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A Serious and Alarming Mutiny:
The Michigan Fencibles at Fort McKay, 1814
By Peter Monahan 

          The Michigan Fencibles were raised at Michilimackinac in the summer of 1813, mainly from trappers and voyageurs, with an initial strength of 1 Lieutenant and 50 rank and file.  In March, 1814 command of the unit was given to Captain William McKay, late of the 5th Battalion, Canadian Embodied Militia and shortly thereafter they proceeded, via Green Bay to Prairie du Chien, in what is now Illinois. (Fencibles 1) 

A letter from Lieutenant Colonel M'Douall, commanding at Michilimackinac, informs London that

The Americans, during the summer of 1814, had erected a fort upon the upper Mississippi; their object being to obtain a control over the western Indians, with a view to detach these tribes from our service... the enemy's fort had been completed and was in part armed but it had received only a portion of its intended garrison, when it was besieged [and captured] by a force... consisting of Canadians and Indians under Major William McKay, an enterprising officer of the Lower Canadian Militia...  (Bulger 15)

The captured fort, re-named “Fort McKay”, was garrisoned by the Michigan Fencibles and a new-raised group, the Mississippi Volunteers, recruited from the two hundred or so French Canadians and Metis settled at Prairie du Chien or trading in the area.  The latter were described by Lt. Andrew Bulger, the fort's last commandant, as “having for years lived uncontrolled – there being neither magistrate or minister of religion in the country – they had become almost as intractable as the Indians themselves.”  (Bulger 19)

         When Major McKay left, in August, 1814, command fell temporarily on the shoulders of Captain Anderson of the British Indian department.  Anderson records several instances in which members of the Fencibles, drunk and sober, refused duty and absented themselves without leave.  In fact, within days of McKay's departure, Anderson writes of two “Michigans” who stole a keg of rum and got drunk on it.

I ordered them into the guard-house.  They were very insolent to the Sergeant, and in fact rushed out of the Block-House where they were confined, having no sentry over them, and behaved with Violence, taking up clubs to defend themselves from the guards when I ordered them a second time to be kept close.  Having only one pair of fetters, I had them put on one of them, the other I tied. (Anderson 210)  

 A short month later Anderson records, on two successive days, confining a private of  Fencibles for refusing to do fatigues, a Volunteer for refusing guard duty; a Fencible and a Volunteer for fighting on guard and a third Fencible, also for refusing to stand guard.  The fighters were acquitted of the charges the next day but the last Volunteer was sentenced by court martial to be shipped back to Michillimackinac in irons, discharged from service with the loss of all his pay and his share of the prize money.  However, the court also begged clemency for him.  Anderson, finding that  “his crime proceeded entirely through ignorance and in consequence of his former good conduct” ordered him released and returned to duty. (Anderson 237)

        A week later, Anderson records the information that two men have been confined “for having got out of the fort through a porthole” and a third for sleeping on guard.  Later the same day he notes laconically “It appears that Pierre Vasseur made use of mutinous language in the fort”. (Anderson 241)   

       It isn't until October 7th, that Anderson apparently finds the time to sentence the two AWOL privates “to the square at hard labour” for a week.  The private who allowed the two to leave the garrison  was given four days hard labour as well. (Anderson 259)   However, the record of  these military offences and the disciplinary consequences are interspersed with notes on gun drills conducted, rations issued and the comings and goings of various Indian bands, and do not have   to have occasioned any particular concern on Anderson's part. 

       Anderson's punishments and his general attitude seem to stand in sharp contrast to the seriousness with which a British regular officer might regard them.  Perhaps it is this attitude which allows him to write to Colonel M'Douall on the18th October that “The detachment of the Michigan Fencibles in this garrison have, until now, proved to be good soldiers...” although he does concede that “they require severe officers”.  (Anderson 271).

     Enter Lieutenant Andrew Bulger of the Royal Newfoundland Fencible  Regiment!  He “reached Fort McKay, after dark, on the 30th of that month – the day upon which I completed my twenty-fifth year.”   Bulger, was still suffering the effects of a wound received in the attack on the American schooner Tigress, so short of supplies for his new post that he and his men had not eaten in 48 hours and almost certainly apprehensive about possible American attempts to recapture the fort. (Bulger 17)  In short. Bulger, a young officer with his first independent command, seven hundred miles from the nearest reinforcements and with winter coming on, was unlikely to show much patience with the undisciplined antics of a local militia, especially one whose members he was to characterize as “being half Indian [and] possess[ing] the treacherous disposition of an Indian,...” (Papers 56)

      Bulger's early months in command at Ft. McKay were occupied by the vital necessity to guarantee food supplies for the winter for both his own men and the Native warriors and their families who were gathering in support of the British forces.  He also attempted to bring some order to the various pay lists and account books begun by McKay and Anderson.

     In a December 30th letter to M'Douall he  mentions that he has replaced one of the Indian Department officers with Bombardier Patterson as overseer of works and says that:  "I appointed Walsh 81 Regt. Garrison Serj. Major with the pay of 1 1/6  P. day... there being a necessity for some person to drill the Troops." (Papers 31)   It is not clear from the letter when these appointments were made but Bulger's next letter to M'Douall, dated January 15th, 1815 informs the Colonel that 

 A serious and alarming mutiny broke out amongst the Michigan Fencibles on the 31st Decr. [sic] the particulars of which are as follows.  For some time past, the Serjeant Major had made frequent reports to me, of the disorderly conduct of that Detachment, when in the ranks at Drill, and that when he spoke to them, they only laughed at him, & cursed him in French, as he had been informed. (Papers 54)

Bulger goes on to say that he had ordered his Sergeant Major, on December 27,  to lock up the next man who talked or laughed while under arms (ie: on parade).

       On December 31st the Fencibles were drilling in the barrack square and one of them, Antoine Bonnain,

being very unsteady & inattentive in the ranks, was repeatedly spoken to on the subject, but appeared to take no notice of what was said to him.  On which the Serjeant Major ordered him to fall out, & to go to the Guard house; and on his not moving, approached him for the purpose of taking his arms.  Bonnain immediately came to the charge, when a loud shout and laugh from the others showed their exultation at the resistance he made.  The Serjeant Major then closed with Bonnain and strove to disarm him when he struck the Serjeant Major across the head with his firelock. (Papers 54-55)

The Sergeant of the Guard was ordered to take two men and arrest Bonnain, but the soldiers ordered to do so “positively refused” and all was confusion on the parade square.  The Michigans quitted their ranks and the rest of the unit took Bonnain into the barracks “crying out 'who will dare come and take him.' ”  They placed sentries on the doors and “swore that the first person who attempted to take Bonnain should be killed.”  (Ibid)    

       The Sergeant Major reported to Bulger, who investigated and decided that the incident had been premeditated and that things were even more serious than had been reported.  He therefore had the Assembly beaten to fall in the men, “having previously sent word to Mr. Dickinson to repair to the Fort with his people armed.”  Bulger then declared Martial Law and convened a Drum-head court martial for the trial of Bonnain.  He also  

ordered the Serjeant of the Michigans to go down the ranks with me and pick out those mane who had been most violent in the mutiny; these were a good many, but I selected such as were reported to have been the foremost, and disarmed them & ordered that they should be confined in the cell on bread and water... Pursuant to the sentence of the Court [Bonnain] was immediately tied to a gun and flogg'd.  (Bulger 55)

Finally, Bulger addressed the Michigans “through their officer expostulated with them on the heinousness of their crime”and pointed out to them that they were serving under the Articles of  War and would have been executed for such behaviour “in any other place”  (Bulger 55)  

    Oddly enough, there does not appear to be a record of either the members of the court nor the numbers of lashes awarded or actually given to Bonnain. However, a new Court Martial was convened the next day under the presidency of George Armstrong, to try the two soldiers who had refused their Sergeant's order to arrest Bonnain.  Privates La Seur Dupuis and Hypolite Senecal of the Michigan Fencibles were convicted of conduct tending to excite mutiny and disturbance.  They were sentenced to 300 lashes but the Court in each case recommended clemency and the two received 150 lashes each before being taken down at Bulger's orders and returned to duty. (Bulger 40)

     The testimony given at the first Court Martial brought out the fact that Dupuis - referred to as “Dubruille” at one point in the transcripts - had been 'pushed' and taunted by Bonnain, who asked him if  he was afraid.  It also emerged that Dupuis “had been informed that the men in the Barracks were determined not to let [Bonnain] be taken.” (Papers 40)

     The trial of Private Senecal produced  evidence from two Fencibles that he had stood in the barrack doorway on the day of the mutiny with a knife or bayonet in hand and sworn that no one would lay hands on Bonnain.  William Dickson and Colin Campbell, volunteers and interpreters in the Indian Department further said that they had "heard the prisinor [sic] Say that the Serjt. Major, who was then on Parade, had a womans face a Ball would be well in his Belly." (Papers 41)  While the chronology is not clear, as to whether this occurred before or after Bonnain's attack on Sergeant Major Walsh, it does seem to substantiate Bulger's fear that the disturbance was premeditated. 

    After the floggings, an object lesson in the perils of unsoldierly behaviour,  Bulger addressed the other Fencibles he had confined, admonishing them to mend their behaviour.  He then returned their arms and allowed them to rejoin their company.  How well he believed this would serve to keep his men in check, however, may be seen by the fact that he made it a point to sleep in a the Orderly Room each night and records in his next letter to M'Douall that: "I have taken every precaution against treachery or Desertion: Indeed I have very little fear from the latter, as the Indians have been instructed to bring in the head of any man who may attempt it."  (Papers 56)

It appears that such extreme measures were unnecessary, but in his next letter to M'Douall, dated January 7th, 1815, Bulger suggests that an officer in command of a post so distant from support and so near the enemy should be given the power to hold General Courts Martial and try capital crimes such as murder, treason and desertion.  After that letter, however, are no further references to discipline issues.

    The causes of the 'mutiny' are certainly no mystery.  The garrison at Fort McKay was disorganized, underfed, badly armed, and probably demoralized by constant fear of an American attack. The Fencibles were recruited from a class which Bulger was to refer to in another context as “Freemen”.  Such a group was one with which Bulger, a soldier and son of a soldier, was likely to have little in common.  Bulger's comment that he remonstrated with them after the event “through their officer” is interesting too.  Confined to his bed for days at a time and cut off from easy communication with all but a handful of the garrison, he might be excused for his seemingly inept handling of discipline.

    Finally, Bulger was, according to one biography, “at times pompous, easily affronted, and intolerant of any challenge to his authority.”  Hardly a man likely to endear himself to his subordinates or brook any defiance from them.

     Whatever the roots of the mutiny, however, Andrew Bulger responded with firmness and vigour and, far from support and relief, was able to continue to hold the garrison together until spring, at which point he made an orderly withdrawal to Michilimackinac.  Small wonder that Colonel M'Douall lavished praise on this able young officer and strongly supported Bulger's attempts to have himself confirmed in the rank of Captain, a quest in which he was ultimately successful.

 N.B.:   Andrew Bulger, in common with many of his contemporaries, was prone to idiosyncratic spelling.  I have left his continual use of “Serjeant” and his sometimes odd contractions as they appear in direct quotations but use the modern spellings elsewhere.

WORKS CITED

“Bulger, Andrew H.”.  Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online.  http://www.biographi.ca/index-e.htmlDownloaded January 21, 2009.

An Autobiographical Sketch of the Services of the Late Captain Bulger of The Royal Newfoundland Fencible Regiment.  The Regimental Press, 2nd Battalion, 10th Regiment.  Bangalore. 1865.

“The Bulger Papers”.  Wisconsin Historical Collection. Vol. 13, 1895. pp 10-162.   downloaded Jan. 1,                    2009

“Captain T. G. Anderson's Journal”. Wisconsin Historical Collection. Vol. 9, 1882. pp 207-261.   downloaded Jan. 4, 2009

The Michigan Fencibles, http://www.geocities.com/Athens/Troy/3217/michigan.html downloaded Jan. 4, 2009

“Prairie du Chien Documents, 1814-1815”. Wisconsin Historical Collection. Vol. 9, 1882. pp 262-281.   downloaded Jan. 4, 2009

Copyright: Peter Monahan 2009


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