A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the majority discovers it can vote itself largess out of the public treasury. — Alexander Tytler

Hero of Stony Point - James Barnes




Colonel Wayne at Trois Rivieres

It was at the battle of Trois Rivieres, or Three Rivers, in Canada, that Colonel Wayne and his gallant command were for the first time under fire. The result of this engagement was a defeat, a defeat by no means inglorious, although, as one historian remarks, in referring to this early American reverse, they "lost almost everything belonging to them save their hair and their beards!" It was a sad blow to the members of the regiment upon whom their Colonel had expended so much care and solicitude. It was the disastrous end of an ill-conceived expedition, the attempted invasion of Canada in 1776 with the object of enlisting the sympathies and cooperation of the recently conquered French colonists in the common resistance to the British Crown. The unsuccessful assault on the stronghold of Quebec was the culmination of the failure, from which the American forces under Generals Montgomery and Arnold were compelled to make a hurried and disorderly retreat.

According to the judgment of most of the American leaders at the time, the sympathies of the French Canadians should have been easily obtained. By race and traditions alike they should have been more than willing to throw off the British yoke for the prospects of self-government. But as it happened, the policy of the Crown toward these new accessions to the British dominions had been a wise and eminently acceptable one. Probably because the main prerogative claimed by the King, direct government by the Crown through a royal governor, and without representative legislation, had already been established, it seemed possible to allow the concessions that the old French law should still hold in all administrative matters, especially land tenures, that the posts of greatest honor should be reserved, as formerly, for representatives of the French aristocracy, and, most valuable of all, that the Catholic Church should be guaranteed in the possession of its vast estates. This latter provision insured the influence of the priesthood for the British, on the ground, apparently, that, since the influence and position of the Church were thus secured by law, the welfare of the people was certain to be established. Nor could the influence of even so distinguished a clergyman as the Rev. John Carroll, subsequently Catholic Archbishop of Baltimore, avail to change the attitude of his co-religionists in Canada. Undoubtedly, the Catholic priesthood and hierarchy of the province knew perfectly well that, in the event of their joining, and if the American cause were overthrown, the first movement of reprisal by the nominally Protestant State of Great Britain would be the confiscation of all Church holdings. Consequently, the mighty influence of religion was enlisted in support of the existing order, as against all the inducements offered by the American colonists and their predominantly Protestant Congress. The French Canadians assisted effectively in the defeat of the attempted invasion.

Colonel Wayne's command was attached to the Pennsylvania Brigade commanded by General William Thompson, which, in addition to the Fourth Battalion, consisted of the Second Battalion, under Colonel Arthur St. Clair, and of the Sixth, under Colonel William Irvine. This force had been sent forward to assist the American army already in Canada, and started from home, undoubtedly, in high hopes of participating in a glorious and apparently certain conquest. Wayne's command, which had been variously delayed by the necessity of securing proper arms and equipment, reached a point known as Fort Sorel, midway between Montreal and Quebec, on June 5, 1776, and there joined the retreating remnant of General Montgomery's army, together with the other commands belonging to Thompson's Brigade, under the command of General John Sullivan. Immediately after their arrival, Wayne's men, together with the other Pennsylvanians, were ordered by Sullivan to attack the British force under General Burgoyne, then stationed at Trois Rivieres, some fifty miles down the river. The precise advantages to be gained by making this attack are not very evident, but the Pennsylvanians responded cheerfully to the call of duty, and went forth eagerly to their baptism of fire.

The force sent to the attack on Trois Rivieres was 1,400 strong, all from Pennsylvania, except the small New Jersey Battalion, under Colonel William Maxwell. They came down the St. Lawrence River in boats, landing at a point nine miles above the town in which the British were quartered, at about two o'clock on the morning of June 9. The plan was to march forward, and to surprise Burgoyne's men about dawn, a daring plan in which, in all probability, the Americans would have been victorious. As it happened, however, they were misled on the road, came in sight of the enemy's outposts about 3 o'clock, and were compelled to make their further progress through a thick and deep swamp, in which marching was both slow and painful. After four weary hours of dark and dismal floundering, the brave Americans emerged upon an open expanse of solid ground where they were met by a large and well-formed detachment of British regulars. Although the Pennsylvanians were aided by the fact that they were proceeding through a wood, which, as Wayne himself relates, was "so deep and thick with timber and Underwood that a man ten yards in front or rear would not see the men drawn up," they were also seriously disadvantaged in not being able to see other portions of their own force, and in being unable to form before reaching the open. In this difficulty Wayne's genius for generalship under conditions of actual warfare was first manifested—a man learned in the theory of strategy, a reader of books about the world's great military achievements, he proved to be a real general prepared to command! Sending for Captain Samuel Hay, be gave the brief order:

"Take you, sir, your company of riflemen, and a detachment of the light infantry of the Fourth Battalion, and advance carefully through the thicket, keeping the enemy under fire."

Having created this diversion, which, as he stated later, was intended merely to "amuse" the enemy, he succeeded in forming the remainder of his men in good order, prepared to advance. The British, receiving the Ere of Hay's men, moved forward in their direction, which was precisely the result anticipated by Wayne himself. He then moved his own men to meet the oncoming enemy, and issued his command to Hay to separate his force into two companies, one on either wing of the American line, and attempt a double flank movement, exposing the British to fire from three directions. This move was highly successful, as far as it was effective, for the British line was broken, and the men fled in disorder to their own camp. The Americans followed them up to the breast-works of their fortifications, in the face of a gaffing fire from musketry, field pieces and howitzers. All of the colonial forces now rushed on to follow up their advantage, including those under the command of Colonel William Maxwell, who had wandered far to the left of the other American forces in a dense thicket in the midst of the swamp. The showing made by all, who advanced with a bravery notable in men under fire for the first time,' served well to impress the enemy, and to persuade them to remain within their own earth-works.

Finally, however, the combined fire of the naval vessels on the river and land forces of the British became too intense, and left no alternative but retreat. At the close of the action in the open, Wayne was left on the field with only twenty men and five officers, imperturbably directing the retreat, and retiring only when all were safely in the cover of the swamp. Even after he also had retired, he remained behind the main body of his troops to direct an incessant small fire, intended to keep the enemy within their own lines, and to cover the retreat. After about one hour he withdrew also, following a road to the point at which the party had entered the swamp in the morning, collecting in the course of the march about 700 stragglers, whom he quickly formed into order, continuing the march without further difficulty than that which comes from lack of all provisions.

About nine miles from the scene of battle a detachment of the enemy, about 1,500 strong, waylaid the Americans, and attempted to cut them off, but, separated as they were from their ships and great guns, they were able to do little damage. Three days later, a weary band of 1,100 men, who had suffered from all sorts of hardships, including hunger and lack of sleep, reached the American camp at Fort Sorel. They had lost 300 of their number, including General Thompson and Colonel Irvine, who were taken prisoners, and Colonel St. Clair, who wandered into camp alone several hours later.

The net result of the gallant attack on Trois Rivieres was to discourage the British forces from following the Americans further, thus, as Wayne records, availing to save the army in Canada. Nor did he hesitate to claim such credit as belonged of right to his able efforts; remarking in a letter written to Dr. Franklin, "I believe that it will be universally allowed that Col. Allen and myself have saved the army." Nor was this service either needless or ill-timed. In the words of General James Wilkinson, who had been dispatched by Arnold to solicit aid in the retreat of his own forces, every house and hut on the route was "crowded with straggling men without officers, and officers without men." All were suffering from privations, and many were sick and wounded. Finally, as Wilkinson records, he met with Lieutenant-Colonel William Allen—he who seceded from the Americans after the Declaration of Independence—to whom he communicated his orders for a detachment. "Wilkinson," said Allen, "this army is conquered by its fears, and I doubt whether you Can draw any assistance from it; but Colonel Wayne is in the rear, and if anyone can do it be is the man."

Wilkinson's meeting with Wayne was a memorable scene. "I met that gallant officer," he writes, "as much at his ease as if he was marching on a parade of exercise." No trace of fear or excitement was to be seen in the face or carriage of this hero, who had shown the courage of a seasoned warrior in his first experience of real fighting. He was "to the manner born," apparently, just as if there were troth in the old teaching that we are reborn into the world after death, and he had already, as he had dreamed of a former life, led his legions to victory and glory on a hundred fields of battle. On hearing Wilkinson's demand for men to assist Arnold in his extremity, Wayne acted promptly. Stationing a guard at the bridge he himself had just crossed, he gave orders to stop every man who seemed alert and capable of further immediate service, and quickly recruited a detachment sufficient for all needs. "Then," says Wilkinson, "the very men who only the day before were retreating in confusion before a division of the enemy now marched with alacrity against his main body."

Fortunately, in spite of his fears, Arnold had, meantime, succeeded in making good his escape from the trap into which the British commander had sought to draw him. Wayne missed, therefore, another immediate opportunity to achieve distinction under fire, and was obliged to return to rejoin General Sullivan at Fort Sorel. On the way back an event occurred that served to show the character of the man in a new light. When about two miles from the American camp, the detachment under Wayne's command was sighted by Sullivan's men, as it slowly made its way along the, opposite bank of the Sorel River, and was mistaken for a hostile force. Wayne himself, in full sight of the American camp, viewed their hurried preparations for an attack with both amusement and surprise. He is reported to have remarked briefly:

"They should have been better prepared for an attack. Then, had we been friends or foes, our welcome would have been equally as warm."

In the retreat of the 'army from Canada, Colonel Wayne commanded the Pennsylvania regiments as the ranking officer—General Thompson and Colonel Irvine having been made prisoners, and Colonel St. Clair having been seriously wounded. Wayne himself had not escaped unhurt, for he had received a gun-shot wound at Trois Rivieres—he described it to Franklin as "a slight touch in my right leg"—but he allowed himself no rest from his duties, and by his strict discipline actually transformed the straggling and disheartened crowd of his soldiers into an orderly and compacted fighting force. It was in this period, curiously enough, that he made his famous statement previously quoted, that he "would expect his officers to enforce regulations about personal cleanliness and neatness of attire," adding that he considered it their duty "to see that their men always appear washed, shaved, their hair plaited and powdered, and their arms in good order." Yet this was the man to whom much of the credit is due for leading the American forces safely out of the clutches of Burgoyne to the safe haven of Fort Ticonderoga.