BY ED ROBERTS
But those who gather at our war memorials each year July 1 and Nov. 11 should remember, too, Newfoundlanders served with great distinction in the conflict that took place a century before – the war of 1812-14 between the United States and Great Britain.
‘The Royal Newfoundland Fencible Regiment’ fought in that war as part of the British Army, as did their successors during the First World War. And the Newfoundlanders played an even more important role in the defence against the American aggressors, who invaded Canada, than did their descendants who fought at Gallipoli, and in France and Flanders.
Most of the fighting during the 1812-1814 war took place on and around the Great Lakes on the border between Canada and the United States. The men of the Newfoundland Fencibles fought valiantly in almost every one of those engagements.
Perhaps the best-known member of the Fencibles was Andrew Bulger, a native Newfoundlander who joined the regiment in 1804, when he was just 15-years-old. He and his comrades formed part of the garrisons in Halifax and Quebec City, in the years immediately before the Americans declared war on Britain in June, 1812.
Bulger fought in all the early battles of the war – the British capture of Detroit in 1812, and at the engagements at Fort George (at Niagara-on-the Lake), Stoney Creek and Crysler’s Farm in 1813.
He was decorated for gallantry on each occasion. But he rendered his most notable service in 1814.
Fort Michilimackinac, on an island separating Lake Michigan and Lake Huron, was a key strategic objective for both the Americans and the British. The British seized it from the Americans early in the war.
Sir George Prevost, commander of the British Forces in North America, told his superiors “its influence extends and is felt amongst the Indian tribes between New Orleans and the Pacific Ocean.”
William Hull, an American general, lamented its “surrender … opened the northern hive of Indians, and they were swarming down in every direction.”
Two years later, in August 1814, the Americans tried to recapture the Fort. They were repulsed by its small British garrison.
Bulger and a company of the Royal Newfoundlanders were part of that garrison. His detachment – 250 soldiers – had travelled from York (now Toronto) during the winter of 1814. Their journey was an epic accomplishment in itself.
The Newfoundlanders built a fleet of 30 barges, rowed them down the Nottawasaga River to Georgian Bay, and then crossed Lake Huron to Michilimackinac. The 300-mile voyage, through ice-filled waters in an empty wilderness, took them a month.
Although the Americans retreated after their failure to recapture Michilimackinac, they left warships to blockade the island. The British were short of supplies and by the end of August, Bulger tells us, they “saw (themselves) on the verge of starvation.”
One evening, scouts reported two of the blockading vessels – armed schooners – were anchored about 40 miles away. Bulger tells what happened:
“It was resolved to attempt their capture. Accordingly, in the afternoon of the 1st of September … four boats were equipped and manned, one … with a small party of seamen, and the other (three) by volunteers, from the troops, placed under my command. We rowed with muffled oars, a circuit nearly 40 miles at night, keeping out of sight during the day.”
His official report described the actual capture:
“About nine o’clock at night (September 3rd) we discerned the enemy and approached to within 100 yards of them before they hailed us; on receiving no answer, they opened a smart fire upon us of both musket and from the 24-pounder (cannon) … ; all opposition, however, was in vain, for in the course of five minutes the enemy’s vessel was boarded and carried.
“She proved to be the ‘Tigress’ ... The defence of this vessel did credit to her officers, who were all severely wounded.”
Three days later the small expeditionary force took the ‘Scorpion’, another schooner, some 15 miles away, under cover of night. Again, here are Bulger’s words:
“Every thing was so well managed ... that we were within 10 yards of the enemy before they discovered us, and it was then too late, for within the course of five minutes their deck was covered with our men and the British flag hoisted over the Americans.”
Col. Nicholson, in ‘The Fighting Newfoundlander’, records four of the British attackers were killed and several of the Newfoundlanders – one of them Bulger himself – were wounded in the attack.
Bulger concluded his official report with a short sentence: “I must assure you that every officer and man did his duty.”
He received the Naval War Medal and a clasp for his part in the engagement. He lived to a ripe old age, dying in Montreal in 1858
The British won the war of 1812; had they lost, it is almost certain Quebec, Ontario and the four western provinces would have become part of the United States.
Andrew Bulger and his comrades were an important part of the British forces during the conflict. But their contribution was long overlooked, because the Newfoundlanders fought in small contingents, rather than as one unit.
The Government of Canada, at long last, has remedied this, by awarding two Battle Honours, ‘Detroit’ and ‘Maumee’, to the regiment. These will be emblazoned on the colours of today’s regiment, along with the honours won during the Great War.
Andrew Bulger and his comrades, just as those who wore the Caribou in the First War, deserve to be remembered as ‘Better Than The Best’.
Edward Roberts has had a lifelong interest in the history of Newfoundland and Labrador. He was an MHA for 23 years, and served as the province’s Lieutenant Governor from 2002 to 2008. He can be reached by email at the following: ‘firstname.lastname@example.org’.