Who won the War? (Page 1 of 3)
Soldiers, descendants of Loyalists and history buffs recreate a battle to demonstrate why the War of 1812 is still important today.
By Allen Abel with photography by David Trattles
|In this reenactment of the Battle of Crysler’s Farm, the muskets shoot only black powder, and cannons launch nothing more than smoke and noise. (Photo: David Trattles)
Nearly two centuries after they were repulsed in battle near the farm of a family named Crysler, the Americans are invading Canada again, in a Nissan, a Ford and a Dodge.
Just after 8 a.m. on a July day last summer, the Ram 1500 four-by-four arrives at the rendezvous first, hauling up to the Walmart parking lot in Ogdensburg, New York.
Big, curly-haired Charlie Abel is in the cab, and a little blue cannon is tethered to a trailer; little, that is, if it’s not loaded with a 2.7-kilogram ball of lead and pointed at your head. Here comes the rest of the convoy, which numbers two more Abels from the Empire State named Teal and Tim, unrelated to Charlie or me, plus the family Hough (they rhyme it with bah), the redoubtable Marsha and Jim.
There is little time for introductions. The New Yorkers have a battle to wage and thousands of Upper Canadian captives of the British Crown to liberate, whether or not
they want to be, which pretty much sums up the U.S. strategy in the little-remembered (in the United States) and glorious (to Canadians) War of 1812. So we saddle up and
head for the Ogdensburg-Prescott International Bridge.
Across the St. Lawrence River — the stream that has been the lifeline of consanguineous, competitive and sometimes belligerent nations since the 1600s — the Province of Ontario is ready to welcome yet another summer incursion from the South.
Today, just as in the early 19th century, its come-on line is “Yours to Discover,” not “Yours to Keep.”
A little history: On the dismal, mucky, rainy, bloody afternoon of Nov. 11, 1813, about a 90-minute drive south of the still non-existent city of Ottawa, some 4,000
of Uncle Sam’s men should have been able to overwhelm just over a quarter as many British regulars, Canadian militia and Mohawk warriors. Then, having secured both
banks of the St. Lawrence and cinched shut old King George’s only means of supplying Kingston, York and points west, the Yanks should have sashayed up to
Montréal, which was the commercial nucleus of the Canadas and almost completely undefended. That would have left U.S. President James Madison to dictate Britain’s
terms of surrender and thereby end the series of battles known as the War of 1812.
But the Americans failed to seize the day — they were brave but outmanoeuvred and their vainglorious commander, Major General James Wilkinson, was sick on
his ship and incapacitated by a narcotic painkiller — and they retreated in chaos. The U.S. Army would never again
seriously menace Montréal or the British presence in North America, in this war or any thereafter, making the battle
on the St. Lawrence one of the most ignominious chapters in American military history.
Conversely, America’s defeat automatically and deservedly rendered the Battle of Crysler’s Farm, masterminded
by Lieutenant Colonel Joseph Wanton Morrison, one of the most illustrious of all British — um, better make that Canadian — victories; the very triumph, perhaps, that saved what now is Ontario from becoming the nineteenth American state.
Flash forward to today. The Ogdens-bourgeoisie are hauling their cannon and their muskets and their tents and their cook pots and their homemade candles across the
border even though they know that in the annual reenactment at Crysler’s Farm, the ending is always the same.
“All we ever do is lose,” sighs Jim Hough.
“Well, we did drive the British out of the United States,” counters Charlie Abel. “But the Americans were stupid.
Why the hell would we invade Canada? At Crysler’s Farm, we had 4,000 Americans against 900 British, and we still
got our asses kicked.” (Close, but not quite: the historical record says the Americans were repulsed by some 1,200
British soldiers, Canadian Fencibles, Voltigeurs Canadien and Mohawk warriors.)
The latter-day invaders are almost at the border, ready to declare their black-powder muskets and Charlie’s cannonette
to Canada Customs, when Marsha Hough waves everyone off the highway and into the duty-free shop.
“This is the hunting and gathering part of the trip,” she says, stocking up on watery American beer. “But you’ll have
to guess which 18th-century wooden box is the cooler.”
On the north side of the river, near Upper Canada Village at Morrisburg, Ont., Matt Liness waits with the Canadian Fencibles, who were thusly named, back in the
1800s, not because of their propensity to be corralled like cattle or sheep but because they were charged with the defence of their local county and countrymen.
Here, as war loomed in 1812, recruiting posters for the Glengary Light Infantry Fencibles promised each man the sum of five guineas bounty, plus:
An allotment of the rich and fertile Lands of Upper Canada … . This important Grant will make every Soldier of the Corps an Independant [sic] Man, at the expiration of his Service; … he will be able to take his Wife and Family to Church or Market in his own Cariole, and if he has not a Wife,
it will be the sure means of getting him a good one, for Fortune always favors the Brave, and flinty must be the heart of that
Damsel, and vain her pretensions to taste, who could resist a Light Bob of the Glengary’s when equipped in his new Green
“Nobody fights for a flag,” says Liness as he transforms himself into a 19th-century warrior for the coming clash
with the Abels and Houghs, et alia. “Nobody fights for a king. You fight for your sergeant. You fight for your squad.
You fight for your land. That’s what you’re taught.”
It was teaching, indeed, that won the Battle of Crysler’s Farm — the meticulous, methodical textbook drilling of
British infantry regulars. Back then, it took three years to inculcate steadfastness in the very face of death in a young
recruit, but the investment paid off. At Crysler’s Farm, where British units, including the Royal Regiment of
Artillery and the 49th and 89th Regiments of Foot, courageously held their line in the rain and the mud and the blood against the surging, shooting Americans, it was
imperial sang-froid that trumped superior numbers.
“You move up, you fire,” says Liness. “You move up, you fire again. You fix your bayonet. They fire, and you charge.”
Liness works in Toronto as a computer executive for a medical software company and served Canada as a reserve
officer in the Governor General’s Horse Guards. Yet like millions of other proud and loyal Canadians, this Gee Gee traces his ancestry to the American side of the border.
His great-great-grandfather came north from Philadelphia, says Liness, and his Yankee lineage stretches all the way back “to a stupid lieutenant in Connecticut in
1640 who blew himself up because his gunpowder was wet, and he tried to dry it by lighting a fire.”
“Who won the War of 1812?” I ask the Fencible.
“Canada did. We’re still here, and we’ve got health care.
“This is as important as Vimy,” adds Liness. “The whole mindset of being a Canadian really starts here, because this
is where we push back the guys from the States. At the time, this was Stalingrad, because there was nothing between here and Montréal.”
“What if the Americans had won the battle?” I ask.
“Then the Americans would have controlled both sides of the St. Lawrence, and Britain could not have reinforced Upper Canada. The war would have dragged on. [The
Duke of] Wellington had thousands of men he could have brought to North America. It would have just gone on.”
Now Liness steels himself to fight James Madison’s legions in a period suit with a period weapon.
“Very convincing,” I say.
“I’m not that hard core,” the Fencible smiles. “I’ve got an air mattress in the tent.”