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. I have had the good fortune of seeing an original copy of the 1842 edition in the holdings of the Royal Welsh Museum. This was once the property of another member of the 41st Regiment who underscored passages and made margin notes critical of Richardson and many Officers of the 41st Regiment (perhaps a subject for another day).
Richardson was very proud of his time with the 41st Regiment and he was extremely protective of its reputation. This can be seen in his passionate defense of the Officers of the 41st Regiment as a reaction to comments attributed to Major General Sir Isaac Brock in the book written by his nephew Ferdinand Brock Tupper. That defense can be read here.
I would like to spend a little time looking at Richardson as a precursor to another article on the Battle of the River Raisin. Richardson was a participant in that 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 hypothesis is that it would be interesting looking at the novel for an account of the lead up to the battle, the battle and the aftermath without the need to act as a historian or journalist (as Richardson spent much of his life).
For much more information on Richardson I would recommend a biography written by David Beasley and/or the very detailed article (which I have drawn from extensively) written by Beasley for the Dictionary of Canadian Biography which can be found here.
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 was one of four Gentleman Volunteers with the 41st Regiment including Colonel Henry Proctor’s own son Henry.
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. On 5 October 1813 he was captured at the battle of Moraviantown and imprisoned in Kentucky.
Released in July 1814, he joined the 8th Regiment of Foot (in which he had been commissioned ensign on 4 August 1813) in October and was sent to Europe with it in June 1815 to fight Napoleon. Arriving too late to engage in the battle of Waterloo, he was promoted lieutenant in July and then went on half pay in London in February 1816 before joining the 2nd Foot as a second lieutenant in May. He served with this regiment for more than two years, primarily in Barbados and Grenada. As a result of a severe case of malaria and for personal reasons, he went on half pay again in the autumn of 1818 in the 92nd Foot. For at least three years Richardson lived in London and then moved to Paris. His experiences in these cities were later to figure in several of his novels. By 1826 he was back in London, where he engaged in journalism, began writing novels, and pestered the War Office to be taken back on active duty.
In 1835 Richardson’s wish to return to active service had been realized after a fashion when, as a captain, he joined the British auxiliary legion raised for service in Spain during the First Carlist War. His writings on the British Legion were used by Tories to embarrass the Whig government of Lord Melbourne, whose representatives retaliated by making personal attacks on Richardson in parliament.
But the troubles of the British Legion were internal as well, and Richardson, by describing his sufferings at the hands of its commander, Lieutenant-General George de Lacy Evans, exposed the petty intrigues of military adventurers and place-seekers. While still serving in Spain he had been brought before a military court of inquiry for casting “discredit on the conduct of the Legion,” a charge altered to “cowardice in battle.” Richardson, who had been wounded in the campaign, was exonerated, and then promoted major in 1836. Henceforth, his books, which had been published anonymously, carried his name and rank.
Another product of the Spanish campaign was a knighthood in the military Order of St Ferdinand, which he had received for courage in battle. It was his most prized award aside from his majority.
In the spring of 1838 the Times of London, a Tory newspaper, hired Richardson on a year’s contract as foreign correspondent to cover the rebellions of 1837–38 in Upper and Lower Canada, perhaps as compensation for his services to the Tories. After his arrival in Montreal, however, Richardson became a strong supporter of the governor-in-chief, Lord Durham, prompting the Times to dismiss him.
Having sold his lieutenancy to buy a printing-press in June 1840, he settled in Brockville, Upper Canada in July and published there from June 1841 to August 1842 the New Era, or Canadian Chronicle, in which he tried to bring “polite literature” to Canadians. Then, living in Kingston, he issued the Canadian Loyalist, & Spirit of 1812 from January 1843 to July 1844.
Despite his frequent quarrels with senior political officials, Richardson repeatedly tried to win appointment to government office, but his enemies were too numerous. Early in 1842 he had petitioned Queen Victoria in vain for a pension, claiming to be “the only Author this Country has hitherto produced.” After his newspapers failed, he fell into debt. Finally in May 1845 Governor Metcalfe, whom Richardson had energetically supported in the Canadian Loyalist, appointed him superintendent of police on the Welland Canal, and Richardson moved to St Catharines.
Richardson now faced the task of trying to maintain order on the Welland Canal, where rioting, often politically inspired to embarrass the government, had broken out among canal workers, who also protested the starvation wages paid by private contractors. Richardson set out to fashion a disciplined force and end violence along the canal. He went through a series of humiliations, violent confrontations, and a farcical trial in his struggle to assert his authority before all real power was taken away from him. His troubles were compounded by the unexpected death on 16 August 1845 of his wife from apoplexy provoked by the strain of her husband’s difficulties. In December, when it appeared that relative peace had been restored, Samuel Power, the chief engineer, recommended that the police force be reduced and Richardson be dismissed since his presence was no longer required. Richardson was dismissed from office at the end of January 1846.
From August 1846 to January 1847 Richardson published a weekly newspaper in Montreal, the Weekly Expositor; or, Reformer of Public Abuses and Railway and Mining Intelligencer. During this time, he also did some writing for the Montreal Courier. The passage in April 1849 of the Rebellion Losses Bill, which granted the rebels of 1837–38 compensation equal to that received by the loyalists for losses suffered during the uprising, offended loyalists and led to rioting in Montreal. The troubles prompted Richardson to relocate in New York in the fall of 1849. Americans, after all, celebrated him as an author while Canadians showed little interest in his work.
Richardson died in New York on 12 May 1852 of erysipelas brought on by undernourishment. His friends took up a collection to pay the expenses of his funeral but there is no record of where he is buried, other than that his body was removed from the city.
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These articles are written and compiled by members of the 41st Regiment Living History Group.