Thursday, February 8, 2018

Killed and scalped

‘The whole company of rangers went out this morning to scour the country towards Bay Verde: they returned in the afternoon, and brought with them a sleigh which our unhappy sufferers had taken out with them, and on it were laid the bodies of four of our men, and one ranger, who were killed and scalped.’ This is from the diary of a Captain John Knox, an Irish born soldier in the British army, who died 230 years ago today. He may have well have been completely forgotten had it not been for the diary he kept (and later self-published) while on service in North America during the so-called Seven Years War. Some 150 years later, the little-known diary had fallen into obscurity, but it was re-published by the recently-formed Champlain Society, and is now considered one of the most important first hand sources for the period.

Knox was born in Sligo, though very little is known about his early life - not even the year of his birth. He joined the British army, and served in the War of the Austrian Succession, and distinguished himself at the Battle of Lauffeld in 1747. He was promoted to an ensigncy in the 43rd Regiment of Foot by the Duke of Cumberland. In 1751, he married a relatively well off Irish woman, Jane Carre; and, in 1754, he purchased a lieutenancy in the 43rd. Three years later, he left Ireland with the regiment for Halifax, Nova Scotia. However, the regiment then spent two years stationed at Fort Cumberland, playing no part in either the planned Louisbourg Expedition or Jeffery Amherst’s subsequent and successful siege of Louisberg. Knox’s regiment did, though, engage in the Battle of Quebec in the winter of 1759-1760 under General James Murray; and it was also with Murray at the fall of Montreal in 1760.

By the following winter, Knox is thought to have been back in England. He was appointed captain of a newly formed independent company of soldiers, but this was soon amalgamated into the 99th Foot, which, following the the Treaty of Paris in 1763, was itself disbanded. Knox, by then living in Gloucester, was placed on half pay. His attempts to obtain military preferment came to naught, and he remained on half pay until 1775 when he was appointed to command one of three independent companies of invalids stationed at Berwick-upon-Tweed. He died on 8 February 1778. A little further information can be found at Wikipedia or The Dictionary of Canadian Biography.

Knox is remembered today only because he kept a diary during his North American service. On returning to England, he went to the trouble of editing it and having it printed in two volumes: An Historical Journal Of The Campaigns in North-America, For The Years 1757, 1758, 1759 and 1760. The volumes, published in 1769, were sold in two London shops: W. Johnston in Ludgate Street and J. Dodsley in Pall-Mall. They were subtitled, The Most Remarkable Occurrences of that Period particularly The Two Sieges of Quebec etc. etc. Orders of the Admirals and General Officers; Description of the Countries where the Author has served, with their forts and Garrisons their climates, soil, produce; and A Regular Diary of the Weather. Both volumes (one and two) are freely available online at Internet Archive (although the text was printed using the old-fashioned form of s). Nearly 150 years later Knox’s diary was reprinted
 (1914-1916), in a three volume version, by The Champlain Society (formed a decade earlier to advance knowledge of Canadian history through the publication of scholarly books). The three volumes were edited by Arthur G. Doughty, with the third volume being a series of appendices, i.e. other diaries, letters, historical summaries. Volumes one, two and three are all freely available at Internet Archive.

Today Knox’s diary is highly rated. The Dictionary of Canadian Biography says:’Though notably uncritical, it is an important source for the history of the Seven Years War in North America.’ Doughty goes further. He says, in his introduction, that Knox’s narrative ‘is regarded as the most valuable record of those eventful times’. And Doughty goes on to provide a more thorough assessment of the diary. ‘Knox’s English, it must be admitted, is often slipshod, but his style, though sober, is terse and not dull. If some of the incidents appear now of comparatively little interest, it must be remembered that Knox wrote for his contemporaries, and chiefly, we may believe, for those who had taken part in the events with which he was dealing. For these even the minor details which he records would have value as supplementing their own recollections and impressions. The Journal keeps the reader wonderfully in touch with the general course of events and with the principal actors in the drama. [. . .] He seems to have been a genuine soldier at heart, and, in spite of the painful scenes which he describes, he gives us a favourable idea of the military profession. We are made to feel that war is not, as some would have it, mere murder, but that in practice it binds even more than it severs, that its friendships are more lasting than its enmities. In point of accuracy the Journal must, on the whole, be commended. Errors of fact are to be found here and there, but they are few and not of great moment. Honesty seems to greet us from the face of the narrative.’

The following extracts are taken from the first of the three volumes.

21 September 1757
‘Last night we were alarmed in our camp, by two shots fired on the swamps to the left of our ground; the guards and pickets turned out, and we stood to our arms until it was clear day-light in the morning; this was occasioned by some of our rangers, who took the advantage of a moon-light night to lie in waiting for wild ducks, which, with most other kinds of wild fowl, are in great plenty here, though not to be got at without risk; the weather to-day is clear, and comfortably warm. The reinforcements of Highlanders, mentioned before to have arrived lately at Halifax, consisted of two new-raised regiments; an unlucky accident lately happened to one of their private men, of which the following are the particulars; a soldier of another regiment, who was a centinel detached from an advanced guard, seeing a man coming out of the wood, with his hair hanging loose, and wrapped up in a dark-coloured plaid, he challenged him repeatedly, and receiving no answer (the weather being hazy) he fired at him and killed him; the guard being alarmed, the Serjeant ran out to know the cause, and the unhappy centinel, strongly prepossessed that it was an Indian, with a blanket about him, who came skulking to take a prisoner, or a scalp, cried out, I have killed an Indian, I have killed an Indian, there he lies, etc. but, upon being undeceived by the Serjeant, who went to take a view of the dead man, and being told he was one of our own men, and a Highlander, he was so oppressed with grief and fright, that he fell ill, and was despaired of for some days. In consequence of this accident, most of these young soldiers, being raw and unexperienced, and very few of them conversant in, or able to talk English (which was particularly his case who was killed) these regiments were ordered to do no more duty for some time; at length some of the inhabitants having crossed over to Dartmouth to cut fire-wood, they were attacked by a party of the enemy, and several were killed and scalped: whereupon a large detachment of these Highlanders were immediately sent to take post, and remain there; which will effectually secure the town on that quarter, and inable the settlers to provide fuel during the approaching winter, without any farther apprehensions. Changeable weather for several days past, though mostly fair.’

22 September 1757
‘Two men of the 28th regiment deserted this morning, and took their course towards Baye Verde, where meeting with some of the enemy (savages as we are informed) one of them made his escape, and returned to the fort; in consideration whereof, and his good character, he was pardoned. A violent rain came on this afternoon, which obliged us to quit our work.’

4 August 1758
‘The heat of the dog-days in this country is excessive, with close, suffocating airs; this evening we had the most violent thunder and lightning that ever I saw and heard; even the inhabitants express much surprise at it; and the flashes had the greatest variety of awful beauties, and choice of colours, that the most lively imagination can conceive; this was succeeded by five hours constant, heavy rain, with remarkable large drops.’

21 January 1759
‘The whole company of rangers went out this morning to scour the country towards Bay Verde: they returned in the afternoon, and brought with them a sleigh which our unhappy sufferers had taken out with them, and on it were laid the bodies of four of our men, and one ranger, who were killed and scalped; the rest are still missing: at the place where these unfortunate people were way-laid, there was a regular ambush, and designed probably against the rangers, who have been out, for some weeks, cutting and cording wood for the garrison, and seldom missed a day, except the weather was uncommonly severe, which was the case yesterday; and their not going was providential, for they are generally too remiss upon service, and so little did they suspect any danger, that the half of them went out without arms, and they who carried any were not loaded. The victims were fired at from the right side of the road, being shot through the right breast; all were wounded in the same place, except one who had not a gun-shot wound about him, but was killed by a hatchet or tomahock a-cross the neck, under the hinder part of his scull; never was greater or more wanton barbarity perpetrated, as appears by these poor creatures, who, it is evident, have been all scalped alive; for their hands, respectively, were clasped together under their polls, and their limbs were horridly distorted, truly expressive of the agonies in which they died: in this manner they froze, not unlike figures, or statues, which are variously displayed on pedestals in the gardens of the curious. The ranger was stripped naked, as he came into the world; the soldiers were not, except two, who had their new cloathing on them; these (that is the coats only) were taken: I am told this is a distinction always made between regulars and others; the head of the man who escaped the fire; was flayed before he received his coup mortel, which is evident from this circumstance, that, after the intire cap was taken off, the hinder part of the scull was wantonly broken into small pieces; the ranger’s body was all marked with a stick, and some blood in hieroglyphic characters, which shewed that great deliberation was used in this barbarous dirty work. The bloodhounds came on snow-shoes, or rackets, the country being now so deep with snow, as to render it impossible to march without them; they returned towards Gaspereau, and we imagine they came from Mirrimichie, there being no settlement of them (as we suppose) nearer to us on that side of the country.

Our men were buried this afternoon, and, as we could not break or stretch their limbs, the sleigh was covered intirely with boards, and a large pit was made in the snow, to the depth of several feet, where they are to remain for some time; for the earth is so impenetrably bound up with frost, that it is impracticable to break ground, even with pickaxes or crow-irons; their funeral was very decent, and all the Officers attended them to the burying-place. Our men appear greatly irritated at the inhuman lot of their friends, and express the greatest concern lest we should not permit them to make reprisals, whenever a favourable opportunity may offer. In these northern countries, any people that happen to die after the winter sets-in are only left under the snow until the beginning of summer, for spring I cannot call it, there being no such season in this part of the world. With respect to fresh provisions of any kind, it is also customary to kill them about the middle of November, and leave them in an airy out-house, or other place where the frost will soon affect them; so that there is nothing more common than to eat beef, mutton, or poultry, in March or April, that were dead five months before: hares and fowl, as soon as killed, are hung up in their skins and feathers, and without being drawn, until they are wanted; at which time, by steeping them (or any butcher’s meat) for a time in cold water, and not merely immerging, as some writers and travellers aver, they become pliable, and fit for any purpose that the cook may require.’

10 July 1759
‘Being on a working-party this morning at our batteries, I had a most agreeable prospect of the city of Quebec, for the first time; it is a very fair object for our artillery, particularly the lower town, whose buildings are closer, and more compact than the upper. Some time after we were settled at work, a soldier of the 48th regiment, who had an intention to desert, went to an adjoining wood, where an Officer and a number of men were detached to make fascines; he told the Officer he was sent to desire that he and his party would return to the redoubt where we were employed, and in their absence he took an old canoe that he found on the shore, and crossed the river in our view; a boat put off from the enemy, and took him safe to land. Our batteries are in great forwardness; the two first are to mount six guns and five mortars, and will, in a few days, be in readiness to open. About six o’clock the garrison began to cannonade and bombard us, and continued their fire, almost without intermission, until one o’clock in the afternoon, at which time the working-parties were relieved. Our soldiers told me they numbered one hundred and twenty-two shot and twenty-seven shells, yet we had not a man killed or wounded. Before we reached our camp, we had a violent thunder-storm attended with hail and rain, which laid our incampment under water: the hail-stones were uncommonly large; on this occasion the men were served with rum, pursuant to the General’s regulations.

Dalling’s light infantry are ordered on duty this night at the batteries, and the redoubt adjoining to them. The enemy have brought down a mortar or two to the left of their intrenchments, from which they discharged several shells at our ships, though without any effect.’

The Diary Junction

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