Mon 28 Jun, 2004 10:31 am
On Thursday-July 1st-our Canadian neighbors will celebrate one hundred thirty-seven years of independent government. This leads me to some thoughts on grandiloquent bishops, the politics of American militias, the myths of militia in Canada and the United States, the eternally obstreperous Irish, and the evolution of infantry tactical doctrines.
After the commencement of the War of 1812 (details of which will not be forthcoming), the first British offensive was made by against Detroit (basically then a cluster of huts around a wooden stockade) by Major General Sir Isaac Brock. Although the Americans greatly outnumbered Brock's force, General William Hull surrendered without having put up much of a fight. Hull was a veteran of the Revolution, but one who had never previously exercised independent command. Ironically, his nephew, Captain Isaac Hull, "won immortal fame" commanding Consitution-"Old Ironsides"-in the naval war against the British.
Isaac Brock had and continued to work tirelessly to organize the vast and sparsely populated province of Upper Canada (later, Canada West, and, today, Ontario) for a defense against the Americans. Rushing from the western end of the province to the eastern portion on the shores of Lake Ontario, at the Niagara River, he both sealed his personal fate, and himself "won immortal fame" at Queenston. Today, his name is proudly given to elementary and public schools, as well as private and public institutions throughout the province-and this despite a rather short martial career in Canada.
The American effort in the War on 1812 on land and at sea was much hampered by politics. Thomas Jefferson had had a ludicrous notion that the nation could be protected by militia, and was hostile to the notion of a professional officer corps. He also contended that the then most extensive national coastline in the world could be defended by a "gunboat navy." James Madison, who had been his Secretary of State, had subscribed to the same foolish notions, despite having been a combat veteran of the Revolution. Fortunately for the United States, both Washington and John Adams had built a professional navy, and the superior French warship designs of the Day (the British naval officer corps much preferred to sail a captured French ship to one constructed in British yards) had been improved upon by a Philadelphia ship builder. The result were the superior frigates Constitution, Constellation, Congress, New York, Philadelphia and Boston, as well as many others which followed. A truly professional officer corps had been established which was proof against the hostility of Jefferson. These men were so ideologically devoted to a democratic republic that flogging was unknown, despite being authorized by the Articles of War (the first major incident of a captain flogging common seaman a generation later became the last, and flogging in the Navy was then outlawed). They also opposed the existence of a Marine Corps, contending that its only purpose was as ship's guards-they responding that they didn't need armed men to protect them from their crews nor to prevent desertion in foreign ports. The first two commandants of the United States Marine Corps assured its continued existence, and resisted incorporation into the Army by three rather canny devices: the insisted upon marksmanship training and testing among the private soldiers of the Marine corps; the instituted and trained and tested for gunnery among them; and, finally, they provided the only uniformed corps of troops (in blue coats with white pants, red-striped) and a military band (in red coats with white-striped, blue pants) available for formal ceremonies in Washington. Additionally, the Marine Corps Band gave regular concerts in the Capital, often being the only "cultural" entertainment in town. Jefferson despised them, but the Congress loved them, and the attendant pomp and circumstance. They were prove their military worth in the "fighting tops" of American frigates and sloops during the war, and at the battle of Blandensburg, when a handful a Marines and a few hundred sailors held off 2,000 of General Packenham's veterans of the Napoleonic wars until nightfall, allowing Madison to evacuate the government and its documents, and allowing Dolly Madison to save the paintings in the White House. About seven thousand Maryland and Virginia militia had thrown away their arms and run home before a shot was fired; but a British officer writing home attested that: ". . . they [the sailors and Marines] continued to serve the guns, even after all of their officers had been shot down, and we were among them with the bayonet." The Marine infantry retreated to a hill, and fought until darkness, at which time they marched back to the Capital carrying all of their dead and wounded.
The American militia myth (the embattled farmer, with a hand on the plow, and a weapon in the other hand-à la Cincinnatus) had, however, been exploded long before Bladensburg in 1814. In October, 1812, the United States had invaded Canada. This had been preceded by the usual political infighting which characterized American politics then as now. Colonel Solomon Van Rensselaer was a descendant of Killian Van Renssalaer, one of the founding "Patroons" of the colony of New Amsterdam. He had also been Lieutenant Governor of New York, and was the most popular candidate in the up-coming gubernatorial election. But his political opponents quickly settled his hash-they appointed him commander of the militia expedition to the Niagara Penninsula. Assembling, in a less rather than more efficient manner, at Lewiston, New York, at the edge of the first relative calm waters of the Niagara River below the cataract, the New York militia ate up their rations as fast as they were issued, grumbled at the poor fare, and refused to drill, having voted against it. A small band of artillerist had been sent to the expedition by Secretary of War Johnson, arguably the only intelligent thing he did throughout the war. This was lead by a Virginian, and recent graduate of the United States Military Academy, Captain Winfield Scott. With his political career dissolving daily, Col. Van Rensselaer decided to act, and on October 13, the militia and a handful of regulars, including a section of gunners without their cannon, commanded by Scott, crossed the river in bateaux. Literally being flogged by their officers with the flat of the sword, the New York militia were driven up the bluff above the river, and to intense wonderment, the small detachment of British regulars retreated immediately before what appeared to be overwhelming force-the were not apprised of the quality, or lack thereof, of their opponents. Scott and his gunners quickly captured two British guns, and a species of defense was formed around them; but on no account could the militia be convinced to advance on the town and the road to Fort George-they had seen red coats among the houses below, and that was sufficient to convince them of the wisdom of staying the present course.
General Brock, recently arrived from Detroit, got word of the American attack, and sent word for the Queen's Own, the York (Toronto) militia, to advance to Queenston, most being in the area of Fort George, where the river empties into Lake Ontario. He then road ahead, rounding up stragglers of British regulars and frightened Canadian militia along the route. He then did something very unwise. He personally lead an assault against the rather good American position with a handful of men, about fifty. Scott immediately opened with his two captured pieces, and helped Van Rensselaer to steady the militia. Brock moved on ahead, unaware or indifferent to the fact that his men were faltering-and was shot dead on the spot.
Everything now should have mitigated in favor of the Americans. Although Scott and his gunners were the only regulars who had managed to cross the river, there were hundreds of New York militia on Queenston heights. That is, until many of them began shoving the wounded aside to board the bateaux to re-cross the river and escape what they found to be a distinctly unpleasant occupation. In the meantime, the Queen's own and local casual militiamen had been assembled with the fewer than one hundred British regulars on the scene, and were protesting with their officers about the "unwisdom" of advancing into the mouth of the guns on the hill. At the same time, a band of Mohawks, eager for to avenge their fathers and grandfathers who had been killed or driven from New York during the Revolution, were assembled along the road to Ridgeway (remember that name). These were intelligently lead by one of their number who had received a British education, and kept to the woods. They were advanced into the cornfields and wood lots to west of American position on the Heights, and when it became generally known that they were coming, however few militia had shown any resolve, melted away and rushed down to the river bank, bleating for the bateaux to come back to rescue them. Scott and the officers were captured. In York, Bishop Strachan preached his famous sermon, which created among the wreckage of the American militia myth, what has been dubbed by Canadian historians as the Canadian militia myth. This was to the effect that the Canadian militia, virtually unaided by the British, had repelled the vile and degenerate Americans and protected their sacred hearths.
Now you may ask, if you've made it this far, what the hell I'm on about, and what this has to do with Canadian independence and where the Irish come in. That last question can be answered easily enough-the Irish come in everywhere English is spoken, which is no more than the English deserve for their sins in Ireland.
During the American civil war, thousands of the Irish had fought on both sides, and among these combats hardened veterans, thousands became members of the Fenian Brotherhood, which sought to find means to cause the British to evacuate Ireland. Several comic opera attempts were made to conduct an invasion of Canada, and the leaders of the movement, nothing behind-hand in comparison to their American cousins, began to quarrel among themselves, and to contend for control of the organization. Another vast and coordinated effort was made to invade Canada in 1866, but, alas, it was not to be. In Detroit and Cleveland, the bands were intercepted by United States customs agents and local police; in New England, the Fenians would disperse everytime they assembled when local sheriffs threatened to arrest the lot of them-their invasion was delayed for months until it was far to late to achieve anything. One, and only one, party succeeded. Lt. Col. O'Neil lead about 600 Fenians from Blackrock and Buffalo, eluding the patrols of the United States Navy on Lake Erie, and the local police and Federal Officials, and landed at Fort Erie on the Canadian side of Niagara river, above the falls. They quickly secured the Fort, and 500 proceeded inland to the northwest, striking the Ridgeway road west of Queenston. The Canadians immediately demonstrated that they would dispute the palm with their American cousins for militia incompetence. A force of several thousand militia, including the Queen's Own, were assembled, and began converging on Ridgeway in three columns. O'Neil and his men were all veterans, and knew how to skirmish. In the later stages of the American civil war, intelligent infantry commanders had realized that densely packed lines of men advancing on an enemy were a prescription for disastrous casualties, and had begun to extend the skirmish line. It was said of General Francis Barlow of the Army of the Potomac by an admiring officer that he had: ". . . raised skirmishing to an art." O'Neil quickly erected some flimsy barriers behind a split-rail fence, at which he posted a few dozen of his best marksmen. He had excellent field intelligence, several of his cavalry veterans having stolen local horses (an ancient Irish pastime, older than Christianity); he was aware that the Queen's Own and some dismounted artillery (i.e., without their cannon-i do wonder that they expected to capture any from the Irish) were the nearest column, and he prepared for them. The Canadian militia advanced in several columns in echelon, and were making good progress against the handful of skirmishers who were posted in the front. Then the Queen's Own were withdrawn, to form column and get on the flank of the Irish they could see, blissfully unaware of the hundreds of well-armed hardened veterans who awaited them. O'Neil's mounted scouts then appeared, and some fool cried out "Repel cavalry!" The Queen's Own formed square, and, just as their fellow militiamen were falling back in the face of sudden heavy fire, O'Neil and his main body burst upon them out of a wood lot, spread out in skirmish order, and firing with deadly accuracy into the massed and now confused "Red Coats." The Canadians were quickly scattered, the "Canadian Militia Myth" of good Bishop Strachan was hoist on its own petard, and O'Neil, well aware of the dictum about discretion and valor, retreated to Fort Erie, quickly disposing of the column sent to re-capture that post, and promptly surrendered himself and his men to the United States Navy gunboats in the river.
British military men took a long, hard look at their commitments to British North America. They considered that more Fenian invasions were likely (they were and they did take place, the Fenians demonstrating those wonderful propensities for internal betrayal and incompetence which have doomed so many thousands of my brethren). Basically, the British dropped Canada like a hot rock. John Alexander McDonald now sleeps peacefully at his final resting place in Kingston, Ontario, for better or worse, a father of his country. The British ratified their abandonment of Canada on March 29, 1867, when Victoria signed the British North America Act. McDonald, with the aid of Georges Etienne Cartier, formed a coalition of politicians from Canada West (formerly Upper Canada and now Ontario) and Canada East (formerly Lower Canada and now Québec) and went to Charlottestown to cajole New Brunswick, Nova Scotia and Prince Edward Island into a confederation. On July 1, 1867, the Canadian Dominion was formed. Dominion Day is now Canada Day, and i wish all our Canadian friends the best on the occasion of their celebration of this wonderful event. They may thank not just some lucky stars, but the host of incompetents referred to herein, and handful of the competent men named, and legions of the incompetent, and legions more of the hapless victims, who have made this all possible.
'Twas down by the glenside, I met an old woman
She was picking young nettles and she scarce saw me coming
I listened a while to the song she was humming
Glory O, Glory O, to the bold Fenian men
'Tis fifty long years since I saw the moon beaming
On strong manly forms and their eyes with hope gleaming
I see them again, sure, in all my daydreaming
Glory O, Glory O, to the bold Fenian men.
Some died on the glenside, some died near a stranger
And wise men have told us that their cause was a failure
They fought for old Ireland and they never feared danger
Glory O, Glory O, to the bold Fenian men
I passed on my way, God be praised that I met her
Be life long or short, sure I'll never forget her
We may have brave men, but we'll never have better
Glory O, Glory O, to the bold Fenian men
Barrymore Tithe Victory, The
There was a poor man and he had but one cow
The Parson had seized her and well he knew how,
So beauteous her horns and sleek her long tail
Each day in the season she'd fill a large pail,
A drimon down deelish a heeda na moe
Niar challug do viunter ach marrid shead beo,
Tha Donal sa chardi go ladir sa gloe,
Is bualhig gach treanar sa taol a phuck loe.
The young little porkers had nothing to eat,
Or nothing to get from their dear mother Kate;
They'd make your heart bleed, friend, to hear them bewail
When empty each morning they'd find their fine pail.
Off to the pond did they one day repair,
'Twixt hunger, confusion, hope and despair
Their sad lamentations kind Parson assail'd
But he was bomb-proof and it nothing avail'd.
Brave sons of old Ireland, McDonnel, O'Neill,
Whether seated in coaches or thrashing with flail,
Oh, can you, or could you, or would you down lie,
And Kate and her young ones with hunger see die.
We can not, we will not, we'll go to the auction
And let us then see which foul fiend of the faction
Will purchase your cow, Kate, at cant or at fair
Or guarded by Lancers in fine hollow square.
Escorted in order and brought to parade
Poor cattle came drowsy, but still no noise made
When cheering of thousands ascended the sky
As no human being would Drimon dare buy.
The children have plenty of milk and sweet whey
For the Watergrass Hill boys for them won the day
And finding no person would venture to buy
THose slashing fine fellows soon drank the town dry.
Our good City Mayor and also his Sheriff
They came in the morning to shew they had spirit
And many sheer fellows had cock'd a clear eye
But the devil a Proctor in Cork would they spy.
Kitty's good neighbors did Peelers affright
And soon made them think perhaps all was not right
For no one dared meddle with Drimon's long tail
And Each child jumps for joy when he now sees the pail.
I felt the need to break into song. Inspiring post.
A Nation Once Again
Thomas Osbourne Davis
When boyhood's fire was in my blood
I read of ancient freemen,
For Greece and Rome who bravely stood,
Three hundred men and three men;
And then I prayed I yet might see
Our fetters rent in twain,
And Ireland, long a province, be.
A Nation once again!
A Nation once again,
A Nation once again,
And lreland, long a province, be
A Nation once again!
And from that time, through wildest woe,
That hope has shone a far light,
Nor could love's brightest summer glow
Outshine that solemn starlight;
It seemed to watch above my head
In forum, field and fane,
Its angel voice sang round my bed,
A Nation once again!
It whisper'd too, that freedom's ark
And service high and holy,
Would be profaned by feelings dark
And passions vain or lowly;
For, Freedom comes from God's right hand,
And needs a Godly train;
And righteous men must make our land
A Nation once again!
So, as I grew from boy to man,
I bent me to that bidding
My spirit of each selfish plan
And cruel passion ridding;
For, thus I hoped some day to aid,
Oh, can such hope be vain ?
When my dear country shall be made
A Nation once again!