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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

Battle of St-Denis 23 November 1837 (NAC/ANC)
This image was propaganda as the British only had one howitzer and the rebels had no bayonets.
Gore had anticipated pushing the rebels aside and continue on to St-Charles with very little opposition. When he was in sight of St-Denis, he realized that the rebels were going to oppose him. He split his brigade into 3 columns: one to go to the right and move up the river, the second column would move along the main road into the village and the third would move to the left in an attempt to encircle the village. A soon as the advance guard moved up, Nelson’s men opened fire. The battle had started and shots were being exchanged. The British attempted to place their howitzer in position and several artillerymen were picked off by rebel sharpshooters attempting to put the gun in action. The howitzer was finally installed and opened fire on the rebel positions. The battle went for several hours without a clear victor. The rebels received some reinforcements from St-Charles and on barges crossing the Richelieu unopposed. Lt Col Gore realized that he needed to break the stalemate and sent over 100 men to the left in an attempt to reach the rear of the village. These soldiers ran into rebels and were repulsed after a brief firefight. By the middle of the afternoon, Gore was faced with a decision. His men were running out of ammunition and were exhausted and frozen. He reluctantly decided to disengage and retreat, ensuring to take the howitzer with them. The British retreated with their gun, only to have to abandon it as it got mired in mud. The gun was captured by the rebels. Gore retreated back to Sorel. The battle lasted for about 6 hours and the casualties were light on both sides. The British had six men killed, ten wounded and six missing while the Patriots had twelve killed and seven wounded(5). When news of the defeat reached Colborne, he immediately began calling for reinforcements from Upper Canada and New-Brunswick. The civil war had started and they had lost the first engagement.

Saint-Charles (25 November 1837)

While Lt Colonel Gore was engaged at St-Denis, Lt Col Wetherall had to pause his advance towards St-Charles due to bad weather. His men bivouacked at the village of Saint-Hilaire for almost two days. Wetherall’s brigade consisted of four companies of the Royal Scots, one company from the 66th, twelve cavalrymen and two 6 pounder field pieces. In total Wetherall’s brigade had 300 men(6). On the morning of the 25th of November, the British were moving towards Saint-Charles. The Patriots in Saint-Charles were lead by Thomas Storrow Brown and consisted of about 200 men. After the victory at Saint-Denis, Brown was offered reinforcements but declined. It is unsure why Brown refused the reinforcements as he was well aware that the British were marching against him.

Battle of St-Charles 25 November 1837 (NAC/ANC C-393)
Wetherall’s brigade arrived at Saint-Charles about noon and immediately began its attack on the village. Most of the rebels were caught unaware and a brisk, fierce gunfight erupted. The battle lasted for two hours and was stalemated. Wetherall then ordered a bayonet charge which he led himself. The Royal Scots charged and the rebels broke and ran. The cold steel was too much for them and some managed to escape by jumping into the river. During this attack, it was reported that a large number of rebels laid down their arms and surrendered to the British. The result of this surrender is conflicting. According to one side, the rebels would have faked their surrender and when the soldiers moved in to accept it, they were attacked and suffered a few casualties. This enraged the British and the surrendering rebels were massacred. On the other hand, the Patriots version was that the rebels had surrendered and that the British simply charged them and slaughtered them for no reason . What was confirmed was that the Patriot rebels had suffered about 150 killed while the Crown forces had suffered three dead(7). The battle for Saint-Charles was over and the British had avenged their defeat at Saint-Denis two days earlier.

Saint-Eustache (14 December 1837)

Although the Patriot rebellion had suffered a major defeat, it wasn’t dead yet. The British defeated insurgents at St-Armand, near the US border, on December 6th 1837. By December 8th, Lt General Colborne felt pretty confident he could put an end to the rebellion and crush the remnants of the Patriot forces at the village of Saint-Eustache, North West of Montreal. Colborne took command personally and organized his forces in two Brigades. The first brigade consisted of the 32nd and 83rd Regiments, the Queen’s Light Dragoons and the Royal Montreal Cavalry under the command of Colonel John Maitland. The second brigade consisted of the Royal Scots, the Montreal Rifles and the Saint-Eustache Loyal Volunteers, under the command of Lt Colonel Wetherall, the victor of Saint-Charles(8). The artillery consisted of eight field pieces and one Congreve rocket(9). In all, the British numbered about 1500 men.

Rebuilt Church of St-Eustache (Photo author 2006)
On the morning of the 13th of December 1837, the two brigades, lead by Colborne himself left Montreal towards Saint-Eustache. The plan was to attack from two sides: one column would attack from the south and keep the insurgents in the dark as to the location of the main attack, while the main column would approach from the east.

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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.