Field Officers of the Canadian Regiment of Fencible Infantry in 1812
by Robert Henderson

     The Canadian Fencibles were initially given three field officers to manage the regiment: one colonel, one lieutenant colonel, and one major. In 1811 an extra lieutenant colonel was added and the year 1812 brought an additional major to the regiment's complement of field officers.

     In 1803 Thomas Peter, a half-pay lieutenant colonel of the 23rd Regiment, was granted permission by the War Office to raise the Canadian Fencible Regiment and serve as its colonel. Prior to receiving this appointment, Peter had spent his entire military career with the 23rd Royal Welsh Fusiliers. While an ensign in this regiment, Peter saw considerable service in the southern campaigns of the American Revolution, ending in the surrender of Yorktown. Determined not to allow one of his regiment's colours fall into the hands of the enemy, Peter removed the King's Colour from its staff and wrapped it around himself under his uniform. After safely smuggling the colour past the eyes of the Franco-American army and then back to England, Peter was rewarded for his ingenuity with an audience with the king and a lieutenant's commission in his regiment. His inventiveness again prevailed in 1803 when Peter proposed raising a regiment from displaced Scottish emigrants for service in Canada. After his fledging regiment mutinied in Scotland, Peter took little part in the regiment's rebirth in the Canadas, remaining instead as a brigadier general on staff in Ireland.

      Peter showed considerable reluctance in supplying the required implements for his regiment, for which he was criticized for by general officers preparing inspection reports on the regiment to the War Office in London. Surprisingly, considering his concern at Yorktown for preserving one of his regiment's colours, Peter was censured for not providing the Canadian Fencibles with its own set of colours. This was rectified in 1811.

    As for Peter's career, he advanced first to the rank of major general in 1808 then in 1813, the 56 year-old Scot was promoted to the rank of lieutenant general; a rank he held into the 1820s. The absence of the regiment's colonel was typical for the majority of the regiments serving in Canada at the opening of the War of 1812. Likewise it was normal for a regiment's colonel to hold the rank of either major or lieutenant general or a similar staff position.

    David Shank, a 56 year-old officer who had served in the American Revolution, became the first lieutenant colonel of the Canadian Fencibles. From 1776 to the end of the American Revolution, Shank had been an officer in the 1st American, or Queen's Rangers achieving promotion to the rank of captain in the Queen's Ranger Dragoons. In his military journal of the service of the Queen's Rangers in the American Revolution, Sir John Graves Simcoe recounts the role of Shank in many of the skirmishes prior to the surrender of Yorktown. After Yorktown, Shank was a prisoner of war and was paroled to England where he remained until receiving a commission in the reformed Queen's Rangers in Upper Canada in 1792. Raising to the rank of lieutenant colonel, it appears Shank was quite skilled in the business of recruiting, for he spent his last years in the Queen's Rangers (1800 to 1802) recruiting in England. He joined the Canadian Fencibles in Scotland the following year. Shank was the ideal candidate for recruiting the Canadian Fencibles in North America and played an important role in attracting able-bodied men into the reformed regiment. In 1810 however, Major General Francis De Rottenburg reported Shank as "unfit to form a regiment of that description" with regards to the regiment's discipline and interior arrangements. Governor Sir James Craig noted to the War Office the same year:

 Colonel Shank is... a respectable character, and an old officer, but totally unequal to the situation in which he is now placed. His services indeed, tho' I myself remember their being always talked of, during the American war, as highly creditable to him, were not however of a nature to give him much insight, into the interior economy of regimental service, as he began his career in Simcoe's Corps and I beleive never was in any other.Unfortun- ately too, this Gentleman, with an easiness of temper, which precludes every idea of that firmness and steadiness of discipline, which are so requisite in the formation of a young Corps, is at the same time possessed of that, not uncommon species of disposition, which will not allow him to admit of the exertion of the next officer to him [Major George Robertson].

Presumably, Shank's absence from the Queen's Rangers from 1800 to 1802 was detrimental to his developing the administrative skills necessary to the management of a regiment. As early as 1808, Shank was noted for irregular practices with regards to the manner of issuing pay, and the charging of clothing.

Shank was subsequently removed from his regimental duties through promotion. In 1810 he was given the Brevet rank of Colonel and in June 1811 was promoted to Major General and put on staff at Quebec. The following year, Shank was transferred to staffing duties in Europe. He remained on the regiment's strength as a lieutenant colonel until the Canadian Fencibles disbanded in 1816.

The same month Shank was promoted to major general, the Canadian Fencibles' major, George Robertson, became a lieutenant colonel in the regiment. Robertson, "a steady, intelligent, and active officer... much more calculated to the task" took direct command of the corps. A former major of the Lochaber Fencibles in Scotland in the 1790s, the 41 year-old Robertson became the sole field officer present with the regiment through the latter half of 1811 and the beginning of 1812. Craig's remark of the need for a more firm commanding officer was answered with Robertson. His firmness indeed produced significant improvements in the condition of the regiment, but brought an increased use of the lash. In reaction to 13,750 lashes being awarded and 6,840 inflicted for crimes in the Canadian Fencibles within a five month span, Horse Guards issued to Governor Sir George Prevost the following order:

The Commander in Chief... observes with much regret the frequency of punishment in this Corps; in this subject your excellency is already in possession of the Commander in Chief's sentiment and his Royal Highness designs they may be communicated in the most plain and direct terms to the Commanding Officer.

Aside from this incident, Robertson continued throughout the war to solely administer and improve the Canadian Fencibles, with the exception of the occasional Court Martial panel.

     The regiment's vacant majority was filled the day Robertson was promoted but the new officer, Francis Cockburn, did not report to the regiment until July 1812. Cockburn, a captain in the 60th Regiment in Europe, was only 30 years old when he was appointed Major in 1811. Son of Sir James Cockburn, Baronet, he secured his captaincy in the 60th at the age of 24 and served with that regiment in South America in 1807 and between 1809 and 1811 on the Peninsula.

    When Cockburn reported in July 1812, he took up duties assisting Robertson in managing the regiment. The necessity of having another field officer present with the regiment led Governor General Sir George Prevost to rescind in early 1813 Cockburn's appointment as instructor of the Lower Canadian cavalry, "in consequence of the representations which have been received from Lt. Col. Robertson stating the inconvenience that will arise to the service by the absence of Major Cockburn from the Canadian Fencibles." Despite this, Cockburn was continually drawn away from the regiment to serve in intelligence gathering, as an Inspecting Field Officer, or as Assistant Quarter Master General throughout the rest of the war. With detachments of the regiment, Cockburn participated in the battle of Crysler's Farm, the attack on Salmon River, N.Y., and the raid on Red Mills, N.Y. His service with the Canadian Fencibles ended in January 1815 when he was appointed lieutenant colonel of the fledging New Brunswick Fencible Regiment.

     With Robertson alone administering the Canadian Fencibles at the beginning of 1812, it was decided to expand the regiment's establishment to include an additional major. This position was only filled in May 1812 when one of the Canadian Fencible captains, Peter William De Haren, a former 60th lieutenant, was promoted. De Haren's promotion came with controversy because he was not the senior captain of the regiment. James Eccles, a former captain in the King's New Brunswick Regiment of the 1790's and a veteran of the American Revolution, had received his captaincy on 6 August 1803, fourteen days before De Haren, making Eccles first in line for promotion. Though his commission out-ranked De Haren, Eccles' captaincy was temporary. Temporary rank meant Eccles was a captain as long as the Canadian Fencibles were on the army establishment and, upon its disbandment, was not entitled to the pension benefits of half-pay. The army regulations of 1811 stated that permanent rank was superior to temporary rank but only in cases where commission dates were the same. This regulation may have been used as grounds for passing over the ailing 51 year old Irishman, Eccles, for the more youthful 36 year old German, De Haren. After this incident, Eccles wrote to Prevost explaining how "he cannot avoid feeling mortified at a junior officer being lately promoted over his head, this circumstance will make it unpleasant for him to do duty in the Regiment, at the same time... he does not feel himself so fit for actual service or duty as he hitherto has been." Possibly because of the negative effect an officer being promoted over another had on the regiment's officers, Eccles was subsequently granted one of the much sought after captaincies in a Royal Veteran Battalion in June 1812. In 1814 Eccles retired from the army with the rare benefits of full pay, a pension awarded to all veteran battalion officers.

      In July 1812, after only two months as a major, De Haren, with the grenadier and light companies of the Canadian Fencibles, was detached to a battalion made up of flank companies of regular regiments serving in Lower Canada. De Haren received the Brevet rank of Lieutenant Colonel and was given command of the grenadier section of the flank battalion. De Haren functioned in this capacity until May 1813 when the battalion was dissolved. The following month De Haren would lead reinforcements to the battle of Beaver Dams and receive the American surrender after the engagement.

       By the summer of 1812, the consistency of the field officers of the Canadian Fencibles had been transformed. There had been a noticeable change in the average age of the field officers between 1811 and 1812. In June 1811 Shank and Robertson's average age was 47.5 years. By June 1812 this average fell, with the deletion of Shank and addition of Cockburn and De Haren, to 35.4 years. Prior to June 1811, all of the regiment's field officers were of Scottish birth. Cockburn, an Englishman, and the German De Haren, ended this tradition.

Social Life

       Of the five field officers, only Shank, Robertson, and Cockburn are known to have been married. While little is known about Shank's wife, some information has survived on the other wives. While the Canadian Fencibles were stationed at Trois-RivierĘs, Robertson married Maria Clara Cuthbert in December 1808. Maria Clara was the youngest daughter of the late James Cuthbert, seigneur of Berthier, and an English Canadian by birth. Her nephew, Edmund W.R. Antrobus, later joined the Canadian Fencibles at the beginning of 1812 as a volunteer. By the end of that year Antrobus, on his uncle's recommendation, was appointed an ensign in the regiment. At the time of Robertson's death on the Isle of Wight in 1818 from "injuries sustained in the war", he had four children. After his death, Maria Clara returned to Canada where she received large land grants in both Upper and Lower Canada.

      Cockburn's wife, Alicia, accompanied her husband of eight years from England to Canada. Her correspondence with family in England shows that much of her time was spent apart from her husband. During the campaigning season and while her husband was on detached duties, Alicia resided in either Quebec or Montreal, making occasional visits to her husband in the field. In the winter months she spent a portion of her time with her husband at his winter quarters. Major General Louis De Watteville, in a diary entry dated 18 February 1814, mentioned dining at Major Cockburn's. On an occasion like this Cockburn's wife would likely have been present. Besides various social functions, Alicia Cockburn entertained more adventurous ways of passing her time: "I am meditating a journey... into the United States in a flag of truce which to do the Yankees justice they treat with uncommon civility especially when borne by ladies, whom they allow to go much farther and peep about much more." The domestic life of the officer was re-established when the weather became inhospitable or when he had a posting in or near the place in which his wife resided.

       Among their non-military pursuits, the field officers applied themselves in petitioning for and developing land. Robertson prior to the war was successful in getting numerous land grants in unpopulated areas of Lower Canada. One of these grants was for a 500 acre lot in the township of Chatham, on the Lower Canadian side of the Ottawa river, north of Montreal. The Surveyor General of Lower Canada, Joseph Bouchette, writing on Chatham in 1814 remarked that "Colonel Robertson, who obtained the largest proportion of any person therein, has been the active promoter of an extensive settlement along the river."

         Shank likewise had accumulated considerable amounts of land in British North America. For his service as a captain of the Queen's Ranger Dragoons during the American Revolution, Shank was given a large land grant in the Province of Nova Scotia (now New Brunswick). In the 1790s Shank, through his influence with Lieutenant Governor Simcoe and as the commanding officer of the new Queen's Rangers, was granted land in and around York and became quite wealthy. Thomas Ridout, a magistrate, remarks on being invited by Shank to a ball, or as he called it "Dinner and the Hop", hosted by the Queen's Ranger officers in 1799. Throwing a ball for the social elite of York was a very expensive enterprise and Shank would expected to be the chief contributor. In 1800, while in England, Shank commissioned Thomas Beach to paint a portrait of himself which must have been at considerable cost. His connections in York society continued up to 1812 when he became a modest subscriber to the War Relief Fund of Upper Canada. As well he subscribed to the Quebec Fire Society when he was stationed in Quebec City. In striking contrast to his show of financial means in the 1790s, in 1812 Shank was reported in the Quebec Gazette as sentenced to a fine for neglecting to remove pot holes in front of his premises in Quebec City. Whether this indicated Shank's fall from financial grace or a simple thriftiness is uncertain. His numerous personal effects certainly support the latter reason. In 1815, realising he would not return to Canada, Shank chose to sell off the belongings he left behind in Quebec. The Quebec Mercury advertised the following:

at the house of Major General Shank, on the Esplanade, near the Sheriff's garden, at one o'clock: All his valuable household furniture and other effects, consisting in Mahogany chest of drawers, tables, chairs, sofas, bedsteads with curtains, feather beds, carpets, looking-glasses, dinner and tea ware, brass fenders and fire irons, stoves and pipes, kitchen utensils, &c., &c.Also Wine: 18 doz. LP Madeira  4 doz. Claret   2 doz. Port

About 12 years in this country, and of so excellent quality:- Saddles abd bridles, 3 excellent milk cows, a heifer and a sow, &c, &c.

Becoming a field officer in the Canadas brought with it considerable social responsibilities. Officers and their wives were expected to attend the various social functions of the garrison, as well as host their own. In January 1812 the Quebec Mercury reported on a function hosted by one of the social clubs in Quebec City:

...the Baron's Club gave their first public dinner, for the season, at the Union Hotel, which was honored with the presence of His Excellency Sir George Prevost, the General and staff officers, commanders of regiments and corps in the garrison, the judges, heads of departments, and others, civil and military, to the number of ninety in all.

Shank and Robertson would have been present at this dinner. The officers were also expected to contribute to numerous societies for the poor, building of monuments, relief funds, and other services.

       Additional demands on an officer's income included paying into the officer's mess, the renting of a residence for his family, and the general upkeep of his uniform, regimental appointments, and the purchase of campaign furniture for the field. Beyond his social commitments, the field officer had numerous personal affairs to attend to. These responsibilities, however, were meant to be secondary to the field officer's military duties. The structure of army bureaucracy, with its numerous departments, demanded that the field officer continually report on the condition and needs of his regiment, secure the regiment's pay, supplies and lodgings, implement regulations, and administer discipline. In cases the demands placed on the field officer at Headquarters or in the field proved overwhelming. On 7 August 1812, Henry Porter, a merchant and a member of the local gentlemen volunteer artillery in Quebec City, remarked on the death of a Major Thesinger: "This Gentlemen lately arrived to take a Staff Department posting. Yesterday he shot himself at the Hotel, in consequence it is supposed of his feeling inadequate to the Post."

      Some talented, some not, these Canadian Fencibles represent the typical field officers of the period. From the brave and popular Lt. Col. William Drummond of the 104th Regiment who died leading a storming party into Fort Erie, to Lt. Col. Zouch of the 10th Royal Veterans who suffered from "a sort of mental derangement" and caused his regiment much grief, field officers of this period helped mold the British army in the nineteenth century.

Copyright: The Discriminating General, 1997


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