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Deliverance, 1776

The Continental Congress had always been anxious to have delegates from the Fourteenth Colony. But as these never came the Congress finally decided to send a special commission to examine the whole civil and military state of Canada and see what could be done. The news of Montgomery's death and defeat was a very unwelcome surprise. But reinforcements were being sent; the Canadians could surely be persuaded; and a Congressional commission must be able to set things right. This commission was a very strong one. Benjamin Franklin was the chairman. Samuel Chase of Maryland and Charles Carroll of Carrollton were the other members. Carroll's brother, the future archbishop of Baltimore, accompanied them as a sort of ecclesiastical diplomatist. Franklin's prestige and the fact that he was to set up a 'free' printing-press in Montreal were to work wonders with the educated classes at once and with the uneducated masses later on. Chase would appeal to all the reasonable 'moderates.' Carroll, a great landlord and the nearest approach yet made to an American millionaire, was expected to charm the Canadian noblesse; while the fact that he and his exceedingly diplomatic brother were devout Roman Catholics was thought to be by itself a powerful argument with the clergy.

When they reached St Johns towards the end of April the commissioners sent on a courier to announce their arrival and prepare for their proper reception in Montreal. But the ferryman at Laprairie positively refused to accept Continental paper money at any price; and it was only when a 'Friend of Liberty' gave him a dollar in silver that he consented to cross the courier over the St Lawrence. The same hitch occurred in Montreal, where the same Friend of Liberty had to pay in silver before the cab-drivers consented to accept a fare either from him or from the commissioners. Even the name of Carroll of Carrollton was conjured with in vain. The French Canadians remembered Bigot's bad French paper. Their worst suspicions were being confirmed about the equally bad American paper. So they demanded nothing but hard cash argent dur. However, the first great obstacle had been successfully overcome; and so, on the strength of five borrowed silver dollars, the accredited commissioners of the Continental Congress of the Thirteen Colonies made their state entry into what they still hoped to call the Fourteenth Colony. But silver dollars were scarce; and on the 1st of May the crestfallen commissioners had to send the Congress a financial report which may best be summed up in a pithy phrase which soon became proverbial--'Not worth a Continental.'

On the 10th of May they heard the bad news from Quebec and increased the panic among their Montreal sympathizers by hastily leaving the city lest they should be cut off by a British man-of-war. Franklin foresaw the end and left for Philadelphia accompanied by the Reverend John Carroll, whose twelve days of disheartening experience with the leading French-Canadian clergy had convinced him that they were impervious to any arguments or blandishments emanating from the Continental Congress. It was a sad disillusionment for the commissioners, who had expected to be settling the affairs of a fourteenth colony instead of being obliged to leave the city from which they were to have enlightened the people with a free press. In their first angry ignorance they laid the whole blame on their unfortunate army for its 'disgraceful flight' from Quebec. A week later, when Chase and Charles Carroll ought to have known better, they were still assuring the Congress that this 'shameful retreat' was 'the principal cause of all the disorders' in the army; and even after the whole story ought to have been understood neither they nor the Congress gave their army its proper due. But, as a matter of fact, the American position had become untenable the moment the British fleet began to threaten the American line of communication with Montreal. For the rest, the American volunteers, all things considered, had done very well indeed. Arnold's march was a truly magnificent feat. Morgan's men had fought with great courage at the Sault-au-Matelot. And though Montgomery's assault might well have been better planned and executed, we must remember that the good plan, which had been rejected, was the military one, while the bad plan, which had been adopted, was concocted by mere politicians. Nor were 'all the disorders' so severely condemned by the commissioners due to the army alone. Far from it, indeed. The root of 'all the disorders' lay in the fact that a makeshift government was obliged to use makeshift levies for an invasion which required a regular army supported by a fleet.

On the 19th of May another disaster happened, this time above Montreal. The Congress had not felt strong enough to attack the western posts. So Captain Forster of the 8th Foot, finding that he was free to go elsewhere, had come down from Oswegatchie (the modern Ogdensburg) with a hundred whites and two hundred Indians and made prisoners of four hundred and thirty Americans at the Cedars, about thirty miles up the St Lawrence from Montreal. Forster was a very good officer. Butterfield, the American commander, was a very bad one. And that made all the difference. After two days of feeble and misdirected defense Butterfield surrendered three hundred and fifty men. The other eighty were reinforcements who walked into the trap next day. Forster now had four American prisoners for every white soldier of his own; while Arnold was near by, having come up from Sorel to Lachine with a small but determined force. So Forster, carefully pointing out to his prisoners their danger if the Indians should be reinforced and run wild, offered them their freedom on condition that they should be regarded as being exchanged for an equal number of British prisoners in American hands. This was agreed to and never made a matter of dispute afterwards. But the second article Butterfield accepted was a stipulation that, while the released British were to be free to fight again, the released Americans were not; and it was over this point that a bitter controversy raged. The British authorities maintained that all the terms were binding because they had been accepted by an officer commissioned by the Congress. The Congress maintained that the disputed article was obtained by an unfair threat of an Indian massacre and that it was so one-sided as to be good for nothing but repudiation.

'The Affair at the Cedars' thus became a sorely vexed question. In itself it would have died out among later and more important issues if it had not been used as a torch to fire American public opinion at a time when the Congress was particularly anxious to make the Thirteen Colonies as anti-British as possible. Most of Forster's men were Indians. He had reminded Butterfield how dangerous an increasing number of Indians might become. Butterfield was naturally anxious to prove that he had yielded only to overwhelming odds and horrifying risks. Americans in general were ready to believe anything bad about the Indians and the British. The temptation and the opportunity seemed made for each other. And so a quite imaginary Indian massacre conveniently appeared in the American news of the day and helped to form the kind of public opinion which was ardently desired by the party of revolt.

The British evidence in this and many another embittering dispute about the Indians need not be cited, since the following items of American evidence do ample justice to both sides. In the spring of 1775 the Massachusetts Provincial Congress sent Samuel Kirkland to exhort the Iroquois 'to whet their hatchet and be prepared to defend our liberties and lives'; while Ethan Allen asked the Indians round Vermont to treat him 'like a brother and ambush the regulars.' In 1776 the Continental Congress secretly resolved 'that it is highly expedient to engage the Indians in the service of the United Colonies.' This was before the members knew about the Affair at the Cedars. A few days later Washington was secretly authorized to raise two thousand Indians; while agents were secretly sent 'to engage the Six Nations in our Interest, on the best terms that can be procured.' Within three weeks of this secret arrangement the Declaration of Independence publicly accused the king of trying 'to bring on the inhabitants of our frontiers the merciless Indian savages.' Four days after this public accusation the Congress gave orders for raising Indians along 'the Penobscot, the St John, and in Nova Scotia'; and an entry to that effect was made in its Secret Journal. Yet, before the month was out, the same Congress publicly appealed to 'The People of Ireland' in the following words: 'The wild and barbarous savages of the wilderness have been solicited by gifts to take up the hatchet against us, and instigated to deluge our settlements with the blood of defenseless women and children.'

The American defeats at Quebec and at the Cedars completely changed the position of the two remaining commissioners. They had expected to control a victorious advance. They found themselves the highest authority present with a disastrous retreat. Thereupon they made blunder after blunder. Public interest and parliamentary control are the very life of armies and navies in every country which enjoys the blessings of self-government. But civilian interference is death. Yet Chase and Carroll practically abolished rank in the disintegrating army by becoming an open court of appeal to every junior with a grievance or a plan. There never was an occasion on which military rule was more essential in military matters. Yet, though they candidly admitted that they had 'neither abilities nor inclination' to command, these wretched misrulers tried to do their duty both to the Congress and the army by turning the camp into a sort of town meeting where the best orders had no chance whatever against the loudest 'sentiments.' They had themselves found the root of all evil in the retreat from Quebec. Their army, like every impartial critic, found it in 'the Commissioners and the smallpox'--with the commissioners easily first. The smallpox had been bad enough at Quebec. It became far worse at Sorel. There were few doctors, fewer medicines, and not a single hospital. The reinforcements melted away with the army they were meant to strengthen. Famine threatened both, even in May. Finally the commissioners left for home at the end of the month. But even their departure could no longer make the army's burden light enough to bear.

Thomas, the ex-apothecary, who did his best to stem the adverse tide of trouble, caught the smallpox, became blind, and died at the beginning of June. Sullivan, the fourth commander in less than half a year, having determined that one more effort should be made, arrived at Sorel with new battalions after innumerable difficulties by the way. He was led to believe that Carleton's reinforcements had come from Nova Scotia, not from England; and this encouraged him to push on farther. He was naturally of a very sanguine temper; and Thompson, his second-in-command, heartily approved of the dash. The new troops cheered up and thought of taking Quebec itself. But, after getting misled by their guide, floundering about in bottomless bogs, and losing a great deal of very precious time, they found Three Rivers defended by entrenchments, superior numbers, and the vanguard of the British fleet. Nevertheless they attacked bravely on the 8th of June. But, taken in front and flank by well-drilled regulars and well-handled men-of-war, they presently broke and fled. Every avenue of escape was closed as they wandered about the woods and bogs. But Carleton, who came up from Quebec after the battle was all over, purposely opened the way to Sorel. He had done his best to win the hearts of his prisoners at Quebec and had succeeded so well that when they returned to Crown Point they were kept away from the rest of the American army lest their account of his kindness should affect its anti-British zeal. Now that he was in overwhelming force he thought he saw an even better chance of earning gratitude from rebels and winning converts to the loyal side by a still greater act of clemency.

The battle of Three Rivers was the last action fought on Canadian soil. The American army retreated to Sorel and up the Richelieu to St Johns, where it was joined by Arnold, who had just evacuated Montreal. Most of the Friends of Liberty in Canada fled either with or before their beaten forces. So, like the ebbing of a whole river system, the main and tributary streams of fugitives drew south towards Lake Champlain. The neutral French Canadians turned against them at once; though not to the extent of making an actual attack. The habitant cared nothing for the incomprehensible constitutionality's over which different kinds of British foreigners were fighting their exasperating civil war. But he did know what the king's big fleet and army meant. He did begin to feel that his own ways of life were safer with the loyal than with the rebel side. And he quite understood that he had been forced to give a good deal for nothing ever since the American commissioners had authorized their famishing army to commandeer his supplies and pay him with their worthless 'Continentals.'

From St Johns the worn-out Americans crawled homewards in stray, exhausted parties, dropping fast by the way as they went. 'I did not look into a hut or a tent,' wrote a horrified observer, 'in which I did not find a dead or dying man.' Disorganization became so complete that no exact returns were ever made up. But it is known that over ten thousand armed men crossed into Canada from first to last and that not far short of half this total either found their death beyond the line or brought it back with them to Lake Champlain.

It was on what long afterwards became Dominion Day--the 1st of July--that the ruined American forces reassembled at Crown Point, having abandoned all hope of making Canada the Fourteenth Colony. Three days later the disappointed Thirteen issued the Declaration of Independence which virtually proclaimed that Canadians and Americans should thenceforth live a separate life.


This site includes some historical materials that may imply negative stereotypes reflecting the culture or language of a particular period or place. These items are presented as part of the historical record and should not be interpreted to mean that the WebMasters in any way endorse the stereotypes implied.

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

 

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