Re-assessing the Grand Old Duke

By Philip Ball

HRH The Duke of York (NYPL)

Personally, I am very glad that the French Revolutionary Wars are finally increasing in prominence, as they surely are with the From Reason to Revolution series. As a schoolboy and undergraduate I studied the Revolution itself but the wars it occasioned were always something that was going on elsewhere; to be manipulated by the various political factions in the National Assembly or a threat to the existence of the newly fledged Republic. The wars themselves rarely got a mention. I always thought this was odd as the Napoleonic Wars which came immediately afterwards are immensely popular with writers, wargamers, and those with an interest in history. The French Revolutionary Wars involved many of the same characters as those later wars, colourful costumes, a plethora of set piece battles, and can hardly be bettered for sheer drama. The great victories thrown away through folly, the brilliance and ineptitude shown in equal measure by both sides, and the chaotic unpredictability of the French Republic at war make for an exciting area of study.

Whilst working at the Museum of the Royal Leicestershire Regiment I came across reference to the Helder campaign.  This, I read, was a campaign fought by the British army alongside Russian allies, to provoke a counter revolution in the Netherlands. Two battalions of the regiment had fought in this campaign but I had never heard of it and could find little written about it. So, I was drawn to this period through a lack of information, the exploration of something familiar and yet unknown. I later wrote my Masters dissertation on the failure of the Helder campaign and was moved to research the Duke of York’s previous campaign; that fought in Flanders 1793-95. This, as it turned out, was quite a large subject and is known to us today largely through the nursery rhyme ‘The Grand old Duke of York’, so I felt that this was a large gap in the history of the period which needed filling.

The Duke of York, as the nursery rhyme would imply, did little to enhance his military reputation in the course of this campaign which, like the later one, ended in an ignominious withdrawal on the part of British forces and the surrender of the Netherlands to French forces. There have been attempts in recent years to revive the reputation of the Duke of York; to paint him as an early Eisenhower, holding coalitions together with his diplomacy and a general able to defeat his enemy when allowed to exercise independent command. Unfortunately there is little evidence of any of this when we look closely at the conduct of this operation. As the famous Gillray cartoon, ‘Fatigues of the Campaign in Flanders’, suggests, York seems to have lived well on campaign (he was accompanied by a vast retinue of cooks and liveried footmen) while his troops struggled with supply issues. An English lady visiting the Duke said that he was constantly surrounded by a coterie of young staff officers and rarely dined with the commanders of his army which did not endear him to them or give him the opportunity to discuss issues with the army. When the outgoing Hanoverian commander, Marshal Freytag went to report to his Elector (George III of England) York wrote a very telling letter to his father, the King, saying that he wasn’t to believe anything the old veteran said about York being perpetually drunk.

‘Fatigues of the Campaign in Flanders’, Cartoon by James Gillray (Public Domain)

York didn’t spend very much time with his army and when it wasn’t actually on the march he tended to find comfortable quarters away from camp. At the battle of Beaumont the army had to wait, drawn up to repel the French attackers, while York was fetched from his bed. It is not unsurprising therefore that the army, which is said by some to have been the worst to have ever left England, suffered some problems with indiscipline.  In  a war that was being pitched to the British taxpayer and the world in general as a crusade against the beastly excesses of republicanism, the British army committed a number of atrocities against the civilians it was supposed to be saving and upset almost as many allies as its commander did.

York’s biggest failing as a commander was perhaps the way in which acted towards his allies. In the later Helder campaign he was accused of being loudly critical of his Russian allies and it seems he was no different in Flanders. A young man, son of the King, fond of drink and rowdy company, he probably saw nothing wrong with his behaviour but his letters home are full of contempt for his allies, whom he blamed for every mishap he encountered.

This book has a number of themes but perhaps the central one is the difficulty of keeping coalitions together. The force that York was part of consisted of; troops of the Austrian Empire; Germans, Hungarians, Croats and Slavs, the Prussians and the Dutch, as well as various mercenary troops in the pay of Britain. All of the states involved had different motivations for being in the coalition and hoped for different things from the war. The various contingents were commanded by professional and experienced soldiers who doubtless resented York’s, widely broadcast criticism.

Whilst the personal feelings of the commanders did not have as much effect on the future of the coalition as the manoeuvring of their political masters, it almost certainly affected relations between the armies. Some commentators have even alleged that Austrian generals deliberately abandoned York to his fate at the Battle of Tourcoing due to their personal antipathy towards him. Remarkable as this is, by the end of the campaign the Dutch, the very nation that the British contingent had been sent to defend, were exhibiting more sympathy to the invading French than to their erstwhile allies and began negotiations while the British were still in the country.

So, this is a tale of personalities and alliances; it is also an account of a large number of battles. The campaign in Flanders seems to have been extraordinarily hard-fought: although the battles achieved little as the action see-sawed across Flanders, some towns changing hands several times, there were lots of them. For me one of the most interesting parts of this story is phenomenon of the republican war machine; the genesis of total war. This is a period that holds an almost mythological status in the annals of French military history; the ragged, starving, but ideological armies, led by men soon to be household names (Carnot, Jourdan, Vandamme, Macdonald, Bernadotte and Bonaparte to name a few) saved the republic from autocratic forces bent on its destruction.  What we see is the entire resources of a nation flung with abandon against its enemies. This book examines the effectiveness of the forces they raised and casts a critical light on the legends.   

‘Le désagrément d’être joli garçon’ (Anne S.K. Brown Collection)

After two years of bloody but fruitless campaigning the coalition failed. The vast hydra-like forces of the French Republic wore down the allies’ will to fight. Although generally successful on the field, the coalition lacked the clarity of vision to concentrate its efforts and was overwhelmed by French numbers and aggression. Numerous defeats did not seem to dent the republican war machine and as the coalition foundered it returned to the offensive.  The Prussians went back to pick over the carcass of Poland, the Austrians fell back to their own territory, and the Dutch surrendered, becoming a satellite of France until 1814. York was removed from his post and sent home to command the army from Whitehall while his men endured one of those harrowing retreats which dot the landscape of British military history.  They would return eventually, but spent most of the war nibbling at the rind of France in limited amphibious operations.

Neither Up Nor Down is part of our From Reason to Revolution 1721-1815 series, and can be ordered from the Helion & Company website here.

The Story of Surgeon Henry Milburne Part I

By John Marsden

It was whilst researching the story of the Marqués de la Romana´s Denmark expedition that I came across the interesting but little–known story of army surgeon, Henry Milburne, who, due to a particular set of circumstances, came to be in the Spanish city of Astorga in December 1808 when the British, Spanish, and French armies descended upon it.

Once La Romana’s force had been returned to Spain in the autumn of 1808, it was thrust into the battles then raging in the north–east of the country as Napoleon’s grand counter offensive gathered speed. Marching towards the oncoming French divisions was the British expeditionary force led by Sir John Moore, hoping to be able to block the enemy advance alongside their Spanish allies. Unfortunately, such a prospect began to fade from their vision before they had an opportunity to come to grips with their adversary, as they learned that the Spanish armies in their front had simply melted away as the various French army corps overran them. Reluctant to throw in the towel at such an early stage of his Spanish adventure, Moore decided to launch a strike at the lengthening lines of French communications, but, once warned by La Romana of Napoleon’s plan to entrap him, the British commander in chief was forced to join the general withdrawal of the Spanish armies.

As he retreated across northern Spain, Moore realised that he was going to require unfettered access to the royal highway leading to Corunna, so he asked La Romana to keep his army away from it, expecting him to remain to the north of his British allies as they each retreated towards Galicia. Pressed closely by the French, the Spaniards failed to comply with Moore’s somewhat haughty request as the worsening winter conditions forced them to make for the little walled city of Astorga, which lay directly in the path of Moore’s army. It was there during the last few days of 1808 that the two armies met. By chance, Henry Milburne, who had earlier relinquished his commission as an army surgeon, was at Astorga as the British and Spanish approached, and we may now examine the story of this somewhat enigmatic character which, like the story of La Romana’s Denmark expedition itself, is little known; both examples highlighting the possibility of the existence of other hidden tales lying forgotten or as yet undiscovered amongst the archives of the Peninsular War. 

It would seem that Henry Milburne began his medical career as a humble assistant surgeon, whilst serving with the 52nd (Oxfordshire) Regiment of Foot, and there is an entry recording his commission in Colonel William Johnstone’s List of commissioned officers who served in the medical services of the British army: ‘2407 Henry Milburne, A. S. (Assistant Surgeon) 52F [52nd regt. of foot] 4th Aug. 1804 [date of commission]’. The 52nd raised a second battalion in that year, which might explain their need for a new assistant surgeon at the time. Intriguingly, there is also an entry for Milburne in Drew’s Roll, a list of army officers who served with the British army medical corps during the 18th, 19th and 20th centuries, it reads: ‘2407 Henry Milburne. A.S. 52F 4 Aug. 1804. Res[igned] before 14 Mar. 1805. H. M. [Hospital Mate] previous to being commissioned’. Despite his apparent resignation, it would seem that at some time between 1804 and 1808, Milburne may have transferred to the York Rangers, as Johnstone’s List contains a further entry for him as follows: ‘3869 Henry Milburne. A.S. Royal York Rangers. 28th July 1808. Superseded 1808’, indicating that he was commissioned in the York Rangers on 28 July 1808. (Note, the entry number, 3869, seems to be a mis-type for the intended 2869).

Whatever the early details may show, it was during his army service that Milburne developed an interest in the diseases typically contracted by soldiers in the course of their service, as well as the gunshot wounds they suffered when confronting an enemy on the battlefield. Perhaps it was his interest in the former subject that caused him to seek service with a regiment designated to serve in the tropics, such as the York Rangers. However, there is the faint possibility that there were two people with the name of Henry Milburne serving as an army medic in the early 19th century, one with the 52nd, the other with the York Rangers. If indeed they refer to the same person, then the record suggests there was a gap of over three years in his time as an army medic, between leaving the 52nd and joining the York Rangers, unless, that is, he spent some or most of that time with the York Rangers as a hospital mate, as suggested in Drew’s roll.

Britain’s first expeditionary force to the Iberian Peninsula disembarked in Portugal during August 1808, and it would seem that, whilst at home in England or in Africa with the York Rangers, Milburne became a supporter of the Spanish cause, and felt that the possibility of gaining some field experience in the Iberian Peninsula might allow him the opportunity for acquiring some first-hand knowledge of the subjects mentioned above.

The 1/52nd and the 2/52nd were two of the units making up Wellington’s force in 1808, so if Milburne was an assistant surgeon with the regiment he should have gone to Portugal with it; obviously he did not, as our story will show. This fact may confirm that he had left the 52nd by then – to join the York Rangers perhaps? Whatever the case, eager for adventure, he applied for a position with the Peninsular Army. His application was refused but, determined to serve in Spain and Portugal, he decided to appeal to the Spanish authorities via the offices of Don JoséMaría Queipo de Llano, Conde de Toreno, who, in his position as a Deputy in the semi-autonomous parliament of Asturias, had made his way to London in the wake of the Spanish uprising against the French, hoping to obtain help for his beleaguered country from the British Government. Queipo de Llano was either unable or unwilling to help the aspiring medic, so Milburne turned to the British ambassador to Spain, (either John Hookham Frere or Charles Stuart, both of whom held the post that year) asking him to make an approach to other members of the Asturian delegation in London on his behalf. The ambassador took up Milburne’s case and communicated with Don Juan Ruiz de Apodaca and Don Adrian Jacome. As a result, Milburne’s request was made known to Don Juan de Arejula, then Surgeon to the Army of Andalucia, who seems to have acceded to it, as Milburne was eventually to be provided with passage to Spain aboard one of the Royal Navy’s ships.

Before leaving for Spain in his status as a private citizen, Milburne was provided with some letters of introduction, absolute necessities having given up his army commission. Such documents may have helped him to meet with Sir William Gordon Duff, MP for Worcester and partner in the counting house of his uncle, James Duff, consul at Cadiz. Duff had recently donated the sum of £1,000 in aid of the ‘Spanish Patriots’ and happened to be searching for a surgeon willing to serve with a regiment being raised in Cadiz by his business partner, the Malaga-born ‘Colonel’ Juan Murphy, who, said Duff, had ‘raised, clothed, armed and equipped a legion of 2,000 men at his own private expense’, which went by the name of the Regimiento de Infanteria Voluntarios de España.

On 28 November 1808, Milburne sailed for Spain aboard the sloop HMS Primrose, disembarking at Corunna on 10 December whence he set off for Madrid after obtaining a passport to travel from Galicia, and having the luck to fall in along the way with an officer belonging to the 15th Light Dragoons, Captain Thackwell. On arriving at Astorga on 27 December he heard that Murphy and his entire regiment had been captured by the French at El Escorial, thus depriving him of an important contact and indicating to him that it would be unsafe to continue towards Madrid whilst Sir John Moore’s army was beating a precipitate retreat towards Astorga, with the French in close pursuit.

It did not take the surgeon long to become aware of the large number of Spanish troops then present in Astorga. These were men belonging to Spain’s Army of the Left, which had recently suffered some heavy defeats at the hands of the French, and had fallen back along the roads of northern Spain in appalling weather with the soon to be dismissed General Blake at their head. Many of them were suffering from a form of typhus, and a large number of soldiers bore festering wounds inflicted during the recent fighting in the region of Biscay. This, combined with a lack of rations and their state of near nakedness – many of them unshod – meant that a significant number were in urgent need of medical attention. Milburne felt his chance had come and immediately made an offer of his medical services to the Spanish Army, which was accepted without hesitation.

Read the Story of Surgeon Henry Milburne Part II here.

The Story of Surgeon Henry Milburne Part II

By John Marsden

The city of Astorga, with its magnificent cathedral, convents, monasteries and other fine buildings, both civic and private, offered the perfect sanctuary to the Army of the Left, whose erstwhile commander in chief, General Blake, had been recently replaced by the Marqués de la Romana. The new commander in chief had been coordinating his movements with Sir John Moore since the 15th November, as both men sought to evade the converging French armies by reaching Astorga in the foothills of the Galician mountains where the British commander thought he might be able to make a stand, having by then secured his escape route to Corunna. La Romana was to the north of Moore’s two columns as the allies retreated, the British general having asked him to destroy the bridge over the Esla at Mansilla de las Mulas before continuing on his westerly retirement. Unfortunately, the marqués’s exhausted and poorly equipped men were surprised by Soult when he made a dash for Mansilla, scattering the demoralised Spaniards and capturing the bridge intact. Those soldiers of La Romana who were able to regroup then set their faces towards Astorga. 

As mentioned above, the sick and wounded of La Romana’s army had already begun to trickle into Astorga before Milburne arrived, and his first task was to assess the condition of the casualties whilst at the same time making an inventory of the various buildings and medical supplies available, all of which he would need as he began to organise a system of hospitals. In his narrative of the campaign, written after his escape to England, he described how the frostbitten and wounded of the Spanish Army of the Left were crowded together with the rest of the men, without any attempt to separate them from those with contagious conditions, such as the strain of typhus which was sweeping through their ranks. Most of the casualties he discovered lying on the bare floors of the buildings in which they had sought shelter, or under the arches of open piazzas in and around the centre of the city. Some were still lying in the carts which had been used to convey them to Astorga.

Milburne soon came to recognise the lack of surgical care available to those in need of it, readily discernible by the number of unattended and undressed wounds he encountered. His first priority was to attend to these casualties of the fighting, but his main concern was directed towards the isolation of the sick in an effort to contain the outbreak of typhus previously referred to. He sought out Lieutenant General Fraser, commander of the British troops already at Astorga, and impressed upon him the need to take action designed to avoid the contagion taking hold amongst Moore’s troops, who were expected within the city at any moment. He suggested to the general that the Spanish sick be moved and concentrated in marked buildings; any accommodation thus cleared was to be disinfected and made ready for occupation by those of the wounded who were free from disease. In response Fraser wrote to the Junta de Astorga, requesting them to grant special powers to Milburne for removing the sick to places outside the city walls. They responded by investing full authority in him, assigning the city’s comptroller, Don Josef Orm and a local surgeon, Sr. Tardio, to the task of assisting the British surgeon in his work to examine and classify all of the sick and wounded. Once this had been completed the patients were assigned to the appropriate buildings.

To add to Milburne’s work, on 29 December the French prisoners taken by the British during the recent fighting at Benavente began to arrive at Astorga, many of them wounded and requiring the attention of the British surgeon and his Spanish assistants. On the following day Sir John Moore arrived at the city, only to leave on the 31st with the reserve of his army and its rear–guard of cavalry, all en-route to Villafranca del Bierzo. Moore had by then abandoned his plan to stop the French on the frontier of Galicia. La Romana also entered the city on the 30th.

When the British marched away Milburne placed his services, his stock of medicines and his surgical instruments at the disposal of the Spanish, but the French arrived at the gates of Astorga before he was able to organise the care of those left behind. Desperate to avoid capture, the surgeon was forced to make his own escape towards Villafranca, taking as much of his stock with him as he could cram into the saddlebags of a pair of mules procured for him by the Junta de Astorga.

Milburne caught up with Moore’s rear–guard at Manzanal and continued with it to Bembibre, where he was lightly wounded as the French cavalry skirmished with its British counterpart. Soon, as the weather worsened and his animals fell sick, he was forced to abandon his medical equipment and follow in the wake of the army as it entered the mountains of Galicia. As he did so he was to witness many scenes of suffering and despair along the road to Corunna, as the severe conditions took their toll of British soldiers, Spanish muleteers and various camp followers, including the wives and children of British troops.

Finally, on 10 or 11 January, the army arrived at Corunna, but the naval transports required to convey it to England were not yet anchored in the harbour, instead, they were still at Vigo and had to be sent for. This meant that Moore was forced to prepare a defensive perimeter outside the town to protect the embarkation points to be used when the fleet arrived. Inside the town the British Artillery and Engineers began to improve its batteries and fortifications with the willing assistance of Spanish troops and civilians. Looking on, the surgeon was full of praise for the efforts of the Spaniards, at one point witnessing two young women armed with sabres and dressed as soldiers, helping with the work.

On the 14 January the fleet of British warships and transports arrived, allowing the evacuation of the army to commence. On the following day the French began their attack upon Corunna, and during the next few days the surgeon was to become a close observer of the fighting, often placing himself in the British front line. In the early morning of the 17th, the last of the British units still on the battlefield began their withdrawal and most of them were aboard ship before daybreak, the French being somewhat hesitant to follow up after the mauling they had received during the fighting. They had failed achieved the victory they were expecting. With a small rear-guard under the command of Beresford manning the port defences along with a number of their Spanish allies, the French, once they had stirred themselves and attempted to approach the harbour, were halted by the spirited exertions of the mainly Spanish defenders, thus allowing the men of Beresford’s force to embark without molestation, Rear Admiral de Courcy eventually announcing that: ‘… the army has been embarked to the last man’.

Retaining his status as a private citizen attached to the Spanish Army, Milburne was forced to apply for passage to England aboard a ship of the Royal Navy, and in doing so offered his surgical expertise to Dr. Shepter, Inspector of Hospitals, who provided him with a letter of introduction to Staff Surgeon Taggart, the man responsible for the sick and wounded aboard the hospital ship, Alfred, along with his Assistant Surgeon Roe. The Alfred set sail for Plymouth in the early hours of 19 January 1809 and arrived there late on the following day, taking advantage of some apparently highly favourable winds.

In his letter to Castlereagh, which he included in his publication, A Narrative of Circumstances Attending the Retreat of the British Army Under the Command of the Late Lieut. Gen. Sir John Moore, from which much of the information comprising this article was taken, Milburne included a return of the sick and wounded aboard the Alfred as she sailed for home. She was just one of many ships bearing casualties to England, and his detailed list of the sick and injured is included below. It will provide the reader with some idea of the general condition of the army after its gruelling winter retreat across northern Spain, and it may be worth reflecting upon how the Spanish troops, whose experiences were said to have been somewhat worse than those of the British, had suffered during the campaign:

List of Casualties aboard the Alfred

Cases of dysentery:     68

Cases of fever:            56

Wounded:                   36

Trifling complaints:    20

Convalescents:            77

————————————

Total:                            257

 

Little is known of Milburne after his return to England, but in her book, British Liberators in the Age of Napoleon (2013) Graciela Iglesias Rogers makes an interesting note, stating that he was with Whittingham’s division in Mallorca (1810) and Menorca (1811) and eventually attained the rank of Inspector of the Spanish Royal Hospitals in the Balearics. One of the issues Milburne became involved with during his time with Whittingham related to two of the Royal Navy’s ships, HMS Invincible and the famous HMS Temeraire which, on arriving at the islands in August 1811, were required by the authorities to go into quarantine at Mahon in Menorca as a precaution against the possibility of their crews spreading yellow fever amongst the local population. Milburne visited the sick aboard the ships and declared their ailments to be non-contagious, a view he later set forth in an article published in the Diario de Palma, as stated by Rogers in her book. This instigated a public row fought out in the press between Milburne and a local Spanish doctor, who used the Semanario de Menorca to voice his opposition to the British surgeon’s pronouncements. One of the accusations made against him was that he was placing the interests of his compatriots above those of the island’s population, when insisting that the sick from the ships be transferred to hospitals ashore. To which Milburne replied that he was acting ‘not as the friend of a particular society, but of the entire human race’.  Things settled down when the Royal Navy, perhaps realising the delicacy of the situation, afforded partial compliance with the demands of the islands’ governors by leaving. On inspection of the logs belonging to Invincible and Temeraire for the months of August and September 1811, it is possible to find several references to the sick amongst their crew, as well as the recordings of the death of several sailors, the majority belonging to HMS Temeraire

Whether Milburne ever returned to England after the war or decided to live out his days in Mediterranean climes is as yet unknown, but it is difficult to imagine that someone with such a zest for life did not find a suitable outlet for his energies during the ensuing peace. Perhaps he lies buried in a Balearic cemetery just waiting to be discovered – or to be left in peace, far from controversy’s reach.

Read the Story of Surgeon Henry Milburne Part I here.

Napoleon’s Stolen Army: How the Royal Navy Rescued a Spanish Army in the Baltic is available to buy here.

Revenge, Honour, and National Identity

Nicholas Kaizer explains why the War of 1812 still has such a resonance in today’s Canada.

‘A six pounder is not an army, no more is 450 men, except in our puny war’ wrote one Upper Canadian in a Halifax newspaper in 1813.[1] Even contemporaries living in the British North American colonies (what is today Eastern Canada) recognized that the scale of the War of 1812 was tiny compared to the titanic campaigns being waged in Europe. By this point in the Napoleonic Wars, field armies could comprise hundreds of thousands of men: over 600,000 men made up Napoleon’s Grand Armée when he invaded Russia (1812), and the colossal Battle of Leipzig (1813) involved 600,000 soldiers in all. The British army that invaded and burned Washington DC (1814), by contrast, fielded just over 4,000 redcoats. The colonials also recognized, that to the wider British Empire, their Anglo-American conflict was a bit of a sideshow.

Still, 19th century Haligonians were engrossed by the campaigns in Canada, just as they were by those of Lord Wellington in Europe. The naval actions of the conflict were not neglected, either. Most shockingly for Halifax, USS Constitution, the famous American heavy frigate, defeated two Royal Navy frigates in single ship actions. A third frigate was captured by her sister ship, USS United States, and by March 1813 three British sloops of war met the same fate. During the 19th century, Halifax was a fiercely British city – proud subjects of the King and proud of the Royal Navy. Haligonians, who had enthusiastically followed the exploits of Admiral Horatio Nelson, were shocked by the losses, and struggled to come to terms with them; how could the Royal Navy be defeated by the upstart Americans?

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Not the Little Belt
Illustration by Elizabetha Tsitrin, Image Courtesy of Blue Nautilus Art, https://bluenautilusart.com/

Today, we Canadians cling to our national prowess in hockey and celebrate our athletes. The Toronto Raptor’s Championship win in the summer of 2019 briefly drew the attention and admiration of the country. In the early 19th century, our sports heroes were the officers and men of the Royal Navy’s frigates – figures who held a great degree of star power. They captivated Halifax’s youth and inspired many to seek a career in the navy, including a young Provo Wallis, who won fame during the War of 1812, and would go on to reach the highest rank in the Royal Navy. Beamish Murdoch, a future Nova Scotian historian who was a boy during the conflict, remembered the ‘sad series of disasters’ which, while ‘they are only connected with the history of our province indirectly,’ their impact ‘on the minds of our people was great, stimulating their patriotism and loyalty instead of depressing them.’[2] Faced with the losses of 1812, Halifax’s papers sought to defend the reputation and honour of their naval heroes, clinging to the fact that USS Constitution and her sisters vastly outclassed the RN frigates which they defeated. It was a remarkably similar tune to that sung by the press in England, which too sought to defend the honour of the Royal Navy and its sailors. This is still the understanding of today’s British and Canadian historians. The historiography of the War of 1812, alas, has always been steeped in national biases.

When I set to work on the project that would culminate in Revenge in the Name of Honour, I quickly noticed that not all contemporaries seemed to agree that the American victories could be sufficiently explained by their marked advantage in sire and firepower. None other than James Dacres, the captain of HMS Guerriere during her crushing loss to USS Constitution, declared at his court martial that the disparity in force had little to do with the defeat, and that he wished ‘to be once more opposed to the Constitution, with [his old crew] under my command, in a frigate of similar force to the Guerriere.’[3] The attitudes and actions of the Royal Navy’s captains following the losses suggest that Dacres’ rather bold interpretation was not unique. More than one officer sought revenge and contemplated putting their ships and crew into unnecessary risk to do so. The boldest was Captain Philip Broke of HMS Shannon, whose tiresome and risky efforts to bring about a single ship action with an American frigate paid off on 1 June 1813, when in a brief action Shannon captured USS Chesapeake.

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H.M.S. Shannon Leading Her Prize the American Frigate Chesapeake Into Halifax Harbour. Schletky, J.C., King, R.H., Haghe, L. Library and Archives Canada, R3908-0-0-E W.H. Coverdale Collection of Canadiana, http://collectionscanada.gc.ca/pam_archives/index.php?fuseaction=genitem.displayItem&lang=eng&rec_nbr=2836439

The victory reinvigorated the British. It was celebrated on both sides of the Atlantic, and Broke was showered with praise and honours from Halifax and British society. Halifax continued to celebrate the action well into the following century, and it became a staple of cultural memory and local literature. Its centenary in 1913 was marked by major events, and the 150th anniversary was celebrated with a naval spectacle, attended by warships from the Royal Navy, the still-young Royal Canadian Navy, and even from the United States Navy, once a bitter enemy but now united by a camaraderie built over two world wars. Alas, as with most aspects of the War of 1812, it had largely faded from public memory by the bicentenary in 2012, when the Government of Canada again commemorated the war, as part of a wider mission to celebrate a nostalgic vision of Canada’s colonial past.

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Photograph of a 18-pounder on display outside Province House, Halifax (seat of the Nova Scotia House of Assembly), believed to have come from Shannon. One believed to have come from Chesapeake is on display on the opposite side of the building. Halifax Military Heritage Preservation Society, https://hmhps.ca/sites/shannon-vs-chesapeake

While the general public in Halifax has largely forgotten the conflict, the naval-interested public still hold a certain delight in this particular bit of history. It has taken up more than its fair share of curated space in museums and public places in the city, which is hardly surprising; not only was Shannon’s senior surviving lieutenant a Haligonian (Provo Wallis), but Canadians delight in any arena we can claim a victory over our cousins to the south. It was no different in Halifax in 1813, when the small town flocked from Sunday church to the waterfront to cheer on Shannon and the Haligonian officer at her helm.

Lieutenant Provo Wallis, At the Time of His Victorious Entry Into Halifax Harbour, ca. 1800-1880, Davey Fitzner. Library and Archives Canada/William Kingsford collection/e010966281, http://www.bac-lac.gc.ca/eng/CollectionSearch/Pages/record.aspx?app=FonAndCol&IdNumber=4310540

[1] NSA, Acadian Recorder, Saturday 4 December 1813, 1:47 (online), available at https://novascotia.ca/archives/newspapers/archives.asp?ID=800

[2] Beamish Murdoch, A History of Nova Scotia, or Acadie, (Halifax: J. Barnes, 1867), Vol 3, p.334.

[3] TNA, ADM 1/5431, Testimony of Dacres, CM Guerriere.