THOMAS TAYLOR'S WAR
by Ray Hobbs
In the history of the Hamilton Wentworth Region the name of Thomas Taylor is well known. In 1833 he was appointed the President of the 'Police Town' of Hamilton, a precursor of the modern City of the same name. Taylor died in 1837, thoroughly frustrated that he could not lead his 3rd Battalion of Gore Militia as its colonel commanding against the MacKenzie's rebels that year. By the time he died at the age of 59 he had become a very prominent lawyer and judge in Upper Canada, a visible fixture on the scene of Hamilton's and Toronto's growing élite. But as a young man he had a career as a well-respected, if somewhat unspectacular, participant the War of 1812, as an officer of His Britannic Majesty's 41st Regiment of Foot.
Thomas Taylor was born in 1778 in St. Pancras, London, of a father of the same name, who was a prominent London banker and shipowner. Thomas Taylor Senior was one of the nouveaux riches who appeared at the end of the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and who no doubt profited from expansive trade in the British Empire, especially India, and later from the War with Napoleon. Numerous sons of this new upper middle class of English society went into military service, and like their fellow-officers from the nobility, purchased their way up the promotion ladder. They constituted a new kind of 'gentleman' in English society.
Young Thomas Taylor was the eldest of four sons, and three daughters. The Taylor family originated in Wiltshire, but had moved to London for business reasons.1 Thomas, as a young man of twenty one joined the Princess Charlotte of Wales Fencible Infantry in Cork, Ireland. In the following year, at the age of twenty two, Taylor married Eliza Bell, the fifteen year-old daughter of a prominent local physician who vehemently protested the marriage of his young and very attractive daughter to a soldier! Nevertheless, on November 28th, 1800 the marriage took place at Newry in Ireland.
By 1802 Taylor had enrolled as a special clerk in the 'Honourable Society of the Middle Temple' to study law, but a year later, he had rejoined the military, this time the Wiltshire Militia, and was commissioned as a Captain. For a short while he was stationed on the Isle of Wight, presumably in preparation for an invasion by Napoleon. By 1805 the young Taylor, now twenty seven years of age, had enrolled and matriculated in St. Edmund's Hall, Oxford University to further his law studies.
In a memorial written to no less a person than His Royal Highness, Frederick, Duke of York, Taylor mentions that he had transferred from the Wiltshire Militia to the regular army. He had joined the 41st Regiment of Foot, and had, in fact, taken with him his entire company of militia, some oine hindred and twenty men. War with France had begun again, and serious problems had developed between England and the United States. The garrison in the Canadas needed reinforcing. In 1799, the main embodiment of the 41st Regiment had embarked for Lower Canada, and by 1805 had already seen five years of service there, in Montreal, Fort St. Joseph, Fort Amherstburg (Malden), York and Fort George. In 1809 the Regiment was rejoined by the now Lieutenant Thomas Taylor. It is quite possible that Taylor travelled to Quebec in the same squadron that took another, more famous member of the Regiment to Canada, namely Shadrach Byfield. After a ten-week crossing, the Regiment was stationed in Lower Canada for the next year and a half. In 1811 the projected return of the Regiment to England was cancelled in the light of the impending war with the United States, and in 1812, that conflict had fully broken out. The regiment was strung out along the Canada-American border like a fragile string of pearls, and the next time Taylor surfaces, he is in York. 2 Thomas Taylor was now destined to spend most of the rest of his life in Upper Canada.
Law was obviously Taylor's first professional love, and while in York he was a frequent observer at court cases. He made several acquaintances, including MacDonnell, Brock's deputy. He even acted as a second to W.W. Baldwin who had challenged McDonnell to a duel on what is now Toronto Island. The result of the duel is not recorded.
The 41st was eventually active in the War of 1812 from the Detroit frontier to Niagara, and various elements of the regiment were prominent parts of the Centre Division and the Right Division of the British forces stationed in Upper Canada. Taylor was part of the Centre Division. There is little detailed information on the activities of Taylor, but he was transferred from York to Fort George in the months after the declaration of war. Possibly he took part in the Battle of Queenston Heights (Oct. 1812), and certainly in the skirmishes and defence of, and retreat from the fort in the Spring of 1813.
By early 1813 he was well-established at Fort George, and his administrative talents were well-recognized. In March 1813, following the death of the then Fort Major, George Campbell formerly of the 90th Regiment of Foot (Lieutenant Campbell had actually died on Dec. 1st, 1812 at the age of 57 ), Taylor was appointed to the position by the aide-de-camp to General Vincent, Captain (Brigade Major) J.B. Glegg. The duties of a fort major were mainly administrative, and the legal mind of Taylor was obviously suited to the task.
On May 27th, 1813, when the British abandoned Fort George to the larger American force, Taylor retreated with his regiment, but first helped to spike the guns. From his daughter's account of his army period 3 it appears that, for a short time, he had to abandon his family who were living in Niagara (Newark). It is clear from the sequence of events surrounding the attack on Niagara and the Fort that there was little opportunity for the garrison in the fort to contact people in the town. The garrison, which consisted of men of the 41st and men of the Royal Artillery, headed due west to St. David's, thus avoiding Niagara. The defenders of Niagara also headed west along the coastal path, then turned inland to meet up with the garrison troops at the 'crossroads', near Beaver Dams. The town, it appears, was left to its own devices. It is known that the Americans bombarded not only the fort before and during this attack, but also the town and inflicted considerable damage. Taylor's daughter's account recalls an undated incident, but probably from the time of this siege. She writes 4 :
When Niagara was captured by the Americans and the inhabitants had only ten hours to leave the town before they burned the place 5 , before they could leave the enemy cannon balls came through the house knocking the jug of milk off the table where my two brothers were taking their breakfast, and passing, sent the kettle off the fire. My mother had the children taken into the cellar whare they remained until next morningf. During the night my mother heard footsteps in the dark and going up to see who it was, as soon as she climbed the stairs, she saw two men leave the house very precipately [sic!]. As it was dark and she had on a white wrapper they may have taken her for a specter. It was probable they came to plunder, the house being empty. It is assumed, though never stated, that the intruders were Americans. In the same document, and again undated, Ellen Octavia Taylor, states that her mother had been taken prisoner by the Americans, and that they had 'treated her very courteously'. It is possible, although not certain, that this incident took place in the confused late days of May, 1813. The daughter's account also states that the mother and her children eventually fled west from Niagara, and found refuge for a while in the home of Colonel William Claus, 6 in the wooded region outside the town, known as 'The Wilderness'. With the rest of the garrison, Taylor retreated from Fort George to Burlington Heights where he aided in the fortifications of what Vincent thought would be his last stand against the encroaching American forces.
A few days after arriving at Burlington Heights, on June 6th, 1813, Lieutenant Colonel John Harvey, serving under Vincent, led his troops against the American forces encamped at Stoney Creek. There the American incursion along the Niagara Penninsula was stopped. At Harvey's disposal for the battle were elements (approximately 700) of the 8th and 49th Regiments. The contingent of the 41st that were stationed at Burlington Heights were left behind as a reserve. 7 But, among the British troops who did fight at Stoney Creek were Captain Peter Chambers, and Fort Major Thomas Taylor, both of the 41st. Although the circumstances are now lost to time, Taylor was severely wounded during the confused night-battle, and at first was thought to be dead. His rank, although not his name is recorded in Vincent's own account of the casualties of the battle. 8 He was taken to the nearby settlement of Barton (Hamilton), 9 and was tended by Dr. William Case, a newly arrived American physician, who had stayed with and supported his adopted country during the War. Case had opened up a small practice of medicine in Barton township about half way between Burlington Heights and Stoney Creek, and had occasionally served as the Heights' garrison surgeon in the absence of the army incumbent.
Taylor's wounds were to the chest and arm (which one is not clear), and Case's son recorded for a subsequent publication that his father had 'taken up' the radial artery in the arm of a 'Captain Taylor' after the battle of Stoney Creek. 10 Taylor was subsequently sent to York for recuperation, and was visited there by his wife who had by now found her way by open boat to Kingston. 11
Taylor was now 35 years old, and yet still a lieutenant. For a while Taylor, who had refused to retire because of his wounds, and spent much of 1813 at Fort York. In the summer (July) of 1813, the 600-man combined 1st and 2nd Battalions of the 41st were stationed at York. With the closing events of 1813 he had sufficiently recovered to be able to rejoin his regiment and was present at the retaking of Fort George on December 19th. of that year.
In connection with this event, another, somewhat amusing incident comes to light. As is known, when the Americans retreated from Newark, they set fire to the town. 12 Churches, taverns and private dwellings were torched, and included in those destroyed was the buidling that housed the town library. Most of the books in the library were lost, but some together with a few items of furniture were saved. As late as 1894 one book came to light. It had been scorched badly, but was now in possession of a family who lived near Hamilton at Ancaster 13 . Janet Carnochan, the historian of the Library recalls seeing the book. She stated, It is number 51 in the catalogue, Blossoms of Morality, or Blossom on Morality, and is remembered by the owner as charred with fire; but these burnt leaves are now torn away, and on the inner page is written, "This book was saved by my father, who was an officer in the British army when the town was burnt, December 1813. The only book saved from the Library." 14 The inscription is signed 'Thomas Taylor', who was the eldest son of Thomas Senior and Eliza Bell. The daughter too refers to this incident and book, 'My father saved one book, on Theology, from the town library. Its cover was burned. He was a great lover of books. We have the volume now. It is about 100 years old.'
One can surmise that Taylor's fortunes for the rest of the war were bound up with the fate of the remnants of his regiment along the Niagara Frontier, presumably as Fort Major at Fort George and at York. By the Spring of 1814, Taylor resurfaces as Fort Major at Fort York. A letter over his signature was read into the Minutes of the Quarter Sessions of the District of York on March 19th, 1814. The letter concerned the need for greater security at the fort's jail. One month later, he wrote to Noah Freer, the Military Secretary of Lieut. General Drummond, complaining that as Fort Major at York he had not been paid since August, 1813!
In the summer of 1814 Taylor remained at York, and it is clear from what documents remained of his career, that he was an ambitious man, with plans to rise through the levels of York society. By July 1814 he had won the favour of local Staff Officer, Robert Loring, who wrote to Noah Freer on Taylor's behalf. The substance of the letter was that Taylor's abilities suited him admirably to the position, not only of Fort Major at York, but also of Paymaster of the garrison. Although was still officially the seat of Government in Upper Canada, its military importance had been eclipsed by Burlington Heights. 15 However, Taylor filed a report on August 6th, 1814 in his capacity as Fort Major at York. The document reported the appearance of the American fleet off York, and then of its withdrawal after receiving fire from the shore batteries.
In October 1814, most of the officers of the 41st were placed on half-pay as preparations were being made for the Rgiment's withdrawal from Canada. Among those officers was Taylor, but it is clear from his subsequent actions that he would not take this lightly. After the War, although the 41st Regiment of Foot embarked for England in early 1815, Taylor remained in Canada at Fort York and Fort George.
On June 1st, 1815 Taylor made the extraordinary move of writing directly to His Royal Highness, The Duke of York, brother to the Prince Regent, and Commander of the Royal Forces. The substance of the memorial was to ask for restoration to full-pay at his current rank of Lieutenant, the appointment as Fort Major in Upper Canada, and consideration for promotion. The appointment as Fort Major for Upper Canada would give him wide administrative powers, and also the ability to travel extensively throughout the Province at government expense.
By the middle of August, not having yet received a response to his request, he complained to the new Military Secretary, Major Foster, again about his late pay as Fort Major at Fort George. In the following month correspondence passed between Foster and Major Sparrow, the Adjutant to Drummond, and the subject was Taylor. Some question had been raised concerning his eligibility for the position at Fort George, and Foster raised the possibility that he had been appointed to the position over a more suitable candidate, a Lieutenant Mortimer. Although Foster suggested that Drummond would decide the matter later he never did. In the fall and winter of 1815-1816 matters sped up, and turned out not to Taylor's liking.
Although the initial reaction to his memorial for a promotion was favourable - or, at least, not negative. His name had been noted for promotion, and the Prince Regent would decide soon. 16
In October Taylor again complained about the lateness of his pay. 17 However, it appears that the presence in Canada of an officer of this standing, from the 41st Regiment of Foot, was raising some questions.
On January 10th, 1816 he was relieved of his position at York, and replaced by Lieutenant Wall of the 10th Regiment. In response to his request for promotion which he had sent to the highest chambers in England, an abrupt letter was dispatched from Horse Guards to General Sherbrooke, the Commander of His Majesty's Forces in Canada. On May 17th, 1816 he was ordered to rejoin his Regiment in England forthwith. Failure to comply would involve severe disciplinary action. 18 Taylor's first sojourn in Canada had come to an abrupt end, and his ambitions had been frustrated.
On July 24th, 1816 he returned to England. Like many veterans of the War in Canada, in 1818 at the age of forty and with a family of a wife and five children he found it very difficult to subsist on a lieutenant's half pay. It was in this year that he was called to the Bar in England, and was able to begin the practice of law. By 1819 he had returned to Canada with most of his family, and had settled within sight of Burlington Heights on what is now James Street North, Hamilton, living for a while in a simple log cabin. He later built a large house and indulged in the very popular occupation (especially in the post-war years) of land speculation. He became active in the local legal community and was called to the Bar of Upper Canada in 1819, and appointed a judge in the same year. Thereafter he had a distinguished legal career in the new province. By 1827 he held three legal appointments: Recorder of the Court of King's Bench, Judge in the District Court and Judge in the Surrogate Courts of Gore. His combined salary for these positions was one hundred and sixty seven pounds per annum, hardly a princely sum, but it was far in excess of his lieutenant's half-pay. Apart from his political and legal career in early Hamilton, he was also a man known for his generosity, often temporarily housing new immigrants on his own property, and at his own expense, until they could become established.
The settlement of Hamilton, which during the war contained little more than one hundred inhabitants, grew quickly after the war, and by 1833 was named a 'Police Town', with a formal board of governance. Taylor was appointed the Board's first President.
In 1823 Taylor, who never lost his love of things military, was commissioned by Peregrine Maitland, the then Governor-General, as Colonel in Command of the 3rd Battalion of the Gore Militia, and remained in this position until his death in 1837 at the age of fity nine. Six years after his death, Hamilton became a city. But before he died Taylor began to see amazing changes to the region. The first steam boats regularly appeared on Lake Ontario in 1820. Burlington Heights, which had been General Vincent's Head Quarters during the troubled winters of 1813 and 1814, had been reshaped in 1828 with the cutting of the Desjardins Canal which now joined Dundas to the Lake, and new plans were afoot to change its shape even more to accommodate the new form of land transportation, the railway. With its military significance diminshing, the plans to build a large fortress at the northern end of Burlington Heights were abandoned.
Taylor's experiences of the War of 1812 were not spectacular and he had no champion like Fitzgibbon's granddaughter to write his apologia. He probably had more of his share of boredom, and not excitement. He was at the time a typical soldier of the 41st who carried out his duty to the best of his ability, and simply got the job done.
1 The Wiltshire
connection is an interesting one. Shadrach Byfield, well-known
private soldier in the 41st also came from that county. I have
been able to trace a Taylor-Byfield connection by marriage, but
apparently these Taylors were distantly related, if at all, to
Thomas's family. In any event, later in the 19th century, they
emigrated to New Zealand.
to Sir George Prevost's letter to Lord Liverpool on May 18th,
1812, the various units of the 41st were stationed in Amherstburg
(120), Fort Erie (one company), Chippewa (ca. 20), Fort George
(400) and Fort York (three companies, possibly 180-200 men). The
letter is reproduced in J.M. Hitsman, That Incredible War of
1812, revised edition by Donald E. Graves (Toronto: Robin
Bass Studio, 1999), pp. 283-288.
3 This document
exists in typescript and is the property of Mr. Keith Anderson
of Hamilton, Ontario, a direct descendant of Thomas Taylor. The
document, which was written many years after the events of the
war, is chronologically confused. It relies for this period on
anecdotes told by Taylor's wife to her children, with little regard
for chronological sequence. Taylor, having died in 1837, was not
available to check the facts. I have ordered the chronology by
comparing the document with known details of the series of events.
4 The spelling,
punctuation and syntax is left as it was originally written.
5 Ellen Taylor
is confused at this point. Although several buildings in the town
were damaged by fire, the deliberate policy of burning the town
was carried out in the flight of the Americans from the region
in December 1813.
6 Claus, a member
of the Indian Department, was a fixture of the Niagara frontier
and had been since before the war. Although he fought as a militia
colonel, he is mostly remembered for some highly speculative land
deals which took place after the cessation of hostilities, by
which he made huge profits.
7 A document
at the Hamilton Military Museum lists the number of soldiers present
at Burlington Heights on June 18, 1813, a few weeks after the
battle. The number included a contingent of the 41st Regiment
- five captains, eight lieutenants, one ensign, twenty nine sergeants,
one drummer, and three hundred and seventy eight other ranks,
of whom nine were in sick bay. The total number of soldiers at
the Heights was well over one thousand, and would be swelled in
October by the arrival of the survivors of the Battle of the Thames
(Moraviantown). Civlians and native warriors were also among the
original flight from Fort George in May.
This document is appended to another, the appointment of Lieut. Taylor to the position of Fort Major, Fort George, dated March 1813.
official report states, The action terminated before daylight,
when three guns and one brass howitzer with three tumbrills, two
Brigadier-Generals, Chandler and Winder, and upwards of 100 officers
and privates remained in our hands. The British loss: killed one
lieutenant, three sergeants, nineteen rank and file; wounded,
two majors, five captains, two lieutenants, one ensign, one adjutant,
one fort major, nine sergeants, two drummers, and
113 rank and file; three sergeants and fifty-two rank and file
missing. Lieut. Colonel John Harvey, Vincent's Aide de Camp,
mentions in his report of the battle, that Taylor was seriously
9 A small settlement
with little more than one hundred inhabitants at this time. In
the election of 1808 there were only 62 eligible voters in Barton
10 W. Canniff,
The Medical Profession in Upper Canada, 1783-1850, Toronto:
W. Briggs, 1894. p. 286.
11 It is more than possible that the site of Taylor's recuperation was the 'Shed' set aside for the purpose of attending to wounded men at this time. The staff of the establishment eventually went on to found the Toronto General Hospital on the site.
12 The American
commander, Colonel McClure provided a rather self-serving explanation
for these actions which were not warranted, nor ordered by his
commanding officer. McClure states I accordingly gave orders
for all the arms, ammunition and public stores, of every description,
to be sent across the river, which was principally effected (though
the enemy advanced so rapidly that ten of my men were made prisoners)
and ordered the town of Newark to be burnt. This act, however
distressing to the inhabitants and my feelings, was by order of
the Secretary of War, and I believe at the same time proper. The
inhabitants had twelve hours notice to remove their effects, and
such as chose to come across the river were provided with all
the necessaries of life. He then blames the 'misled feelings'
of his accusers on the propaganda put out by the enemy! For this
action he was court-martialled and severely reprimanded. McClure's
letter can be found in John Brannan, ed. Official Letters of
the Military and Naval Officers of the United States During the
War with Great Britain in the Years 1812, 13, 14, & 15 With
Some Additional Letters and Documents Elucidating the History
of that Period. (Washington: 1823), pp. 290-292.
not mentioned by name in Carnochan's article, the family was that
of George Henry Taylor, the youngest son of Thomas and Eliza.
George's brother, Thomas Jr. who had inscribed the book had also
entered the legal profession, but died a relatively young man.
14 Janet Carnochan,
'Niagara Library 1800-1820' in The Transactions of the Canadian
Institute vol. IV (1894), p. 346.
15 In December
of 1813, Major General Procter had been appointed by Vincent as
Commander of York. The appointment was a reflection of Procter's
lack of ability, and the status of York, which Vincent called
a place of no importance. Vincent to Drummond, Dec., 1813.
16 Letter from
Horse Guards, Sept. 11th, 1815.
17 Letter from
Taylor to Foster, 9th October, 1815.
18 Horse Guards to Sherbrooke, 17th May, 1816.