Military Uniforms During the War of 1812

Fashion Flashback: Given that fashion was instrumental in the creation of Canada, this blog series explores the development of what Canadians wore one era at a time.

Three War of 1812 uniform examples. From British Forces in North America 1793–1815 by René Chartrand. Illustrations by Gerry Embleton. [Source]

Getting back on track with the historical fashion posts, we left off in the 1810s. However before we can look at the clothes Canadians wore during the Regency Era, there is a little matter of the War of 1812. As with any war, uniforms varied greatly on the battlefield to distinguish rank, unit, whether you were part of the infantry, cavalry, or navy, etc. This post will be looking at uniforms worn by British and Canadian soldiers during the 1812-1815 conflict from a general perspective, as well as how military uniforms reflected the overall trends of men’s fashion from that period. (Interested in pictures of American uniforms? Check out these two links).

Infantry – Royal Regiments

Three War of 1812 “Redcoat” uniform examples. From British Forces in North America 1793–1815 by René Chartrand. Illustrations by Gerry Embleton. [Source]

There were many different royal regiments present in the War of 1812. I feel bad glossing over their uniforms, but for brevity’s sake I will be using the 41st Regiment of Foot, 2nd Battalion, to describe the overall look of British infantry soldiers. These men were “the Redcoats” (minus the 60th Regiment and the 95th Regiment, who were green rifles corps). As the official colour of the Royal livery, red was the main colour of the British military uniform.

41st Regiment of Foot Officer, 2nd Battalion (1814) [Source]

41st Regiment officers in 1814 would have worn high-waisted, short-tailed red jackets made of super-fine wool. Their cuffs and collars were unique as they were red facing (blue and yellow were more common among the royal regiments). Across their chest was a white belt or a crossbelt with a buckle. Underneath would have been a red waistcoat or vest on top of a ruffled fine shirt, both would have been made of fine linen or silk because that was the gentry wore at this time. The 1st battalion would have worn white breeches, but these were replaced with white or grey trousers by the end of the war. As a result their Hessian long boots were replaced with “Wellingtons” (low boots) or buckled shoes by 1814. Additional items include white gloves, a black silk scarf around their neck, a red sash around their waist, and a black shako (a tall, cylinder-shaped cap, often with a visor) on their heads. Their shako would have been adorned with a brass plate, a red/white plume, and gold lace. Naturally, the uniform of an officer was more fancy (included gold, lace, silk, etc) than a private’s uniform, but the overall look was similar.

Fencible Regiments

Stemming back to the Seven Year’s War, the British government raised regiments both in Great Britain and in North America for defensive purposes (their role centered on garrison and patrol duties). These units were generally temporary and made up of local volunteers. The colour choices of Fencible regiments was similar to that of the royal regiments in that some (like the Royal Newfoundland Fencibles) took on the Redcoat look and others chose the dark green rifle corps style (Glengarry Light Infantry Fencibles). Then there was the Voltigeurs…

Canadian Voltigeurs

Canadian Voltigeurs and a Kahnawake warrior prepare to defend Lacolle Mills. Painting by Gerry Embleton [Source]

The document that authorized the raising of a Canadian provincial corps required “the arms to be rifles or light infantry muskets with black accoutrements: the clothing to be grey with black collars and cuffs and black buttons with Canadian short boots.” [Source] As such, their uniforms pretty much matched that description. On their heads were light bearskin caps and on their shoulders was a fringe made of black cotton. Also as you can see, Voltigeurs wore grey trousers not breeches.

Canadian Voltigeurs being led by Major Charles-Michel d’Irumberry De Salaberry in a dark green, “rifle-style uniform trimmed with black mohair cording and dawning a unique bearskin cap.” [Source] Why green? As a light infantry unit, the Canadian Voltigeurs were essentially a grey version of the green rifle corps, hence why officers wore that color instead.

Militia

Lower Canada Sedentary Militia

Militiaman, Lower Canada Sedentary Militia, 1813. [Source]

With the exception of the musket and (white or black) crossbelts which were issued by the British army, militiamen from Lower Canada would have worn their civilian clothing. By and large their clothes was made and spun at home and consisted of a (often grey) capot, a multi-coloured sash around their waist, breeches,  long moccasin boots, and a toque. If you remember my Voyageur and Coureur de Bois post from a few weeks back, you will see that the indigenous-inspired clothes of the New France-era Voyageur was now widespread among male citizens in Lower Canada.

Edit: A reader inquired as to what a Captain of the Lower Canada Sedentary Militia would have worn. No civilian clothes for them! Captains would have had a uniform (a typical “red coat” one) given to them.

Cavalry

A replica of the 19th Light Dragoons jacket circa 1812. [Source]

Using the example of the 19th Light Dragoons (cavalry units were more limited during this war), their uniforms consisted of dark blue jackets with yellow collars and cuffs and braided with hussar-style cords. On their heads was a bearskin-crested, “Tarleton” black helmet, giving them a unique look. Their breeches were made of white leather. When mounted they had black boots on; when on foot they had black knee gaiters instead. Officers wore the same uniform as regulars, however their clothes were made of finer material. There was a bit of controversy over changes made to the uniform by the Prince Regent (later King George IV) as he decided they should look more like Napoleon’s cavalry. You can imagine how popular that was with British soldiers. This new look did not appear on the battlefield until 1814 and you can read more about the changes here.

Navy


Front and back view of a recreated Royal Navy Post-Captain’s Coat based on 1812 regulations [Source]

It’s the navy, so unsurprisingly blue was their main color. A dark blue jacket, white breeches or trousers, black shoes and a black bi-corn hat made up the basics of the uniform. Jackets were made from superfine wool and would have gold thread trimming along the edges. Depending on their rank they may or may not have had white lapels and the highest ranks would have had gold lace on the bottom of their sleeves as well as golden epaulets. Under the jacket would have been a light, collarless white shirt.

Artillery

Life-size figure of a Royal Artillery Gunner (1813) manufactured for a Battle of Crysler’s Farm exhibit. Photo by R. Henderson. [Source]

Also largely in blue and white were artillery soldiers. The British Artillery and the Canadian Gunners are an example of this, however their jackets had red collars, shoulder straps, and cuffs. If they wore white breeches, their gaiters would have been black. Otherwise, they would have worn grey trousers with black boots. Across their chest was a white crossbelt with a brass buckle. Their black shako would have been adorned with a white feather or plume on top and a gold or brass plate/badge on the front. The picture below shows how sergeants were further distinguished by wearing a red sash with a blue stripe just above their hips.

Sergeant, Royal Regiment of Artillery, 1806-1812. [Source]

Overall Male Fashion Trends (1810s)

1. The Slow Death of Breeches – The popularity of wearing breeches had been in a steady decline since the French Revolution. Along with other men’s fashions like big wigs and flamboyant frock-coats, breeches had been caught up in the societal shift away from aristocratic symbols appearing in daily wear. By the mid-nineteenth century, they would fall completely out of style.

2. High-Waisted Items – At the time, jackets, vests, and trousers that came up well past a man’s natural waistline were all the rage with civilians so naturally this trend was all over the battlefield.

3. Tall Hats – Top hats, beaver hats, stove pipe hats, “Toppers,”—tall hats had many names and they were very popular at this time. At the end of the 18th century, gentlemen started replacing their tricorne hats with top hats. Two decades later, this change had swept through the classes and they were the hat of choice for many men. Their look did alter on the battlefield. Shakos only had a front visor, not an all-around brim, and they had more adornments than a regular top hat. But just like the top hat, the shako swept through regiments both in North America and in Europe. They were not the most practical military headdress, offering little protecting from enemy fire or even the rain, and eventually fell out of favor long before the top hat did in the 1940s.


Thank you for reading my exploration of the different uniforms worn by British and Canadian soldiers during the War of 1812. For more information, please check out my list of sources. Do you have a favorite uniform and/or regiment? Let me know in the comments below!


Sources

Many of the images are originally from British Forces in North America 1793–1815 by René Chartrand. Illustrations by Gerry Embleton. Osprey Publishing. New York. (1998).

“41st Regiment of Foot Officer’s Uniform – 2nd Battalion, Late War Regulations (1814),” 41st Regiment of Foot Military Living History Group, Undated. Accessed from: http://www.fortyfirst.org/uniformpage/lateofficer.htm

Chartrand, René, “Uniforms of the 19th Light Dragoons in Canada 1813-1816,” The Discriminating General: The War of 1812 Website. Undated. Accessed from: http://www.warof1812.ca/19thld.htm

Henderson, Robert, “The First Invasion of Quebec in the War of 1812,” The Discriminating General: The War of 1812 Website. 2012. Accessed from: http://www.warof1812.ca/lacolle1812.htm

Henderson, Robert, “British Regular Regiments in North America during the War of 1812,” The Discriminating General: The War of 1812 Website. Undated. Accessed from: http://www.warof1812.ca/charts/regts_na.htm

Powell, Kathleen, “War of 1812 uniforms reflected fashion of the day,” Niagara Falls Review. January 30, 2009. Accessed from: http://www.niagarafallsreview.ca/2009/01/30/war-of-1812-uniforms-reflected-fashion-of-the-day

“Uniforms in the War of 1812,” The Harriet Tubman Institute. Undated. Accessed from: http://tubman.info.yorku.ca/files/2013/05/Report-Uniforms-WEB-READY.pdf

Ward, Pete, “Soldiers of the War of 1812,” Osprey Publishing. September 11, 2015. Accessed from: https://ospreypublishing.com/blog/soldiers_war_of_1812

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5 thoughts on “Military Uniforms During the War of 1812

    • cadeauca says:

      This is going to sound bad but it’s stuff like Brock’s tunic that makes me really want to go back to that museum. I went was I was like…12? As much as I enjoyed it then, I would definitely appreciate it more now!

      Like

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