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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
The trial, which took place in Montreal, began on October 20, 1756, and lasted nineteen days, Governor Vaudreuil presiding over the war council. (The Marquis Louis Joseph de Montcalm, recently arrived from France as the King’s new commander in chief in Canada, had been asked to serve on the council but begged off on a technicality.) Alone and on trial for his life before a foreign military court, Stobo conducted his own defense with dignity, good sense, and courage. He promised to tell the truth “following my conscience,” but refused to raise his hand and swear. He absolved van Braam from complicity. He refused day after day to read or sign either the documents placed in evidence against him or the transcript of each day’s interrogation (it was customary under French military law for the principals involved to sign both). At one point he protested the questioning he had undergone in the warden’s office “because I did not have enough freedom of mind to answer as it was good for me.”
Stobo based his defense on the countercharge that the French “had broken all their promises,” and that he was therefore justified in thinking he had been freed of his obligations as a hostage. He described over and over again as evidence the exact events that followed the capitulation. He said further that he was young; that he had had little experience or instruction in military affairs, never having been in service before he was commissioned; that the duties of a hostage had never been explained to him; and that he had never been asked for his word of honor after the French had violated the articles of capitulation.
The French case against Stobo was based largely on his letter to the commander at Wills Creek; its strong emphasis on the need for secrecy, the prosecution insisted, proved that Stobo knew he was breaking his parole. On this assumption, much effort was directed at establishing that the accused had written the letter in evidence—which accounts for Stobo’s stubborn refusal to admit that he had written this letter, even though he would admit he had written a letter.
Officers of the court had ordered the accused to unlock his pine chest, and from it they had taken seventeen pages of manuscript. Two citizens of Montreal called in as handwriting experts duly testified that the manuscripts and the letter had been written by the same hand. The French ignored Stobo’s charge that they had violated the articles of capitulation.
Confronted with the map and the letter, with its four incriminating sentences stressing the need for secrecy, Stobo replied again and again: “I do not remember what I wrote, as it was so long ago.” “You can take this letter as the one I wrote, but I do not wish to look at it or to say if it is the same one I sent.” “What the witness says could be true, but I do not remember that at all.”
On November 8, Stobo stood before the full war council, in a final session held in Governor Vaudreuil’s mansion, Vaudreuil himself presiding and Contrecoeur (who had been relieved at Fort Duquesne a year earlier) sitting as one of the seven judges. Stobo now agreed to swear an oath that he would tell the truth. He examined the letter and map and admitted that they were his. After giving his half-confession, he repeated his countercharges, and recited once more the justification for his action. “I believed myself entirely free to do what I pleased for the interest of my country—to give all the information I could to this end. I swear by the living God I would not have done it if I had not thought myself to have the right to do so.” This time he signed the transcript of the day’s proceedings.
The war council gave its verdict at once. Van Braam was acquitted. In a unanimous decision, Stobo was “condemned to have his head cut off on a scaffold which will be erected for this purpose in the place of arms in this city.”
The judgment was read to both men, after which they were returned to the Citadel in Quebec. They were now lodged in separate chambers, under a guard who was ordered to keep them from communicating with each other. But now a strange twist occurred. Vaudreuil was required to send a transcript of the trial and verdict to France for the King’s signature. The documents left on the last boat that sailed that year. Wrote the Governor to Machault: “You will … observe, my Lord, by the proceedings, that Mr. Stobo, at first, would not admit any fact, but when in the presence of the court, he acknowledged his letter and avowed his crime. I suspend the execution as a consequence of the king’s orders.”
Why did Louis XV or his ministers (or Madame la Marquise de Pompadour) order a trial to be held in form only, with no intention of carrying out the verdict? It may have been partly for propaganda purposes, and partly because the French knew that their legal grounds for the trial and conviction were uncertain. In his journal during the last days of the trial, Louis Bougainville, Montcalm’s aide-de-camp, wrestled tortuously with the ethics of the case. Obviously, l’affaire Stobo had been a subject of discussion in the salons and officers’ quarters in New France.
The trial records indicate that the condemned man probably was not told that his sentence had been suspended. If this was true, he must have realized that he had perhaps six months before the proceedings could be reviewed in Paris, the sentence approved, confirmation returned to Montreal, and his head removed. He resolved to escape.