By Tom Fournier
When I think of John Richardson, it is because of his time with the 41st Regiment of Foot during the War of 1812. He turned those experiences into a widely read and often cited book on the War of 1812. The most common form is Richardson’s War of 1812 edited by Alexander Casselman.
Richardson was born in Upper Canada on 4 October 1796 in the Niagara region. His father Robert had come to Canada from Scotland as a surgeon with the Queen’s Rangers. His mother was Madelaine Askin daughter of Joseph Askin (the famous fur trader and merchant) and Manette an indigenous woman.
Richardson spent his adolescent years in Amherstburg on the Detroit River.
In July 1812, Richardson, at the age of 15, joined the 41st Regiment as a Gentleman Volunteer. A Gentleman Volunteer was an individual who wished to join the Officers of a regiment but for whom there was no place. The Gentleman Volunteer would serve in the ranks but mess with the Officers. They would hope to distinguish themselves in battle and earn a promotion to the rank of Officer.
Richardson took part in a number of military engagements in the Lake Erie area (the Right Division for the British) including the Battle of the River Raisin.
You can read more about Richardson in this previous blog post.
For the Battle of the River Raisin, Richardson was a participant in the action, and he wrote about it as a historian but interestingly, he also wrote about it as a novelist in his book “The Canadian Brothers”. My thought is that it would be interesting to look at the novel for a far more descriptive and atmospheric account of the lead up to the battle without Richardson’s need to act as a historian or journalist (as he spent much of his life).
Portions of the novel can be found in the following (Richardson tends to be quite verbose and I have cut out some excesses):
At noon the detachment had arrived, and, the General making his appearance soon after, the expedition, composed of the strength of the two garrisons, with a few light guns, and a considerable body of Indians, under the Chief Roundhead, were pushed rapidly across the lake, and the same night occupied the only road by which the enemy could advance.
It was a picturesque sight, to those who lingered on the banks of the Detroit, to watch the movement of that mass of guns, ammunition cars, sledges, &c. preceding the regular march of the troops, as the whole crossed the firm yet rumbling ice, at the head of the now deserted Island of Bois-Blanc. Nor was this at all lessened in effect by the wild and irregular movements of the Indians, who advancing by twos and threes, but more often singly, and bounding nimbly, yet tortuously, along the vast white field with which the outline of their swarthy forms contrasted, called up, at the outset, the idea of a legion of devils. >>>>>
<<<<< It was during one of the coldest mornings of January, that this little army bivouacked on the banks of a small rivulet, distant, little more than a league from the position which had been taken up by the Americans. >>>>> the British force, after partaking of their rude, but substantial meal, and preparing their arms, laid themselves down to rest in their accoutrements and greatcoats; their heads reclining on whatever elevation, however small, presented itself, and their feet half buried in the embers of the fires they had with difficulty kindled on the frozen ground, from which the snow had been removed—all, sanguine of success, and all, more or less endeavouring to snatch, even amid the nipping frost to which their upper persons were exposed, a few hours of sleep prior to the final advance, which was to take place an hour before dawn.
In the midst of the general desolateness of aspect which encompassed all, there were few privations, endured by the men, that were not equally shared by their officers. A solitary and deserted log hut, was the only thing in the shape of a human habitation to be seen within the bivouac, and this had been secured as the head quarters of the General and his staff—all besides had no other canopy than the clear starry heavens, or, here and there, the leafless and unsheltering branches of some forest tree, and yet, around one large and blazing fire, which continued to be fed at intervals by masses of half decayed wood, that, divested of their snow, lay simmering and dying before it, was frequently to be heard the joyous yet suppressed laugh, and piquant sally, as of men whose spirits no temporary hardship or concern for the eventful future could effectually depress. These issued from the immediate bivouac of the officers, who, seated squatted around their fire after the manner of the Indians, instead of courting a sleep which the intense cold rendered as difficult of attainment, as unrefreshing when attained, rather sought solace in humorous conversation>>>>>…<<<<<<<Most of them wore over their regimentals, the grey great coat then peculiar to the service, and had made these in the highest possible degree available by fur trimmings on the cuffs and collar, which latter was tightly buttoned round the chin, while their heads were protected by furred caps, made like those of the men, of the raccoon skin.>>>>
<<<<< the low roll of the drum, summoning to fall in, warned them that the hour of action had already arrived, and each, quitting his fire, hastened to the more immediate and pressing duties of assembling his men, and carefully examining into the state of their appointments.
In ten minutes from the beating of the reveille— considerably shorn of its wonted proportions, as the occasion demanded—the bivouac had been abandoned, and the little army again upon their march. >>>>>
<<<<< Five minutes later, and the troops were silently drawn up in front of the enemy. A long line of fires marked the extent of the encampment, from which, even then, the "all's well" of the sentinels could be occasionally heard. Except these, all profoundly slept, nor was there anything to indicate they had the slightest suspicion of an enemy being within twenty miles of them—not a picket had been thrown out, not an outpost established. It was evident the Americans were yet young in the art of self defence. >>>>>
<<<<< The next moment all was roar, and bustle, and confusion, and death.
We will not stop to inquire why the British General, Proctor, lost an advantage which had made itself apparent to the meanest soldier of his army, by opening a desultory and aimless fire of his light guns upon an enemy to whom he thus afforded every possible opportunity for preparation and defence; when, like Colonel, (now Sir John) Harvey, not long subsequently at Stoney Creek, he might have annihilated that enemy with the bayonet, and with little comparative loss to himself. We will merely observe that having failed to do so, nothing but the determination and courage of his troops brought him through the difficulties he himself had created, and to the final attainment of the general order, complimenting him on the highly judicious arrangements he had made on the occasion; although not before a damp bed had been pressed for the last time by more than one of those who had so gallantly followed—or, more strictly, preceded him.
The sun was in the meridian; all sounds of combat had ceased, and such of the American Army as had survived the total defeat, were to be seen disarmed and guarded, wending their way sullenly in the direction by which the victors had advanced in the morning. From the field, in which the troops had commenced the action, numerous sledges were seen departing, laden with the dead—the wounded having previously been sent off. One of these sledges remained stationary at some distance within the line, where the ravages of death were marked by pools of blood upon the snow, and at this point were grouped several individuals, assembled round a body which was about to be conveyed away. >>>>>
<<<<< Each seemed to feel that he had been in some degree accessory to the catastrophe, but the past could not be recalled. The body, covered with blood, exuding from several wounds, was now placed with that of Ensign Langley, (who had also fallen, and lay at a little distance beyond), on the sledge which was drawn off to join several others just departed, and the lingering officers hastened to overtake their several companies.
When the action was at the hottest, one of the small guns in front (all of which had been fearfully exposed), was left without a single artilleryman. Availing themselves of this circumstance, the enemy, who were unprovided with artillery of any description, made a movement as if to possess themselves of, and turn it against the attacking force, then closing rapidly to dispute the possession of the breast work which covered their riflemen. Colonel St. Julian, who had continued to ride along the line with as much coolness as if he had been assisting at a field day, and who was literally covered with wounds, having received no less than five balls, in various parts of his body, seeing this movement, called out for volunteers to rescue the gun from its perilous situation. Scarcely had the words passed his lips when an individual moved forward from the line, in the direction indicated.—It was Lieutenant Raymond—Exposed to the fire, both of friends and foes, the unfortunate officer advanced calmly and unconcernedly, in the presence of the whole line, and before the Americans, (kept in check by a hot and incessant musketry), could succeed in even crossing their defences, had seized the gun by the drag rope, and withdrawn it under cover of the English fire. But this gallant act of self-devotedness was not without its terrible price. Pierced by many balls, which the American rifleman had immediately directed at him, he fell dying within ten feet of the British line, brandishing his sword and faintly shouting a "huzza," that was answered by his companions with the fierce spirit of men stung to new exertion, and determined to avenge his fall.
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These articles are written and compiled by members of the 41st Regiment Living History Group.