The rebellion was over, long live the rebellion. The one thing that surprised me that even after the failures of Duncombe and MacKenzie at London and Toronto and after they had fled to the United States and MacKenzie had set up his dream state, the Republic of Canada the violence did not end there and nor did the rebellion. But was the violence that made up the grossly over-named Patriot War part of the Rebellion or was it something else. The troubles that continued throughout all of 1838; I have chosen to split the troubles into three parts all held together by a common theme, Rebels, Raiders, and Hunters. Many Canadians who had fled to the United States and even some who remained in Canada sought support from both Americans and any others who could lend their hand to the cause. While Charles Duncombe had headed east to work with the Lower Canada Patriotes, MacKenzie who knew he was no military leader send two Americans west to gather support to Detroit and bring the Militias under the Republican flag.
William Lyon MacKenzie had received a note from George S. Handy, who to aid MacKenzie had brought a large group of men together under the name the Secret Order of the Sons of Liberty who now was among the largest militias who now occupied the city of Detroit. In the absence of Rensselaer Van Rensselaer, the militia leaders fought amongst themselves over who would be in overall command of the combined force. They also had to worry about arming the numbers that had flocked to the cause. Those in the city noticed a rise in crime, especially that of food, arms, and ammunition. They tolerated the parades of armed men marching through the street as if preparing for war. Eventually, Handy would take the title of General of the Western Army, and began to order larger numbers of arms. Bold men broke into the city hall, jail, and an armoury to take rifles and ammunition; the police would find it and take it back at least until one group broke into a Federal Armoury. Until this point, Michigan’s Governor, Steven T Mason tolerated the group, but he now had the means to evict them from the city. Calling out the State Militia he ordered the rebels out of the town, hoping they would disperse and go home. And much to his annoyance they headed further south and occupied Sugar Island, stealing a ship in the process, a steamship named McCombe but they also had the aid of a small armed schooner, the Anne offered to the rebels by her Canadian Captain, Dr Theller. Fearing that the rebels planned to break neutrality and invade Canada he sent the State Militia to remove the rebels from the island. To his annoyance, the officers socialised with the rebels, many having friends in the rebel camp. And while the Anne remained out of reach, the militia managed to recapture the McCombe denying at least one ship to the rebels. But when Colonel Thomas Jefferson Sutherland arrived with men and arms from Cleveland, he had acquired another steamship to use to transport men.
On the morning of the 11th of January 1838, the residents of Amherstburg woke to the ghostly sounds of military music drifting across the Detroit River. The militia which had been on alert and patrol since the rebellion erupted. Even Josiah Henson arrived in command of the local Colchester Militia a group made up for former slaves to aid in Canada’s defence. The town’s bells rang in alarm as the Anne sailed past; the militia mustered on Gordon’s Warf, marching across to Bois Blanc Island, fearing that would be the target. But when the rebel schooner sailed past they returned to the mainland to oppose any potential landing. Taking with them the island’s only two residents, the lighthouse keeper and his wife. As the Anne back in towards the town her gunners opened fire on the militia without warning, the militia shot back. While small arms could do little, the sudden and violent response would be enough to drive the rebels back. The next morning the town again awoke to military music, but this time from Bois Blanc Island and the town littered with handbills. In the predawn hours, Colonel Sutherland had landed a force of rebels on the nearby Island and papered the town with a proclamation that rang similar to the one spread by General William Hull in the first actions of the Anglo-American War of 1812. Sutherland’s proclamation declared the island a part of the Republic of Canada and called on all loyal Canadians to rise and join the cause. To make his point clear, the Anne ranged into the town and opened fire, but her crew were not well trained in the fine art of naval gunnery and did little damage. The militia, however, did, giving chase and opening fire from the shore. Musket and Rifle shot tore through sail and rope, and one lucky shot ended the life the wheelman, without direction the Anne crashed into the shore at Elliot’s Point just south of the town. The militia scrambled aboard, taking the crew prisoner and looting the ship of her guns and the Republican flag. Sutherland seeing this, quickly reversed and ordered his men back to Sugar Island. Mason would use the action to move in on Sugar Island and remove the rebels by force, having many arrested including General Handy and Colonel Sutherland and leaving one General Donald McLeod in command.
Donald McLeod had turned to the rebel cause early in its life, a supporter and following of William Lyon MacKenzie, he had even published a newspaper and pamphlets in support of the radical cause. It was odd because McLeod had a long record of service both in the Royal Navy and the British Army, fighting at Queenston Heights, Crysler’s Farm, and Lunday’s Lane. He even served at Waterloo. In response to his support of MacKenzie, a Tory mob trashed his printing office in Prescott, fearing for his own life he joined MacKenzie in Buffalo and was among those commissioned into the Republican Army. McLeod’s march to Detroit would not be an easy one, his band of men faced both weather and the American army, who on one occasion stripped his band of their arms and ammunition fearing they would break neutrality. Which by the letter of the law they had not broken, only if they invaded would the law have been broken. Of course, that was their intent. Word of McLeod’s intention reached the American commander, General Hugh Brady, who promptly crossed the river to warn the British. The British had not been stalling either, in advance of the arrival of the new Lieutenant-Governor Sir George Arthur, the Army had deployed elements of the 24th (South Wales Borders), 32nd (Cornwall), 83rd (County of Dublin) and 85th (Duke of Yorks Own) Regiments to Upper Canada. The Royal Artillery arrived in force, and several gunboats loaned to the Provincial Marine from the Royal Navy took up posts at Kingston, Amherstburg, and Pentangeshine. Brady promised to do all he could to prevent the Rebels from marching across the river and would arrest any who tried to flee back to the United States. The British commander replied that they would chase any rebel ignoring the border. When General Brady returned, he grimly ordered his men to erect a line of flags on the border and to shoot any British soldier who crosses the line. In the meantime, Brady still had McLeod preaching fire into the locals, making grand claims of his military prowess and making promises of money and land for any who joined the cause. McLeod’s plan, which he had presented to MacKenzie and had earned him the General’s commission, would be to invade Fighting Island and use it as a stepping stone for a mainland invasion. Fighting Island had little to offer, a narrow strip of land partway between Amherstburg and Sandwich, with little tactical value. McLeod set the date of the invasion for the 22nd of February, George Washington’s birthday, a fitting day. The rebels crossed with little trouble but soon faced the harsh winter conditions. McLeod set them to building field fortifications out of what little foliage the island offered and building a platform to mount the small cannon they dragged across on. They also busied themselves by making cartridges for their rifles and the cannon.
Fighting Island proved a terrible place, with many of his weapons taken by the American Army, he did not have enough arms to go around, those who were armed patrolled the island’s perimeter, while the others waited. His hope buoyed by the fact that many wrote notes of support promising food, arms, and ammunition. But none materialised, and McLeod’s hope and warmth came only from a bottle of whisky than zeal for the cause. On the night of the 24th the British rolled in, the artillery pounded the island through the night. As dawn crept over the horizon a small assault charged the island directly, the rebels easily repelled the attack before returning to their breakfast only to realise the first assault had been a diversion and the main British force swept in from the flanks. Those who were armed fired back to their last round giving their compatriots time to escape before running themselves. The British held on the island, rounded up the wounded and any materials they found. One militia officers directed his men to carry off the rebel cannon as a prize. In a final show of defiance, the rebels fired off a parting volley from the American shore, giving General Brady their location and allowing his men to sweep in an arrest the stragglers. McLeod would be among those who avoid arrest, and according to accounts he did so by dressing as a woman. Unknown to the British, while they were mopping up on Fighting Island a group of American supporters had marched from Sandusky, Ohio across the frozen Lake Erie ice and seized Pelee Island. The island was Upper Canada’s southernmost settlement, a small farming island with only four families living there. While these Americans were supporters of the rebel cause, they were more opportunistic taking advantage of the instability for their gain. After taking anything of value and taking it back to Sandusky, they left a small garrison on the island. The British authorities did not know they were there and the island may prove helpful to the rebels. All would have gone well if the sentries had not fired on two men trying to cross to the island on foot. Curious as to why a previously friendly island would fire on their neighbours the two men made for Amherstburg to alert the British garrison. Colonel John Maitland listened to the men’s tale and wasted no time, he put together a brigade of the light company of the 32nd (Cornwall) Regiment, and two companies of the 83rd (County of Dublin) Regiment, two field pieces from the Royal Artillery and a unit of Militia Cavalry from St. Thomas and marched out in the middle of the night. As the sun rose, the brigade marched out onto the ice, leaving the field guns behind and the cavalry troopers walking their horses fearing thin ice close to the shore. The ice offered little cover, so they knew they could come under fire at any moment. But when they spotted the sentries, they made no move to fight but rather melted back into the thickly forested centre of the island. Maitland ordered Captain George Browne to take his company of light troops and the St. Thomas Cavalry around the island and locate the American crossing point and prevent them from escaping. While he would push up through the island catching them between the two forces. The crossing was not hard to locate as the footprints and sledge marks were clear in the snow, Browne ordered the cavalry to hold on his flank while his men formed a skirmish line across the American’s path and waited. When the Americans charged out the woods there were far more than Browne expected, but he ordered his men to fix their bayonets. When the Americans came into range he ordered his company to fire a single volley, then using the smoke screen charged in with Bayonets. The cavalry rushed in from the flank, but many still managed to escape and the pursuit called off when a horse put a leg through the ice. With the Americans driven off, the British secured the island, taking the prisoners away but having left in haste could not leave a garrison. But Colonel Maitland did arrange for help from the nearby town of Colchester who gladly provided food to the island families.
The raid on Pelee Island marked a change in the execution of the rebellion, and many in the original leadership denounced the actions. Where some hoped the actions would drive a wedge between the British and the Americans it only galvanised their resolve to prevent further incursions. William Lyon Mackenzie, despite having separated himself from the rebellion after his arrest spoke out against future raids that bordered on piracy. General Donal McLeod would flee to Lockport, New York where he met with several other players, among them Charles Duncombe, Samuel Chandler and Bill Johnston and formed the Council of Thirteen a group of men who would take the reigns of the rebel cause working behind a smokescreen of a benevolent organisation, the Canadian Refugee Relief Organization. The twin invasions on the Detroit River saw the British Army begin reconstruction efforts on Fort Malden and constructed a blockhouse on Bois Blanc Island. The poor response by the State Militia saw an entire reorganisation of Michigan’s State Militia and more professional officers appointed to the leadership. Plans to build a new fort on the shore would be put in place and in 1842 Fort Wayne would be completed.
Despite the obscurity of these first three battles, and I use that term loosely they are well memorialised if you know where to look. Today Bois Blanc Island is home to a large number of people, and both the lighthouse and Blockhouse still stand although I was barred from getting across to the island when I visited. However, a plaque to the capture of the Anne is located near Elliot’s Point. Fort Malden is home to one of the schooner’s cannon, and the museum has a rare example of Republic of Canada flag also seized from the schooner on display. Fighting Island’s history is far more sorted, being selected as an industrial waste site in 1918. The current owners, BASF began a large scale cleanup of the island, and today it is an education facility for biological and ecological students by elementary and high school students. A plaque to the skirmish is located on the mainland in Gil Maure Park in La Salle, Ontario. The rebel cannon became known as the Rebel Pup and sat outside the home of the Kent Militia Lieutenant and then a second house, today it sits outside the Chatham-Kent Museum. Pelee Island is still home to a small population, some 240 people and is home to several notable wineries starting in the 1860s, but saw a resurgence in the 1980s. A plaque to the battle is on the island, but I was unable to visit the island, and my travels never allowed a return visit. However, a small memorial sits on a residential side street in Amherstburg but is in rough shape and has been largely abandoned and looks no better than it did in 1904 and the 1950s. It took me some time to locate the memorial, and it was only thanks to the staff at Fort Malden that I found it.