Who won the War? (Page 3 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
|The land on which the Battle of Crysler’s Farm was fought is now flooded. Reenactments are now staged near Upper Canada Village at Morrisburg, Ont. (Photo: David Trattles)|
We all wonder: What was it really like on that muddy
battlefield in 1813?
Donald Graves paints a vivid portrait in his Field of Glory:
It was hard and brutal work. When a man fired, he was
showered with a spray of sparks and burning powder grains
from the pan of his musket which might scar his face or even
set fire to his clothing, and he was nearly blinded by smoke
— to prevent injury to their eyes, many men closed them when
firing. Soldiers in the front rank were deafened by the discharge
of the weapons of the rear rank a few inches from their ears, and not a few front-rank men were killed or wounded by
clumsy rear-rank comrades… .
Occasionally there would be an ominous “thump” or
“whack” as a musket ball hit home … . If there was time and
manpower available, the wounded were removed from the
firing line; if not, they were simply pulled clear and left, their
comrades forced to ignore their moans and entreaties… .
It was a point of honour for officers not to leave the fight
unless they were seriously wounded.
In a tent near the firing ground are modern-day soldiers of the Canadian Forces, some of them already tested in an
awful, asymmetric war. Now, they’re showing off their weapons and hoping to recruit a new generation of
high-tech Fencibles for the Stormont, Dundas and Glengarry Highlanders, selling the virtues of national service,
if not exactly an allotment of rich and fertile Lands or a V-8 Cariole or the hand of a fair Damsel.
Sergeant Martin Sabourin, from nearby Cornwall, Ont., is one of them, handsome in his new Green Uniform, home from Kandahar.
“What do the kids want to know?” I ask him.
“‘Why do you do it?’” he answers. “‘Why put on your uniform every day when you know there’s a chance you’re
not coming home?’”
“Why did you do it?” I wonder aloud.
“To do something different. To do something everyone
else doesn’t do. I did it for the experience.”
“Who won the War of 1812?” I ask him.
“I used to know,” shrugs the Canadian soldier.
“Were you scared in Afghanistan?”
“No. I trusted the guys I was there with. Even when we
were out of the wire, I knew they were there for me, and
they knew I was there for them.”
“Did you kill anyone?”
“No, no. If we did see one or two bad guys, 15 of us would open up on them, and it was just a field of mass explosion
and chaos. Maybe I did shoot somebody, but I just say no for the sake of simplicity. It prevents further questions.”
“Can you imagine just standing there and calmly reloading while the other guys fire at you, like the British
here in 1813?” I ask the Sergeant.
“God, no,” replies Sabourin. “They are the real soldiers.”
It is almost time for the imitation armies to take the field: 220 soldiers and artillerymen from both sides, plus surgeons, flag-bearers, boys with pinewood rifles, wives in
bonnets and babes in — but not bearing — arms.
The rest of us line a wooded hillside to watch history
retold. I’m with two more Loyalists, women who can trace their heritage back to a family named Fetterly whose farm was
the site of much of the fighting (see sidebar at right).
Like many of the German-speaking Americans of Upper Canada, the Fetterlys came to Canada after the American Revolution. So I ask the two women if they truly believe that
Canada and the United States — symbolically fighting to the death a few metres below us — are two distinct nations.
“In a sense, they are, and in a sense, they’re not,” says
Carolyn Goddard, a past president of the St. Lawrence Branch of the United Empire Loyalists. “We have family
on both sides. They are two countries geographically and politically. But we have a shared heritage.”
“Are you the same people as the folks across the river?” I ask.
“Allegorically, we are,” says Kim McInnis. “Genetically, we are. And we still would be if politics hadn’t intervened.
“The Americans had their Civil War, and we’re the descendants of our own civil war, called the American
Revolution. The Loyalists had everything taken away. They came up here with nothing. Thousands died the first winter.
My great-great-great-great-great-grandfather lost all his lands in South Carolina. He came to Nova Scotia; he had nothing.”
“We’re not losers,” insists Goddard. And again: “We are not losers. The Loyalists settled a province.”
For that matter, I note, Laura Secord was born in Massachusetts.
“If the United States Army marched out of Fort Drum and came across the bridge to Prescott, would you fight them again?” I ask the Loyalists.
“If they attacked, absolutely,” huffs Goddard. “And you can quote me on that.”
Below us now, Charlie Abel and Jim Hough fire off their little blue cannon, but Matt Liness and his Fencibles hold their ground. Straight-edged ranks of redcoats and irregular
cohorts of American regulars wheel, load and shoulder, waiting for the command to squeeze the trigger and, if they’re lucky — the guns are much too inaccurate to aim
— strike a Dragoon or a Light Bob and send him writhing, screaming, dying to the mud.
Gunfire shatters the sky, and the Yankees turn and flee. It is a fine day to be Canadian, hoist a Blue, grab a Timbit
and then head over for groceries and kids’ clothes at the Walmart in Ogdensburg.
From the pines to our right, smart and stalwart, march the red-coated spectres of the 49th Regiment of Foot. Goddard grabs my shoulder.
“Here come the British!” shouts the Loyalist. “Oh, thank God!”
A frequent contributor to Canadian Geographic, Allen Abel is author most recently of Flatbush Odyssey: A Journey Through the Heart of Brooklyn. David Trattles is a documentary photographer based in Ottawa and Toronto.