Recollections of the War of 1812

Recollections of the War of 1812

William Dunlop
William Dunlop

Author: Dunlop, William, 1792-1848
United States — History — War of 1812 — Personal narratives
Recollections of the War of 1812

The American War

First edition, 250 copies
Second edition, 750 copies

From original painting in the possession of Mrs. Thos. McGaw.

of the
War of 1812
With a Biographical Sketch of the Author by
A. H. U. Colquhoun, LL.D.
Deputy Minister of Education, Ontario


Entered according to the Act of the Parliament of Canada, in the year nineteen hundred and eight, by the Historical Publishing Co., at the Department of Agriculture.


Sketch of
Dr. William Dunlop

This reprint of an entertaining little narrative of personal experiences in the War of 1812-14 may be appropriately prefaced by a short account of the author. Few of the pioneers of Upper Canada had careers as varied and interesting as that of Dr. William Dunlop, and none possessed a personality quite so striking and original as his. On the Saltfort road, near Goderich, Canada, there is a cairn marking the burial place of two notable worthies of the Huron Tract, and upon it is the following inscription:

Here lies the body of
Commander Royal Navy, M.P.P.
Who after serving his King and country in
every quarter of the globe, dies at Gairbraid,
on the 28th Feby., 1841, in
the 51 year of his age.
Also to the memory of
a man of surpassing talent, knowledge,
and benevolence, born in Scotland
in 1792.
He served in the army in Canada and in India
and thereafter distinguished himself
as an author and man of
He settled in Canada permanently in 1825 and
for more than 20 years was actively
engaged in public and philanthropic
Succeeding his brother, Capt. Dunlop, as Member
of the Provincial Parliament and
taking successful interest in
the welfare of Canada,
and died lamented
by many

The elder of these two brothers, William Dunlop, was born at Greenock, Scotland, in 1792, and became, when a stripling of scarce 21 years of age, a surgeon in the famous 88th, or, Connaught Rangers. Being ordered to Canada, where the war with the United States was in progress, he made his way to the fighting line in the Niagara Peninsula, and there, serving first as surgeon and afterwards as a combatant, he gave indubitable proofs of courage and capacity. When the “appalling intelligence” of the peace concluded by the Treaty of Ghent reached him, Dunlop embarked with his regiment for England, just missing by a few days a share in the glorious action of Waterloo, and was ordered to India. While there his restless activity occupied itself with his medical and military duties, with the congenial task of editing a newspaper, and with numerous tiger hunts. So successful was he as a slayer of tigers that he earned the name of “Tiger” Dunlop, and in his later Canadian days was familiarly known as “The Tiger.” An attack of jungle fever drove him back to England on half-pay, and settling in London he lived for a few years what has been called a most miscellaneous life. He wrote articles for the magazines. He edited for a time a newspaper called the “British Press,” until he quarrelled with the publisher for dismissing contemptuously a political upheaval in France in the following brief “leader”: “We perceive that there is a change of ministry in France;—we have heard of no earthquakes in consequence!” He edited a work on medical jurisprudence. He started a Sunday newspaper for Anglo-Indians called “The Telescope,” the history of which, declared one of his friends, was a comedy of the drollest kind. He founded a club,—being of convivial tastes and a prince of boon companions,—called The Pig and Whistle. Finally,—and this doubtless led to his returning to Canada,—he became interested, as secretary, or, director, in some industrial concerns, notably a salt works in Cheshire. In London he made the acquaintance of Mr. John Galt, and accompanied him to Canada in 1826. He received from the Canada Company the appointment of Warden of the Forests, and for twenty years was a leading figure in what we now call Western Ontario. If one wishes to know “The Tiger” in this period, he must be sought in the charming pages of the Misses Lizars’ book “In the Days of the Canada Company.” There, his rollicking humour, his broad sympathies, his eccentric jests are excellently depicted. Dunlop represented Huron in Parliament, where he was a veritable “enfant terrible,” speaking his mind in his slap dash way and frequently convulsing the House with merriment. The story of his tossing the coin with his brother to settle which of them should marry Lou McColl, the Highland housekeeper and devoted friend, and the terms of his extraordinary will and testament,—one clause of which (typical of all) leaves some property to a sister “because she is married to a minister whom (God help him) she henpecks”,—are famous. Dunlop’s literary talents were considerable. He wearied of writing as he did of most things that demanded continuous application. But he had an easy style, much shrewd wit, and undoubted ability. These qualities he displayed in his magazine articles, in his book “The Backwoodsman,” and in the “Recollections,” which are here reprinted from “The Literary Garland,” the Montreal periodical of half a century or more ago. They were penned long after the events concerned had occurred and it may be supposed that he fell into some errors of fact. But as a picture of the manner in which this haphazard war was conducted it is singularly vivid and impressive. The unearthing of manuscripts and official documents about this war will not throw into clearer relief than the following pages do, the desperate circumstances under which a mere handful of French Canadian and Loyalist colonists emerged from their primitive villages and log cabins and with Spartan courage and hardihood drove back the invader again and again and captured large areas of his territory. There are several readable sketches of these campaigns, but none with the freshness and spirit of Dunlop’s. In this lies its value and the justification for preserving it. Dunlop retired from Parliament in 1846, and was appointed Superintendent of the Lachine Canal. He died in the village of Lachine in the Autumn of 1848, and his body was conveyed to its resting place at Goderich.
A. H. U. Colquhoun.


The favourable reception of a small work on this colony has emboldened me again to come before the public in the character of an author, and as it is fifteen years since I last obtruded myself in that capacity, I have at least to boast of the merit assumed to himself by the sailor in his prayer, during a hurricane, “Thou knowest it is seldom that I trouble thee,” and I may hope on the same grounds to be listened to.
It is now upwards of thirty-three years since I became acquainted with this country, of which I was eleven years absent. During that time I visited the other quarters of the globe. My design in this work is to shew the almost incredible improvement that has taken place during that period. Notwithstanding all that has been written by tourists, &c., very little indeed is known of the value and capabilities of Canada, as a colony, by the people of Great Britain.
I have not arrived at anything like methodical arrangement further than stating in their chronological order, events and scenes of which I was a witness, with occasional anecdotes of parties therein concerned, so that those who do not approve of such a desultory mode of composition, need not, after this fore-warning, read any further. My intention, in fact, is not exclusively either to instruct or amuse, but, if I possibly can accomplish it, to do a little of both. I wish to give an account of the effect of the changes that have taken place in my day in the colony, on my own feelings, rather than to enter into any philosophical enquiry into their causes; and if in this attempt I should sometimes degenerate into what my late lamented friend, the Ettrick Shepherd, would have denominated havers, I hope you will remember that this is an infirmity to which even Homer (see Horace,) is liable; and if, like hereditary disease, it is a proof of paternity, every author in verse or prose who has written since his day, has ample grounds whereon to found its pretensions to a most ancient and honourable descent.



“My native land, good night.”—Byron.
The end of March or the beginning of April, 1813, found me at the Army Depôt in the Isle of Wight. Sir Walter Scott in his Surgeon’s Daughter, says that no one who has ever visited that delightful spot can ever forget it, and I fully agree with him, but though perfectly susceptible of the impressions which its numberless beauties leave on the mind, I must confess that the view of a fleet of transports rounding St. Helens to take us to our destination, would have been considered by myself and my comrades, as a pleasanter prospect than all Hampshire could offer to our admiration.
I shall not stay to describe the state of military society in those days at the Army Depôt at Parkhurst barracks and the neighbouring town of Newport. It has been much better done than I could expect to do, by Major Spencer Muggridge, in Blackwood’s Magazine; all I can do as a subaltern, is fully to endorse the field officer’s statement, and to declare that it is a just, graphic and by no means over-charged description.
I went once, and only once, to the Garrison Mess, in company with two or three officers of my acquaintance, and saw among other novelties of a mess table, one officer shy a leg of mutton at another’s head, from one end of the table to the other. This we took as notice to quit; so we made our retreat in good order, and never again returned, or associated with a set of gentlemen who had such a vivacious mode of expressing a difference of opinion.
The fact is, all the worse characters in the army were congregated at the Isle of Wight; men who were afraid to join their regiments from the indifferent estimation they were held in by their brother officers. These stuck to the depôt, and the arrival of a fleet of transports at Spithead or the Mother-bank, was a signal for a general sickness among these worthies. And this was peculiarly the case with those who were bound for Canada, for they knew full well if they could shirk past the month of August, there was no chance of a call on their services until the month of April following. And many scamps took advantage of this. I know one fellow who managed to avoid joining his regiment abroad for no less than three years.
I took my departure from this military paradise for the first time, for this country, in the beginning of August, 1813, in a small, ill-found, undermanned, over-crowded transport, as transports in those days were very apt to be; and after a long, weary, and tempestuous voyage of three months, was landed at Quebec in the beginning of the following November. Next to the tedium of a sea voyage, nothing on earth can be so tiresome as a description of it; the very incidents which a Journal of such a pilgrimage commemorates shew the dreadful state of vacuum and ennui which must have existed in the mind of the patient before such trifles could become of interest sufficient to be thought worthy of notation. A sail in sight,—a bunch of sea-weed floating past the ship,—a log of wood covered with barnacles,—or, better still, one of the numerous tribe of Medusa, with its snake-like feelers and changeable colours—a gull, or a flock of Mother Carey’s chickens, paddling in the wake,—are occurrences of sufficient importance to call upon deck all the passengers, even during dinner. Or if they are happy enough to fall in with a shoal of porpoises or dolphins, a flock of flying fish, or a whale blowing and spouting near the ship, such a wonder is quite sufficient to furnish conversation for the happy beholders for the rest of the voyage. For my own part, being familiar with, and also seasoned to, all the wonders of the deep, I make a vow whenever I go on board, that nothing inferior in rank and dignity to a sea-serpent shall ever induce me to mount the companion ladder. On the whole, though it cannot be considered as a very choice bit of reading, I look upon the log-book as by far the best account of a voyage, for it accurately states all that is worthy of note in the fewest possible words. It is the very model of the terse didactic. Who can fail to admire the Caesar-like brevity in an American captain’s log: “At noon, light breezes and cloudy weather, wind W.S.W., fell in with a phenomenon—caught a bucket full of it.” Under all these circumstances, I think it is highly probable that my readers will readily pardon me for not giving my experience on this subject. I met with no seas “mountains high,” as many who have gone down unto the sea in ships have done. Indeed, though I have encountered gales of wind in all the favorite playgrounds of Oeolus—the Bay of Biscay—off the Cape of Good Hope—in the Bay of Bengal—the coast of America, and the Gulph of St. Lawrence, yet I never saw a wave high enough to becalm the main-top sail. So that I must suppose that the original inventor of the phrase was a Cockney, who must have had Garlic hill or Snow hill, or some of the other mountainous regions of the metropolis in his mind’s eye when he coined it.
Arrived at Quebec, we reported ourselves, as in duty bound, to the General Commanding, and by his orders we left a subaltern to command the recruits (most of whom, by the way, were mere boys,) and to strengthen the Garrison of Quebec, and the venerable old colonel and myself made all haste to join our regiment up the country. As my worthy old commander was a character, some account of him may not be uninteresting.
Donald McB—— was born in the celebrated winter of 1745-46, while his father, an Invernesshire gentleman, was out with Prince Charles Edward, who, on the unfortunate issue of that campaign for the Jacobite interest, was fain to flee to France, where he joined his royal master, and where, by the Prince’s influence, he received a commission in the Scotch Regiment of Guards, and in due time retired with a small pension from the French King, to the town of Dunkirk, where with his family, he remained the rest of his days.
Donald, meanwhile, was left with his kindred in the Highlands, where he grew in all the stinted quantity of grace that is to be found in that barren region, until his seventh year, when he was sent to join his family in Dunkirk. Here he was educated, and as his father’s military experience had given him no great love for the profession of arms, he was in due time bound apprentice to his brother-in-law, an eminent surgeon of that town, and might have become a curer instead of inflicter of broken heads, or at least murdered men more scientifically than with the broadsword; but fate ordered it otherwise.
Donald had an objection as strong to the lancet as his father could possibly have to the sword. Had the matter been coolly canvassed, it is hard to say which mode of murder would have obtained the preference, but, always hasty, he did not go philosophically to work, and an accident decided his fate as it has done that of many greater men.
A young nun of great beauty, who had lately taken the veil, had the misfortune to break her leg, and Donald’s master, being medical man to the convent, he very reasonably hoped that he would assist in the setting of it—attending upon handsome young nuns might reconcile a man even to being a surgeon of——; but his brother-in-law and the abbess both entered their veto. Piqued at this disappointment, next morning saw him on the tramp, and the next intelligence that was heard of him was that he was serving His Most Christian Majesty in the capacity of a Gentleman Sentinel, (as the Baron of Bradwardine hath it,) in a marching regiment.
This settled the point. His father, seeing that his aversion to the healing art was insuperable, procured a commission in the Regiment de Dillon or Irish Brigade of the French Service.
In this he served for several years, until he had got pretty well up among the lieutenants, and in due time might have figured among the marshals of Napoleon; but the American Revolution breaking out, and it being pretty apparent that France and Great Britain must come into hostile collision, his father, though utterly abhorring the reigning dynasty, could not bear the idea of a son of his fighting against his country and clan, persuaded him to resign his commission in the French Service, and sent him to Scotland with letters of recommendation to some of his kindred and friends, officers in the newly raised Frazer Highlanders (since the 71st,) whom he joined in Greenock in the year 1776, and soon after embarked with them for America in the capacity of a gentleman volunteer, thus beginning the world once more at the age of thirty.
After serving in this regiment till he obtained his ensigncy, he was promoted to be lieutenant and adjutant in the Cavalry of Tarlton’s Legion, in which he served and was several times wounded, till the end of the war, when he was disbanded with the rest of his regiment, and placed on half pay. He exchanged into a regiment about to embark for the West Indies, where in seven or eight years, the yellow fever standing his friend by cutting off many of his brother officers, while it passed over him, he in progress of seniority, tontined it up to nearly the head of the lieutenants; the regiment was ordered home in 1790, and after a short time, instead of his company, he received his half-pay as a disbanded lieutenant.
He now, from motives of economy as well as to be near his surviving relatives, retired to Dunkirk; but the approaching revolution soon called him out again, and his promotion, which, though like that of Dugald Dalgetty, it was “dooms slow at first,” did come at last. Now after thirty-seven years’ hard service in the British Army, (to say nothing of fourteen in the French) in North America, the West Indies, South America, the Cape of Good Hope, Java and India, he found himself a Lieutenant-Colonel of a second battalion serving in Canada. Such is a brief memoir of my old commanding officer. He was a warm-hearted, hot-tempered, jovial, gentlemanly old veteran, who enjoyed the present and never repined at the past; so it may well be imagined that I was in high good luck with such a compagnon de voyage.
Hearing that the American Army, under General Wilkinson, was about to make descent on Canada somewhere about the lower end of Lake Ontario, we were determined to push on with all possible speed.
The roads, however, were declared impracticable, and the only steamboat the Canadas then rejoiced in, though now they must possess nearly one hundred, had sailed that day, and was not expected to return for nearly a week; so it was determined we should try our luck in one of the wretched river craft which in those days enjoyed the carrying trade between Quebec and Montreal. Into the small cabin, therefore of one of these schooners we stowed ourselves. Though the winds were light, we managed to make some way as long as we could take advantage of the flood-tide, and lay by during the ebb; but after this our progress was slow indeed; not entirely from the want of a fair wind, but from the cursed dilatory habits of Frenchmen and their Canadian descendants in all matters connected with business. At every village (and in Lower Canada there is a village at every three leagues along the banks of the St. Lawrence) our captain had or made business—a cask of wine had to be delivered to “le digne Curé” at one place; a box of goods to “M. le Gentilhomme de Magasin” at another; the captain’s “parents” lived within a league, and he had not seen them for six weeks,—so off he must go, and no prospect of seeing him any

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