How George Washington lost Canada
A MACLEAN’S FLASHBACK
THOMAS H. RADDALL
He side-stepped Nova Scotia to attack Quebec. If it hadn’t been or Benedict Arnold’s smooth advice, we’d all he Yankees today
In the whole of its turbulent history, the fate of Canada as a future nation united sea to sea probably never hung more finely in the balance than it did one summer day in 1775. That day in his army headquarters near Boston, George Washington had two proposals before him. One called for a minor campaign to capture Nova Scotia; the other was Benedict Arnold’s scheme for an overland blow at Quebec.
The first plan was much the sounder. Aided by native anti-British rebels, an American force of one thousand men could have easily crushed the main stronghold of Halifax where only 126 of the garrison were fit for duty. They would have held the key to the Gulf of St. Lawrence, and Nova Scotia would eventually have become the fourteenth star in the new American flag.
Washington, of course, chose to be swayed by the colorful Arnold and lost five thousand men—mostly to hardship and disease—in the futile St. Lawrence adventure.
Thomas H. Raddall, distinguished Nova Scotian novelist and historian,
explores this fascinating realm of “might have been” in his new book, The Path of Destiny, which will be published later this year by Doubleday. The following is an excerpt from that book.
At the beginning of the revolution Nova Scotia included (with the peninsula and the island of Cape Breton to which it is now confined) the whole of New Brunswick, much of the Gaspé peninsula, and part of the state of Maine. It was in fact the old French province of Acadie under another name, and from Halifax a British governor and his council ruled the old Acadian domain in its entirety.
Acadie under the French regime, with a mainland rubbing hard against the outer settlements of the New Englanders and a peninsula aimed like a cannon at their Boston heart, had been a menace to generations of spirited Yankees and for generations they strove to abolish it. In 1710 they captured the
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The five thousand American soldiers could have
seized and held N.S., aided by the population
ancient Acadian capital (Port Royal, which they renamed Annapolis) only to sec the French retire to Cape Breton and build a bigger and more dangerous seafortress at Louisburg.
In 1745 the New Englanders went on to capture Louisburg, a feat that astonished Europe, the first hint of the new power rising in America. An absurd government in London traded it back to France for concessions elsewhere, a bit of empire shuffling that enraged the American colonists, so that parliament felt obliged to set up a military and naval base on the Nova Scotia peninsula as an offset to Louisburg. The chosen site was a magnificent wooded fiord known to the Indians as Chebueto, and there in 1749 a strong expedition of British settlers and troops created the town of Halifax, the new capital of the province.
Thus in its first aspect Nova Scotia was the northeastern bastion of New England, an outer warden against attacks by sea from France or Canada. But soon the British and their American colonists saw the real significance of their prize. It was the key to Canada, for it commanded the Gulf of St. Lawrence. Their next step was to clear the flank in Acadie by seizing Fort Beausejour at the isthmus and expelling thousands of the dour French settlers from the Bay of Fundy. This was in 1755. A third step came in 1758 when Wolfe and Amherst, moving from Halifax, assailed and destroyed the Louisburg sea-fortress guarding the approach to the St. Lawrence. The final step came in 1759 when Wolfe’s army, again operating from Halifax, sailed up the St. Lawrence and took Quebec.
Nova Scotia’s peculiar value was now proven. In any strategy for the defense or conquest of British North America it had the sinister importance of a twoedged dagger, for its ports and hinterland commanded not only the throat of Canada but the main sea approach to New England. For that reason, lest the French plan a reconquest, the British maintained after 1763 their garrison and naval base at Halifax, the only establishment of its kind in North America.
As the years went by, with the British flag snapping in every breeze from Hudson Bay to Florida, the lesson of history faded into a peaceful feeling of assurance. When the American Revolution sent a violent ripple along the colonial chain the significance of the fourteenth and last link was so far forgotten that the British shipped their Nova Scotia garrison to Boston, while for their part the Americans devoted themselves to the wild-goose chase to the St. Lawrence.
In the whole story of the revolution this is perhaps the most ironical chapter. The five thousand American soldiers who perished in the adventures along the St. l_awrence could have seized and held Nova Scotia, aided by a population two thirds of whom spoke their own tongue with the familiar nasal accent and regarded New England as their home. With Nova Scotia fixed in American hands the British fleet would have lost its last winter mooring post on the continent
north of New York, thus changing the whole face of the war and of the subsequent peace.
I he future of Canada hung upon what happened in Nova Scotia between 1775 and 1783. I he only people among Nova Scotia’s twenty thousand whites and three thousand Indians with a fixed loyalty to the king were some newly arrived Yorkshire settlers at the isthmus, some Scots at Pictou and in Cape Breton, a scatter of British army and navy veterans discharged in the country after the last war, and the small circle of Halifax officials and merchants whose fortunes were bound up in British government salaries and perquisites.
The predominant Yankee population of the province lived chiefly on the western shores of the peninsula, where they traded freely with Newfoundland. Labrador, the West Indies, and with their friends and relatives in New England, visiting hack and forth across the mouth of Fundy and smuggling their rum, tea and other luxuries in the accepted American fashion. They governed their settlements in the New England way, by town meetings at which any man could have his say. and by elected committees whose word was law.
A hit of fashionable I.ondon
There were few roads in the country. Nearly all traffic was by sea; and because manufactured goods and foodstuffs other than fish were cheaper in New England than in Halifax most of their supplies were fetched by sea from the older colonies, which the Nova Scotians still considered home. In a careless and spasmodic way they sent representatives to the provincial assembly at Halifax, hut they knew the assembly for the futile thing it was. The province was ruled by a governor and council appointed from London; and it was financed from i.ondon, partly by direct subsidy and partly by the sums spent every year on the Halifax garrison and fleet. Most of this money eventually found its way into the pockets of the officials and their merchant friends.
This little coterie, firmly established since the foundation of Halifax, did themselves well on His Majesty’s bounty. In the shabby wooden town on the slope of Citadel Hill their houses alone were luxurious; their carriages in summer and their fur-piled sleighs in winter flashed and jingled in the narrow streets, and at their frequent balls and dinners they entertained lavishly the officers of His Majesty’s army and navy. In the frugal setting of the fourteenth colony they stood forth like a little bit of fashionable London transported across the sea. Almost to a man and woman their sole dream was to make a fortune and sail away to a well-nourished retirement in England.
In the favored group however there was one man notable for his difference. Michael Francklin had come to Halifax as a young Englishman with a few pounds in his pocket determined to make a fortune. In his business and political
dealings he was as greedy as any other in the manner of the time; but he had something the others lacked, a genuine interest in the country. He traveled the province widely in a time when it was dangerous to do so; indeed in his early experience he had been captured by Indians and held a prisoner in peril of his life for months; and it was typical of him that he spent his captivity in learning the Indians’ language and customs thoroughly, and that he parted with them on terms of friendship. This friendship he maintained throughout his life.
Unlike most of the others, too, he had married a Yankee wife, a granddaughter of Boston’s famous Peter Faneuii. He had a country mansion at Windsor and maintained a horse-breeding farm in the meadows of Minudie beside the Bay of Fundy. These interests outside the capital and his frequent travels gave him the friendship of the American settlers in the province, something withheld from others of the Halifax oligarchy. When the impending revolution began to throw its shadow across the mouth of Fundy he was the one man in the province who could claim trust from both crown and people.
In 1773 however a new actor stepped upon the Nova Scotian scene, a British army officer whose kinsman, the Earl of Dartmouth, had secured him the post of governor. Francis Legge assumed the office at a time when the British government was at last disturbed about the
greedy coterie at Halifax, which had cost and was still costing the British taxpayer such enormous sums. Before embarking he had been charged to clean up the whole mess of provincial administration and finance. Legge was an honest but stupid man, ugly and obese, more Used to scaring soldiers of the line than dealing with smooth knaves of the Halifax sort or with colonial settlers who disliked the Halifax knaves as much as he did but who also despised him for a bully and a fool. His investigations proved the ruling group in Halifax to be a gang of pompous thieves; but the thieves were very loud in their loyalty to King George at a time when His Majesty’s government had begun to feel a sudden need for friends in America, and London hesitated.
Legge and the Nova Scotians, especially those natural democrats, the Yankee settlers, were natural allies in the struggle against the clique at Halifax. But in ’75 the news of Lexington and Bunker Hill turned Legge’s suspicions to the whole province. The garrison had gone to Boston, leaving him little more than a corporal’s guard, and amid so many people whose sympathies obviously lay with the New England rebels he felt himself naked. When he tried to raise a regiment in the province his recruiting officers met with utter failure, and in the Nova Scotians’ reluctance to take up arms against their Yankee brethren he saw a deep conspiracy against His Majesty’s rule.
He did not cease his vendetta against the parasites of Halifax, but now he extended it to the people of the province, butting fiercely in all directions like the honest but bewildered goat he was. The settlers were harried with demands for an oath of allegiance, abnegation, and supremacy, the oath including a vow to fight His Majesty's enemies with no limitations; the familiar and necessary traffic with New England was hobbled by a system of passes, inward and outward, and all meetings were forbidden.
The shrewd rogues of Halifax were quick to see their opportunity. In January 1776 a delegation went to London to press for Legge’s recall, pointing out that his policy was driving the Nova Scotians toward revolt, which was the truth; and London, suddenly alarmed, gave in. l egge was recalled. He left amid the abuse and curses of a Halifax mob while the oligarchs laughed in their drawing rooms and countinghouses. Michael Francklin. the lieutenant-governor, was the obvious man to take his place. But London had determined to make a clean sweep. Francklin was deposed also, and his post went to a naval officer, Arbuthnot, who knew nothing of Nova Scotia or its people, whose view indeed seldom went beyond the Halifax dockyard gate.
All these matters left the Nova Scotians in a cynical and watchful mood. They had shared the general American unrest over the Stamp Act in '65. At Halifax the semi-official Gazette had declared the indignation of the town and province at this attempt at taxation from abroad. When it persisted in this strain the printer was deprived of his contract and replaced by another direct from England, on whose loyalty the government could rely.
Henry, the printer, had only given utterance to the sentiment of many Haligonians at this time; and they went on to expressions of their own. burning an effigy of the local stamp-master on the slope of Citadel Hill, and dangling an old boot from a gallows in derision of Lord Bute, the unpopular favorite of King George. Indeed opinion in Halifax was so strong that the authorities had to put a military guard over the stampmaster’s house. When the Stamp Act was repealed the Nova Scotians rejoiced as much as their brethren in the other colonies. The Boston tea party had its echoes in Nova Scotia also. These and other signs of Nova Scotian accord with the other colonies were all noted by the government long before the revolution.
Soon after Ihe outbreak at Lexington the busy Committees of Correspondence in Massachusetts got in touch with the Nova Scotians, urging open revolt. Later on, with the sanction of George Washington. the Congress sent agents to sound out the feelings of the Nova Scotians and to examine the state of the garrison. These went no farther than Machias, a hotbed of revolt on the vague borderland between Nova Scotia and what is now the state of Maine; but there they found people in close contact with the Nova Scotians, all urging that the province was ripe for rebellion.
In reality the Nova Scotians were in the painful dilemma that had ruined the Acadians before them, caught as they were between two powerful and opposed national interests; and they well remembered what had happened to the Acadians. Of all the continental colonies theirs was the nearest to England and so the most exposed to the British fleet and to troops coming in by sea. Their population was small and scattered about
the coast, with no settled interior on which they could subsist in arms, as could the other American colonists.
There were hotheads among them like Jonathan Eddy, of Cumberland, and Parson Seccombe, of Chester, ardently preaching rebellion; but more typical were Malachi Salter, the Yankee merchant of Halifax, and Simeon Perkins, the Yankee merchant of Liverpool, whose voluminous diary still tells the story of his time. These were cautious, measuring their American sympathies against the British strength by sea. and hoping that somehow the Nova Scotians could stay neutral in what seemed to them a ruinous brawl.
In the late summer of 1775 George Washington at his Cambridge headquarters outside Boston had two proposals before him. One was Benedict Arnold’s scheme for an overland blow
at Quebec. The other, known as Colonel Thompson’s plan, was for the seizure of Nova Scotia. The Thompson plan required one thousand troops, four armed ships and eight transports, moving from an advanced base already established in Maine by the ardent revolutionists of Machias. The American troops would proceed up the Bay of Fundy and into Minas Basin. There they would seize the port of Windsor (where they could rouse and arm the American settlers of the Annapolis Valley and Cumberland, and the Ulstermen of Truro and Cobequid) and thence march on Halifax.
The Thompson plan was much more sound than Arnold’s in spite of Washington’s caution about any scheme that depended on movement by sea. The British fleet at that time was too busy convoying supplies to the besieged army in Boston to give much attention elsewhere.
and in any case the British naval commanders had a healthy aversion to the upper parts of the Bay of Fundy on account of its dangerous fogs and tides. In Nova Scotia the Americans would find themselves among a friendly people who spoke their own tongue and had small respect for His Majesty’s government. Most important, there were no British troops left in the province except the guard at Halifax, and as late as Nov. 4, 1775, the garrison of Halifax consisted of three hundred and ninety men, of whom only a hundred and twenty-six
were fit for duty.
The voice of the dashing Arnold prevailed however, and Washington rejected the easy prize of Nova Scotia. Thus one opportunity passed, and when the British army withdrew from Boston to Halifax in the spring of ’76 the would-be rebels among the Nova Scotians had to lie low. Another opportunity came that summer, when Howe went off with all his forces to New York.
This time, other than three hundred British soldiers in Halifax, there was a single company of the Royal Highland
Emigrants posted at Windsor and a weak battalion of the Royal Fencible American Regiment guarding the isthmus at Fort Cumberland. The Highlanders, newly recruited in Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island, were poorly armed and without uniforms. The Royal Fencible Americans, commanded by Colonel Joseph Gorham, had been recruited in the streets of Boston before Howe’s withdrawal, a mixed lot of Loyalists, vagabonds and foreigners, about two hundred and fifty in all. A single regiment of well-armed rebels with a battery of field
guns could have overrun them all.
Again Washington was urged to send such a force to bring the fourteenth colony into the continental fold. Nova Scotian emissaries Jonathan Eddy, John Allan, and their Acadian colleague Isaiah Boudreau, visited Boston and pointed out the ease with which it might be done, pledging the support of hundreds of Nova Scotians who only awaited arms and ammunition. But Washington was now concerned with New York, and the costly failure of the St. Lawrence venture was fresh in his mind. He referred the Nova Scotia matter to Congress. Congress shuffled it on to the legislature of Massachusetts. A Massachusetts committee in turn was glib with promises of troops, arms and supplies, to the Nova Scotian representatives. In the actual rebellion none appeared.
All that appeared in the autumn of 1776 was a small band of reckless frontiersmen from Machias, guided by Jonathan Eddy. They visited the settlers on the St. John River en route, and turned up in Cumberland in the last days of October, announcing themselves as the advance party of a strong American army. The intention of this army, they declared, was to liberate Nova Scotia, and they called on all “friends of America” to rise and take up arms in their support.
Fort Cumberland with its guns and bastions, its earthen ramparts built in the favorite star shape of French engineers in the old regime (it was the famous Fort Beauséjour of former times) guarded the Nova Scotia isthmus on a ridge in the Fundy marshes. It was held by Colonel Gorham, an indifferent soldier, with his shabby battalion of Bostonian refugees.
About the edge of the marshes and along the ridge lived a farming people, of whom some Yorkshiremen, newly settled in the country, remained aloof. The other settlers mustered an earnest but poorly armed force for the siege of Fort Cumberland. Indictments for treason afterwards drawn up for the Halifax courts described them as, “. . . a great number of traitors and rebels against our Sovereign Lord the King ... to the number of three hundred persons . . . being armed in a warlike and hostile manner with drums beating and with guns, swords, pistols, pikes, clubs and other weapons.”
The guns were mostly fowling pieces, the swords and pistols relics of the old French war. They had no cannon at all. Nevertheless they captured fifty of Gorham’s men, seized a ship laden with his winter food supplies, besieged him and his garrison for three weeks, and in the dark of one November night made a wild and badly managed attempt to storm the fort.
There was great alarm among the loyalists at Halifax. Michael Francklin hastened to raise the militia of the Annapolis Valley and Minas Basin for Gorham’s relief; but even his influence could not move them. To a man the settlers refused to muster. Indeed some of the Ulstermen of Minas Basin were marching to join the Cumberland rebels. For a time it seemed that Eddy’s bold enterprise would take Fort Cumberland and roll on to Halifax like a snowball in March, gathering volume as it went, despite the non-appearance of the American army.
General Massey at Halifax took a chance. His garrison there was small and worthless and the town itself buzzing with American sympathizers. The only reliable troops on hand were two companies of Royal Marines, landed from warships in the harbor. These he sent
hotfoot through the woods to Windsor, where they joined the little company of Highland Emigrants for a voyage up Fundy Bay to Cumberland. The Highlanders’ ship went astray in bad weather, but the Marines reached Cumberland at night and landed secretly on the marshes below the fort.
The Cumberland rebels kept a careless watch in the winter weather. Gorham had shown no desire to sally forth and attack their crude siege lines, and after the failure of their own attempt to rush the fort they were content to wait for Gorham’s food and fuel to run out. The Marines and the pick of Gorham's men. led by Major Batt. stole along the edge of the marshes before dawn, passed the (lank of the poorly manned rebel line, and at daylight fell on the camp where most of them were asleep. In an hour the Cumberland “Army of Liberty” was flying through the woods, and the vengeful redcoats were burning farm after farm along the ridge.
Gorham, himself a Nova Scotian of Yankee origin, was more merciful, offering amnesty to all the local rebels hiding
in the woods and marshes if they surrendered with their weapons in four days. Most of them did. The chief leaders of the revolt, Eddy and Allan, had escaped to the St. John. The British soldiers gathered up some lesser culprits and sent them to Halifax for trial, but there again a wise clemency prevailed. In various ways the trials were abandoned and the prisoners were allowed to escape. One of them, young Richard John Uniacke, eventually became attorney-general of Nova Scotia, a Tory of Tories and a power in the land.
Jonathan Eddy did not stop his flight until he reached Machias. John Allan, a man of better fibre, halted on the St. John River with some other refugees from Cumberland and began to recruit another force among the settlers at the river mouth and in the villages upstream. He also sought aid from the Malicete Indians of the St. John and the Micmacs of Miramichi. These activities went on undisturbed through the winter and spring of 1777.
There was still no sign of the promised American troops, but Massachusetts was alive to the importance of keeping at least some of the Nova Scotians in revolt, and of winning the Indians who were masters of the forest between the Bay of Fundy and the St. Lawrence. Hence Allan received some arms and ammunition for his followers, and belts of wampum, blankets and other gifts for the savages.
If Massachusetts and the Congress remained blind to their opportunity in Nova Scotia, the British authorities at Halifax had their eyes wide open after the Cumberland affair. During the winter and spring General Massey recruited vigorously amongst the Scotch settlers of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland and called ashore the marines of every warship that came into Halifax. By the early summer of ’77 he had six hundred marines and four hundred Royal Highland Emigrants, besides Gorham’s garrison at Fort Cumberland.
A large part of these troops had to be kept at Halifax, where in addition to the naval base Massey now had to guard several hundred American prisoners taken at sea and in Howe’s operations at New York. However he detached a force of marines and Highlanders, ordered Gorham to send a picked company of his Fencibles, and in June embarked them all for the St. John in the warships Vulture, Mermaid and Hope.
The blow fell suddenly. Allan’s little “Army of Liberty” made a brief stand at the mouth of the St. John and then fled up the river. British troops under the loyalist Major Studholme followed swiftly in boats and canoes. Here and there a party of the rebels halted on the bank of the broad stream. All were attacked and overrun, and again the soldiers burned every farm that sheltered them.
Allan had sent a last desperate appeal to Boston, but it was hopeless. A gaudy pageant had begun to move down Lake Champlain and the forces of New England were scrambling inland to meet it. If Massachusetts had ever intended sending troops to Nova Scotia the intention blew away on the brassy wind of Burgoyne’s trumpeters.
Allan’s last hope was the tribe of Malicetes, whose town of Aukpaque, the largest in the country, lay far upstream. But the Malicete chiefs Ambroise and Pierre Tommo had witnessed the siege of Fort Cumberland, and those canny warriors had come away with mixed impressions. Also Michael Francklin, working from Halifax, had sent gifts from the Great White Father to match those of the Americans, and thus when Allan and
his harried band arrived at Aukpaque, a few miles above the present city of Fredericton, he found the Indians divided in their councils. About half the tribe, led by the chief Ambroise, joined Allan and retreated with him up the river. The rest, under Pierre Tommo, joined the advancing British troops.
Allan made his last stand at the site of an old French settlement afterward known to the Loyalists as King’s Clear. His Indians deserted him and the British troops, guided by Pierre Tommo. fell on the remnant of Nova Scotia's “Army of Liberty” and destroyed it. Allan and a few others managed to escape to Machias, where they arrived in mid-August. Even there they had no rest or safety. Machias had been the base from which the Nova Scotia rebellion was plotted and sprung, and the British command at Halifax was well aware of it. Over the seaward horizon came Sir John Collier with a squadron led by his big flagship Rainbow, and when his ships departed Machias was a smoking ruin.
Thus ended the lone armed rebellion of the Nova Scotians.
Like many another battle of the revolution. in which small bodies of armed men gambled in a wilderness for tremendous stakes, the rising in Nova Scotia had a deep significance. Had the Cumberland affair succeeded (as it nearly did) and had there been any substance in the promised support from New England, the American flag must have been planted firmly at Halifax, and the flag itself would have borne a fourteenth star, for Nova Scotia.
As it was, the failure of the rebellion and the emptiness of all the promises from the other colonies caused the Nova Scotians to reflect somberly on their position. The old ties of blood and trade with New England were strong. With few exceptions village after village still refused to take the oath of allegiance, which demanded among other things that the Nova Scotians take up arms against the King’s enemies whenever called upon.
But a new factor had entered the problem. The successful rebels of New England, now that the tide of war had rolled away to New York, were sending armed ships to prey on British sea-borne trade. Some of these privateers had the written sanction of the Congress or their own states. Some had the doubtful authority of a scrawl from a local “committee of safety” or some other self-appointed body in their own town or village. Most had no authority at all and were in fact pirates, flying the Congress colors instead of the Jolly Roger.
These began to harry the Nova Scotia coast. The pretext was that their Bluenose cousins had not sent a representative to the Congress and therefore must be enemies of the United States. It was an excuse of thieves. The marauders began by seizing Nova Scotia trading vessels bound to or from the West Indies. From this they went to harrying the inshore trade. The British fleet, busy convoying storeships to New York or carrying troops in Howe’s amphibious operations far to the south, could spare few ships for the Halifax station, and these were too clumsy to deal with the nimble Yankee privateers.
The raiders turned their attention to the shore itself, robbing the defenseless towns and settlements. The chief outports, Charlottetown, Lunenburg, Liverpool, Yarmouth, Annapolis, all were attacked at various times and most of them pillaged, together with many small hamlets of the fishermen. In the autumn of 1776. at the very time when Nova Scotia rebels were besieging Fort Cumberland and watching in vain for armed help
Irom New England, the celebrated John Paul Jones was seizing unarmed vessels along the east coast of Nova Scotia and burning small sloops, sheds and cod-oil barrels of the poor fishermen of Canso. Charlottetown suffered as early as 1775, when American raiders kidnapped some of the leading inhabitants along with the plunder. The affair came to the notice of Washington in his camp at Cambridge, however, and he denounced the raid and sent the prisoners home.
But, as the war went on. a swarm of freebooters descended upon the four-
teenth colony. Vainly the Nova Scotians wrote misspelled but earnest protests to the state legislatures and to various committees of safety and other local bodies in New England. Vainly they traveled in person to plead before those bodies. All was useless. The state legislatures were helpless to control their privateers, and in most cases the local committeemen were themselves actively sharing in the loot.
In self-defense the Nova Scotians had to muster their militia to fight off the raids. The next step was obvious. A fleet
of Nova Scotian privateers, armed from the naval stores at Halifax and furnished with “letters-of-marque and reprisal” by the governor, began to prey upon the coast of New England.
By the war’s end the Nova Scotian Yankees were embittered and veteran enemies of the United States.
Thus instead of a fourteenth American state commanding the Gulf of St. Lawrence, which would have doomed Canada in 1812 if not in 1783, there remained a solid British bastion on the Atlantic coast of North America. ★