Fencible Light Company at the Battle of the
by Robert Henderson
On 8 August 1803 the War Office in London sanctioned the raising of a Regiment of Fencible Infantry for service in Canada. The regiment was to consist of one grenadier, one light infantry and eight battalion companies amounting to over a thousand men in total. The light infantry company was to have one captain, two lieutenants, five sergeants, five corporals, two drummers and 95 private men.
The first attempt at forming the Canadian Regiment of Fencible Infantry came in late 1803 in the Scottish Highlands. It was hoped that the regiment could be raised from a displaced population of highlanders wishing to emigrate to North America. The combination of false promises from recruiting agents, poor living conditions in Glasgow, distrust of the regiment's officers, and rumours that the regiment was going to be sold to the East Indies Company for service in India brought the first Canadian Fencible Regiment into open rebellion in late 1804. The mutiny was quickly put down and the regiment was disbanded.
After this, the regiment's officers and several of its sergeants were transferred to Canada to start over. Recruiting parties operated from Quebec City to Niagara enticing young Canadians and immigrants to join the ranks of the new regiment. Initially the regiment's recruiting campaign drew in few recruits. Most of the potential recruits opted to join the much more established New Brunswick Fencibles (104th Regiment after 1810). Nevertheless the regiment slowly began to grow. In 1808 the regiment was officially embodied giving the men more regular issues of clothing and steady pay. That same year the New Brunswick Fencibles was barred from recruiting in the Canadas. By the outbreak of the War of 1812 the Canadian Fencible Regiment's strength had grown to over 700 men.
Shortly after the war's declaration the regiment's grenadier and light infantry companies were detached and assigned to other duties. Adhering to the General Order of 30 June 1812 these two flank companies were embodied with the flank companies of other regular regiments in Lower Canada to form an elite Flank Battalion. The light infantry companies were grouped together and placed under the charge of Major Plenderleath of the 49th Regiment. This arrangement provided ample opportunities for the Canadian Fencible light company to work in conjunction other regular light infantry and improve its drill.
Formed in Quebec City, the Flank Battalion was dispatched to the Montreal district in July and took up post at the Blairfindie on the south shore. While stationed there during the autumn of 1812, considerable effort was taken to preserve each company in the Battalion at a strength of eighty private men. In September the Canadian light company was noted deficient of one sergeant, one corporal, two drummers and six privates. These vacancies were ordered to be filled immediately with men from the Canadian Fencibles "in every respect the best fitted for that service."
With winter coming on, the company in late November was ordered to take up winter quarters at Halfway House just west of Chambly where it remained until May of the following year. In the spring of 1813 the Canadian light company the company returned to Chambly. By this time the Flank Battalion had been disembodied permitting several of the regular flank companies to join their respective regiments in Upper Canada. The practice of grouping flank companies was continued throughout the war whenever possible; especially with embodied militia flank companies. In late July a diversionary offensive on Lake Champlain was ordered. It was hoped an attack on the Champlain frontier would cause American military officials to direct reinforcements destined for the offensive on Upper Canada instead to Lake Champlain.
To accomplish this task, 900 regulars including the Canadian light company were ordered to assemble at Isle aux Noix to set sail against American positions on the lake. On 29 July the force, under Lt. Colonel Murray, left Isle aux Noix and on 31 July arrived at Plattsburg, New York. The main body of troops, including the Canadian light company, landed with little opposition. Once Plattsburg's militia had retired from the town, Murray's force set about destroying the town's blockhouse, arsenal, barracks and public storehouses. After Plattsburg, the force continued to Saranac were they found and destroyed barracks capable of housing 4000 troops. In addition public buildings, barracks, blockhouses and batteaux were destroyed all along the lake at places like Swanton and Champlaintown. On 3 August Murray's force returned to Isle aux Noix bringing with them large quantities of captured enemy supplies and equipment.
From Isle aux Noix the Canadian Fencible light company returned to Chambly, where after over a year of absence rejoined the rest of the regiment. The reunion of the Canadian Fencibles proved to be short-lived. At the end of August four battalion companies were ordered to Upper Canada to bolster the number of troops protecting the St. Lawrence river corridor. On 8 August the regiment, including the light company, were ordered first to La Prairie, then to St. Philippe a month later. After a couple of weeks at St. Philippe, the light company, along with two companies of the Regiment De Meuron and a group of Sedentary Militia, was ordered in late September to the Douglas' Settlement near the frontier. The small force took up their advanced post near the home of Nataniel Douglas where they improved their defensive position by clearing the land of fences and then constructed huts from corn fodder for shelter. After a three day stay at the Douglas' Settlement the light company was ordered back to St. Philippe. After a night with the rest of the Regiment, the Canadian light company with the grenadier company were again embodied with the flank companies of other regular regiments (this time with the 13th and the Regiment de Meuron) at St. Pierre in early October. Three days after forming, the new Flank Battalion was ordered to Lacadie, while the Canadian lightcompany was detached to join with the Canadian Voltiguers.
The pace of the light company's movements prior to the taking up positions on the Chateauguay river in October was surprising. In a short two-month period the company had sailed against and destroyed American positions on Lake Champlain, marched, counter-marched throughout the south shore of Montreal District, reconnoitred enemy positions, all the time bivoacking along the way on boats, woods, farmer's fields, barns, and houses, or encamping in garrisons or make-shift fortified positions. This pace of activity was not exclusive to this group of soldiers. Troops remained on alert and were juggled from post to post in anticipation of the expected American offensives from Lake Champlain and down the St. Lawrence. Once with the Voltiguers, the Canadian force, accompanied by one hundred Indians advanced towards the frontier to reconnoitre an American army of 5000 under General Wade Hampton which had advanced from Lake Champlain to Four Corner, New York. After a brief engagement between the Indians and the American advance guard, the Canadian force retired to Chateauguay were they remained for two weeks. On the night of 21 October word arrived in Chateauguay that Hampton's army had crossed the frontier and was advancing on Montreal. Lieutenant Pinguet of the Canadian Fencibles, in a letter to his brother: "We paraded at once and received orders to advance to the forks three leagues further up the river Chateauguay. It was nearly day when we arrived there; we rested about two hours when we were ordered to move on two leagues further. On our march we met the Indians who had been sent ahead coming back to warn us that the enemy was approaching at a distance of about two miles. We advanced nearly a mile when Colonel de Salaberry... selected a strong position and extended us us in woods on either side of the road. We were formed in tree lines [translation]." When the enemy did not appear the small force consisting the Canadian Fencible light company, two Voltigeur companies, and the light company of 3rd Battalion of Embodied Militia set about fortifying themselves with trees and forming entrenchments. These entrenchments were occupied by Salaberry's force for the next three days.
On 24 October the construction of abattis was begun three miles in advance of their position. Two days later, with the abattis nearing completion, the enemy advanced. Pinguet picks up the story: "[When] our axemen were completing [the abattis] a party of ten men of our company and twenty Voltiguers, who were covering them, saw the advance of the enemy approaching. Our men fired upon them and spread the alarm. Our company was sent at once to the abattis with orders to begin and maintain the action... We had to contend with two thousand infantry and two hundred cavalry. We lost no time. All our men fired from thirty-five to forty rounds so well aimed that the prisoners told us next day that every shot seem to pass at about the height of a man's breast or head. Our company was engaged for about three-quarters of an hour before reinforcements came up [translation]." From this account Pinguet gives the impression the Canadian Fencible light company was dispatched first to reinforce the pickets. De Salaberry simply states that the picquets were "supported in time by the Canadian Light company two companies of Voltiguers and the light company of the 3rd Embodied Militia". In the battle the Canadian Fencibles were posted with twenty-two Indians to the right part of the abattis were it meet with the woods. This part of the defence works was the most vulnerable and prone to taking a flanking attack from the Americans. Although little information exists about the exact tactical moves used by the Americans, the amount of casualties may provide some idea. In the four hour engagement the Canadian Fencibles suffered 3 killed and 4 wounded; the two Voltiguer companies in the centre received only 4 wounded; and the Embodied Militia on the left, who recieved a crossfire from Americans across the river, had 2 killed, 6 wounded and 4 missing. After the Hampton's army had retired, De Salaberry wrote to Major General De Watteville on the engagement. The first officer noted in his correspondance was the officer in command of the Canadian Fencible Light company, Captain Ferguson: "I cannot conclude without expressing the obligation I owe to Captain Ferguson for his cool and determined conduct and his extreme readiness in executing my orders." Whether this refers to the company arriving first to support the picquets is again uncertain. As for the other Canadian Fencible officer present, Lieutenant Pinguet, the Témoin oculaire noted "On n'a pas moins remarqué dans ce combat sévère, le courage et la bravoure du... lieutenant Pinguet de l'infanterie légère canadienne..."
After the battle, the Canadian light company returned to their former entrenchments where they remained for eight days exposed to the rain and frost, without fire or shelter. When the Americans did not reappear the company was permitted to take up quarters down the river at the farm of Jean Baptiste Malette. The men occupied Malette's barn while the two officers housed themselves in Malette's house. At these accommodations Pinguet remarked "we were nearly as badly provided for as in the woods." After eight days, around 9 November, the company was ordered to return to their former entrenchments, in expectation of an attack by Hampton to support the American army under General Wilkinson moving down the St. Lawrence river. Sickness quickly grew rapidly in both the American and Anglo-Canadian armies as the weather grew progressively worse. The Canadian light company and the other soldiers in the entrenchments was hit hard by sickness. Pinguet describe the effects of the poor weather conditions to his brother: "We... suffered so much from cold and foul weather that some of our men fell sick every day. I was forced to return to the settlement with pain in every limb, but I hope to be able to rejoin my company in a week if the campaign is not ended. Colonel de Salaberry has been ill,... and several officers of the Voltiguers are sick too." Several months later the twenty-four year old Pinguet would die of a sickness contracted during this campaign." After Wilkinson's army was checked at the Battle of Crysler's Farm and Hampton's army had entered winter quarters at Four Corners, N.Y., the light company was ordered from its entrenchments on the Chateauguay river in late November to take up winter quarters with the rest of the regiment at St. Philippe.
The light company remained with the regiment for the rest of the war doing garrison duty at St. Philippe, Prescott, and Kingston. After the war the Canadian Fencibles were stationed at York and Fort George. In May 1816 the regiment was ordered to be disbanded at Montreal. After disbanding, the soldiers of the light company received land grants throughout Upper and Lower Canada and returned to civilian life.
Copyright The Discriminating General 1997
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