Green recruits gave redcoats a run for their money in historic battles

Storied scouts and skirmishers were in the limelight at Navy Hall on Friday morning.

The Glengarry Light Infantry and the Western Rangers were two regiments that fought in the War of 1812 and they were among the few to wear green uniforms instead of red.

Their stories were told in turn to those in attendance at Navy Hall by husband and wife duo Elizabeth LeBlanc and Peter Martin.

Leblanc and Martin both took jobs at Parks Canada in their teens but weren’t hitched until 2012, the bicentennial anniversary of the War of 1812, Martin said.

Martin, an event coordinator for Parks Canada, says one of the most common questions he gets is why the British wore red.

Did they even know about camouflage?

“Absolutely they knew what camouflage was,” Martin told an audience of about 40 people at the talk.

But in a field where everyone wears green, it’s hard to tell friend from foe, he said.

Green uniforms were mostly only worn by rifle units, guerilla units or skirmishers.

One such unit was the Glengarry Light Infantry.

Light infantry, he told The Lake Report, were generally used to flank the enemy and funnel them into the firing line of a company’s main force.

The Western Rangers, or Caldwell’s Rangers, also wore green but were specially trained in guerilla warfare tactics, Leblanc said.

“When they're engaging, they're using guerrilla tactics: they are out in advance, they're harassing the enemy,” LeBlanc said.

They were also encouraged to salvage what they could from the remains of the enemy, including clothing.

LeBlanc said this makes it hard to nail down the regiment’s standardized gear.

“They would be wearing any manner and mixture of items. So from hunting frocks to U.S. coatees, to moccasins to top hats, just whatever they could find.”

The Western Rangers were led by Lt. William Caldwell Sr., who previously served with Butler’s Rangers, LeBlanc added.

His experience with guerilla-style tactics made him a perfect candidate to lead the Western Rangers when they were formed before the war broke out.

LeBlanc said the regiment has a “pretty distinguished roster” of battles to its name, though it “barely managed a footnote” in the history books.

The regiment was present at the capture of Fort Niagara, the recapture of Newark and the battle of Lundy’s Lane, to name a few, she said.

Martin said the Glengarry Light Infantry were also at Lundy’s Lane and sustained three casualties, two from friendly fire.

This was a far cry from the losses it sustained at the Battle of Fort George.

Of the 90 regimental soldiers who served there, 82 died.

The majority of those losses, Martin said, were sustained when the regiment charged into American cannon fire.

Almost half the dead at the battle of Fort George served with the Glengarry Light Infantry, he said.

Lt.-Col. John MacDonell, who was among the 82 casualties, originally pitched the idea of forming a light infantry unit made up primarily of Scottish recruits in 1806.

“Originally, they were supposed to be a kilted regiment,” Martin said.

The proposed uniform was rejected in favour of trousers because of Canada’s harsh climate, he said.

Martin said he developed his love of history after he got a job at Fort Eerie when he was 18.

“I got to just get in uniform and talk to people all day and shoot muskets and give tours and get paid. Like, really? This is so cool,” Martin recalled thinking to himself.

It was his “first venture” into the world of history and the uniform he wore for the job was that of the Glengarry regiment.

“It was just so neat when I started learning more that we're the only ones that wore green.”

“We’d show up at an event and people were like 'Who are you?’” he added.

LeBlanc said she got into this line of work to put on the long dresses of history and “live that Anne of Green Gables life.”

“I started as a volunteer at Fort Malden National Historic Site when I was 14,” she said.

Though she appeared in green uniform for the talk, the tales of dead war heroes were not the only ones that piqued her interest.

“It wasn't just about the men. It was about the experiences of, you know, the women and children,” she said.

Richard Coyne, who sits on the Friends of Fort George board of directors, attended every Fireside Friday talk in February.

“I’m amazed at how well attended these have been," he said. "And it's great to see that support, and especially seeing all the funding goes to employing students at the Fort over the summer."

Coyne said he’s had a love of the town’s history since moving to NOTL 16 years ago.

Evan Loree, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Lake Report