Monday, April 28, 2008

General Sir Guy Carleton

I've been meaning to do a post on this guy for some time, if you remember I first learned about him when I read "Washington and Caesar" (click here) which I reviewed here - suffice to say that the brief mention piqued my interest, so I did a little digging, and a little reading, and came up with the following..

Guy Carleton was born on Sept. 3, 1724, into a distinguished Irish family at Strabane in Tyrone County, Ireland (so many talented British arm commanders came from this background, it's almost like it was a nursery school for military genius - Marlborough & Wellington came from this background too..)

He entered the army as an ensign at 18, in the 25th Regiment of Foot, and was made a lieutenant in 1745. In 1751 as a result of a family member marrying well, he paid for a captaincy in the 1st Foot Guards, by 1757 he was lieutenant colonel. In 1758 he was then made the lieutenant colonel of the newly formed 72nd Regiment of Foot.

Wolfe (a friend in private life) selected Carleton as his aid in the upcoming attack on Louisburg (Canada). King George II turned down the appointment, possibly because of some negative comments Carleton had made about the quality of Hessian troops - given the King was Hanoverian it probably wasn't the best move…

In December 1758 Wolfe, now a Major General, was given command of the upcoming attack on Quebec and he again selected Carleton as his quarter-master general. King George II turned down his appointment again, but this time was persuaded to change his mind by Lord Ligonier.

Carleton arrived in Quebec in 1759 and as quartermaster-general was responsible for the provisioning of the army, but he also acted as an engineer supervising the placement of cannon, and was also in command of a composite battalion of 600 men made up from the detached grenadier company's of a number of British regiments. Busy man! In the actual battle his battalion was in the front rank, and he received a head wound. Having recovered by the following summer, he was back in England by early 1761.

In March 1761 he was selected to take part in the attack on Belle-Ile-en-Mer, an island ten miles off the coast of France in the Bay of Biscay. With a temporary rank of Brigadier-General, Carleton led the attack on the French at Port St. Andre, but was seriously wounded and prevented from taking any further part in the fighting. After four weeks of fighting the British captured the rest of the island (and by the by, sounds like it would make an excellent wargame campaign!)

The following year he was made full Colonel (47th Foot??) and took part in the British expedition against Cuba where he was again quartermaster-general to the expedition with a rank of Brigadier-General whilst in America. On July 22, he was wounded (but not seriously) while leading an attack on a Spanish outpost. Yet again he had impressed everyone by his ability..

From 1766 to 1770 Carleton was made lieutenant governor, and then acting governor, of Quebec. He proved to be an able administrator who was successful in improving the relations between British and French Canadians. One of these improvements was to pass the legislation which established French and British law on equal footing in Canada. There are few win win situations in politics however, and this same legislation may well have helped provoke the American Revolution, as the American colonists were far from happy with it. Congress even went so far as to send John Brown to agitate in Montreal on the basis that the act "legalised Catholicism" and was undemocratic! It did ensure the loyalty of French Canadians to Britain during the later conflict though…..

During a trip to England in 1772 he married, and was also promoted to Major-General.

He returned to Canada in 1774, and was made full governor of Quebec in 1775, and when Thomas Gage resigned as commander in chief of the British forces in North America, Carleton also assumed command of all British forces in Canada.

When war broke out American troops under Gen. Richard Montgomery advanced to threaten Montreal, and captured Crown Point and Fort Ticonderoga. With only 800 regular soldiers in the region to call on (he had previously sent two of his regiments to Boston), Carleton withdrew to Quebec with his small army.

His attempts to raise a militia failed, as neither the French nor the English were willing to join. The Indians were willing to fight on the British side, and London wanted them to fight, but Carleton turned their offer down because he was worried about the Indians attacking non-combatants (that's a not inconsiderable moral decision to make when you consider his military position - indicative of the quality of the man I think).

He was besieged by an American force under Benedict Arnold, who was joined by Montgomery's troops. Carleton's leadership maintained the defences of the city (apparently he was so worried about St. Patrick's Day causing drunkenness amongst his largely Irish troops he issued a proclamation to "All true Irishmen to meet him on the following day, at 12 o'clock, on parade, to drink the health of the King, St. Patrick's Day being, for that year only, put off till the 4th of June." - apparently this went down so well, that there was absolutely no trouble that year!)

In spring 1776, reinforced by Burgoyne's troops, Carleton counter attacked and drove the Americans out of Canada, past Trois-Rivieres, and into New York. He defeated Arnold in October at Valcour Island on Lake Champlain, (which was the setting for the Kenneth Roberts book I recently reviewed "Rabble in Arms" (click here)), but then, to everyones amazement, he withdrew to Quebec. Winter was closing in, and I would suggest he didn't have much choice, but what might have happened if he'd continued with his advance!?

Disagreements with his superiors (or rather superior, as the main architect of the dispute was Lord Germain, the alleged "coward of Minden" whom Carleton may have described unfavourably in public on a previous occasion) led to Carleton's removal from military command in 1777 (he was replaced by Burgoyne who went on to Ticonderoga "fame"). He then had to wait for a replacement before he could then resign as governor and leave Canada for good. He was then appointed governor of Charlemont in Ireland. It is this period of his career that I find the biggest missed opportunity - he was undoubtedly a superior general - what might have happened if he had been available for command in America??

In February 1782, following the sidelining of Germain (he retired in return for a peerage) Carleton became commander in chief of the British forces in America succeeding Clinton. Effectively, the war was over, and in August, Carleton was informed that Britain would grant the United States its independence; he immediately handed in his resignation but carried on with the task in hand while waiting for a replacement. Using tact, firmness, and diplomacy, he successfully carried out the delicate tasks of suspending hostilities, withdrawing British forces from New York and Vermont, and protecting loyalists. Among these loyalists were former slaves who had served the British in various capacities during the war (the background to "Washington and Caesar" (click here), and which first brought Carleton to my attention); the Americans wanted to return them to their original owners. Carleton did his best to have the loyalists resettled outside the United States, and in all, he resettled about 30,000. In November, the evacuation ended, and Carleton returned to England.

In 1786, as Baron Dorchester, he was appointed governor in chief of British North America, a post he held for 10 years. Made a general in the British army in 1793, Carleton retired to England 3 years later. He died there on Nov. 10, 1808 at the very good age of 84….

..interesting man, isn't he, supremely talented commander, yet almost unknown…. if you want to read more about him then the following is very good - and as it's free (on the excellent Googlebooks site) you can't argue with the price!

General Sir Guy Carleton, Lord Dorchester: Soldier-statesman of Early British Canada By Paul David Nelson


  1. Steve,

    I continue to enjoy the historical tidbits that you present to us. Thank you.

    -- Jeff

  2. Not so unknown around here, there is a "Carlton University" named in his honor.

    Great details and yes I agree the Belle-Ile-en-Mer attack would make for a good mini-campaign game, possibly being run over a 2 day game event.