Two centuries after the War of 1812, a new book brings to light the history of one infantry that has ties to Prince Edward Island.
The Glengarry Light Infantry, 1812-1816: Who were they and what did they do in the war? recounts the experiences of some 1,400 men who served from its embodiment in 1812 to its disbandment in 1816.
“Those were the questions I had when I started,” author Winston Johnston says of his subtitle choice.
This now retired Agriculture Canada plant pathologist’s interest in the topic started with a genealogical documentation of his ancestors, some of whom had settled in Glengarry County in Upper Canada — now southern Ontario — around the turn of the 19th century.
He discovered that his great-great-grandfather, Donald MacEwen, was a private in the regiment, which was formed shortly before the War of 1812 and disbanded soon after it ended.
The War of 1812 was a 32-month military conflict between the United States and the British Empire and their allies, which resulted in no territorial change.
The Glengarry Light Infantry played a prominent role in most of the engagements along the Upper Canada-United States border.
“They started off with a few British officers, but they recruited in Canada — in Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia and P.E.I.,” Johnston says.
A recruiter came to P.E.I. in August of 1812 searching for a few good men.
“They promised them two meals a day and a place to sleep . . . and they could take their families with them. The wife got half a man’s ration of food and children one-third a man’s ration. There was no social services back then and if you didn’t have a place to eat and sleep you died. That was the alternative,” Johnston says.
“The wives and the family all slept in the same bunk bed in the Charlottetown barracks. They’d put a blanket around the bunk bed and that was the family’s space.”
Johnston was able to unearth the names of about 35 Islanders who served in the Glengarry Light Infantry.
They and their families were housed in barracks located where the Culinary Institute of Canada in Charlottetown is today.
The new recruits were on P.E.I. for a year and then they went off to war.
“There was only one born on P.E.I. Everybody else came from some place else because in 1812 most people who were here weren’t born in Canada. They were from all over the world,” Johnston says.
“There were a lot of Irish, a lot of Scots, English and some French. There were a lot of migrants. They’d come up as Loyalists from the United States or emigrated to Canada and then got involved in the war.”
In August 1813, the P.E.I. Glengarry Fencibles left the cozy comforts of their home barracks to spend a winter in Kingston, Ont.
In 1814, they took part in the war itself with other regiments from Newfoundland, Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and Upper and Lower Canada, the latter of which is now the southern portion of modern-day Quebec.
“They did make a significant contribution to the war, especially in the attack on Oswego, (New York).
“There were about 25 Islanders out of 50 in that battle. Those that went played a significant role when the time came,” Johnston says of the Battle of Fort Oswego, which was a partially successful British raid on an American fort and village in May 1814 during the War of 1812.
Three Islanders were wounded in that attack.
At full strength, the Glengarry Light Infantry numbered about 500, but by the end of the war there were about 300 members.
At least 50 members of the regiment, including one Islander, died as a result of battle injuries; another 140 succumbed to disease — two were from P.E.I.
“You were three times more likely to die in that war from dysentery and other illnesses than you were of actually getting killed,” Johnston says.
The Glengarry Light Infantry was disbanded not long after the fighting ended in February 1815.
“The regiment was disbanded in 1816 and all of the Islanders (and others in the regiment) were given land in Ontario at the end of the war for service.
“They got a grant of 100 acres or more of land and for that regiment it was around Perth, Ont.,” Johnston says.
Only one of the 35 Islanders who served with the infantry returned home to Prince Edward Island.
Thanks to funding from the Canada’s 1812 Commemoration Fund, the P.E.I. Regiment Museum in Charlottetown and the P.E.I. Museum and Heritage Foundation is providing copies of The Glengarry Light Infantry, 1812-1816 book to all intermediate and high schools across the province and to the provincial library system.
For Johnston, the publication of the book is the competition of two decades of research on this historic topic.
“There’s the personal satisfaction of doing it,” he says.
“I did something that nobody in the world has done and nobody is ever going to do again.”
AT A GLANCE
Winston Johnston is launching his book entitled The Glengarry Light Infantry, 1812-1816: Who were they and what did they do in the war? on Monday, Feb. 11, at
7 p.m. at the P.E.I. Regiment Museum at the Queen Charlotte Armoury, 3 Haviland St. in Charlottetown.
The story of the Glengarry Light Infantry recounts the experiences of some 1,400 men who served in the regiment from embodiment in 1812 until disbandment in 1816.
These men were recruited in haste in what is now Ontario, Quebec, Nova Scotia, and P.E.I.
During campaigns of 1813 and 1814, they played a prominent role in most of the engagements along the Upper Canada- United States border during the War of 1812.
The book, which is a partnership project between the P.E.I. Regiment Museum in Charlottetown and the P.E.I. Museum and Heritage Foundation under Canada’s 1812 Commemoration Fund, is available at the Bookmark in Charlottetown.