Monday, June 4, 2012

Robert Marsh: Unrepentant Freedom Fighter

Robert Marsh participated in three of the nine raids into Upper Canada during the Patriot War, including the first and the last. In his 1848 memoirs—the short title is Narrative of a Patriot Exile—he demonstrated an unflinching belief in American-style democracy and an unbending dislike of British colonial rule. Despite seven years of hard times, he never regretted his actions.

Born in New York State in 1812, Marsh was living in Chippawa, Upper Canada, delivering goods for his older brother's bakery, when William Lyon Mackenzie initiated his ill-fated rebellion. Mackenzie escaped to America and soon led a band of Canadians and Americans in the occupation of Navy Island in Canada's section of the Niagara River. The island was less than a mile from where Marsh lived.

Late in December 1837, a friend told Marsh that the British planned to attack and sink the steamer Caroline. Marsh discounted the news, believing an unarmed American ship would never be attacked in an American port. A day later, he witnessed the raid. Like many Americans, the assault on American sovereignty changed him from a concerned bystander to a participant.

Marsh Joins Rebels

Marsh crossed to Navy Island and joined Mackenzie's rebels on January 1, 1838. He wrote that Mackenzie's army had 25 cannon and between 800 and 1000 men. (Other accounts state the rebels had 24 cannon and never numbered more than 600, though with coming and going, 1000 men may have participated.)

He describes being in a trench through a nine-day British bombardment of the rebel stronghold. The rebels viewed the intense but mostly fruitless military exercise—just one rebel died and three were wounded—as humorous and worth a bit of sarcasm.

Marsh wrote: "They were very lavish with Her Gracious Majesty's powder and balls. I recollect a man standing behind the breastwork where were four of us sitting as the balls were whistling through the trees, 'Well,' says he, 'if this is the way to kill the timber on this island, it is certainly a very expensive way, as well as somewhat comical; I should think it would be cheaper to come over with axes.'"

Marsh Heads to Western Front

Marsh left the island January 13 when the rebel army evacuated. He walked five days through the winter countryside to Sandusky, Ohio, near the western end of Lake Erie. There he joined the growing Patriot fraternity and participated with Donald McLeod in the raid on Fighting Island in late February of 1838. (In his memoirs, Marsh confuses Fighting Island with Pelee Island.)

On December 3, 1838, Marsh joined with 163 other men (the number varies with the author) who commandeered a steamer and raided Windsor in the last assault of the Patriot War. Lead by Generals Lucius Bierce and William Putnam, they approached the local militia barracks about 4 AM on the 4th.

A sentry fired at the Patriots and was immediately shot dead in return. The men in the barracks returned fire from doors and windows. The Patriots twice called for the militia to surrender as prisoners of war, wrote Marsh, but they refused. One Patriot started the barracks on fire. The defenders evacuated the building and surrendered. Having no means to keep 38 prisoners, Marsh said the Patriots took their weapons and let them go on the promise that they would not "be found in arms against us."

As the Patriots began to raise their flag, the first wave of militia from nearby Sandwich arrived. Better trained than the rebels, they soon forced Marsh and his companions into an orchard.

At this point Marsh realizes they do not have enough men to hold their position. They were promised 500 more from Detroit and 500 Canadians who would rise up to join them. "If we had have known that help could not come, in time, we might have re-crossed to the American shore that morning," he wrote.

In one paragraph, he pinpointed the main weakness of the Patriot cause: "…the failure of the Patriots in the years 1878-1838 … was not so much the fault of those who actually took up arms and done as they had agreed, as it was of those who failed to fulfill their promises…"

A second company reinforced the first wave of militia. The rebels retreated to a forest under heavy fire. Putnam fell dead. The survivors in the woods determined they did not have enough men to fight their way to the river and take boats. They agreed on an "every man for himself" approach and scattered.

Captured and Transported

Captured the next day, Marsh spent the five months living in a series of unheated, lice infested jails. He stood trial in London, Ontario, and witnessed men hang. Marsh and 17 others, including Samuel Snow, were carted to the jail in Toronto in April 1839. In June, they joined the ranks of Patriot prisoners at Fort Henry. Marsh sailed away with the windmill prisoners to the penal colony in Tasmania in September.

On January 27, 1845, Marsh departed Tasmania on the same whaling ship as Daniel Heustis, Samuel Snow and other pardoned American prisoners. Marsh rejoined his family in New York State 14 months later. The closing chapter of his 1848 book sums up his belief that he fought the good fight.

"I am of the opinion of many whom I have conversed with in Canada: that it could not be a bad cause, when it has been the means of bringing about so much good to the people of Canada; and although many have not lived to see it, and others have suffered much in bringing it about, the good results will be distilled in the minds of the rising generation."

Following the book's publication, Marsh dropped out of the historical record. US census data shows that he worked as a laborer and did not marry. The 1860 census shows him residing in Livingston, New York, where his brother Charles then resided. The 1870 and 1880 census show Robert living in the household of his sister Mary (married to William Moore) in Erie County, Pennsylvania. There is no further record of him.
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