Thursday, 13 November 2014

Nothing but Ashes ---- The Burning of St. Thomas

November 11, 2014 was Remembrance Day, the day to remember those who fell in the service of their country. As I'd done in the past few years, I played with the Aylmer Area Community Band at the Remembrance Day ceremony at the cenotaph in Aylmer, ON. The afternoon saw something quite different.

On November 10, 1814 during the War of 1812, American troops under the command of General Duncan MacArthur arrived at the Repelje settlement and camped on the edge of the cultivated land. A few weeks prior to this, this force had come from Detroit in the hope of relieving the pressure of the siege on the American toe-hold at Fort Erie. They had raided up to the Grand River where they were met my the local militia. MacArthur's force, roughly 750 mounted riflemen from Kentucky and Ohio as well as a number of Allied native warriors, scattered the Canadian militia at Malcolm's Mill. Realising that they were alone in a hostile area, chased by units of the local militia and elements of the British 19th Light Dragoons, the US command turned the force around and headed back to Detroit, burning a number of mills on the way. They arrived in what is now St. Thomas, ON and camped for the night. By the next morning, most of the fence rails around had been burned as camp fire fuel. At least one of the local women had been approached but nothing came of it as the US officers worked to maintain discipline. The raider left that same day, making their way back to Sandwich (now Windsor, ON) and over the river to Detroit, Michigan. They had burned an number of mills, depriving the Crown forces (and the local inhabitants as well) of supplies and were reported to have "rustled" as many as 500 head of cattle as well as hogs, geese, chickens, and other livestock. I'm sure much of that went into the cook pot along the way.

In the afternoon of November 11, 2014, the King's Company of Historical Reenactors held a type of reenactment of this event on the grounds of the Old St. Thomas Church (often called the Old English Church.) This is an Anglican church built in 1824 on land donated by the Repelje family. It is a stone's throw away from the exact spot of the American raiders' encampment, which is now the site of an apartment building. One of our members, the Rev'd Canon Nick Wells, is the administrator of the church, which is now a historic site and a "chapel of ease" rather than a functioning parish church. Besides it's not heated which would make winter services interesting. The reenactors, dressed as US regulars and US volunteers raised the 15 star US flag and fired a salute of three volleys. The declaration of war was read and Mr. Steve Peters, former Member of the Provincial Parliament, gave a brief address on the event. He really is quite knowledgeable. Then we burned St. Thomas!

Sort of...

Nick handed out sparklers to the adults in the crowd of almost 100 local residents. The reenactors cheered the Republic, to some good natured cat-calls from the crowd. We then all gave three cheers for peace between the US and Canada and in the world in general. Picket were set at the church and at the Elgin Military Museum just around the corner. After about two hours, we brought down the US flag and ran the Union Jack up the pole. Because of it's historic value, the church flies the Union Jack on the pole in the church yard.

Then Nick had us over to his house for some "light refreshment." Wait 'til you see the photos! (The photos were taken by Beth, the St. Thomas Weekly News, the St. Thomas Times-Journal, and a number of Facebook posters. My thanks to them all.)

The raiders assemble - Nick's sister, Nick, and I discuss the sparklers while Lyle, Dave, Tom, Jamie, and Katie check their kit.

Steve Peters points out the route of the raid - right along Talbot Trail which is now Highway #3 in southwestern Ontario.
Beth and Nick hold the map for all to see.

From another angle.

The burning commences! The sparklers are handed out and lit.

When the sparklers burned out, Nick collected them since they'd play hobb with the lawn mowing!

Nick reads President Madison's declaration of war from 1812.
The Church in the background in one of the oldest in the area.

The troops present arms to the colours.

Beth addresses the crowd. She served as hostess at the church for any visitors who wished to go inside.

Your humble blogger calls for cheers for peace.

The reenactors fire a salute to the colours.
(Obviously some of these shot are out of order.)

Nick addresses the crowd as we begin the opening ceremony.

A salute as the US flag comes down and the Union Jack is raised.

Katie dressed as a Kentucky volunteer rifleman. Some of those in attendance were surprised at the lack of uniformity among the raiders. What she's wearing is quite close to what the mounted riflemen of MacArthur's raid were dressed in.
The black linen hunting frock, cotton canvas trousers, and floppy hat are reproductions but true to the original, as are all our uniforms and garments.

Early on, Katie had a misfire with her rifle. She and Beth cleared it. The rifle make a huge "bang" when it goes off, much more than the larger muskets. Katie and Beth are both experienced reenactors and can handle, fire, and maintain the rifle and the muskets,

THIS is Nick's idea of light refreshment! Oh, so good! I was sooooo full!
Our friends from Four and Twenty Blackbirds catered the affair.

The strangest part about this whole thing is that local people in general had no idea that this historical event had taken place 200 years ago. I surprised a number of people when I told them about this. (One person said "We had to have an American tell us about our own local history!")

It was a real honour to take part in this event this year. With the exception of the Battle of New Orleans, which will be reenacted in January, 2015, this little to-do might be the last of the Bicentennial events in Canada.


  1. I forgot to mention that the weather could not have been better for us that day!

  2. Terrific stuff, John, You were blessed by the most clement Remembrance Day weather I can recall in Ontario. A great example of what knowledgeable reenactors can do for local history.
    I must get myself invited to Nick's some time. Nice spread. :)

    1. Thanks for the compliment, Mike. I'll tell Nick that you want to visit... and knosh.
      I appreciate your comment on what reenactors can do for local history. I feel the same way.

  3. I wish I had know about this earlier. My wife grew up in St Thomas and we both recently started re-enacting with the XIXth Light Dragoons.

    Great photos and thanks for sharing