Monday, February 22, 2010

Handy, Sutherland, Theller, Roberts: The Four Stooges Go to War

Long before the Three Stooges and brother Shep entertained the North American masses, four Patriot generals staged their own dark slapstick comedy near Detroit in 1838.

Just days after William Lyon Mackenzie's failed attack on Toronto, an army of American sympathizers formed in Michigan to "liberate" western Upper Canada. Henry S. Handy, a very competent self-appointed general, took charge. He appointed Elijah Jackson Roberts and Dr. Edward Alexander Theller as brigadier generals.

In Buffalo, NY, supreme Patriot military commander Rensselaer Van Rensselaer sent Brigadier General Thomas Jefferson Sutherland to take command of the western front. Sutherland had begun recruiting Patriot fighters in Buffalo, NY, even before Mackenzie arrived. To Mackenzie and Van Rensselaer, Sutherland seemed like a solid prospect.

On January 5, 1838, General Handy ordered a store of munitions and provisions put on board the Patriot schooner, Anne, as part of a two pronged attack on Upper Canada. Handy intended to attack north of Windsor, while General Roberts attacked and captured Fort Malden and Amherstburg in Canada. The targets are on opposite ends of the Detroit River.

General Handy Steps Aside

On January 6, General Sutherland arrived on the western front and tried to assume command. General Handy was up river near Detroit that day. He heard about Sutherland's arrival and refused to step down, but through relayed messages, conceded some temporary authority to Sutherland.

On January 8, General Sutherland put General Theller in command of the Anne, while Sutherland moved his force to Sugar Island on the US side of the Detroit River.

Map showing Bois Blanc (Roblo) Island
Meantime, the Anne under General Theller sailed up the channel between Bois Blanc Island (now known as Bolbo) and Amherstburg. The plucky Canadian militia ignored the cannon on the schooner and fired muskets at her crew. In response, Theller had his men fired on the sleepy town of Amherstburg.

General Roberts Demands Arrests

General Roberts denounced General Theller's cannon fire on the town as a piratical act because no call for surrender preceded it. He urged General Handy to arrest Generals Sutherland and Theller. Handy dispatched two officers in a canoe to arrest the generals but they turned back in rough weather.

General Theller is Captured

The next day, General Theller again fired cannon at Amherstburg. The local militia peppered the schooner with musket fire, tearing its rigging to bits and killing the helmsman. In the confusion, the Anne run aground. The Canadian militia waded to their armpits in the freezing January water, boarded the schooner, and captured Theller and his crew.

Aside: The militia that repulsed General Sutherland and captured the Anne included a company of American ex-slaves lead by Rev. Josiah Henson. Henson later inspired the title character in Uncle Tom's Cabin.

By this point, Sutherland had 60 men on Bois Blanc Island close to Amherstburg, and they had a clear view of the Anne's plight. Rather than go to the schooner's aid, as his men wanted, General Sutherland ordered a retreat to Sugar Island. He is said to have cried out: "Away to Sugar Island. Fly, fly, fly, all is lost."

General Sutherland Voted Off the Island

On January 10, Generals Handy visited Sugar Island. General Sutherland offered Handy the command, but Handy perversely declined. Sutherland and Handy then—amazingly—put the leadership to a vote. Of the 700 men, all but two voted for Handy. Sutherland departed for Detroit. On inspecting Sugar Island, Handy found the men had inadequate arms; so, he moved the troops off the island and sought further supplies.

A band of 300 sympathetic US militia in Detroit purposely left their weapons unguarded for General Handy's men to take. However, General Sutherland made off with the weapons instead. They were retaken by the American authorities and locked up. After that, Handy abandoned his immediate military campaign.

The Canadian militia later captured General Sutherland. Convicted of attacking Canada, he ended up sharing a cell with General Theller in Quebec City. Sutherland appealed his conviction and was set free in May 1839. Theller and several other prisoners cut their cell's window bars and escaped to America.

In June, Henry Handy started the Sons of Liberty in Michigan, one of several secret societies formed in 1838 dedicated to driving Britain from North America.

Further Reading
  • Teller published a somewhat mendacious account of his adventures and escape in Canada in 1837-38 in 1841. It is available free through Google Books.
  • You can read Josiah Henson's 1881 autobiography online at the University of North Carolina.
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