The Canadian Molly Pitcher
An Anonymous British Soldier
Found in the Papers of Major Douglas Cubbison, Royal Engineers, North Marysburgh Historical Society, North Marysburgh, Ontario, Canada. The writing does not appear to be Cubbison’s; appearing in a different hand, but its writing style and paper is consistent with that of the early 19th century. Historians believe it to be authentic. How it found its way into Cubbison’s papers is unknown, although it is surmised that Cubbison may have obtained it from a fellow veteran while writing his landmark history of the 1780 Lafayette invasion of Canada.
Most of our illustrious readers are familiar with the Canadian Campaign of 1780, in which the young adopted American Major General Marquis de Lafayette’s surprise invasion of Canada nearly claimed that Colony for the young United States of America. The story of how British Intelligence completely missed the Continental Army’s preparations for this assault, being cleverly misled into believing that it was to be a repeat of Sullivan’s 1779 campaign against the Indian nations, belongs more properly to the grand histories of that fabled struggle. This story is not about the great and powerful, the renowned and the famous, but rather about one diminutive hero whose contributions did much to turn the tide of battle for Great Britain, at a time when Britannica’s fortunes were among the darkest of the war.
How Lafayette’s combined columns aggressively swept up Lake Champlain and the Richelieu River, capturing the British fortifications at Isle Aux Noix and St. Jean in dashing surprise attacks and then moving on to seize Montreal and march to the very gates of Quebec during that long, hot summer are well known. However, the actions of the American secondary column along the St. Lawrence River are much more poorly documented. During the first American invasion of Canada in the spring of 1776, British forces consisting of the 8th Foot from Niagara and Oswegatchie had launched a spoiling attack on the American left (west) wing, seizing the American force defending the rapids, decisively defeating a relief force, and endangering Montreal itself. Only the actions of the great American hero Lieutenant General Benedict Arnold had saved the Americans that day. Having benefited from long discussions with Arnold regarding Canada, shortly before Arnold was dispatched to achieve his string of glorious victories in the American South, Lafayette was not going to make the same mistake. Accordingly, he dispatched a column down the St. Lawrence River in bateaux and canoes, with the express intent of occupying the British garrisons at Fort Oswegatchie and Fort Niagara, so that they could not interfere with his logistical route at Montreal. This was not Lafayette’s main column, which was principally composed of battle hardened Continentals. Rather, this column predominantly consisted of militia, strengthened by an extremely strong force of artillery.
In early July this force landed near Crysler’s Farm on the north bank of the St. Lawrence River, and began demonstrating against a small British force that was then similarly engaged. The British response to Lafayette’s surprise attack had initially been confused and disjointed. The speed with which Lafayette’s men moved stunned the British defenders, who had become lethargic and lazy after three years of inactivity in the Canadian garrisons.
Lieutenant Colonel Gavin Watt of the King’s Royal Yorkers, commanding the garrison at Niagara, received garbled communications that intimated at an American assault, desperately requesting reinforcements, and promoting Watt to Brigadier General in charge of the British column that he was directed to move up the St. Lawrence River to the succor of Montreal. Montreal would fall long before Watt could make his march, but word of that surrender would not reach Watt in time to influence events on the Saint Lawrence. Brigadier Watt commanded a mixed force of British Regulars, Loyalist Provincials, and Native Americans. A small contingent of artillery was hastily gathered from the garrisons, but Royal Artillerymen were few and far between. Accordingly, Infantrymen were drafted to assist serve the guns, but the departure was so hurried that the guns remained inadequately manned on the eve of battle.
Rushing ardently forward as was his trademark in battle, Watt on July 9th had pushed his advanced guard out too far, and it was very roughly handled in a brief, hard fought action under a torrid sun that afternoon. The large number of extremely well served American artillery pieces stunned the British advanced guard. The Natives had decamped at the first volley of roundshot, as the hidden American guns were unmasked. Deprived of his most valuable scouts, the British Advanced Guard commander attempted to recover but he was hopelessly outgunned, and soon the proud British advanced guard was broken.
Retreating back upon Brigadier Watt’s main party, Watt angrily planned his revenge. Learning that the Americans had occupied the small hamlet of Upper Canada Village, Brigadier Watt determined to launch a deliberate attack upon the village. This time, his force would be prepared, his attack closely coordinated, and well supported by his small command of artillery. As Watt made his preparations, Engineer Cubbison, acting as commander of his artillery, presented concerns regarding the manning of his guns. As Watt and Cubbison grappled with the problem, a diminutive voice sounded out, “I’ll help, Sir.” A slight teenaged girl, slender as a fence rail, stepped out from her crude log cabin, “I can help, sir, I can help carry the bucket for the gun.” Brigadier Watt, the grizzled veteran, smiled and responded in his characteristic growl, “Well, there is your answer, Cubbison, make do with that volunteer there.”
And thus a slight teenaged girl, hands hardened by the labor of the rustic barnyard and household, joined the column of Redcoats and green-coated Provincials and painted Natives as they marched upon Upper Canada Village. Hardened veterans of years of frontier warfare would later remark upon the slender maiden, skirts held high, racing with the brown leather water bucket from cannon to cannon, quenching the thirst of the gunners, always ready to ensure that the guns could be safely swabbed so that they could continue barking their deadly loads into the ranks of the Americans. Her be-ribonned cap was soon lost behind her rapid strides, but the young lass’s enthusiasm never wavered.
The weather was appallingly hot and humid. Heavy rains had turned the farm fields to soaked mud bogs. The gunners sweltered in their own sweat as they worked the heavy cannon, the barrels wavering from the heat of their rapid fire. Her stockings bunched around her dainty ankles, the young farm girl faithfully stood by her gun crew. Roundshot and grapeshot from the American cannon, as well served in this engagement as they had been that afternoon, whistled with gleeful abandon around the gun. Musket shots hummed past, occasionally felling a brave Loyalist or British soldier, but the dainty lass stood bravely to her post. With the gun crew fearfully reduced by casualties, and nearly exhausted by their labors, her presence and efforts served to keep the gunners' morale high, and the gun remained in action throughout that long evening, never slowing fire as the shadows slowly grew longer and longer.
The success of that small 3-pounder grasshopper as it was rushed into one critical position after another, first driving an American flanking column into a swamp with its ranks shattered, then devastating a company holding a crucial strong point in a farm field so that the British advance could sweep forward, is well documented. Brigadier Watt would later remark himself that the actions of that small Grasshopper gun was integral to British success that day, and Cubbison would find himself mentioned in dispatches and later promoted for his gun's presence that evening.
Following the long hours of fighting, and with the Americans driven from the community and retreating in disarray into the darkness, the gunners sagged by their piece, letting the powder be-fouled bronze barrel cool, desperately quenching their thirst at yet another bucket of water provided by this tireless young Canadian patriot. Two veteran British Rangers marching past noted the visage, and one asked of his companion, “Who is that?” The other Ranger, who had in fact pulled on that very gun’s drag rope to swing it into firing position not a few minutes earlier, responded brusquely, “Why, don’t you know, that’s Victory Bucket?”
Thus was born the legend of Victory Bucket, the famous Canadian heroine. Americans have Molly Corbett, buried at the hallowed ground of West Point for her service at the Battle of Fort Washington; and Molly Pitcher, who so bravely served an American gun at Monmouth. But Canadians have their very own Victory Bucket, who courageously earned her sobriquet that day at Upper Canada Village, doing her small part to ensure British victory for Brigadier Watt. Watt would later remark that his army did indeed have its answer, for with patriots such as Victory Bucket, Canada could never be conquered. And, indeed, it never has been.
Disclaimer: It has been noted by some cynical readers of this website that in fact there never was an invasion of Canada by the Marquis de Lafayette (or anybody else) in 1780; and that the Township of North Marysburgh not only does not currently have a Historical Society, but apparently has never had a Historical Society in the existence of the community. It has also been noted by some supposedly astute observers that no historic documentation of any type can be located that an Engineer Cubbison or Brigadier Watt ever served with the British Army during the War for American Independence. Furthermore, they note that no battles ever occurred at or around Upper Canada Village during the American Revolution; in fact, to this date there is no such community. Nevertheless, the researchers who discovered this rare, valuable, and previously un-published historical document remain fully convinced of its authenticity and accuracy, let the alleged facts fall where they will. The researchers who discovered this document at great expense and effort, and generously made it available to posterity without either compensation or recognition, would also like to note that we live in a sad and skeptical age, and we really don’t believe that we are any the better for it.