A cold march to Quebec: the journey of the 43rd Infantry Regiment
British soldiers finished a frigid, miserable trip up the St. John River 180 years ago today
If the cold has been a little too much for you this week, imagine being a British soldier posted to Fredericton 180 years ago.
It's been exactly 180 years since the 43rd Infantry Regiment completed a trek from Fredericton to Quebec City. The soldiers set off on Dec. 11 and reached their destination on Dec. 28, 1837.
Brent Wilson, a historian at the University of New Brunswick, said the winter was probably a typical one for New Brunswick: cold and snowy.
But the 150 or so troops had one comfort: at least they could rely on horses, rather than their own cold feet, for parts of their journey.
"The troops went part of the way in sleds," said Wilson.
"The frost conditions would've been pretty extreme. So it took a heavy toll on the troops, there's no doubt about that."
Why did they do it?
The regiment was called to make the frigid journey because of unrest in Lower Canada, or modern-day Quebec.
Known as the Rebellions of 1837-1838, the unrest was fuelled by frustration with colonial government in both Lower and Upper Canada, now Ontario.
"Lower Canada had risen up in opposition to the British government and the resistance was widespread," said Wilson.
"The government needed to reinforce the troops they had stationed in Lower Canada."
The insurgents wished to create a republic similar to the United States.
While the rebellions were unsuccessful, they did help foster the beginning of what was called "responsible government" in British North America.
Wilson said the welcome the 43rd Infantry Regiment received in Quebec City depended on whether the people they encountered supported the Crown or the rebels, but the soldiers' arrival was largely peaceful.
"By then many of the rebels, if you want to call them that, had already been defeated in battle by the troops that were already there," said Wilson.
"Many of them had fled to the United States."
The route the soldiers took from Fredericton saw them travel along the St. John and Madawaska rivers until they hit Lake Temiscouata. The troops then travelled a portage route to Rivière-du-Loup, before continuing along the St. Lawrence to Quebec City.
The route was a crucial supply and communications line for both the French and British military, so much so that it earned the name "the Grand Communications Route."
Gary Campbell, a historian who wrote The Road to Canada, about the history of the route, said it was critical for the British in winter, when the St. Lawrence would freeze over.
The only other practical way to maintain communications between Europe and Upper and Lower Canada would have been to take advantage of Saint John Harbour to get news to New Brunswick. From there it would travel to the garrison in Fredericton and up the St. John River to Quebec.
"Basically, it was a water route or in the wintertime you just walked on the river ice as much as you could."
A contemporary version of the route is easy to find, according to Campbell.
"It was the Trans-Canada Highway of its day," said Campbell.
A recap of the journey by one of the men who made it, Capt. Godfrey Mundy, was published as part of an 1868 history of the regiment, Historical Records of the Forty-Third Regiment, by Sir Richard Levinge.
In his account, Mundy recalled temperatures dipping to –30 F (-34 C), remarking sarcastically: "Pretty comfortable for one whom you have seen shivering in the drawing-room … with the thermometer 100 degrees higher than this."
According to Mundy, six log cabins were set up during the journey to house the soldiers, but to call them rustic would be an understatement.
"You may imagine the difficulties of our route when I tell you that three or four days I was from daybreak till dark getting my men over fifteen miles, and after all this excessive cold and fatigue, a wretched log camp ... open at the top, smoking so dreadfully that we could not open our eyes," wrote Mundy.
"A bed of pine-branches, a supper of salt pork, biscuit, and unmilked tea in a tin pot, the heat of the fire singeing our moccasins, whilst our fur nightcaps were frozen hard to the walls of the hut, the snow on the roof, melted by the fire, dripping through on our luxurious couch."
If the tale of the 43rd Infantry Regiment seems familiar, it may be because it wasn't the first time a significant military force had to travel the route in winter.
The most famous trek was during the War of 1812, when the 104th Regiment travelled the same route to join other British forces fighting the Americans.
There was also a significant movement in 1861, when the British were fortifying their forts after the start of the American Civil War.
These large-scale troop movements may be the ones most remembered, but the route was constantly used by both the French and British armies.
While the 1813 trek by the 104th Regiment was often memorialized during the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812, celebrations for the 43rd's march have been almost non-existent.
Campbell attributed the difference to the War of 1812 having more historical relevance.
"People tend to remember events that had historical significance," he said. "I guess it's a case of who your publicist is and whether there is a significant event to be commemorated."
Wilson said both the march and the route it took are important parts of the history of the province.
"This is very much a New Brunswick story," he said.
"Anytime there was a need to move reinforcements up to central Canada during one of these emergencies, the route had to be used. … It was something that played a major role in New Brunswick military heritage."
There wasn't much for the 43rd to do after reaching Quebec, where the resistance was weaker than expected. But the soldiers stayed on there for a while and avoided a return trip in the New Brunswick winter.