The 1837 Rebellion in Lower Canada, as well as the 1838 Rebellion in Upper Canada, just don’t get enough notice. These rebellions are lost in the pile of other wars, including the 1885 Rebellion, the War of 1812, the Boer War and the wars of the 20th century.
The rebellions of 1837 and 1838 though, are extremely important moments in our history and would help to form the foundation of the country Canada is today, with everything from our capital all the way to the type of government we have.
Today, I am looking at one of the biggest battles of the 1837 Rebellion, the battle of Saint Eustache.
First, we need some background.
I’m not going to go into super detail regarding the lead-up to the rebellions because I will be doing a separate episode on that but essentially the previous three decades of Canadian history prior to 1837 had seen various efforts at political reforms. In 1791, when the Constitutional Act was put in place, it allowed Lower Canada to have a House of Assembly, which formed two parties. The first party was the English Party, which was composed of English merchants and bureaucrats, while the Canadian Party was made up of French and English aristocrats. With the population of Lower Canada being mostly French-Canadian, they elected mostly French-speaking people who supported French-Canadian businesses. This didn’t mean the French had power, in fact they had the illusion of power, with the Executive and Legislative Council being able to veto all legislation from the House Assembly and the members of those councils were chosen from people in the British Party.
When the economy crashed in the early 19th century as lumber became more important than farming or agriculture, many began to work for reform for the French-speaking majority. Many citizens felt like the English speakers held all the power in banking, timber and transportation at the expense of the French majority.
I can go into more detail on this but, again, I am going to do a special episode on the Rebellions in the future.
Instead, I will say that things did not improve and before long, people were itching for a conflict to bring about a responsible government that saw the colonies governing themselves with the Governor General serving as a figurehead.
So, we have the Battle of Saint Eustache.
The British had just been victorious at the Battle of Saint Charles earlier in the year and were ready to attack the patriot camps in the north of Lower Canada.
The British force that would launch these attacks was led by John Colborne. Colborne was at this point well into his career, having taken part in the Anglo-Russian Invasion of Holland as a junior officer, gone on the expedition to Egypt with Sir Ralph Abercrombie and even served at the iconic Battle of Waterloo against Napoleon. For his long service, he was made the commander-in-chief of all armed forces in British North America, and was given the charge to lead the offensive in Lower Canada.
With 1,280 regular soldiers, along with artillery and 220 Loyalist volunteers, he was ready to launch the attack against the patriots, as they called themselves, who were poorly organized. The patriots thought they could get together 800 men, but were only able to get 201, which would be led by Jean-Olivier Chenier.
We will get to more about him and his outcome later.
A woman who lived in the village watched the arrival of those soldiers.
“At 10 in the morning on a Thursday, a cold clear beautiful day, the English troops marched down the King’s Road, 1,500 strong, infantry, artillery, cavalry, the officers in full dress regalia. The entire parade filed by at a leisurely pace, with a kind of defiance.”
Chenier was joined by Amury Girod in charge of the patriots but Girod decided that he needed to get reinforcements from elsewhere, Saint Benoit in fact, and he left just as the battle started. The patriots saw him leave, immediately suspected him of treason and chased after him. He would eventually kill himself.
When the battle finally began, Colborne placed his troops around the village and slowly had the troops move in close, closing the vice on the patriots. At noon, artillery opened fire on the centre of the village. Once the artillery finished, his troops advanced into the Main Street and began to break down the doors of the church, which is where the patriots who had not fled, took refuge after the battle immediately went bad for them.
Jacques Paquin would write about what he saw.
“All the cannons began firing together, battering the church with astonishing rapidity. The masonry was extremely solid and resisted a tremendous number of cannonballs as they were fired off, one after another.”
The firing at the church lasted for two hours.
The rectory was taken nearby by troops and they set fire to it so that the smoke would make it difficult for those inside the church to see outside. Another set of troops then set fire to the manor.
The troops then made their way into church through the vestry, which they then set on fire as they retreated under heavy fire from patriots.
Lieutenant Lyson’s would relate later.
“We got round to the back of the church and found a small door leading in that we battered in. We then turned to our left and went into the main body of the church, here the rebels began firing down on our heads. We could not get by them for the staircases were broken down, so we lighted a fire behind the altar and got the men out.”
So, now the patriots were in a church that was burning down around them.
The only way out was through the windows, and the British troops were all standing waiting for the rebels to emerge. As the rebels came out of the windows, the troops swiftly fired on them.
Paquin would relate what he saw as the church, which he was the Father of, burned.
“Realizing that all hope was lost, Dr. Chenier saw that he could no longer defend himself from inside the church, for it had completely succumbed to flames. He gathered up several men and jumped out the windows with them on the convent side. He was trying to escape but he could not get out of the cemetery and was struck by a bullet and collapsed. He died almost immediately.”
As he died, shouts of Remember Weir, which was a British spy killed by the patriots, was yelled around him. Following his death, his corpse was mutilated by the British to scare and humiliate his supporters.
Jumping ahead a bit, Chenier was excommunicated from the Roman Catholic Church because he fought on holy ground, but this was lifted in 1945. Today, there is a park named for him, a statue that remembers him and those who died in the fire in St. Eustache, as well as another in Montreal. A street in Montreal is also named for him, as was a cell of the FLQ that killed Pierre Laporte during the October Crisis of 1970.
By the end of the battle, which lasted only four hours, there were 70 dead patriots and only three dead British.
Following the battle, things did not improve for the patriots. British soldiers and volunteers began to pillage the entire county, looting and burning nearly everything. The houses of the rebellion leaders were burned as well.
Several of the rebels attempted to make their way to the US border but were captured, hundreds were taken prisoner. Some were sent to the penal colony of New South Wales in Australia, which is where Canada Bay is, named for the prisoners who built the area.
Information comes from CBC, The Canadian Encyclopedia, Wikipedia