Government of New Brunswick

On June 18, 1812, the United States declared war on Britain and what was to that point a major European conflict now crossed to North America. There were several reasons but for the Atlantic Americans, the underlying cause was Britain’s war with France that had continued on and off since 1793. In response to Napoleon’s trade blockade of European ports under French control, Britain closed the same ports to American vessels unless licensed by the Crown. British war ships began stopping U.S. vessels to search for “contraband” (anything to aid Napoleon) and to reclaim deserters from the Royal Navy. The last straw came when they began seizing American nationals to put them in service on British vessels. Tensions rose during the spring of 1812.

President James Madison was urged to declare war by the ‘War Hawks’, a group of Congressmen from the South and West who felt that British Canada would be easy pickings. The British were believed to be supporting the Native Americans in their resistance to the attempts by the supporters of the War Hawks to take their land. With Britain in a life and death struggle with Napoleon, it seemed a likely avenue. Relying on a poorly trained militia, American attacks along the frontier in the summer months resulted in a collective bloody nose thanks to superior leadership through British General Isaac Brock and Shawnee Chief Tecumseh. After Brock’s victory (and death) at the Battle of Queenston Heights in October, British and Canadian strategy became one of wait and see. All knew that the Americans would be back in the spring.

In New Brunswick, peace prevailed along the border with Maine and trade continued between the province and neighbouring states. The Americans needed British manufactured goods and New Brunswick could not feed itself so English woolens and American flour crisscrossed the border to the benefit of all . However, steps were taken to defend the Bay of Fundy from American privateers. Even though Britain had not declared war on the United States and wouldn’t until October, the Lieutenant-Governor, George Stacey Smyth authorized the sloop Brunswicker to sail out of Saint John ‘in the service of the province.’ For the only time in its history, New Brunswick had a one-boat navy. Acting together with a Royal Navy brig, H.M.S. Plumper, they attacked American raiders.

After Britain declared war, New Brunswick vessels were issued ‘letters of marque’ which permitted their taking prizes from U.S. shipping. New Brunswickers carried the sea war to the Americans with much success and ranged as far south as Boston. Meanwhile, war preparations made by British engineers at the ports of St. Andrews, Saint John and the crucial St. John River system stood the colony well. Magazines, redoubts, blockhouses and eventually the Martello Tower on the coast, along with an inland navy of flat bottomed boats to patrol the river, kept the essential winter road to Canada open. This became the route the famed 104th Regiment of Foot followed in the winter and early spring of 1813.

104th Regiment Shako Plate - Niagara Falls Museums

While the northeastern part of the United States was more or less against the conflict, at least on land, New Brunswickers could not be sure and so the intense defensive preparations made before and during the first months of the war may have sealed its safety. The western theatre remained very active and all indications pointed to a renewed American offensive when campaigning weather returned. It was in this light that the March of the 104th was made. Raised through the efforts of General Martin Hunter as a fencible regiment which could see service only within North America, it was elevated to line status in 1810. As a numbered regiment, it could travel the world and, in fact, there was some indication that service against Napoleon was being considered before the Americans declared war.

The 104th was a special regiment. Raised principally in New Brunswick, recruiters also beat the drum in Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island, Upper and Lower Canada and in Britain. Recruits included sons of American Loyalists, francophones from Lower Canada and the Maritimes, several Blacks and Aboriginals, British immigrants and nationals. It was both in composition and geography a Canadian regiment before there was a Canada. No other Canadian regiment was raised to the line during the war. No other Canadian regiment was this diverse. No other Canadian regiment did what it did – march on snowshoes up the frozen and snowed in banks of the St. John River, the Madawaska River and over the Temiscouata Portage to the St. Lawrence, a distance of 250 miles in sub zero temperatures. Then it marched some more – over better roads along the St. Lawrence – but still a journey of 130 miles to Quebec for a short rest and soon after another 380 miles to Kingston, Upper Canada. 700 miles (1,100 km) in 52 days. A month later two companies formed part of a seaborne assault force against the major American naval station at Sackett’s Harbour, New York. The 104th commander, Major William Drummond, led one of the two attacking columns. Despite having achieved initial success, he was ordered to retreat by a nervous Sir George Prevost, who, viewing the action from shipboard, saw a trail of dust behind American positions and thought it reinforcements. In fact, it was some of the U.S. militia retreating.

In June, the 104th was ordered to the Niagara Peninsula and the light company participated in the late stages of the Battle of Beaver Dams in which an outnumbered British and Aboriginal force defeated a larger American army through superior tactics and bluff. The next summer, the flank companies of the regiment (grenadiers and light infantry) participated in one of the major battles of the war at Lundy’s Lane, holding down one end of the British-Canadian line as darkness fell. The intrepid Drummond, now a Lieutenant Colonel, faced American fire courageously while on his horse and had the shotgun he was carrying blown out of his hands.

Carleton Martello Tower

The Americans later retreated to Fort Erie on the Canadian side which they had captured earlier that year. The decision to assault this fort in mid-August presented an almost impossible task. Of three columns which set out after mid-night on 14 August, only Drummond’s penetrated the American defenses. Carrying a boarding pike and pistol after throwing down his sword, Drummond and his men were fighting in a redoubt when an ammunition store below caught fire and blew up, killing the commander instantly and destroying most of the force. The Americans later abandoned the fort.

The defeat of Napoleon in Europe allowed the release of thousands of British reinforcements for North America and they began arriving in the summer of 1814. Thereafter, the war shifted to British offensives against the United States, including northern Maine, which the British captured and held until 1815. During the summer and fall, an amphibious force from Halifax captured Eastport, Castine and Bangor, Maine. As part of this, a detachment of the New Brunswick Fencibles (Coffin’s Regiment) captured Houlton, Maine in January 1815. A portion of the revenues from the Customs House at Castine were used to found Dalhousie University in Halifax.

After the war, disbanded British soldiers, including veterans of the 104th, as well as Black Refugees settled in New Brunswick. Many of these soldiers were given grants of land in the Military Settlements that were formed. The largest of these was along the St. John River between present day Florenceville-Bristol and Grand Falls. Their presence helped to secure the strategically important line of communications or Grand Communications Route.

In 1883, during the centennial celebrations of the landing of the Loyalists in Saint John, a major re-enactment unit of the 104th took part in the grand parade through city streets. While the Loyalists were being celebrated, the 104th had become New Brunswick’s battalion. The history of the 104th (New Brunswick) Regiment of Foot was again celebrated in 1963 when members of the Black Watch from Camp Gagetown recreated their famous march from Fredericton to Kingston.