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The First Invasion of Quebec in the War of 1812
by Robert Henderson

Canadian Voltiguers and Kahnawake warriors advance to border (Parks Canada)

While war raged in the autumn of 1812 along Upper Canada’s Niagara frontier, American forces continued to slowly gather south of Montreal on Lake Champlain.   After dithering most of 1812, an American army left Plattsburgh, NY on November 16 heading towards the border.  Before departing one officer of the 2nd US Infantry penned a letter that captured the mood and expectations of the troops:

This is perhaps the last time you will hear from me at this place, if ever. We are preparing for a march, which will take place in a few days.  It is intended to make an attack on Lower Canada [Quebec] immediately.  We march without baggage or tents, and everything we carry will be on our backs, and the Heavens and a blanket our only covering, till we take winter quarters by force of arms.  Our force is very respectable, say 6 or 7 thousand, and all in high spirits.  The fatigues we expect to undergo will be equal to those experienced by our revolutionary heroes, till we arrive at Montreal.”[1]

 Another officer estimated the army’s strength at around 5,000 men and thought the target was the island fort of Isle aux Noix on the Richelieu River.[2]

Arriving to take command of the “Grand Army of Canada”[3] was Major-General Henry Dearborn.  Nicknamed “Granny” by those he commanded, Dearborn appeared determined to strike deeply into Canada.   Writing to the Secretary of War, Dearborn opined that Montreal could be taken “with but little risk” and envisioned a winter campaign against Quebec City.[4]  It was not the first time Dearborn was in a winter attack on capital of Lower Canada.  Almost to the day 37 years earlier, in 1775, a younger Dearborn had been part of a daring American overland move from New England against Quebec City.    This attack ended unsuccessfully with Dearborn suffering from small pox as a prisoner of war in the city he dreamed of conquering.[5]  Now in 1812, Dearborn was a much older man and attacks of rheumatism dampened the 61-year-old General’s ambition.  The result was his poor health delayed invasion plans for more than a week.


Description: C:\Users\Robert\Desktop\Henry_Dearborn_by_Gilbert_Stuart.jpg
Major-General Henry Dearborn (Courtesy of the Art Institute of Chicago) 

            On November 18, with his army concentrated on the frontier at Champlain NY, Dearborn dispatched reconnaissance parties across the border to gather intelligence on the enemy.  In charge of the “videts” or seers was Colonel Isaac Clark.  Clark was also a American Revolution veteran who had gotten the nickname of “Old Rifle” for “rifling” through (pillaging) French Canadian churches during that war.  After reconnoitring and skirmishing with Canadian light troops, Clark returned at the end of the day to report that about 300 native warriors were lurking within a few miles of the border.  He also reported a large force of Canadian regulars and militia were stationed about ten miles down the road to Montreal.   Lastly Dearborn was informed that the roads leading into Canada had been obstructed in numerous places by fallen trees.[6]

Natives, Canadian Voltigeurs, and the Flank Companies of the 1st Battalion of Select Embodied Militia skirmished with American advance parties south of Lacolle River from November 18 to 22, 1812 (Parks Canada)

            Preparing to meet the Americans was Major Charles-Michel d'Irumberry De Salaberry of the newly-formed Canadian Voltigeurs.  Dressed in a green rifle-style uniform trimmed with black mohair cording and dawning a unique bearskin cap, De Salaberry was a professionally-trained light infantry officer.   He had served with the rifle battalion of the 60th Regiment of Foot and the future father of Queen Victoria, the Duke of Kent, had been his patron.  De Salaberry had received reports of the American advance the previous day and it was he who had acted quickly to block the roads with abattis.  The Americans wildly overestimated the number of troops De Salaberry had at his disposal.  Instead of over two thousand, the French Canadian Major had in fact only a few hundred men from his regiment, the 1st Battalion of Select Embodied Militia, and some Canadian Voyageurs stationed near the Lacolle River.  In reserve eight kilometres north of the Lacolle River were detachments of the mentioned units along with the Canadian Fencible Regiment.  While a strict disciplinarian, De Salaberry could not be certain on how the newly-formed Canadian Voltigeurs would fair in battle, little alone the 1st Battalion of Select Embodied militia under his charge.           

Description: C:\Users\Robert\Desktop\salaberry.jpg
Charles-Michel d'Irumberry De Salaberry (Université de Montréal)

At least the Americans were right on the number of natives who opposed them.  Three hundred Mohawk warriors from Kahnawake, south of Montreal, had answered the call to defend the province.   With the inclement November weather, the native allies had set up camp on the north side of the Lacolle river.  About forty natives erected make-shift shelters to the left of the bridge beside the Montreal road.  Militiamen had also constructed a crude log guardhouse among the native huts to shelter the piquet patrolling that part of the river.  With the advance of the American army to the border, the bridge had been wisely dismantled.

            On the morning of November 19 Dearborn’s Adjutant General issued orders that prepared his men for invasion: “the General embraces the earliest opportunity to express his confidence in the troops composing the army of the North.  Their bravery and patriotism will supply any deficiency in military discipline and tactics which time and experience will render perfect.”[7]  Not exactly a ringing endorsement of the army that was expected to conquer Canada. Later that day, Dearborn’s invasion plan received a setback.  Militia officers informed the General that no more than half of their men were willing to cross the frontier into Canada.  

            Dearborn would later state to the Secretary of War that, after meeting with his officers, it was decided that a move on Montreal was no longer possible.  According to Dearborn, it was agreed that the army would remain a couple of days and give the appearance of advancing, then return south to winter quarters.[8] However the General’s report to Washington appears dubious.  Dearborn had been slow and cautious throughout 1812 while he built up what he considered to be an overwhelming force to take Montreal.  After Dearborn’s inaction and bragging about the ease of taking Montreal, it is doubtful the General had abandoned his quest for glory that day, contrary to what he later reported to Washington.

            While Dearborn’s enthusiasm for the campaign may have been waning, one of his officers certainly was not.  The adventurous Colonel Zebulon Pike was chomping at the bit to engage the enemy.  Pike was well known at the time on both sides of the border for his exploration of the West . This fame came from his wildly popular published journals of his 1805-7 expeditions.  Fighting the Shawnee in the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811 made Pike one of the few officers under Dearborn with real experience countering native battle tactics. 

            Pike had spent months at Plattsburgh training his regiment, the 15th US Infantry.  Just before marching north, the innovative Colonel embraced an experimental idea of equipping part of his men with pikes:

Each subaltern is to carry a pike and a sword.  The men are to form three deep -- the tallest in the rear rank.  The rear rank have lately had their gun barrels cut off about 12 inches, and not fitted for a bayonet.  They are to be slung on the back, when they proceed to a charge.  The rear rank are to carry a pike, somewhat of the form of a spontoon, attached to a pole 10 feet in length.  Col. Pike thinks much of this kind of weapon, while others condemn them.[9]

 Scouting parties the previous day had reported an encampment at the side of the road to Montreal on the north bank of the Lacolle river.  Pike persuaded Dearborn to allow him to attack the enemy position there.

Map of the Lacolle Area and American plan of attack.  Left arrow represents Pike's Infantry
 and the right arrow the 1st US Dragoons (Map: R Henderson)


            On the night of November 19, Pike assembled his regiment, and added volunteers from the militia under Major Melancton Smith and Major Guilford Young.  Young of the Troy Militia had already achieved the respect of his fellow officers the previous month by capturing 40 Canadian Voyageurs at an outpost near St. Regis.  A troop of 1st Light Dragoons was also added, bringing the strike force to between 600 and 850 effectives.[10]  While Pike was to attack the encampment, the Dragoons under the guidance of Colonel Clark were to move against any enemy stationed at a saw mill just east of the road.  Pike’s plan was to divide his infantry into two and encircle the guardhouse and huts.  He would lead most of the 15th US Infantry and Smith and Young would direct the militia, which had been augmented by some of his regulars. 

Zebulon Pike (National Parks Service)

             Pike’s preparations did not go unnoticed by the prying eyes of British spies. While American militia volunteers were being recruited, word of the planned attack reached the ears of Prevost.  The Governor General responded by dispatching a hasty note the same day to De Salaberry warning him of a possible attack:

If information can be relied on, the enemy will advance this day from ChamplainTown. I have given directions for your support from several points.  You must keep them entangled in the woods as long as possible.  I rely on your best exertions.[11]

   The message did not arrive in time.  Still De Salaberry was prepared: “The troops I had with me, have been laying in the woods in the open air for ten days, always fully accoutred and in momentary expectation of the enemy.”[12]  Constantly exposed to the November rain and cold the healthy constitutions of the Canadians defending the border were slowly chipped away at.  One tired young French Canadian officer of the 1st Battalion of Select Embodied Militia later wrote:  "After five weeks to today (Nov 30) of continued hardships in the woods of Canada ... I hope now to pass the winter quietly; for though to serve one's country to the utmost of one's power and force, be every one's duty, yet to serve it as I have done for five weeks is very hard."

Canadian Voltigeurs on piquet duty (Parks Canada)

       Under the cover of darkness, Pike’s men quietly exited their crude shelters of spruce boughs and moved out of their Army’s encampment.  As they crossed the border near Odelltown, it began to snow.  For hours they trudged through the snowy night, reconnoitring the swamps to the east of the road for enemy pickets.  After a brief rest for “regaling themselves with potato whiskey and a good cheer from their commander” they continued on through the darkness and cold.  By then the snow storm had subsided. The moon now helped light the rest of their journey.[13]

            At about 4 o’clock in the morning, Young’s Troy Fusiliers and Smith’s militia volunteers were first to reach at the banks of the narrow Lacolle River to the west of the road.  A native lookout was spotted and they moved to surprise him.  One witness recounted: 

the Troy Fusiliers...crossed the river first, and proceeded down the river, sometimes in the water and sometimes upon the bank, about the distance of 40 or 50 rods, while a detachment of the Pennsylvania regulars crossed and proceeded up the west side of the point of land formed by a bend in the river, until they came opposite to the Troy Fusiliers.  All this manoeuvre was performed wih the utmost silence, while every man had his eye upon a poor Indian, the object of their pursuit.[14]

 While in the process of relieving Native sentries stationed at an oak tree that stretched across the river, 40-year-old Captain William McKay of the Canadian Voyageurs “heard the enemy all round him cocking their musquets.”[15] McKay yelled loudly to warn the Native lookout of the impending danger.  The Americans responded with a “devil of a discharge” of  musket fire at McKay and his warriors.[16]  The Mohawk sentries jumped behind logs and trees, and, with yells, returned fire. Hopelessly outnumbered, McKay retreated. 

Description: C:\Users\Robert\Desktop\mohawk warrior in autumn.jpg
Mohawk warrior in Autumn by Ron Volstad (Dept. of National Defence)

            Meanwhile at the road, Pike’s men filed quickly into the frozen waters of the shallow Lacolle river.  By the time the Americans climbed the rocky river bank, the Canadian militiamen and native warriors housed at the guardhouse and shacks had stealthily pulled out. So quick was the silent evacuation that militia Captain Bernard Panet didn’t have a chance to lace his shoes.  The American troops under Smith and Young quickly swung to the northern perimeter of the now deserted encampment, while Pike’s force moved to close the trap by pushing from the south.  With visibility hampered by the darkness of the surrounding woods of the early morning hour, the situation was ripe for mistakes.  The dangerousness of the moment was eloquently summarized by Captain Jacques Viger of the Canadian Voltigeurs who wrote: “In the night, all cats are grey.”[17]

            The New York militia with Smith and Young entered the small, lifeless shanty village searching for the enemy.  Large fires were burning but no one warmed themselves by them.   The Americans immediately entered the huts with fixed bayonets expecting to catch a slumbering enemy unaware.  Meanwhile Pike’s men came up to the huts and guardhouse from the south right when the New York militiamen were exiting the huts.  Mistaking them as the enemy, Pike’s force open fired.  In response, Smith and Young’s men discharged their arms and a devastating exchange of friendly-fire ensued.[18]  The Natives urged on the folly with “horribly frightful yelling” from the surrounding woods.  So loud were the hoots and hollers of the Kahnawake warriors that the Americans “imagined that there were 4 or 500 Indians around them.”[19]

            The fire-fight could be heard all the way back at the American encampment in Champlain, New York.  One officer of the 16th US Infantry remembered:

When the firing of Colonel Pike’s party was heard, General Chandler galloped into camp, exclaiming in a loud voice, “Where is Colonel Pearse?” At that time, Colonel Pearce was lying under a spruce brush, wrapped in a rug.  He immediately arose, shook the snow off, and ordered the troops to be paraded.  As soon as the cause of the firing was known, they were dismissed.[20]

 After five or six volleys Pike’s men realized their error and ceased.  The crude log guardhouse was torched and the Americans pulled back empty-handed across the river.

            With the native yells ringing in their ears, the American withdrawal was rapid and disorderly.  Meanwhile the US Dragoons further east along the river torched some buildings and then withdrew using a sawmill dam as a bridge to cross the river.  In the confusion, some of Pike’s men were taken as prisoners.  To speed their retreat, some soldiers threw away their muskets and pikes.  After carrying their wounded part of the way through the snow, sleighs were commandeered to finish the journey back across border.  Later the Montreal Herald mocked Pike’s misfortune by sarcastically naming the engagement the “suicidal battle of River Lacolle”.[21]

Map of Troop Positions and Movement, November 20, 1812 (Map: R Henderson)

            Captain McKay of the Canadian Voyageurs must have taken particular pleasure at the news that Major Young was part of the defeated American force.  Young’s capture of Voyageurs at St Regis a month earlier would have felt to a degree avenged.  In the daylight Lower Canadian troops were able to study American armaments for the first time in the war:

The American muskets (we found many on the battlefield) are strongly built and their barrel is fastened to the stock with three large hoops of iron.  Their bayonets, built like our, are shorter and stronger.  Their cartridge [musket round] contain one bullet and three posts.  We also found spears, the wood of which is very long with a curved and sharpened spearhead. [translation][22]

This was an accurate description of the US Springfield musket, buck-and-ball musket rounds, and the 10 foot pikes of the 15th US Infantry.  The ferocity of the American volleys was also evident.  One militia officer noted “all the neighbouring trees around being covered with bullets (one of our officers says that he counted 20 balls in a space of about half a foot square).”[23]

American prisoner with Canadian Voltigeur and Mohawk warrior. Display by (photo: R Henderson)

             Also during the following day, De Salaberry and Major Pierre Laforce assessed the intent of Pike’s night-time incursion into Canada.  Evidence of it being a precursor to a larger American offensive started to mount.  Spies brought news from the American camp that the army cooks had started to prepare three days’ worth of soldier’s rations for the march.   Concluding this was a prelude to invasion, Laforce was ordered to evacuate the local population.  Knowing Dearborn’s army were without camp equipage and intended to live off the land as they advanced, Laforce was directed to herd local livestock north, destroy any food supplies that could feed the invaders, and burn any civilian buildings that could shelter Dearborn’s troops.[24]  On De Salaberry’s strategy, Prevost wrote “I approve the precautionary measure you propose taking on the enemy’s advance.  Keep the cattle in your rear and make sure of whatever you require for the troops, giving receipts on the Commissary General, also for the hay you may destroy.”[25] In effect, the Canadians had deployed the attrition strategy of scorched earth.

            With an early snow on the ground and plumbs of smoke rising in the distance from Laforce’s grim work, Dearborn’s plan for a late-season invasion was in tatters.  Dysentery, diarrhoea, measles and the first cases of typhus plagued the General’s army and the plummeting temperatures were only making the situation worse.[26]  Pike’s infectious zeal had not produced victory.  Adding to his painful attacks of rheumatism, “Granny” Dearborn had caught a case of cold feet.  The refusal of part of the militia to cross the border offered Dearborn the excuse needed to abandon the invasion.   However the American troops under his command were shocked at the decision.  One officer recounted:

On the 22nd, at an early hour, we were ordered to cook three days’ provisions.  This order produced great joy - each regiment supposing, of course, that Montreal was our destination.  At. 10 o’clock AM when all was ready, our route was announced for Plattsburgh, which occasioned much murmuring among the troops.[27]

However one American journalist took strange consolation in the nature of Dearborn’s retreat:

That this expedition has ended with less bloodshed and disaster than those of Detroit and Queenstown! And that his advance and retrograde movements have not less merit than those recorded on one of our allies, in this couplet of the poet:

‘A King of France with 20,000 men,

Marched up a hill, and then marched down again.’[28]

Description: C:\Users\Robert\Desktop\American Soldiers on the March 1812.png
American Soldiers on the march. (pub. 1813)

So ended the first invasion of Lower Canada.  While militarily less significant, Dearborn’s failure was greatly encouraging to the population of Lower Canada.  Dearborn had trumpeted the belief of a disaffected French Canada unwilling to support Britain over the United States.  He had been proven wrong.  The border had been successfully defended by untested French Canadian troops without any British assistance at all.  For the next two years Canadian units would be the primary protectors of the province's border and contend with two more invading American armies.


            The sleepy town of Lacolle now rests on the location of the engagement that occurred in the early morning hours of November 20, 1812.  The town hall sits on the road to Montreal, a stone’s throw from the bridge spanning the small Lacolle River.  The road to the U.S. border has not changed much in 200 years and you can still cross into New York State there.  A history interpretative centre has now been built in Lacolle to commemorative the battle there, along with telling the rest of the community’s story.  The Battle on the Lacolle River in 1812 is often confused with the Battle of Lacolle Mill in 1814.  Each involved a mill, a wooden military structure, and a bridge crossing the Lacolle River.  However the battle in 1814 occurred principally around a stone grist mill and log blockhouse on the road running beside the Richelieu River.  While the events on the Lacolle River in 1812 were motivating to the Canadian war effort, the spot has not yet been recognized as a National Historic Site.  This is likely do to the confusion with the battle in 1814. It is hoped this research has removed this hurtle to achieving this recognition.  

            As for the Canadian defenders involved in protecting the province of Quebec that November, the history and heritage of those regiments are now preserved by units of the Canadian Forces through perpetuation:

1812 Unit

Canadian Forces Unit

Canadian Regiment of Fencible Infantry

Royal 22e Régiment

Provincial Corps of Light Infantry (Canadian Voltigeurs)

Les Voltigeurs de Québec

1st Select Embodied Militia of Lower Canada

Le Régiment de la Chaudière

Canadian Voyageurs

The Canadian Grenadier Guards

 Regimental Colour, probably of the 1st Battalion Selected Embodied Militia
Regimental Colour of the 1st Battalion of Select Embodied Militia. "1st Canadian Militia" is painted on the colour. (Library and Archives Canada)

The defence of Lacolle River is recognized as part of the "DEFENCE OF CANADA 1812-1815" Campaign Honour, awarded to the units of the Canadian Forces listed above.

      The service of Kahnawake First Nation was also remembered recently with the awarding of commemorative silver Chief’s medals by the Governor General of Canada.  Two hundred years ago, Chief’s medals also conveyed friendship and gratitude from the Government to the native peoples.

      De Salaberry’s leadership at Lacolle was commemorated in 1881 with the erection in Chambly (Quebec) of a bronze statue to him, and bearing the name “LACOLLE” on one side.  Canadian Army units played a prominent role in the project and the unveiling ceremony.  The memorial can be seen on the Canadian Forces website by clicking here.  Also a small video on the monument (en français) can be found here.  Along with his house being made a National Historic Site and statues of him in both Quebec City and Ottawa, De Salaberry was designated a person of national significance in 1934.   In addition communities have been named after him including Salaberry and Salaberry-de-Valleyfield in Quebec and De Salaberry in Manitoba, Also Salaberry Armoury in Gatineau (Quebec) was named after him in 1938 for his military service in the war, along with numerous streets in Quebec and Ontario.  His Voltiguers were also honoured by the naming of streets in a number of communities, along with a park in Drummondville (Quebec). 

Je me souviens.


    I would like to thank Gilles Pellerin, the  President de la Société d'histoire Lacolle-Beaujeu for his kind assistance and support in writing this article.  Mr Pellerin was the driving force behind establishing an 1812 Interpretative Centre in Lacolle.  You can visit the site here. Also my thanks goes to André Gousse for pointing out other ways De Salaberry and his Voltigeurs canadiens have been commemorated.


[1]  Weekly Messenger.  November 27, 1812.  See also Allan S. Everest, The War of 1812 in the Champlain Valley. (Syracuse, 1981) p. 90.

[2] Columbian.  November 26, 1812.

[3] New-Bedford Mercury. December 4, 1814. “Third Invasion of Canada!”

[4] Dearborn to Eustis, November 7, 1812.  in Richard A. Erney, The Public Life of Henry Dearborn. (New York, 1957) p. 297.

[5] see Henry Dearborn, Journal of Captain Henry Dearborn in the Quebec Expedition, 1775. (Cambridge, 1886).

[6] Ibid.; New-Bedford Mercury. December 4, 1814. “Third Invasion of Canada!”

[7] Hazard’s Register of Pennsylvania. (Philadelphia, 1832) p. 221. General Order, Headquarters, November 19, 1812.

[8] Dearborn to Eustis, November 24, 1812.  in Richard A. Erney, The Public Life of Henry Dearborn. (New York, 1957) p. 298.

[9] Columbian.  November 26, 1812.  Pike was not the first to consider this idea, as British military tacticians mused about the infantry adopting pike a decade before.  However Pike appears to be the first to try it in the field.

[10] 850 according to Bennington News-letter. December 23, 1812.  600 according to Colonel Cronwell Pearce  of the 16th US Infantry.  John C. Fredriksen, ed. The War of 1812 In Person: Fifteen Accounts by United States Army Regulars, Volunteers, and Militiamen (Jefferson, 2010) p. 72.

[11] Prevost to de Salaberry, November 19. 1812.  LAC MG 24 G45, De Salaberry Papers, vol. 2, p. 672.

[12] de Salaberry to his father. St. Phillippe, November 19. 1812.  LAC MG 24 G45, De Salaberry Papers, vol. 2, p. 675.

[13] An officer of the 1st Battalion of Select Embodied Militia noted moonlight present at the time of attack.  Quebec Mercury, December 8, 1812.

[14] Quebec Gazette, December 31, 1812.

[15] Montreal Herald. December 12, 1812.  Account supported by Seminaire de Quebec, Sabertache Bleue de Jacques Viger, Letter to his wife, November 28, 1812.

[16] Quebec Mercury, December 8, 1812.

[17] Seminaire de Quebec, Sabertache Bleue de Jacques Viger, Letter to his wife, November 28, 1812. This comment is also interesting because both the 15th U.S. Infantry and the Canadian Voltiguers both adopted grey uniforms with black trim. This may have contributed to the friendly fire incident that followed.  In experiments by the British army at the time, grey had proved to provide the best camouflage of all the colours for a uniform. 

[18] Bennington News-Letter, December 23, 1812.

[19] Seminaire de Quebec, Sabertache Bleue de Jacques Viger, Letter to his wife, November 28, 1812.

[20] Fredriksen, Fifteen Accounts... p. 73.

[21] Montreal Herald. December 12, 1812.

[22] Seminaire de Quebec, Sabertache Bleue de Jacques Viger, Letter to his wife, November 28, 1812.

[23] Quebec Mercury, December 8, 1812.

[24] LAC, RG 8 I, vol. 84 p. 12-70. War Loss Claims of Lacolle River and Burtonville residents, November 1812.

[25] Prevost to De Salaberry, November 21, 1812.  LAC MG 24 G45, De Salaberry Papers, vol. 2, p. 674.

[26] James Mann, Medical Sketches of the Campaigns of 1812,13,14.  (Dedham, 1816) p. 19.

[27] Fredriksen, Fifteen Accounts... p. 73.

[28] New Bedford Mercury, December 4, 1812.





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