An Impartial and Authentic Account of the Civil War in the Canadas/Chapter II
Description of the Country watered by the Richelieu River, extending from Lake Champlain to the River St. Lawrence. Departure of the troops under Colonels Gore and Wetherall — Their force — Object of the Expedition — Plan — Preparations at St. Charles — Mr. Brown. The affair of St. Denis — Nelson — Perrault — Lieutenant Weir — Retreat of Colonel Gore. The affair of St. Charles — The Retreat — Skirmishing — An intercepted Despatch — Alarm in the City — Rumours — Close of the Campaign.
MAP OP THE SEAT OF THE CAMPAIGN.
Before we enter upon the military operations against St. Denis and St. Charles, it will he necessary for the right understanding thereof, to describe briefly the theatre of the contest. To assist in gaining a clear conception of the relative position of the several places named in the despatches, and other accounts, the reader is requested to refer to the annexed map, comprising a triangular-shaped district, based on the boundary line of the United States, and extending to the island of Montreal on the north-west, and to the mouths of the Richelieu and the Yamaska rivers on the north-east.
The River Richelieu,22 which, with its tributaries, waters the whole of this district, flows out of Lake Champlain in a northerly direction, and empties itself into the River St. Lawrence, about forty-five miles below Montreal. It forms the northern end of a great chain of water communication, commencing at New York, and embracing the Hudson River, the Champlain Canal, and the lake of the same name.
This river is of great importance in a commercial as well as in a military point of view. St. John's is the northern limit of the ship and steam navigation of the lake ; and is therefore a place of considerable trade. The direct communication hence to Montreal is by a rail-road to La Prairie, a distance of eighteen miles, and thence by steam-boat to the city. The navigation of the Richelieu River, from St. John's to Chambly, can only be performed in flat-bottomed boats, or bateaux, as there is much interruption from rapids. A canal, however, is in course of construction, to avoid these rapids. From Chambly, where there is a fine basin, the course of the river is smooth and tranquil, though shallow, and therefore requiring steam-boats drawing but little water. Between Sorel and St. Denis the channel is of greater depth.
By a series of fortifications along the whole course of the river, the communication with Lake Champlain is completely controlled. Isle aux Noix is an island situated only ten miles from the American lines. It lies low, but is well fortified, and completely commands the channel of the river. During the war, a thirty-two-gun ship, the Confiance, was built here. At St. John's there is also an old fort, but it has been long suffered to fall into decay.
Fort Chambly, on the south-west side of the basin, is a place of some, though not of very great strength. It was built by the French, previous to the conquest, and looks more like a county gaol than a fort : it has no outworks, and the storehouses are wholly unprotected.
Let the reader now carry his eye to the confluence of the river with the St. Lawrence. On the eastern bank stands Sorel, or William Henry, a small town of about fifteen hundred inhabitants, forming a stopping-place for the Quebec and Montreal steam-boats, where they usually take in fuel. The French had a fort here ; we have a barrack with some slight defences, where a company, and sometimes a smaller number, are usually stationed. On the opposite shore is a blockhouse, which may in some degree protect the channel.
The places included in the military operations will be found in the following order, proceeding south from Sorel : —
The villages on this river, situated in seigneuries of the same names — with the exception of St. Hilaire, which is in the seigneurie of Rouville — are from two to three leagues (six to nine miles) from each other. The seigneurie of St. Ours contains about six thousand inhabitants ; and the village consists of about ninety houses, many of them well built. The parish church is a handsome edifice, and stands in the centre of the village.
The seigneurie of St. Denis is not much above half as populous as St. Ours ; nevertheless, the village is certainly as large, and perhaps rather larger. The church is a handsome building with three spires ; and on the side of the village, towards St. Ours, stands a large stone house, the property of Madame St. Germain, the widow of the late seigneur — a house which was made to play a conspicuous part in the events we are about to relate.
The seigneurie of St. Charles does not contain more than sixteen hundred souls ; and the houses round the parish church and seigneurial house do not probably number thirty. In our narrative, however, it is a place of some importance. The seigneur of St. Charles, Mr. Debartzch, is a person who has for many years played a singular and not very creditable part in the politics of Canada. For many years he was the most violent of the popular party. He was continually urging his political associates to resist by force ; he it was who, in 1831 or 1832, organised the five counties, and so paved the way to the present outbreak. He is a man of considerable ability and education, and writes well. A few years ago, he set up a printing press in the village, and established a weekly newspaper called, L'Echo du Pays. It was well edited, but was distinguished for its excessive violence, openly recommending rebellion to the people. In 1834, in a speech he made in the Montreal convention, he is reported to have used language of similar tenor. No man was then more violently denounced by the anti-popular papers, no epithet was bad enough for him ; now he is Lord Gosford's chief adviser. When at school, it is said, his great delight was to set two little boys to fight for apples, and when the strife was highest, he quietly walked away. His political conduct is now somewhat similar.
St. Hilaire is the name of a parish in the seigneurie of Rouville, rather than of a village, as there are only a few houses around the parish church. The place is remarkable for an insulated mountain of surpassing beauty, about 1100 feet high, visible from a great distance in all directions.
All the villages on this river derive their importance from the wheat trade, the district being well cultivated, and the farmers intelligent and wealthy. The roads generally are in good order, running in lines parallel with the river. These roads are known as the Concession roads, as they divide the different ranges of lands conceded, and to be conceded, and therefore called Les Concessions.
The whole of the country between the Richelieu and the Yamaska is level, and as it was early settled there is not much wood. For this reason, it affords regular troops a great advantage over the undisciplined peasantry. In the American revolutionary war, our troops were beaten by the forests23 more than by their adversaries.
Having now given the reader an idea of the country, we proceed to the immediate subject of the chapter. Colonel Wetherall, as we have seen,24 left Montreal with four companies of the royals, and detachments of the royal artillery, and the Montreal cavalry. This force was accompanied by two magistrates, and the deputy sheriff, and its destination was Chambly. On the march, the houses of the habitans25 were generally deserted; mounted scouts were observed reconnoitering, and in many places, women and children making towards the back Concessions. The troops were also somewhat annoyed by armed parties of the peasantry, and seven prisoners were taken, with which the troops marched to Chambly.
On the 22nd, Colonel Gore left Montreal by a steam-boat, on route for Sorel, having under his command the flank companies of the 24th regiment, under Lieutenant-colonel Hughes, the light company of the 32nd commanded by Captain Markham, one howitzer (twelve-pounder) under Lieutenant Newcomen, and a party of the Montreal cavalry, under Comet Sweeney. Colonel Gore reached Sorel the same evening, where his force was augmented by two companies of the 66th, under Captain Crompton; making it in all, about four hundred men.
The object of the expedition we shall state in the words of Sir John Colborne, the commander of the forced, who, in his despatch of the 29th of November, addressed to Lord Fitzroy Somerset, writes as follows : —
The law-officers of the crown, and the magistrates of Montreal having applied to me for military force, to assist the civil power in apprehending Mr. Papineau, and other traitors, who were supposed to be at the villages of St. Denis and St. Charles, I ordered strong detachments to support the civil authorities in the execution of their duty.
St. Denis is seven miles to the northward of St. Charles, on the right bank of the Richelieu ; the former, sixteen miles from Sorel, the latter, about seventeen miles from the Ferry of Chambly, opposite Pointe Olivière.
Colonel Gore and Lieutenant-colonel Hughes, with five companies, and a howitzer, were ordered to proceed from Sorel to St. Denis ; and five companies and two guns to move from Chambly on to St. Charles, under the command of Lieutenant-colonel Wetherall of the royal regiment, accompanied by two magistrates, to execute the warrants against those individuals charged with high-treason ; and, it appeared probable, that the appearance of the troops at these points, and entering the villages nearly at the same time, would afford an opportunity of taking into custody the leaders of the revolt.26
This plan of combined operation from opposite directions, seems to evince considerable judgment on the part of Sir John Colborne. Had it been successful, the effect must have been to hem in the accused parties, and to surround them at some point of union between St. Charles and St. Denis, before they could possibly escape to the south of the frontier.
Between the time of Colonel Wetheral's departure from Montreal, and the commencement of his march from Chambly, time had been given to the insurgents at Chambly to make some rude preparations for defence. It may be here proper to mention, that the people of St. Charles were suspicious of Debartzch, and had come to the determination of keeping him a prisoner at his residence in the country. They were fearful, that if he were permitted to go to Quebec or Montreal, his undoubted influence with the governor might operate against the safety of any of their number who might be under accusation. Under this impression he was confined to his own house. Through the interference, however, of some of the leading men of the neighbourhood, he was liberated, and he proceeded at once to Quebec, where we find his name on the minutes of the council of the 20th of November,27 advising, and authorising the military operations which were then in progress.
It appears to have been after the departure of Debartzch from St. Charles, that Mr. Browne arrived at the village. Being aware that a military force was in motion, it was deemed expedient to strengthen their position as much as possible. Debartzch's house was made head quarters, and with the assistance of a strong party of habitans, Browne proceeded to throw up a line of rude fortification around the portion of the village which they occupied. This line included some three or four large barns stocked with grain and hay ; a circumstance which the reader will do well to bear in mind, as it exercised a considerable influence on the ultimate fate of the village.
We have seen that the intention was to make a simultaneous movement on the two villages. Colonel Gore being instructed to march up the river, and Colonel Wetherall to march down the river at the same time ; the distance being about equal in both cases.
Colonel Gore appears to have been prompt in obeying his instructions. He reached Sorel at six o'clock in the evening of the 22nd, and marched thence at ten o'clock at night. The march was a difficult one. "The roads being deep," says Colonel Gore in his report ;28 "the march was severe — although the distance was only eighteen miles — it having rained violently all night, the mud and water reaching to the knees ; I did not reach the small but rapid river which crosses the road four miles and a half from St. Denis, until some time after daylight; in order to arrive at my destination with as little delay as possible, I took the back road to avoid the village of St. Ours, and passed the small river by a bridge higher up than the one by, the main road; also, for the purpose of taking on an intelligent guide, who had volunteered to lead."
Leaving Colonel Gore for the present, within a league and a half of the village, let us turn to an account of the preparations which were then making for the reception of the troops. This account, we must observe, is from an eye-witness. It has already been printed in some of the newspapers, and we have ascertained that it is genuine. Moreover, with only two exceptions, namely, the force employed, and the respective losses, it agrees generally with Colonel Gore's statement.
The detachment sent to Sorel, per the steam-boat, landed at that place on Wednesday night, the 22nd November, and at ten o'clock, guided by a man named Jones, they set out for St. Denis, eighteen miles from Sorel, and six from St. Charles. Instead of passing through St. Ours — an intermediate village — they took a back road through the Concessions, unknown to the people along the bank of the river. It was not until two or three hours before their arrival at St. Denis, on Thursday the 23rd, that Mr. ____ received information of the expedition. He immediately sent notice to the people of the vicinity, of the threatened attack.
There was a warrant, be it remembered, against Mr. ____,29 and several others of the notables (leading men). It was forthwith determined to resist the progress of the troops through St. Denis, well knowing that scarce a man would be left in the village, if once the troops got possession of the place. The tocsin was immediately rung, and before the troops arrived BARRICADES were thrown up at the entrance of the village, and between three and four hundred men were collected, but ill-armed, all with the intent of opposing force to force. Mr. ____ having thrown out some sharpshooters along the fences, withdrew the main body of his men, within a large stone store or house on the right of the entrance of the village.
Let us now return to Colonel Gore's report, omitting only some unimportant passages.
On approaching St. Denis, a strong body of armed men (the sharpshooters above alluded to) moving along a wood, skirted my flank ; all the houses along the road were deserted, and on nearing St. Denis, I was attacked by skirmishers occupying the houses and barns on the road, and along the banks of the river Richelieu; these were rapidly driven in by Captain Markham to the main entrance. I found the place was strongly occupied, and the entrance defended by a large fortified stone house, and a barricade crossing the road, and flanked by a building and houses, from which a severe fire was commenced.
The advance was then reinforced, and a fire from the gun opened upon the house ; but after the day had considerably advanced, and sixty round shots had been fired without effect, six only being left; when Captain Markham had become wounded in three places, and the men much jaded ; when it became evident that the ground could hardly have been maintained during the night, and there appeared some risk that the bridge in the rear might be broken down ; when frost having succeeded the rain and snow, the mens' clothes were freezing on them. Colonel Gore determined to fall back, which was accordingly done, but not without considerable annoyance from the pursuing enemy. At the bridge, Colonel Gore states, they were compelled to abandon their gun. The horses had fallen, the wheels had frozen in the mud, the men were worn out, and in danger of freezing also, so that no other course was left to the Colonel than to spike the gun and leave it. On the following morning at 11 o'clock, the troops reached Sorel, and on the ensuing day arrived at Montreal, having lost, according to a statement annexed to his report, 1 sergeant, 5 rank and file killed ; 1 captain, 9 rank and file wounded ; 6 rank and file missing. His estimate of the force opposed to him is 1500, of whom he calculates 100 must have been killed.30 The account from which we have already quoted differs from that of Colonel Gore with regard to the numbers engaged, and to the loss on both sides. In other respects, there is a general agreement in the two accounts, whilst the discrepancies are unimportant.
"The advanced picket of the troops," says the narrator, "was allowed to pass unmolested, but when the main body came up, around of fire was sent in upon them from the house which made them stagger. This battle between the peasantry and the troops continued from nine in the morning till half-past three in the afternoon with unabated rage, and so desperate was the contest, that a piece of artillery belonging to the troops, was five different times in possession of the adverse parties ; it finally remained in the hands of the Canadians.31 Between three and four o'clock, the regular troops found themselves obliged to retire from the field. One of the officers, Captain Markham, had received four wounds. Their loss was estimated at 50 killed and about 16 wounded. The precise number cannot be ascertained, as it was said a party of soldiers was employed in throwing their dead into the river. The loss on the Canadian side was eight killed."
With regard to the statements of killed, it should be observed, that both parties would naturally be desirous of hiding their own disasters. False returns of killed and wounded form, we believe, part of the modem and perhaps also of the ancient system of warfare. Napoleon has been accused of having invented it, but we cannot help thinking it is coeval with the existence of falsehood, and it is certain that the English have not disdained to adopt it. Colonel Gore's force was exposed, for more than six hours, to the fire of a large body of men rendered cool by that feeling of security which stone walls imparted. Under such circumstances, it is difficult to believe that his loss was only six men killed. Again, the peasantry being screened by stone walls which resisted the round shot, and by the barricade, it is equally difficult to believe that they lost 100, though they may have lost more than eight. The official account of 16 wounded and missing, agrees well enough with the other account of 15 or 16 wounded, for some of the missing were wounded, and were afterwards recovered. Being correct in one respect, it is fair to presume that the narrator was not far wrong in the other, the more especially as an officer of bravery and reputation, as we hear Colonel Gore is, would scarcely have retreated on so small a loss. On the other hand, it is probable that more than eight of the peasantry were killed ; the struggle for the gun must have been attended with some loss. Probably the numbers on either side did not greatly differ ; but judging from the character of the struggle, from the position of the parties engaged, and lastly, from the retreat of the troops, it is probable the balance of loss was against the latter.
Amongst the slain on the side of the Canadians was one whom his countrymen will long deplore, namely, M. Ch. Ovide Perrault, member for the county of Vaudreuil. He was one of those who left the city after the first arrests, though his name does not appear in the list of 26 appended to the attorney-general's report32 of the 18th of November.
M. Perrault, who was not above 27 years of age when he fell, was a member of the Montreal bar, having studied the law under Mr. D. B. Viger, some time delegate from the Assembly of Lower Canada to this country. His practice latterly was considerable and increasing, an advantage which he owed to his knowledge, his eloquence, and his accurate acquaintance with the English as well as his own language — a qualification of no small use in a country where the criminal law is English ; the civil law, French ; and the commercial law a mixture of both ; where juries are composed of men of either origin, and where the court interpreters are especially ignorant.33
For some years previous to his election as a member of the Assembly, M. Perrault had taken an active part in politics. He wrote in the Minerve, in the French language, and in the Vindicator in English ; and was an active member of the Montreal Convention assembled in 1834, one of the chief objects of which seems to have been to prepare the public mind for the coming elections, by explaining, by means of published resolutions, the principles of the contest.
When the general election took place, M. Perrault was invited to represent the county of Vaudreuil, and as the contest hinged on the elective principle, the application of which to the council he had rendered himself conspicuous in advocating, he was returned without difficulty.
In the Assembly, during the long session of 1835, he fully justified the choice of his constituents. He proved himself as ready in debate as he was laborious in committee ; and being well acquainted with, being in fact a warm admirer of our great jurisprudential writers, our Benthams, and our Austins, he would, had he lived, have advanced his character as a philosophical legislator. In a young country like Canada, the death of such a man is a public loss.
In all the social relations, M. Perrault exhibited those qualities which entitled him to the regard of his fellow citizens, to the affection of his friends. Generous in his sympathies, enlarged in his benevolences, imbued with a strong sense of religion, yet without a tinge of bigotry, tolerant of the opinions of others, he possessed a truly liberal mind. The beautiful language of Tacitus is especially suited to the mournful aspirations of his friends. "Si quis piorum manibus locus ; si, ut sapientibus placet, non cum corpore extinguuntur, magnae animae, placide quiescas."34 Of his death, the writer already quoted, who was his personal friend, thus speaks : "With that ardour in favour of his insulted country, for which he has been ever remarkable, ever honoured, he threw himself, on the morning of the 23rd, among his compatriots, and acted as aide-de-camp to Mr. ____ ; in conveying some orders to a body of men at the other side of the street, he received a ball in his body over the hip. He lingered till the next morning when he expired, having been greatly comforted with the news that the patriots were masters of the field."
Of Dr. Wolfred Nelson, who is stated in the Montreal newspaper to have led the peasantry at St. Denis, a few words will not here be out of place.
He is the son of an English gentleman who kept a school of some note in Canada, and is one of a large family, all of whom occupy a good station in society. His brother, Dr. Robert Nelson, is Mr. Papineau's colleague in the representation of the west ward of Montreal, and enjoys the highest reputation as a medical practitioner in that city ; indeed, so completely is his skill acknowledged, that other practitioners opposed to him in politics repeatedly seek his aid in consultations ; a remarkable tribute to talent in a colony where party feelings vitiate every branch of social intercourse.
Dr. Wolfred Nelson is about forty-four years of age, and is a man of considerable talent and unusual energy. He enjoys a good practice, beside which he has established a distillery and other works at St. Denis, which occupy a portion of his time.
He sat in the Assembly, from 1827 till 1829, for the "royal" borough of Wiliam Henry (Sorel), having contested it with the attorney-general Stuart. This borough had been represented by three attorney-generals in succession, Sewell, Bowen, and Uniacke; and Dr. Nelson's success against the fourth was a great triumph to the liberal party.
In the Assembly, he acted zealously with the majority, and has since enjoyed the confidence of his compatriots. At all public meetings on great occasions, he has taken a prominent part, and his joining in the determination to resist the arrest of his friends is consistent with his general character.
Before we close our account of the affair of St. Denis, it is necessary that we should advert to a transaction of a melancholy hue connected therewith, concerning which, the accounts are of a conflicting nature. We allude to the death of a young officer of the 32nd regiment named Weir; an event, which from the manner in which it has been related, has created very considerable sensation among those who have given attention to the several details of the insurrection.
Lieutenant Weir was attached to Colonel Gore's force, but, strange to say, he is not in any way mentioned in the despatch of that officer detailing the result of his attack on St. Denis.
The first mention of the unfortunate young officer is in Sir John Colborne's despatch of the 30th of November, where it is stated that he had been sent with despatches to Colonel Wetherall, that he had been taken prisoner when returning, and that it was feared had been put to death.35 The next account is from a newspaper to the effect, that he had been barbarously murdered while a prisoner, by two men who had been appointed to convey him from St. Denis to St. Charles, when the attack on the former place commenced. The circumstances attending his being a prisoner are nowhere mentioned in the official accounts or in the papers, but in most of the Montreal papers, and in many of those of New York and London, appeared a detailed statement of his alleged murder.
We are by no means disposed to inflict upon our readers the revolting details which are given with the minuteness of an eye-witness ; suffice it to say, that the sum of the statement is to the effect, that one of the men in charge made him get out of the cart in which they were conveying him ; that both then attacked him, the one with a sword, and the other with an axe ; and that in this way he was literally butchered. Every revolting circumstance is detailed. The position of the cart, the number and effect of the blows, the writhing of the ill-fated victim, and the final catastrophe. In a word, it is a highly-wrought picture, whether true or false. That it is false, let us, for the sake of humanity, hope ; indeed, even without any testimony to set it aside, we think it is not difficult to show that the details could not by possibility have been made known, and therefore to suppose them true is to suppose a miracle.
The account, be it observed, is a detailed one; minute in the extreme, such, indeed, as could not have been given, except by an eye-witness or an inventor. Where was the eye-witness? It was not pretended that there was one. It was on the contrary distinctly stated, that the men were only two, and that neither had been taken. If then, of the only three witnesses, two were not to be found, and one was dead, how could such details appear ? The reader may decide the question.
Having thus shown that the newspaper accounts cannot be true, we shall offer another, which certainly appears to be more probable. It was furnished us from a private and authentic source; nevertheless, we recommend the reader to examine its intrinsic claim to probability, and to take it on its own merits.
At the period of Colonel Gore's expedition, the troops were about two leagues from St. Denis, having taken the Concessions road, when, at about five or six in the morning. Dr. Nelson heard of their approach. About the same time, Lieutenant Weir was brought in by some habitans who had stopped Mr. Weir's conveyance at a short distance from the village. Weir, who was then in plain clothes, stated, that he was visiting St. Denis and St. Charles, in order to purchase wheat. The habitans replied, that this was not the time when the merchants usually purchased wheat, and that they believed he belonged to the troops which were in full march against them. This he denied, and the habitans then carried him before Dr. Nelson. Weir again repeated the same story, but the language he used, raised Dr. Nelson's suspicions, and on examining his baggage, it was discovered who he was. At length, Weir avowed himself, demanded his liberty, and stated that he would pay any sum as ransom. This, Dr. Nelson of course refused, but stated, that although he had been taken as a spy, he should, nevertheless, be treated as a gentleman ; at the same time, he was told to consider himself a prisoner. Weir, then, breakfasted with Dr. Nelson, and was afterwards placed under the charge of some persons in a room in the house.
When the troops approached the village, and the firing commenced, Mr. Weir's guards appear to have thought, that if they remained there, the prisoner would not be secure ; they accordingly, in the absence of Dr. Nelson, determined to transport him further in a calèche.36 They tied his hands, but so feebly, that Weir, when the calèche had advanced only a few hundred yards from the house, on hearing the firing, broke his bonds, struck his guards, leapt suddenly from the chaise, and commenced running in the direction of the troops. It was then that one of his guards called upon him to return, and Weir continuing his course, he was at once fired upon. That shot was the cause of his death. A Captain Jalbert is accused of having barbarously murdered him ; he was not even present at his death.
This account is much more consistent with the treatment of other prisoners whom the fortune of the contest placed in the hands of the people of St. Denis. On Colonel Gore's retreat, it will be recollected, there were five soldiers missing. These were wounded, and remained with the insurgents. On his second expedition they were recovered, and Colonel Gore reported that they had been well treated.37 Under these circumstances, we cannot help indulging ourselves with the hope that when the matter comes to be investigated, as it will shortly be, Lieutenant Weir's death will be found to have been such as not to revolt humanity; at least, not to a greater extent than the ordinary chance of war ought to do.
We must now return to Lieutenant-colonel Wetherall, whom we left at Chambly, under orders to march upon St. Charles at the same time that Colonel Gore marched upon St. Denis.
On Wednesday evening, at the time appointed, he left Chambly with four companies of the royals, one company of the 66th, a detachment of artillery with two field pieces, and a party of 20 of the Montreal cavalry, crossed the river to the east bank, and resumed his march towards St. Charles. By the time Colonel Gore had reached St. Denis, Colonel Wetherall had scarcely reached Rouville or St. Hilaire, a distance of about ten miles ; the delay being caused, according to a Montreal paper, by the miserable state of the roads.
At St. Hilaire, Colonel Wetherall halted for about forty-eight hours. Here, we must observe, that there are some unexplained circumstances which force us into the field of conjecture, which render it necessary that we should demand the reader's careful attention to certain pieces of evidence, and especially to dates, by which we hope to throw a strong ray of light upon the whole matter.
Colonel Wetherall's first two despatches, dated the 25th and 26th of November, and referred to in his published despatch of the 27th,38 have, for some unexplained reason, been suppressed. The first, dated from St. Hilaire, explains the cause of his delay ; the second, is the report of his attack on St. Charles. In the absence of these despatches, we are compelled to make use of the evidence of a Montreal paper, strongly opposed to the Canadians. Fortunately, however, we have the means of confronting one piece of evidence with another; and in the end, we doubt not that the truth will be sifted out.
The paper in question tells us, that on arriving at St. Hilaire, "after encountering the worst of weather and roads during the night, and the forenoon of Thursday," the troops "found a bridge of considerable size removed, and were forced to bivouac there for the night."
"The next day," continues the same paper, "appears to have been spent in getting up a new bridge, refreshing the troops, and obtaining information. Major Warde, with the grenadier company of the Royals from St. Johns, also joined the main body, we believe, during that day.39 Major Warde had reached Chambly too late to join in the march, and had thereupon taken the precaution to procure scows and bateaux for the conveyance of his company down the river to Rouville (St. Hilaire), by which means they arrived at that place fresh, and well prepared for service."
We must now crave the reader's attention to Colonel Wetherall's despatch of the 27th of November (Monday), written at St. Charles. It seems to be a mere recapitulation of the two suppressed documents, and runs as follows :
I had the honour yesterday, (Sunday, 26th), to report the successful result of my attack on the stockaded post of the rebels, at this place.
In my letter of the 25th of November, (Saturday), I stated the circumstances which induced me to suspend my march towards St. Charles, and to order a company from Chambly to my support, and I then said that I should wait at St. Hilaire, for his Excellency's further orders : this despatch was sent by Dr. Jones of the Montreal cavalry, and I hoped for his Excellency's answer during the following night. Not having received it at nine o'clock yesterday (Sunday) morning, I concluded that my messenger had been interrupted, and having learned that the basin at Chambly was frozen over, and every probability of a retreat being cut off, should such an event occur, I resolved on the attack.
The march was accomplished without opposition or hindrance, except from the breaking down of the bridges, &c. &c., until I arrived one mile from this place, when the troops were fired at from the left or opposite (west) bank of the Richelieu, and a man of the royal regiment wounded ; several rifle shots were also fired from a barn immediately in our front. I burnt the barn.
On arriving at two hundred and fifty yards from the rebel works, I took up a position, hoping that a display of my force would induce some defection among these infatuated people ; they, however, opened a heavy fire, which was returned. I then advanced to another position, one hundred yards from the works, but finding the defenders obstinate, I stormed and earned them, burning every building within the stockade, except that of the honourable Mr. Debartzch, which, however, is much injured. The loss on the side of the rebels was great ; only sixteen prisoners were then made. I have counted fifty-six bodies, and many more were killed in the buildings, and their bodies burnt.
I shall occupy this village until the receipt of his Excellency's orders.
The loss on the part of the troops is stated to have been three killed, and eighteen wounded.
The next day (the 28th) we find Colonel Wetherall at Chambly, having abandoned his intention of occupying St, Charles. "Having received information on Sunday night" (the night before he had expressed the above determination) that "a considerable body of the rebels had assembled at Pointe Olivière," he "resolved upon attacking them in preference to marching on St, Denis." This is the first mention made of marching on St. Denis. It could have been the intention only up to Sunday night, for at that time he formed the resolution to attack the rebels at Pointe Olivière ; on Monday we find him stating that he shall occupy St. Charles until the receipt of orders ; and on Tuesday, we find him at Chambly, after having dispersed the armed peasantry at Pointe Olivière. These apparent inconsistencies — this seeming vacillation would, we doubt not, be clearly explained by the suppressed despatches, so also would the delay at St. Hilaire. Not having those despatches, however, we must content ourselves by carefully examining the evidence before us ; and here we think we shall find a fact stated in the following passage from the letter which we have already quoted, of material service.
"Immediately after the battle of St. Charles," says the writer, "Colonel Wetherall sent forward an express to Montreal, demanding a reinforcement from Sir John Colborne. The messenger bearing Sir John's answer (one of the cavalry) was intercepted at St. Hilaire, and made prisoner by a body of men, who had assembled and threatened the Colonel's rear. The letter was opened, and Sir John Colborne told Colonel Wetherall that no assistance could be given him, and that he should make the best of his way back to Montreal. In pursuance of these instructions (which the patriots politely communicated to the Colonel, after they had read them) the body of troops under his command immediately retreated on Chambly, harassed on their flank by some straggling skirmishers. From Chambly, they proceeded to St. Johns, and to the number of 600, including the soldiers in garrison at Chambly and St. Johns, embarked on the railroad, carrying with them all the stores at those two posts, having, previous to their departure, disarmed all the loyalists, into whose hands they had previously placed arms, as volunteers."
The answer intercepted by the insurgents was doubtless that which Colonel Wetherall so anxiously waited at St. Hilaire, in fact he expected none other ; and as we learn from it that he had demanded a reinforcement ; and as, moreover, we know that he ordered Major Warde's company from St. Johns, the inevitable inference is, that, while at St. Hilaire, he had heard of Colonel Gore's disaster, and this is doubtless the chief of the "circumstances which induced him to suspend his march," stated in his letter of the 27th, as having been detailed in that of the 26th, from St. Hilaire. This supposition ripens into conviction, when it is remarked that the answer was intercepted at St. Hilaire. St. Hilaire is not in the road from Montreal to St. Charles ; and the fact of the messenger being arrested there, is a proof that he expected to find Colonel Wetherall in that village. The letter-writer, in saying that Colonel Wetherall applied for a reinforcement after the battle, makes a hasty assumption. We have no evidence of anything of the kind after the battle. A reinforcement was not then wanted. At St. Hilaire, on the contrary, we have evidence that he did want a reinforcement, and that it was for that purpose alone that he suspended his march. The subsequent transmission of the intercepted letter to Colonel Wetherall, also explains his sudden change of mind on the night of the 27th, or the morning of the 28th.
Sir John Colborne's refusal of a reinforcement is also susceptible of an explanation, perfectly consistent with Sir John's character as an able soldier.
Colonel Gore returned to Montreal on the 26th, the day on which Colonel Wetherall wrote. Having been decidedly defeated, Colonel Gore certainly would not undervalue his enemy. This created a great degree of gloom in Montreal, which was not dissipated until the news of the burning of St. Charles reached the city on Monday morning, (the 27th,) or perhaps on Sunday night.40 On the Saturday, the talk had been of an attack upon the city from the north, and all the streets on that side, with the exception of one (or two) for the purpose of ingress and egress, were barricaded. Under this state of doubt and alarm, it is not at all surprising, that Sir John Colborne not merely refused a reinforcement, but ordered Colonel Wetherall to make the best of his way back with his whole force to the city. We have not a doubt but that our conjectures on this head would be abundantly confirmed were the suppressed despatches published.
There is a conclusion, and a curious one, which remains to be stated ; namely, that had Sir John's answer reached Colonel Wetherall, as he expected, at St. Hilaire, the attack upon St. Charles would never have been made. Colonel Wetherall would have immediately obeyed the order it contained, with the same promptitude which he afterwards exhibited on the final receipt of the answer. The whole character of the war would have been changed. The country would have been evacuated without a single success, and the Canadians would have been emboldened in their subsequent operations ; in short, it is quite impossible to foresee to what result it might not have led. Thus to a mere accident, is the local government of Canada indebted for the suppression of the insurrection in the section of country watered by the Richelieu.
The account from which we have already quoted, contains some curious and interesting particulars of the attack upon St. Charles, which are not be found elsewhere. As in the case of St. Denis, the only material discrepancy between the official and the non-official accounts, relates to the loss on either side. The armed force of the insurgents is not stated by Colonel Wetherall.
"This post" (St. Charles) says the writer, "was defended by about 300 Canadians who had guns. There were a large number of men without arms, on the ground, who had been employed during the two preceding days, as workmen, in hurrying on the completion of the stockade, or rude line of fortifications, hastily traced by Mr. ____.41 These men were not merely of no assistance — they did but create confusion during the fight. You will remember that the right of this stockade was composed of three or four barns, in which was stored a quantity of grain and hay. The hahitans, who had gone to work, had lodged about fifty or sixty of their horses, unfortunately, in some of these out-houses. When the troops first commenced the attack, they were received with such a hot fire, that they were obliged to abandon or change their ground. The hottest of the fire was from the barns, where the Canadians, from loop-holes previously cut, bore upon the troops in a most galling manner. The troops immediately threw shells into the barns, and set them on fire. This was totally unexpected. Immediately, in consequence of the inflammable nature of their contents, the barns were in one blaze ; the horses within broke loose and ran mad through the camp. The unarmed peasantry fled likewise, and in a short time all was confusion. The fight lasted about an hour and a half. Colonel Wetherall had his horse shot under him ; so had Mr. David (a Jew,) commanding the cavalry. The loss of the patriots did not exceed 28 killed (Colonel Wetherall said 56) ; the troops had 15 killed and 16 wounded. The Tory papers of Montreal, who receive their information from the official circles, admit that the Canadians fought with uncommon desperation ;42 indeed, some of the people, sooner than fall into the hands of the enemy as prisoners, flung themselves into the river, whereby many were drowned."
On the last day of November, the troops under Colonel Wetherall reached Montreal with thirty-two prisoners, twenty-five from St. Charles, and the seven previously captured. Among these prisoners it should be remarked, were none of those whose capture was the express object43 of the expedition, and whom the peasantry had risen to defend. The people were dispersed ; but they had only risen in consequence of the threatened presence of the troops. Theirs appears to have been a defensive warfare, and their great error certainly was in making a stand against the troops at all. At St. Denis it happened to be successful ; at St. Charles it failed ; but then Dr. Nelson is a man of great mental vigour, and Mr. Browne appears not to have acted with much less judgment; however, had Colonel Gore's force been equal to that of Colonel Wetherall — with two guns, be it observed — St. Denis might have fallen. Had the operations of the insurgents been of an offensive, instead of a defensive character, it would not have been difficult for them to have seized upon Isle-aux-Noix, St. Johns, Chambly, Sorel, and the intermediate villages. That they neglected to do so when those stations were scarcely defended, is a proof that they had no preconcerted plan. To a set of men contemplating rebellion in a country such as we have described, the possession of the above places, with the arms and ammunition, but, above all, with the artillery they contained, would naturally have been a primary object. The very first outbreak would have been an attempt upon one of these forts. The possession of one would have proved the key to the whole ; and when all were occupied, that section of the country might have been deemed theirs.
On the return of the troops to Montreal, it is painful to state that ample evidence is said to have been exhibited that the village had been plundered. Watches and other portables of value were exposed for sale without disguise, and the amount of plunder which fell to the share of some of the men is said to have been considerable. The French Canadians are in the habit of keeping money in their houses. Being a simple agricultural people, and not familiar with the habits of a commercial community, they have, what we should consider a strange and unaccountable prejudice, against paper money; hence a paper dollar is no sooner taken than it is exchanged for "argent dur" — hard money — and deposited in the hoard, to be used only for such purposes as money will alone attain.
The poor people of St. Charles had no time to secure their hard-earned savings, as "the attack occupied about one hour"44 only. It is due to the magistrates who accompanied the troops to say, that they exerted themselves to the utmost to save the property of the unfortunate inhabitants from plunder, and their persons from insult. In some cases they succeeded. In a house wherein one of the magistrates45 had taken up his residence, the most revolting scene would have taken place but for his humane interference ; but the fact of interference being necessary in one case, affords melancholy evidence that many circumstances of barbarity must have occurred out of the cognizance of the magistrates and the deputy sheriff, who we believe was also present, and being a native Canadian would of course do all in his power to avert the evils to which we are compelled to allude. What could three men do, against an unrestrained body of five hundred ?
We have now brought to a close our narrative of the military operations in Lower Canada down to the end of November last. The events not of a military character, which in the mean time took place, and the measures adopted by the local government to secure tranquillity, or to strengthen their own position, will be detailed in the following chapter.
22. It is also called the Chambly River, and occasionally the Sorel.
23. See Chap. v.
24. Chap. i. p. 13.
25. The peasantry are so called.
26. Par. paper. No. 80, (in continuation of 72,) p. 3.
27. Par. paper, No. 72, p. 114.
28. Par. paper, No. 8, p. 4.
29. So in the original. It is generally stated in the anti-popular accounts, that Dr. Wolfred Nelson commanded at St. Denis.
30. Par. paper. No. 80, pp. 4, 5.
31. We have been informed by a gentleman lately in Canada, that the Canadians actually fought for this gun with bludgeons, many not having fire arms.
32. Par. paper. No. 72, p. 100.
33. At a trial for infanticide, a medical gentleman was examined. He stated that he practised as an accoucheur, the interpreter said, "Monsieur dit qu'il est sage femme." — the gentleman says he is a midwife, as the gentleman was one of that class, who are not unfrequently designated as "old women," the gravity and decorum of the court was somewhat disturbed by the mistake.
35. Par. paper, No. 80, p. 8.
36. A kind of cabriolet.
37. See Lord Gosford's despatch of 6th December, 1837; Par. No. 80, p. 14.
38. See Par. paper, 16th Jan. 1838, No. 80, p. 6.
39. This increased Colonel Wetherall's force to about five hundred men.
40. It appeared in the papers of Monday as a report.
41. T. S. Browne. We throw into the form of a note the few facts in our possession respecting Mr. Browne. He was born in New Brunswick, but his father, a man of respectability, removed to Woodstock, in the State of Vermont, when the subject of this note was young ; thus, though by birth a British subject, he is by education — by early habit — an American. For many years he carried on the business of a hardware merchant (Angliscé, a whole-sale ironmonger), and latterly was in difficulties, but not to the extent of bankruptcy. Mr. Browne is a man of considerable energy ; and for some years previous to the late unfortunate occurrence, had taken an active part in politics. He wrote constantly in the newspapers, and occasionally produced political poems of considerable merit.
When the cholera broke out in 1834, (the second visitation,) Mr. Browne was one of the sanitary committee, and did much to alleviate the sufferings occasioned thereby. A report, which was then drawn up on the subject, we have heard attributed to him ; those who are curious on the subject will find it reprinted in one of the numbers of the Canadian Portfolio.
Browne was one of the Sons of Liberty, and we learn from the official despatches, that he was badly wounded on the 6th of Nov. His part in the affairs of St. Charles, the reader is already acquainted with. On the evidence before us, he appears to have acted somewhat rashly, but as all the evidence is that of his opponents, we should not judge too hastily. After the battle, he escaped into the United States with considerable difficulty : an account of this escape has appeared in the New York papers ; we shall make use of this account in Chapter iv.
42. One paper said "the Canadians fought like tigers ;" adding, in confirmation of the text, "many of them plunging into the river and drowning themselves, rather than be taken." Another says, "the poor deluded wretches fought with a degree of bravery worthy of a better cause." It is necessary to mention this, as it has been stated on high authority that the Canadians would not fight — an error which we fear may have operated injuriously on her Majesty's councils in the management of the colony.
43. See Sir John Colborne's despatch of the 29th November, already quoted.
44. Col. Wetherall's despatch of 27th Nov.
45. Mr. Bellingham.
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