Tuesday, March 12, 2013

Colonel John Prince: Battlefield Executions

On December 4, 1838, a band of about 160 Hunters and Patriots crossed from Detroit in the predawn darkness and took over the village of Windsor in western Upper Canada. They were ultimately chased out by the local militia.

When the local militia commander, Colonel John Prince arrived with four more companies of defenders, nothing remained of the battle but smoke and casualties. Upon hearing details of the attack, Colonel Prince began a ruthless campaign of summary justice, executing five prisoners.

What follows is evidence given at an inquiry into the battle and later repeated in the British House of Lords (documented in Hansard), with additional details below added by Windsor resident William Baby and an Patriot General Donald McLeod.

“Adjutant Cheeseman, of the Second Essex [militia]...brought up a prisoner whom he had taken. He surrendered him to Col. Prince, who ordered him to be shot upon the spot, and it was done accordingly.”

Later, other militiamen brought forward three other wounded prisoners. Again Colonel Prince ordered them shot. In one case, a militia officer attempted to intercede.

“At this moment Col. William Elliott, of the Second Essex, who chanced to be near at hand, exclaimed, ‘Damn you, you cowardly rascals, are you going to murder your prisoner?’ This exclamation for one instant retarded the fire of the party, but in the next the prisoner was brought to the ground; he sprang again to his feet and ran around the corner of a fence, where he was met by a person coming from an opposite direction and shot through the head. From papers found upon his person it appeared his name was [Uri] Bennett. It is to be regretted that this painful affair took place in our most public street, and in the presence of several ladies and children, who had been attracted to the doors and windows by the strange events of the morning, but who little expected to witness so awful a tragedy.

“Another brigand named Dennison, also wounded and unarmed, was taken after the action and brought in during the course of the morning. Charles Elliott, Esq., who happened to be present when the prisoner was about to be shot by Col. Prince's orders, entreated that he might be saved to be dealt with according to the laws of the country; but Col. Prince's reply was, ‘Damn the rascal, shoot him,’ and it was done accordingly.”

“When Col. Prince reached Windsor, he was informed that one of the brigands was lying wounded in the house of Mr. Wm. Johnson. The man, whose leg had been shattered by a musket ball, had been found by Francois Baby, Esq., after the action, and by his orders was removed to Mr. Johnson's, with a promise of surgical assistance. Col. Prince gave the order for his execution, and he was dragged out of the house and shot accordingly.”

McLeod names the fourth executed prisoner as Stephen Miller.

The defenders captured another wounded raider near the river shore. The man appealed for mercy, to which his captor, Captain Broderick, replied, “You have fallen into the hands of a British officer.” Any quarter given by Broderick evaporated after he left that prisoner under guard in a windmill.

“Col. Prince...continued his march to the Windmills and...fell in with Broderick's prisoner. He ordered the man to be taken from the guard and to be shot upon the spot, which was done accordingly.”

“The Prince of monsters,” as Donald McLeod later called him, seemed prepared to shoot every prisoner he encountered that day. The serial executions ended only when Colonel Prince was shamed by his Native Canadian allies, according to Baby.

“The Indians had taken seven prisoners, and one or two of them proposed that they should be shot; but one of their chiefs said, ‘No, we are Christians, we will not murder them—we will deliver them to our officers, to be treated as they think proper.’ They were then brought to Col. Prince, who had now commenced his return to Sandwich. When he had arrived opposite the burning barracks he ordered the wagon in which the prisoners had been placed to be wheeled off the road.

“As soon as it had reached an open spot in the rear of the ruins, he commanded the men be taken out and shot. At this critical moment Charles Elliott, and Robert Mercer, Esqs., and the Rev. Mr. Johnson, and Mr. Samuel James rushed forward and entreated Col. Prince not to commit murder by shooting the prisoners, but begged him to leave them to the laws of the country. In making this appeal Mr. James made use of the emphatic language: ‘For God's sake, do not let a white man murder what an Indian has spared.’ Col. Prince yielded to the entreaties of the gentlemen, remarking to Mr. Elliott that he would hold him responsible for his interference, as his orders were to destroy them all.”

Chastised in House of Lords

In the House of Lords, Henry Peter Brougham, 1st Baron Brougham and Vaux, argued that Prince’s actions could only be judged as murder.

“Suppose a man who had shot another was pointed out to him an hour after, and that he then put the murderer to death, he should himself be guilty of murder. Even if he saw a murder committed, and put the murderer to death, he should be guilty of murder, unless it was done in self-defence. Suppose even that he saw a man convicted after a trial by a jury of his peers and sentenced to die—nay, suppose him outside the prison door on his way to the place of execution, and that he should then destroy him—even in this case, and their Lordships would admit it was a strong one, he should be guilty of murder. This was the law.”

The summary executions at Windsor shocked Sir George Arthur, the lieutenant governor of Upper Canada. He believed Colonel Prince’s lust for revenge diverted his attentions form his real duty of pursuing the Patriots after their defeat. Sir Arthur also feared the incident might spark war between Great Britain and the United States.

Colonel Prince’s battlefield executions did not go unchallenged. Local citizen’s complained to the government. Colonel Prince faced a court of inquiry in February 1839, but he was widely popular in Upper Canada for his rough justice. In a classic case of the victors make the rules, the court of inquiry ultimately exonerated him March 14. The Upper Canada government, which abhorred his methods, liked the results. The Hunter assaults ceased.

Colonel Prince never expressed remorse for his battlefield murders. In fact, he later stated his “deep regret that he did not shoot every scoundrel of them as fast as he was brought in.”
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