- Historic Sites
The Fantastic Adventures Of Captain Stobo
Into seven crucial years of American colonial history, a young Scots-American officer packed more of the stuff that makes heroes than perhaps a dozen more illustrious men. Yet today his name has slipped into almost complete obscurity
August 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 5
Three months later, on February 19, 1760, accompanied by a Colonel West and several other gentlemen, Major Stobo sailed from New York on the packet General Wall, bound for London. He was armed with “kind letters suited to his services” from Amherst, Dinwiddie, and General Robert Monckton, among others, recommending him to the favor of the government. Turning his back on the opportunities of his favorable position in Virginia, he had resolved to get himself a regular commission in the military service of the Crown.
The Atlantic in those years was swarming with privateers who preyed on English shipping for the French, on French shipping for the English, or on both for themselves. In the English Channel, the General Wall was attacked and taken by a privateer flying the French flag. Because he believed that recognition meant certain death, Stobo once again hastened to throw his papers overboard—the letters to Pitt, even his embossed memorial from the House of Burgesses. The privateer demanded and got a ransom of £2,500 from the passengers for freedom for their ship and themselves; Stobo’s assessment was £125.
Stobo arrived in London on March 22 by way of Falmouth. A degree of fame had preceded him, and even without letters he was received by those in power. He had an audience with Pitt, first minister of England, “who told him first that he had heard of his story, and with him held some conference about our nation’s North domain affairs; then gives him a gracious assurance of his service for him, and he’s dismissed.” When Stobo returned to New York in the spring, he carried with him a letter from Pitt to Amherst “expressing his Majesty’s most gracious approbation of what the Major sought,” and suggesting for him command of a company either in Amherst’s or Anstruther’s regiment. On June 5, in Albany, Robert Stobo, Esquire, was given a captain’s commission in Amherst’s own i5th Regiment of Foot.
Amherst moved on Montreal, and on September 7 received Governor Vaudreuil’s unconditional surrender to the British Crown—“more,” Amherst wrote in his journal, “than was ever given to any Crown before.” Captain Stobo, who had seen the war start, also saw it end, and he must have felt deep satisfaction, marching at the head of his troops into the city where he once was imprisoned, tried, and condemned to death. We do not know whether he saw Vaudreuil, who would spend two years in the Bastille and then be acquitted of charges of malfeasance; or Varin, another of his judges, who would receive perpetual banishment from France; or his business associate La Corne, who, on the way to France, would be shipwrecked, would return to Montreal, and fifteen years later would lead the British Indians in some of the worst atrocities of the American Revolution. It is likely that Stobo saw and helped an emaciated van Braam, who, in prison all this time, had been subsisting in Montreal for the last four months on dry bread and water. (Van Braam returned to Williamsburg, was forgiven his bad French, was paid a bonus of £500, and became an officer in the British regulars.)
From this point forward, Stobo’s name begins to recede from the pages of history. In the spring of 1761, his regiment marched to Albany, sailed down the Hudson to New York, encamped on Staten Island, and in October embarked on General Monckton’s successful expedition against the rich French island of Martinique and the Spanish city of Havana. A newly discovered memorial presented to the Earl of Dartmouth some years later by Stobo’s sisters reveals for the first time that at Havana the Captain “received very dangerous wounds, being buried under the ruins of a part of the Parapet Wall of the Moro castle, knock’d down by a Cannon ball from the town of Havana before it Surrender’d, which wounds were worse than mortal as they were on his head and he never afterward got the better of their banefull effects.”
On February 10, 1763, the Peace of Paris was signed —”a Christian, universal and perpetual peace” which lasted for fifteen years. Amherst returned to England, no longer in favor, and once again Captain Stobo lost a powerful patron. In 1764, he petitioned the Virginia House of Burgesses for pay as a major on leave from the Virginia Regiment during his three months’ trip to England four years earlier. The petition was dismissed casually on a voice vote.
Between 1763 and 1768, Stobo served at various Canadian stations, and in the summer of 1768 sailed with his regiment for England. He turns up fleetingly there as an acquaintance of the novelist Tobias Smollett, who introduced him to the philosopher David Hume and perhaps used him as a model for a character (Captain Obadiah Lismahago) in The Expedition of Humphry Clinker . Hume, incidentally, wrote Smollett that Stobo “has surely had the most extraordinary adventures in the world.” Otherwise, the last two years of his life are lost in obscurity.
It was established some years ago that Captain Stobo died at Chatham on Tuesday, June 19, 1770, at the age of forty-three; but the circumstances of his death have only now emerged from oblivion. The Westminster Journal for June 23 carried this notice: “We hear from Chatham that on Tuesday afternoon about 3 o’clock, the following melancholy accident happened in the barracks there. Capt. S___ of the 15th Regiment (now lying in the barracks) shot himself. It seems he had been disordered in his mind for some [word omitted] before, and had for several days past drank extremely hard. The Coroners Inquest sat on the body on Wednesday and brought in their verdict, Lunacy.”