Canadian Volunteers

The Canadian Volunteers was a unit composed of pro-American citizens or inhabitants of Upper Canada which fought for the United States of America during the Anglo-American War of 1812.

Before the War, Americans had been encouraged to settle in Upper Canada by generous grants of land. The Lieutenant Governors and military commanders in the province were concerned that in the event of war with America, the Americans would receive active help from many of these, and from Canadians whom they induced to support them. In March 1812, Major General Isaac Brock claimed that many of them influenced the Legislative Assembly of Upper Canada.

When the War broke out, several Canadians in the western districts of Upper Canada did indeed support the American army of Major General William Hull when it invaded Canadian territory from Detroit, though not as many as the Americans had hoped. Near York, the provincial capital, many militiamen avoided duty by marching to comparatively remote settlements such as Newmarket, where they could avoid the authorities. Brock however, induced the Executive Council to prorogue the Legislature, which had been slow to support war measures and was sometimes obstructive, and proclaim Martial Law. He then won a victory over Hull at the Siege of Detroit. No other American force successfully occupied any Canadian territory before the end of the winter. Brock’s successes stiffened the resolve of many Canadians, and he was also able to issue large numbers of captured muskets to the hitherto badly armed militia units.

Brock was killed at the Battle of Queenston Heights in October, and his successor, Major General Roger Hale Sheaffe, introduced harsh restrictions against American immigrants and those expressing pro-American sentiments. During the ensuing winter, although there was no longer open disaffection, many Canadians of American origin applied for permission to return to the United States. Many others crossed into America unlawfully, across the Niagara River or across the frozen Lake Erie.

In July 1813, Joseph Willcocks, a member of the Legislative Assembly of Upper Canada who had participated on the British side during the early days of the war (as an envoy to the Six Nations), defected to the Americans. Willcocks, like others who later became prominent members of the Canadian Volunteers, was not a recent American immigrant to Upper Canada, but believed that the harsh measures taken against those considered to be disloyal by the military authorities violated natural justice and the rule of law. He was commissioned as major in the United States Army and formed the Canadian Volunteers at Fort George, which the Americans had captured in May.

By the autumn, the corps numbered about 120 men. During the later part of 1813, they were active as skirmishers, foragers and scouts around the Fort.

In November, the corps was reinforced by more volunteers under Benajah Mallory, another former member of the Upper Canada Legislature, who became second in command with the rank of major. (Willcocks held the rank of lieutenant colonel by this time).

By December 1813, almost all the United States regular troops had been withdrawn from Fort George. Faced with a British advance, Brigadier General George McClure of the New York State Militia ordered the post to be abandoned. During the evacuation, an order was given to set fire to the nearby village of Newark. The Canadian Volunteers were the most active participants in this operation, which left approximately 400 Canadians without shelter at the height of winter. Other houses in Queenston were also burned by the Americans. This outrage caused much resentment in the Canadian population, which until then had been somewhat lethargic in opposing the invasion.

When the British launched a reprisal raid over the Niagara into New York, practically none of the New York State Militia turned out to defend their homes. The Canadian Volunteers were almost the only troops to offer resistance, setting fire to a bridge over the Tonawanda Creek to halt the British advance. Some at least of the Canadian Volunteers fought in the Battle of Buffalo near the end of the year, when the British launched another punitive expedition across the upper part of the Niagara.

During the spring of 1814, the unit enrolled more recruits and reorganised. Abraham Markle, yet another former member of the Legislature, became a company commander. In May, Markle accompanied the American Raid on Port Dover, in which the village was burned down. Markle witnessed the destruction of the property of Robert Nichol, who had moved for Markle’s expulsion from the Legislature.

During July, the Canadian Volunteers, which was listed as a regiment but little stronger than a company, formed part of a brigade of militia volunteers commanded by Brigadier General Peter Buell Porter in the American army on the Niagara. They fought at the Battle of Chippawa and the Battle of Lundy’s Lane. The Americans subsequently withdrew to Fort Erie. During the ensuing Siege of Fort Erie, Brigadier General Porter departed for three weeks to recruit fresh volunteers from the militia, and Lieutenant Colonel Willcocks assumed command of his brigade. He clashed with the New York militia contingent and on 4 September, he declined to take command of an attack by the brigade against a British siege battery. He accompanied the attack as a volunteer instead, and was shot in the chest and killed. Abraham Markle succeeded to command of the Canadian Volunteers.

Other Canadian renegades, not officially part of the Canadian Volunteers, were attached to the American garrisons at Amherstburg and Detroit. They accompanied or instigated many foraging expeditions or punitive raids against undefended Canadian settlements, and caused much hardship.

At the end of the war, the Canadian Volunteers were disbanded on 15 June 1815 at Batavia, New York. As most of them were wanted for treason, it was impossible for them to return to their former properties or occupations in Upper Canada (although some at least tried to do so). All Canadians who had performed military service for the United States were indemnified by the United States Congress for their losses, and were rewarded for their services with grants of land in the United States territory, in proportion to their rank.

. Olive Tree Genealogy. Retrieved 2 February 2010. 

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