Canadian Volunteers

A band of American and pro-American Canadians living in Upper Canada, the Canadian Volunteers were a company-sized regiment that fought on the American side during the War of 1812 . Their leader was a controversial traitor to Britain, Joseph Willcocks, who carried them through a streak of violent campaigns that eventually secured his own death.

After the American Revolution (a.k.a. War of Independence), most “loyalist” Americans (those who wanted British victory against the rebels) fled the United States and settled in large numbers in Upper Canada, thanks to generous land grants and other assistance that robbed the young American nation of much of its educated and wealthy class. They were joined by many Americans simply seeking a better opportunity for themselves in British North America, but with no special love for king and country. For many in government and military circles, the newly arrived Americans constituted a possible threat as well as a benefit. When the War of 1812 began, men like Sir Isaac Brock worried that this population would act as informants and perhaps saboteurs in support of Washington should war break out between Britain and the US in North America. After the outbreak of hostilities, some pro-Americans in Upper Canada supported the invasion by General Hull, but Brock’s early victories bolstered British support among the populace.

Joseph Willcocks and the Volunteers

An enemy of Brock, blocking his attempts to prepare for a possible war with the US, was Joseph Willcocks. Born in Ireland, Willcocks was an ambitious and cagey young man interested in making a name for himself in a variety of fields, often with the help of political patrons. A former sheriff and respected publisher, he turned to politics and became a member of the Legislative Assembly of Upper Canada, but earned a bad name for himself by committing contemptible acts that landed him in jail. Still, he managed re-election, but he soon ran afoul of Brock.

Initially, Willcocks served Brock as part of the mission to secure the allegiance of the Six Nations to fight alongside the British. No coward, Willcocks also fought alongside the First Nations during the retaking of Redan Bay. Brock died in 1813 and stricter martial law was applied in the Canadas. Willcocks rallied against these efforts as anti-democratic, and soon became disillusioned with Britain’s war effort. In July 1813, he committed treason by offering his service to the United States while still a serving member of the governing body of Upper Canada. With the rank of major in the American army, he raised the Canadian Volunteers, comprising mainly recent immigrants from the US.

The Impact of the Volunteers on the War of 1812

The most notable impact of Willcocks and the Canadian Volunteers was the press for and burning of Newark (Niagara on the Lake) on 10 December 1813 to deny the British any ground worth holding. When the Volunteers were done, only three buildings were left standing amidst the ashes. An American witness of the burn campaign noted that Willcocks had led “banditti through the town on that fateful night . . . applying the epithet of Tory to any who disapproved of this flagrant act of barbarity.” The act of psychological terror had the opposite result Willcocks intended. Initially apathetic, the burning of Newark steeled the Canadians’ resolve and rallied their support for the British war effort, including the reprisal attack on Fort Niagara and the burning campaign waged on American soil between Lake Ontario and Lake Erie.

Willcocks and others were charged with treason, though he escaped the fate of his eight captured comrades who were executed for their betrayal of Britain in the wake of the Ancaster Bloody Assize Trials of 1814. The Canadian Volunteers, whose numbers never exceeded that of a single company, saw combat at Chippawa, and Lundy’s Lane. Willcocks found his own bloody end while leading a skirmish during the Siege of Fort Erie, September 1814. After the Treaty of Ghent, with the war over, the Canadian Volunteers were forced to rebuild their lives in the US, since neither Washington nor London had secured any territorial gains to share with their armed forces. They were given land grants and compensation by their new country, unable to return to their old one under penalty of death.

Author: Jason Ridler