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The fathers & the wars of 1812: family ties link two key events in Canadian history: many of Canada's Fathers of Confederation had strong family ties to the Canada--United States conflict more than four decades prior to Confederation.


Confederation in 1867 is sometimes cited as proof that Canadians are an "unmilitary people." After all, the peaceful founding of Canada is an example of Winston Churchill's dictum, "to jaw-jaw is better than to war-war."


Yet, many of the Fathers of Confederation had connections to the military. Some of the delegates who met in Charlottetown and Quebec in 1864 to plan a new country had direct family ties to the War of 1812.

For some, it was even a matter of personal experience. Young Etienne-Paschal Tache volunteered at age 17 for the Lower Canadian Militia, serving at Chateauguay in 1813 and Plattsburgh in 1814. Fifty years later, in 1864, he was co-premier with John A. Macdonald in the coalition that launched Confederation.

George-Etienne Cartier of Montreal, the man who brought Quebec into Confederation, was Tache's political protege. And Cartier also had a close link to the War of 1812: his father and grandfather both served. Cartier's right-hand man, future cabinet minister Hector-Louis Langevin, was married to Sophie LaForce, whose father, Maj. Pierre LaForce, was one of Charles de Salaberry's Voltigeurs officers at Chateauguay.

Tache's oldest brother also served as a captain in the Voltigeurs in 1812. In the next generation, one of their nephews, Joseph-Charles Tache, wrote an early plan for federation of the colonies, "the most fully documented, detailed, and articulate proposal to be presented" prior to 1864.

These connections have been overlooked by historians and biographers, yet they can be found everywhere. Most Fathers of Confederation, major and minor, had some family or professional link to the war.

Sir Charles Tupper, who inveigled Nova Scotia into Confederation, was born in 1812. His father trained in the local militia. It was an 1812 veteran, James W. Johnson, a pre-Confederation premier and Conservative leader, who gave Tupper his start in politics in the 1850s. In turn, it was Tupper who brought Robert Borden into politics--which means that Canada's First World War prime minister was, surprisingly, only two political generations removed from the War of 1812.

Joseph Howe, an opponent of Confederation who later joined the federal cabinet, was eight years old in 1812: "The moment [war] came we prepared for combat without a murmur," he recalled in 1862, the 50th anniversary. "I am just old enough to remember that war." According to Howe, "Republican America fell upon the flank of England, while her fleets and armies were engaged in the great struggle with Bonaparte." Our "great instincts" as Nova Scotians, he said, "prompted us to oppose Bonaparte in 1812" because "we apprehended danger to freedom and civilization."

In Upper Canada, John Sandfield Macdonald, who became Ontario's first premier in 1867, was not technically a Father of Confederation because he did not attend the conferences. But he was a contemporary and had also been recruited into politics by a War of 1812 veteran, Colonel Alexander Fraser, in the 1840s.

Sir Oliver Mowat, the "father of provincial rights," was a Father of Confederation, Ontario's third premier and eighth lieutenant-governor. Here, we find another family link to the defence of Canada: Mowat's Scottish father, John Mowat, was a Peninsular War veteran among the reinforcements sent to Canada by the Duke of Wellington, and served at Plattsburgh in 1814.

Sir John A. Macdonald provides a fascinating linkage. One of the more influential figures in his youth was Lt.-Col. Donald Macpherson, an 1812 veteran and patriarch of their extended immigrant family. Uncle Donald had landed at Quebec 1807 with the 10th Royal Veteran battalion and served with the 71st Highlanders. In 1812 he saw action in Commodore Isaac Chauncey's attack on Kingston harbour, where one of his six daughters could remember bullets penetrating "the wooden walls of the pretty white cottage that then did duty as the commandant's residence."

The Macdonalds immigrated in 1820 when Johnny was five. While attending Midland Grammar School in his teems, he lived with his cousins, devouring "his uncle's library and the 'slices of pudding' set aside by Macpherson's youngest daughter." The lad was 14 years old when his uncle died in 1829, buried in Kingston with full military honours, "the minute guns from the city battery being answered by those from the fort." It could be said, then, that Canada's first prime minister grew up in the shadow of the War of 1812.

Biographer Donald Creighton tells us that everywhere Macdonald campaigned in 1860 he met "lawyers, merchants, farmers, young men ... and old men who had fought in a dozen political battles and bore the medals of the War of 1812 upon their chests."


Another personal connection to 1812 was Allan Napier MacNab, who had volunteered to fight at age 14, and later went into politics. MacNab was an elder Tory statesman and ally when John A. Macdonald rose to prominence. In the 1850s MacNab served as chairman of the Brock Monument Committee, which constructed the pillar extant today at Queenston. It was completed in 1856 with funds approved by the Legislature of the Province of Canada. Voting in the chamber that day were future Fathers of Confederation such as Cartier, Macdonald, A. Tilloch Galt, and George Brown. The monument was opened in 1859, only five years before the Charlottetown conference.

Even Thomas D'Arcy McGee, who immigrated later in life, in 1858 published the military ballad Along the Line! in the collection Canadian Ballads. The song is subtitled "A.D. 1812" and captures the national spirit evoked by Canada's defence.

Lesser-known Fathers of Confederation with military connections included R.B. Dickey of Nova Scotia, whose father had served as lieutenant-colonel of the Cumberland Militia in 1812. J.W. Ritchie's father, Thomas, had been a Militia officer and member of the Assembly who helped organize Nova Scotia's wartime finances during the War of 1812. Hewitt Bernard, recording secretary at the Charlottetown Conference, whose sister was Sir John A.'s second wife, later became a Militia colonel. William Henry Pope was the son of a post-1812 immigrant who became a major in the Prince County Militia.

Others could trace their family history to the Revolutionary War. John Hamilton Gray, the premier of Prince Edward Island who hosted the Conference in 1864, was born at Charlottetown in 1811 and had a career in the British Army in India and South Africa before returning to PEI. His father, Robert Gray (born in Scotland in 1747), served in the Revolutionary War as a captain in the King's American Regiment under Col. Edmund Fanning. The other John Hamilton Gray, born in Bermuda in 1814, later became a captain in the New Brunswick Regiment and lieutenant-colonel of the New Brunswick Rangers. Edward Barron Chandler was from a Loyalist family and his father-in-law, Joshua Upham, served in the Revolutionary War. Of the New Brunswickers, Samuel Leonard Tilley, also came from a Loyalist family.


Such men had not served in the War of 1812, but the militia ambience of the time was coloured by the war's memory. According to Lt.-Col. William Foster Coffin, a Militia officer who published his history of the War of 1812 in 1864, the numerals "1812" were "a sign of solemn import to the people of Canada," a date that "carries with it the virtue of an incantation."


Connections to 1812 lived on for decades after Confederation. Theodore Robitaille, MP for Bonaventure after Confederation, was a long-time Tory loyalist, a backbencher until Macdonald made him fourth lieutenant-governor of Quebec in 1879, and afterwards a Senator. Even here we find a link to the past, Robitaille's great uncle having served as a Roman Catholic chaplain in the Lower Canadian Militia during the War of 1812.

In 1882 Major John R. Wilkinson of Leamington, Ont., appealed to the Prime Minister for his personal intervention in getting the Essex Battalion gazetted and properly manned and equipped, Wilkinson had served in the local militia during the Fenian raids. As an "exposed frontier county," he wrote, Essex deserved a "good strong battalion." Although Macdonald did not act immediately, the good yeomen of Essex did not have long to wait. Within three years the North-West Rebellion of 1885 opened up the opportunity for standing up the 21st Essex Battalion of Infantry, with Wilkinson promoted lieutenant-colonel. The Essex Battalion, in fact, perpetuated the 1st and 2nd Regiments of the Essex Militia in the War of 1812--hence the battle honours awarded to the present-day Essex & Kent Scottish in 2012.

In 1887, the House of Commons dealt briefly with the question of pensions for 1812 veterans. Sir Richard Cartwright was a Liberal MP and the grandson of a Loyalist officer from the Revolutionary War who, retired and in his sixties during the War of 1812, wrote articles for the Kingston Gazette defending Upper Canada's "traditions" against U.S. aggression. Sir Richard, the grandson, asked the House in 1887 how many 1812 veterans remained living, 73 years after the Treaty of Ghent.

The answer came from Sir Adolphe-Philippe Caron, Minister of Militia and Defence, whose grandfather had served in the militia at Beauport in the 1790s, and it is a remarkable fact: In 1887, there were still as many as 271 living veterans of the War of 1812, of whom 221 were receiving a pension of $30 each; 49 were getting $80 each, and one pensioner in Quebec was receiving $60--the total allocation being $6,630. If nothing else, this suggests that for those who survive it, war contributes to exceptional longevity!


There were only two generations--the span 50 years--between 1814, when the peace was signed, and 1864, when Confederation was launched. (By comparison, 50 years separated 1945 and 1995, when the Chretien government marked the anniversary of "Victory in Europe.") Anyone who has a family member in the military knows that these connections are not unimportant in a veteran's life.

It goes without saying that military memories and connections are only one of many factors that shaped the future Canada. We cannot say the War of 1812 "caused" Confederation as a simple cause-and-effect. Just because the war happened before Confederation does not mean one brought about the other. But we can say that, for the founders of Canada and the Canadians living at the time, that epic military event in the life of early Canada was both recent history and family lore.

Caption: The Fathers of Confederation pose on the veranda of Government House in Charlottetown, PEI, on September 1, 1864. The Fathers of Confederation are usually considered to be the 36 men representing the British colonies in North America who attended at least one of the three major conferences on Canadian confederation: the Charlottetown Conference in 1864, the Quebec Conference in 1864 and the London Conference in 1866-67. Many of the men present had a direct family link to events and battles of the War of 1812. Canada' first prime minister, Sir John A. Macdonald, seated on the stairs in the middle of the photo, was formally commissioned by Lord Monck on May 24, 1867 to form the first Canadian government under Confederation. The first ministry assumed office on July 1 of that year, (LIBRARY AND ARCHIVES CANADA, C-733)

Caption: Re-enactors in the uniform of the Canadian Voltigeurs take shelter behind the bristling hedgehog defence of an abatis, similar to the one that would have been constructed by the fearless company at the Battle of Chateauguay, October 26, 1813. Father of Confederation Etienne-Paschal Tache fought alongside his brother at the battle, (photo by vince PIETROPAOLO, GALAFILM)

Caption: A view of the Kingston Naval Dockyard from Fort Henry, circa 1820s. Sir John A. Macdonald had a personal family link to the War of 1812 in the form of his uncle. Lieutenant-Colonel Donald Macpherson was commandant of Kingston Harbour when it was attacked by U.S. Commodore Isaac Chauncey on November 10, 1812. One of Macdonald's female cousins later recalled the attack and that bullets had penetrated the wall of their white cottage, which served as the commandant's residence.

Caption: The Battle of Plattsburgh, also known as the Battle of Lake Champlain, was a joint land and naval invasion of upper New York State and the last major British operation of the War of 1812. The often heated clashes and cannon exchange between vessels during this pitched September 1814 naval battle resulted in the American forces sustaining 104 killed and 116 wounded, while British losses totaled 168 killed, 220 wounded, and 317 captured. Although some 11,000 British were involved in the planned land attack on Plattsburgh, Lieutenant General Sir George Prevost chose to retreat his force after he learned of the loss on Lake Champlain.

Caption: The Battle of Ridgeway on June 1, 1866 was the only major skirmish during the Fenian Raids. But for weeks that spring, towns along the border with the United States had buzzed with wild rumours and false alarms about an imminent invasion of Canada by the Fenian Brotherhood. Despite much bravado, when confronted by a determined foe, the Fenians showed little true conviction to their cause. They had, wrongly, been led to believe that disgruntled Canadians would rise up against the British and welcome the Fenians as liberators. (ONTARIO ARCHIVES)
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Title Annotation:HISTORY: WAR OF 1812
Author:Champion, C.L.
Publication:Esprit de Corps
Geographic Code:1CQUE
Date:Apr 1, 2014
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