Today is the 4 July and therefore Independence Day in the United States. As it happens, I was in Pittsburgh earlier this week and so, except for Quebec’s Fête Nationale on 24 June, I have managed to be in the wrong place for all North America’s national holidays. By way of making up for this, I offer a new post on Sherbrooke and his role in the War of 1812. Sometimes called the Second War of Independence, it is also the war which confirmed that Canada was not American.
John Coape Sherbrooke is perhaps the best remembered and most forgotten of Britain’s Governor-Generals. In Montreal his name is borne by one of the city’s longest streets, certainly its most prestigious, and since the Université de Sherbrooke opened a campus in Longueuil in 2009, Sherbrooke’s is the only name that appears twice on the metro map. The reasons for all this are obscure to say the least and make him someone who Montrealers can’t quite place. They are not alone: despite the embarrassment of commemorative riches, Sherbrooke’s biographer was exasperated by his subject’s unfailing modesty, noting that “strange as it may appear in this age of reckless self-advertisement and inquisitorial journalism, when he passed away in his country home only sixty years ago but few echoes of his deeds reverberated in any portion of the land he had served so long and so faithfully”. The most significant of these deeds occurred during Sherbrooke’s stint as Lieutenant-Governor of Nova Scotia, from 1811 to 1816, after which he became Governor-General of British North America until 1818. Still, Amidst all this misdirection, it should come as no surprise that Sherbrooke station doesn’t even have an exit onto the street that takes his name.
Given this somewhat ghostly presence and the English obsession with ghost stories, romantically accounting for the extirpated cultures of the English monastery and the Scottish Highlands, it is a hardly surprising that Sherbrooke himself saw a ghost. What is surprising is that garrisoned in Nova Scotia in the early 1790s, Sherbrooke saw not a spectre of Acadie, but of his dinner companion’s brother, who Sherbrooke calculated when asked to deliver the news, had died in England at the instant of his spectral appearance in Halifax. At another dinner table many years later, the Duke of Wellington would joke that Sherbrooke was only seeing spirits because he had drunk too deeply of them. A cheap shot perhaps, but a valuable one, as faced with Sherbrooke’s modesty, it is from Wellington that we learn that Sherbrooke, “the most passionate man” the Duke ever knew, could fly into a rage over nothing. For the Bishop of Quebec though, he was “prudent and one of the most skilled governors we have had under the English regime”.
Irascible, though apparently fair minded, Sherbrooke served alongside Wellington, then only Arthur Wellesley, when he was ordered to Flanders and the Battle of Boxtel. There he commanded Wellesley’s own 33rd Regiment while the future Duke commanded a second brigade. From there it was onto India and the siege of Seringapatam; from this mess Britain extracted the sultanate of Mysore, Sherbrooke was invalided back to England, and Wilkie Collins, getting the best end of the bargain, found inspiration for The Moonstone. Sherbooke and Wellesley fought together again, this time against Napoleon, in the Peninsular War; again Sherbrooke was invalided out and, by the time he was recovered in 1811, Napoleon was advancing on Moscow and imperial paranoia, previously concerned with the supernatural, was giving way to an obsession with foreign spies, false friends, and large scale mistaken identity. It was this last, in the case of Britain’s press-ganging of its delinquent subjects, so it thought, now declared American citizens, so they thought, that President Madison found most provoking.
Such was the state of international affairs when Sherbrooke arrived back in Nova Scotia as lieutenant-governor. There he relieved one former American colonist, George Prevost, who became Governor-General of British North America, and took command of 30,000 others who had loyally fled the Revolution. Most conspicuous among these was Sir John Wentworth, in the words of one historian “the most remarkable loyalist as Washington became the greatest ‘rebel’ in North America”. As Prevost’s predecessor as lieutenant-governor he had not so much paraded himself as progressed through the colony with as regal authority as could be permitted distributing favours with a scarcely concealled nepotism. Presumably it was while considering the origins of the future enemy, that Lord Castleraegh authorized the bribes necessary to have Wentworth removed and have Prevost, then Sherbrooke, installed.
It took eleven days for Madison’s declaration of 18 June to arrive from Washington, but Halifax knew almost immediately: the HMS Belvidera limped into Halifax harbour on the eighteenth. By then though Sherbooke was concerned with figures less conspicuous though possibly more vexing than Wentworth. People like Ned Myers who, less loyal than his father, had run away to New York at the age of 11 and, at 19, was eagerly marching on Lake Ontario. Stopped twice en route by the farmers of the Empire State, presumably to Madison’s vexation, Myers had an unlucky war, and found himself first in Quebec then in Halifax, where defense of his chosen country depended on conversations with the press gangs and above all on not being recognized. If his luck changed and he wasn’t required to fight against the United States, the possibilities included the prison ships of Bermuda and Kent’s Medway or Dartmoor, where some 5,300 American prisoners languished waiting for the war to end, their return home, and the atrocities that seem to inevitably accompany pointless captivity.
The farmers of upstate New York were not alone in annoying Myers and his President. The fishermen of Eastport and Moose Island in Maine sent word to Sherbrooke that they wished to remain on amicable terms with their northern neighbours and, when the declaration reached Boston harbour, a significant location to be sure, all but three vessels lowered their colours to half-mast. The citizenry compelled the exceptions to do likewise. Taking advantage of the situation, Sherbrooke forbade the molestation of Americans living on the border with New Brunswick and let the trade with New England continue. Unfortunately for Madison, thanks to British blockades, this illegal trade was all that US enjoyed and by 1814 the country was near ruin, unable to pay the bounties for the capture of deserters let alone the wages they had been promised in the first place.
Still more unfortunately for Madison, and to the delight of the farmers and landlords of Halifax, the town was now filled with troops freed up from Napoleon’s defeat in Russia. Sherbrooke’s orders changed; Maine was occupied and took an oath of neutrality. In Eastport things went further and the oath was one of allegiance. Seeing what he thought to be the writing on the wall, Caleb Strong, the governor of Massachusetts, sent an emissary to Halifax seeking British protection. As Sherbrooke sent the request to London, the governors of New England met in Hartford provoking fears of secession. The passage of time proves that not everyone had given up the revolutionary spirit. Republican Nantucket had to be starved into submission, Andrew Jackson was victorious at New Orleans, and at Baltimore, Frances Scott Key ventured the question “Say, can you see?” To which his contemporaries may have replied, “Yes, but only dimly”.
That might also be the reply of modern historians. In the United States, historians who disagree whether the war was a second Revolution or a first Civil War, find agreement in the fact that it is largely forgotten. This is certainly true for the British imagination as well; there the fires of Moscow burn far brighter than those of Washington. For Canada, then a nation still to be born, the war is of ambiguous and more lasting consequence. Not yet Canadian, it was asserted in armed conflict that they were not American either, but quite what that meant differed from one person to the next. For some in Upper Canada, around Lake Ontario, it meant loyalty to the British Crown and its institutions. For others, like John Graves Simcoe, a former colonist and lieutentant-governor, it meant loyalty to John Graves Simcoe and his family compact. In Lower Canada, it meant variously religious freedom, economic freedom, military protection and prudent democracy. It might also mean religious repression, continuation of the landed interest, military repression, and tyranny. For some, it meant all of these things at different times and, such is the diversity of views, that for others it almost certainly meant all of them simultaneously. Easy to understand then why Sherbrooke when appointed Governor-General in 1816 is reported to have said at a reception of the Chateau St Louis that “if I believed all that is said to me, I should not believe there is an honest man in all Quebec”.
Consulted for this post
A. Patchett Martin, “Memoir of Sir John Coape Sherbrooke, G.C.B.” in Life and Letters of the Right Honourable Robert Lowe, Viscount Sherbrooke (London: Longmans, Green & Co., 1893).
Alan Taylor, The Civil War of 1812: American Citizens, Irish Rebels & Indian Allies (New York: Knopf, 2010)