Dedicated to my wife Sharon and our children,
who followed me faithfully to too many forts
and stood patiently on too many battlefields
while I waxed enthusiastically about times long past.
Chapter One Reacting to the Threat of War
Chapter Two A Twig of Old England
Chapter Three Confronting the Challenges of War
Chapter Four Conflict in the Coastal Waters
Chapter Five Filling the Void and Changing Attitudes
Chapter Six Tipping the Balance
Chapter Seven Adjusting the International Border
Chapter Eight In the Eye of the Storm
Chapter Nine Nothing but Freedom
Chapter Ten Adjusting to Peace
Conclusion The Legacy
Penobscot Expedition, September 1814
Names of the Black Refugees Who Arrived On Board H.M.S. Regulus
Disbanded Soldiers from the 98th [formerly the 99th] (Prince of Wales Tipperary) Regiment Known to Have Settled in NB
Glossary of Terms
For two decades, Britain and France had been locked in a life-and-death struggle. Through 1811 and into 1812, hostilities in Europe expanded into a global conflict, forcing Britain to the breaking point. In this environment of global warfare, it became increasingly difficult for the United States to protect its trade links and maintain its rights as a neutral on the high seas. In its view, the Royal Navy posed the greatest challenge to freedom of the seas and routinely insulted its flag. To add to their frustration, Americans firmly believed that the British were continuously thwarting their ambition to expand their frontier westward. With all of Britain’s resources focused on the desperate struggle with Napoleon, the timing would never be more propitious for the United States to confront its traditional antagonist. On June 18, 1812, President James Madison declared war on Britain.
The threat of war with the United States had existed for years, but when it finally came it was met by Britons with a sense of disbelief and dismay. Could Americans not understand that the real threat was Napoleon’s unquenchable thirst for world domination? Could they not see that the Royal Navy had kept the tyrant from American shores? With war a sudden reality, the people of New Brunswick, fearing for their lives, families, and property, felt extremely vulnerable; the province’s extensive border with the United States made invasion a distinct possibility. The response by the provincial legislative assembly and the general public was both patriotic and immediate. Despite the lack of military resources, every possible measure was taken to put New Brunswick in the best possible state of defence. Plans were made, militia training intensified, and fortifications built.
Strategists in Washington seriously considered invading across the Maine border with the goal of capturing the vital naval base at Halifax. Fortunately for Britain’s Atlantic colonies, the Madison administration found it impossible to wage total war. The New England states did not support what they considered to be “Mr. Madison’s War,” going so far as to threaten separation if Washington tried to coerce them into any kind of military operation. Lieutenant-General Sir John Coape Sherbrooke, the governor of Nova Scotia and commander-in-chief in the Atlantic region, took full advantage of New England’s reluctance to become involved in the conflict by offering to abstain from offensive operations and issuing licences to those willing to continue normal peacetime trade across the border. New Brunswick was quick to follow this initiative, and in short order an extensive and mutually beneficial trade blossomed between the enemies. Trade flourished to such an extent that it was facetiously claimed that British soldiers ate American beef while American soldiers slept under British blankets and marched in uniforms made from British cloth.
To the great relief of New Brunswickers, the undeclared state of neutrality along the border held for two years. As the threat of invasion faded, the focus of New Brunswick’s war effort turned to supporting the campaigns in Upper and Lower Canada and naval operations along the Atlantic coast, including taking an active role in privateering. With the sudden collapse of Napoleon’s armies in Europe, the war in North America took a dramatic turn. For Britain, the freeing up of military resources enabled it to adopt a more aggressive stance against the Americans. In New Brunswick, the provincial authorities considered this a golden opportunity to settle the still-disputed boundary with Maine in their favour. At their instigation, British military forces occupied Eastport, Maine, and the Penobscot River valley, and for a short period, the British regarded northern Maine as part of New Brunswick. The Treaty of Ghent, which ended the War of 1812, coincided with the final defeat of Napoleon and peace in Europe. With peace came a substantial reduction of British military forces. Many of the British regiments in North America were disbanded, and their veterans were offered free land grants. These military settlers would be a major legacy of the war for New Brunswick.
Major-General Sir John Coape Sherbrooke, governor of Nova Scotia and commander-in-chief of British forces in the Lower Provinces from 1811 to 1816. National Gallery of Canada
While New Brunswick was not in the forefront of hostilities, the War of 1812 was a defining event for the fledgling province. New Brunswick and the other British North American colonies rejoiced in Britain’s military successes, which enhanced their mutual sense of empire. New Brunswick’s economy, moreover, had matured during the conflict, which would be remembered as a prosperous period in the province’s history. Finally, what might have become a nasty and bitter experience with its American neighbours led instead to a sense of shared history and a uniquely friendly relationship between New Brunswick and Maine. The War of 1812 was truly a “Neighbourly War.”
Reacting to the Threat of War
Heavy war clouds hung over the citizens of New Brunswick. During the nearly thirty years since the American Revolutionary War, there had been continuous friction between the United States and Britain. Americans harboured a strong feeling of resentment and hatred for the British, while anti-American sentiment — based on a feeling of rejection, commercial jealousy, and a perception that the Americans supported France’s quest for world domination — was widespread in Britain. Hostilities came close to breaking out in 1794, 1807, and again in 1808, though in each case last-minute diplomacy managed to maintain an uneasy peace.
For New Brunswick, located on the frontier with the United States, these frequent threats of war were stressful, demanding military plans and the regular review of defence measures. The most unsettling review occurred during the 1807 crisis, when Viscount Castlereagh, the British secretary of state for war, suggested that, should New Brunswick be invaded, it ought to be abandoned. Castlereagh argued that the extensive border with the United States made the province impossible to defend, particularly with the limited resources available. He concluded, “it will be desirable, should resistance not likely to be successful, that you should secure a Retreat into Nova Scotia with as much of the Military population as you collect for the Security of Halifax.” As might have been expected, in New Brunswick this proposal made “a very unfavourable impression on the minds of the inhabitants,” but it did result in renewed interest in local defence plans and improved military preparedness.
Major-General Martin Hunter, president of the Council and commander-in-chief in New Brunswick from 1808 to 1812. Courtesy of Martin Bates and New Brunswick Museum X15765(2)
In January 1808, Castlereagh outlined a new imperial defence policy for British North America that included strengthening the British garrison, developing plans to supplement regular troops with an embodied militia when required, holding a reserve of arms and accoutrements in military stores, and providing funds to defray the costs of provincial defence. To bolster the provincial militias, a team of ten regular army lieutenant-colonels was despatched to superintend and discipline them. Of the four inspecting field officers who were sent to Halifax, one, Lieutenant-Colonel George Cuyler, was assigned to New Brunswick.
As part of these changes, in April 1808, Major-General Martin Hunter was appointed the president of New Brunswick’s governing Council1 and commander-in-chief of British forces in the province. Although the appointment of military officers to this civil position was to last too long and become very unpopular, Hunter’s selection proved judicious. He had extensive military service, including as a young officer with 52nd Light Infantry Regiment at the battles of Lexington, Bunker Hill, and Brandywine during the American Revolutionary War. In June 1803, he had been tasked to raise a new regiment called the New Brunswick Regiment of Fencible Infantry, which, in 1810, was renamed the 104th Regiment of Foot. As the colonel of the regiment, Hunter had resided in New Brunswick since July 1804 and was fully conversant with the local situation and the people of the province. Accordingly, his appointment was well received and his administration began with solid public support. Edward Winslow, whom he replaced as president of the Council, sent him a congratulatory letter:
The measure of uniting the Civil & military powers in the same officer at a time like the present must appear to every considerate man to be dictated by wisdom & an anxious concern for the security & protection of His Majesty’s American Colonies . . . and it affords me particular satisfaction that the Govt. of the province of New Brunswick . . . is now transferred to an officer in whom the energy of a soldier & the urbanity of a citizen are so happily blended . . . You are already Sir in possession of the confidence of the Officers of Government & the esteem of the people.
Instead of taking the precipitous measures that the imperial government preferred, Hunter, recognizing local sensitivities, implemented change cautiously and gradually. He made effective use of the funds available for defensive works without demanding additional money from the cash-strapped legislature. He focused on improving the provincial militia, including ensuring passage of the Militia Act of 1808, which made modest but important changes: the number of training days was increased by three; militiamen, for the first time, received pay while undergoing training; and all training was coordinated by the inspecting field officer. Arrangements were made with British army units stationed in the province to provide drill instructors. Militia officers who failed to perform their duties effectively were replaced. To make it easier to attend musters, militia regiments were reorganized into battalions based on smaller geographical areas. Unlike in other parts of British North America, where opposition to militia changes was considerable, in New Brunswick Hunter’s gradual and cautious approach to militia reform was well received, and both Hunter and Colonel Cuyler were pleased with the local militia’s noticeable improvement.
In 1810, a revised Militia Act did away with the old Loyalist militia structure, establishing new administrative branches — including a quartermaster department and paid regimental staffs — to improve its management, and the allowance for adjutants was increased to make these key positions more attractive. The number of compulsory drill days was increased to ten, and drills were standardized, with drill instructors now receiving pay from the province. Each unit was provided with secure storage for weapons, making it easier for militiamen to access their arms. To improve coastal defences, units of Sea Fencibles were established in Saint John, Richibucto, and the Fundy Isles. The defences of the port of Saint John were also enhanced, with improvements to the Prince Edward Battery, the Grave Yard Battery, and the barracks at Fort Howe.
Of vital concern to the military authorities was maintaining control of the St. John River. To that end, in August 1811, Captain Gustavus Nicolls, commanding Royal Engineer in Halifax, reckoned that ten gunboats and twenty “smaller Flat Bottomed Boats of the nature of Batteau” might be required, and he tasked Captain James Maclauchlan, commanding Royal Engineer in New Brunswick, to report on how many such vessels could be collected on the river in an emergency. Maclauchlan was to determine their carrying capacity and draft, and to estimate the expense of outfitting them and the time required to prepare them. Within two weeks, Maclauchlan reported that he could obtain twenty boats on short notice, but that half of them would not be worth the expense of fitting up and the rest would require considerable strengthening to make them suitable as gunboats, pointing out that these river boats had been built by “common axemen,” not by experienced boat builders. He estimated that it would cost £220 to refurnish these boats but only £270 to build new ones. He believed that a gunboat could be built in sixty days with four experienced men and that a flat-bottomed bateau able to carry thirty men could be built in a month at a cost of £80. Maclauchlan strongly recommended building new vessels, and his report went on to discuss the size and design of boats required for operations on the river between Saint John and Grand Falls. In accepting Maclauchlan’s report, Nicolls noted that “it appears to me that the principal defence to be made in New Brunswick, by an inferior army must be on the River Saint John and its Banks, and that by means of a superior flotilla.” Construction of the new boats began the following spring, and the first bateau forwarded to Fredericton in late July 1812.
Lieutenant-Colonel Gustavus Nicolls, commander of Royal Engineers in the Lower Provinces, played a major role in developing defence plans for New Brunswick during the War of 1812. Attributed to Nicolls’s wife. Parks Canada
In fall 1810, Cuyler was replaced as New Brunswick’s inspecting field officer by Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Gubbins of the 11th Regiment, another experienced and well-respected officer who was to play a major role in the province in the coming war. His duties entailed inspecting each militia regiment annually, observing their training, and reporting directly to General Hunter on the state of the various units and their equipment. As witnessed in his published journals, Gubbins was a shrewd observer of people and the world around him. When the colonel, his wife Charlotte, their three children, and nine servants arrived in Fredericton, there was no suitable housing immediately available, so they were invited to stay at Government House with General and Lady Hunter. This association resulted in a close relationship between the two families.
Gubbins began his first tour of inspection on June 29, 1811, covering the southeast and southwest corners of the province in seven weeks. His report was considerably more critical of the provincial militia than previous inspections had been, citing a poor standard of training, lack of discipline, and unsatisfactory maintenance of arms and equipment. Gubbins’s criticism perhaps could be attributed to his lack of experience commanding militia and to his using standards more suitable for regular units. He did note that the militia units located along the coast were generally better than most, and he singled out units at Saint John, St. Andrews, and Westmorland. On the positive side, Gubbins observed that New Brunswickers “are almost all loyal, or the descendants of those who proved themselves loyal, and entertain the most sovereign contempt and hatred for their neighbours of the United States.” He believed they were “attached to Great Britain” and were an “athletic,” brave people, familiar with the use of firearms and accustomed to “the extremes of a severe climate.” In his judgment, the local population would be a great asset to the province’s defence.
Gubbins’s assessment was that the Americans would require a force of at least eight thousand men to invade New Brunswick. His concept of operations to counter an invasion was to withdraw slowly from the frontier to prepared defensive positions, taking along all the cattle, boats, and any other material of value. He recommended Grimross Neck, opposite Gagetown, as one such defensive location. During his visit to Mount House, William Tyng Peter’s home at Grimross, he recognized its excellent defensive possibilities. While visiting St. Andrews, Gubbins noted the town’s strategic location, its excellent harbour, and the defensive nature of the terrain. He concluded that it should be fortified to create “a post of the first importance.” He reasoned that, if American invaders were forced to fight for St. Andrews, the delay would provide the necessary time to muster the militia and bring in reinforcements from Nova Scotia. If an invading force opted to bypass St. Andrews, then its line of communication would be open to interdiction. He followed this with recommendations on the defensive measures required to defend St. Andrews. By the end of his first tour, Gubbins was confident that New Brunswick could be “defended with every prospect of success.”
Lieutenant-Colonel Joseph Gubbins, inspecting field officer of the New Brunswick Militia from 1810 to 1816. Kings Landing Historical Settlement
During his 1811 tour, Gubbins showed considerable aplomb, spending a night at an inn in Eastport, Maine. He wrote, “this place, though undoubtedly coming within the boundary of the British possession, has been occupied and fortified by the United States . . . but as it suits our convenience to keep on terms with the American Government it is at present suffered to retain it, though their right to do so has not been acknowledged.” He took the opportunity to conduct a reconnaissance, noting that the Americans had erected a blockhouse and battery facing the harbour. He observed that both were overlooked by a hill close to the rear and could be captured easily from that direction. He reported accurately that the American garrison consisted of only a “subaltern’s detachment of artillery.” As he moved about the town in his British uniform, he could readily distinguish, by their reaction, who were for peace and who favoured war. He believed that the division between these two groups of Americans was so strong that they hated each other more than they did the British. Gubbins also confided to his journal his unflattering aristocratic view of Americans in general and of their ability to wage war successfully. He claimed they were so averse to subordination, soldiers’ wages were so low, and the opportunities for desertion so great that it was almost impossible for the United States to recruit and retain an army. “They even descended to so derogatory a measure as that of marching about with a band of drummers and prostitutes to inveigle any wretch sufficiently brutal to be taken by such attractions.” In Gubbins’s view, “there never did exist a government of such a numerous population less capable of carrying on an offensive war than is that of the United States.”
On February 5, 1812, in his opening address to the House of Assembly of New Brunswick, General Hunter emphasized the “importance of making such arrangements as may be requisite for our defence against the hostility with which we are threatened.” He recommended that the House take steps to prepare for war and, “by due preparations for resolute defence, we may contribute to prevent that hostility, which otherwise our supineness might invite.” Hunter requested that the House renew the Militia Act and provide funding for defence. In response, the House promised to pay immediate attention to Hunter’s recommendations, noting that “it is then much to be lamented that the American Government have not made a common cause with us against the common enemy of mankind . . . It is the continuation of this hostile temper against us, which renders it necessary now, to make effectual preparation for the security of the country.” The patriotic mood of the members of the House reflected that of the general population. On March 7, with unbounded enthusiasm, the House renewed the expiring militia law and voted £10,000 “to be paid and applied in such way and manner, and at such time or times, as the Commander-in-Chief for the time being, by and with the advice, and consent of His Majesty’s Council, shall direct.” To comply with Hunter’s request with such a magnificent sum of money for defence was unprecedented, as it represented double the province’s annual revenue. The Prince Regent himself expressed “the most lively satisfaction” with the generosity of the New Brunswick legislature in contributing to its defence with this display of loyalty.
Despite such outbursts of patriotism and the many improvements in militia training and preparedness, the successful defence of New Brunswick hinged on the availability of an adequate number of British regular soldiers. Unfortunately, the size of the British garrison was determined by events occurring on the other side of the Atlantic Ocean. Britain had been locked in a life-and-death struggle first with Revolutionary France and then with Napoleon Bonaparte for almost two decades, a prolonged conflict that had taxed it to the limit. Priority for military resources was assigned to the Duke of Wellington, who was waging a bloody campaign against the French in the Iberian Peninsula. If any reinforcements could be spared for North America, their obvious destination would be Upper and Lower Canada where the threat was the greatest. From his headquarters in Halifax, Lieutenant-General Sir John Coape Sherbrooke, governor of Nova Scotia, was responsible for the protection of Nova Scotia, New Brunswick, Prince Edward Island, Newfoundland, and Bermuda. To cover this vast area, Sherbrooke had at his disposal a force of some 4,400 men, consisting of five battalions of infantry, three companies of Royal Artillery, and 119 Royal Military Artificers. Of this force, the 104th Regiment of Foot, minus two companies, and a detachment of artillery formed the British garrison in New Brunswick. With little likelihood of reinforcements, this small garrison was a matter of grave concern.
Despite the limited resources available, General Hunter had done much to place New Brunswick in the best possible posture for defence. For his efforts, he was promoted on January 1, 1812, to lieutenant-general and, to the great regret of New Brunswickers, shortly thereafter ordered back to Britain. Before he and his family could sail from Saint John on August 9, war was declared, which increased the sadness and apprehension with which his departure was viewed: as Lady Hunter noted in a letter, “the people are loud and clamorous” to retain her husband at that time of crisis. Hunter had been the right man, at the right place, at the right time, but at this crucial point he was replaced by Major-General George Stracey Smyth.
At eleven o’clock in the evening of June 25, 1812, word was received in Eastport, Maine, by express from Washington that the United States had declared war on Britain. Civil and military officials were ordered to place the town in a state of defence. A “respectable gentleman” in Eastport immediately forwarded the alarming news to St. Andrews, and shortly after midnight on June 27 the word reached Saint John. Although not unexpected, the news was received with dismay. General Smyth, the new president of the Council and commander-in-chief, captured the opinion of the majority of New Brunswickers in his address at the opening of the House of Assembly: “The Government of the United States has been led to take a course directly the reverse of that which every free people, in a similar situation, ought to have pursued.” He went on to note that America had declared war “at a time when the sanguinary usurper of France had become more than ever formidable in Europe, and his lust of universal dominion appeared to be no longer considered as a hopeless and romantic passion.” Britain stood alone against the tyrant’s ambition, and United States should be assisting in “a general restoration of peace and independence to those nations which have so long suffered the horrors of revolution, oppression and desolation.” The spring of 1812 had been a time of national crisis for Britain and the American action was considered nothing short of treachery.
Major-General George Stracey Smyth, president of the Council and commander-in-chief of New Brunswick throughout the War of 1812. Courtesy of the Fredericton Region Museum
The news that the United States had declared war was also greeted with dismay on the Maine side of the border, where the debate over the declaration had been acrimonious and divisive. In Washington, the House of Representatives had voted seventy-nine to forty-nine for war, while the Senate vote was nineteen in favour and thirteen against, making this war bill the least supported of any in American history. Most troubling was that the vote reflected strong regional differences: congressmen and senators from New York northward rejected war, while those from Pennsylvania southward were strongly in favour. New Englanders firmly believed they would benefit little from the conflict and would suffer the most. They argued that the United States was ill prepared for war and that their coast and commerce were open to depredation by the Royal Navy, the most powerful the world had ever seen. Governor Caleb Strong of Massachusetts adamantly opposed the war and resisted taking even basic defensive measures. The District of Maine, then part of Massachusetts, felt particularly exposed and vulnerable. At a town meeting in the Old South Tavern, the citizens of Eastport took matters into their own hands. Instead of adopting defensive measures as ordered, they unanimously declared neutrality, and “agreed to preserve a good understanding with the Inhabitants of New Brunswick, and to discountenance all depredations on the property of each other.” Lemuel Trescott, chairman of the Committee of Public Safety and the collector of customs in Eastport, forwarded this message directly to the mayor of Saint John, who responded positively.