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Posted on May 13, 2006 in Front Page Features, War College

The Republic of Canada – Canada’s 1st Civil War (1837-1838)

By Danny Bouchard

This article is the second installment of many in a series detailing Canadian participations in conflicts ranging from the colonial times (XVIIth century) to Korea and Peacekeeping. It is not meant to be exhaustive but informative.

By the beginning of the 19th century, the North American continent was finally starting to stabilize and was in large, peaceful. The British had lost the United States through the American War of Independence but had retained the Canadas, known at that time as Upper Canada (Ontario) and Lower Canada (Quebec). The War of 1812-1814 had resulted in a draw. During that war, numerous participants were Canadians; both English and French speaking Fencible Regiments fighting under the British flag. Some of those participants would find themselves at odds with the same British flag during Canada’s 1st Civil War: The Patriot Rebellion of 1837-1838.


During the years after the War of 1812, the Canadas began to grow geographically and politically. Upper Canada was by far the least populated province and was by a large margin populated by English speaking British subjects. As for Lower Canada the population was predominantly French speaking and the province had grown to about 650,000 souls by the 1830’s. The largest cities were Toronto, Montreal and Québec and its defense was assured by British troops and local militias.

Louis Joseph Papineau (NAC/ANC/C-018454) and
General Colborne (Ontario Archives- S-406)
By the 1830’s, political reforms were sought by The Patriotes, a political organization headed by Louis Joseph Papineau, and aided by a militant wing called the Sons of Liberty. On November 7th 1837, open violence between “reformists” and pro-British elements erupted in Montreal. The seeds of insurrection and open warfare were now planted. Although Papineau was not a proponent of armed violence, he was forced into accepting it when open revolt began. The British were lead by the very capable General John Colborne. Colborne was a veteran of the Napoleonic Wars, having fought in Egypt (1801), Sicily (1806), the Peninsular War and at Waterloo (1815) (1) . The most ardent Patriotes supporters were located on the south shore of the Montreal area and in the Lake of Two Mountains area North-West of the island. The rest of Lower Canada was quiet and the Patriotes were banking on a province wide insurrection once armed conflict commenced. As we will see, not only will full scale rebellion support not take place, but the fighting would oppose French Canadians against French Canadians as much as British and English Canadians.

Lower-Canada circa 1837 (
On November 16th 1837, police and a small detachment of 18 cavalry troopers from the Montreal Volunteer Cavalry, were dispatched to the small town of St-Jean in order to arrest three suspected insurgents who had been charged for High Treason. The troopers attended in the early morning hours of the 17th and two were promptly arrested. But their moves had been observed by the local population and this was considered a provocation on the part of the police to arrest two of their own accompanied by the military. The first shots of the insurrection were just hours away. By 9 o’clock in the morning, near Longueuil, the small troop walked into a trap. About 40 insurgents, lead by Bonaventure Viger, stopped the troopers and ordered them to release their prisoners. The cavalry’s response was to open fire. The brief skirmish resulted in few casualties on both sides but the troopers were compelled to retreat and leave the prisoners behind. The insurgents were left masters of the field: the insurrection had begun.

Saint-Denis (23 November 1837)

In 1837, the British could count on numerous militia and volunteer companies of English and French Canadians to defend the Crown, as well as about 3,000 regulars from the 24th, 66th, 1st, 32nd, 85th and the 15th Regiments (2). These Regiments were spread from Quebec City to Carillon west of Montreal. The Patriots were now encamped at St-Denis and St-Charles. Colborne wanted to crush the rebellion quickly and devised a plan to attack St-Charles and St-Denis from both the North and the South. Colonel Wetherall would command the southern pincer troops and Colonel Charles Gore would command the northern brigade. Gore left Montreal on the morning of the 22nd of November. His brigade consisted of two companies of the 24th Regiment, one company from the 32nd Regiment, one twelve pounder howitzer, a small troop of Royal Montreal cavalrymen and a couple of magistrates who were to arrest the Patriot leaders, Papineau and Wolfred Nelson who were at St-Denis. Gore picked up another company from the 66th Regiment at Sorel and began his march on St-Denis with about 300 men around 10 o’clock at night (3). St-Denis in 1837 was a small village along the Richelieu River, located north-east of Montreal. Gore’s orders were simple: crush the rebels at St-Denis, capture the Patriot leaders and proceed south and assist Lieutenant Colonel Wetherall in his assault of the St-Charles rebel’s encampment and put an end to the revolt in its infancy. But the British forces ran into some bad weather. Freezing rain began to fall and the soldiers marched through mud. After an 8 hour march, Gore’s Brigade arrived at St-Denis. The soldiers were exhausted and would have had to prepare for battle. The rebels of St-Denis had been alerted that the British were moving on them. A decision was made to stand and fight. The Rebels disposed of about 800 irregulars of which only about 200 were armed and an old militia parade canon(4). Wolfred Nelson assumed command and placed about 100 men in a large fortified house. The Patriots were getting ready for battle.

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1 Comment

  1. Pleased to have found this account.
    Fills in details of which I was unaware.
    I would like to have had more on where the British soldiers were buried.