War of 1812

Napoléon Bonaparte Napoléon Bonaparte
© National Archives of Québec / F. Gérard / A. Boucher-Desnoyers / P600,S5,PGN68
King George III King George III
© National Archives of Québec / P600,S5,PAQ82

The conflict pitting the Great Britain of George III against the France of Napoléon Bonaparte led to the blockade of the Continent, which proved disastrous for commerce and trade between Europe and the United States. In 1812, the serious economic stakes of this embargo pushed the Americans to declare war against Great Britain. Canada, then a British colony, deployed its armies in anticipation of imminent invasion. Although most battles took place in Upper Canada, the capture of Montréal remained a prime objective of the Americans, whose strategy rested on a two-pronged invasion via the Richelieu and the St. Lawrence Rivers.

The strategic position of Coteau-du-Lac
The Coteau-du-Lac Fort, 1824 The Coteau-du-Lac Fort in border of the St.Lawrence River.
© Toronto Public Library / J. E.Woolford / T-14532, 1824

Coteau-du-Lac played a major role in defending the St. Lawrence and the border area. As United States territory bordered this stretch of the River, or very nearly, the Americans could circumvent Kingston and attack Montréal directly, thereby cutting the defense forces in Upper and Lower Canada off from one another. Owing to its strategic location between the two Canadas, Coteau-du-Lac thus required reinforcement of its fortifications. Additional troops were stationed to protect the canal. In addition, the military facilities were expanded to house more men and improve post defences. During this time, the Coteau-du-Lac site became a genuine British fort.

Establishing a fortified defence system
Map of Coteau-du-Lac in 1815 Map of Coteau-du-Lac in 1815
© National Archives of Canada / Lieutenant Wallpole / H-4/350, NMC C-18862, September 14, 1815

In addition to the fortified barracks and blockhouse, the defence works constructed in 1813 included two other structures situated on both sides of the canal. To the west, extensive earthworks protected the barracks, the powder magazine and the guardhouse from a land-based attack. The trace, or outline, of this rampart was designed to allow guns to cover each other, and thus provide adequate protection of the fort's flanks. The sector developed to the east of the canal controlled navigation on the St. Lawrence. A battery consisting of three 24-pound artillery pieces was located on the point of the hillock. The battery was mounted atop pivoting platforms which provided a 360-degree range of fire. The nearby octagonal blockhouse became the command post for the entire fort.

Although it is a marvellous example of military defence works, Coteau-du-Lac never had the opportunity of proving itself. The Americans were turned back, first at the Battle of the Châteauguay (on the river going by the same name) in October 1813, and again, one month later, at the Battle of Crysler's Farm, on the St. Lawrence River. They were never to reach Coteau-du-Lac.

Following the end of the war in 1814, the military presence on the site declined substantially. Troops were reinforced during the 1837-1838 rebellions. Afterwards, only a small garrison was stationed at Coteau-du-Lac until, in 1856, the British authorities ceded the fort to the Union of the Canadas.

View of part of the cloverleaf-shaped bastion and Coteau-du-Lac rapids in 1821 View of part of the cloverleaf-shaped bastion and Coteau-du-Lac rapids in 1821
Library and Archives Canada / Credit: John Elliot Woolford/ C-99548
Military units
Soldier of the 10th Royal Veterans Battalion, circa 1812 Soldier of the 10th Royal Veterans Battalion, circa 1812
Charles Stadden, Parks Canada (FC.78.3.6), PD 605
Artillery Sergeant from the Royal Artillery. Between 1806 and 1812 Artillery Sergeant from the Royal Artillery. Between 1806 and 1812
Charles Stadden, Parks Canada (FC.78.3.2), PD 602

Numerous infantry and artillery detachments, as well as several militia units were stationed at Coteau-du-Lac, thus mobilizing more than 600 soldiers. While some men were assigned to various garrison duties and helped build the defence works, others were simply en route to more distant destinations on the Great Lakes front. In addition, the greater concentration of military men at Coteau-du-Lac was designed to parry any land-based movements by the enemy between Prescott and Montréal.

Barracks life
The reveille of the Voltigeurs The reveille of the Voltigeurs
Illustration by E. Lelièpvre, Parks Canada

The living conditions of soldiers posted to the Coteau-du-Lac fort were extremely harsh. The barracks, which were housed in a long stone building, were divided into six rooms containing 12 bunk beds each. They were thus capable of accommodating up to 288 soldiers, who were crowded together in particularly unhealthy conditions; each person had barely 1.85 m 2 (20 p 2 ) of area to call his own. In addition, fuel was rationed severely; come winter, such meagre heating and lighting was woefully insufficient. Furthermore, the cramped, dirty quarters, combined with inadequate personal hygiene, meant that straw mattresses had to be continually changed and buildings had to be frequently whitewashed.