With a significant population of families with New England ancestry, why didn’t the area of Canada now known as “the Maritime Provinces” not join the other American colonies during the Revolutionary War? Why did they not fight with their countrymen to the south? I have Acadian ancestry, and my family is from the Maritimes. In 2009, I sought to find out the answer to that question and wrote about it at Red Mass Group.
American history books teach that there were 13 colonies. In fact there were actually 14 predominantly Anglo colonies at the time of the American Revolution. History books often leave out Nova Scotia, yet the colony had more in common with the 13 American colonies than with its present countrymen in the old New France, now known as Quebec and Ontario. At the time, Nova Scotia included what is now New Brunswick.
Many of the inhabitants of the colony were emigrants from the New England colonies, mainly Massachusetts, which at the time included present-day Maine. Why then did these New England-rooted men and women not join their cousins across the Gulf of Maine and the Bay of Fundy? The main reason, outside the relative isolation of the populated areas of the colony, lies in the British military presence at Halifax.
Here’s a history of the failed attempts by Nova Scotian Patriots to join the war.
In 1775, a group of would-be Nova Scotia Patriots traveled overland to the present Machias, Maine. The reason for their voyage was to alert General Washington, then in Cambridge, of their desire to join the rebellion and request for help. Washington replied:
GENERAL WASHINGTON TO A COMMITTEE OF THE GENERAL COURT OF THE MASSACHUSETTS-BAY.
Camp at Cambridge, August 11, 1775.
GENTLEMEN: I have considered the papers you left with me yesterday. As to the expedition proposed against Nova-Scotia by the inhabitants of Machias, I cannot but applaud their spirit and zeal, but after considering the reasons offered for it, several objections occur, which seem to me unanswerable. I apprehend such an enterprise to be inconsistent with the general principle upon which the Colonies have proceeded. That Province has not acceded, it is true, to the measures of Congress, and therefore it has been excluded from all commercial intercourse with the other Colonies; but it has not commenced hostilities against them, nor are any to be apprehended. To attack it, therefore, is a measure of conquest, rather than defence, and may be attended with very dangerous consequences. It might, perhaps, be easy, with the force proposed, to make an incursion into the Province, and overawe those of the inhabitants who are inimical to our cause, and, for a short time, prevent their supplying the enemy with provisions; but to produce any lasting effects, the same force must continue.
As to the furnishing vessels of force, you, gentlemen, will anticipate me in pointing out our weakness, and the enemy’ s strength at sea. There would be great danger that, with the best preparations we could make, they would fall an easy prey, either to the men-of-war on that station, or to some which would be detached from Boston. I have been thus particular, to satisfy any gentlemen of the Court who should incline to adopt the measure. I could offer many other reasons against it, some of which, I doubt not, will suggest themselves to the honourable Board. But it is unnecessary to enumerate them, when our situation, as to ammunition, absolutely forbids our sending a single ounce of it out of the camp at present.
I am, Gentlemen, &c.
In refusing aid, Washington’s main point was that Nova Scotia had not participated in either Continental Congress. Writing in a lesson plan for homeschoolers, Allen W. McDonnell shows why Washington may have taken a myopic view.
Studying this letter with the historical perspective we can see something which General Washington couldn’t, or wouldn’t see. The assembly of the Nova Scotia Colony had not sent representatives to the Continental Congress because they were surrounded by Redcoats and imperial Sailors and any such attempt would be learned of and quashed aborning. The 14th colony was under Martial Law with every ships Captain ready, willing, and able to act as a hanging judge at the first hint of open rebellion. Therefore while the Assembly of Nova Scotia had not sent representatives to Philadelphia for either the First or Second Continental Congress it was not from lack of will, but rather fear of retaliation, as was demonstrated in many of the acts of Sabotage [performed] in Halifax. They were rumored to be set in play by current or former members of the Nova Scotian assembly, spurred forward in great part by the petty tyrant Governor Legge, who was paranoid to the point of seeing Rebels under every bed. This paranoia bred security measures that in turn lead to Sabotage, which fed the paranoia and led to tighter measures. Seeing where this path must inevitably lead Lt. Governor Francklin sent a delegation to London in January 1776 pleading for a new Governor before Legge managed to turn every local settler into a Rebel. Unfortunately for the United States and the peoples of Nova Scotia Colony Francklin was successful and a startled London ordered Legge back to England, with a 1,000 pound per year salary as Governor still in effect to keep him happy. His departure from Halifax was a memorable event, the entire town turned out to boo him and as he passed them by shouted curses were exchanged in both directions as the Frigate bearing the Governor pulled out of the harbor. In revenge Governor Legge managed to get Francklin removed from his post as well and Mariot Arbuthnot a naval officer was appointed to replace him. Unfortunately for the 14th colony Arbuthnot was a man who pretty much let the colonials be. The former Lt. Governor Francklin, a dedicated Loyalist, operated quietly behind the scenes to cool tempers and strengthen citizen support for the Loyalist side in the war.
McDonnell goes on to explain that it became worse for those Nova Scotians in favor of rebellion. When Boston was evacuated, a large number of Loyalists were brought to Halifax. The Royal Navy presence was also enlarged, making it hard for any would-be rebels in the colony.
Washington’s refusal of support, however, did not dissuade those with rebel sympathies from launching an attack on the British. In November 1776, five months after the Declaration of Independence was signed, Jonathan Eddy, a native of Norton, Massachusetts, led a significant force in an attack on Fort Cumberland, which sat on the isthmus that connects present-day New Brunswick with Nova Scotia.
Approximately 400 Patriots faced off against 200 British regulars. After a two-week siege, the Patriots were defeated, ending any further mass attempt at Nova Scotian Patriot involvement in the war.
The attack at Fort Cumberland is where my story and the Patriot cause in the 14th colony coincide. I’m a first-generation American on my mother’s side, as she is an Acadian from New Brunswick. Growing up, I was very interested in American history, but I had no personal connection to what was being taught — or so I thought. Looking into this history, I’ve learned that my family had a part to play in the Revolution. My mother is a Caissie, one of the first Acadian families. Here’s the story of how our ancestor, Pierre Caissie, took part in the rebellion.
That was not the end of involvement of the Caissie in the guerre folle “crazy war” as it was called by the Acadians, seeing two groups of Englishmen fighting against one another. Isaie Boudreau, who helped carry Grand Jos back home, was single and eager to fight (His brother Hilaire was married to Madeleine, a daughter of Grand Jos). He accompanied Colonel Jonathan Eddy, the ranking officer in the Canadian forces, to George Washington’s camp to meet the general and ask for his support, promising that they could raise an army of 600 men. Washington refused to export his rebellion and Colonel Eddy decided to go at it anyway. In November, he came back to the Beausejour area with a troop of only 200 soldiers. One company was made up of 22 Acadians. Isaie Boudreau was the Captain and Pierre Caissie, “Grand Jos” son was First Lieutenant.
A first attack on the fort on November 14 failed and Eddy decided to lay siege. Two weeks later, 400 British troops arrived from Halifax, and during the night of Nov. 30 to Dec. 1, made a surprise raid on the rebel camp. Everybody ran, some back home when they could, others (including Isaie) all the way back to the American side. As a measure of retaliation Inverma Farm was burned to the ground. Some years later, the American Congress paid Allan for his losses, but nothing was ever offered to the Acadians, except the pay for 14 days of military duty; at least it appear they were paid as would indicate a payroll record. The Caissies again lost everything and this time took refuge in Memramcook where relatives of Jos’s wife were living. They were not pursued as the British felt that to do so might raise the ire of the Acadians who had remained neutral.
McDonnell sums up what might have been, had the events recounted here turned out differently.
I find it Ironic that such was the case when on at least two separate occasions the Nova Scotians rebelled, only to be quashed from lack of cannon and strength in numbers. Here is where we can play IF, if only Washington had sent aid in 1775, or if only the Rebels had captured Fort Cumberland in 1776, how might the war have changed? Would the Canadians of Nova Scotia, Prince Edward Island and New Brunswick provinces been happier as states of the United States? We will never know …
An interesting “what if?” that serves as a reminder of how history can turn on just a couple of events.
Editor’s note: The first paragraph has been edited for clarity.
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Robert Eno is the director of research for Conservative Review. He is a conservative from deep blue Massachusetts but now lives in Greenville, SC.