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General Brock
Chapter VI - Military Posts


IT was in the year 1796 that England had given up possession to the Americans of Forts Michilimackinac, Miami, Detroit, Niagara, and Oswego, and now at the beginning of the nineteenth century Kingston, York, Fort George, Fort Chippawa, Fort Erie, and Amherstburg were the chief military posts. The very names of the forts take one back to very stirring days in the country, and a glance at their history shows that this new province of Upper Canada had been once the scene of many a struggle for supremacy between the French, the English, and the Indian.

Michilimackinac, or Mackinaw, the island which lies in the strait between Lakes Huron and Michigan, had been for more than a century the resort of North-West traders, where furs were collected and shipped for Montreal. In 1671 it had been a Jesuit mission, and stories of treachery and massacre hover around its shores.

Fort Miami was in the heart of the Indian country on the Maumee River about fifteen miles from Lake Erie, into which the river flows. Lord Dorchester had ordered the reconstruction of the fort, a step to which the United States had objected, deeming it an invasion of their territory. Both the 8th and the 53rd Regiments had been stationed there during the war with the colonies.

Fort Detroit, on the river of the same name, situated about twenty-eight miles above Lake Erie and ten miles below Lake St. Clair, had had a most exciting history. The strait was the key to the upper lakes, and gave Canada the readiest access to the Mississippi. Five times its flag had changed in the century since it was founded by La Mothe Cadillac. Twice it was besieged by Indians, once burned to the ground. In the last days of the eighteenth century it was surrounded by a flourishing little town, with a mixed French and English population.

Fort Niagara, like Detroit, had also been the scene of many a conflict when France and England, with varying fortunes, had struggled for its possession. It was in 1678 that La Salle, La Mothe, and Father Hennepin, sailing up Lake Ontario from Fort Frontenac, found, at the entrance of what was afterwards known as the Niagara River, a small village of Seneca Indians. Here they built a stockade of palisaded storehouses, and dedicated it by chanting a Te Deum, and placing within it a large wooden cross. This stockade was burnt in 1680, and afterwards rebuilt of stone by Denonville. It was designed to be large enough to hold a garrison of five hundred men. This fort was abandoned in 1687, and of the hundred men left there 54 by Denonville, all but ten perished by disease or in conflict with the Indians. Charlevoix, the priestly historian, mentions a blockhouse being on the site in 1721, and that in 1726 it was the quarters of some French officers, who strengthened it by adding four bastions. In 1749 it was rebuilt as one of the chain of forts designed to surround the French domain as far as the Gulf of Mexico. In 1759, after an obstinate siege, the fort capitulated to General Johnson. One of the English officers, General Lee, writing at that time to a friend in New York, gives a glowing description of the fort and its surroundings. He ends his letter thus: "am afraid you will think I am growing romantic, therefore shall only say it is such a paradise and such an acquisition to our nation that I would not sacrifice it to redeem the dominion of any one electoral province of Germany from the hands of the enemy." In 1763 a dreadful massacre took place, near the fort, of an English regiment that fell into an ambuscade of the Indians while marching alongside the river Niagara to Fort Schlosser, above the falls. Only a few escaped to tell the tale, and the spot has since been known as the Devil's Hole. In 1764 peace was made with the Indians, who, to the number of two thousand, met Sir William Johnson at the fort, and agreed to give up to the British four miles on each side of the river from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario. In 1783, after the American war, this fort was surrendered by treaty by the British, but on account of unsettled claims of the United Empire Loyalists, whose property had been confiscated, possession was not given up until 1796, when Fort George on the western side of the river received its flag, garrison, guns and stores.

Fort Oswego, on Lake Ontario, almost opposite Kingston, had also been the centre of many a bloody struggle in the eighteenth century, when the French with their Indian allies battled for its possession, knowing well that to the victor belonged the command of the lake.

Of the military posts left to the British in 1803, Kingston was the largest and most populous of the Upper Province. It was founded in 1784 on the site of old Fort Frontenac, and was the main entrepot between Montreal and the settlements along the lakes. It was three hundred and seventy-five miles from Quebec, one hundred and ninety-five from Montreal, and one hundred and fifty-three from York. Governor Simcoe had designed to make the latter a fortified shipping town, but this had been vetoed by Lord Dorchester who preferred Kingston for this purpose.

Fort George was on the west bank of the river Niagara, about a mile from its entrance into Lake Ontario. It was, in 1803, a low square fort with earthen ramparts and palisades of cedar. It contained very badly planned loop-holed barracks of logs, and mounted no heavier metal than nine pounders., Newark, or Niagara, for it resumed its 56 old name in 1798, by act of parliament, was the village near by, and had enjoyed for a brief period the distinction of being the capital of the Upper Province. It lay directly opposite Fort Niagara where the river is eight hundred and seventy-five yards wide.

Here the first parliament of Upper Canada met in 1792, and to add to the glory of the occasion we are told that a guard of the 26th Cameronians, then stationed at Fort Niagara, was brought across the river to escort Governor Simcoe in state to the opening. Five sessions were held here before the seat of government was removed to York, and during the last years of the eighteenth century Newark was, next to Kingston, the most flourishing place in Upper Canada. It was here at Navy Hall that Governor Simcoe and his wife dispensed their gracious hospitality. Among their distinguished guests were the Duke of Kent, who rode from their house to see the famous falls of Niagara, and the Duke de Rochefoucauld de Liancourt, who wrote a lengthy account of his visit.

The 5th Regiment and part of the 26th Cameronians were then stationed at Fort Niagara, and the Queen's Rangers occupied the barracks at Newark.

The first newspaper in the country, the Upper Canada Gazette, was published here, and there was a public library and a court-house and churches (St. Mark's and St. Andrew's) long before York, its rival and supplanter across the lake, was provided with any public buildings. It was Governor Simcoe who planned Fort George and gave to it its first rough outlines. In 1803 there was a lighthouse on Mississaga Point, at the entrance of the river near where a fort of that name was afterwards constructed. A dockyard where many workmen were employed, was one of the industries of the place, and here was built and launched in 1792 the first Canadian merchant vessel.

It was in 1783 that there landed on the beach the first band of Loyalist refugees who left their homes in the revolted colonies for the sake of king and country, and who were to be the founders of a new nation in this wilderness. For more than two years rations were issued to the poor wanderers from Fort Niagara and Butler's barracks, but by the beginning of the new century the thriving farms in the neighbourhood of Newark showed that the "hungry years" had passed.

Seven miles higher up the river was Queenston, a transport post which had, in 1803, grown to be a village of over a hundred houses with church and court-house and government stores for the Indian department. All the goods for the North-West were landed here from the vessels which brought them from Kingston, and were then sent by portage above the falls to Chippawa.

Fort Chippawa, on the river, a mile and a half above the falls of Niagara, was the end of the carrying place, and was also a transport post. It was sixteen miles from Fort George and it had a blockhouse and quarters for one officer and thirty-six men, enclosed with palisades which were much decayed and useless for defence. Eighteen miles beyond was Fort Erie. General Hunter, in 1803, had planned a new fort at this place as the old one was in ruins, and had made a report on the subject to Lord Hobart, the secretary of the colonies, but this undertaking was not carried out for some years.

Further west at Amherstburg was another poorly constructed fort. This village was the only British naval station on Lake Erie, and contained over a hundred houses, with a court-house, and stores for the Indian department.

The other military post in this district was Sandwich, nearly opposite Detroit, and sixteen miles distant from Amherstburg. There was a mixed French and English population here, and many American settlers in the neighbourhood who had found their way to this lovely and fertile peninsula —the garden of Canada.

At this time a regiment quartered in Upper Canada was divided into several parts, sometimes hundreds of miles asunder. The posts being on the frontier line, and new roads into the interior of the United States being constantly opened out, every facility was afforded for desertion. The pay of the British soldier was small, the discipline enforced at that time very severe, and by the insidious work of agents from the neighbouring republic, desertions became very frequent.

Soon after Brock's arrival in Upper Canada, six men of a company of the 49th stationed at York, listened to the tempting proposals held out to them, and with a corporal of the 41st who had been left there in charge of some work, set off across the lake for Niagara. The news of their desertion was brought to Colonel Brock at midnight by the sergeant of the guard. With the promptness that always marked his actions he immediately ordered a boat to be manned by a sergeant and twelve privates of the light company, and with them he started on a night journey across Lake Ontario, a distance of thirty miles.

After a hard pull of eight hours they reached their destination and a search along the shore was made. A few miles from Fort Niagara on the American shore, the renegades were found. They were brought back to York and afterwards confined in the prison cells at Fort George. General Hunter found fault with the midnight expedition across the lake, as he thought the risk Brock had taken in crossing in a small open boat was too great. It was not, however, likely that a Guernsey man, inured to the perils of the coast of the Channel Islands, would hesitate to cross Lake Ontario on a summer night. Even if the dangers had been greater, Colonel Brock was not one to shirk his duty.

Once again he was called upon to undertake another expedition to enforce discipline, and again the strong arm and cool brain were needed. This time it was not desertion alone he had to cope with, but a very serious mutiny among the troops quartered at Fort George, under the command of Lieutenant-Colonel Sheaffe, who, by his severe discipline had rendered himself very unpopular. The plan of the mutineers, as was afterwards discovered, was to place the officers in the cells, then to march to Queenston and cross the river into the state of New York. It was said too that the murder of Colonel Sheaffe was contemplated. The discovery of the plot was accidental. A servant of an officer of the Royal Artillery was met on the common by a soldier of the 49th, named Fitzpatrick, who asked him the hour. On being told Fitzpatrick exclaimed, "Thank God, I will not be too late for roll call; if I were that tyrant would give me knapsack drill for a week, but—" with an oath he muttered some threatening words and ran off to the fort. The servant reported the conversation to his master who immediately told Colonel Sheaffe. Fitzpatrick was sent for and questioned. On examination he showed such symptoms of guilt that he was put in a cell in the guardroom. Another soldier named Daly confessed to the conspiracy, and said that he had entered into it by the persuasion of Sergeant Clarke of the 49th who had told him that he and his wife and children would be much more comfortable in the United States than in the regiment.

Sheaffe sent immediate word of the conspiracy to Colonel Brock, who was then at York. The latter lost no time in hastening to the scene. The mutiny of the Nore in 1796 had taught him that promptness and decision were necessary to prevent an appalling disaster. This was no time for half measures, when the mother country was at war in Europe, and when a wily neighbour was undermining the allegiance of His Majesty's forces in America. Stern and quick must be the remedy. The vessel that brought him the news took him quickly over the lake, and, unannounced, he landed on the beach below the town and walked to the fort. The sentry on duty soon recognized the commanding figure of the colonel and called out the guard, which was commanded, as it happened, by the very sergeant who had been suspected as the instigator of the conspiracy. It was all the work of a few moments. As the guard shouldered arms the sergeant was ordered to come forward and lay down his pike, and to take off his sword and sash. As soon as this was done a corporal named O'Brien was told to bring a pair of handcuffs and put them on the sergeant who was then marched off to the cells. Then came the corporal's turn, for he too was one of those implicated, and in obedience to the stern command his arms and accoutrements were also laid down, and a soldier was ordered to handcuff him and convey him also to the cells. Brock then sent a young officer to arrest the other malcontents. Twelve men in all were put in irons and sent off to York together with the seven deserters who had been arrested some weeks before.

General Hunter directed that their trial should take place at Quebec. They were found guilty and four of the mutineers and three of the deserters were condemned to be shot. The extreme rigour of their commanding officer, Colonel Sheaffe, was the only plea they made in extenuation of their crime. The sentence was carried out on March 2nd, 1804, at Quebec. The unfortunate men declared publicly that had they continued under the command of Colonel Brock they would have escaped their melancholy end.

At York, when the letter came announcing the execution, the colonel ordered every man under arms, that he might read to them its contents. He then addressed them and said:—"Since I have had the honour to wear the British uniform I have never felt grief like this. It pains me to the heart to think that any member of my regiment should have engaged in a conspiracy which has led to their being shot like so many dogs. . . " We are told that the soldiers who saw the glistening tear and heard the faltering voice of their colonel were so moved by the touching scene that there was not a dry eye among them.

After this melancholy affair Brock assumed command at Fort George, and all complaints and desertions instantly ceased. He put into practice the more humane methods of treating the common soldier that he had learned in the school of Abercromby and Stewart. The men were allowed, under proper restrictions, to visit the town freely. It was no longer a crime to fish in fatigue dress, and even the sport of shooting the wild pigeons that were in such abundance was allowed, with the proviso that the men should provide their own powder and shot. Under Colonel Sheaffe's discipline the four black holes were always full, but now under a milder rule complaints were unknown.

The mutiny, however, had made such an impression on Colonel Brock that he sought a remedy for the evils that had occasioned it, and his ideas on the subject were embodied in a report which he subsequently sent to the Duke of York.

During the long winter months of 1803-4 at Fort George he had the opportunity of visiting many of the new settlers in the country. He found that without any special merit, they had obtained large grants of land, although some of them had even taken part against England in the revolutionary war. Land at that time was of so little value that on condition of settling, any person, by paying a fee of sixpence an acre, could obtain a grant of two hundred acres.

In order to improve the prospects of soldiers in Canada, Brock, in his report, recommended the establishment of a corps of veterans, who would by long and faithful service be deserving of the most liberal protection and favour. The men, he thought, might be selected in the first instance from veteran corps already established, and afterwards they might be selected impartially from every regiment in the service. Every year men were discharged who could with propriety be recommended for this corps. Ten companies, each of sixty rank and file with the usual proportion of officers, might be distributed at St. Johns, Chambly, Kingston, York, Fort George and its dependencies, Amherstburg and St. Joseph. Colonel Brock gave a scale of the number of years each soldier should serve in the veteran battalion proportionate to his length of former service. On their discharge he suggested that the men should be located on a large tract of land on the river Credit (west of York) which had been purchased by Lieutenant-Governor Hunter from the Missis-saga Indians. He also recommended that they should be furnished with implements of husbandry and rations for a short period. He concluded with these words:—"I have considered the subject only in a military point of view; the advantages arising from the introduction of a number of men into the country attached to government by ties of interest and gratitude and already acquainted with the use of arms, are too obvious in a political light to need any comment. It is highly gratifying to observe the comfortable state of the Loyalists, who, in the year 1784, obtained small tracts of land in Upper Canada.

Their conduct and principles form a striking contrast to those practised and professed generally by the settlers of 1793."

There is no doubt that Colonel Brock was right in his estimate of the character of some of the recent settlers in Upper Canada. They had come, not as Loyalists because they wished to live under the English flag, but because of the easy terms on which they could obtain grants of land. They were still at heart citizens of the United States, and openly sympathized with that country. They formed a rather troublesome element in the beginning of the war of 1812, but were gradually weeded out in the struggle that "tried men's hearts."

It was not only in theory that Brock endeavoured to ameliorate the condition of the soldier. He was ever ready with advice and assistance to those under him. One instance may be given in his treatment of Fitz Gibbon, the young sergeant-major of the 49th, in whom he took much interest, and who said he owed everything to him. He tells the story that when stationed at York in 1803, Colonel Brock told him he intended to recommend him for the adjutancy of the regiment, and said: " I not only desire to procure a commission for you, but I also wish that you should qualify yourself to take your position among gentlemen. Here are my books; make good use of them." He often wrote, he said, to the colonel's dictation, and thereby learnt much that was useful to him in after life.

Another reminiscence of the sergeant-major gives a trait of Brock's character that was predominant throughout his career. One day he asked Fitz Gibbon why he had not carried out some order, and received for answer that it was impossible to execute it. "By the Lord Harry, sir," said the colonel in wrath, "do not tell me it is impossible. Nothing should be impossible to a soldier; the word 'impossible' should not be found in a soldier's dictionary."

Some time after, at Quebec, when the sergeant-major was an ensign, he was ordered to take a fatigue party to the bateau guard, and bring round to the Lower Town twenty bateaux to embark troops for Montreal. The tide had fallen and there were two hundred yards of mud over which it looked impossible to drag the bateaux, which were large, heavy, flat boats. He thought he would return, but it suddenly occurred to him that the colonel would ask: "Did you try?" He therefore gave the word, "Front!" and said to the soldiers: "I think it impossible for us to put these bateaux afloat, but you know it will not do for me to tell Colonel Brock so, unless we try it. Let us therefore try. There are the boats. I am sure if it be possible for men to put them afloat you will do it. Go at them." In half an hour the work was done. Thus the indomitable spirit of the commander was infused into the men who served under him.


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