"Good Morning" Waking up as
a British Soldier in the War of 1812
At 1812 historic sites and museums a simple question is often asked by visitors: What did a soldier do during the day? This question is not an easy one to answer because you have to understand the soldier’s way of life in 1812. In this article the soldier’s morning routine will be tackled in hopes to assist museum professionals and reenactors in better telling the story of the British soldier during the war.
Today we all run on schedules. We wake up at the sound of an alarm clock, have breakfast, shower and get ready for work or school, pack a lunch and so on. Throughout the week we have numerous regular events like when payday comes and it off to pay the bills and do the groceries. Many attend church or some other religious institution on the weekend. Saturday may be laundry day and/or shopping at the mall. At one point in the month you will need a hair cut or have a special dinner once or twice a month with your spouse. Then there is sports practice, time at the gym, a night at the movies, and so on. As the seasons pass our schedules alter. Snow comes and you have to be up extra early to shovel the driveway, clean off the car and warm it up.
No different with soldiers in 1812. Soldiers also had schedules to help them meet their needs and military obligations. Each soldier’s needs varied from the other, as ours do today. While many soldiers lived a bachelor’s life, some had families to provide for. Soldiers had to wash, dress, shop for food, cook, eat, wash the dishes, go to church, clean their bedroom, and go to the toilet. And like us, they liked to be entertained. Smoking, drinking, dancing, gambling, singing, and playing games were all part of a soldier’s life.
Within the regiment, some soldiers had different or rotating tasks based on their skills (see Former Occupations of Soldiers). Some soldiers cut hair, some cooked or baked, some were servants to officers, others fixed shoes or muskets, while others sewed uniforms. In a way, a regiment was a marketplace with soldiers serving as both clients and merchants.
The regiment was also “parent” to the soldier and set rules and regulations to guide him through his job and life. This involved structuring their day. In British North America, the soldiers schedule was standardized in 1800 and it is that schedule that would have been used at the opening of the War of 1812.
Daylight savings time was not used in 1812 so the times may seem early (add an hour in the summer time). According to orders, soldiers were expected to wake up at 3:30 am from March to September and two hours before sunrise during the colder months of the year. Instead of an alarm clock, a drummer beat a long roll on his drum at the bottom of the stairs of every Barracks. Who woke up the drummer? That was the duty of the officer or NCO of the guard, who were on duty around the clock.
At the sound of the drum, the soldier rolled out of bed (called berths), avoiding the bad breath of his bunkmate, and began to get ready. Upon rising, he was expected to make his bed a certain way (see Beds and Bedding), comb his hair, and wash his hands, face, neck, and ears. To do this a bucket of water was needed. Since urine tubs were not provided in North American barracks until later, the barracks bucket was sometimes used as a toilet at night. Luckily soldiers preferred to step outside the barracks door to urinate, instead of trying to hit a bucket in a pitch black room in the middle of the night. However a doctor several years later did attribute some eye diseases to the habit of soldiers washing and urinating in the same container.
In the morning it would have been someone’s task (likely those turn it was to do mess duty) in the room to fetch the water from the garrison well or a nearby river or lake. Carting oak buckets long distances is not a happy duty to be assigned. Since many soldiers were addicted to nicotine, a bucket carrier likely took the opportunity to smoke his clay pipe. His comrades in the barracks also needed their ‘fix’ and since it was not allowed to smoke inside, they either stepped outside the door or stuck their heads out the windows, so they were not ‘technically’ smoking in the room. Since they also had to sweep and clean the room in the morning, many didn’t have time to take a smoke and simply chewed on tobacco to answer their deadly habit, spitting occasionally out the window or into a cup or bowl. Sometimes a lazy soldier would spit his disgusting browned saliva onto the whitewashed walls and the floors. Imagine his yellowed teeth with bits of tobacco trapped between them, or the brown caked handkerchief he used to wipe his face. Not a pretty sight.
Cleaning, washing, and making a bed with little or no light was not an easy task, their idea of clean must have been different from ours. While candles were issued to soldiers, they were so few in number, that the light provided was minimal at best. After making their beds and cleaning up, the mess orderlies emptied the fireplaces of ashes, likely dumping them in a refuse pile in some corner on the garrison away from the barrack buildings, and swept the floor with brooms, or besoms, made of small birch twigs. These brooms are still used in places like Eastern Europe and Russia today for sweeping walk and lane ways. While passing this broom does a fair job at removing stones, clumps of soil, and other debris, sand and finer grime is left behind. The washing of the floor was discouraged because of the medical staff’s concern of the humidity reducing the quality of the room’s air. Their concern was valid since mildew and mold would have grown in the dark recesses of the quarters. If available at the garrison, brushes called dry rubbers were used once a week on the floors to remove the finer dirt particles.
As soon as it was a little light outside, the first morning parade was called (4:15 am in the summer – 5:15 today). Every soldier not on guard duty turned out with the sounds of the drummers and fifers (or buglers) playing the “Troop”. Wearing their undress or fatigue uniform which entailed a short white wool jacket, forage cap, and trousers. An inspection was made on the condition of the men’s attire and their cleanliness. Anyone missing from the ranks was immediately noticed and reported. Roll call was done the previous evening in the Barracks room when a sergeant read off the list of names on the back of the room’s door.
If you were a new recruit, or preparing to go on guard duty, or awkward and needing practice, or sentenced to extra drill for an infraction, or a prisoner waiting regimental trial, you fell in with your shako, leather accoutrements, and musket. After being inspected, this group was marched off with the regiment’s adjutant and sergeant major to be drilled for two hours. While everyone was off at the inspection, the officer of the day went around to each barracks room to make sure everything was clean and the beds were made according to regulation. He also made sure that everyone had turned out for parade and was not still asleep.
After the morning inspection, the rest of the soldiers went off to their assigned duties. If you were a tailor, it was back to assembling or altering the regiment’s new clothing or mending the old. Some soldiers with construction experience went on work detail, fixing the earthworks, felling trees for fuel, or repairing the garrison’s roads. Those on this duty received a little extra pay and a ration of rum to fortify themselves midday. It appears only those labouring on the “King’s works” received this liquid indulgence during the War of 1812. Order books of the time are quite consistent in this fact. This stipulation seems to have been more relaxed at some garrisons in peacetime during the 1820s, but not during the 1800-1815 time period,
Mess orderlies, a duty done on a rotational basis (See Mess Arrangements and Furniture and Utensils of a Soldier's Mess), prepared breakfast and dinner for their mess mates. Regimental cooks assisted the mess orderlies in the actual cooking and baking. Clerks, officer servants, and shoemakers also disappeared after the parade to their assigned work.
At nine o’clock, the men returned to the barracks room and informally sat down for breakfast. I say ‘informal’ because the tables were not ordered to be in the middle of the room until dinner time at two o’clock in the afternoon. Tables being put against walls were either the result of the need of a dance space the previous evening, or to create room for moving about in the dark when the soldier woke up. In the winter, breakfast time changed to just after the morning inspection and before the men went to work. This is understandable considering the energy needed to work in the cold and the logistical difficulties in moving about the garrison in the snow. While seated at breakfast a sergeant or corporal went around ensuring everyone was dressed properly and still sober. Checking sobriety was necessary because the garrison canteen often opened as early as 5:00am, just after morning parade, and the regiment’s many alcoholics, if not on work detail, were in the canteen “a few minutes after the door was opened” to feed their addiction. A soldier was allowed to drink but he was not allowed to be intoxicated. A soldier getting drunk was an even greater problem in Canada because of the wide availability of inexpensive gin. Forty minutes after sitting down to breakfast, the drummers played the “Pioneer’s March” signalling a resumption of work duties.
Missing between the lines of this list of morning activity is, if you were not on a work detail and it was not your turn to be a mess orderly, the morning was pretty relaxed after the inspection at day break. Likely three-quarters of the regiment was in this enviable situation. This idle time was spent chatting, drinking (as mentioned), playing games, airing and betting barrack bedding, and getting your kit ready for the full dress parade. Cleaning your kit involved, polishing your musket steel with emery and oil, sponging pipe clay on your white belts, and laboriously shining your black stock, pouch, cap, and shoes with wax and blacking, called blacking ball. Short on time or patience, some soldiers paid an industrious soldier-turned-entrepreneur in their company for liquid blacking, which made shining your leathers a lot quicker and easier.
At eleven o’clock, the full dress parade was called, with the “Troop” again being played, and those not on work details fell in. Arms and accoutrements were inspected and then the men were dismissed. Noon marked the change of the guard, where tired sentries would come off their twenty-four-hour stint of two hours on sentry and two hours off. Sleeping on the Guard Room bed fully clothed and accoutered was far from comfortable and the sentry would have been quite knackered after fulfilling this duty. This was the last duty of a typical morning for the soldier. However, on Tuesdays, and Saturdays the duty was more involved, when detailed inspections of barracks and soldier belongings were performed, and the soldiers, not on other duties, were drilled. Sunday was the busiest of the days, when everyone of the regiment was inspected and drilled for two hours and attended church service. In addition there were private inspections of the non-commissioned officers and private parades for instructing new officers in their duties.
This brief description offers a general understanding of the soldier’s routine in the morning. However this routine did vary depending on the duties of the individual or the size and location of the garrison or outpost. If the soldier was bivouacking in the field or under canvas, latitude to this routine was expected. Being in the field certainly altered the way duties were conducted and raises all sorts of new questions about the soldier’s life. Answering these questions is beyond the scope of this article and will have to left to another study.
The Discriminating General 2009
Copyright: The Discriminating General 2009