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Photo: 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.

These encampments and battlefield sites were flooded to make way for the St. Lawrence Seaway

These encampments and battlefield sites were flooded to make way for the St. Lawrence Seaway. (Map: Chris Brackley/Canadian Geographic)

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 Uniform.

“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.”

Reenacting the Battle of Crysler's Farm

Not all reenactors are hard core—some admit they sleep on air mattresses inside their tents. (Photo: David Trattles)

From the archives
Geographical journal
Click to view full article
A play by play account of Crysler’s Farm, complete with maps and portraits. Originally published in the Canadian Geographical Journal in June 1961

The land where the make-believe combatants will be duelling was a fallow farm of ghosts. In 1958, the dredging and digging of the St. Lawrence Seaway required that certain parcels of land on the Canadian side of the river be levelled and flooded to aid the passage of ocean-going ships, lest they be speared by steeples. The storied battleground was inundated. For more than half a century, Canada’s Stalingrad has been as lost as Atlantis.

Lorraine Reoch remembers the morning that Crysler’s Farm slipped beneath the waves. She is sitting in the tent set up by the St. Lawrence Branch of the United Empire Loyalists, the proud descendants of American colonists who packed up and sailed north because they found America unappealing.

“My grandfather got me up at 4:30 in the morning to see it happen,” she says. “A lot of people expected a big wall of water when they blew the cofferdam at Iroquois, but it just slowly crept in and took three days. There was 60 feet of water where my grandfather’s cottage had been.

“If you can imagine land without trees, land without homes, that’s what it looked like that morning. As we came down the river that day,” Lorraine says, “they were burning the last of the shacks.”

Her husband Gord chimes in: “A lot of the older people couldn’t stand the move, and they died within a couple of years. These were heritage farms, you know. They went back hundreds of years.”

Most of the houses and stone-walled buildings from Ontario’s so-called Lost Villages were removed before the deluge. Many were transported on tractors to Morrisburg and reassembled into a touristy slice of yesteryear called Upper Canada Village. Markers from liquidated cemeteries were immured in red brick walls. Now the Kezars, the Mattices, the Davidsons, the Taits and their perpetual neighbours rest uneasily in their nouveau niches — stones without their sacred bones.

Also moved to higher ground was an obelisk erected by the Dominion of Canada in 1895 to honour the fallen of Crysler’s Farm.

“What if the Americans had won?” I ask Lorraine.

“I think we’d be American today,” she replies. “Our saving grace was right here.”

That point is a matter of dispute. The two sides still can’t agree on the significance of the battle or on what the War of 1812 (and 1813 and 1814) achieved, if anything.

“An unmitigated disgrace, the absolute nadir of the history of the American regular army,” lamented the late John R. Elting, a distinguished U.S. officer and scholar

“British victory in 1813, based on success at Crysler’s Farm and on a parallel triumph at Chateâuguay, preserved Canada’s independence from its aggressive neighbour,” writes Ontario historian Donald E. Graves in his authoritative narrative of the battle, Field of Glory.

“Two far less decisive battles occurred along another river in the fall of 1813,” sniffs Colorado writer Walter R. Borneman in 1812: The War That Forged a Nation, dismissing Crysler’s Farm and Chateâuguay entirely, compared with the Niagara and Thames campaigns. And, in his 482-page Union 1812: The Americans Who Fought the Second War of Independence, A. J. Langguth of the University of Southern California doesn’t mention the Battle of Crysler’s Farm at all.

For their part, the latter-day sutlers at the re-enactors’ encampment are happy to profit from both sides. They’re selling two different bumper stickers, one with the Stars and Stripes and the other with the Union Jack.

Both say: “War of 1812: Been There, Won That.”

Hundreds of spectators filter out of Upper Canada Village to visit the costumed combatants. But for some of the actors, going to war means more than a weekend of playing Mr. Dressup.

Jim Hough was a door gunner on American helicopters raining fire on the Viet Cong. It was 1969, the summer of Apollo 11 and Woodstock. Canadian rocker Bryan Adams would sing of that season as “the best days of my life,” but it was also the year Hough was airlifted to Japan with shrapnel in his face and then sent home.

It was Lieutenant General Henry Shrapnel, of course, whose diabolical exploding canister shell was the most devastating weapon in the British arsenal, circa 1812.

“It took a long time to get Jim here,” says Marsha Hough, stirring a pot of 19th-century stew under the Ontario oaks, to be served in hand-turned wooden bowls.

“I buried it for 30 years,” says Jim softly. “It took a long, long time to pick up a rifle again. Now, when I fire a musket, it’s just black powder. When I fire a cannon, it’s just smoke and noise. There’s no cartridge and no cannonball. I know what a cannonball can do.”

He shows me how to load and fire the handsome replica French rifle that Marsha bought for $700 as a “re-wedding” present.

“Pour in the powder, open the cartridge, ram it home. Half-cock. Pour powder in the flash pan. Close the flash pan. Fully cock, and wait for the order to fire.”

Wait, even as the men you love fall beside you. Steady, boys … steady … fire!

I ask Jim, “Do you feel a bond with the soldiers who fought and died in this battle?”

“Their courage was absolutely insane,” he says, “how they just stood there and reloaded while the other side shot at them. But it was the same in Vietnam. That’s what you train to do. You train with a group of guys, you live with a group of guys. If you ran, you shamed yourself in their eyes. Honour was a big, big thing.”

At Crysler’s Farm, many of the re-enactors on the American side are of the Vietnam generation; that, more than any river, separates them from their coeval Canucks. Charlie Abel tells me that his father had broken so many of his bones in childhood beatings, his draft board sent him home.

“Look around the world,” says Charlie. “A lot of the guys I grew up with didn’t come back from Vietnam. That’s one of the things about war — boys go over, but they don’t come back.”

Playing bang-bang in a ruffled shirt and sleeping in a tent is safer, except perhaps for the Morrisburg mosquitoes. “I love cannons,” says Charlie. “I’m a cannon person. I like the noise. I like cannons more than I like my wife.”

On his beefy arm is a tattoo that reads: “Abel’s Artillery.”

Marsha Hough says that she teaches middle-school history to emotionally disturbed boys.

“Like me,” says Charlie.

“War is horrible,” she says. “But when you do the handson stuff, the kids just love it.”

Reenacting the Battle of Crysler's Farm

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!”