Thursday, September 16, 2010

Skirmish at Petite-Rivière-du-Nord

The American invasion of Canada began on September 4, 1775, when an army commanded by Major-General Philip Schuyler encamped on L'Île-aux-Noix, in southern Canada. Two days later, this force sets out for Fort Saint-Jean. This advance against Fort Saint-Jean is intended primarily to probe the fort’s defenses and to encourage the support of pro-American Canadians. Schuyler’s force consists primarily of the 5th Connecticut Regiment (commanded by Colonel David Waterbury), a part of the 1st New York Regiment (commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Rudolphus Ritzema), and “Mott’s” artillery company [1]. Mott’s men have no field guns; the only American cannon are two 12-pounders that are placed in the bows of the armed bateaux Hancock and Schuyler.

The Americans travel by boat down the Richelieu River and come within sight of the fort around 2pm. The Americans then make an unopposed landing on the western bank, a little more than 1 mile from the fort. Schuyler, who is sickly, remains on board one of the vessels; Brigadier-General Richard Montgomery is given command of the land troops. Montgomery forms a line of battle and orders an advance northward towards the fort. The ground over which the Americans march is swampy and wooded.

Seeing the American vessels, Major Charles Preston, commandant of Fort Saint-Jean, sends out a scouting party consisting of approximately 90 Indians. Around one-quarter of the men are Six Nations Iroquois, the rest are Canadian Indians, including Kahnawake and Kanesetake Mohawk, and some Hurons [2]. The Indian party is accompanied by Captain Samuel Tice of the Indian Department, and the de Lorimier brothers (Claude-Nicolas-Guillaume and Jean-Claude-Chamilly). This party conceals itself among the trees and sedge on the north bank of the Petite-Rivière-du-Nord, “a deep muddy brook” that feeds into the Richelieu [3].

Petite-Rivière-du-Nord (modern day Rivière Bernier), as recently imaged for Google Maps.

As the Americans advance, a detachment of about 50 men advances somewhat ahead and to the left of the main body. This detachment consists of Major Thomas Hobby’s and Captain Matthew Mead’s companies of the 5th Connecticut. When the detachment reaches the stream, they wade out into the waist-deep water. Suddenly, they are suddenly fired upon by the Indian party. A Kahnawake chief called Sotsichoouane charges into the stream and plunges a lance into one American and a knife into another. He is about to kill a third man when he is brought down by two balls. Captain Tice is also soon wounded. Nevertheless, the Americans reel back before the superior numbers.

The Ambush is Sprung.

The Connecticut troops in the main body are quick to respond. According to one private, “The Army immediately wheeled to the Left in order to Face the Fire of the Enemy, and charged them with great Spirit & Firmness.” The New Yorkers, however, are “little acquainted with wood-fighting” and fail to get into action. Nevertheless, the arrival of the Connecticutians is decisive: the Indian party falls back through the trees under cover of a scattering fire.

Indians losses were between 6 and 8 killed and as many wounded. The Americans had five men killed outright: Privates Patrick Kenney, James Shaw, Caleb Hutchins, Samuel Knap of Hobby’s company, and Corporal Elijah Scribner of Meade’s company. Eleven men were wounded, including three officers: Major Hobby was shot through the thigh, Captain Mead was shot through the shoulder, and Lieutenant Bazaleel Brown (Hobby’s company) was shot in the hand.

The Americans build a breastwork south of the stream. After a while, the British in Fort Saint-Jean open fire with their mortars. According to Montgomery, the men “showed a degree of apprehension that displeased me much” and some flee the breastwork. He therefore orders the men to reembark. After much confusion, his force lands about 1 mile upstream where a second breastwork is constructed. The Americans then settle down for the night.

Operations at Fort Saint-Jean: September 6, 1775 (click to enlarge).

At the new campsite, Schuyler receives an unexpected visitor: retired British officer and local resident Moses Hazen. Hazen provides intelligence to the Americans, and in return, Schuyler promises Hazen that his property will not be stolen or damaged. Hazen claims, perhaps duplicitously, that the British force in the fort is quite strong and that the Canadians will not aid the Americans. This dispiriting news, plus the poor performance of the troops and the lack of cannon, convinces Schuyler to return his force to Isle-aux-Noix the following day (September 7). Three of the wounded men in Mead’s company die during the night (Sergeant John Avery and Privates William McKee and Issac Morehouse), and Lieutenant Benjamin Mills of the 4th Connecticut is wounded by a British shell in the morning [4].


1. I haven’t been able to divine the composition of Mott’s Artillery company from the sources I’ve read. A modern-day reenactor unit implies that Mott’s Artillery was made up of Captain Gershom Mott’s company of the 1st New York. However, the journal of Rudolphus Ritzema, which is where the term appears, seems to indicate that Mott’s company remained infantry. Perhaps then Mott’s Artillery consisted of Captain Edward Mott’s company of the 6th Connecticut, which was sent to Schuyler in June, 1775. Another possibility is that this was a unit of Connecticut volunteers commanded by Lieutenant-Colonel Samuel Mott, who was chief engineer to Schuyler’s Army. In any event, these men were clearly drawn from the infantry, and Schuyler tried to get them additional pay as compensation for the hazardous duty they agreed to perform.

2. Some time ago, when I had read fewer sources, I imagined that this force might have had Abenaki serving with it. I now consider that possibility doubtful.

3. The term “Petite-Rivière-du-Nord” appears next to this stream on several maps from the mid-to-late 18th Century. However, the term does not appear in any of the journals or correspondence that I have read pertaining to operations against Fort Saint-Jean. The Americans, at least, seemed to have regarded it as just another muddy brook. The term also would prove to be of short endurance; since at least the 19th Century this stream has been known as Rivière Bernier.

4. How the Americans should have come under relatively accurate shell fire at both the upper and lower breastworks is an interesting question. The Americans were far from the fort’s walls and screened from view by intervening woods. A British journal notes in an entry for September 17 that Captain-Lieutenant Edward Williams of the Royal Artillery had some pieces of artillery “fixt so as to serve as a Mortar,” which I think means rigging a cannon barrel to fire shells at a mortar-like trajectory. The diary provides little information on such weapons. Perhaps the shells fired at the American breastworks on the 6th and 7th were fired from such guns.


  1. Great article, I am learning a lot about this part of the American Revolution because of you and your hard work!!!