Military Subjects:  War of 1812

The War of 1812 Magazine

Issue 17: January 2012

 

Reviews: Books, Film, Collectables and Ephemera

Two Good New Titles on the Maritime War of 1812

Reviewed by Donald E. Graves

Brian Cuthbertson. Melville Prison & Deadman's Island. American and French Prisoners of War in Halifax 1794-1816. Formac Publishing, Halifax, 2009. 96 pp, illustrations, maps, index. ISBN 10:0-88780-837-9. C$26.95

Joshua M. Smith. Battle for the Bay. The Naval War of 1812. The New Brunswick Military Heritage Project & Goose Lane Editions, Fredericton 2011. 128 pp, illustrations, maps, index. ISBN 978-086492-644-9. C$16.95

The maritime history of the War of 1812 tends to emphasize the major single-ship engagements on the Atlantic and- to a lesser extent- the naval war on the lakes and American privateering. Titles on Canadian privateering and the littoral defence of British North America are much rare and it is therefore a happy thing to find these two titles: one on the war in the Bay of Fundy and the other on an important aspect of wartime Halifax.

Joshua Smith's somewhat awkwardly titled, The Battle of the Bay. The Naval War of 1812 is a study of naval operations in the Bay of Fundy and the Gulf of Maine, primarily in 1812-1813. As Smith points out, this is not a subject that has attracted much attention and the author concentrates on the service of three small warships, the Royal Navy's brig Boxer and schooner Bream, and the provincial sloop Brunswicker. Their role was to protect the sea lanes to and from St. John from the flock of American privateers that began to cruise in this area within a few days of the declaration of war. Although the Royal Navy did its best, capturing no fewer than 24 American privateers in the first summer of the war, that service was stretched thin by global commitments. In order to protect the Fundy area and the important cargoes of masts and spars destined for Britain, the provincial government purchased and commissioned a captured American revenue cutter, Commodore James Barry, as a sloop of war, Brunswicker. This small vessel did yeoman service during the first months of the war but the cost of outfitting and manning her was beyond the capacity of the province's slender purse and she was sold out of service early in 1813.

The defence of the Bay of Fundy and the important timber cargoes now rested on the Royal Navy. True to its tradition of acting aggressively wherever possible, the RN and Canadian privateers went on the offensive in the spring and early summer of 1813, harrying the coastal ports and trade of Maine and Massachusetts. HMS Bream, for example, captured no fewer than 14 prizes in 14 weeks of offensive patrols. Smith states that this counter-offensive was successful because American authorities did not realize how small were the vessels and forces deployed against them-Bream, as a case in point, was a member of a despised class of schooners, which one naval authority damned as "tom tit boats." Later in 1813, she was joined by the larger brig, HMS Boxer, but that warship's career came to an end when she was captured, after a stiff fight, by the American brig, USS Enterprise, in September 1813. By the following year, however, with the winding down of the war in Europe, the RN was able to exert major strength against the northeastern coast of the United States and the threat to the commerce of New Brunswick dissipated.

The Battle of the Bay is a most interesting study of a neglected but important chapter in the maritime history of British North America. The author should be credited not only for his excellent research but also his discussion of the human side of the story as he spends considerable time on the biographies of the major personalities and the conditions of the seaman's life both ashore and afloat. This well-written little book is recommended to all serious students of the naval side of the War of 1812.    

There have been a number of studies of the treatment of prisoners of war during the War of 1812 but Brian Cuthbertson is the first historian to delve into the history of the prison that existed on Melville Island during the period, 1794 to 1815. First established as a cage for French prisoners, more than 1,500 French prisoners were incarcerated on Melville Island in the decade preceding the War of 1812. Cuthertson provides interesting details of their dress, activities, and meals and provides the interesting statistic that at least 130 French prisoners escaped and only eleven were recaptured.[1] 

Most of Cuthbertson's work is devoted to the American prisoners who began to arrive at the prison after the outbreak of war. He provides a well-researched but very readable description of their capture, prison buildings life, arrangements for exchange, escapes and deaths. During the war, no fewer than 8,148 Americans were imprisoned at Melville Island, some for only very short periods of time as they were either exchanged or transported to Dartmouth prison in the Britain. Cuthbertson notes that 263 American, French and Spanish prisoners died while in captivity-almost all from natural causes-and are buried on nearby Deadman's Island. In the late 1990s the graves on the island were threatened by developers but after a public outcry, it was purchased by the city of Halifax and designated an historic monument. In 2005 both the United States and Canada dedicated a memorial on the island which is inscribed with the names of the Americans who died while prisoners in Halifax.

The work of a professional historian, Melville Prison & Deadman's Island is deeply and widely research, well written and beautifully-produced book that will interest professional and general readers alike. It is notable for the number, variety and quality of the illustrations (including photographs of the interior of the prison taken before it was destroyed). This book is highly recommended for students of both the naval side of the War of 1812 and the subject of prisoners of war in the conflict.

Notes:

[1]One of the most famous of the escapees was Francois-Lambert Bourneuf (1787-1871) who broke out in 1810, made his way to the French-speaking Acadien area of Nova Scotia where he became a school teacher before taking the oath of allegiance to the Crown, and marrying a local girl with whom he had ten children. Bourneuf enjoyed a very successful career as a shipbuilder, shipowner and elected member of the provincial legislative assembly. His memoirs, which provide much detail on conditions inside the Melville Island prison, have since been edited and published by J.A. Deveau as Diary of a Frenchman: Francois-Lambert Bourneuf's Adventures from France to Acadia, 1787-1871 (Halifax, 1990).

 



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