Tuesday, February 26, 2013

British Diary Part 2: Life in North America

Ensign Downing's Escape, Don Troiani
Dear Reader,

When we last left our hero, (confused? I'm talking about William Digby) the 53rd Regiment had finally gotten off their ships near Quebec, and William and the other men of the regiment headed inland to face the American rebels. Much like modern amphibious landings, Digby expresses concern about being part of the initial landing party, and said that he would be comforted when the rest of the army landed.

While pursuing the American rebels fleeing from Quebec, Digby described his first experience with American Indians:

"July 5: We were joined by a nation of savages, many more were shortly expected at our camp, and I must say their appearance came fully up or even surpassed the idea I had conceived of them. They were much encouraged by General Carlton, as useful to our army in many particulars, but their cruel and barbarous custom of scalping,  must be shocking to an European; though practiced on our enemies.  They walked freely  through our camp, and came into our tents without the least ceremony, wanting brandy or rum {....} their manner of dance and war dancing is curious and shocking, being naked and painted in a most frightful manner. When they give a war whoop or yell, (which is a signal for engaging) they appear more like infernals than the human kind..."

From the above, its clear that many of the practices of Native Americans still shocked European observers, even though they might have previously known what to expect. The Native Americans were far from the only troops in the War of Independence wanting brandy or rum. In many panicked situations, such as the fighting around Ticonderoga in 1777, the American soldiers broke into the alcohol stores and got so drunk that they could not offer any effective resistance.

An 18th Century Military Camp

A little further on, Digby describes the Canadian summer:

"The weather was then intensely hot, scarce bearable in a camp, where the tents rather increased than diminished it, and the great number of men in so small a space made it very disagreeable, though we all went as thinly clothed as possible, wearing large loose trousers to prevent the bite of the moscheto, a small fly which was then very troublesome. Our men in general were healthy, and not much troubled with fevers and fluxes, so common when encamped in a warm climate, and lying nights on the ground under heavy dew. The tree spruce, which grows there in great plenty, as indeed in most parts of America, is an excellent antiscorbutic, and when made into beer is far from a disagreeable flavour. The Canadians in general are a very happy set of people. They possess all the vivacity of their ancestors, the French, and in the country appear on an equal footing ; their noblesse choosing mostly to reside in Montreal or Quebec, both good towns and many English settled there."

While I think that Digby's assumption that flavorful beer makes for a  happy people a bit far reaching, his insights into Canadian life give us an excellent depiction of what life was like for the British army on campaign in North America. 

The majority of 18th century military life was not the glamorous battles that so often get discussed by historians. Most of the life experiences in the 18th century do not involve great battles, but, much like today, endless patrols, boredom, and occasional sickness. Digby himself experienced a bout of illness:

"In the evening I was seized with a violent shivering and lightness in my head, which was attributed to cold, I must have got the pre-ceeding night on guard. About 10 o clock I was quite delirious and out of my senses, after which I cannot  tell what happened. I was blistered on my back, and all the next day continued in the same distracted situation. Indeed, I believe my friends thought it was all over with me, but it pleased God to spare me, and on the 30th I returned to my senses..."

Fortunately for Digby, he made a swift recovery, and rejoined his regiment. In the third and final post on this journal, we will discuss the actual fighting which occurred in Digby's experience, and what he though of the battles with the American rebels. 

Thanks for reading,

Alexander Burns

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