Some of the best during the War of 1812 didn’t come from Britain at all. The Canadian Voltigeurs, a light infantry of about 6000 strong, were purely Lower Canadian. The idea from the Governor General of the Canadas, Sir George Prevost, the Voltigeurs were first intended to be a defence for the Eastern Townships, but soon turned out to be more than a simple militia.
Lower Canada’s Military Act allowed the province to hire and pay its own militia. The Voltigeurs would be considered a Lower Canadian army fighting for the British rather than part of the British military. Sir George Prevost gave the command to a distinguished, upper-class military man, Charles de Salaberry, already respected in his community due to his involvement during the American Revolution and as a member of the Legislative Assembly. The young de Salaberry was a friend of a relative of James McGill who unfortunately killed in a duel with a German officer. De Salaberry, upon hearing the news, challenged the German to a duel; de Salaberry, half the man’s age, managed nonetheless to emerge the victor and avenge the death of his friend.
The Voltigeurs were soldiers by profession, headquartered at Fort Chambly. Many of them were picked personally by de Salaberry, who expected men who had the rigour to meet and surpass his high standards. Officially, they were required to be between 17 and 35 and over 5 foot 3. Their uniform was distinctly “Canadian” consisting of a grey uniform with black trimming and, depending on the rank, a sash. Officers wore the uniform in a dark green. In contrast, most of their counterparts coming from the British armies would wear the red coats that were so highly associated with them. De Salaberry and his Voltigeurs would face many battles and have many triumphs during the War of 1812, including defending Montreal from its first offense by the Americans in November of 1812 and participating in two major battles: the Battle of Châteauguay and the Battle of Crysler’s Farm, both of which occurred in the later part of 1813.
An army lies in its leaders, its strength, and the people who serve for it. The Voltigeurs would also have allies with their First Nations neighbours. Together, they would help ensure the survival of the Canadas.
You can learn if you have an ancestor who fought with the Voltigeurs by searching through microfiches of Lower Canada’s payrolls. Learn more here.