A Renowned Military Heritage: Part One — The Early Years
If someone were to ask:
What was the oldest cavalry unit in the Canadian Armed Forces? How would you respond? My guess is that many readers would admit that they were unable to answer. However, those with a military background, might come up with the correct reply
The 8th Canadian Hussars. This unit, with a proud history that dates back 150 years and more, has strong associations with the Tantramar. All will be revealed in a series of three Flashbacks — the next two will be published on: Mar. 30, and Apr. 13.
Although the official history of the 8th Canadian Hussars dates from April 4, 1848, its roots may be traced as far back as the American Revolution. Within the population of Virginia (then one of the most important of the thirteen colonies) there were bitter divisions of public opinion. While many were in favour of the revolutionary cause, others were just as strongly opposed. One of the latter was John Saunders I (1745–1834), who invited his friends to volunteer for a cavalry unit to serve on the British side. Soon thirty mounted soldiers, joined the Loyalist cause and became known informally as
Later, they were to be merged with the Queens Rangers. Regimental historian, Douglas How described the Rangers as
one of the most effective fighting units on either side during the Revolutionary war. In 1784, many of its officers and men, along with their families joined the Loyalist migration to the newly created colony of New Brunswick. Some were granted land in York County, in the parish of Queensbury (named in their honour); while others settled in the Kennebecasis Valley.
Meanwhile, the now Captain John Saunders, whose legal studies had been interrupted by the war, sailed for England. He studied law at the Middle Temple, and in 1767 was called to the bar. In 1790 Saunders was appointed an assistant judge of the Supreme Court of New Brunswick. Promotion to Chief Justice of the province came in 1822. Over the years the tie between the Saunders family and the cavalry unit would be reinforced. A grandson, Lieutenant Colonel John Saunders II, assumed command in 1865, and a great-great-grandson, Lieutenant Colonel Charles Montgomery Campbell took over the same position in 1899.
The New Brunswick Militia Act of 1825 formally provided for the raising of cavalry units to be attached to the various county infantry battalions. By legislation adopted on Apr. 4, 1825 these troops were united to form a regiment to be called the New Brunswick Yeomanry Cavalry. It is this date that is officially recognized as the beginning of the 8th Canadian Hussars.
Part of the mystique associated with the Hussars may be traced to the meaning of the word. It stems from the Hungarian Hussar and means
twentieth. An ancient custom was to recruit every twentieth male in each village, for service in the cavalry. Once selected, these first Hussars developed and lived up to a dashing, if sometimes unruly reputation. While this swashbuckling role became modified over the centuries, a colourful uniform was always characteristic of every Hussar unit or regiment. In New Brunswick, continuously from 1870, they donned the Hussar uniform consisting of a blue cloth tunic with gold braid. For reviews and ceremonial occasions, a busby was worn. On parade the soldiers wore pillbox type hats. Informally, they continued to be known as
The Hussars. Following 1825, the first stint of active duty for the Yeomanry Cavalry came in the so-called
Aroostook War of 1839. It resulted from a clash between New Brunswick lumbermen and their counterparts in the Aroostook River Valley of Maine. In reality, the issue was an ill defined boundary between the two jurisdictions. During four months in 1839 the cavalry rode between Woodstock, Fredericton and Saint John, bearing messages and guarding communications links between these points. The matter was not settled until the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842 which reached agreement on the boundary that is still in place.
From the mid-nineteenth century onward, the future of the various militia units within New Brunswick was to be influenced by a series of external and internal events. In 1860 the New Brunswick legislature confirmed by law the adoption of an voluntary system of military training. Now an organized militia would be established to defend the province from possible attack.
The reason was close at hand. The United States was about to be engulfed in the Civil War of 1861–65, and already the drums were beating to the south. In the midst of this unfolding drama, during the summer of 1860, the Prince of Wales (the future King Edward VII) visited New Brunswick
His arrival was described as follows:
As H.M.S. Styx steamed into the harbour of Saint John on Aug. 2, 1860, three signal guns blazed a welcome and multitudes crowded the city. All through the next day, joy and excitement prevailed, and the loyal New Brunswick militia was on hand. Included in their numbers was a troop under the direction of Captain John Saunders II. They were given the honour of escorting the Prince during his visit.
We pick up the remainder of the story, when the royal party reached Fredericton by steamer, early in the evening of the next day. The horsemen guarding the Prince were dressed in their distinctive blue Hussar uniforms. Swords swung at their sides and the horses were restless with the excitement of the hour. They were young country men, bronzed from working in the summer fields, sure on their horses, if not in all of their military drills. By the time they had accompanied the Prince around Fredericton for a week, they were accomplished in their task. They saw the royal visitor to the cathedral, and to a levee and ball, where the Prince danced until three oclock in the morning.
One outcome of the royal visit was the stimulus given to recruiting, not only in New Brunswick, but in the other British North American colonies. Men enlisted even though they had to buy their own uniforms. The ranks of the militia in New Brunswick swelled to nearly 2,000. Included in this number was an enlarged New Brunswick Yeomanry Cavalry. Where did these recruits come from? The majority lived in the southeast section, roughly encompassing Saint John, Sussex, Moncton, Shediac and Sackville. There was a reason for this.
Early in the century, a blazed trail from Saint John to the Nova Scotia border had evolved into the Westmorland Road. One of the earliest railroads built between 1853 and 1860, connected Saint John with Shediac. These communications links helped make this area Hussar Country. As Douglas How commented:
The people the Hussars built upon have remained, as they were from the beginning, quiet, undramatic and loyal. They were and are, essentially a country and small town people, as solid as the rocks that rim the Fundy shores. From the menfolk of this solid breed have come, for generations now, the 8th Hussars no regiment could want for better stock.
The next Flashback will extend the Hussar story through to more contemporary times.