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Artvoice Weekly Edition » Issue v12n27 (07/03/2013) » Dispatches: War of 1812

A Monsoon of Dragoons, Special Forces On Horses

Summer and Fall 1813

There were three components of land-fighting in 1812: infantry, artillery, and cavalry. So it was, with modifications, in the Niagara war, whose most colorful period may have been the summer and fall of 1813.

Except for a short spell in the European Middle Ages, infantry–foot-soldiers–has been the basic component of an army. Sometimes among pre-urban societies, infantry was the only component of a culture-clash, and using no tactics. (“Melee combat” means, “Run over and hit ‘em!”) Even for the earliest urban cultures, though, an army of diverse components—scouts, flankers, light troops, mounted troops, chariots, and projectile-artists like slingers and archers—could beat larger forces, as long as its core was good infantry. The Romans knew all that well. On the Niagara, the best infantryman was the British redcoat. It wasn’t until late in the 1812 war that the American bluecoat caught up.

The standard army gun of the day was the historic Long Land Pattern musket “Brown Bess,” the same ten-pound, black-powder muzzle-loader used by both sides in the American Revolution. Though slow-loading, moody, and inaccurate, Brown Bess was a widow-maker inside fifty yards. At close-quarters, with a foot-and-a-half of iron sprouting from the muzzle—the bayonet—Bess was spear, staff, and shillelagh in one. This conical-triangular bayonet left wicked, unstitchable wounds. (If you can imagine getting stabbed by a carrot...) It has the distinction to be the one primitive weapon banned by the Geneva Convention.

1812 was not the era of the exploding shell. A cannonball was a sphere of metal. Its effect upon men or objects was that of a punch from Superman or a bowling ball hurled by a raging Hulk. Still, artillery decided many a battle. One reason even a hustling 19th century army was slow was its obsession with carting its cannon, lest it run into another cannon-carting army.

Cavalry had been a part of war since the domestication of the horse, and indeed, was the dominant force for a few centuries of the European Middle Ages. Not till the exploitation of the English longbow and the development of gunpowder weapons could anything withstand the charges of armored horsemen. Before and since, cavalry was used mostly for speed-rushes and counteracting speed-rushes. In football terms, cavalry were blitzers. Cavalry was a major component of the Napoleonic wars overlapping the local 1812 tussle.

The Niagara’s forests and creek-streaked terrain made non-sequiturs of the cavalry charges that crashed formations in Europe. (Really. A cavalry charge in Hunter’s Creek Park? Zoar Valley?) Dragoons, however–soldiers who ride horses to and from clashes but get down to fight–were useful as scouts, messengers, snipers, spies, and frankly, terrorists. Four packs of these roughriding Rambos dominated the guerrilla action in the summer and fall of 1813.

At the start of the war Buffalo Dr. Cyrenius Chapin formed fifty or so volunteers into “The Forty Thieves,” whom Canada still despises for foraging and intimidating civilians during the half-year American occupation of the west side of the Niagara. The Empire bluntly remembers them as outright brigands. Murder and rapine I’ve never read said of them, but they’re accused of falling short of little else. Their name was given them by others, but it seems they took to it as a grim form of tribute. The dreader, the better.

To answer the Forty Thieves, Anglo-Irish Lieutenant James Fitzgibbon (1780-1863) formed his own commando band, “The Bloody Boys.” These 50 rodeo Robin Hoods picked from the British 49th regiment were proverbial for calling to each other in code with their cowbells as they shadowed American forces. They had many adventures in their twenty-month tango with the Forty Thieves.

A unit of Canadian volunteers, the Provincial Dragoons, was active in many engagements on the Empire’s behalf. This outfit was often called “Merritt’s Troop” after its charismatic young leader William Hamilton Merritt (1793-1862). Their US-like blue uniforms were useful in obtaining information the easy way–riding up to sentries, posing as Americans, asking questions, and dashing off.

America (which has a lot to obsess about) overlooks the fury with which Canadian tradition scourges another pro-Yankee band, a hundred-plus Ontario residents so outraged with British rule that they presented their services to the Americans in the summer of 1813. These Canadian Volunteers were often called “Willcocks’ Volunteers” after Joseph Willcocks, “Canada’s Benedict Arnold.” They were tough skirmishers, but they were responsible for one of the more deplorable acts on the Niagara theater, the December 1813 burning of Niagara-on-the-Lake. After that, the names of their three ringleaders–Abraham Markle, Benajah Mallory, and “King Joe” Willcocks–might as well be Beelzebub, Lucifer, and Satan in Ontario. Had their side won they’d be remembered as freedom fighters.

Ah, devil-may-care, cavalier corsairs, with a Hell-for-leather flair...the Niagara was made for these horse-warriors we call dragoons. Why hasn’t Hollywood latched onto these guys yet?

Mason Winfield is the author of 10 books, including Ghosts of 1812 (Western New York Wares, 2009), a history of the 1812 war on the Niagara.

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