THE MANAGED MUTINY
History's realities are seldom dull.
Lieutenant Colonel Isaac Brock lost no time in departing York for Fort George. As soon as he read the note, he acted with characteristic decisiveness and hurried from his headquarters. Within minutes he, his trusted aide, Sergeant-Major James Fitzgibbon and several others were returning on the same government schooner that had brought the ominous message from the fort, where a detachment of the 49th Regiment of Foot was garrisoned under the command of junior Lieutenant Colonel Roger Hale Sheaffe.
The soldiers of the 49th, a rough, tough, turbulent group of wild Irishmen, loved and were loyal to Brock from whom they had been separated for some time. They were serving under Sheaffe, a harsh, insensitive martinet whose unnecessarily severe discipline had soured some of the men to the point that they were contemplating desertion. Alienated by Sheaffe's harsh regime and enticed by American agents to defect, a disgruntled group conspired to mutiny, flee across the river and find refuge in the republic of the United States.
The curt communication indicated only that the garrison's officers had strong reason to believe an insurrection was imminent. Brock feared the worst knowing full well the officers would never have mentioned that dread word unless it was an absolute certainty. Something terrible was about to happen and he hoped he could get there before it was too late.
It was learned later that the incipient revolt had been discovered accidentally on an August afternoon in 1803, less than eighteen months after the regiment's arrival in the province. A soldier named Fitzpatrick, speaking with a servant of one of the Fort's officers, had unwittingly alerted him to impending trouble. On being told the time, Fitzpatrick exclaimedIn His Own Words
"Thank God, I will not be late for roll call; if I were that tyrant would give me knapsack drill for a week."
Then uttering an oath, he muttered some threatening words and ran off towards the fort. The servant conveyed this information to his officer who informed Sheaffe.
On arriving at Niagara, Brock ordered the captain to anchor below the town and then he walked to Fort George accompanied by an officer, his orderly and his trusty sergeant-major Fitzgibbon. Brock was met by at the entrance by a hastily assembled honour guard to salute his unexpected arrival at the fort. Sizing up the situation, Brock acted with dispatch. He ordered the sergeant of the guard, whom he immediately suspected of being involved in the plot, to divest himself of sword and sash. After the sergeant had been secured, Brock entered the fort where it was dinner hour and all were in barracks.
Brock dispatched his orderly to bring to him the soldier suspected of being the other ringleader. As soon as he entered the room, he was pinioned by Fitzgibbon and threatened with death if he made an outcry. A second, a third and then a fourth insurgent were summoned and secured in the same manner. Brock then walked to the guard house where he ordered the drummers to beat the 'assembly.' Startled troops rushed from their barracks and quickly formed in line on the parade ground before the Colonel all were surprised to see. Brock strode to the front of the assembled ranks and in a loud voice ordered every man who had been involved in the conspiracy to step forward. Their number included a corporal named O'Brien as well as a sergeant and several privates. After the insurgents had been locked up, Brock addressed the regiment.
Brock spoke in sombre tones of the sorrow he felt at having to inform them of the reason for his actions. He expressed the outrage he felt at the conduct of the prisoners and the dishonour and disgrace they had brought upon the regiment and, indeed, upon the British army. The men involved would be placed under arrest and sent to Quebec where they would be to be tried by court martial for mutiny. Few of the regiment had knowledge of the plot, and they were astonished and indignant as they listened to their disheartened commander. When requested they pledged their utmost obedience to all his orders and their earnest endeavours to restore the good name of the regiment. The soldiers then returned to their barracks.
It was all over in less than an hour. By the sheer force of his imposing presence and his powerful influence over the men, Brock had arrested the ringleaders and aroused the garrison with no resistance whasoever.Twelve men were in irons and bound for York on the schooner. With them were seven deserters, who had been arrested a few weeks before.
The plotters' plan as discovered afterwards was simple but daring. All officers were to be seized, and with one exception placed in cells. The exception, Sheaffe, was to be killed. The conspirators planned to across the river at Queenston. A subsequent investigation led to a confession of the conspiracy by a soldier named Daly, who said he had been persuaded to participate by the promise of a more comfortable life for himself and his family in the United States.
The acting Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada and Commander-in-chief, General Peter Hunter, ordered the prisoners sent to Quebec for trial where a court-martial found them guilty. Four mutineers and three of the deserters were condemned to death, the execution by firing squad to be carried out in the presence of the garrison at Quebec City on March 2nd, 1804. Ferdinand Brock Tupper, Isaac's nephew, was an observer at the trial and the executions. He forwarded to Brock a written report at the conclusion of the courts-martial. The extreme rigour of their commanding officer was their only plea and justification for the crimes according to Ferdinand who saidIn His Own Words
"the unfortunate sufferers declared publicly that had they continued under the command of Brock they would have escaped their melancholy end."
Brock assembled the men of the 49th at Fort George and read them the contents of the letter, outlining the execution of the seven. There was not a dry eye in the audience as he spoke of their sad fate with halting voice and glistening eye.In His Own Words
"Since I have had the honour to wear the British uniform, I have never felt grief like this. It pains me to the heart to think that any member of my regiment should be engaged in a conspiracy which has led to their being shot like so many dogs."
Brock's letters reveal how terribly he regretted the death of these individuals, men who had fought bravely under him in Holland and Copenhagen. Brock felt deeply about the incident and it was for an long time the subject of regretful conversation in the fort and throughout the province.
The death of the men had been caused by "vexatious authority" of Sheaffe." Censured earlier by Brock for being "indiscreet and injudicious," Lieutenant-Colonel Sheaffe had a history of martinet military behaviour. In 1800 Brock had left him in command of the 49th Regiment on the island of Jersey, where Sheaffe had become very unpopular as a result of his harsh discipline. He worked his men too hard and disciplined them too severely for small lapses. Brock said "Sheaffe possessed little knowledge of mankind"> and that he had many enemies, but he gave no reason for this enmity. Some said Sheaffe was disliked because of his American birth, which raised doubts about his loyalty. Others saw only his inhumanity to those he commanded, always finding it easier to rebuke, rather than to praise.
As a result of Isaac Brock's swift, firm action, mutiny and murder were prevented at the little fort. Brock was ordered by Governor Hunter to resume direct command of the 49th at Fort George. Of singular significance for the province was Brock's ability to prepare his regulars for the contests to come by restoring a sense of pride and loyalty in the regiment. As soon as Brock assumed command, he worked to improve the welfare and well-being of the troops. They were allowed to visit the town freely. It was no longer a crime to fish in fatigue dress, and sport shooting of wild fowl was permitted. Brock's instinctive fairness and obvious concern for the men he commanded quickly dispelled their sullen suspicion and rebuilt their morale.
Following his exceptional success at Detroit Brock was able to recordIn His Own Words
"It is certainly something singular that we should be upwards of two months in a state of warfare, and that along this widely extended frontier not a single death, either natural or by the sword should have occurred among the troops under my command and we have not been altogether idle; nor has a single desertion taken place." A true leader of men, Brock never ceased to inspire love and loyalty in his troops. His influence on them continued long after his lifeless body was carried from the field of conflict at Queenston on that cold, cheerless October 13th in 1812.
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