Saturday, January 2, 2010

Bill Johnston: 2. Declares Personal War on Britain

The United States declared war on Britain in June of 1812 and attacked her colonies in Canada. Naval and land battles soon raged along the border. With Canada's military significantly outnumbered, the war threw Kingston—Upper Canada's military center—into a patriotic and jingoistic frenzy. That did not fit well with Bill Johnston's independent spirit.

Bill Johnston Thwarts Authority

As required by law, Bill joined the local militia when the war started but didn't stay long. One story relates that a militia captain reprimanded him, probably for criticizing the authorities, and struck Bill with a cane. Not one to suffer fools or abuse, Bill gave the officer a trashing. That led to a brief jail term.

Bill convinced a brother (we don't know his name) to take his place in the militia. Historian Dr. William Canniff writes in his 1869 tome, History of the settlement of Upper Canada: "There was not at this time any doubt of his loyalty. It was natural he should desire to attend to his business in Kingston, which at this time was lucrative. And there does not appear that he employed his brother in other than good faith."

Bill traveled on business to US—an activity viewed with suspicion in Kingston. He returned to learn his brother had departed for America. Canniff continues, "Even now it does not appear that the authorities of Kingston suspected his loyalty for they desired that he should take his place in the ranks, which his brother had forsaken."

Bill refused to rejoin the militia. That earned him another brief stint in jail. But, most galling to the authorities was Bill Johnston's record of bailing American civilians from jail and helping them to get home, including a fellow named Seba Murphy. (The British refused to let American citizens return home once the war started.)

Bill Johnston Arrested, Escapes

In May of 1813, Colonel Richard Cartwright, regimental commander in Kingston, decided to imprison Bill for the duration of the war, allegedly for spying. Sergeant David Lockwood, one of Bill's boyhood friends, arrived at his store with a squad of soldiers.

Canniff, who interviewed Lockwood years later, tells what happened. "Upon the approach of the soldiers, Johnson (sic) shouted to Sergeant Lockwood, 'I know what you are after but you won't get me yet,' and immediately shut the door and turned the key. Lockwood raised his musket and with the butt knocked the door open in time to see Bill escaping by the back door. A close chase ensued into a back enclosure and Lockwood succeeded in catching him by the leg as he was passing through a window. Johnson (sic) then submitted and was conveyed a prisoner to the guard house within the jail. After being confined for some time, he escaped by breaking the jail, probably aided by sympathizers, for a good many thought he was badly treated."

Bill Johnston later wrote: "Up until that time, I solemnly declare, I had no communication with the American army or navy, or any individual to my knowledge, by whom any information was likely to be conveyed to the enemy, to the injury of His Majesty's subjects or those of his realm."

With five American refugees, Bill crossed Lake Ontario in a canoe to Sackets Harbor, New York, the headquarters of the US fleet. On his arrival, he pledged himself to Commodore Isaac Chauncey, fleet commander. (Johnston soon smuggled his family to the US.)

The British confiscated Bill's store, house, and 400 acres of farmland near Bath. For that, Bill promised to be a lifelong thorn in Great Britain's side for his mistreatment—and he kept his word.

Further Reading
You can view Canniff's book at Google Books. His notes on Bill Johnston (always spelled as Johnson) and his brother Andrew begin on page 654.
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