Friday, July 04, 2008

Fort Henry National Historic Site: History, Defense, Discipline, & Glory

The young infantrymen stood at attention. These foot soldiers wore bright red coats. In their hands, they carried rifles with bayonet points. They marched when ordered. Their faces held serious warrior expressions. On command, they fired their rifles. Clouds of gray smoke puffed from the barrels and the sound of artillery firing echoed through the Parade Ground. These soldiers portrayed the men stationed at Fort Henry in the year 1867, the year of Confederation, when Canada became a nation.

I witnessed this and several more of the many interpretive programs at Fort Henry National Historic Site. I planned this visit to Eastern Ontario’s largest heritage tourism attraction, a UNESCO site, as part of my 1,000 Islands Trip on my 10,000 Mile Grand Tour.

Before visiting Fort Henry, I printed a schedule of the “Activities” from its website ( On this Day Program, I used an orange highlighter to mark the event, fort level –upper or lower, and time. This approach made it easy to move from one activity to the next without fumbling in indecisiveness hour-by-hour.

I joined the 2 PM tour, one of eight English tours offered that day. By comparison, the Fort offered only four tours for French speaking people. Our guide wore a dress uniform, the red tunic, and moved with military form. This college student, who landed this role as a summer job, played her part exceptionally well. She moved our group through disciplinary cells, officers’ quarters, soldiers’ barracks, married quarters, schoolroom, and bakery pointing out the signifance of each location. She made history come alive as she explained how wealth bought rank in the military, why disease easily spread in the close quarters, and what interconnected roles officers, soldiers, and women played in daily life at the Fort.

Our guide told us about history. The British Army constructed the original Fort Henry in 1813. They dismantled it when the second Fort Henry was built from 1832 – 1837. The British Army first stationed soldiers at Fort Henry beginning in 1812. Soldiers remained within the fortress until 1891.

Our guide talked about defense. Throughout the 1800s, Fort Henry’s infantrymen prepared to defend themselves in battle should the enemy - the United States - threaten with a military attack. (The US never attacked this strategic stronghold of Kingston, Ontario.) Another purpose for Fort Henry was to defend the terminus of the Rideau Canal, the Royal Naval Dockyards, and Kingston Harbor. In the 1837 Rebellions, during World War I (1914 – 1918), and during World War II (1939 – 1945), the Fort served as a prisoner of war camp and internment camp.

Our guide explained why the Fort mascot is a goat named David. From 1842 – 1843, the Royal Welch Fusiliers served at Fort Henry. Their mascot was a goat. In commemoration of their service, a white Saanen goat lives on the premises. The current goat is “David IX”, the 9th mascot of Fort Henry.

In this 60 minute tour, I gained a tremendous appreciation for Fort Henry and great insight to life there in the 1800s. This is a credit to the thorough narration of our guide and her depth of training. With this outstanding orientation to the Fort, I appreciated the next series of activities on my pre-selected schedule as more than simply military drills. This was a reenactment of Canadian military history.

I took a seat in the spectator bleachers on the sunny side of the Parade Ground. I watched the Garrison Parade, Artillery Firing, and Rifle Drills. I saw “David IX” take a place of honor with the officers.

When an officer dismissed the soldiers, I walked along the ramparts imagining life there when many companies of 100 men, their wives, and children lived within the Fort walls. They were a disciplined people who faced hardships and sacrifice for the country they served. The glory of a nation born on this land belongs to them. It’s their contribution, Canada’s heritage.

What I had seen and felt during this afternoon at Fort Henry came to a patriotic grand finale - The End of Day Ceremonial. Armed soldiers again formed military lines on the Parade Ground in an elaborate series of movements. Some stood at attention beneath the waving British flag. Other lifted their boots in a high march as they climbed steps up the ramparts and prepared to load a canon. A single infantry man played the bugle. With honor and glory, the soldiers sounded their rifles, fired the canon, and lowered the flag. Not a sound was heard soldiers folded the flag and carried it away for safe keeping.

June 23, 2008

“Fort Henry National Historic Site is one of Canada’s premier historic attractions, and has been designated by the Government of Canada as a place of national significance. In 2007, Fort Henry was included in the designation of the Rideau Canal as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.”

– John Robertson, Manager Fort Henry National Historic Site of Canada

I highly recommend visiting Fort Henry – Patty Lonsbary

Fort Henry National Historic Site of Canada

Kingston, Ontario

From Highway 401, take Exit 623 (Country Road 15) south to the end,

turn right on Country Road 2, turn left at first traffic light to Information Center,

or continue to Fort Henry at the crest of the hill.

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