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History and Uniform of the Canadian Voltiguers 1812-1816
by Jack L. Summers and Rene Chartrand

Officer of the Glengarry Light Infantry
(artist: R.J. Marrion   copyright: Canadian War Museum)

The following is an extract from the book Military Uniforms in Canada, 1665-1970 by Jack L. Summers and Rene Chartrand (Ottawa: Canadian War Museum, 1981) and is reproduced here by the kind permission of the Canadian War Museum.  Reprinting or duplication of the text or illustration without permission from the Canadian War Museum is prohibited. 


By early 1812, war with the United States was almost inevitable. Lieutenant-General Sir George Prevost, Captain-General and Governor-in-Chief of the Provinces of Upper and Lower Canada, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, and the Islands of Prince Edward and Cape Breton, planned to increase the military manpower of British North America. On 15 April 1812 he raised a Provincial Corps of Light Infantry, known as the Canadian Voltigeurs, under the authority of the Militia Act of Lower Canada. This corps was a regular unit of full-time soldiers raised and paid by the Province of Lower Canada, and was not part of the regular British Army establishment.

Command of this new and uniquely Canadian regiment was given to a member of a distinguished Quebec family, Major Charles de Salaberry of the 60th (Royal American) Regiment of Foot. Except for the adjutant and quarter-master, who were appointed from regular or fencible regiments, de Salaberry was to select his officers from prominent families of Lower Canada. The six captains and eighteen lieutenants were to receive their commissions on raising the required number of recruits - thirty-six for captains and sixteen for lieutenants. Recruits were to be between the ages of seventeen and thirty-five, and at least 5 ft. 3 in. tall. As light infantry, the regiment was to have one bugle major and ten buglers, but no drummers.

Two volunteer companies of Frontier Light Infantry, recruited in 1813 from the six battalions of the Sedentary Militia of the Eastern Townships, were attached to the Canadian Voltigeurs. They adopted the same dress as the Voltigeurs, and frequently were considered to be the 9th and 10th companies of the regiment.

In the early months of the war, the Canadian Voltigeurs were assigned to the forward defences of the Eastern Townships. In November 1812, General Dearborn moved up from Plattsburg with 6,000 men to invade Lower Canada. Major de Salaberry countered this advance by rushing his Voltigeurs and some Indians to Lacolle on the frontier. Dearborn's advance guard crossed the border; but after several days of skirmishing with the outposts of the Voltigeurs, they withdrew.

In the spring of 1813, four companies of the Voltigeurs were posted to Kingston to assist in the defence of Upper Canada. Two companies were involved in the bungled attack on Sackers Harbor on 29 May. "The timing of the attack on Sackets Harbor," wrote one Canadian historian, "has been one of the more confused moments in a war not noted for its clarity."
The following autumn, the Americans planned to cut the St. Lawrence, thereby isolating British forces in Upper Canada, and then to seize Montreal. As part of this operation, Major-General Hampton led a force of some 4,000 men from the Lake Champlain region up the Chateauguay River. His plan was to cut the St. Lawrence and join forces with General Wilkinson sweeping down the river from Sackets Harbor.

On 25 October, Lieutenant-Colonel de Salaberry, 200 regulars, including two companies of Voltigeurs,4 and 250 militia, supported by Lieutenant-Colonel George Macdonell with 300 Voltigeurs and 700 militia, checked Hampton's hesistant advance down the Chateauguay River. The so-called Battle of Chateauguay was little more than a skirmish, but it was significant in that all the defenders were Canadians - both English and French - fighting a decisive action without the direct participation of British regular troops.

On 9 November, three companies of the Canadian Voltigeurs formed part of the 900-man force under Lieutenant-Colonel Morrison that checked General Wilkinson's move down river from Sackets Harbor in the second phase of the two-pronged American attack on Montreal. In what was essentially an American rearguard action, the two forces faced each other about halfway between Prescott and Cornwall at Crysler's Farm. The Voltigeurs, extended across the front of the British position in a skirmish line, were struck and brushed aside by the American column on the afternoon of 11 November. However, the enemy was checked by the main body of Morrison's force, and driven from the field by a determined infantry attack. The next day, Wilkinson abandoned his advance on Montreal.

The spring of 1814 found the Voltigeurs and Frontier Light Infantry back on frontier defence in the Eastern Townships. They were brigaded with the Canadian Chasseurs, a new unit formed by a reorganization of the 5th Battalion of Select Embodied Militia. The entire force came under the control of Lieutenant-Colonel de Salaberry, now Inspecting Field Officer of Militia Light Infantry.

In August, three infantry brigades were formed into a division commanded by Major-General Francis de Rottenburg, and were assigned to the force led by George Prevost against Plattsburg. The Voltigeurs formed part of the 2nd Brigade. After a half-hearted attack on the enemy positions at Plattsburg, Prevost withdrew when the naval component of the British force was defeated on Lake Champlain.

On 24 March 1815 the Canadian Voltigeurs was disbanded and the officers placed on half pay.7 So ended the service of a regiment raised in and paid for by the Province of Lower Canada. It is only fitting that the name of this creditable corps is perpetuated in a regiment of the Canadian Militia.


The Canadian Voltigeurs was uniquely Canadian in its origin as a provincial corps, in its officers and men, and in its dress. The document authorizing the raising of the unit specifies "the arms to be rifles or light infantry muskets with black accoutrements: the clothing to be grey with black collars and cuffs and black buttons with Canadian short boots. Light Bear Skin caps."

Subsequent documents record that the men were issued jacket and trousers of mixed grey cloth with black cuffs and collar. As of 1813, the jacket had shoulder wings trimmed with black tape and a black cotton fringe. Sufficient small black buttons were issued to each man to provide one row on the breast of the jacket. For trimming the jacket, staff sergeants were issued nine yards of silver lace, sergeants nine yards of black cotton lace, and the men seven yards of black tape. No evidence of the pattern of this trim exists. Sergeants wore sashes of local manufacture.

There is no available description of the pattern of the "Light Bear Skin caps" mentioned in the original dress instructions. It is known that fur caps were approved for wear both in 1812 and 1813, but subsequent issues of head-gear were of the felt stove-pipe shako.  A black and white portrait of Captain V iger of the Canadian Voltigeurs shows him wearing a fur cap with a black leather visor, shaped somewhat like a fusilier's fur cap except that the crown is more sharply pointed. This cap is illustrated in the plate.

The "Canadian short boots" remain a mystery. However, it is known that the regiment was issued with shoes, which probably were worn with short grey gaiters. But from time to time shoes were in short supply, much to the distress of Lieutenant-Colonel de Salaberry.
Light Infantry accoutrements of black leather were sent from England for issue to the regiment.

While there is some question about the exact dress for the men of the regiment, there are several surviving portraits of officers. The surprising feature of the officers' uniform is that it is green, rather than grey.

The green jacket was patterned after that of the Rifles. It had black collar and cuffs, and three rows of black buttons with black braid on the chest. The sash with cords and tassels was scarlet, and the sword-belt was of black leather with gilt clasps.

A portrait of the adjutant, painted about 1814, shows him wearing a tall cylindrical cap with a small peak folded up after the fashion of a cavalry officer's watering cap. This head-gear was commonly affected by officers of Rifles and Light Infantry serving in the Peninsula.

In the illustration, an officer of the Canadian Voltigeurs wears a light fur cap. His green trousers are fitted with leather cuffs, and he wears white metal spurs. It was common practice for officers to ride when feasible, and, as a result, officers of light corps affected such dress details of light cavalry as the fur-trimmed pelisse and leather-bound trousers.

In addition to the bearskin cap, watering cap, and Light Infantry shako, officers still needed a fore-and-aft cocked hat for wear with more informal orders of dress.

The distinctly Canadian pattern and detail of their dress reflected the Voltigeurs' function as a corps of light troops suited to the rigorous Canadian campaign conditions.


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