Read CHAPTER XI - THE SECOND REBELLION of The 'Patriotes' of '37, A Chronicle of the Lower Canada Rebellion, free online book, by Alfred D. Decelles, on

The frigate Inconstant, with Lord Durham on board, was not two days out from Quebec when rebellion broke out anew in Lower Canada. This second rebellion, however, was not caused by Lord Durham’s departure, but was the result of a long course of agitation which had been carried on along the American border throughout the months of Lord Durham’s regime.

As early as February 1838 numbers of Canadian refugees had gathered in the towns on the American side of the boundary-line in the neighbourhood of Lake Champlain. They were shown much sympathy and encouragement by the Americans, and seem to have laboured under the delusion that the American government would come to their assistance. A proclamation signed by Robert Nelson, a brother of Wolfred Nelson, declared the independence of Canada under a ’provisional government’ of which Robert Nelson was president and Dr Cote a member. The identity of the other members is a mystery. Papineau seems to have had some dealings with Nelson and Cote, and to have dallied with the idea of throwing in his lot with them; but he soon broke off negotiations. ‘Papineau,’ wrote Robert Nelson, ’has abandoned us, and this through selfish and family motives regarding the seigniories, and inveterate love of the old French bad laws.’ There is reason to believe, however, that Papineau had been in communication with the authorities at Washington, and that his desertion of Robert Nelson and Cote was in reality due to his discovery that President Van Buren was not ready to depart from his attitude of neutrality.

On February 28, 1838, Robert Nelson and Cote had crossed the border with an armed force of French-Canadian refugees and three small field-pieces. Their plan had contemplated the capture of Montreal and a junction with another invading force at Three Rivers. But on finding their way barred by the Missisquoi militia, they had beat a hasty retreat to the border, without fighting; and had there been disarmed by the American troops under General Wool, a brave and able officer who had fought with conspicuous gallantry at the battle of Queenston Heights in 1812.

During the summer months, however, the refugees had continued to lay plans for an insurrection in Lower Canada. Emissaries had been constantly moving among the parishes north of the New York and Vermont frontiers, promising the Patriotes arms and supplies and men from the United States. The rising was carefully planned. And when November came large bodies of disaffected habitants gathered at St Ours, St Charles, St Michel, L’Acadie, Chateauguay, and Beauharnois. They had apparently been led to expect that they would be met at some of these places by American sympathizers with arms and supplies. No such aid being found at the rendezvous, many returned to their homes. But some persevered in the movement, and made their way with packs on their backs to Napierville, a town fifteen miles north of the boundary-line, which had been designated as the rebel headquarters.

Meanwhile, Robert Nelson had moved northward to Napierville from the American side of the border with a small band of refugees. Among these were two French officers, named Hindenlang and Touvrey, who had been inveigled into joining the expedition. Hindenlang, who afterwards paid for his folly with his life, has left an interesting account of what happened. He and Touvrey joined Nelson at St Albans, on the west side of Lake Champlain. With two hundred and fifty muskets, which had been placed in a boat by an American sympathizer, they dropped down the river to the Canadian border. There were five in the party Nelson and the two French officers, the guide, and the boatman. Nelson had given Hindenlang to understand that the habitants had risen and that he would be greeted at the Canadian border by a large force of enthusiastic recruits. In this, however, he was disappointed. ’There was not a single man to receive the famous President of the Provisional Government; and it was only after a full hour’s search, and much trouble, [that] the guide returned with five or six men to land the arms.’ On the morning of November 4 the party arrived at Napierville. Here Hindenlang found Dr Cote already at the head of two or three hundred men. A crowd speedily gathered, and Robert Nelson was proclaimed ‘President of the Republic of Lower Canada.’ Hindenlang and Touvrey were presented to the crowd; and to his great astonishment Hindenlang was informed that his rank in the rebel force was that of brigadier-general.

The first two or three days were spent in hastening the arrival of reinforcements and in gathering arms. By the 7th Nelson had collected a force of about twenty-five hundred men, whom Hindenlang told off in companies and divisions. Most of the rebels were armed with pitchforks and pikes. An attempt had been made two days earlier, on a Sunday, to obtain arms, ammunition, and stores from the houses of the Indians of Caughnawaga while they were at church; but a squaw in search of her cow had discovered the raiders and had given the alarm, with the result that the Indians, seizing muskets and tomahawks, had repelled the attack and taken seventy prisoners.

On November 5 Nelson sent Cote with a force of four or five hundred men south to Rouse’s Point, on the boundary-line, to secure more arms and ammunition from the American sympathizers. On his way south Cote encountered a picket of a company of loyalist volunteers stationed at Lacolle, and drove it in. On his return journey, however, he met with greater opposition. The company at Lacolle had been reinforced in the meantime by several companies of loyalist militia from Hemmingford. As the rebels appeared the loyalist militia attacked them; and after a brisk skirmish, which lasted from twenty to twenty-five minutes, drove them from the field. Without further ado the rebels fled across the border, leaving behind them eleven dead and a number of prisoners, as well as a six-pounder gun, a large number of muskets of the type used in the United States army, a keg of powder, a quantity of ball-cartridge, and a great many pikes. Of the provincial troops two were killed and one was severely wounded.

The defeat of Cote and his men at Lacolle meant that Nelson’s line of communications with his base on the American frontier was cut. At the same time he received word that Sir John Colborne was advancing on Napierville from Laprairie with a strong force of regulars and volunteers. Under these circumstances he determined to fall back on Odelltown, just north of the border. He had with him about a thousand men, eight hundred of whom were armed with muskets. He arrived at Odelltown on the morning of November 9, to find it occupied by about two hundred loyal militia, under the command of the inspecting field-officer of the district, Lieutenant-Colonel Taylor. He had no difficulty in driving in the loyalist outposts; but the village itself proved a harder nut to crack. Taylor had concentrated his little force at the Methodist church, and he controlled the road leading to it by means of the six-pounder which had been taken from the rebels three days before at Lacolle. The insurgents extended through the fields to the right and left, and opened a vigorous fire on the church from behind some barns; but many of the men seem to have kept out of range. ‘The greater part of the Canadians kept out of shot,’ wrote Hindenlang; ’threw themselves on their knees, with their faces buried in the snow, praying to God, and remaining as motionless as if they were so many saints, hewn in stone. Many remained in that posture as long as the fighting lasted.’ The truth appears to be that many of Nelson’s men had been intimidated into joining the rebel force. The engagement lasted in all about two hours and a half. The defenders of the church made several successful sallies; and just when the rebels were beginning to lose heart, a company of loyalists from across the Richelieu fell on their flank and completed their discomfiture. The rebels then retreated to Napierville, under the command of Hindenlang. Robert Nelson, seeing that the day was lost, left his men in the lurch and rode for the American border. The losses of the rebels were serious; they left fifty dead on the field and carried off as many wounded. Of the loyalists, one officer and five men were killed and one officer and eight men wounded.

Later in the same day Sir John Colborne, at the head of a formidable force, entered Napierville. On his approach those rebels who were still in the village dispersed and fled to their homes. Detachments of troops were immediately sent out to disperse bands of rebels reported to be still under arms. The only encounter took place at Beauharnois, where a large body of insurgents had assembled. After a slight resistance they were driven out by two battalions of Glengarry volunteers, supported by two companies of the 71st and a detachment of Royal Engineers.

In these expeditions the British soldiers, especially the volunteers, did a good deal of burning and harrying. After the victory at Beauharnois they gave to the flames a large part of the village, including the houses of some loyal citizens. In view of the intimidation and depredations to which the loyalists had been subjected by the rebels in the disaffected districts, the conduct of the men, in these regrettable acts, may be understood and partially excused. But no excuse can be offered for the attitude of the British authorities. There are well-authenticated cases of houses of ‘notorious rebels’ burned down by the orders of Sir James Macdonell, Colborne’s second-in-command. Colborne himself acquired the nickname of ’the old Firebrand’; and, while he cannot be charged with such a mania for incendiarism as some writers have imputed to him, it does not appear that he took any effective measures to stop the arson or to punish the offenders.

The rebellion of 1838 lasted scarcely a week. It was a venture criminally hopeless. Failing important aid from the United States, the rebels had an even slighter chance of success than they had had a year before, for since that time the British regular troops in Canada had been considerably increased in number. The chief responsibility for the rebellion must be placed at the door of Robert Nelson, who at the critical moment fled over the border, leaving his dupes to extricate themselves as best they could from the situation into which he had led them. As was the case in 1837, most of the leaders of the rebellion escaped from justice, leaving only the smaller fry in the hands of the authorities. Of the lesser ringleaders nearly one hundred were brought to trial. Two of the French-Canadian judges, one of them being Elzear Bedard, attempted to force the government to try the prisoners in the civil courts, where they would have the benefit of trial by jury; but Sir John Colborne suspended these judges from their functions, and brought the prisoners before a court-martial, specially convened for the purpose. Twelve of them, including the French officer Hindenlang, were condemned to death and duly executed. Most of the others were transported to the convict settlements of Australia. It is worthy of remark that none of those executed or deported had been persons of note in the political arena before 1837. On the whole, it must be confessed that these sentences showed a commendable moderation. It was thought necessary that a few examples should be made, as Lord Durham’s amnesty of the previous year had evidently encouraged some habitants to believe that rebellion was a venial offence. And the execution of twelve men, out of the thousands who had taken part in the revolt, cannot be said to have shown a bloodthirsty disposition on the part of the government.