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A Distant Drum: The War of 1812 in Missisquoi County

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Upper Canada felt the sting in the opening days of the War of 1812. But for many residents of Lower Canada life continued as usual.

The War of 1812 was fought almost entirely in Upper Canada and for the citizens settled around Missisquoi Bay in what was Lower Canada it seemed a distant threat. For the vast majority, they did not care about the issues of the war; nor did they wish to fight. Their struggle to settle here and the daily concerns of survival occupied their minds rather than the political posturing of Washington or London. The embargo act, which shut out foreign goods led to widespread smuggling on the Lake Champlain frontier. Severing ties with Vermont and New York was not in the best interest of the settlers around Missisquoi Bay.

The local clergyman, the Reverend Charles Caleb Cotton wrote a letter to his sister dated February 2 nd, 1812 concerning the conflict:

"The general state of our political affairs with the United States has given the Inhabitants in these new settlements much disagreeable feeling; on account of our exposed situation should a war take place between Britain and America. We live still in hopes that this dreaded calamity will not be realized, but the affairs in the house of Congress look quite unfavourable. I have lately seen a paper, which informs that a bill for raising an additional army of 25,000 men for the purpose as they say of reducing the Canadas, is about passing both houses...This very unsettled state of political matters between us and our neighbours in the U. States, is a great disadvantage to this part of the country…."

The Canadian militia was a “rabble”. They were called when needed, and after engagements, they were sent back to their farms. Hastily trained, most were unprepared for conditions in the field and thought nothing of leaving a battle to prepare for the harvest. The Eastern Townships supplied six battalions, each representing a specific geographic area. Lieutenant Colonel Philip Luke was the commander of the Fourth Battalion, which served the St. Armand-Dunham area, which included Philipsburg/Missisquoi Bay. The battalions were to be comprised of volunteer soldiers however. The Townships’ battalions were not able to meet their quota. The government responded by imposing a draft to military service.

The lack of interest in the war, the small population of men at the time, and the difficult conditions of life in the Townships made a draft wildly unpopular. Again in a letter to his sister dated July 20 th, 1814, Reverend Cotton commented on the effects of the draft:

"From a list of the inhabitants of Dunham, which I have lately seen, more than one hundred of the inhabitants have quitted the Township since the declaration of war, and there has been much depopulation in several of the of the other Townships. This has to be owing to the disaffection to our excellent Government in many and to the dread of being drafted into the standing militia, in many others."

War came to the Townships when an expeditionary force of Townships’ volunteers destroyed a barracks built at Derby and a blockhouse at Stewartstown, N.H. In the evening of October 11, 1813 a fleet of American vessels under the command of Colonel Isaac Clark entered Missisquoi Bay. One sloop, ten bateaux and two scows each carrying a “six-pounder” and in all, 400 soldiers moved into the Bay. The intent of the raid was to put a halt to smuggling of American goods to British troops, an estimated two-thirds of which came from Vermont and New York.

The Reverend C. J. Stewart, the Anglican rector of Philipsburg and Frelighsburg, later described the raid as follows:

Early in the morning, about 150 men under the command of Colonel Clark attacked our Militia at Philipsburg, Missisquoi Bay. This militia had been assembled there a few days before but at the time of the attack were only 100 strong and were not yet properly organized and armed.

The Fourth Battalion was overwhelmed. In his report on the incident Lt.Col. Philip Luke recorded:

"During the engagement we had one man killed and eight wounded but none mortally. The prisoners taken were Major Joseph Powell, Captain John Ruiter, Captain James Pell, Philip Luke Jr., Lieut. John Richard, Ensign Snider, Ensign George Ellis, Ensign John Waggoner; in all one major, two captains, two lieutenants, three ensigns, five sergeants, and ninety-oneprivates, making a total of one hundred men."

The prisoners were immediately marched to Swanton and then to Burlington. A reporter from the Boston Messenger reported:

"I have just seen Colonel Clark’s prisoners, who were paraded through town. They are a motley crew of farmers, citizens, tavern-keepers, and traders, etc. not a regular soldier among them. They were surprised in their beds."

American raiders took supplies from the village of Philipsburg. On March 22 nd, 1814 Philipsburg was again captured and remained in American hands for four days before the arrival of British troops. There are no documents recording the mood of the Bay after these attacks but the sudden loss of men from the community, including Philip Luke’s own son, and the plundering of precious stores did not seem to create animosity towards Americans as one might assume. Rather, it served to cement opposition to the war efforts.

A few weeks later, Clark made a second raid on Frelighsburg, where he collected about 80 head of cattle, most of which had been smuggled from Vermont in the first place! Clark and his men were said to have behaved well and in a civil manner.

The average Vermonter seemed indifferent to the conflict. Northern Vermont and the Townships were frontier communities with much in common and a “neutral bloc” cut across the international boundary. In Upper Canada, the war created a unified political entity, which ensured that Canada would never become a part of the United States. Although the same could be said of Lower Canada in general, the Eastern Townships seemed to change very little. Americans on the eastern shore of Lake Champlain for example, fed British troops fighting on the western shore. Smuggling took place on “a colossal scale” and trade between Vermont and the Townships brought increased prosperity to merchants in Dunham, Stanbridge and St. Armand. Montreal middlemen grew rich supplying the needs of New England and two out of every three Canadian soldiers subsisted on beef brought in by “enemy” contractors.

The Silver Greys
The final “drama” for the Missisquoi Bay area occurred when members of the Eastern Townships militia marched in Sir George Prevost’s invasion from Lower Canada to New York State in 1814. Among the militia were the “Silver Greys”, a company consisting of men over 60 years of age. They marched all night to Burlington where they boarded a sloop for Plattsburg. They saw little combat and returned to their farms and families. It was a typical scenario for the Missisquoi “soldiers”.

As one observer wrote, “so much for the War of 1812.” The fact that both sides of the border were uninterested in the greater conflict helped to keep the war at bay. A lack of supplies, ammunition and equipment likewise kept fighting at a distance. In October 1813 Col. Henry Cull of the Third Battalion complained that he had no arms or ammunition and the Fourth Battalion had most of their arms captured in the raid at Philipsburg. Without guns, aid, men, or enthusiasm, it is not hard to understand why the War of 1812 did not create as great an impact as it did in Upper Canada. With the signing of the Treaty of Ghent, hostilities subsided and feelings were quickly mended. In Missisquoi County, “wrestling matches were held near Richford Vermont to show good feelings between the two countries. Mr. Warren of Stanbridge and Jonathon Smith of Richford were finalists. After several hours, Mr. Smith won.” The cross-border connections settled into their familiar relationships, trade routes and cooperation. The war did give the Loyalists a sense of community in their new homeland yet it did little to sever ties with friends and relations.