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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 return to Quebec of “so well-informed a man” caused consternation among the French. In his journal, Montcalm credited Stobo with persuading Wolfe to attack Pointe aux Trembles and wrote bitterly, “Who would believe that this man was free in Quebec to the point of being allowed to escape? It is he, they say, who conducted everything, and he is in a position to give a good account of the situation in our colony in all respects.”
Did Stobo also show Wolfe the path up the 200-foot cliff at Sillery, a mile and a half above Quebec, which led, by way of the Plains of Abraham, to the fall of the city? There is some contemporary evidence, both direct and circumstantial, that he broached the idea to the General, or at least confirmed him in his decision. Certainly the Major was highly valued for his familiarity with French terrain and was sent to Wolfe for the clearly stated purpose of talking about that terrain.
Andrew, the Fifth Lord Rollo, wrote from Louisbourg to Colonel Alexander Murray at Quebec: “The bearer, Captain Stobo, will, I hope, bring you agreeable accounts of the condition of the place and disposition of the French troops, and is able to point out avenues to the place, which will greatly forward your approaches. …”
Two developments, however, robbed Stobo of whatever credit he may have deserved for influencing the course of one of history’s decisive battles. Wolfe, the patron who might have made him truly famous, was killed. And on September 7, five days before the assault, Stobo left Quebec with urgent dispatches for Amherst and others.
That this was a dangerous mission is indicated by the fact that two Mohawk Indians sent by Amherst to Wolfe were captured and roasted alive, two others had been scalped while living, and two English officers had been placed in chains. That it was an important one is suggested by Amherst’s entry in his daybook on August 8: “It is of consequence that I should hear from General Wolfe.” But there is simply no rational explanation for the choice of Stobo as courier, for both Amherst’s daybook and a letter to Pitt (October 22) reveal that Stobo travelled with “Ensign Hutchings [Hutchins] of the Rangers, who I had dispatched to M. General Wolfe.” Hutchins had travelled by way of the Kennebec River and, of course, needed no help to find his way back to Crown Point, especially over the well-travelled and familiar route he and Stobo followed.
Dressed as a common seaman but accompanied by a Canadian valet, Stobo planned to journey with Hutchins by way of the St. Lawrence River down the coast to Boston, whence he would proceed overland to Amherst. On September 10, however, thirty-six miles short of Halifax, their vessel was overtaken by a French privateer, and Stobo, to save his skin and his intelligence, was forced to jettison his dispatches. He was fortunately unrecognized, and his valet, who was arrested as a deserter, did not betray his master. Stobo was placed in a captured schooner with the other English and sent on to freedom at Halifax. Arriving at Boston, he borrowed seven pounds, four shillings, from Governor Pownall and hurried on to Crown Point. He reported on October 9. Amherst had captured Ticonderoga and Crown Point; Fort Niagara had fallen. The General was preparing to move within two days up Lake Champlain in a drive to outflank and envelop the French.
Amherst wrote in his journal: “At eleven at night Ensign Hutchings … arrived with Capt. Stobo of the Virginians. … Capt. Stobo threw all his dispatches overboard so I am not a wit wiser, except that he says Gen Wolfe had got with allmost his whole Army above the town and he [Wolfe] thinks he will not take it.” Nine days later, Amherst learned that Quebec had fallen, and both Wolfe and Montcalm were dead.
Stobo served a short time as a volunteer in the Champlain campaign; but when Amherst gave up the idea of advancing on Canada that fall and returned to Crown Point, he asked and got permission to go home. With him he carried a letter from Amherst to Governor Dinwiddie (“I must beg leave to recommend him to your particular notice and favor”).
Stobo arrived in Williamsburg on Wednesday, November 18, 1759, five years and eight months after he had left it; and from that grateful capital he received colonial Virginia’s equivalent of a reception in the White House or a parade up Broadway. The day following his arrival, the House of Burgesses took up and considered Amherst’s letter and passed three motions: that Robert Stobo be paid £1,000 over and above the back pay due him “from the Time of his rendering himself A Hostage to this Day, as a Reward for his Zeal to his Country, and as a Recompense for the great Hardships he has suffered”; that Mr. Richard Henry Lee address the governor “to desire that he will be pleased to take Capt. [sic] Stobo into his special Care and Favor, and promote him in the Service of this Colony”; and that Robert Nicholas, Richard Bland, and George Washington wait upon Stobo to give him the thanks of the House for his services, and that he be congratulated in the name of the House on his safe and happy return. In response to these favors, Stobo delivered a polished reply—literate, felicitous, covering all points of proper gratitude.