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The Counterstroke, 1776-1778

Six thousand British troops, commanded by Burgoyne, and four thousand Germans, commanded by Baron Riedesel, had arrived at Quebec before the battle of Three Rivers. Quebec itself had then been left to the care of a German garrison under a German commandant, 'that excellent man, Colonel Baum,' while the great bulk of the army had marched up the St Lawrence, as we have seen already. Such a force as this new one of Carleton's was expected to dismay the rebel colonies. And so, to a great extent, it did. With a much larger force in the colonies themselves the king was confidently expected to master his unruly subjects, no matter how much they proclaimed their independence. The Loyalists were encouraged. The trimmers prepared to join them. Only those steadfast Americans who held their cause dearer than life itself were still determined to venture all. But they formed the one party that really knew its own mind. This gave them a great advantage over the king's party, which, hampered at every turn by the opposition in the mother country, was never quite sure whether it ought to strike hard or gently in America.

On one point, however, everybody was agreed. The command of Lake Champlain was essential to whichever side would hold its own. The American forces at Crown Point might be too weak for the time being. But Arnold knew that even ten thousand British soldiers could not overrun the land without a naval force to help them. So he got together a flotilla which had everything its own way during the time that Carleton was laboriously building a rival flotilla on the Richelieu with a very scanty supply of ship-wrights and materials. Arnold, moreover, could devote his whole attention to the work, makeshift as it had to be; while Carleton was obliged to keep moving about the province in an effort to bring it into some sort of order after the late invasion. Throughout the summer the British army held the line of the Richelieu all the way south as far as Isle-aux-Noix, very near the lake and the line. But Carleton's flotilla could not set sail from St Johns till October 5, by which time the main body of his army was concentrated round Pointe-au-Fer, at the northern end of the lake, ninety miles north of the American camp at Crown Point.

It was a curious situation for a civil and military governor to be hoisting his flag as a naval commander-in-chief, however small the fleet might be. But it is commonly ignored that, down to the present day, the governor-general of Canada is appointed 'Vice-Admiral of the Same' in his commissions from the Crown. Carleton of course carried expert naval officers with him and had enough professional seamen to work the vessels and lay the guns. But, though Captain Pringle maneuvered the flotilla and Lieutenant Dacre handled the flagship Carleton, the actual command remained in Carleton's own hands. The capital ship (and the only real square-rigged 'ship') of this Lilliputian fleet was Pringle's Inflexible, which had been taken up the Richelieu in sections and hauled past the portages with immense labor before reaching St Johns, whence there is a clear run upstream to Lake Champlain. The Inflexible carried thirty guns, mostly 12-pounders, and was an overmatch for quite the half of Arnold's decidedly weaker flotilla. The Lady Maria was a sort of sister ship to the Carleton. The little armada was completed by a 'gondola' with six 9-pounders, by twenty gunboats and four longboats, each carrying a single piece, and by many small craft used as transports.

On the 11th of October Carleton's whole naval force was sailing south when one of Arnold's vessels was seen making for Valcour Island, a few miles still farther south on the same, or western, side of Lake Champlain. Presently the Yankee ran ashore on the southern end of the island, where she was immediately attacked by some British small craft while the Inflexible sailed on. Then, to the intense disgust of the Inflexible's crew, Arnold's complete flotilla was suddenly discovered drawn up in a masterly position between the mainland and the island. It was too late for the Inflexible to beat back now. But the rest of Carleton's flotilla turned in to the attack. Arnold's flanks rested on the island and the mainland. His rear could be approached only by beating back against a bad wind all the way round the outside of Valcour Island; and, even if this maneuver could have been performed, the British attack on his rear from the north could have been made only in a piecemeal way, because the channel was there at its narrowest, with a bad obstruction in the middle. So, for every reason, a frontal attack from the south was the one way of closing with him. The fight was furious while it lasted and seemingly decisive when it ended. Arnold's best vessel, the Royal Savage, which he had taken at St Johns the year before, was driven ashore and captured. The others were so severely mauled that when the victorious British anchored their superior force in line across Arnold's front there seemed to be no chance for him to escape the following day. But that night he performed an even more daring and wonderful feat than Bouchette had performed the year before when paddling Carleton through the American lines among the islands opposite Sorel. Using muffled sweeps, with consummate skill he slipped all his remaining vessels between the mainland and the nearest British gunboat, and was well on his way to Crown Point before his escape had been discovered. Next day Carleton chased south. The day after he destroyed the whole of the enemy's miniature sea-power as a fighting force. But the only three serviceable vessels got away; while Arnold burnt everything else likely to fall into British hands. So Carleton had no more than his own reduced flotilla to depend on when he occupied Crown Point.

A vexed question, destined to form part of a momentous issue, now arose. Should Ticonderoga be attacked at once or not? It commanded the only feasible line of march from Montreal to New York; and no force from Canada could therefore attack the new republic effectively without taking it first. But the season was late. The fort was strong, well gunned, and well manned. Carleton's reconnaissance convinced him that he could have little chance of reducing it quickly, if at all, with the means at hand, especially as the Americans had supplies close by at Lake George, while he was now a hundred miles south of his base. A winter siege was impossible. Sufficient supplies could never be brought through the dense, snow-encumbered bush, all the way from Canada, even if the long and harassing line of communications had not been everywhere open to American attack. Moreover, Carleton's army was in no way prepared for a midwinter campaign, even if it could have been supplied with food and warlike stores. So he very sensibly turned his back on Lake Champlain until the following year.

That was the gayest winter Quebec had seen since Montcalm's first season, twenty years before. Carleton had been knighted for his services and was naturally supposed to be the chosen leader for the next campaign. The ten thousand troops gave confidence to the loyalists and promised success for the coming campaign. The clergy were getting their disillusioned parishioners back to the fold beneath the Union Jack; while Jean Ba'tis'e himself was fain to admit that his own ways of life and the money he got for his goods were very much safer with les Angla's than with the revolutionists, whom he called les Bastonna's because most trade between Quebec and the Thirteen Colonies was carried on by vessels hailing from the port of Boston. The seigneurs were delighted. They still hoped for commissions as regulars, which too few of them ever received; and they were charmed with the little viceregal court over which Lady Maria Carleton, despite her youthful two-and-twenty summers, presided with a dignity inherited from the premier ducal family of England and brought to the acme of conventional perfection by her intimate experience of Versailles. On New Year's Eve Carleton gave a public fete, a state dinner, and a ball to celebrate the anniversary of the British victory over Montgomery and Arnold. The bishop held a special thanksgiving and made all notorious renegades do open penance. Nothing seemed wanting to bring the New Year in under the happiest auspices since British rule began.

But, quite unknown to Carleton, mischief was brewing in the Colonial Office of that unhappy government which did so many stupid things and got the credit for so many more. In 1775 the well-meaning Earl of Dartmouth was superseded by Lord George Germain, who continued the mismanagement of colonial affairs for seven disastrous years. Few characters have abused civil and military positions more than the man who first, as a British general, disgraced the noble name of Sackville on the battlefield of Minden in 1759, and then, as a cabinet minister, disgraced throughout America the plebeian one of Germain, which he took in 1770 with a suitable legacy attached to it. His crime at Minden was set down by the thoughtless public to sheer cowardice. But Sackville was no coward. He had borne himself with conspicuous gallantry at Fontenoy. He was admired, before Minden, by two very brave soldiers, Wolfe and the Duke of Cumberland. And he afterwards fought a famous duel with as much sang-froid as any one would care to see. His real crime at Minden was admirably exposed by the court-martial which found him 'guilty of having disobeyed the orders of Prince Ferdinand of Brunswick, whom he was by his commission bound to obey as commander-in-chief, according to the rules of war.' This court also found him 'unfit to serve his Majesty in any military capacity whatever'; and George II directed that the following 'remarks' should be added when the sentence was read out on parade to every regiment in the service: 'It is his Majesty's pleasure that the above sentence be given out in public orders, not only in Britain, but in America, and in every quarter of the globe where British troops happen to be, so that all officers, being convinced that neither high birth nor great employments can shelter offences of such a nature, and seeing they are subject to censures worse than death to a man who has any sense of honor, may avoid the fatal consequences arising from disobedience of orders.'

This seemed to mark the end of Sackville's sinister career. But when George II died and George III began to reign, with a very different set of men to help him, the bad general reappeared as an equally bad politician. Haughty, cantankerous, and self-opinionated to the last degree, Germain, who had many perverse abilities fitting him for the meaner side of party politics, was appointed to the post for which he was least qualified just when Canada and the Thirteen Colonies most needed a master mind. Worse still, he cherished a contemptible grudge against Carleton for having refused to turn out a good officer and put in a bad one who happened to be a pampered favorite. At first, however, Carleton was allowed to do his best. But in the summer of 1776 Germain restricted Carleton's command to Canada and put Burgoyne, a junior officer, in command of the army destined to make the counterstroke. The ship bearing this malicious order had to put back; so it was not till the middle of May 1777 that Carleton was disillusioned by its arrival as well as by a second and still more exasperating dispatch accusing him of neglect of duty for not having taken Ticonderoga in November and thus prevented Washington from capturing the Hessians at Trenton. The physical impossibility of a winter siege, the three hundred miles of hostile country between Trenton and Ticonderoga, and the fact that the other leading British general, Howe, had thirty thousand troops in the Colonies, while Carleton had only ten thousand with which to hold Canada that year and act as ordered next year, all went for nothing when Germain found a chance to give a good stab in the back.

On May 20 Carleton wrote a pungent reply, pointing out the utter impossibility of following up his victory on Lake Champlain by carrying out Germain's arm-chair plan of operations in the middle of winter. 'I regard it as a particular blessing that your Lordship's dispatch did not arrive in due time.' As for the disaster at Trenton, he 'begs to inform his Lordship' that if Howe's thirty thousand men had been properly used the Hessians could never have been taken, 'though all the rebels from Ticonderoga had reinforced Mr Washington's army.' Moreover, 'I never could imagine why, if troops so far south [as Howe's] found it necessary to go into winter quarters, your Lordship could possibly expect troops so far north to continue their operations.' A week later Carleton wrote again and sent in his resignation. 'Finding that I can no longer be of use, under your Lordship's administration ... I flatter myself I shall obtain the king's permission to return home this fall. ... I shall embark with great satisfaction, still entertaining the ardent wish that, after my departure, the dignity of the Crown in this unfortunate Province may not appear beneath your Lordship's concern.'

Burgoyne had spent the winter in London and had arrived at Quebec about the same time as Germain's dispatches. He had loyally represented Carleton's plans at headquarters. But he did not know America and he was not great enough to see the weak points in the plan which Germain proposed to carry out with wholly inadequate means.

There was nothing wrong with the actual idea of this plan. Washington, Carleton, and every other leading man on either side saw perfectly well that the British army ought to cut the rebels in two by holding the direct line from Montreal to New York throughout the coming campaign of 1777. Given the irresistible British command of the sea, fifty thousand troops were enough. The general idea was that half of these should hold the four-hundred-mile line of the Richelieu, Lake Champlain, and the Hudson, while the other half seized strategic points elsewhere and still further divided the American forces. But the troops employed were ten thousand short of the proper number. Many of them were foreign mercenaries. And the generals were not the men to smash the enemy at all costs. They were ready to do their duty. But their affinities were rather with the opposition, which was against the war, than with the government, which was for it. Howe was a strong Whig. Burgoyne became a follower of Fox. Clinton had many Whig connections. Cornwallis voted against colonial taxation. To make matters worse, the government itself wavered between out-and-out war and some sort of compromise both with its political opponents at home and its armed opponents in America.

Under these circumstances Carleton was in favor of a modified plan. Ticonderoga had been abandoned by the Americans and occupied by the British as Burgoyne marched south. Carleton's idea was to use it as a base of operations against New England, while Howe's main body struck at the main body of the rebels and broke them up as much as possible. Germain however, was all for the original plan. So Burgoyne set off for the Hudson, expecting to get into touch with Howe at Albany. But Germain, in his haste to leave town for a holiday, forgot to sign Howe's orders at the proper time; and afterwards forgot them altogether. So Howe, pro-American in politics and temporizer in the field, maneuvered round his own headquarters at New York until October, when he sailed south to Philadelphia. Receiving no orders from Germain, and having no initiative of his own, he had made no attempt to hold the line of the Hudson all the way north to Albany, where he could have met Burgoyne and completed the union of the forces which would have cut the Colonies in two. Meanwhile Burgoyne, ignorant of Germain's neglect and Howe's futilities, was struggling to his fate at Saratoga, north of Albany. He had been receiving constant aid from Carleton's scanty resources, though Carleton knew full well that the sending of any aid beyond the limits of the province exposed him to personal ruin in case of a reverse in Canada. But it was all in vain; and, on the 17th of October, Burgoyne--much more sinned against than sinning--laid down his arms. The British garrison immediately evacuated Ticonderoga and retired to St Johns, thus making Carleton's position fairly safe in Canada. But Germain, only too glad to oust him, had now notified him that Haldimand, the new governor, was on the point of sailing for Quebec. Haldimand, to his great credit, had asked to have his own appointment cancelled when he heard of Germain's shameful attitude towards Carleton, and had only consented to go after being satisfied that Carleton really wished to come home. The exchange, however, was not to take place that year. Contrary winds blew Haldimand back; and so Canada had to remain under the best of all possible governors in spite of Germain.

Germain had provoked Carleton past endurance both by his public blunders and by his private malice. Even in 1776 there was hate on one side, contempt on the other. When Germain had blamed Carleton for not carrying out the idiotic winter siege of Ticonderoga, Carleton, in his official reply, 'could only suppose' that His Lordship had acted 'in other places with such great wisdom that, without our assistance, the rebels must immediately be compelled to lay down their arms and implore the King's mercy.' After that Germain had murder in his heart to the bitter end of Carleton's rule. Carleton had frequently reported the critical state of affairs in Canada. 'There is nothing to fear from the Canadians so long as things are in a state of prosperity; nothing to hope from them when in distress. There are some of them who are guided by sentiments of honor. The multitude is influenced by hope of gain or fear of punishment.' The recent invasion had proved this up to the hilt. Then welcome reaction began. The defeat of the invaders, the arrival of Burgoyne's army, and the efforts of the seigneurs and the clergy had considerably brightened the prospects of the British cause in Canada. The partial mobilization of the militia which followed Burgoyne's surrender was not, indeed, a great success. But it was far better than the fiasco of two years before. There was also a corresponding improvement in civil life. The judges whom Carleton had been obliged to appoint in haste all proved at leisure the wisdom of his choice; and there seemed to be every chance that other nominees would be equally fit for their positions, because the Quebec Act, which annulled every appointment made before it came into force, opened the way for the exclusion of bad officials and the inclusion of the good.

But the chance of perverting this excellent intention was too much for Germain, who succeeded in foisting one worthless nominee after another on the province just as Carleton was doing his best to heal old sores. One of the worst cases was that of Livius, a low-down, money-grubbing German Portuguese, who ousted the future Master of the Rolls; Sir William Grant, a man most admirably fitted to interpret the laws of Canada with knowledge, sympathy, and absolute impartiality. Livius as chief justice was more than Carleton could stand in silence. This mongrel lawyer had picked up all the Yankee vices without acquiring any of the countervailing Yankee virtues. He was 'greedy of power, more greedy of gain, imperious and impetuous in his temper, but learned in the ways and eloquence of the New England provinces, and valuing himself particularly on his knowledge of how to manage governors.' He had been sent by Germain 'to administer justice to the Canadians when he understands neither their laws, manners, customs, nor language.' Other like nominees followed, 'characters regardless of the public tranquility but zealous to pay court to a powerful minister and--provided they can obtain advantages--unconcerned should the means of obtaining them prove ruinous to the King's service.' These pettifoggers so turned and twisted the law about for the sake of screwing out the maximum of fees that Carleton pointedly refused to appoint Livius as a member of the Legislative Council. Livius then laid his case before the Privy Council in England. But this great court of ultimate appeal pronounced such a damning judgment on his gross pretensions that even Germain could not prevent his final dismissal from all employment under the Crown.

Wounded in the house of those who should have been his friends, thwarted in every measure of his self-sacrificing rule, Carleton served on devotedly through six weary months of 1778--the year in which a vindictive government of Bourbon France became the first of the several foreign enemies who made the new American republic an accomplished fact by taking sides in a British civil war. His burden was now far more than any man could bear. Yet he closed his answer to Germain's parting shot with words which are as noble as his deeds:

'I have long looked out for the arrival of a successor. Happy at last to learn his near approach, I resign the important commands with which I have been entrusted into hands less obnoxious to your Lordship. Thus, for the King's service, as willingly I lay them down as, for his service, I took them up.'


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Chronicles of Canada, The Father of British Canada, A Chronicle of Carleton, 1915

 

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