Arms and the Men of the War of 1812

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A behind-the-scenes look at the making of the American documentary The War of 1812 for PBS by WNED discusses the American motivation for going to war and the modern significance of the War of 1812 to Great Britain, Canada and the US (courtesy WNED/Mieke M. Zuiderweg).

British and Canadian Land Units

The British land forces that defended British North America during the War of 1812 were drawn from a number of organizations. The British “army” of the time consisted of the infantry, cavalry, the Royal Waggon Train and the Royal Sappers and Miners. Personnel of the Royal Artillery and the Royal Engineers were controlled by another organization called the Board of Ordnance, which was also responsible for all ordnance provided to the army and the Royal Navy. The troops assigned to North America were augmented by locally raised provincial units, long service militia and by members of the sedentary militia. Several Swiss regiments that were in British service and a regiment raised from French prisoners-of-war also served in North America.

The terminology used for field units varied by arm. The infantry was organized by regiments which,  in contrast to European armies, was not a tactical formation but an institutional or administrative organization that incorporated all elements of the regiment. Each regiment had one or more battalions that were individually assigned to theatres. The number of battalions in each regiment was not consistent. Each battalion had 10 companies, each of which had approximately 100 men, although the units were rarely at full strength. Two of the companies had specialist tasks. The grenadier company, originally organized to use grenades, included the most experienced soldiers of the battalion, while the light company was normally employed ahead of the battalion in a skirmishing role. Given the unique nature of these two companies, they were often used by higher commanders for other tasks, leaving the battalion with its eight line companies. Each company was commanded by a captain, assisted by a number of lieutenants, ensigns and non-commissioned personnel.

Two battalions of Royal Marines also served in Canada beginning in late 1813. These battalions comprised personnel whose primary role was to serve in naval vessels. Accompanying each battalion was an artillery company employing Congreve rockets, which were a British invention developed by Sir William Congreve and consisting of a hollow iron container loaded with shells, rounds or musket balls, depending on the size of the rocket. They were launched from wooden frames, propelled by gun powder and could be fired more than three kilometres. The explosions of Congreve rockets were immortalized in the American national anthem with “the rockets’ red glare, bombs bursting in air.”

The artillery was organized by function and included field, siege, garrison and horse artillery. Field artillery accompanied the infantry and cavalry in the field. The field artillery was organized by numbered battalions, each of which had up to 10 companies. The artillery battalion was an administrative organization and the basic tactical unit was the company, which was also sometimes referred to as a brigade. Companies were named after their commander, usually a captain, who was responsible for six guns, normally four of which were 6- or 9-pounder guns, referring to the weight of the solid spherical round they fired, and two howitzers. In most cases, the battery had 145 officers and men, some 100 drivers (who moved the guns), 200 horses and several wagons to carry ammunition, powder and other supplies. Horse artillery was not used in North America and siege batteries, using larger calibre guns, were not formed.

Cavalry was organized by regiment, which in this case was a tactical unit employed in the field, each regiment having up to 10 troops totalling 900 personnel. Only two cavalry regiments served in North America.

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A battle re-enactment at Fort Henry is accompanied by music of the era (courtesy St Lawrence 1812 Bicentennial Alliance).

Militia

Supporting these British regulars were a number of units raised from the militias of British North America. Each province was responsible for the training, equipment and pay of its militia. The British also raised several provincial units throughout BNA, including fencible units such as the Glengarry Light Infantry Fencibles and the Canadian Fencibles, the Royal New Brunswick Regiment, the Royal Nova Scotia Regiment, and the Royal Newfoundland Regiment. These regiments had British officers and NCOs, while the rank and file were recruited locally. Lower Canada also recruited for a similar unit, the Canadian Voltigeurs, which was one of the best provincial regiments raised during the war.

The militia also provided a source of manpower. Several regiments of “select embodied militia” were formed in Lower Canada during 1812 and 1813, while incorporated and embodied units were raised in the Upper Province during 1813. The sedentary militia, which included all males between the ages of 16 and 60, were also called up when required.

Weaponry

The standard firearm employed by British forces was the Brown Bess musket, which had been adopted in the 18th century. The nomenclature of the version most seen in North America was the “Short Land Musket, India Pattern.” The Brown Bess was a smooth bore weapon that could fire a ball of .75 calibre nearly 230 metres, but was most accurate between 45 and 90 metres. The British infantry also employed rifled weapons capable of greater accuracy over longer distances, but none of these units came to North America until 1814 and none of them served in the Canadas.

Advances in metallurgy brought the creation of field artillery in the 17th century. Guns were now light enough to be moved by two or four horses and were powerful enough to support the infantry. The standard piece used in North America was the 6-pounder gun; larger calibres, including 12- and 18-pounders, were also available. A 6-pounder gun could fire a spherical round weighing six pounds (nearly three kilos) up to a maximum of 1830 metres. The gun was worked by a detachment of three men and assisted by anywhere from five to 12 other men.

Artillery could fire solid shot, a spherical iron ball, or spherical case shot, later known as shrapnel after its inventor, Henry Shrapnel. Shrapnel exploded over the heads of the infantry, covering them with hot metal. The final round was canister, which was like a large can filled with small metal balls that rained down over opponents. A common shell, another explosive round, was also used with the howitzer, which was a short-barrelled piece with a wide bore that fired shells and other projectiles on a higher trajectory than a long gun.

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Two promotional videos describe the efforts of the St Lawrence 1812 Bicentennial Alliance in promoting the society’s work in educating the public on the events of the war (courtesy St Lawrence 1812 Bicentennial Alliance).

American Forces

The general organization and equipment of the American forces were similar to the British. American doctrine and force structures were more heavily influenced by the French Army. By 1812, the United States Army was a relatively new organization, having been formed in 1784. The units and corps of the army were restructured and slowly expanded until 1811 and beginning in 1812, the first steps were taken to place the army on a war footing. Contrary to British practice, which split control of arms and services between various departments and ministries, the US Army encompassed all infantry, rifle, artillery and cavalry units.

In early 1812, the infantry was expanded from seven to 18 regiments and by 1814 had 48 regiments. While several changes were made to the regimental establishments during the war, each generally consisted of ten 100-man companies. The multi-battalion regiments that comprised the British Army were not common practice in the US Army.

The infantry also included a pre-war regiment of riflemen that in 1814 was expanded to include four regiments. Their organization was similar to the line regiments, although the companies were smaller with 80 personnel each. Their employment and tactics was similar to the light infantry of the British Army. Their weapon was the .54 calibre 1803 Harper’s Ferry rifle.

The artillery was organized as three regiments. The second and third regiments each had two battalions, each of which had 10 companies. The first regiment was to have had five battalions, each with four companies, but this structure was not followed. In 1814 all three regiments were combined into a single corps of artillery having 12 battalions, each with four 120-man companies. Each company normally had six guns, one or two of which were howitzers. A 10-company regiment of light artillery had been formed in 1808 and during the war, this unit, along with the second and third regiments, often served as infantry.

The cavalry included two regiments of light dragoons, each with 700 personnel, which in 1814 were combined into a single regiment.

The army had a school at West Point that provided a solid core of professionalism for their artillerists and engineers. Ninety-five graduates served principally in both those arms during the War of 1812.

Author: John R. Grodzinski

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