The Story of Isaac Brock: Hero, Defender and Saviour of Upper Canada/7
|←6||The Story of Isaac Brock: Hero, Defender and Saviour of Upper Canada by
VII. Mutiny and Desertion
Brock could hardly reconcile the degree of punishment inflicted upon the soldiers, the poorly paid defenders of the Empire, with their casual offences. While he rebelled against the brutalities of some officers, he was powerless to prevent them. The sentencing powers conferred by court-martial were at that time beyond belief. A captain and two subalterns could order 999 lashes with a "cat" steeped in brine. It is on record that on one occasion a soldier was sentenced to 1,500 lashes for "marauding." And there were other modes of torture. This was close upon the heels of a period when even the slightest breaches of the civil law were punished out of all proportion to the offence. While insisting on the strictest discipline, Brock always tempered justice with mercy. Few men better realized the value of a pleasant word or had in such degree the rare tact that permitted familiarity without killing respect.
A terrible incident occurred in the summer of 1803 which tested all Brock's fortitude and conception of duty. A conspiracy to mutiny was discovered at Fort George on the Niagara River. The methods of the commanding officer had exasperated the men until they planned mutiny on a large scale. This included the murder of Colonel Sheaffe and the incarceration of the other officers. A threatening remark by a soldier of the 49th was overheard. He was arrested and put in irons. A confession by another[Pg 48] soldier implicated a well-known sergeant, and a message was sent to York begging Brock's immediate presence.
Our hero landed from the schooner alone. It was dinner hour. The barrack-square, as Brock crossed it to the guard-house, was deserted. In charge of the guard he found two of the suspected ringleaders. The guard presented arms. "Sergeant," said the colonel of towering frame and commanding aspect, "come here. Lay down your pike." The order was promptly complied with. "Take off your sword and sash and lay them down also." This was done. "Corporal O'Brien," said the colonel, addressing the sergeant's brother-conspirator, "bring a pair of handcuffs, put them on this sergeant, lock him up in a cell, and bring me the key." This, too, was done. "Now, corporal, you come here; lay down your arms, take off your accoutrements, and lay them down also." He was obeyed. Turning to the right man of the guard, "Come here, you grenadier. Bring a pair of handcuffs and put them on this corporal, lock him up in another cell, and bring me the key." When this was done, turning to the astounded drummer, our hero said, "Drummer, beat to arms."
The garrison was aroused. First to rush out was Lieutenant Williams, sword in hand. "Williams!" said the Colonel, "go instantly and secure Rock"—a former sergeant, recently reduced. "If he hesitates to obey, even for one second, cut him down." Up the stairs flew Williams, calling to Rock to come down. "Yes, sir," answered Rock, "when I take my arms." "You must come without them," said Williams. "Oh, I must have my arms, sir," and as Rock stretched out his hand to seize his musket in the arm-rack, Williams shouted, "If you lay[Pg 49] one finger on your musket I will cut you down," at the same time drawing his sabre. "Now, go down before me." Rock obeyed, was placed in irons, and within half an hour Clark, O'Brien, and nine other mutineers were embarked for York on the schooner.
What a picture rises before us. The mid-day sun, the glittering barrack-square, the scarlet and white tunics and polished side-arms of the frightened soldiers, with Brock, the embodiment of power and stern justice, towering above the shrinking culprits. Expiation of the offence had yet to follow. The appetite of the law had to be appeased. The trial took place at Quebec. Four mutineers and three deserters were condemned to death, and in the presence of the entire garrison were executed. The details of this are best unwritten. Through a shocking blunder, the firing party discharged their carbines when fifty yards distant, instead of advancing to within eight yards of the victims. The harrowing scene rent Brock's heart. That the men who had fought so bravely under him at Egmont and laughed at the carnage at Copenhagen should end their lives in this manner was inexpressibly sad. After reading the account of the execution of their comrades to the men on parade at Fort George, Brock added, "Since I have had the honour to wear the British uniform I have never felt grief like this." The prisoners publicly declared that had they continued under our hero's command they would have escaped their doom, "being the victims of unruly passions inflamed by vexatious authority."
When Brock assumed command every possible privilege was extended to the troops at Fort George. For every request, however trivial, he knew there was some reason. His mind was big enough to trade in trifles.[Pg 50]
In view of these desertions, the prospect of hostilities between Canada and the United States became a momentous one. By close study of events in France and America and intercourse with prominent United States citizens, Brock detected the signs that precede trouble.
But the grave question of desertion and the war-cloud on the horizon could not occupy our hero's attention to the exclusion of other demands upon his time. Canada's growing importance was attracting many travellers from over-seas. Notable among these was Thomas Moore, the brilliant Irish poet, who was our hero's guest at Fort George for two weeks in the summer of 1803. Every attraction that the peninsula presented was taxed for his entertainment. Of these diversions the one which probably left the most lasting impression on the versatile son of Erin was a gathering of the Tuscarora warriors, under Chief Brant, at the Indian encampment on the Grand River.
"Here," wrote Moore, in one of his celebrated epistles, "the Mohawks received us in all their ancient costumes. The young men ran races for our amusement, and gave an exhibition game of ball, while the old men and the women sat in groups under the surrounding forest trees. The scene altogether was as beautiful as it was new to me. To Colonel Brock, in command of the fort, I am particularly indebted for his many kindnesses during the fortnight I remained with him."
It was while Moore was paddling down the St. Lawrence with his Caughnawaga voyageurs, after leaving Niagara—where he saw the fountains of the great deep broken up—that he composed his celebrated boat-song:[Pg 51] "Faintly as tolls the evening chime, Our voices keep tune and our oars keep time. Soon as the woods on shore look dim, We'll sing at St. Ann's our parting hymn. Row, brothers, row! the stream runs fast, The rapids are near, and the daylight's past!"
In the fall of 1805 our hero was gazetted full colonel, and returned to England on leave. While he had lost none of the buoyancy of his youth, he was daily realizing the fullness of his responsibilities.
For the better defence of Canada, he submitted to the Duke of York, the Commander-in-Chief, a suggestion for the forming of a veteran battalion. He quoted the case of the U.E. Loyalists, who after the Revolutionary war, had been granted small tracts in Upper Canada; contrasting their perfect conduct with the practices of some of the settlers ten years later, whose loyalty, from his own observation, would not stand the test. Our hero, who was warmly thanked by the Duke for his zeal, was now regarded as a person to be reckoned with. His abilities and charm of manner had won him a reputation at the Horse Guards.
He returned to Guernsey to receive the congratulations of those brothers "who loved him so dearly," but had not time to tell the graphic story of his sojourn in Canada or revisit the haunts of his boyhood, for news arrived from the United States of so warlike a character that he returned before his leave expired. He overtook at Cork the Lady Saumarez, a well-manned Guernsey privateer, armed with letters of marque, and bound for Quebec. Leaving London on the 26th of June, 1806, he set sail for Canada, never to return to those to whom he had so endeared himself by his splendid qualities.