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Memoir of the Right Reverend John Strachan
Chapter V

Removal to York.—The War with the United States.

A JOURNEY of 300 miles,—the distance from Cornwall to York,—was in those days a tedious and expensive undertaking. The only mode of conveyance from Cornwall to Kingston, with a family and heavy lugguage, was by the French batteau,—an open boat of inconsiderable size, with a flat bottom for the purpose of ascending rapids; in the centre of which, a canvas awning was usually erected for the shelter of passengers from the sun and rain. Between Cornwall and Prescott the beautiful St. Lawrence presents a series of rapids, including the grand Long Sault; and as, in many cases, the boats had to be shoved along with poles, the use of oars being impossible, and sometimes towed by hand,—two or three boats’ crews uniting to drag up one,—their movements were very slow. From Prescott to Kingston it was smooth water, and they could row or sail as the wind allowed; yet to accomplish the whole distance, fully a week was required. At Kingston, passengers and luggage had to be transferred to a schooner; and if calms and head winds were encountered, another week was not unusually spent in reaching York.

This journey was the more precarious just now, as in the midst of it, took place the Declaration of War by the United States against Great Britain. Without attempting to enter minutely into the causes of this war, it may be enough to remark that, when great nations are engaged in conflict, the less powerful states often innocently suffer. Those, for instance, who desired to remain neutral during the tremendous contest between Great Britain and France, were exposed to serious inconveniences and losses. The people of the United States, in particular, who enjoyed an extensive commerce as carriers of the produce of France and other countries, felt the ill effects of the clashing decrees of the belligerent powers. This would lead, on some occasions, to annoying and exasperating acts. The United States vessels would sometimes be intrusive; and those of Great Britain, in self-defence, harsh and exacting. We shall not deny that there were, at times, grounds for complaint on the part of the United States; but the apologies and concessions of Great Britain were not received with the consideration and respect they would have commanded, had not the latter been engaged in a conflict, almost for existence, with Napoleon Buonaparte. All remonstrances proved unavailing, and war was declared by the United States against Great Britain on the 18th of June, 1812.

On the arrival of Dr. Strachan at York, the war and its probable consequences was the one absorbing topic; and on Sunday, August 2nd, he took occasion to express his opinions upon the grave event, in a sermon preached in the parish church before the Legislature of the Province. From this, which was published at their request, a few extracts will be interesting:

“Irritations had been industriously raised between the United States and Great Britain, yet we flattered ourselves that friendly relations would be maintained. We were indeed astonished at the measures taken by the United States to embarass and destroy the illustrious nation of which we form a part,—that nation which alone prevents universal despotism ; but we still cherished the hope, that reason would at length prevail; that the general interests of humanity would teach them to prefer the good of the world to their private’ advantage. We expected that a nation fighting for her own existence, resisting the most formidable tyrant that ever lived, and triumphantly arresting his progress, would at length obtain their favour; and that if they had not the magnanimity to assist iu the contest, they would, at all events, abstain from weakening her means of victory and defence. We looked for peace, we persuaded ourselves that the similarity of manners, habits, and opinions, the warm connexions that still subsist between the two nations, the tender recollection that they once stood in the relation of pareut and child, would have taught the States moderation, and induced them to excuse any little faults on the jiart of the British, till a time of tranquillity should arrive, when they might be satisfactorily arranged. But no good came; the darkness increased.

“The great consolation which will support us during the present unhappy times, is the conviction that, on our part, the war is just. All defensive wars are just We were at peace, and war has been declared against us; we have been invaded and attacked, we are consequently acting on the defensive, that is, we are repelling injuty. Now the justice of our cause is of the greatest advantage to us: it is, indeed, half the victory.

“The very precept, "Love your enemies" presupposes the existence of enemies, and consequently of wars. Yet this precept has been deemed totally irreconcileable with such a state, for it lias been triumphantly asked, How can you love those whose destruction you desire, and against whom you are fighting? To this the Christian may answer, that he seeks not the destruction of his enemy, but his return to justice and humanity. The end proposed by all wars is peace; and as soon as this can be obtained on equitable terms by the friend of the Gospel, he wars no longer. The same measure of love is not due to both, neither is it required ; but no conduct on the ]iart of enemies can free us ^ from the obligation of doing them all the good we can, after they have lost the power of doing us evil. The punishing our enemy till he be disposed to agree to an equitable peace, can be done without harbouring hatred or revenge.

"The Christian soldier loves his country. Were patriotism a determination to support our country when in the wrong, were it an inclination to do evil to promote her advantage, then might we admit it to be a narrow and illiberal prejudice; but the patriotism for which we plead, is an ardent and fixed disposition to promote our country’s good by all the lawful means in our power; to sacrifice life, fortune, and every thing that we hold most dear, for its security and defence; not to seek its aggrandizement by the depression of other nations, or by doing any thing inconsistent with justice, piety, and virtue. It is that warm affection which a good man feels for the happiness of his kindred and friends, extended to the society of which he is a member.

"In a free country like this, where differences of opinion concerning public affairs may be sincerely maintained, great danger arises lest a few designing men should take advantage of any » party spirit that may exist, to promote their machinations, and induce by specious pretences the adoption of the most pernicious measures, under the cloak of securing their liberties, and maintaining their independence. In order to avoid any thing like this, let us carefully avoid all those questions on which we are known to differ; let us make a joint sacrifice of all the heats and animosities which those differences may have engendered; and since we are all anxious to defend our country against the common enemy, by word and deed, let our only contention be, who shall outstrip the other in this race of glory.

"If we fix our attention habitually upon God, and put on the graces of the Christian soldier, we have nothing to fear. Hardships and calamities we shall have to encounter; but our heavenly Father will enable us to endure them, and we shall experience in the heat of battle, His invigorating spirit strengthening our souls and bodies, and teaching us never to forget the duties of humanity even in the hour of victory, but to raise the fallen foe and to treat him with kindness and respect. It is thus that the Christian soldier softens the horrors of war: he delights not in the anguish of individuals, and approves of no acts of hostility but what are necessary and conducive to the end and object of the war : in fine, he forgets not that he is a Christian amidst the slaughter of the field.”

The tidings of a domestic sorrow reached him veiy soon after his settlement at York. This was the death of his aged mother, of whose last hours his brother, at Aberdeen, thus writes, on the 1st of Noy ember, 1812: “Our good and affectionate mother is no more. In my last I told you she was poorly, and for the most part confined to her bed; for fourteen weeks previous to her death, she was never out of bed above an hour a day. She was very sensible until within a few days of her death. About ten days before her death, she called me to her bedside, and inquired if any letter had come from you. I said there was, with twenty-five pounds. She said, he was always mindful of me, and I have been a great burden to him; but I will not be so much longer, for I feel my end approaching. Say to him, when you write, that next to my Redeemer he is ever on my mind; tell him, I pray God to bless him and his. Likewise tell my good daughter that she has my prayers for her long kindness tome; I trust God will reward all the family. Tell my son that I am well looked to.”—She was described by a friend on the spot, as a woman of extraordinary energy and great force of character. At the commencement of this Memoir we gave some specimens, in her own words, of a strength and cultivation of mind which, with so few opportunities in early life, were remarkable. We subjoin an extract from the last letter she wrote her son in Canada, bearing date April 3, 1811: “ My dear son and daughter,—I am this day 74 years of age. I cannot look for perfect health; I ought to be thankful that I am so well, and so well supported in my old age. I have to regret that I have been so long a burden to you; but you do not begrudge me any thing, I know. And now, my son, I hope, although you have got a bit of honour conferred upon you, you will not be proud; for I have always discovered pride to end with dishonour, but humility is an advantage to religion. Now, my son and daughter, may the blessing of God attend you and your family. Do justly, love mercy, and walk humbly with thy God. I am afraid this will be the last time that I write you with mine own hand, for I am very frail.”

York, at this time, was a little town of a few hundred inhabitants; the houses all of wood, and of very unpretending dimensions. Seven years later, when first seen by the writer of this Memoir, its population hardly exceeded 1,000; and there were but three brick houses in the whole place. In 1812, it might be regarded as a quiet little parish; affording sufficient, but not severe labour to the incumbent, and quite within the compass of one man’s pastoral ministrations.

But now it was shaken and disturbed by the din and turmoil of war; it was the residence of the Commander of the Forces, and the centre consequently of all military arrangements. No sooner was war proclaimed, than there followed the active preparations and energetic movements of Sir Isaac Brock; and before many months, we had the bloodless triumph at Detroit, and the sanguinary, yet not less glorious contest, at Queenston Heights,—having, however, one most calamitous result, the death of the gallant Brock himself. After this, as the wintry season drew on, there was comparative quiet; but far and near were the notes of preparation on either side, and the thickening anxieties for the coming spring. In such a stirring time, it was not in the nature of Dr. Strachan to be idle: burning with love of his country, and full of indignation at this unrighteous aggression, he was active and judicious in his counsels; and if he could not take the lead in the field, he was foremost in devising means to ameliorate. the calamities which the war was inducing. He was the chief agent in starting and conducting an Institution, appropriately termed ,f The Loyal and Patriotic Society of Upper Canada,” which had branches all through the Province, and was most generously supported. In the winter of 1814, its funds exceeded £10,000; and an appeal for aid to the British nation was warmly and liberally met. The object of this Association was to afford relief to the wounded of the Militia and Volunteers; to aid in the support of the widows and orphans of the slain; and to assist the families of those who were called out on military duty. Of this benevolent institution it has been correctly stated, that it contributed more towards the defence of the Province than half-a-dozen regiments, from the confidence and good-will it inspired amongst the population at large, and the encouragement it gave to the young men of the country to leave their homes, and take their share in its defence.

The anxious winter of 1812-13 passed away, and in the early spring the forebodings of the Canadians were fully realized. A systematic and combined attack upon the Province at different points, had been arranged, and at the opening of the navigation was vigorously commenced. The town of York was amongst the places to be assailed; and on the evening of the 26th of April, 1813, an express arrived, stating that the enemy’s flotilla was standing towards the harbour. Soon after day-light on the following morning, the vessels—fourteen in number, and their decks crowded with men—anchored about two miles south-west of the garrison, and landed their troops under cover of their guns. They had no other opposition at first, than that offered, in a gallant manner, by Major Givins, at the head of forty Indians and a few inhabitants of the town not enrolled for military duty; all wondering at the unaccountable delay in sending forward the regular troops to resist the landing. At length about 400 men of the 8th Newfoundland, and Glengary regiments, were brought up, supported by 500 undisciplined militia-men, to resist fully 2,000 Americans, covered by the fire of their ships. The contest was a most unequal one, and the retreat of the British was inevitable. The several batteries fell into the enemy’s hands; and at the command of General Sheaffe the magazine was blown up, causing a severe loss to the Americans, and the death of their General Pyke. General Sheaffe, at the head of the regular troops, retreated towards Kingston, leaving the Militia Officers to make the best conditions they could for the town. His conduct in this whole affair was severely criticised. No plan of defence seemed to have been organized, and his tardiness when the enemy were landing- was inexplicable. The batteries were ill-arranged, and the soldiers disadvantageously placed. No advantage was taken of the panic caused by the explosion of the magazine ; and the retreat was made towards Kingston, instead of being directed to Niagara. Here he could have reinforced the troops assembling to resist the intended attack upon Fort George. In the other direction, the services of the troops were entirely lost.

The following, from Dr. Strachan to a friend in Scotland, touching these events, is graphic and interesting:

"On hearing the tremendous explosion of the magazine, hurried home and found Mrs. Strachan greatly terrified, and olf with the children to a neighbor’s house. Sent her to a friend's, a little out of town. Go up towards the garrison, which we had by this time abandoned; find the General and his troops in a ravine, the militia scattering. The General (Sheaffe) determines to retreat to Kingston with the regulars, and leaves the command with Colonel Chewitt and Major Allan, two militia officers and desires them to make the best conditions they can with the enemy for the protection of the town. Offer my services to assist them. Go to Mr. Crookshank’s house, and meet Major King and Colonel Mitchell, on the part of the enemy. Our Attorney General, Mr. Robinson, also went with us, and assisted us to discuss the points of capitulation. A difficulty arose from a ship and naval store having been set on fire during our negotiation; this considered very dishonourable. At length a capitulation is agreed upon, subject to the ratification of the Commanding Officer. Soon broken through : Major Allan, though under the protection of a flag of truce, is made prisoner and deprived of his sword. I accompany him to town in the midst of the enemy’s column. The militia on our side ground their arms. The enemy return to the garrison, with the exception of the rifle-corps, which is left under pretence of protecting the town.

“Wednesday, April 28, met Major King at the Hon. Mr. Selby’s ; complain of the indignity offered Major Allan, and that the capitulation had not been ratified, nor a copy so ratified, returned in a few minutes according to promise ; and declared that the whole appeared a deception. Major King was sorry; would do every thing that lay in his power, and desired us to go to the garrison, and every thing should be amicably adjusted. Went to the garrison, but the commanding-officer, Colonel Pierce, can do nothing. The militia had been detained in the blockhouse without victuals, and the wounded without nourishment or medicine. Complain to Colonel Pierce, who ordered rations for the prisoners. Meet a deputation from General Dearborn, to discuss the articles of capitulation ; find that they cannot parole the militia officers and men.

“Demand an officer to take me on board the principal ship, where Dearborn was. Meet him coming on shore, and present him with the articles of capitulation. He read them without deigning an answer. Request to know whether he will parole the officers and men, and demand leave to take away our sick and wounded. He treats me with great harshness ; tells me that we had given a false return of officers ; told me to keep off, and not to follow him, as he had business of much more importance to attend to. Complained of this treatment to Commodore Chauncey, the commander of flotilla, declare that, if the capitulation was not immediately signed, we should not receive it; and affirmed that the delay was a deception, calculated to give the rifle-men time to plunder, and after the town had been robbed they would then perhaps sign the capitulation, and tell us they respected private property. But we were determined that this should not be the case, and that they should not have it in their }>ower to say that they respected private property, after it had been robbed. Upon saying this, I broke away. Soon after General Dearborn came to the room where his deputation were sitting ; and having been told what I had said, settled the matter amicably. The officers and men were released on their parole, and we began to remove the sick and wounded.

“Spent the whole of Thursday the 29th, in removing the sick and wounded, and getting comforts for them. On the following day, the Government building on fire, contrary to the articles of capitulation, and the church robbed. Call a meeting of the judges and magistrates; draw up a short note stating our grievances, and wait upon General Dearborn with it He is greatly embarassed, and promises every thing.”

Our readers will judge from this extract what was the activity and fearless courage of Dr. Strachan at this trying time; and how much it was owing to his energy and intrepidity that York suffered comparatively so little from an undisciplined soldiery, commanded by a General hardly more refined than themselves. In the amenities and courtesies of life, his subordinate officers were much his superiors. On a subsequent day, Dr. Strachan, while endeavouring to rescue some plundered property of a friend from two American soldiers, nearly lost his life. In the heat of the altercation, one aimed his musket at his breast; and his threat of firing would no doubt have been executed, had not an American officer chanced to come up, and interpose, and order the surrender of the booty.

All, during the residue of the summer, was confusion and anxiety,—sieges, battles, alternate victories and defeats, hopes and disappointments. But the year 1813 closed without a solitary advantage to the Americans; without a foot-hold gained by them in any portion of either Province. The Canadians, therefore, so far from being discouraged were full of confidence; and as the winter of 1814 advanced, cheering news, mail after mail, came in from the older world. The great enemy of England and the scourge of Europe,—the heartless despot whom, in their infatuation, the Government of the United States sympathized with and aided,—-having been compelled to make an inglorious retreat from Russia, his army of more than half a million destroyed or dispersed, was now battling faintly for very life; pursued to the gates of Paris; and forced soon to abdicate, and choose the island of Elba as his prison.

The cessation of the war in Europe gave England the opportunity to send several more regiments to Canada; and the war, on our part, was made to assume an aggressive character, which, if not well planned, nor eminently successful, had the effect of diminishing the strength and frequency of the attacks on these Provinces. The summer of 1814 was signalized by the hard-fought and sanguinary battle of Lundy’s Lane,—a victory to the British dearly purchased, but an effectual check to the further advance of the Americans; and it closed with the ill-planned, abortive, and disgraceful campaign against Plattsburg. But we soon ceased to have war, or even its rumours; for early in the winter of 1815, peace was concluded between Great Britain and the United States.

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