Papineau
Chapter XII - To Arms!


BLUNDER after blunder on the one hand, and outbursts of violent language, provoked if not justified thereby, on the other—such is the record of the sayings and doings which followed the publication of the Russell resolutions, and which involved in a sanguinary conflict the rival forces, now reckless under the stress of violent and over-excited passion. In the month of November, 1837, preparations for a general stampede were hastily made in Montreal, the central point of the agitation; combats broke out in the streets on the seventh of the month between the Constitutionals of the Doric Club and the Fils de la Liberty followed by the sacking of the offices of The Vindicator, and an attack on the residence of Papineau. In deference to the wishes of a priest, his personal friend, who urged him to leave the city, "because his presence in Montreal was a cause of disorder," Papineau set out for St. Hya-cinthe; and the authorities who had so long been dozing and indifferent, suddenly, at last awoke with staring eyes which magnified and distorted out of all proportion every object offered to their vision, and made up their minds that the popular leader had set out to organize an armed revolt. Thereupon, without further reflection, they charged Papineau and O'Callaghan with high treason, and took out warrants for their arrest. This was going too fast and too far. Had Gosford, at the time of the first meeting in the month of May, taken steps to maintain order, there would have been no disturbance in the autumn. At the period we have now reached, the middle of November, matters were rapidly coming to a head. Men no longer controlled events; events rather swept away those who sought to control them, and guns were soon to go off spontaneously, so to speak, as though some mysterious hand discharged them. Meantime orders were given for the arrest at St. Johns of Demaray and Davignon, who, according to rumour, were fomenting disorder. A company of the Montreal Volunteer Cavalry, by whom they were escorted, was attacked on the march from Chambly to Longueuil, and forced to surrender their prisoners into the hands of Bonaventure Viger, who had prepared this coup de main with a small party of Patriotes. The fight between the Fils de la Liberti and the Doric Club, and the rescuing of Demaray and Davignon were the opening skirmishes for the more serious affairs on the Richelieu River.

The improvised generals, Wolfred Nelson and Storrow Brown, had gathered together at St. Denis and at St. Charles some hundreds of Patriotes, determined to resist the arrest of Papineau and O'Callaghan. Colonel Gore, a Waterloo veteran, was entrusted with the task of dispersing these "rebels," and arresting their leaders. Gore was to proceed to Sorel and thence to ascend the Richelieu as far as St. Denis, while Colonel Wetherall advanced in the opposite direction in order to attack St. Charles. Colonel Lysons, then a lieutenant, an officer who accompanied Gore, has left us a description of the former expedition. We quote a few passages from his narrative:

"Lieutenant-Colonel Wetherall, with six companies of infantry and two light six-pounder field guns, was to cross the Richelieu at Chambly, and move by night down the right bank of the river on St. Charles, a distance of about nineteen miles; Lieutenant-Colonel Hughes, of the 24th Regiment, with five companies and a twelve-pounder howitzer, was to move from Sorel up the right bank of the river on St. Denis, which was not supposed to be strongly held, a distance of about twenty-one miles, also by night, the two forces to appear simultaneously before their respective destinations. Colonel Hughes was then to push on to St. Charles. Colonel the Honourable Charles Gore was named to take command of the whole expedition, but he was to accompany Lieutenant-Colonel Hughes's force. I went with him.

"At ten o'clock on the night of November 21st, the troops of Colonel Hughes's column turned out in the barrack square at Sorel; the rain was pouring down in torrents, and the night was as dark as pitch. We were to move by the road called the Pot-au-beurre road, in order to avoid passing through St. Ours, which was held by the rebels. I got a lantern, fastened it to the top of a pole, and had it carried in front of the column; but what with horses and men sinking in the mud, harness breaking, wading through water and winding through woods, the little force soon got separated, those in the rear lost sight of the light, and great delays and difficulties were experienced. Towards morning the rain changed into snow, it became very cold, and daybreak found the unfortunate column still floundering in the half-frozen mud four miles from St. Denis.

"It soon became evident that the rebels were on the alert; the church bells were heard in the distance ringing the alarm, and parties of skirmishers appeared on our left flank. As the column approached nearer to St. Denis, we found all the bridges broken up. Without much delay I managed to reconstruct them strong enough to bear the howitzer, and the column continued to advance, Captain Markham leading'. On reaching the outskirts of the village the rebels opened a brisk fire on us. Markham pushed on, taking house after house, until his progress was arrested by a stockade across the road, and a large fortified brick house well flanked on all sides.

"Captain Crompton, with a company of the 66th, and Captain Maitland, with a company of the 24th, were then brought up, and the howitzer came into action. The engagement was kept up until a late hour in the afternoon; the enemy had a very strong position, and appeared to increase in numbers. Captain Markham succeeded in taking one of the flanking-houses, but in doing so he was severely wounded, receiving two balls in the neck and a wound across the knee. Several of his men also were hit. At length, as the men had had nothing to eat since the previous day, and the ammunition had fallen short, Colonel Gore deemed it necessary to withdraw his force. We had no ambulance or transport of any kind, so we were obliged to leave our wounded behind; there were seventeen of them, their wounds had been dressed, and they were put in beds in one house. Six men had been killed. Markham's men were first withdrawn from the flanking-house. They brought away their favourite captain with them under a heavy fire from the fortified house. On his way back he was again shot through the calf of the leg, and one of the men (a corporal) carrying him was wounded in the foot The other bearer was a sergeant. They had to come across a rough ploughed field frozen hard. As soon as they got near the road we ran out and lifted them over the fence; we then placed poor Markham on the only cart which remained with the column, and sent him to the rear.

"We retreated for a short distance along the road we had advanced by, and then crossed over a bridge to the left in order to march by the front road. Lieutenant-Colonel Hughes, conducting the rear guard with great coolness and determination, soon stopped the rebels who were following us. Night came on, and it continued to freeze very hard. After we had crossed the bridge the gun-horses completely broke down. Lieutenant Newcoman, R.A., assisted by Colonel Hughes's rear guard, did everything in their power to save the howitzer. I got Crompton's horse and put it in with my own as leader, doing driver myself. We then succeeded in moving the gun a short distance, but it stuck fast again and got frozen firm into the ground. At last the ammunition that remained was thrown into the river, and the howitzer was spiked and abandoned."

Here we have to deal with a painful incident. On the eve of the fight Papineau left St. Denis at the request of Dr. Nelson, who seems to have said to him: "Do not expose yourself uselessly, you will be of more service to us after the fight than here." Papineau submitted, but at a subsequent period, in 1849, when political events had divided the two men, Nelson denied having advised Papineau to depart. The latter is fairly entitled to the benefit of the doubt, if any there be, on this point, and we must conclude that Nelson did in truth tell him to go. But we venture to think that had he declined the advice, posterity would have thought none the worse of him for doing so.

Wetherall, who had been prevented by the bad weather from marching on St. Charles on the 22nd, the day of his departure from Chambly, as it had been settled, went forward on the 25th, and reached St. Charles the same day. With troops well equipped and provided with some pieces of artillery, he was expected to make short work of the undisciplined bands of men under Brown, with their wooden cannon and their old-fashioned muskets. In his report on the affair at St. Charles, Brown declares that the number of guns he had at the disposal of his men was one hundred and nine. About two o'clock Wetherall approached within a short distance of the village and opened fire on its best fortified point, a part of the place which was enclosed by a palisade, and as the besieged, whom he hoped to dislodge with his artillery, showed no signs of stirring, he gave the signal for an assault. A fearful carnage ensued. An eyewitness asserts that he counted one hundred and fifty dead, and all the houses, except that of M. Debartzch, were committed to the flames.

It was said at the time, that Brown took to flight before the action. He answered this charge in a letter to Nelson in 1851, in which he says that, having gone forward to reconnoitre, he had been forced to retreat with his men, whom he strove in vain to control, but "finding after a long trial, my strength and authority insufficient, I considered my command gone, turned my horse and rode to meet you at St. Denis, where I arrived at midnight."

After the affair at St. Charles, quiet and a sense of terror prevailed on the Richelieu, but Colborne deemed it expedient to make a fresh demonstration. On November 30th, under his orders, Gore set out anew for St. Denis by way of Sorel; the same day he halted at St. Ours, and reached St. Denis on December 1st. Near that village his men discovered the body of Lieutenant Weir, a young man of much distinction and greatly esteemed, who had fallen into the hands of the Patriotes before the fight. He was mercilessly cut down, on his attempting to escape, by the rebels to whose care he had been committed by Nelson. Gore's men were excited to fury by the sight of poor Weir's mangled body, and in spite of their commander, sacked the village of St. Denis and committed every dwelling to the flames. There was no real justification for the slaughtering of this officer, and the deed was mercilessly avenged at St. Denis and elsewhere, as we shall see later on. If men, before acting, would only reflect on the probable consequences of their proposed actions, what calamities would be avoided 1 But with popular commotions, wisdom and reflection have little to do.

The disastrous occurrence on the Richelieu River should have opened the eyes of the infatuated Patriotes in the other sections of the country, but unfortunately, reason had no hold on certain fire-brands of St. Eustache where Amury Girod, a self-appointed general, headed a band of excited and misguided peasants. This Girod was a Swiss—and it may be here remarked, as in the case of the two Nelsons and Storrow Brown, a stranger to the people under his command. Colborne, with artillery, horse and foot, an imposing army when compared to the rabble to be put down, marched on St. Eustache and met Dr. Chenier, who had replaced Girod; the latter, on hearing of the approach of the English troops, had fled, and fearing vengeance at the hands of the people, had committed suicide. Colborne reached St. Eustache on December 14th. What then occurred will be better told by one who took part in the action, Lieutenant Lysons, from whose narrative we have already quoted:

"When approaching the village, one brigade with the Field-Battery continued to advance on the road running parallel to the river; the other brigade turned off to the right and went across to the end of the street leading down the centre of the village, at right angles to the river. Lines of skirmishers from the village met the riverside brigade and opened fire on them, but soon retired. The field-battery then opened fire on the church and stone buildings around it; but there was no reply; so Sir John Colborne, seeing that the houses were empty and that everything was quiet, thought the rebels had retired and abandoned the place. He therefore sent Brigade-Major Dickson and his aide-de-camp down the main street, facing the great stone church, with orders to bring round the other brigade into the village. As soon as they got down near the church a rattling fire was opened on them, and they narrowly escaped with their lives. It was now evident that there was yet to be a fight.

"One of the howitzers was brought round into the main street, and an attempt was made to batter in the big doors of the church, but this failed. Ned Wetherall of the Royals then managed to creep round behind the houses and get into a large stone house that was at right angles to the front of the church and to windward of it; he there upset the burning stove on the floor, and pulled every inflammable thing he could find over it. In a few minutes the whole house was on fire, and volumes of smoke mantled the front of the church. Colonel Wetherall took advantage of this and advanced his regiment under cover of the smoke at the double down the street. I jumped off my horse and went on with them. We got round to the back of the church and found a small door leading into the sacristy, which we battered in, and Ormsby and I rushed in, followed by some of our men. We then turned to our left and went into the main body of the church, which appeared quite dark, the windows being barricaded ; here the rebels began firing down on our heads. We could not get up to them for the staircases were broken down, so Ormsby lighted a fire behind the altar and got his men out.

"The firing from the church windows then ceased, and the rebels began running out from some low windows, apparently of a crypt or cellar. Our men formed up on one side of the-church, and the 32nd and 83rd on the other. Some of the rebels ran out and fired at the troops, then threw down their arms and begged for quarter. Our officers tried to save the Canadians, but the men shouted 'Remember Jack Weir,' and numbers of these poor deluded fellows were shot down."

After crushing the Patriotes at St. Eustache, to the cry of "Remember Jack Weir," Colborne's soldiers shot down without mercy the unfortunate companions of Chenier, and the country once more became quiet; but it was the gloomy-quiet of despair, for the situation was even more disheartening than that which ensued after the capitulation of Quebec and Montreal. With the constitution suspended and their leaders in prison or in exile, what was to become of the Canadian people left to the mercy of a triumphant government, wielding the strong arm of undisputed power? No man ventured to answer this portentous question, which was present in the minds of all.

On December 5th, Lord Gosford proclaimed martial law in the district of Montreal, and set a price on the heads of Papineau, Nelson and the more noted of their followers. Nelson fell into the hands of the enemy, but Papineau had made good his escape. After the fight at St. Charles he betook himself to St. Hyacinthe, and thence to the United States. His journey into exile was performed under circumstances of extreme misery and hardship, in the most severe weather of the year. Often suffering for lack of food, half frozen, and compelled to struggle forward in the dark nights of a Canadian winter, he was more than once reduced to the utmost extremity by cold, hunger and exhaustion. But, coupled with his bodily pains, was the mental anguish which he must have then felt and continued to endure for many a long day. How could he banish for a moment from his mind the memory of the arena wherein, for over twenty years, he had with so much éclat and amid scenes of such thrilling excitement, steadily held the first place, and the recollection of his native province, for which he had dreamt so glorious a destiny, and which he now saw sinking into a slough of despond amid the ruins of its shattered hopes ?

In February, 1838, Gosford returned to England, to be succeeded first by Colborne and then by Lord Durham, High Commissioner, clad with extensive powers. The latter found the prisons crowded with Patriotes, who had been taken with arms in their hands. In place of sending them to trial and the scaffold, he simply exiled some of them to Bermuda, amongst them being Wolfred Nelson and R. S. M. Bouchette. His clemency did not meet the approval of the English parliament, and the ordinance dealing with the political prisoners was vetoed by the Melbourne government. Durham's pride would not allow him to submit to this rebuke, and he resigned his position. Undefined and extensive as they were, his powers could not justify the sending into exile, without any trial, of the eight Bermuda prisoners. It was an act in direct contravention of British procedure in criminal matters, and one which parliament could not condone. Durham smarted under the censure passed on his conduct, and issued, before leaving Quebec, a proclamation which was a defence of his action, and which drew down upon him from the Times the epithet of "Lord High Seditioner." When accused of having violated the constitution, he retorted: "Where was the law in a country where the executive took it upon themselves to spend public money without the consent of the people?"

History has not given credit to Durham for the humanitarian sentiments which inspired his conduct in dealing with the insurgents. The penalty appointed by law for the crime of high treason is death, and from motives of humanity the high commissioner wanted to save from the scaffold Nelson, Bouchette and many others who had been arrested in open rebellion.

Colborne returned to power, and the task once more devolved upon him of crushing an outbreak, that of 1838,—the second with which he had to deal. Anything more crazy than this wretched expedition headed by Robert Nelson and Dr. Cote, of Napierville, it would be difficult indeed to imagine. There was no prospect whatever of a successful issue to the attempt, and it was manifest to the simplest understanding that it must involve in certain destruction the deluded victims of men who were themselves carried away by some unaccountable hallucination. Defeated at Lacolle and Odelltown, Nelson returned to Vermont after the collapse of his unfortunate invasion, covered with the ridicule he had richly earned by his proclamation of a Canadian Republic and his own election as president, and loaded with the awful responsibility of having caused the loss of many lives, besides helping to hurry to the scaffold or into exile men who had been duped by his fallacious representations.

Sentiments of humanity and a horror of bloodshed had no place in the breast of a soldier such as Colborne, the old "Firebrand," as he was called, who set fire to so many villages that in some districts the sky became, as it were, a sea of fire from the reflection of the fateful flames. All the insurgents confined in the prison at Montreal were tried by courtmartial, and ninety-nine of the most deeply involved were sentenced to death; twelve were executed and the remainder transported to Australia, that far land of exile where most of them had nothing to expect but a death more lingering but no less certain than that of the scaffold. The punishment exceeded the magnitude of the offence, and it would have been quite sufficient for the ends of justice and sound policy had the chastisement been limited to the chief offenders only. Complaints as to the severity of repression come, it is true, with a bad grace from men who undertake a revolt; but humanity never loses its rights. Colborne, who was severe and implacable unto cruelty towards the Canadians, was a prodigy of clemency in the eyes of the bureaucrats. Note the fact that only twelve executions out of ninety-nine death sentences gratified the thirst for blood of those who, with the Herald in the fall of 1838, called for a general slaughter of the prisoners on the score of economy: " Why winter them over, why fatten them for the gibbet?" Such was the pitch to which racial animosity had excited the minds of certain men in those terrible days. In times of revolution and civil war, the spirit of savagery latent in the hearts of men is easily roused to action. Leibnitz was right in saying: Homo homini lupus.


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