A History of Nova Scotia Page

Book #2: Settlement, Revolution & War. TOC
Part 2, "Revolution And The 14th Colony" TOC
Ch. 13 - The Concluding Years (1778-83)

It now but remains to tell of the revolutionary events, as they touched upon Nova Scotia, during those years beyond 1776. Military operations of the American Revolution, except the years 1775-6 when invasions were carried out both into Quebec and Nova Scotia1, were restricted to the territory of the thirteen colonies. The attack on Fort Cumberland during November of 1776 failed. The attack involved no great numbers and was initiated and carried out by a small cell located at Machias. Given the odds, it was unlikely that the attack on Fort Cumberland would ever have succeeded; in the unlikely event that it had -- the question arises as to whether such a success would have advanced the revolutionary cause in Nova Scotia; and, the answer is -- likely not, as there never was much of a base for such a revolution in Nova Scotia in the first place. What is clear: that after the failure at Fort Cumberland -- outside of American privateers2 who descended on certain of the outlying seaports and who were more interested in booty than they were in the revolutionary cause -- Nova Scotia, for the balance of the American Revolution, was not to suffer from military conflict. Oh! There were those who had considerable sympathy for the American cause but they by and large did not show themselves. This was especially so for those at Halifax who were under the direct sway, control, or authority of the British military administration.3

While Nova Scotia was not to suffer from additional military conflict for the balance of the American Revolution, the people continued to fear that they may be attacked. This was especially so when it was heard that the French had sided with the American revolutionaries. In May of 1777, the Marquis of Lafayette had come to America from France to assist the colonies in their fight. Nova Scotia was essentially insulated from the war between the colonies and Britain simply because she is surrounded by the sea; well, not so much by the sea as by the fact that the struggling colonists had no navy.4 Great Britain had warships which were regularly off the coast of Nova Scotia as they came in and out of Halifax Harbor. They came to Halifax to avail themselves of the Royal Naval dockyard, the only one on the American coast, one which could effect repairs to sea or war damaged Men of War. While the Americans did not have a navy, their allies the French did. It was never as strong as that of Britain's, however, an undetected cluster of French warships could do big damage to the ports at Nova Scotia, including her principal port and dockyard at Halifax.

Lafayette, as of 1777, was giving valuable military advice to the colonists. In 1778 the French officially recognized American independence and become allied with them and concluded a treaty in respect to trade.5 This came about directly as a result Burgoyne's surrender at Saratoga on October 17th, 1777. The tidings of this event had reached Europe in December and the French king lost no time expressing his view that France would recognize the independence of the United States.6 Thus it was that on February 6th, 1778, a treaty was entered into between France and the United States whereby this recognition was formalized. One of the terms, which foreshadowed the Monroe doctrine, was that France was to lay no claims to Nova Scotia or Canada.7 The forging of a French-American alliance brought vital aid to the colonists and real fear to Nova Scotia. Simeon Perkins, July 18th, 1778: "[There are] reports a French war is Declared, and that a large French fleet is sailed for America. Part of it designed for Halifax, and part supposed for Quebec, which put the people at Halifax in Consternation." That August, the 29th, Vice Admiral "Mad Jack" Byron, the grandfather of the romantic poet, no stranger to Halifax8, sailed into Halifax Harbour aboard his flag ship, the 90 gun, Princess Royal. He had left Plymouth on June 9th with a squadron of ships but parted company in a gale. He had come into Halifax thinking to pick up his squadron but they apparently carried directly on to their destination, New York. He did however find the Culloden which had gotten in on the 16th of August.9 By this time Byron had caught the scent of the French fleet which had sailed from France under Comte d'Estaing. (The following year, 6th July, Byron with his 21 ships met up with d'Estaing and his fleet of 25 ships off the coast of Grenada in the West Indies where they did battle; it was a draw.10) This was but another one of those historical events of which our Liverpoolian diarist, Perkins made mention: 31st August, 1778, Monday: "... Admiral Byron is arrived at Halifax, having his fleet dispersed in a gale of wind ... 11 Sail of the Line, some of them it is said returned to England ... the Admiral and the Culloden are arrived at Halifax, and the French fleet now riding at Sandy Hook." One is continually struck (and, I am sure there were a number just like him throughout the province) on how Perkins made the effort and took the time to follow these world events.11

There are likely any number of events to be told about and which unfolded in Nova Scotia in respect to the French involvement in the America Revolution. We touch upon but one more before passing on. On July 21st, 1781, there was to be a smart action off the mouth of Spanish River (today's Sydney) between a squadron of smaller British vessels led by the 28 gun frigate, Charlestown (Capt. Evens, who was killed in the action) and two large French frigates of approximately 44 guns each, the L'Astrée (Capt. La Perouse) and L'Hermione (Capt. de la Touche). The British suffered considerable losses (19 killed and 43 wounded) but managed under the cover of a dark night to get away. They put into Halifax in a shattered condition.12

Time now to review briefly the more general developments of the American war: We have already seen where shortly after the fighting broke out in and around Boston in 1775, General Howe who was in charge of the British troops, found himself badly hemmed in. The British army was to spend a bad winter in Boston such that it was forced to retreat to Halifax, arriving there on April 1st, 1776. Two months later, at the beginning of June, Howe embarked his troops and brought them with him to New York. Howe's strategy was to position himself at New York and from there he would cut off New England from the south, then destroy the rebellion at its heart, in Massachusetts. Fortune was first on the side of the British. Howe was able to put Washington and his forces on the run; though, Washington was able to save much of his army by retreating across the Hudson to New Jersey, and thence to Pennsylvania. In June of 1777, Howe, who had proceeded from New York to Jersey, intending to penetrate thence to Pennsylvania, was compelled, by Washington's skilful operations, to retreat. So too in June, General John Burgoyne, who had been sent to replace Carleton, led 7,000 men (including certain German regiments) south from Quebec along the well established lake route as exists in present day upstate New York. Burgoyne occupied Crown Point and obliged the Americans to evacuate Ticonderoga. His force, though weakened by the efforts of his men made in the previous months, in September, continued their march southwards. It was soon in difficulties due to the hostility of the population, the resistance of which increased as Burgoyne advanced. At Saratoga Burgoyne was forced to stop and gave battle to the entrenched Americans. In the meantime, another American force had circled around and cut off Burgoyne's retreat route by destroying his boats at Lake George. On October the 16th, having little choice in the matter, Burgoyne surrendered.13 Though these events were remote to Nova Scotia, the news did get through and the population followed them with considerable interest. For instance we see where Perkins was writing in his diary on December 18th, 1777: "The news from Halifax seems to confirm the accounts of general Burgoines capitulation [October 17th], and also gives us account of a battle fought at German Town, near Philadelphia, the 4th of October last, between Sir William How and Mr. Washington ..." The principal effect of Burgoyne's surrender at Saratoga, to which we have already referred, was that this success of the Americans drew French support. Real support in the way of French troops and French ships in these days of wind driven vessels was to take some time to materialize. Burgoyne's army might have been defeated but there were other British armies in America. And, as for the American army, it was without even the most basic supplies. Washington and his troops were to spend the winter of 1777-78 at Valley Forge in great misery and deprivation.14

The administration of Nova Scotia at this critical time was in the hands of Mariot Arbuthnot, who had arrived in Nova Scotia in November of 1775 to take over as the Commissioner of the Navy Yard. In April of 1776, caught short because they were obliged to order Governor Legge back to England to answer charges, those in power at London appointed Arbuthnot as the Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia. At about this time, too, two other important officers were required to go to Nova Scotia to ensure its defence. Sir George Collier, like Arbuthnot, a navel commander, and General Eyre Massey (1719-1804) of whom I have not been able learn too much about, other than he was in charge at Halifax from 1776 through to 1778. This trio were in place at Halifax when the attack on Fort Cumberland came about in November of 1776, and it was because of this leadership, I am sure, that there was to be such a quick reaction and a prompt put down of the "Eddy Rebellion." Certainly we are able to see that there was to be a considerable build up of the defences at Halifax. In 1778, at the north end of the Halifax peninsula, there was to be "a more advanced and commanding landward defence for the vulnerable Naval Yard, and to some extent for the town," thus Fort Needham was built under the supervision of Captain William Spry.15 So too, certain of the outlying ports were strengthened. Perkins (19th April, 1778): "... The brig Cabbot, Capt. Dodd, and the schooner Arbuthnot, Capt. Dalton, come into the Harbour. I receive a letter from Mr. Secretary Bulkley advising that he has sent by the said Brig, 57 Muskets, etc., a box of balls, and bbl. powder, and 200 flints, for the Militia of this place." And then in May (26th): "The Captain [of the Blonde] gives me a Jack for the new battery, and on my requisition, allows me one barrel of powder, 14 lbs. match, and 50 flints ... Set a guard again this night."16

We now run up through the principal events of the war in America to the point when hostilities came to an end and Great Britain was to officially recognize the independence of the United States of America. Following the terrible ordeal of Washingon's army at Valley Forge and the indecisive battle of Monmouth (1778), the war shifted to the South. After his unsuccessful Carolina campaign (1780-81), Gen. Charles Cornwallis (1738-1805) retreated into Virginia, fortified Yorktown, and awaited reinforcements from Sir Henry Clinton in New York. Clinton delayed and the French fleet under Adm. de Grasse had blockaded Chesapeake Bay. Generals Washington and Rochambeau rushed south with French troops, while Steuben and Lafayette maintained a brilliant holding action. Unable to escape, Cornwallis surrendered on October 17th, 1781.17 "With this disaster," as Alfred T. Mahan wrote, "the hope of subduing the colonies died in England. The conflict flickered through a year longer, but no serious operations were undertaken."18

Paul Johnson:

"... the catastrophe at Yorktown knocked the stuffing out of the British war-party. On March 19, 1782, North resigned, making way for a peace coalition which contained Shelburne, Fox, and Burke. Happily for all concerned, a series of brilliant British victories against France and Spain -- the lifting of the Spanish siege of Gibraltar, success in India, and, above all, Lord Howe's destruction of De Grasse's fleet at the Battle of the Saints on April 12th, thus saving the British West Indies and restoring Britain's absolute command of the seas, made it easier for Britain to swallow its pride and accept an independent America."19
When British soldiers were ambushed on the road from Lexington to Concord, in April of 1775, "the mass of public opinion was on the side of the administration."20 Then the matter wore on; deficits built up; and, taxes increased. By 1781, public opinion in England had shifted and it was thought that it was time to just let the colonies go and bring an expensive war to an end. It is to be remembered, too, that what had started out as a family feud turned into a war with both France and Spain.21 The fighting in America was at first of much concern; but it did not, for long, occupy centre stage. Attention was shifted to other places such as Gibraltar, the West Indies, and in faraway India.

The year 1782 was marked with increasing activity in diplomatic circles: at London; at Lisbon; at Paris; and, of course, at Philadelphia. In Nova Scotia the rumours22 were circulating that Britain was going to give up on its war with the colonies and recognize their independence. That October, John Parr came to Nova Scotia to take up his position as the Governor; and though he doubtlessly knew that negotiations were going on to bring hostilities to an end, he and his masters knew the importance of making a show of military strength when bargaining with the enemy. For example we see from the Perkins diary where on October 27th troops were sent down from Halifax to Liverpool: "Captain Howard, Lieutenant Bell, and Doctor Thomas with about thirty-five noncommissioned officers and privates of the Orange Rangers to be commanded by Captain Howard."23 A month later, in November of 1782, the ongoing peace negotiations between England and the United States led to the signing of an agreement of understanding24; by January 1783, another was signed with France and Spain. News of all these international agreements was not to get through to Nova Scotia for some months, however, with the arrival of the spring ships the news was to get about. Perkins wrote on April 5th, 1783: [An interpretation of a French newspaper comes into Perkins' hands] "Says the preliminaries of a general peace were signed at Paris the 21st of January, whereby the thirteen United States of America are acknowledged independent, the Spaniards to have Minorca & the two Floridas. The places captured from the French in the east Indies to be restored."

[NEXT: Pt. 2, Ch. 14 - "Conclusions."]

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