Military history

CHAPTER 37

Fall’s Frustrations

OCTOBER-NOVEMBER 1759

OCTOBER 18 WAS also the day that a fretful Jeffery Amherst finally learned that Québec had fallen. Word reached him on Lake Champlain, where he was shepherding his troops cautiously north to attack Bourlamaque at Île-aux-Noix. Captain Stobo, whom Wolfe had sent with letters back on September 7, had arrived at Crown Point on October 9. Unfortunately for Amherst, he arrived without the dispatches; a French privateer had overtaken his ship near Halifax and he had thrown Wolfe’s letters overboard lest they be discovered among his possessions. He had therefore been able to give Amherst general information only, leaving the commander in chief intensely frustrated. “I am not a whit the wiser,” he complained, “except that [Stobo] says Gen Wolfe had got with allmost his whole Army above the Town & [Wolfe] thinks he will not take it.”1

Inconclusive as it was, the captain’s report nonetheless convinced Amherst that he dared not delay launching his attack on Île-aux-Noix, for if Wolfe had indeed failed, Montcalm’s whole force at Québec would soon be available to reinforce Bourlamaque. The arrival over the next couple of days of the three long-awaited vessels from the shipyard at Ticonderoga—the brigantine Duke of Cumberland, the radeau Ligonier, and the sloop Boscawen—gave Amherst the naval protection he craved, and on the afternoon of October 11 he had at last ordered his men into their bateaux and set them rowing north. But from the thirteenth through the seventeenth storms, cold, and “northerly & contrary” winds had held up the boats and forced the army to take shelter on the lakeshore. Thus the letter from New York that arrived on October 18, carrying news of Québec’s fall, came to Amherst as a great relief. On the following day, with the “appearance of winter” everywhere in evidence, he called off the expedition. Two days later he was back at Crown Point; within two weeks he dismissed his provincials and ordered his regulars into winter quarters. 2

The Anglo-American forces officially welcomed the news of Québec’s fall with feux-de-joie and thanksgiving sermons, but for the provincials the northern campaigns generally ended with all the usual irritations, for all the usual reasons. As in every previous year, their camps had grown sicklier as the summer waned; their provisions had proven scantier and less wholesome than promised; and they had worried that they would be kept in service after their enlistment contracts had expired. On the road from Crown Point to Fort Number 4 in New Hampshire, for example, where a ranger captain named John Stark was supervising about 250 New England provincials in the last phases of construction, the men complained of short rations, hard work, and bad weather more and more bitterly until they finally mutinied on November 13. Even though Stark was a popular commander, nothing he said could dissuade them from throwing down their tools and refusing to work. Only the timely arrival of provisions, the nearness of the builders to the end of the road, and Stark’s promise that he would release them at Number 4 prevented a mass desertion.3

While Stark scrambled to keep his men from vanishing into the woods, back at the Fort Ticonderoga sawmill Sergeant Rufus Putnam of the Massachusetts provincials also chafed at what he understood to be a violation of his enlistment contract. As the workman who had supervised the building of the mill (which in turn had sawn the planks of the Boscawen, the Ligonier, and the Duke of Cumberland), Putnam was too valuable to be released with his fellow provincials and had been kept on as foreman of the sawyers at the site. Only the promise that he would be paid an extra dollar a day for his services had kept him from leaving when his enlistment expired. At the end of November, however, the regular officer in charge at Ticonderoga refused to pay Putnam off at the agreed rate and instead allowed him only his sergeant’s wages. Making his way home in bitter weather, Putnam brooded on how often he had “ben disappointed of the rewards promised for extra Service.” Once back in Brookfield, he “came to a ditermnation never to engage again as a Solder.”4

Seven hundred miles away, Private Gibson Clough of Salem was coming to the same conclusion at about the same time. He had enlisted to serve on the Crown Point expedition only to find that his unit was sent to garrison Louisbourg and release regulars to accompany Wolfe to Québec. This had been disappointing enough, but life in the fortress had begun to look even gloomier as September turned to October. It seemed increasingly likely “we shall stay all winter here within stone walls,” he grumbled in his diary, without even the prospect of having “good Liquors for to keep up our Spirits on cold Winter’s days.” To be kept beyond the term of his contract was nearly unbearable for Clough, who complained that “although we be Englishmen Born yet we are debarred Englishmens Liberty” and noted grimly that “we now see what it is to be under Martial Law and to be with ye regulars who are but little better than slaves to their Officers.” The soldiers in Clough’s regiment agreed, and on November 1 they mutinied, refusing to do further service. Even the arrival of a letter from the governor of Massachusetts bearing news that the General Court had agreed to pay a bonus for service over the winter did nothing to pacify them. Only the threat of force, the impossibility of escape from Cape Breton, and their colonel’s promise that he would return to Boston and seek their release convinced the soldiers to resume their duties. 5

Such episodes of disappointment and outright mutiny among the provincials—and many more could be added—suggest the extent to which their experience of military service shaped their views of the regulars alongside whom, and under whose command, they served. Even in so successful a year as 1759, the dominant memory that a New England provincial might take home from the armies was unlikely to be a pleasant one. For thousands of ordinary men like Rufus Putnam (who “made up [his] mind not to engage any more in the Military Service”) and Gibson Clough (who resolved that “when I get out of their pen [i.e., Louisbourg, but more generally, the power of the regulars] I shall take care how I get in again”) the net effect of provincial military service was disillusionment. No matter how much colonists in general rejoiced in the British victories, for the provincials themselves, the war was nothing so much as a protracted, often painful lesson in the differences between themselves and the regulars: differences more profound than almost any of them, believing that they were neither more nor less than “Englishmen Born,” had had any reason to expect.6

At the same time, the provincials’ seemingly incorrigible casualness about discipline and their readiness to desert or mutiny when they suspected that their enlistment contracts were being violated had convinced Jeffery Amherst, like Braddock and Loudoun and Abercromby before him, that Americans had much less in the way of character and toughness than real Englishmen. When the New Englanders began to desert from Crown Point at the beginning of November, Amherst found that he had no alternative but to dismiss them, since there was no way to force them into line. “The provincials,” he wrote, “have got home in their heads & will now do very little good. I hear they are deserting from every Post where I have been obliged to leave some & several ran away who had a good deal of money due to them. ’Twill be so much saved to the Publick.” Already he had gone far toward forming what would become his summary opinion: “The Disregard of Orders, and Studying of their own Ease, rather than the good of the Service, has been too often Just Grounds for Complaint Against Some of the Provincial Officers, and all their Men.” They were no more than a necessary evil, settled upon him by the need for laborers and garrison troops in a frustrating wilderness war. Whatever else Amherst might say of the Americans, he would never think of them as soldiers, and he could hardly wait to put them, and their wretched country, behind him.7

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