Patriot War of 1837
The Canadian Rebellion
Burning of the Steamer Caroline
Extracted in part from the L. N. Fuller articles dated
Copyright 1923, Watertown Daily Times
An event occurred on the night of 19 Dec1837, which threatened war between the United States and England. Excitement ran riot along the northern border and numerous meetings of protest were held. It produced much the same feeling in Northern New York that the sinking of the Lusitania produced in the United States during the late war. There was considerable sentiment, not a mob sentiment, which nothing but an immediate declaration of war could wipe out the stain.
Another chapter has related that the Patriots under Mackenzie had seized Navy Island in the Niagara River. There was difficulty in securing provisions for the forces there and the steamer Caroline, a small boat of about 46 tons, owned by a Buffalo man and under American registry, was employed, ostensibly, for the purpose of running from Buffalo to adjacent points along the Niagara river for the carrying of passengers and freight. The real motive, of course, was to carry men and supplies to the Patriot forces on Navy Island.
The first day she made several trips to Navy Island in plain sight of the British who were at Chippewa on the Canadian side of the river. That night the little steamer tied up at Schlosser on the American side. Colonel McNab, in command of the British forces, was confident that the Caroline was engaged in filibustering and he was determined to destroy her, regardless of international law.
It required considerable finesse to order the boat to be destroyed and not give positive orders for her destruction. Colonel McNab asked Captain Drew if he thought he could cut the boat out. Captain Drew replied that nothing was easier. "Well, go and do it," said McNab.
Captain Drew called for volunteers who "would follow him to the devil." He got plenty and that night the party started out in seven rowboats. When they were in midstream the men were told of the task that was before them. They ran along side the Caroline, boarded her and a sharp and decisive battle ensued in which the crew of the Caroline was driven ashore. One man believed killed was Amos Durfee. The Caroline was cut loose from her moorings and was set on fire. Blazing from stem to stern she drifted out into midstream. Gathering momentum she swiftly glided toward the falls, and plunged to the gulf below.
Captain Drew and his crew returned to the British side where they were received with cheers. On the American shore a vast throng had assembled, horrified at the deed, as they believed that the helpless boat was freighted with living men. Great Britain approved the deed and conferred the order of a knighthood on Colonel McNab and publicly thanked Captain Drew.
The reaction on the American side was different. Governor Marcy sent a special message to the legislature denouncing the deed. President Van Buren sent a special message to congress, declaring that a British force under arms had invaded American territory, that American property had been destroyed and American lives lost. The secretary of state demanded satisfaction from the British minister to Washington and the militia was called out all along the northern border. General Scott was ordered to the frontier to take charge of the proceedings.
For a time war seemed imminent, but the administration had no desire to be drawn into conflict with Great Britain. General Scott preserved neutrality along the border while the state department entered into a long series of diplomatic notes with Great Britain that allowed public temper to cool. Great Britain neither disclaimed nor affirmed the act except in an unofficial way and it bid fair to be forgotten except for the arrest of one Alexander McLeod. McLeod had boasted that he took part in the affair and that he himself killed Durfee. He was arrested nearly three years after the incident and was locked up. The British government demanded his release on the ground that he was in the service of the British government and was carrying out the orders of his superior authorities. The United States declined to give him up, saying that he was being held on the charge of murder committed within the boundaries of New York State.
The prisoner applied for a writ of habeas corpus on the grounds that he was engaged in an enterprise authorized by his government. The writ was refused on the grounds that he had killed another in the state of New York and was thus guilty of murder. In the meantime there had been a change of administration in the United States. Van Buren went out as president and the Whigs came in under Harrison and Tyler. Daniel Webster became secretary of state and he, too, refused to deliver up the prisoner, taking the same ground as his predecessor. Some pretty strong language passed between the representatives of the American and the British governments.
In the meantime the trial of McLeod came up in Utica. Despite the fact that McLeod had admitted he killed Durfee, on the trial he set up a perfect alibi, proving that he was not even a member of the expedition. Whether he was guilty or not, he was acquitted. The federal government was greatly relieved. It could deliver up the prisoner with good grace and this was done. There were a few more notes and the matter was forgotten.
Watertown New York was greatly stirred by the Carolina affair and on the night of Jan. 5 a meeting was held at the courthouse, which was filled to the doors. William Ruger was president of the meeting. Daniel Lee and Charles Mason were vice presidents and P. G. Keyes and Silas Clark were secretaries. A committee consisting of Joseph Goodale, Alvin Hunt, Eli Farwell, General A. N. Corse and John Clarke presented resolutions, which were unanimously adopted. The resolutions condemned the burning of the Caroline but deplored any action, which would bring about a war with Great Britain. Following this resolution Charles Mason made a speech three quarters of an hour in length and introduced a resolution that it was the sense of the meeting that the Canadians should attain their complete independence. This resolution was likewise adopted.
A similar meeting was held at Brownville presided over by Samuel Knapp, with Silas Webb, vice president. James N. Wood and James K. Bates were secretaries. A resolutions committee consisting of William McCullock, John K. Adams, G. M. Bucklin, James A. Bell and Benjamin F. Rood was appointed, and after they had retired, several made speeches. The resolutions committee reported a set of resolutions similar in tone to those adopted at the Watertown meeting, and they were unanimously adopted.