The Coloured Corps: African Canadians in the War of 1812

Blacks in Early Upper Canada

The first substantial settlement of African Canadians in Upper Canada occurred following the American Revolution. Some, such as Richard Pierpoint, a former slave from Africa and military veteran of Butler’s Rangers, had gained their freedom under the British Crown during the late war. Most, however, were slaves, brought to the province as spoils of war or as the property of Loyalist refugees, amounting to 700 individuals by the time Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe arrived in 1792. Simcoe wished to abolish slavery entirely, yet the Legislature, concerned over the possible economic impact, opposed many of his reforms. Therefore, his Act Against Slavery, passed on 9 July 1793, was a severely limited version of his intentions; it banned the further importation of slaves into Upper Canada, but granted freedom automatically only to those born in the province. Consequently many African Canadians occupied an uneasy and caste-like status within early Upper Canadian society.

Raising the Coloured Corps

The increasing prospect of invasion by the United States – with its greater tolerance of slavery – toward 1812 represented a major threat to the comparatively broader liberties enjoyed by both free and enslaved Blacks under British law, leading many to join the Upper Canada Militia. Free Blacks had served in the militia since its organization in 1793, although the formation of an independent company composed entirely of African Canadians was not proposed until the eve of war, when Richard Pierpoint offered “to raise a Corps of Men of Colour on the Niagara Frontier.” This offer was initially rejected as unnecessary by the government under Major-General Isaac Brock, but reconsidered following the invasion of Brigadier General William Hull’s American army across the Detroit River on 12 July 1812.

By late August 1812, the nucleus of an all-Black company had formed at Niagara as part of the 1st Lincoln Militia. Yet instead of Richard Pierpoint, who enlisted as a private soldier in September, command was granted to a local white officer, Captain Robert Runchey. Characterised as a “black sheep” and a “worthless, troublesome malcontent,” Runchey fulfilled his reputation for poor leadership by segregating “his nigros” from other militiamen, and in some cases hired them out to officers as domestic servants. Not surprisingly, recruiting in the Niagara Peninsula proved difficult, and “Runchey’s Company of Coloured Men” remained only a cadre until 14 Black soldiers voluntarily transferred to the unit from the 3rd York Militia in early October. Once raised to approximately 40 men, the company commenced drilling at Fort George.

The Battle of Queenston Heights

On the morning of 13 October 1812, an American army under Major General Solomon Van Rensselaer commenced its invasion of Upper Canada by crossing the Niagara River at Queenston. Initially left at Fort George, Runchey’s Company soon marched with Major-General Roger Sheaffe’s reinforcements for Queenston, arriving after Brock’s death. There it joined Captain John Norton’s First Nations fighters in sniping at the American position atop Queenston Heights, before forming part of Sheaffe’s battle line. Alongside the British 41st Foot, Runchey’s Company “fired a single volley with considerable execution, and then charged with a tremendous tumult,” bringing about the Americans’ surrender. Runchey, having absented himself on the morning of the battle, subsequently resigned and the company was commanded temporarily by Lieutenant James Cooper of the 2nd Lincoln Militia, who was cited in dispatches as having led his men “with great spirit.”

The 1813 Campaigns

Re-titled the “Coloured” or “Black” Corps, the company was reorganized as an embodied militia unit fit for general service, and wintered at Fort George. There it was present on 27 May 1813, when a large American force launched an amphibious attack against the fort. Rushed to the beach to oppose the landing, the Coloured Corps and British troops “exchanged a destructive and rapid fire” with the enemy at short range, before being forced back by American naval gunfire, the small company losing four men wounded or captured. It retreated with Brigadier-General John Vincent’s troops to Burlington Heights, and supported but was not engaged with this force at the Battle of Stoney Creek on 6 June 1813. For the remainder of the year, the Coloured Corps participated in the blockade of the American army at Fort George, enduring the same privations as British troops amid the harsh conditions experienced during the campaign.

Construction of Fort Mississauga

After the British captured Fort Niagara on 19 December 1813, the Coloured Corps was attached to the Royal Engineers to help repair the fortifications at the mouth of the Niagara River. Whether race influenced the authorities’ choice for this duty is not known, as one engineer later reported:

“When I visited the Niagara Frontier … I found that a corps of Free Men of Colour had been raised … but had been turned over to that of the Engineers, any necessity for this I never could learn, but it seems to have been the fashion in Canada to heap all kinds of duties upon the latter.”

Toward the spring of 1814 the company was ordered to construct a new fort on the Canadian shore, dubbed Fort Mississauga, materials for which were obtained from the ruins of the nearby town of Niagara. With the American navy now controlling Lake Ontario, this work was crucial to the security of British forces in the Niagara Peninsula, one British officer later noting “Mississauga … is a pretty little Fort, and would prevent vessels coming up the river.” These duties consequently precluded the Coloured Corps’ participation in the Niagara campaign that summer, even during the subsequent Siege of Fort Erie, where British forces desperately lacked trained engineer troops.

Disbandment and Legacy

The Engineer Department continued to employ the Coloured Corps in the Niagara Peninsula for the remainder of the War of 1812. Their zeal in these works duly impressed British engineers, one reporting in February 1815 that “no people could be better calculated to build temporary barracks than these Free Men of Colour, as they are in general expert axemen.” Notwithstanding their usefulness, the company was disbanded on 24 March 1815 following the end of the war. In claiming rewards for their service, many faced adversity and discrimination – Sergeant William Thompson was informed he “must go and look for his pay himself,” while Richard Pierpoint, now in his seventies, was denied his request for passage home to Africa in lieu of a land grant. When grants were distributed in 1821, veterans of the Coloured Corps received only 100 acres, half that of their white counterparts. Yet despite these inequalities, the Coloured Corps defended Canada honourably, setting the precedent for the formation of Black units in future.

African Canadians in British Service

In addition to militia units, other African Canadians enlisted in the regular British forces and served in Upper Canada. One of their most common roles was to act as percussionists in military bands. An officer of the 104th Foot recalled the regiment’s bass drummer, Private Henry Grant, accompanied his regiment’s epic winter march through the snow from New Brunswick to Upper Canada between February and April of 1813:

“Our big black drummer straddled the big drum, which was lashed to a tobagan [sic] … but it got off the track, shooting him off at high velocity, and the sable African came up some distance from where he disappeared, a white man exciting roars of laughter.”

Although a musician, Grant endured the same adventures and dangers as his white comrades. After reaching Kingston, he and the band of the 104th Foot participated in the Battle of Sackets Harbor on 29 May 1813, where several bandsmen were killed during the amphibious landings. Other British regiments garrisoned in Canada for long periods recruited African Canadian musicians in a similar manner, including the 100th Foot, whose cymbal player was Black.

Some British regiments permitted individual African Canadians to enlist as combatant soldiers during the War of 1812. Several are known to have served in the ranks of the Glengarry Light Infantry Fencibles: an anonymous “Negro with the Glengarry uniform” was noted by an American officer as having been killed in action during the stubborn but futile defence of Fort George in May 1813. More unusually, the entire pioneer squad (the equivalent of modern combat engineers) of the 104th Foot was comprised of African Canadians. One of them, Private John Baker, was wounded at Sackets Harbor, and recovered to fight in the battles of Chippawa and Lundy’s Lane during the summer of 1814. In the Provincial Marine, and later the Royal Navy, segregation and prejudice were less common owing to the constant need for sailors to man ships, and therefore Black seamen served on the Great Lakes with little reference to race.

Author: Gareth Newfield