Battle of St – Denis
On 18 November 1837, a group of Patriotes establish a rebel camp at the seized manor of a local seignior just south of St-Charles-sur-Richelieu.
This town, then flourishing through trade brought by the Richelieu River, had become the center of Patriots activity. Leaders of the movement came here to meet and discuss strategy.
Sir Francis Bond Head, Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, orders all the regulars stationed in Upper Canada to Lower Canada (Quebec). The military force is put under the command of General Sir John Colborne, who was known as a remarkable military strategist. He had served under Wellington and he was responsible for the defeat of Napoleon’s Vieille Garde at Waterloo. Colborne was appointed as lieutenant governor of Upper Canada, in 1828.
To tell the truth, his service in Canada contributed to the growing unrest in Upper Canada, when he had demonstrated favouritism to recent British immigrants and disrespected the locals.
In January 1836, the General Colborne was replaced by Head, who was a supporter of moderate reforms, but Colborne still remained in America. He argued that a pre-emptive strike was the best way to deal with the Patriotes. He dispatched two detachments consisting of five companies each to St-Charles0sur-richelieu and the village of St – Denis.
Throughout the evening of 23 November and into the morning of the next day, 300 British soldiers, led by Colonel Charles Gore, marched through the rain and cold of the countryside towards St-Denis. The British were ambushed three kilometres outside of the village. A group of Patriotes, under the command of Nelson, began firing from behind a barricade.
Gore’s troops took up position behind a low stone wall. The Patriots proved to be a formidable and well-disciplined force. Composed primarily of local farmers and merchants, they held well. As the battle stretched into mid-afternoon, their numbers were increased to approximately 800 by the arrival of reinforcements. The situation among the British soldiers was deteriorating. Exposed to the fire and exhausted from the overnight march, they found themselves short of ammunition. Gore was forced to call a retreat to Sorel. Casualties were surprisingly light.
Six regulars and about a dozen of patriots were killed. But this first open battle was a clear victory for the Patriotes, and everyone was aware of the enormous consequences of this first battle.
Dr. Nelson, commander of the military force of Patriotes in the region said: We have now passed the Rubicon; our very lives are at stake.