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Scores of books have been written about the War of 1812, but it’s rare to read about the role played by New Brunswick soldiers

It’s March 5th, 1813. Soldiers in the 104th (New Brunswick) Regiment of Foot are marching in the bitter cold, likely wondering when the snow and harsh winds will cease. It was mid-February when they had mustered for morning parade in Fredericton, and bugles played “The Girl I Left Behind Me”—the traditional leaving song.

These men are part of Light Company, the last of six companies en route to Quebec—and eventually Kingston, Ont—to play their role in the War of 1812, which started on June 18, 1812, when US President James Madison and Congress declared war on Great Britain. Since British troops were preoccupied with the Napoleonic Wars in Europe, men from Lower Canada (Quebec) and the Maritimes joined their Upper Canadian cohorts to fight on behalf of Britain.

Scores of books have been written about the War of 1812. However, it’s rare to find mention of New Brunswick or the march of the 104th Regiment. One exception is Gary Campbell’s book, The Road to Canada: The Grand Communications Route from Saint John to Quebec. Campbell’s great-great-great-great-grandfather, Private William Moran, and his son Private John Moran, were part of “the winter march to Canada” back in 1813, and another son, Boy/Private William Moran, also served in the 104th Regiment.

A walk to remember

“According to local lore,” Campbell says, “planning for the march took place in William F. Odell’s home in Fredericton. It was all hush-hush for fear the Americans would learn of the depleted strength of the army in New Brunswick and take advantage of their weakness.” Odell was the provincial secretary and had ties with government and military personnel.

Troops were issued a kit consisting of a uniform, greatcoat, mittens, moccasins and blanket, along with one toboggan for every two men. Seventeen-year-old Lieutenant John Le Couteur wrote in his diary that the uniforms were “old and much worn,” as new ones destined for the 104th had been taken in a raid by an American privateer.

A soldier’s daily ration included one pound of pork (with bones) and 10 ounces of biscuit, plus tea and coffee, although many ran out of their 14-day supply before two weeks had passed.

As the march got under way, the men trudged on snowshoes, pulling their toboggans with meagre supplies. Le Couteur wrote: “The thermometer once more fell to -27°F... together with a gale, a north-wester in our teeth which scarcely left us power to breathe.”

When they couldn’t find barns to sleep in, the men built huts using snowshoes as shovels. They banked up snow to form walls; they made rafters out of trees, using evergreen boughs for thatching. Then they made a fire in the middle of the hut—which frequently engulfed them in smoke.

“We found this much more agreeable than having no smoke at all, as it warmed the hut. Moreover, I imagine that sleep without fire in such cold would have proved the sleep of death,” Le Couteur wrote.

One day around noon, the company came to a slow halt. Knowing his comrades would perish if they didn’t keep moving, the lieutenant moved to the head of the line, urging them on. He estimated that 90 men in his battalion were frostbitten, and described one chap as being “quite a hideous spectacle, one ulcerated mass, as if scalded all over with boiling water.”

There were some light moments on the trek, including cheerful conversation around campfires, even though brush sometimes caught on fire in the huts. Once, the regimental colours—a large flag that embodied the heart and soul of the regiment—was almost lost. Early on in the expedition, when they still had some energy, some of the soldiers went on side excursions—on the ninth day, for example, they tobogganed down the slopes at Grand Falls.

When things got tough, there were acts of heroism. Lieutenant Charles Rainsford saved the lives of men from two companies who had been stormed-stayed and were perilously low on provisions. Fearing they would starve, he volunteered to get help. He and two companions snowshoed 145 kilometres in foul weather, returning after two days with a rescue party of 17 men and a supply of food—none too early, given the men in the huts hadn’t had anything to eat for 30 hours.

Finally, on April 12, after a trek of more than 1,125 kilometres, the soldiers reached Kingston, ready to protect Upper Canada from invasion by the US Navy.

On May 29, 300 men of the 104th were part of the British attack on the American-held fort at Sackett’s Harbour; 21 men were killed and 65 wounded. Some members of the 104th were sent to reinforce the Niagara Peninsula, while others patrolled the St. Lawrence River on gunboats.

Later that summer, during a night assault on Fort Erie, the 104th lost nearly 70 per cent of its men.

Unparalleled in history

Gary Campbell believes that the march of the 104th is unparalleled in the annals of British and Commonwealth military history. “It was an amazing feat of endurance,” he says. “They overcame all of the obstacles and challenges that a severe New Brunswick winter could throw at them. I have not found any similar march to equal it.”

Robert Dallison, who has written a book called A Neighbourly War: New Brunswick and the War of 1812, scheduled to come out in May, says there’s also a lesser-known story of how the march was repeated the following winter by the 2nd Battalion 8th Regiment, with an additional 217 sailors (for the same reason as the year before: a possible strike by the Americans in Upper Canada).

“Can you visualize sailors finding their sea-legs on snowshoes in the middle of New Brunswick’s wilderness?”

Postscript

Although the British Army was awarded five Battle Honours for the War of 1812, Canada’s Department of National Defence (DND) does not recognize the Canadian Militia prior to 1855. A group called Honour our 1812 Heroes is lobbying the government to change this.

If successful, a present day reserve unit will be designated to perpetuate the 104th (New Brunswick) Regiment of Foot, and to carry their Battle Honours—a distinction awarded to provide recognition.

No doubt John Le Couteur, Charles Rainsford and company—as well as their families—would approve.

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