of the Thames, with "stragglers from the Right Division" arriving in camp three days later. Sickness and defeat did nothing to help British spirits. Nor was Lang’s own condition aided by his "miserable situation" of 14 October turning to "fever and ague," for which he received yet another emetic on the 17th.

     That Colonel O’Neill had himself been struck with jaundice perhaps explains his "d----d bad humour" when Lang encountered him 27 October. Or, perhaps the Colonel was displeased that he and his men had received their route for Kingston the day before, though such is improbable. Whatever joy the 19th might have felt at being ordered away from Burlington Heights was tempered, however, by the difficulties of marching in the Canadas, difficulties which the regiment had now experienced many times over, and which very soon made their presence felt. That night Lang was forced to "sleep in a miserable hovel without windows with a few of the men around the fire." In his diary Lang makes passing reference to the equipment which the government supplied settlers free of charge in order to facilitate homesteading. Though he offers no specifics, he was clearly not impressed with the uses to which such examples of Crown beneficence were put. The next night Lang found somewhat better quarters at Costard’s farm. Though particularly happy that there was "plenty of forage" for the horses, the fact that Costard’s farmhouse was "a log house of one large room" did present a problem of social etiquette that Lang had perhaps not encountered since Montreal:

Near being placed in an awkward situation with Mrs. Costard, her husband from home and only two beds in the same room. Mr. Costard arrives home in good time.

     On 29 October Lang arrived in York, this time safely in the hands of Colonel O’Neill, Captain Torrens, whose squadron Lang had led from Burlington, and Lieutenant Burton. The next day O’Neill left for Kingston, Burton following with the First Troop on the 31st. With the most active theatre of operations in the war slowly receding behind them, the officers would have been forgiven had their thoughts and conversation turned to the comparative comforts of Kingston, if not the delights of Montreal, that they soon hoped to be enjoying again. This sense of impending civilization was further reinforced by the quarters the officers found in York: "Get very good quarters at Jordan’s Tavern, the best I had seen in the country. A very good diner, delicious water fowl." Any hopes that the war had been left behind in Burlington were dashed in the midst of that same dinner, however, when word was received that American forces under Wilkinson were threatening Kingston, had already seized Grenadiers Island, and had thus bottled the British fleet up in their own harbour. With thus perhaps a certain feeling of foreboding, Lang departed York for Kingston with 24 men on 1 November.

     Once he departed York, Lang’s diary records little of the criticism of Canadian road conditions that were unrelenting from the moment the regiment left Quebec the previous spring. Save for a brief stretch of road near Pickering that he found "very bad," the march for the most part seems to have been conducted on roads that were at least "tolerable." It is entirely possible that the road conditions had in fact improved, but more likely the absence of Lang’s hitherto severe criticism was due to the fact that, after eight months, he was inured to the roughness of Canadian conditions. Here it is important to remember that Lang’s diary is a living document; recording the officer’s impressions of circumstances as he lived them not as he reflected on them months or years later. Thus his earlier criticisms of Canadian conditions to a very great extent reflected the novelty of the situation for the young officer. This does not mean to belittle the officer’s experiences. Indeed, his early, scathing criticism of the conditions --- made at the hand of both nature and man --- reflected the most common reaction of both Englishmen and women on their first arrival in the Canadas. Indeed, if such a line of reasoning be correct, it is suggestive of how easily Lang was able to adapt to conditions that his criticism was tempered with the passage of time, while that of others experienced no noticeable moderation.

     The ruminations of the ill-informed historian aside, the march to Kingston was clearly a more tolerable affair than the march out. That first day, Lang’s troop covered fifteen miles before quartering at Post’s, where the horses were billeted in "an excellent stable." Though the next day’s march was on "very bad" roads, the troop still covered thirteen miles before halting at Lyon’s: "a good house and civil people." Though 3 November saw a march on "tolerable" roads, the troop nonetheless covered twenty-two miles before halting once again at Bates’. This time the novelty of a very fine bass dinner had clearly passed, for Lang found the quarters bad. On 7 November, the march of the troop was delayed waiting for the baggage to come up. Nonetheless, the troop covered twelve miles that day before quartering at Levan’s tavern, "an excellent house."

      As one officer of the 19th Light Dragoons was to brood soon after war’s end, the role of cavalry in Canada was limited to raiding enemy outposts, acting "as letter carriers," and, as the Lang diary suggests, endless marches back and forth between the upper and lower provinces.17 It was thus understandable that when finding the forest had opened onto a large plain in the midst of a twenty-two mile march to Bowers’ on the Bay of Quinte, Lang could not resist the temptation to "form troop and charge." Such exercise was timely, for at midnight that same evening Lang received an order from Colonel O’Neill stating that, as Wilkinson had dropped down river to Montreal, thus cutting the road to the latter, Lang’s detachment was to move to Ernestown. A sergeant and six men were to remain behind at Nappanee Mills. The diversion to Ernestown was not to be a holiday, however. At Frelig’s, a day’s march from Ernestown, Lang found quarters provided in a house where "man, wife and children sleep in same room." His further description is vague, if telling: "Wind up clock. Lice." Better quarters were found at Ernestown, but there was little rest for the two detachments Lang sent out to enforce martial law on 11 November. Lang himself was taken seriously ill while in Ernestown, his quick recovery due to the kindness of his hostess Mrs. Johnson.

     On 13 November Lieutenant Eustace arrived with word of the Battle of Crysler’s Farm, which ended the American threat to Montreal, and orders for Lang’s detachment to join Captain Henry Skelton’s troop and march for Kingston. After a day’s halt to shod the horses, Lang’s detachment departed Kingston on 16 November. Finding quarters at Downie’s in Gannonoque, Lang spent a pleasant evening dining with officers of the Royal Navy. On 16 November, the troop covered 23 miles before stopping at Practor’s, where Lang complained that there was "no oats for horses." Feed was found the next day at Brockville, "a pretty little village on the banks of the St. Lawrence." The troop did not remain there, however, but continued on to Johnstown, "a miserable little village on the river." The wretchedness of the quarters was somewhat alleviated by an encounter with "our naval friends again who had come by water."

     To a very great extent, the deterioration of the march had as much to do with the turn in the weather than the inadequateness of the quarters. Already on 16 November Lang noted the "miserable condition of the troop." Four miles from Crysler’s farm on 18 November, Lang complained of drifting snow that blew in their faces during the entire 25 mile march. 19 November witnessed the crossing of the famous battlefield in a freezing rain. The next day the wretched conditions not only continued, but worsened: "Men suffer much from cold being almost naked. Rain freezes and sleets at the same time." It was thus with much gratefulness that Lang accepted the hospitality of "Priest MacDonald’s house" when his troop arrived at Glengarry: Priest MacDonald was clearly Alexander MacDonnell, whose role as a cleric-warrior rivaled that of John Strachan, as evident from the notes Lang took of their discussion:

A most excellent and hospitable man. His kind reception. Knows all the people in North of Ireland. Desires to be remembered to Dr. MacDonald. His plan for the defence of the province; to arm the population and officer them from the Line. Want of energy in the government’s treatment of the people of Glengarry. Fees against the settling of Canada by British subjects. Yankees get the land in consequence. Divert the current of emigration from Scotland and Ireland to this country in preference to the States.

     On 21 November the troop crossed into Lower Canada and quartered at Coteau. The next day’s march to Cedars was notable for the "impudence of the Commissary," and for the fact that the "men suffer much from rain and frost at same time. Roads very bad." Finally, with their clothes in a "ragged state" and their horses in a "miserable condition…quite done up" the troop arrived at Montreal on 24 November. The Colonel greeted them, almost recovered from his jaundice, while the ladies expressed particular joy at the cavalry’s return. Winter, 1814, was spent in Montreal much as it had been the previous spring: Lang rode here and there with the ladies of polite society, dined with the same, not to mention Generals de Rottenburg and Vincent, Lieutenant-Colonel O’Neill, "Mr. McGillivary," and the officers of the 89th Foot. There were false alarms and the occasional marches, too, but the war was in reality many miles away. Not that the war was over for Lang. In the spring of 1814 he was back in Kingston, sailing from there for Fort George with Colonel O’Neill aboard the Moira on the 11th. Back at the front, the Lieutenant did not see much of the war. Dinners, including one with Major-General Phineas Riall, hunting, and riding occupied most of his time. Appropriately, 4 June 1814 was not only the celebration of the King’s birthday, but the date on which news was received in Niagara of the revolution in France that toppled Bonaparte’s government. Ten days later Lang and O’Neill sailed for Kingston, from whence they traveled to Montreal. Sick with a sore throat throughout July, on 20 August 1814 Lang joined de Rottenburg’s staff as an aide-de-camp.

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1  The collections of the William R, Perkins Library are listed in its Guide, as well as in the National Union Catalog of Manuscript Collections. The author would like to thank Mr. William Erwin, senior cataloger at the Perkins, for his permission to use the Lang diary for this article. Unless otherwise noted, all quotes come from the Lang diary.

2  Sir John Cradock to George Harcourt, 7 August 1806. George William Richard Harcourt Papers, Perkins Library; Townshend Monckton Hall, Memoirs, Perkins Library; Sir John Fortescue, A History of the British Army, 13 Vols. (London: Macmillan and Company, 1921), Vol. IV, p. 402; V, 39-41. The 19th Light Dragoons were converted into the 19th Lancers in 1817, and were disbanded in 1821. Though the current 19th Hussars (Queen Alexandra’s Own) has no formal relationship to the Dragoons, they have inherited the latter’s battle honours, including "Niagara." This is somewhat ironic, given the Indian origins of the 19th Light Dragoons, as the Hussars were converted from the 1st Bengal European Light Cavalry in 1861. J.M. Brereton, ed. A Guide to the Regiments and Corps of the British Army on the Regular Establishment (London: the Bodley Head, 1985).

3  Henry, Earl of Bathurst to Lieutenant-General Sir George Prevost, 12 March 1813, in E.A. Cruickshank, ed. The Documentary History of the Campaign upon the Niagara Frontier in the Year 1813, 2 Parts (Welland, Ontario: Lundy’s Lane Historical Society, 1902), Pt. 1, p. 106; J. Mackay Hitsman, The Incredible War of 1812 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1965), p. 105.

4  Major-General Henry Torrens to Commander-in-Chief, North America, 30 March 1815. LAC RG8/ C Series, Vol. 1035.

5  Torrens to Prevost, 15 March 1814. Ibid.

6  Verner to Major Foster, 15 July 1815. Ibid.; Robert Drew, ed., Commissioned Officers in the Medical Service of the British Army, 1660 – 1960, 2 Vols. (London: The Wellcome Historical Medical Library, 1969), Vol 2, "Johnstone’s Roll," #1578: Murray, John.

7  The passage to Canada had long been notorious for "frozen fogs, seas of compacted ice, and contrary winds." Admiral Lord Colville to John Cleveland, 24 May 1760. ADM. 1/ 482. Observations on the passage more contemporaneous to Lang may be found in William Dunlop, "Recollections of the American War, 1812 – 1814," in Carl F. Klinck, ed. Tiger Dunlop’s Upper Canada, New Canadian Library #55 (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1967), pp. 5-6. The regiment to which Dunlop acted as assistant-surgeon, 2/89th Foot, was part of the same reinforcement as the 19th Light Dragoons, but sailed in autumn 1813. That it took some three months for Dunlop to reach Canada, while Lang’s convoy did so in barely a month, was probably due to the fact that the later convoy sailed from the Isle of Wight, and thus had not only greater distance to cover, but also had to traverse the often tempestuous and contrary seas off the south coast of England. Returning to England after the fall of Quebec in 1759, for example, Admiral Saunders was forced by rough weather to make for Cork after several failed attempts at his intended destination, Portsmouth. Saunders to Cleveland, 11 December 1759. ADM. 1/482.

8  The delay in moving the horses forward was undoubtedly due to the animals’ needing more time than their human masters to regain their health once ashore. Lang nonetheless noted that the horses were "in surprising good condition after their voyage."

9   The steamer to which Lang refers was possibly the Swiftsure, which the Quebec Gazette described as offering "accommodation for passengers in every respect equal to the best hotel in Canada." It was powered, however, by a thirty horsepower engine, and though 120 by 24 feet, it is questionable whether, as Lang states, it could hold 500 passengers. William Wood, All Afloat (Toronto: Glasgow, Brook, and Company, 1914), pp. 132 – 133.

10   British officers were to enjoy the hospitality of the Baroness’s descendants well into the nineteenth century. Elinor Kyte Senior, British Regulars in Montreal: An Imperial Garrison, 1832-1854 (Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press, 1981), p. 180.

11   Bathurst to Prevost, 12 March 1813. Cruikshank, Doc. Hist., [1813, pt. 1] p. 106.

12  General Orders, Kingston, 24 July 1813. Cruikshank, Doc. Hist. [1813, pt.2], p. 274; General Orders, Niagara, 23 August 1813; General Orders, Kingston, 21 September 1813. Ibid., [1813, pt. 3], p. 53, 156; Major-General Louis de Watteville to Lieutenant-Colonel James Harvey, 10 November 1814. Ibid., [1814], p. 301.

13  For O’Neill’s dealings with horse traders, see the petition of Anthony Anderson, 10 January 1814

14  L. Bird to Major Parker, 31 July 1813. LAC RG8/ C Series, Vol. 1035.

15  Garrison Orders, Kingston, 7 July 1813. Cruikshank, Doc. Hist. [1813, pt. 2], p. 202.

16  Brigadier-General Zebulon Montgomery Pike to "General" [Dearborn?] 2 April 1813. Joseph Bloomfield-Zebulon Pike Letterbook, William L. Clements Library, University o Michigan.

17  Verner to Foster, 15 July 1815. LAC RG8/ C Series, Vol. 1035.

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Copyright: Adam Norman Lynde 2001


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