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Voyager Primary Source Review

Title: Merry Hearts Make Light Days: The War of 1812 Journal of Lieutenant John Le Couteur, 104th Foot

Editor: Donald E.Graves

Publisher: Carleton University Press: Ottawa, 1993; [New edition] Robin Brass Studio: Montreal, 2012

Voyager is proud to introduce its primary source section. Offering readers a source relevant to the theme of the month, this new section aims to enrich the understanding of a topic by means of firsthand accounts, diaries and other primary source materials.

            Merry Hearts Make Light Days is the Journal of a young British Lieutenant, John Le Couteur, of the 104th Regiment of Foot who was dispatched to the North American station in 1812, just in time to be a participant in the following conflict between the British and Americans. Edited by eminent scholar Donald E.Graves, Merry Hearts is a unique insight into the mind of a young officer who depicts his experiences with enthusiasm and notable élan. His account offers lively commentary on Upper and Lower Canada social life, the dynamic between officers and soldiers, the difficulties of Canadian winters and most importantly, meticulous descriptions of the numerous actions he participates in.  

            A great strength of Merry Hearts is the constantly varied topic of discussion in his entries. One particularly interesting passage from an early entry in his diary describes the composition of his regiment at the time of their dispatch to Upper Canada from New Brunswick in February of 1813:

 “It must here be observed that the regiment was admirably composed for the service, having been raised in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, principally in the latter province, from the descendants of the veterans who had served in the former war, a class of loyal settlers, equally attached to the soil and to Old England. There were also a number of Canadians in it, so that these, as well as the New Brunswickers being, as it were, indigenous to the country were thoroughly fitted to endure cold and hardships; good axemen, able to build a log hut with an axe alone; good boatmen, good marksmen, many of them as expert as Indians in a canoe, and as alert as hunters on snow shoes. The morale of the corps was not at all inferior to its physique, - there is a characteristic cheerfulness in the Canadian soldier, inherited from his French ancestry, which being lively and good tempered, tended much towards lightening the labours of a heavy march, or the hardships of a campaign...” (p.94)

            It is interestingly clear from his description that a great number of his regiment was composed of men native to the Canadian station. His depiction of the heartiness and worthy martial abilities of the Canadian soldiers is replete with praise. This is a remarkable passage because it presents how strongly the Canadian identity was developing in the minds of British officers, and how culturally distinct this group of people were becoming. In lieu of Canada Day it is fascinating to see the cultural roots of Canadian identity depicted so clearly by an officer’s passing remarks in a journal from 1813.

            John Le Couteur’s journal has numerous anecdotes pertaining to the First Nations allies which the British employed regularly and the Americans feared greatly. Two short passages that took place during and after Beaver Dams are highly illustrative of the aftermath of an engagement where natives were employed:

(24 June 1813)

“The Indians were very savage – one tomahawked an American close to me during the parley – they would have destroyed them all but for us. All the dead were scalped. Their heads divested of the scalp looked white and clean, some as it they had been washed...” (pp.126-7)

(17 July 1813)

“Our Indians intercepted a party of the enemy, scalped forty-five and brought in two officers and fourteen prisoners. I saw one Indian picking the flesh off a scalp.” (p.129)

            While one should generally be wary of hyperbole behind the violent depictions of native warriors, these visceral and straightforward depictions are very credible. Primarily, Le Couteur had no particular reason to exaggerate since they were recorded in his journal for private consumption; secondly, his lack of moral judgement on these acts imply that he had no reason to defame his new world allies.

            These two passages pertaining to Canadian identity and Native war practices are but a taste of what Merry Hearts has to offer to the 1812 enthusiast. Any reader hoping to glean valuable primary source insight into the mind of a combatant during the War of 1812, and peruse an entertaining and varied depiction of soldierly life in 19th century Canada should not hesitate to read Merry Hearts Make Light Days. In early 2012 a new edition of this valuable journal was released by Robin Brass Studios.

[Merry Hearts Make Light Days: The War of 1812 Journal of Lieutenant John Le Couteur, 104th Foot. Ed, Donald E.Graves. Carleton University Press: Ottawa, 1993]

Donald E. Graves, one of Canada’s best known military historians, is the ­author, co-author or editor of 18 full-length books dealing primarily with the War of 1812 and the Second World War. Donald Graves is the managing director of Ensign Heritage Group, a consulting firm that provides military historical expertise to historic sites, government departments, film companies and individuals. He resides in the Mississippi Valley of Upper Canada with his author wife, Dianne.

A new edition of the engaging Merry Hearts Make Light Days has been published by Robin Brass Studio.  Their catalogue can be found at Voyager extends their greatest thanks to Robin Brass Studio and Mr.Donald E.Graves for the use of these selected passages.

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