My Loyalist Robert Carlisle, American Rebel Robert Wilson & The 1776 Siege of Fort Cumberland, Canada

A year or so ago, I commented in a blog post that I had been unaware of American rebel activity in Canada during the American Revolution. Of course, I was aware of the ill-fated attempt to capture Quebec, but I never really thought about war-like activity among the Canadian settlers.

Last fall, I was lucky enough to visit Halifax, Nova Scotia on a cruise port stop and spent several hours in the Nova Scotia Archives, hoping to uncover more clues about my Loyalist Robert Carlisle, who served with the Royal Fencible Americans.

Their primary deployment was to defend Fort Cumberland, near Sackville in today’s New Brunswick, Canada, from possible attacks.

Recently, I came across an interesting book.

The Siege of Fort Cumberland 1776: An Episode in the American Revolution by Ernest Clarke, McGill-Queen’s University Press, Montreal, 1995 tells the story of the events leading up to the attack on the fort by American rebels.

While I was excited to read more about Fort Cumberland, given Robert Carlisle’s military service there, what shocked me was the way in which I discovered it.

Another of my ancestors is Robert Wilson, said to originally be from Ireland and who arrived in Boston about 1751. Robert Wilson married Mary Woodward in 1759 in Essex County, Massachusetts and the young couple lived in Lincoln, Essex, Massachusetts until perhaps 1764 or so.

They removed to Campobello Island and were settled in with several children and two other families by 1770.

While searching the internet for (hopefully) more and newer details about Robert Wilson’s life than I already knew, I came across the statement that he was one of nine residents of Campobello Island who TOOK PART in Eddy’s 1776 attack on Fort Cumberland!

I almost fell off my chair. I have a half dozen Loyalists and another half dozen Patriots, but have no evidence any of them fought in a skirmish, battle or any other altercation with each other. I don’t have any evidence that they even knew each other, as all lived in different localities.

Now, from the little community of Campobello Island, I have an American rebel, Robert Wilson, who actively attacked the very fort where Robert Carlisle and the Royal Fencible Americans were stationed to ward off intruders.

I guess the phrase “what a small world” applies back in the 18th century, too!

What exactly happened at the Siege of Fort Cumberland?

First, one needs to realize that there were a variety of settlers in what was, at the time, Nova Scotia. As in the New England colonies, there were Native Americans, Europeans and quite a contingent of New England Planters.

I also have some pre-Loyalist families who were part of the New England families who headed north and settled in Nova Scotia by 1770. As with Loyalists who followed, these pre-Loyalists left friends and some family members behind, but kept in contact with those still living in their former homes.

Politically, by 1770, the New England Planters would have been well aware of the hated colonial Stamp Act of 1765 and of further English parliamentary acts that were angering residents of the thirteen American colonies.

Therefore, by the time the Declaration of Independence was signed, some of the Planters in Nova Scotia thought that independence from England would also be good for the province.

In reality, the siege of Fort Cumberland was doomed to failure, as it was poorly thought out. Although there were Patriots scattered around the area in Maugerville, Cumberland and the general Passamaquoddy area and they actively worked to overthrow the local governments, they had little success.

The chief ringleaders were Jonathan Eddy and John Allan. By the start of the War for Independence, Eddy, who was Massachusetts-born and in his mid 50s, was bound and  determined to bring Nova Scotia into the Revolution on the side of the Patriots. He lived in the Cumberland District.

John Allan was much younger, a man in his 30s, who had lived in Boston. He made his home at Point de Bute, due north of Amherst and due east of Sackville, New Brunswick.

As partners, Eddy’s job was to provide military leadership while Allan handled the political activities.

During the summer of 1776, John Allan and a few others, who had been stirring up trouble in Cumberland, landed at Wilson’s Beach on Campobello Island. Robert Wilson was their hospitable, and supportive, host.

Allan shared Eddy’s intent to attack Fort Cumberland with the Campobello residents and noted that it was folly to think that Eddy could be successful.

In spite of the caution, it is said that nine Passamaquoddy men (of whom only four can be identified – Robert Wilson being one of them) excitedly joined Eddy’s estimated 400-500 men and made their way to Fort Cumberland, arriving in November 1776.

The Royal Fencible Americans defeated Eddy’s militia on 29 November 1776.

Robert Wilson was among those charged with treason, but I find no record of a trial and conviction. He died on a fishing trip with his old friend and brother-in-law, William Clark, at Cobscook Falls, Maine in 1782.

This isn’t a book review, but I’d highly recommend Ernest Clarke’s book to anyone seriously interested in the history of the American Revolution and, in particular, Canada’s involvement in the war.


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