Revisiting the War of 1812

Bicentennial to be marked with series of special events

Published on May 11, 2011
James Lynch holds a page from the Oct. 13, 1934 edition of The Evening Telegram about Newfoundland’s contribution to the War of 1812. — Photo by Danette Dooley/Special to The Telegram

Plans are underway in this province to mark the bicentennial of the War of 1812 , in which hundreds of Royal Newfoundland Regiment soldiers died defending Canada.

The United States declared war on Great Britain on June 18, 1812 over mounting frustrations with trade restrictions, including Great Britain’s order-in-council that requir­ed even neutral American vessels destined for continental ports to first stop in England.

Even more frustrating was Britain’s practice of stopping American ships on the high seas, removing American sailors thought to be English subjects, and “impressing them into the Royal Navy” for service at sea in the war against France, says bicentennial committee chairman James Lynch.

While the Royal Newfoundland Regiment of Fencible Infantry fought in most major battles in the war, Lynch said people know little about their contribution.

Soldiers died on land and at sea, he said. Many perished in prison camps in Ohio and Kentucky.

Some members of the regiment remained in Upper and Lower Canada after the war, making it impossible to say for certain how many died in battle, Lynch said.

Because of the Newfoundlanders’ extensive experience as both soldiers and sailors, he said, more than half of the regiment was posted to Kingston, Upper Canada, for service aboard ship. The remainder were assigned to detachments at Quebec, Prescott, Fort George and Fort York on the Niagara Peninsula.

Newfoundlanders fought and died defending these ports. Many were noted for their bravery and courage, Lynch said.

Newfoundlanders were also sent to Fort Mackinac, where they helped stop an attack by the Americans and helped capture two American ships, the Tigress and the Scorpion.

“They rowed downstream and under the cover of darkness were able to board and overcome the surprised defenders ... both vessels were returned to Mackinac as prizes of war,” Lynch said.

The history of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment dates to 1795 when Maj. Thomas Skinner of the Royal Engineers formed the unit on April 25.

The regiment was disbanded after the cessation of hostilities with France marked by the signing of the Treaty of Amiens in 1802. The unit was reformed by Brig.-Gen. John Skerrett in 1803 as the Royal Newfoundland Regiment of Fencible Infantry which was eventually disbanded after the War of 1812 ended in 1814.

According to Lynch, the Newfoundlanders were instrumental in helping to defend Canada from successive American attacks.

A story in The Evening Telegram  on Oct. 13, 1934 headlined “When Newfoundland’s men defended Canada” told how fishermen dropped their nets and donned uniforms to defend the Dominion on a 2,000-mile frontier over a century ago.

The story described the men as part of “a valiant regiment which served and suffered at almost every engagement on both land and water during the bitter struggle of the war of 1812-14.”

Local author and historian David Parsons feels the events to take place in 2012 will help educate people about the regiment’s role in the war.

“Maybe, we might even get the battle honour that the regiment should have for their part in the War of 1812,” he said.

Lynch has been trying for almost a decade to have the federal government recognize and honour the regiment for its contribution to the war, as was the case with other British and Canadian regiments.

He has been told that the Department of National Defence cannot issue a battle honour retroactively unless it can be shown that the regiment was supposed to receive one at the time.

That didn’t happen, Lynch said, because the regiment was disbanded after the war.

The Royal Newfoundland Regiment Advisory Council set up the bicentennial committee, which has partnered with Parks Canada’s Newfoundland Division to secure funding from the federal government to host events in 2012.

Projects range from raising a 25-soldier volunteer Royal Newfoundland Regiment of Fencible Infantry to perform at various events throughout the province to inviting 1812 regiments from across Canada and the United States to a grand encampment on Signal Hill to encouraging adults to participate in a week-long animation program from the 1812 era.

There will also be parades, commemorative pins and awards for high school students who base their heritage fair submissions on the regiment’s role in the war.

Lynch said application has also been made to the provincial Department of Tourism for recognition of the regiment under the Historic Commemorations Program.

All projects, hinge on funding.

Royal Newfoundland Regiment Lt.-Col. Alex Brennan is optimistic that next year’s events will reach many people.

“The problem with remembrance is that we tend to forget … but before we know where we are going we have to look at where we’ve come from,” he said.