- Four Years on the Great Lakes, 1813–1816: The Journal of Lieutenant David Wingfield, Royal Navy
This is the first book-length publication of the journal of David Wingfield, a lieutenant in the British navy who fought against American forces on Lake Ontario during the War of 1812. Wingfield was captured in action; held prisoner in New York state; released; returned to duty; and, most important, later the author of this detailed and perceptive military memoir. Wingfield’s manuscript, stored in the Canadian National Archives since 1933, is well-known to scholars of the war. The published version might prove less appealing to general readers, but amateur War of 1812 buffs on both sides of the border will certainly find much to like about it. The editors have done a nice job of sandwiching their 114-page edition of the journal between an informative introductory essay and a short (unavoidably fragmentary and speculative) biographical sketch of Wingfield. All of this is followed by seven detailed appendixes, forty-two pages of endnotes, and a brief bibliography for non-specialists. The book is loaded with maps, drawings, photographs, art reproductions, and eight pages of excellent color prints. There is also a concise forward by naval historian Barry Gough.
Although little is known about his personal life before or after the war, Wingfield was the kind of secondary historical figure whose angle of vision adds richness and nuance to our grasp of the War of 1812, particularly the struggle for control of the Great Lakes and the coveted fur trade of that region. Ironically, he saw the Lake Service as a military backwater compared to “the stupendous scenes then acting throughout Europe”—all the more [End Page 119] reason to highlight his own drama and “show that supineness was no part of the character of British seamen,” not even those serving on the apparent fringes of great world events (53). Wingfield entered the Royal Navy in 1806, at age fourteen; thus his observations during his time in America, 1813–16, were those of a young man, though one well-acquainted with the protocols of war. His commentary gives insight to British strategy—for example, Britain’s unsuccessful attack on Sackets Harbor, the main American base in eastern Lake Ontario, near British-controlled Kingston, where the St. Lawrence River joins the Great Lakes. There are also the horrors of warfare, including scenes of carnage—in one case a fellow officer, standing right beside Wing-field, suddenly torn in half by an American cannon shot. We sense, too, the young lieutenant’s despair in having to surrender his vessel and be taken prisoner; with that, “all hopes of promotion vanished at once” (83).
One of the more interesting and less appreciated dimensions of the Wing-field journal is its insight on the civilian inhabitants of the Great Lakes region; apart from military interest, the work stands as a good travel account. It repeatedly struck Wingfield that Native Americans tended to be corrupted by contact with peoples of European origin: “Those Indians who have had most intercourse with white inhabitants and traders in furs, are completely degenerated from their brethren in the interior of the country, in courage, cleanliness, and honesty” (70). The journal features fascinating tidbits on such things as the war-stimulated growth of Kingston; the conviviality and kindness of Americans in upstate New York—their informal manners, contempt for monarchy, and pride in republicanism; the rough experience of stagecoach travel; the hardships of brutal winters; the threat of disease; the “tremendous majesty” of the “Falls of Niagara”; and much more (164).
This is, in short, a journal worth reading. Don Bamford and Paul Carroll, along with Dundurn Press, have done a valuable service by making it widely available.