John Graves Simcoe
Chapter III - The Military Journal: 1777 to 1781


IN the "Military Journal" Simcoe has left a particular account of his service with the army from the date of his appointment to the command of the Queen's Rangers to the capitulation at York-ton. The journal was written, from notes taken at the time, during the years immediately following the author's arrival in England after the close of the war, on parole, and was published privately in 1787. It is written in an admirable style, clear, direct, sometimes a trifle pompous, and always with an eye to some great model. Simcoe had not lost his taste for classics in his pursuit of arms and his narrative often marches with the stately tread of the ancients. There is an evident incongruity between the important, swelling style and the operations chronicled. A few hundreds of Queen's Rangers move through these pages with the swing of a whole cavalry division; a small foray becomes an incursion shaking a rebel state; a skirmish thunders like a battle; and the smallest plot or regulation has its imperial effect. This is military history through a magnifying glass. But, reading the pages in forgetfulness, one is in the midst of great deeds and serious undertakings.

No sooner had Simcoe taken the command which he had so long desired than he set to work to improve the organization and discipline of the corps. He was allowed to add a certain number of huzzars to the force, and altered the headgear and uniform of the men in order to render them less conspicuous and, therefore, more valuable for their special duties. He abolished sergeants' guards; he insisted on regularity in messing; he discontinued written orders as much as possible; he endeavoured to make each officer and man self-reliant, and ready to rush in at close quarters and fight with the bayonet. From his private purse he outfitted his men, and rewarded any one who presented recruits. By these means he produced a company of disciplined enthusiasts in the cause of their country. The words and the emphasis are his own.

After the battle of Brandy wine, during the winter and spring of 1778, the general duty of Simcoe and the Queen's Rangers was to secure the country and facilitate the inhabitants bringing in their produce to market at Philadelphia." During his expeditions he took extraordinary precautions to prevent plunder by his troop and was, in general, successful. The two most important undertakings in which they were engaged were the affairs at Quintin's Bridge and at Hancock's House. They were little better than skirmishes and gam prominence by being met with in the journal where every detail is preserved. The affair at Hancock's House is called a massacre by some American writers. A party was surprised by Simcoe and his men, over thirty were killed, amongst them Hancock and a Loyalist who was a prisoner in the house. Simcoe remarks that "events like these are the real miseries of war." These small operations were never without a certain importance, although lost in histories which deal only with the large movements of the war. They were spirited and were undertaken by Simcoe and his men with the partizan feeling which lent fire and force to their movements. Simcoe himself may well be taken as a type of the most extreme partizan. He never wavered in his opinion that the war was forced on Great Britain, and he served in the army from principle and not alone because such service was his duty. He despised his opponents as such; he considered them cattle, from Washington down to the meanest batman in the rebel army. But when he had conquered or taken his enemy prisoner he treated him with condescension and humanity. No reverse, not even the final catastrophe, could shake his blind fidelity to the king's cause.

When Sir William Howe was recalled and Sir Henry Clinton succeeded him in command, Simcoe was promoted to the rank of lieutenant-colonel. On June 18th, 1778, the British army evacuated Philadelphia. With its immense baggage train, extending to the length of twelve miles, it lumbered through the heat and the dust, and on the twenty-sixth it had reached Monmouth court-house. The Queen's Rangers on the night of the twenty-sixth covered headquarters, and in the early hours of the twenty-seventh they changed their position and joined the left wing under Sir Henry Clinton. On the morrow the battle of Monmouth was to be fought and the left wing was to bear the brunt of the action. At seven in the morning of the twenty-seventh orders were brought to Simcoe "to take his huzzars and try to cut off a reconnoitring party of the enemy." Let us follow the movement in the words of the journalist; the passage will give the reader an idea of the manner of warfare in those days, and at the same time w ill serve as an example of the style in which the narrative is written :

"As the woods were thick in front, Lieutenant-Colonel Simcoe had no knowledge of the ground, no guide, no other direction, and but twenty huzzars with him; he asked of Lord Catheart, who brought him the order, whether he might not take some infantry with him, who, from the nature of the place, could advance nearly as expeditiously as his cavalry. To this his Lordship assenting, Lieutenant-Colonel Simcoe immediately marched with his cavalry and the grenadier company, consisting of forty rank and file. He had not proceeded far before he fell in with two rebel videttes, who galloped off; the cavalry were ordered to pursue them as their best guides; they flew on the road down a small hill, at the bottom of which was a rivulet; on the opposite rising the ground was open, with a high fence, the left of which reached the road, and along which, a considerable way to the right, a large corps was posted. This corps immediately fired, obliquely, upon the huzzars, who, in their pursuit of the videttes, went up the road, and gained their left, when Ellison, a very spirited huzzar, leapt the fence, and others followed. Lieutenant-Colonel Simcoe, in the meantime, brought up the grenadiers, and ordered the huzzars to retreat; the enemy gave one universal fire, and, panic-struck, fled. The Baron Stuben, who was with them, lost his hat in the confusion. Lieutenant-Colonel Simcoe rode along the fence, on the side opposite to which the enemy had been, posting the grenadiers there; the enemy fired several scattering shots, one of which wounded him in the arm; for some seconds, he thought it broken, and was unable to guide his horse, which, being also struck, ran away with him, luckily, to the rear; his arm soon recovered its tone, he got to the place where he had formed the huzzars, and with fourteen of them returned towards a house to which the right of the enemy's line had reached. Upon his left flank he saw two small parties of the enemy; he galloped towards them, and they fled ; in this confusion, seeing two men, who probably had been the advance of these parties, rather behind the others, he sent Sergeant Prior, and an huzzar, to take them, but with strict orders not to pursue too close to the wood. This the sergeant executed; and, after firing their loaded muskets at the large body which had been dislodged and was now rallying, the prisoners were obliged to break them, and to walk between the huzzars and the enemy. The business was now to retreat, and to carry off whomsoever might be wounded in the first attack. The enemy opposite seemed to increase, and a party, evidently headed by some general officer and his suite advancing to reconnoitre, it suggested to Lieutenant-Colonel Simcoe to endeavour to pass, as on a similar design; and, for this purpose, he dispatched an huzzar to the wood in his rear, to take off his cap and make signals, as if he was receiving directions from some persons posted in it. The party kept moving, slowly, close to the fence, and toward the road; when it got to some distance from the house, which has been mentioned, Lieutenant-Colonel Simcoe called out audibly, as if to a party posted in it, not to fire till the main body came close, -and moved on slowly parallel to the enemy, when he sent Ryan, an huzzar, forward, to see if there were any wounded men, and whether the grenadiers remained where he had posted them, adding, 'for we must carry them off or lie with them,' to which the huzzar replied, 'To be sure, your honour.' On his return, and reporting there was nobody there, Lieutenant-Colonel Simcoe struck obliquely from the fence, secured by a falling of the ground from danger, over the brook to the wood, where he found Captain Armstrong had, with great judgment, withdrawn his grenadiers; from thence he returned to camp, and sending his prisoners to the general, went himself to the baggage, his wound giving him excruciating pain, the day being like to prove very hot, and there not appearing the least probability of any action."

Simcoe and his men had engaged and driven off seven or eight hundred of the militia under General Dickinson. Upon the following day, Captain Ross led the Queen's Rangers in the battle of Monmouth, and at night they formed the rear-guard, and moved back "with that silence which was remarked in Washington's account of the action." While his men were in the very hottest of the fight Simcoe lay with the baggage, suffering and hearing the battle afar off. "During the day," the journal says, "the baggage was not seriously attacked , but some very small parties ran across it from one side of the road to the other; the rumour of them, however, added personal solicitude to Lieutenant- Colonel Simcoe's public anxiety, and for security he got together the pioneers of his own and some other corps around his wagon. The uncertainty of what fate might attend his corps and the army gave him more uneasiness than he ever experienced; and, when the baggage halted, he passed an anxious night till about the middle of it when he had authentic information of the events."

Simcoe was able to assume command of the Rangers on July 1st, but after he had escorted Sir William Erskine to Sandy Hook he was compelled through illness to remain in New York inactive until the fourteenth of the month. During the remainder of the summer his chief services were: in connection with Tarleton, an ambuscade of the Stockbiidge Indians at Kingsbridge on August 31st, and an attempt to surprise a corps of light troops under Colonel Gist. The ambush was partially successful, but the surprise failed of its object.

On November 19th the corps was ordered into winter quarters at Oyster Bay, Long Island, which the men fortified. "The situation was extremely well calculated to secure the health of the soldiery; the water was excellent, there were plenty of vegetables and oysters to join with their salt provisions, and bathing did not a little contribute to render them in high order for the field." They passed the winter in drilling, and were exercised particularly in rapid movements, bayonet charges, and occupying ground. Simcoe always laid great stress upon the efficiency of his men at close quarters; he held "that the British soldier, who fixes with his eye the attention of his opponents, and at the same instant pushes with his bayonet without looking down on its point, is certain of conquest."

ft may be here remarked that one of the greatest pleasures to be derived from a perusal of the "Military Journal" arises from the contrast that may be drawn between present methods of warfare and those followed at the close of the last century.

On May 18th the Rangers, "in great health and activity," left Oyster Bay and proceeded to Kings-bridge and formed the advance of the right column of the army. The summer was spent in skirmishing and attempts to engage or ambuscade the patrols of the enemy, but no encounter of any importance took place. On October 24th the corps embarked as if for service in Jamaica, but was relanded and marched to relieve a regiment at Richmond, Staten Island. While here Simcoe formed the scheme of destroying the flat-boats that the enemy had collected at Van factor's Bridge. He planned the expedition with his customary care, and, but for delays and certain happenings which could not have been foreseen, it would have been brilliantly successful. Eighteen new boats were burned, prisoners were taken, and forage destroyed. The intention was to reach headquarters at Kingsbridge by way of New Brunswick and to lead the enemy into an ambush prepared for them at South River Bridge.

The latter part of the plan failed completely. News of the expedition had spread like fire and the country was roused. As Simcoe's party approached New Brunswick it fell into an ambush. Simcoe " saw some men concealed behind logs and bushes and heard the words 'Now, now!' and found himself when he recovered his senses prisoner with the enemy, his horse being killed with five bullets, and himself stunned by the violence of the fall." As he lay thus a lad was prevented from bayoneting him, and for a while his life was in imminent danger. When he regained his senses he had to face for some days the fury of the people in that locality on account of the killing of Captain Vorbees by one of the Rangers. He remained at New Brunswick until October 28th when he was removed to Bordentown on parole. Here he enjoyed some liberty until the treatment he received from the inhabitants led him to Confine himself to his quarters. Early in November he was removed to the common jail at Burlington. and Was in the end confined in the felons' room in retaliation for the imprisonment of two Americans, one of whom had killed a Loyalist. Simcoe was held by the authorities of New Jersey. He endeavoured to arrange an exchange, and as his confinement grew unbearable he made a desperate plan of escape and would doubtless have carried it out had not a letter to Washington gained him his release.

On the last day of December Simcoe returned to Staten Island and joined his corps at Richmond.

The winter passed with but one alarm, that of an attempt of Lord Stirling's upon Staten Island, which was unproductive of any result. Simcoe, ever active in executing stratagems and forays, was deeply engaged in a plan to carry off Washington, who, according to rumour, was quartered at some distance from his army or any portion of it. But he did not lead the enterprise; it was entrusted to Captain Beckwith, who had formed a similar scheme which failed.

The summer and autumn of 1780 did not produce any action of importance. Simcoe's health had begun to show the results of his four years of constant service, with its wounds and innumerable fatigues. On December 11th, 1780, the Rangers embarked on an expedition to Virginia under command of Benedict Arnold. It is related in Dunlop's "History of New York" that Simcoe held a "dormant commission" during this expedition and that if he had any cause to suspect Arnold he was to supersede him. The story is likely founded on rumour; the fact is nowhere mentioned by Simcoe. He says simply that he was directed by the commander-in-chief "to communicate with him and to give him such information from time to time as he thought might be for the good of the service while he was under the command of General Arnold."

During the campaign that followed, the Rangers rendered greater service than ever before. Capturing stores, and destroying posts, harassing the enemy by night and by day, they were never at rest. Their life was full of excitement and peril. It was warfare in which each man had to depend on himself and where individual bravery was so common as to pass without special notice. In a narrative of one of the forays Smicoe draws this picture: "After the party had advanced a mile, an artilleryman, who had escaped and lay hid in the bushes, came out and informed him that Lieutenant Rynd lay not far off. Lieutenant-Colonel Simcoe found him dreadfully mangled and mortally wounded; lie sent for an ox-cart from a neighbouring farm, on which the unfortunate young gentleman was placed; the rain continued in a violent manner, which precluded all pursuit of the enemy; it now grew more tempestuous, and ended in a perfect hurricane, accompanied by incessant lightning. This small party slowly moved back toward Herberts Ferry. It was with difficulty that the drivers and attendants on the cart could find their way; the soldiers marched on with their bayonets fixed, linked in ranks together covering the road. The creaking of the wagon and the groans of the youth added to the horror of the night; the road was no longer to be traced when it quitted the woods, and it was a great satisfaction that a flash of lightning, which glared among the ruins of Norfolk, disclosed Herbert's house. Here a boat was procured which conveyed the unhappy youth to the hospital ship, where he died the next day; Lieutenant-Colonel Simcoe barricaded the house in which he passed the night."

On June 2nd, 1781, the Queen's Rangers were dispatched against Baron Stuben, who was guarding large and valuable stores at the Point of Fork, the head of James River. The corps was supported by two hundred rank and file of the 71st Regiment.

Owing to the incessant marches and distance from then* stores the footgear of the Rangers was so worn that fifty men were barefooted, but when they were called to attack the Prussian who had turned tne continental troops into an efficient army, not one would fall to the rear. The pages of the "Military Journal" give the strategy of the movement with the usual particularity. The plans were well laid and carefully executed, and the baron was ill-informed as to the force moving against him. When half a hundred men would have effectually protected the stores he fled, as he thought, from the army of Cornwallis. The threadbare corps fell upon the rich prize, appropriated whatever linen and clothing was of immediate service, broached the rum casks, rolled the powder kegs into the Fluvanna, and set fire to piles of arms, tools, wagons, and miscellaneous equipment.

The most notable exploit of Simcoe and his Hangers was the engagement at Spencer's Ordinary on June 26th, 1781. This action Simcoe himself considered "the climax of a campaign of five years, the result of true discipline acquired in that space by unremitted diligence, toil and danger, an honourable victory earned by veteran intrepidity."

The action resulted from an expedition directed by Cornwallis to destroy a quantity of stores and some boats that had been brought together by the Federal troops on the Chickahominy. The end was attained but upon his return Simcoe found himself in opposition to a force under Butler of the Pennsylvania line which had been sent by Lafayette to intercept him. A sharp action followed but Butler was beaten back and the Queen's Rangers returned to their quarters flushed with success.

The commander-in-chief specially distinguished Lieutenant-Colonel Simcoe and the Rangers in the public orders at Williamsburg on June 28th, "for their spirited and judicious conduct in the action of the twenty-sixth instant when he repulsed and defeated so superior a force of the enemy."

On August 12th, 1781, the Rangers were stationed at Gloucester "to cover the foraging in front of that post," and before long they were reinforced by Lieutenant-Colonel Tarleton and his cavalry. With their old spirit the Rangers continued their operations, but they were reduced in numbers, and those that remained were "shattered in constitution." Simcoe himself, in his twenty-ninth year, was broken down by continuous fatigue, wounds, and exposure. The command of the post at Gloucester he was compelled at length to resign to Tarleton, but not before he had made a valiant fight to maintain it, being once, at least, carried from his bed to his horse to inspire the men with his presence and example.

But however indomitable the valiant Simcoe and his handful of brave fellows might be in their minor undertakings, a larger strategy was shaping events. On August 31st the French fleet appeared at the mouth of the York River. Every day after that the situation grew more hopeless until on October 17th Cornwallis flew the white flag. Simcoe, anxious for the safety of the Loyalists who had fought with the Rangers under his command, requested Cornwallis to allow him to endeavour to escape with them through Maryland. But he decided that the whole of the army should share one fate, and on October 19th with their comrades, the three hundred and twenty men of the Queen's Rangers laid down their arms. Simcoe was not likely present at the surrender for he was still in a dangerous state of health, and was sent on the Bonetta to New York in company with the Loyalists. Thence he sailed to England on parole.

This closed his active military career. He was promoted and received honour and distinction, but he was never again to employ his undoubted genius on the field in fighting the battles of his beloved king and country.


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