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Guarding the Loyalists, 1782-1783

Burgoyne's surrender marked the turning of the tide against the British arms. True, the three campaigns of purely civil war, begun in 1775, had reached no decisive result. True also that the Independence declared in 1776 had no apparent chance of becoming an accomplished fact. But 1777 was the fatal year for all that. The long political strife in England, the gross mismanagement of colonial affairs under Germain, and the shameful blunders that made Saratoga possible, all combined to encourage foreign powers to take the field against the king's incompetent and distracted ministry. France, Spain, and Holland joined the Americans in arms; while Russia, Sweden, Denmark, Prussia, and all the German seaboard countries formed the Armed Neutrality of the North. This made stupendous odds--no less than ten to one. First of the ten came the political opposition at home, which, in regard to the American rebellion itself, was at least equal to the most powerful enemy abroad. Next came the four enemies in arms: the American rebels, France, Spain, and Holland. Finally came the five armed neutrals, all ready to use their navies on the slightest provocation.

From this it may be seen that not one-half, perhaps not a quarter, of all the various forces that won the Revolutionary war were purely American. Nor were the Americans and their allies together victorious over the mother country, but only over one sorely hampered party in it. Yet, from the nature of the case, the Americans got much more than the lion's share of the spoils, while, even in their own eyes, they seemed to have gained honor and glory in the same proportion. The last real campaign was fought in 1781 and ended with the British surrender at Yorktown. From that time on peace was in the air. The unfortunate ministry, now on the eve of political defeat at home, were sick of civil war and only too anxious for a chance of uniting all parties against the foreign foes. But they had first to settle with the Americans, who had considered themselves an independent sovereign power for the last five years and who were determined to make the most of England's difficulties. No darker New Year's Day had ever dawned on any cabinet than that of 1782 on North's. In spite of his change from repression to conciliation, and in spite of dismissing Germain to the House of Lords with an ill-earned peerage, Lord North found his majority dwindling away. At last, on the 20th of March, he resigned.

Meanwhile every real statesman in either party had felt that the crisis required the master-hand of Carleton. With Germain, the empire-wrecker, gone, Carleton would doubtless have served under any cabinet, for no government could have done without him. But his actual commission came through the Rockingham administration on the 4th of April. After three quiet years of retirement at his country seat in Hampshire he was again called upon to face a situation of extreme difficulty. For once, with a wisdom rare enough in any age and almost unknown in that one, the government gave him a free hand and almost unlimited powers. The only questions over which he had no final power were those of making treaties. He was appointed 'General and Commander-in-chief of all His Majesty's forces within the Colonies lying in the Atlantic Ocean, from Nova Scotia to the Floridas, and inclusive of Newfoundland and Canada should they be attacked.' He was also appointed commissioner for executing the terms of any treaty that might be made; and his instructions contained two passages which bore eloquent witness to the universal confidence reposed in him. 'It is impossible to judge of the precise situation at so great a distance' and 'His Majesty's affairs are so situated that further deliberations give way to instant decision. We are satisfied that whatever inconveniences may arise they will be compensated by the presence of a commander-in-chief of whose discretion, conduct, and ability His Majesty has long entertained the highest opinion.' Thus the great justifier of British rule beyond the seas arrived in New York on the 9th of May 1782 with at least some hope of reconciling enough Americans to turn the scale before it was too late.

For three months the prospect, though worse than he had anticipated, did not seem utterly hopeless. It had been considerably brightened by Rodney's great victory over the French fleet which was on its way to attack Jamaica. But an unfortunate incident happened to be exasperating Loyalists and revolutionists at this very time. Some revolutionists had killed a Loyalist named Philip White, apparently out of pure hate. Some Loyalists, under Captain Lippincott, then seized and hanged Joshua Huddy, a captain in the Congress militia, out of sheer revenge. A paper left pinned on Huddy's breast bore the inscription: 'Up goes Huddy for Philip White.' Washington then demanded that Lippincott should be delivered up; and, on Carleton's refusal, chose a British prisoner by lot instead. The lot fell on a young Lieutenant Asgill of the Guards, whose mother appealed to the king and queen of France and to their powerful minister, Vergennes. The American Congress wanted blood for blood, which would have led to an endless vendetta. But Vergennes pointed out that Asgill, a youth of nineteen, was as much a prisoner of the king of France as of the Continental Congress. At this the Congress gnashed its teeth, but had to give way.

While the Asgill affair was still running its course, and embittering Loyalists and rebels more than ever, Carleton was suddenly informed that the government had decided to grant complete independence. This was more than he could stand; and he at once asked to be recalled. He had been all for honorable reconciliation from the first. He had been particularly kind to his American prisoners in Canada and had purposely refrained from annihilating the American army after the battle of Three Rivers. But he was not prepared for independence. Nor had he been sent out with this ostensible object in view. His official instructions were to inform the Americans that 'the most liberal sentiments had taken root in the nation, and that the narrow policy of monopoly was totally extinguished.' Now he was called upon to surrender without having tried either his arms or his diplomacy. With British sea-power beginning to reassert its age-long superiority over all possible rivals, with practically all constitutional points of dispute conceded to the revolutionists, and with the certain knowledge that by no means the majority of all Americans were absolute anti-British out-and-outers, he thought it no time to dismember the Empire. His Intelligence Department had been busily collecting information which seems surprising enough as we read it over to-day, but which was based on the solid facts of that unhappy time. One member of the Continental Congress was anxious to know what would become of the American army if reconciliation should be effected on the understanding that there would be no more imperial taxation or customs duty--would it become part of the Imperial Army, or what?

But speculation on all such contingencies was suddenly cut short by the complete change of policy at home. The idea was to end the civil war that had divided the Empire and to concentrate on the foreign war that at least united the people of Great Britain. No matter at what cost this policy had now to be carried out; and Carleton was the only man that every one would trust to do it. So, sacrificing his own feelings and convictions, he made the best of an exceedingly bad business. He had to safeguard the prisoners and Loyalists while preparing to evacuate the few remaining footholds of British power in the face of an implacable foe. At the same time he had to watch every other point in North America and keep in touch with his excellent naval colleague, Admiral Digby, lest his own rear might be attacked by the three foreign enemies of England. He was even ordered off to the West Indies in the autumn. But counter-orders fortunately arrived before he could start. Thus, surrounded by enemies in front and rear and on both flanks, he spent the seven months between August and the following March.

At the end of March 1783 news arrived that the preliminary treaty of peace had been signed. The final treaty was not signed till his fifty-ninth birthday, the 3rd of the following September. The signature of the preliminaries simplified the naval and military situation. But it made the situation of the Loyalists worse than ever. Compared with them the prisoners of war had been most highly favored from the first. And yet the British prisoners had little to thank the Congress for. That they were badly fed and badly housed was not always the fault of the Americans. But that political favorites and underlings were allowed to prey on them was an inexcusable disgrace. When a prisoner complained, he was told it was the fault of the British government which would not pay for his keep! This answer, so contrary to all the accepted usages of war, which reserve such payments till after the conclusion of peace, was no empty gibe; for when, some time before the preliminaries had been signed, the British and American commissioners met to effect an exchange of prisoners, the Americans began by claiming the immediate payment of what the British prisoners had cost them. This of course broke up the meeting at once. In the meantime the German prisoners in British pay were offered their freedom at eighty dollars a head. Then farmers came forward to buy up these prisoners at this price. But the farmers found competitors in the recruiting sergeants, who urged the Germans, with only too much truth, not to become 'the slaves of farmers' but to follow 'the glorious trade of war' against their employers, the British government. To their honor be it said, these Germans kept faith with the British, much to the surprise of the Americans, who, like many modern writers, could not understand that these foreign mercenaries took a professional pride in carrying out a sworn contract, even when it would pay them better to break it. The British prisoners were not put up for sale in the same way. But money sent to them had a habit of disappearing on the road--one item mentioned by Carleton amounted to six thousand pounds.

If such was the happy lot of prisoners during the war, what was the wretched lot of Loyalists after the treaty of peace? The words of one of the many petitions sent in to Carleton will suggest the answer. 'If we have to encounter this inexpressible misfortune we beg consideration for our lives, fortunes, and property, _and not by mere terms of treaty_.' What this means cannot be appreciated unless we fully realize how strong the spirit of hate and greed had grown, and why it had grown so strong.

The American Revolution had not been provoked by oppression, violence, and massacre. The 'chains and slavery' of revolutionary orators was only a figure of speech. The real causes were constitutional and personal; and the actual crux of the question was one of payment for defense. Of course there were many other causes at work. The social, religious, and political grudges with which so many emigrants had left the mother country had not been forgotten and were now revived. Commercial restrictions, however well they agreed with the spirit of the age, were galling to such keen traders. And the mere difference between colonies and motherland had produced misunderstandings on both sides. But the main provocative cause was Imperial taxation for local defense. The Thirteen Colonies could not have held their own by land or sea, much less could they have conquered their French rivals, without the Imperial forces, which, indeed, had done by far the greater part of the fighting. How was the cost to be shared between the mother country and themselves? The colonies had not been asked to pay more than their share. The point was whether they could be taxed at all by the Imperial government when they had no representation in the Imperial parliament. The government said Yes. The colonies and the opposition at home said No. As the colonies would not pay of their own accord, and as the government did not see why they should be parasites on the armed strength of the mother country, parliament proceeded to tax them. They then refused to pay under compulsion; and a complete deadlock ensued.

The personal factors in this perhaps insoluble problem were still more refractory than the constitutional. All the great questions of peace and war and other foreign relations were settled by the mother country, which was the only sovereign power and which alone possessed the force to make any British rights respected. The Americans supplied subordinate means and so became subordinate men when they and the Imperial forces worked together. This, to use a homely phrase, made their leaders feel out of it. Everything that breeds trouble between militiamen and regulars, colonials and mother-countrymen, fanned the flame of colonial resentment till the leaders were able to set their followers on fire. It was a leaders' rebellion: there was no maddening cruelty or even oppression such as those which have produced so many revolutions elsewhere. It was a leaders' victory: there was no general feeling that death or independence were the only alternatives from the first. But as the fight went on, and Loyalists and revolutionists grew more and more bitter towards one another, the revolutionary followers found the same cause for hating the Loyalists as their leaders had found for hating the government. Many of the Loyalists belonged to the well-educated and well-to-do classes. So the envy and greed of the revolutionary followers were added to the personal and political rage of their leaders.

The British government had done its best for the Loyalists in the treaty of peace and had urged Carleton, who needed no urging in such a cause, to do his best as well. But the treaty was made with the Congress; and the Congress had no authority over the internal affairs of the thirteen new states, each one of which could do as it liked with its own envied and detested Loyalists. The revolutionists wanted some tangible spoils. The safety of peace had made the trimmers equally 'patriotic' and equally clamorous. So the confiscation of Loyalist property soon became the order of the day.

It was not the custom of that age to confiscate private property simply because the owners were on the losing side, still less to confiscate it under local instead of national authority. But need, greed, and resentment were stronger than any scruples. Need was the weakest, resentment the strongest of all the animating motives. The American army was in rags and its pay greatly in arrears while the British forces under Carleton were fed, clothed, and paid in the regular way. But it was the passionate resentment of the revolutionists that perverted this exasperating difference into another 'intolerable wrong.' Washington was above such meaner measures. But when he said the Loyalists were only fit for suicide, and when Adams, another future president, said they ought to be hanged, it is little wonder that lesser men thought the time had come for legal looting. Those Loyalists who best understood the temper of their late fellow-countrymen left at once. They were right. Even to be a woman was no protection against confiscation in the case of Mary Phillips, sister-in-law to Beverley Robinson, a well-known Loyalist who settled in New Brunswick after the Revolution. Her case was not nearly so hard as many another. But her historic love-affair makes it the most romantic. Eight-and-twenty years before this General Braddock had marched to death and defeat beside the Monongahela with two handsome and gallant young aides-de-camp, Washington and Morris. Both fell in love with bewitching Mary Phillips. But, while Washington left her fancy-free, Morris won her heart and hand. Now that the strife was no longer against a foreign foe but between two British parties, the former aides-de-camp found themselves rivals in arms as well as love; for Colonel Morris was Carleton's right-hand man in all that concerned the Loyalists, being the official head of the department of Claims and Succour:

Morris, Morgan, and Carleton were the three busiest men in New York. Forty thick manuscript volumes still show Maurice Morgan's assiduous work as Carleton's confidential secretary. But Morris had the more heart-breaking duty of the three, with no relief, day after sorrow-laden day, from the anguishing appeals of Loyalist widows, orphans, and other ruined refugees. No sooner had the dire news arrived that peace had been made with the Congress, and that each of the thirteen United States was free to show uncovenanted mercies towards its own Loyalists, than the exodus began. Five thousand five hundred and ninety-three Loyalists sailed for Halifax in the first convoy on the 17th of April with a strong recommendation from Carleton to Governor Parr of Nova Scotia. 'Many of these are of the first families and born to the fairest possessions. I therefore beg that you will have them properly considered.' Shipping was scarce; for the hostility of the whole foreign naval world had made enormous demands on the British navy and mercantile marine. So six thousand Loyalists had to march overland to join Carleton's vessels at New York, some of them from as far south as Charlottesville, Virginia. They were carefully shepherded by Colonel Alured Clarke, of whom we shall hear again.

Meanwhile Carleton and Washington had exchanged the usual compliments on the conclusion of peace and had met each other on the 6th of May at Tappan, where they discussed the exchange of prisoners. By the terms of the treaty the British were to evacuate New York, their last foothold in the new republic, with all practicable dispatch; so, as summer changed into autumn, the Congress became more and more impatient to see the last of them. But Carleton would not go without the Loyalists, whose many tributary streams of misery were still flowing into New York. In September, when the treaty of peace was ratified in Europe, the Congress asked Carleton point-blank to name the date of his own departure. But he replied that this was impossible and that the more the Loyalists were persecuted the longer he would be obliged to stay. The correspondence between him and the Congress teems with complaints and explanations. The Americans were very anxious lest the Loyalists should take away any goods and chattels not their own, particularly slaves. Carleton was disposed to consider slaves as human beings, though slavery was still the law in the British oversea dominions, and so the Americans felt uneasy lest he might discriminate between their slaves and other chattels. Reams of the Carleton papers are covered with descriptive lists of claimed and counter-claimed niggers--Julius Caesars, Jupiters, Venuses, Dianas, and so on, who were either 'stout wenches' and 'likely fellows' or 'incurably lazy' and 'old worn-outs.'

Perhaps, when a slave wished to remain British, and his case was nicely balanced between the claimants and the counter-claimants, Carleton was a little inclined to give him the benefit of the doubt. But with other forms of disputed property he was too severe to please all Loyalists. A typical case of restitution in Canada will show how differently the two governments viewed the rights of private property. Mercier and Halsted, two Quebec rebels, owned a wharf and the frame of a warehouse in 1775. It was Arnold's intercepted letter to Mercier that gave Carleton's lieutenant, Cramahe, the first warning of danger from the south. Halsted was Major Caldwell's miller at the time and took advantage of his position to give his employer's flour to Arnold's army, in which he served as commissary throughout the siege. Just after the peace of 1783 Mercier and Halsted laid claim to their former property, which they had abandoned for eight years and on which the government had meanwhile built a provision store, making use of the original frame. The case was complicated by many details too long for notice here. But the British government finally gave the two rebels the original property, plus thirteen years' rent, less the cost of government works erected in the meantime. All the documents are still in Quebec.

Property was troublesome enough. But people were worse. And Carleton's difficulties increased as the autumn wore on. The first great harrying of the Loyalists drove more than thirty thousand from their homes; and about twenty-five thousand of these embarked at New York. Then there were the remnants of twenty Loyalist corps to pension, settle, or employ. There were also the British prisoners to receive, besides ten thousand German mercenaries. Add to all this the regular garrison and the general oversight of every British interest in North America, from the Floridas to Labrador, remember the implacable enemy in front, and we may faintly imagine what Carleton had to do before he could report that 'His Majesty's troops and such remaining Loyalists as chose to emigrate were successfully withdrawn on the 25th [of November] without the smallest circumstance of irregularity.'

Thus ended one of the greatest acts in the drama of the British Empire, the English-speaking peoples, or the world; and thus, for the second time, Carleton, now in his sixtieth year, apparently ended his own long service in America. He had left Canada, after saving her from obliteration, because, so long as he remained her governor, the war minister at home remained her enemy. He had then returned to serve in New York, and had stayed there to the bitter end, because there was no other man whom the new government would trust to command the rearguard of the Empire in retreat.


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Chronicles of Canada, The Winning of Canada, A Chronicle of Wolfe, 1915

 

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