Saturday, 4 December 2010

The Militia and French Canada 1760-1855


The militia has an important role in Canada’s military history and was grounded in the principle that all citizens within the community had responsibility for its defence. [1] Associated with Quebec but particularly with New France, from the outset the militia was a defensive local organisation that compensated for the lack of professional soldiers sent from France and sought to counter the threat from the native Amerindian population.[2] The first military organisation took place in the province of Quebec in 1649, and in 1665 the militia was founded, and fought with the French Cavignon regiment against the Indians. Ten years later that Count Frontenac re-organised the militia in a way that remained in force until 1760. After the conquest of Canada by the British the Canadian militia was initially disbanded, but with the rising of Pontiac an urgent call was made that led to the militia under its French officers acting as the backbone of the British attack and defence. As a result, the militia became a military institution parallel to the French army and, after the Conquest in 1760, to British troops but largely remained loyal to the authorities in power. The militia became an instrument supporting the cohesion of the French Canadian social fabric.[3]

In September 1760, after the fall of Montreal, Lord Amherst and his officers were faced with a new challenge, that of governing Canada.  This was a major undertaking, because the country was in ruins, there was a threat of famine and many families were without shelter.  It was also essential that public order be kept.  But the British troops were unable to express themselves in the language of the country. Amherst therefore called on the Canadian militia.  On 22 September 1760, he decreed that the militia officers were to maintain order and act as the police in the parishes and cities, as they had under the French regime, and that they were to serve as intermediaries between the government and the people.  Under the terms of surrender, all Canadians were to be disarmed.  But two weeks later the British authorities reversed their decision, authorising militia officers to keep their weapons and extending this permission to all militiamen who asked to keep them.  In addition, militia officers were to serve as justices of the peace for minor cases, because the magistrates had returned to France, taking with them their knowledge of the laws and customs.  This was what lay behind the creation of the ‘militia courts’.  Although the new judges were unfamiliar with jurisprudence, the militia court system was far preferable to the people to the British court-martial system.  Having the French Canadian militia take over some civilian government functions was a key event.  The militia were a credible intermediary between a confused populace and a foreign army that could well have fallen into certain excesses during this troubled period. Of the 18,000 Canadians able to bear arms, most had already fought and were more familiar with guerrilla tactics than the regular soldiers.  A population as militarised as this was unprecedented, in both Europe and the other colonies.  

Under the Lower Canada Militia Act of 1803 and the Upper Canada Militia Act of 1808, the militia was composed of all able-bodied men (except Quakers and others whose religious convictions forbade military service) between the ages of 18 and 60 years. An annual muster of the militia was held, at which attendance was compulsory, under penalty of a heavy fine. In case of emergency, a levée en masse might be ordered; if this were not necessary, provision was made for the drafting of militiamen by ballot or lot. There was, however, no provision for the training of the militia; the period of active service was limited to six months; and there was an absence of any higher organisation for war. In order to obviate the disadvantages arising from the six months’ period of service, various devices were adopted. ‘Select Embodied’ battalions were formed, which were kept permanently on foot, but were composed of successive drafts of six-months men; ‘flank companies’ were organised, in which the men served continuously, but were at liberty to attend to their farms and businesses when not urgently needed; and regular provincial corps were authorised, composed of men who volunteered to serve continuously and without intermission. The ‘brave York volunteers’ whom Brock is said to have urged to ‘push on’ at Queenston Heights in 1812 were not volunteers in the modern sense of the word; they were men who had waived their right of discharge at the end of six months and who might have been described as provincial regulars. But defective though the application of the principle of universal military service was in 1812, the principle itself was in force.

In the aftermath of the War of 1812 and the end of the French wars in Europe, there was a substantial reduction in military and naval spending. In Britain, the Royal Navy was reduced from 140,000 to 17,000 men.  Army personnel were cut to 110,000, the minimum required to maintain British garrisons in Great Britain and the colonies.  There remained many sources of animosity between the United States and Great Britain and a new war was still possible.  In London, after the signing of the peace treaty, the military staff considered the problem of how to defend British North America. The War of 1812 had taken place to a considerable extent in accordance with the rules of European war. This meant that future battles would likely occur increasingly on open land as in Europe, rather than in the woods where French Canadians excelled. The American army was reduced to 10,000 men and reformed from top to bottom to become a truly professional force. European-style war gave the Americans an advantage.  In fact, they would likely be the first to favour an invasion of British North America to satisfy their ambitions of hegemony, because neither the Canadians nor the British had anything to gain from attacking them.  The regular American army, although modest, did have an enormous number of volunteers and militiamen they could call on, all of whom would be more at ease in a conventional campaign.  The British garrison, supported by Canadian militiamen, could hold out for a while but would probably eventually collapse simply because of the difference in numbers.

With such prospects, the staff saw only one way to safeguard British North America: to build impressive fortifications. Defending a strip of land from the Atlantic to the west of the Great Lakes involved difficult choices.  What areas should be given priority and where should the great forts be located?  From the very first, Quebec City, Kingston and Montreal were identified as strategic points for safeguarding the country and it was imperative that these cities be made virtually impregnable.  Citadels were therefore built in Quebec City and Kingston.  Montreal was to be defended by forts to the south and an army in the field. The estimated cost of this ambitious programme caused the authorities to scale it down to the essentials.  At the insistence of the Duke of Wellington, funds were immediately made available to the army and in 1819 several works were begun: construction of Fort Lennox on Île-aux Noix and another fort on Île Sainte-Hélène, facing the port of Montreal. In 1820, work was begun on the Quebec Citadel but was not completed until 1831, after which there were still many additional expenses.  Instead of the projected £70,000, it cost £236,000.  Work on the Halifax Citadel, which began in 1828, was to total £116,000 and to be completed in 1834; instead it took 28 years to build and cost £242,000.  Work on the Kingston Citadel, called Fort Henry, began in 1832.  It took the form of an enormous redoubt, and the plan called for five similar redoubts around the city.  Work went smoothly, and it was almost complete in 1837 at a cost of £73,000.  However, the final touches were not completed until 1848, raising the total to £88,000.  The British government then decided that it had spent enough and the other redoubts were never built. However, Britain provided Canada with a formidable chain of fortifications that undoubtedly had the desired effect on the Americans.  To take these fortresses would have required resources that their army simply did not have. 

Within its hierarchical structure, the captain of militia had a strategic role within the overall chain of command. Captains responded to instructions from the superior military staff of major, lieutenant-colonel and colonel who, in turn, obtained their orders from the Intendant or Governor-General and in this was they contributed to the central administration of the colony. Although captains acted as local military leaders in times of emergency, in normal circumstances they acted as the link between habitants and the government. They enforced local municipal rules and were largely responsible for public works through a system of corvées.[4]

Being a captain of militia gave individuals considerable prestige and influence in the community. In the church, for example, the captain of militia sat just behind the seigneur and received communion immediately after him. Like seigneurs and the clergy, he did not pay royal taxes.[5] Exempted from billeting troops in his own home, he was responsible for deciding where and with whom soldiers were billeted in his community. Individuals who became captains were already popular within their communities, could read and write and would have had a degree of financial independence since the post was unpaid. [6] The post required a certain degree of military competence since the captain was responsible for establishing and maintaining the militia, military training and ‘drill’. For his part, a member of the militia devoted a week a year to the captain as well as taking part in local and regional militia gatherings. In general, the captain of militia was closely attached to all features of the municipal businesses and local government and was expected to be an effective agent for central government.

During the 1820s, militia exercises and tasks could be no more than tedious duties like those performed in the other colonies.  But the militia gatherings still resembled shooting competitions and were generally held on 1 May, as they had been under the French regime.  The gatherings ended with a proper party given by the captain.  On St. Peter’s Day, the militiamen assembled after Mass at the doors of the church.  The captain then had them shout, ‘Vive le roi!’ and ‘Le pays était sauf, la paix assurée.’ Many French Canadian militiamen thus continued to practise their shooting and relations with officers were cordial.  The organisation was relatively egalitarian and did not really have volunteers in the British or American sense of the word; being a part of the militia was considered a community duty.  Except in some staffs and a few city companies, French Canadian militiamen, officers and soldiers were all considered equal and did not see the need to wear the uniform.

Lord Dalhousie thought the militia ‘in truth, more of a police force similar to the Gendarmerie in France than a Militia of British formation.’ He was thinking of the uniformed volunteers of the English Yeomanry and therefore encouraged the training of volunteer militia companies in Quebec City and Montreal. However, his error was to admit only young people from the anglophone bourgeoisie.  Thus the Royal Montreal Cavalry was to be a military version of the Montreal Hunt Club, a club for riding to the hounds.  While the Gregorys and the Molsons were asked to form their companies, Dalhousie found it preferable not to accept the offers of the French Canadian bourgeois to form companies of volunteer riflemen and artillerymen.  How would these bourgeois distinguish themselves in the new militia when they were not even authorised to establish their own companies of volunteers?  Dalhousie then decided to replace French county names with English ones; for example, the Terrebonne Militia became the Effingham Militia.  In addition, in 1828 Dalhousie ordered that the city militias be divided by district, which in many instances meant that officer positions would go to English Canadians while most of the militiamen were French Canadian.  This decision once again raised the sensitive issue of French as a language of command.  Worst of all, the governor-in-chief, in a fit of anger against the Legislative Assembly, removed militia commissions for many of the members of the Opposition.  Perhaps he was hoping to discredit them in the eyes of the voters, but it was the militia itself that suffered.  The result was deep discontent, confirmed in a special investigative committee in a report dated 1829.

By the late 1820s, French Canadians were seriously questioning the values of the militia.  Control over this institution was being lost.  In the end, French Canadians turned away from an organisation that no longer represented them.  Because they were being assimilated and humiliated, they would isolate themselves socially in order to keep their identity and to truly belong only to the institutions they could control: their Church and their political parties.  The militia, and more generally the very idea of military service, became a matter ‘for others’ from then on and their only concern being to defend their immediate territory.  In 1830, the French Canadian militia organisation, although it continued to subsist, was virtually wiped out.  This situation, aggravated by a political landscape resembling a minefield, encouraged the rebellions of 1837 and 1838.

There was little involvement by the French Canadian militia though not the loyalist militia during the Rebellions of 1837-1838. According to Dion and Legault, this occurred because of policies that transformed it before violence broke out in 1837. From 1826 to the early 1830s, the development of demands for political reform increased and the political instability of these years prevented the development of a clear policy for the militia. The 1830 Militia Act is an example of social and political consensus but two years before the Rebellions loyalist volunteers were already active in Lower Canada. They had the unconditional political and financial support of the executive and this reduced the role of the militia as a military force. [7] From 1832-1833, loyalists saw the situation in Lower Canada as more and more complex and took the initiative to form ‘clubs’ that had sufficient military ability to challenge the growing political power of the Parti Patriote in the Assembly. As most militia captains were French Canadians, they were from a loyalist perspective suspect and this was reinforced in the autumn of 1837 when, especially in the Deux-Montagnes, justices of the peace were replaced by captains of militia. This had considerable symbolic significance: JPs represented the corrupt institutions of the British colonial state while the captains of militia were seen as expressions of popular or democratic justice that had been developed in French Canadian thinking.

The union of Lower and Upper Canada in 1841 resulted in a Sedentary Militia of 426 battalions with over 250,000 men. This was, however, an army on paper based on universal service and the battalions generally only mustered for one day a year. This situation was less than ideal and led to the formation of volunteer corps by more patriotically-minded citizens. These volunteers received no support from the government and provided their own equipment and uniform. The 1846 Militia Act, in part the result of tensions between Britain and the United States over the Oregon territory, did little to change this situation and men between the ages of 18 and 60 were still liable to be called out. The Act also provided for an emergency force of 30,000 men from the Sedentary Militia through volunteer enlistment or ballot if the quota was not met. The Governor-General could authorise the formation of volunteer cavalry, infantry and artillery corps that would be funded by government. The Act officially recognised the existence of the volunteer corps legalising a de facto situation and enshrining the principle of voluntarism for the universal requirement to bear arms.  It is in effect a reasonably sound principle to count on men who wish to serve their community to be citizen soldiers.

An effort was made to revive the militia, particularly in Canada East that had not organised a review since 1837.  Because French asserted itself as an official language on a par with English in the Legislative Assembly, the Deputy Adjutant-General of the militia for Canada East now had two clerks ‘sufficiently familiar in the knowledge of French’ to be able to correspond in French with the battalion officers.  In September 1846 the militia staff began to allocate the approximately 246,000 militiamen to 57 regiments with 334 battalions and to appoint senior officers who would in turn recommend officers for their battalions. To make French Canadians in the cities less hostile to the militia, the measures introduced by Lord Dalhousie were reversed and the battalions could again reflect each language group and the number of officers was to be equitable within joint regiments. However, the 1840s saw a considerable increase in the population of Canada West by immigrants, mainly from Ireland and Scotland leading to a shift in the demographic politics of the United Province.  In 1851 there were 534,000 men aged 18 to 60 years, 317,000 of them in Canada West.  French Canadians were no longer the majority. The 1846 statute represented an attempt at reconciliation but was, unsurprisingly given a rather cool reception in French Canada.  French Canadians, who had been excluded for a quarter century, remained distrustful.

The defence of Canada was, in practice, the responsibility of British regular troops. However, the growing cost of colonial defence and the outbreak of the Crimean War in 1853 led to a change in attitude. With great political responsibility by the colonies, it was argued that there should be greater responsibility of their defence. In November 1854, the Canadian government appointed a commission to investigate ways of improving the militia.  In French Canada some even favoured the establishment of a permanent Canadian corps ‘to replace the regular troops that the English government had to bring home’, according to Montreal’s La Patrie.  The editor added that would open a new career to Canadian youth.  We are sure that many of our young compatriots would prefer a captain’s epaulettes, even with all the dangers involved, to the gown [of a lawyer] or the cassock [of a notary] that are so highly prized these days.[8]

The result was the Militia Act of 1855 that made the Governor-General commander-in-chief of the militia and divided the United Province to eighteen military districts, nine each for Canada East and Canada West. The Sedentary Militia was retained but was joined by an Active Militia of not more than 5,000 volunteers who could be called on to defend the province in the absence of British regulars.

[1] Chambers, E.J., The Canadian militia, (L/M. Fresco), 1907, Tricoche, G., Les milices françaises et anglaises au Canada, Paris, 1902 and Sulte, B., Histoire de la milice canadienne française, 1760-1897, (Desbarats), 1899, remain useful studies.

[2] Dion, Dominique and Legault, Roch, ‘L’organisation de la milice de la région montréalaise de 1792 à 1837: de la paroisse au comté’, Bulletin d’histoire politique, Vol. 8, (2000), pp. 108-117. See also Ouellet, Fernand, Éléments d’histoire sociale du Bas-Canada, (Hurtubise HMH), 1972, pp. 351-378.

[3] Chartrand, René, Le patrimoine militaire canadien: D’hier à aujourd’hui, Tome1, (1000-1754), (Art Global), 1993, p. 156.

[4] Ibid, Chartrand, René, Le patrimoine militaire canadien: D’hier à aujourd’hui, p. 155.

[5] Ibid, Chartrand, René, Le patrimoine militaire canadien: D’hier à aujourd’hui, p. 155.

[6] Ibid, Chartrand, René, Le patrimoine militaire canadien: D’hier à aujourd’hui, p. 153.

[7] Ibid, Dion, Dominique and Legault, Roch, ‘L’organisation de la milice de la région montréalaise de 1792 à 1837: de la paroisse au comté’, p. 116.

[8] La Patrie, 10 November 1854

1 comment:

Spaniard said...

There was little involvement by the French Canadian militia though not the loyalist militia during the Rebellions of 1837-1838, According to Dion and Legault.

Dion and Legault are wrong, many French served in the Rank and file of the sedentary Militia Battalions in Montreal from 1812-1862.

In 1827-28 the 1st Battalion ceased to be distinctively English, and "The Sedentary Militia of Montreal" was rearranged by "Districts."

From 1827-33 2nd- 3rd Battalion was distinctively French with some Scotch and Irish in their ranks, 5th Battalion It’s founder being Major John Molson was half French and Scottish on the ranks of Captains, the lower ranks being mostly French mobilised from members of “The Montreal Mechanics Institution” In the 1837 Rebellion The Volunteer Montreal Rifles were increased to Three Companies, Major Griffin having the supreme command. The companies were commanded by Captains de Bleury, Leclerc and Blackwood. Many of it’s rank and file formed from 1st 2nd 3rd and 5th battalion from 1827-33.

At this point distrust as the loyalty of many French that served in It’s ranks especially that Capatian de Bleury and Leclerc Commanded. Numerous complaints from English Officers and men, were sent to Lord Gosford.

Lord Gosford then authorized "The Second Brigade" consisted of "The Montreal Light Infantry" (Lt.-Col. Benjamin Holmes), Six Companies. The majority of It’s ranks being English Scotch, and Irish. However French officers and (OR’s) did serve in It’s ranks in small numbers.

Read More, Tracing Back The Lineage Of The Black Watch (RHR) To 1837- 1831 or 1812?