August 1963 | Volume 14, Issue 5
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
Captain Robert Stobo enters the pages of history on horseback, at the head of a company of Provincial Virginia troops marching as reinforcements into Colonel George Washington’s encampment on the western border. He departs seven years later after a career in which he distinguished himself in the battle that opened one of the longest and bloodiest wars of the eighteenth century; was turned over to the enemy as a hostage for promises that would not be fulfilled; wrote a letter that made him an international figure; was sentenced to have his head cut off; escaped from prison twice and was recaptured twice; escaped a third time to lead a small band through seven hundred miles of enemy territory; was twice captured by pirates; was given an ovation by his government; consorted with the mightiest men of his day; and played a major role in winning one of history’s decisive battles.
Despite these adventures and despite the considerable service he rendered his country, Robert Stobo is an almost forgotten figure today. He may be the least appreciated, most undervalued hero of our colonial period.
Captain Stobo joined Washington on June 9, 1754, at the Great Meadows, which lay some seventy miles south of the French Fort Duquesne at the forks of the Ohio River, the site of present-day Pittsburgh. The newly commissioned young Scots-American, who had left behind him a pleasant social life in Petersburg, Virginia, had been sustained on his journey over the Allegheny Mountains by ten servant-mechanics whom he had personally recruited, by several hunters engaged to take game, and by a covered wagon containing personal supplies and equipment valued at 300 guineas. The wagon (in the words of a contemporary) was “well-filled with every necessary proper to make these mountainous woody deserts as agreeable as their situation would admit.” Among the necessaries were food and a full butt (about 130 gallons) of Madeira wine, both of which, on his arrival in camp, the Captain dispensed at “open table” for his fellow officers.
A few days earlier, Washington and his men had met the French in an exchange of fire. They had killed Ensign Coulon de Jumonville and had sent twentyone prisoners back to Alexandria, one of them the French commissary and Indian expert, La Force. Now in mid-June the French and their Indian allies, led by Jumonville’s half brother, Captain Coulon de Villiers, were moving south from Fort Duquesne to attack.
Washington had started for the French fort but, greatly outnumbered, withdrew in a thirteen-mile forced march to the hastily erected, badly situated stockade he had named Fort Necessity. More than a fourth of his four hundred men were sick or exhausted. His Indian allies had quietly vanished. His food supply was low. As engineer and senior captain, Stobo was apparently put in charge of clearing a field of fire, digging trenches, extending the palisades, and attempting as best he could to strengthen an indefensible position.
After a nine-hour battle in a drenching rain, Washington signed an honorable capitulation. He would receive the honors of war and could retire with his garrison to his own country. The French would do all they could to restrain their Indians. Since the English had lost their dray animals, they could place their baggage en cache , under English guard, until they could send for it. They must “work no more on any buildings on this side of the mountains for one year.”
Washington struck his flag, cached his baggage, destroyed what he could not save or carry, buried his thirty dead, and marched his men out of the encampment, drums beating and colors flying. It was July 4, and it was the blackest day the Colonel-then twentytwo years old—had yet known. He had been badly beaten in his first battle—the first of a war that in the next nine years would rage over three continents, cost almost a million lives, and lose France an empire. He would be humiliated to find, when back in Virginia, that Governor Dinwiddie would not honor the terms of his capitulation, on grounds that Washington had exceeded his authority in offering to surrender La Force and the other prisoners, who had been turned over to higher command. Worst of all, he would learn that in signing the papers he had unwittingly confessed in two places to the “assassination” of a peaceful French envoy, Jumonville. He would spend much of the next four years of his life trying to take the ground he had failed to take in 1754.
The jubilant French burned Fort Necessity to the ground, smashed Washington’s artillery, and began the march back to Fort Duquesne. (They would use the confession of assassination to win a propaganda victory in the capitals of Europe.∗) With them they took two young colonial captains given under Article Seven of the capitulation. These were surety for the general agreement, which Dinwiddie (as it turned out) would not honor, and they were hostages for the French prisoners taken in the Jumonville affair, whom Dinwiddie, in the final event, would not return.
∗ In France, on July 12, 1757, Voltaire wrote to a friend: “I was formerly of the English party, but am that no longer, since the English assassinate our officers in America.”
One of the hostages was Jacob van Braam, about twenty-five, unmarried, whose faulty interpretation of French had caused Washington to sign the confession of murder. Van Braam was wearing, as befitted a gentleman hostage, a superfine broadcloth coat with silver fringe and a fine scarlet waistcoat, fully laced. He had bought them from Washington for £13 that morning after he had volunteered or consented (it is not clear which) to accompany the French. The other hostage, twenty-seven and also unmarried, was Robert Stobo.
Stobo and van Braam had spent the night of July 3-4 under guard in the French camp. Stobo was shocked the next day to observe several Indians loaded with what was obviously pillage from the stores left under guard at Fort Necessity. He was even more indignant when he recognized his own valise and a small box in which he had kept a special ring and other jewelry. With a persuasiveness that was a notable part of his character, he induced a French officer to return with him to Fort Necessity so that he might rescue his other belongings. He found “the fort destroyed, the war arms taken away, the trunks of the English spread everywhere in the fields, broken and pillaged.”
According to his later testimony, Stobo concluded then and there that the terms of the capitulation had been violated and that he in turn was free of his moral obligations as a hostage. That conclusion was confirmed several days after his arrival at Fort Duquesne, when the Indians brought in a number of English soldiers made prisoner after the capitulation. Some of these men were from his own company, and they were offered for sale, even to Stobo himself, for 40 pistoles (£32) each. “I thought,” said Stobo, “that it was in the power of 500 or 600 brave Frenchmen to prevent 80 or 90 Indians from doing what they pleased. I began to think the French closed their eyes to this outrage, not only to gratify the Indians but also to attach the Indians more to their own cause. ”
At Fort Duquesne, Stobo and van Braam were quartered in a room within the stockade and, as hostages, were given the freedom of the grounds. Van Braam spent his days and evenings playing cards and talking with the French officers in their cabins. Stobo began to learn French and to study the customs of the Indians. And he proceeded to examine every detail of his surroundings.
Discovering that the French fort was weakly held, Stobo sat down in his room on July 28 and wrote as much in an 815-word letter addressed to the English commander at Wills Creek (Cumberland, Maryland). The letter was smuggled out by an Indian named Moses, “a worthy fellow” who Stobo had reason to believe could be trusted. It plunged without introduction into an account of French-Indian relations, perhaps in the manner of a man who is making a report which he knows is expected (“This was all I could pick up”). It was signed boldly with Stobo’s full name, perhaps in the manner of a man who is determined to get credit for what he has written.
Garrison consists of 200 Men … a Lieutenant went off some days ago with 200 Men for provisions, he’s daily expected, when he arrives the garrison will then be 400. La Force is greatly wanted here, no scouting now, he certainly must have been an extraordinary Man amongst them, he is so much regretted and wished for; when We engaged to serve the Country it was expected We were to do it with our Lives, let them not be disappointed, consider the Good of the Expedition without the least Regard to Us, for my part, I wou’d die ten thousand Deaths to have the Pleasure of possessing this Fort but one day, they are so vain of their Success at the Meadows, ‘tis worse than Death to hear them, strike this Fall, as soon as possible make the Indians ours, prevent Intelligence, get the best, and ‘tis done, one hundred trusty Indians might Surprise this fort, they have Access all day and might lodge themselves so that they might secure the guard with their tomahawks, shut the Sally gate and the Fort is ours. None but the Guard and Contrecoeur [the commandant] stays in the Fort at night.
What he wrote next would cost him dearly in the years to come.
For God’s Sake communicate this to but few, and them you can trust. Intelligence comes here unaccountably. If they should know I have wrote, I should at least lose the little liberty I have. I should be glad to hear from you, but take no notice of this in yours. Excuse errors, bad diction, etc. … Pray be kind to this Indian.
On the reverse side of the letter, Stobo made “a draft of the Fort, such as time and opportunity would admit of at this time.” It was a clear and extraordinarily detailed drawing of Fort Duquesne, complete with dimensions and analysis. (“A. Ditch with a breast work thrown up. B. The Earth not dug away in the Lunets. C. The Entrance to the powder room. 5 Cannon mounted on this bastion. In the whole fort 8 Cannon, 4 of which 3 pounders. The prickt [dotted] line represents posts of wood drove in the ground 12 feet high and mortized together with loop holes for small arms.”)
In a 670-word letter written the following day, also signed, given to an Indian runner named Delaware George, Stobo repeated some of the information of the first letter, again urged an attack, reported that the Indians had taken and were selling English prisoners, and gave an account by name and company of twelve deserters and prisoners, one of them an informer, lately held at the Fort. The letters were delivered (the second one first) to George Croghan, frontier trader and Indian interpreter, who indiscreetly opened both before sending them on to Colonel James Innés, commander at Wills Creek. The letters were copied several times and were carelessly circulated and talked about. Despite the intelligence they conveyed, the British were in no position to make an immediate assault on the French stronghold.
On August 22, Governor Dinwiddie sent Commissary La Force and the twenty other prisoners under guard toward Wills Creek with orders to Colonel Innés to exchange them for Captains Stobo and van Braam. On reading Captain Stobo’s letters, however, with their information about the merits of the much-wanted M. La Force, Dinwiddie changed his mind and sent an express rider to overtake and turn back the column. To Thomas, Lord Fairfax, Virginia’s first landowner, he wrote that, because of information received from Captain Stobo, he would return La Force and seventeen other French prisoners to Alexandria. To Colonel Innés at Wills Creek he gave orders to exchange, “if you can,” the remaining officer and two cadets for the two English hostages. A year later, after the French ambassador had protested this action to the British government and the case had become a celebrated one in Europe, Dinwiddie was still writing long letters to his home minister to justify his conduct.
In dogged and much-blotted French, Colonel Innés wrote out an offer of exchange and gave it to a young artillery lieutenant named Lewis Lyon to carry under a flag of truce to Fort Duquesne.
In the meantime, Commandant Contrecoeur, through intelligence received from the English settlements, had learned that someone had sent letters and a map of his fort to the English—a violation of his security he was careful not to impart to his superiors in Canada. He suspected his hostages, and when young Lieutenant Lyon appeared with his flag of truce (red, according to French custom), Contrecoeur refused to accept the proffered exchange, concluding that Stobo and van Braam knew far too much to be traded back to the enemy. He charged Lyon with being on a spying mission, kept him confined in a small room where he could see nothing, refused to let him talk to Stobo or van Braam, and turned him out of the camp at two o’clock in the morning. That same day, under guard, the two hostages were started “under good and sure guard” on the journey to French Canada.
The trip was made by canoe, bateaux, and portages, and (assuming it followed the usual route) proceeded by way of the rivers to Fort Presque Isle (at present-day Erie, Pennsylvania), across Lake Erie, down the Niagara River, around the great Falls and the gorge to Fort Niagara, across Lake Ontario to Fort Frontenac (where Kingston, Ontario, now stands), and down the St. Lawrence to Quebec.
After thirty-nine days and some 650 miles of travel, the hostages reached Quebec on October 26, where they were interrogated by the Marquis Duquesne, governor general of New France.
To his minister at Versailles Duquesne wrote: “The two hostage captains arrived here five days ago. They told me they were greatly shocked by the proceedings of their governor, who has abandoned them. That is all I could get from them. Their good conduct at Fort Duquesne won them politeness from me and freedom to walk in the city, on their parole.” Contrecoeur’s failure to report the violation of security served Stobo well.
He used his freedom to perfect his French, to make friends, and, presumably, to make a careful study of the key French fortress in the New World. He was given a room in the ramparts of the Citadel and, as an officer, received a small daily allowance for his subsistence. Though he had left Fort Necessity “with only the clothes on my back and three or four shirts,” he had retained his money and his credit was good, and now he bought himself a new wardrobe. Among his purchases were a suit of red satin trimmed in blue; a wool suit trimmed with gold lace; a scarlet, blue, and gold vest faced with white satin; shirts bedecked with Rouen lace; a diamond neck buckle; a snuff box; a beaver greatcoat; a pair of otter’s-hair mittens; and a hat set off with a plume.
Such purchases were expensive in New France, but Captain Stobo’s resources were strengthened in the spring of 1755, when Governor Dinwiddie supplied the two hostages with a credit of £50 through a merchant in Albany. With the money, Stobo received word that he had been promoted to major. A year later the Virginia House of Burgesses ordered that £300 be sent to Robert Stobo “in consideration of his services to the country, and his sufferings in his confinement as a hostage at Quebec.” Van Braam, who was under a cloud because of his blunder in translating the capitulation papers, was ignored.
The unknown author of The Memoirs of Robert Stobo (written during the subject’s lifetime but not published until 1800) said of this period: His manner was open, free and easy, which gained him ready access into all their company: nay, indeed, they never thought any company complete unless Monsieur Stobo made one of it. … As he had very little other employment at that time, he endeavored to make himself as agreeable as he could with the ladies, and found himself much in their good graces.
The young major was equipped by background and education to conduct himself properly in the polite society of New France. Born in 1727 in Glasgow, he was the only son of William Stobo, a Glasgow merchant who had become well-to-do by instituting ship- ment of Scottish goods to English markets. His father died when he was thirteen, leaving him and his two sisters in the care of their mother but under the legal guardianship of friends.
Stobo had been “so prodigiously delicate in his constitution, that when a boy … he was nursed two spring seasons on breast milk.” As a young man he was described as “rather slender than robust, and graceful in his whole deportment.” He was five feet, ten inches tall and “of a dark brown complexion, a penetrating eye, an aquiline nose, round face, [and] a good cheerful countenance.”
In 1742 his guardians sent young Stobo to Virginia to work and learn the business in a store owned by some merchants of Glasgow. Five years later, at twenty, he returned to Glasgow, sold some of his real estate, and went back to Virginia with a small fortune in merchandise with which to set himself up as an independent merchant and “factor.” As an eligible young bachelor and the protégé of Governor Dinwiddie (also Glasgow-born), he had entre into the best Virginia homes. When Dinwiddie appointed him to his captaincy in February, 1754, Stobo had (like Jacob van Braam) no dependents and no other attachments. This, it may be assumed, was the reason why these two were chosen from Washington’s five captains to serve as hostages.
The French, however, had suddenly come to a quite different conclusion about the reason for that service. They had been given two pieces of solid evidence on what they had theretofore suspected but could not prove.
First, in Stobo’s own words, “a paragraph of a News Paper from London dated January 1755 mentioned a letter I had wrote from Fort Duquesne to the Commander at Wills Creek giving information of the state of the place appearing.” This news item, of course, had come to the attention of the French and, in a matter of months, had arrived in Canada.
And then, on July 9, 1755, a few miles from Fort Duquesne, General Edward Braddock and his forces were routed with great loss. In his inventory of what was left on the field of battle, Contrecoeur listed a stunning array of booty and ended his list with the words, “A lot of papers which have not been translated for want of time; among others, a plan of Fort Duquesne with its exact proportions.” This was Stobo’s signed map and letter, given to General Braddock at Wills Creek and carried by him to his defeat and death.
Meanwhile Stobo, unaware of impending disaster, had become commercially active in Canada. With his credit and the capital received from Williamsburg, he undertook certain business enterprises with a St. Luc de la Corne. Apparently these had to do with Indian trade goods, for La Corne was superintendent of French Indian affairs, and Stobo obtained special permission to travel back and forth among the native villages. He was, in fact, given “the honor of the Mississago Indian nation” in a ceremony in which he was tattooed with fish bones dipped in a black dye “on the foresides of both thighs, immediately above the garter, in form something like a diadem.”
It was at a gathering in La Corne’s house in Montreal, a few weeks before Braddock’s defeat, that Stobo first learned of his misfortune. La Corne greeted him with the words, “Devil of an Englishman, you have written letters. Contrecoeur is furious with you, and he is right.” Stobo replied, “They never asked me for my word of honor not to write letters. I am too honest a man to break my word, if they had asked me.”
One of those present reported van Braam as saying to Stobo, “You have done wrong. We’re lucky we fell into the hands of French people who have been good to us.”
Both men were taken before the Marquis de Vaudreuil, who in a few weeks would replace Duquesne as governor general of New France. On Vaudreuil’s desk lay a copy of the London newspaper. The Governorelect questioned both and then sent them back to Quebec, where they were placed together in a cell in the artillery barracks.
To Machault, the Minister of Marine and Colonies, Vaudreuil wrote querulously and at length on July 24 (still unaware of the great French victory at Fort Duquesne) of “the sad condition” in which Duquesne had left the colony. “I add that the two English captains who are here as hostages have had as much liberty as if they had been invited to learn thoroughly our situation. … They have even advised their Governors of our forces and plans. I have had them confined.” Within a few days, Vaudreuil received from Fort Duquesne the undeniable evidence of Stobo’s guilt.
The Governor-designate sent Stobo’s captured letter and map to Versailles for instructions. Months passed. The French government published and widely distributed a “white paper” which cited the letter as evidence that Stobo and van Braam “were two very crafty spies” and charged rather wildly that the continued detention of La Force and the other French prisoners was part of a plot to make sure that the two hostages would be held longer by the French, so they could obtain as much information as possible. In May-June, 1756, almost as an afterthought, England and France formally declared war on each other. Eventually a ship arrived in Canada with a “commission” for the Governor to try both men by a war council of colonial officers for violating the known laws of nations, for breach of faith, and for treasonable practices against the government that sheltered them.
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.
His resolution was strengthened by three developments. Monsieur de Longueuil, now a high official at Montreal (who had befriended Stobo or van Braam or both at Fort Duquesne), caused the two prisoners to be quartered together again. Van Braam, though under no sentence, agreed to join the escape attempt. And, somewhat later, Longueuil decided that the men should be allowed to walk about in the corridor for exercise.
At about seven on the evening of May 1, 1757, a twenty-year-old domestic named Jeanne-Alin carried dinner to the two men in their room, set the table, observed that they seemed very gay, and departed after about fifteen minutes. At five o’clock the following morning, Charles Martigny, the jailer, entered the room, saw that the prisoners were apparently sleeping, lighted their fire, and “walked very quietly for fear of waking them.” Then, Martigny said, “there came two Acadians to ask for work from Mr. Stobo and Mr. van Braam, and I ascended to the room again to ask them if they had anything for the poor fellows to do. I was very much surprised to discover in the bed instead of a man, a beaver great-coat with a night cap and shirt which was made to resemble the head of a man. In the other bed [van Braam’s] there was a valise, likewise a bonnet and a cotton shirt.” He sounded the alarm and within a few hours was being questioned by the very angry military provost of Quebec. Said unhappy Jailer Martigny, “The great liberty which was given them to walk about wherever they pleased did not allow me to be as strict as is customary at all times with other prisoners.”
The inventory immediately taken of the chamber included books, much clothing, a saddle bag, a chess set, a pound of sugar, snuff, four pounds of smoking tobacco, lead and other equipment for making bullets, and an astonishing assemblage of tools: three files, two planes, two chisels, a punch, an iron crowbar, a gouge, a wedge, a level, scissors, and, in a small locked box, a set of tools for making keys. Thus amply equipped, the prisoners had easily opened a simple lock on a second-floor corridor door which led to the roof of a small shed in the courtyard. From this they had dropped onto a pile of dung, crossed the court, and unbolted a door leading out onto Rue Pauvres. The tools, it was determined in the investigation, had been furnished by M. de Longueuil’s son.
Both men were captured a few days later by a subcaptain and four militiamen at the river bank at St. Nicholas, just above Quebec. The inhabitants of the parish were paid the reward of 3,000 livres which had been promised.
Two months later, on July 17-18, Stobo escaped a second time. All that is known of this attempt is taken from a journal kept by a Father Jean-Filex Recher of Quebec. Stobo was alone; he succeeded in passing a guard who challenged but did not arrest him; he was recaptured by M. de Longueuil himself and a companion near St. Roch “where he did not know what to do”; and he was returned to the prison in a carriage without difficulty. “His spirit,” observed Father Recher, “was a little discourteous.”
For an unknown period following this escape, Stobo was kept in close confinement at Quebec and, according to other English prisoners returning to New England, was given “the most rigorous treatment.” By his own account, this so affected his health that at one point “my life was despaired of.”
By the early spring of 1759, however, Stobo was once more in good health. Now again, for some reason, he was allowed an extraordinary amount of freedom, especially for a twice-escaped prisoner under sentence of death—even though it had now become commonly known that the sentence “had been broke.” The Memoirs attributes this new liberty to the intercession of a young lady who had fallen in love with the prisoner. She is identified only as one who called Governor Vaudreuil “cousin” and as “a lady fair, of chaste renown, of manners sweet, and gentle soul; long had her heart confessed for this poor prisoner, a flame.”
The simplest explanation for Stobo’s freedom of movement in 1759 is the fact that other English prisoners—there were seven hundred of them in Canada at the time of Stobo’s trial—were allowed comparable liberty. Montcalm complained bitterly of this several times in letters to Versailles and in his journal. “The guarding of the English prisoners,” he wrote, “has always been as bad as the administration in general about them.” Again he refers to ”… this crowd which in Montreal and Quebec are as free as if they were in Boston.”
One of the prisoners thus detained was Simon Stevens, a young lieutenant in Major Robert Rogers’ Rangers who had been taken prisoner on Lake George in June, 1758, shortly before the bloody disaster inflicted by Montcalm on the English at Ticonderoga. Stevens lived in a room in the town on an allowance of five pence, one farthing, per day. He, like Stobo and many other officer prisoners in Quebec, was able to “draw his bills” on the generous-hearted Colonel Peter Schuyler of the New Jersey Regiment, taken prisoner at the fall of Oswego.
Seeing no chance of being exchanged, Stevens joined with Major Stobo in the fall of 1758 in a plan to escape. They recruited one Elijah Denbo, a prisoner who had been a servant to a New Jersey captain; Oliver Lakin, who was a prisoner of the Indians but was allowed to come into Quebec to work; and William Clark, a ship’s carpenter who, with his family, had been a prisoner of the Indians and was now living at Quebec in the character of a deserter from the English. After six months of delay and frustration, the escape plan was set. The group was to paddle down the St. Lawrence River in a canoe, despite the notorious difficulty of navigating it, and cross the Gulf of St. Lawrence. The goal was Louisbourg on Cape Breton Island, the second city of New France, which had been taken by Lord Jeffery Amherst the year before. It was almost one thousand miles away.
On the night of Tuesday, May 1, 1759, Robert Stobo, dressed as a peasant, left his lodging as soon as darkness fell and went to Clark’s house. There the plotters had stored guns, ammunition and powder, provisions, and (in Stevens’ words) homemade “knapsacks, Indian stockings, and morgasons [moccasins].” Stevens and Lakin crossed the River St. Charles in a small boat and brought back a large birch-bark canoe, but with only two paddles.
The men loaded the provisions in the canoe and, about ten o’clock, started to paddle quietly down the St. Charles. There were nine of them altogether: Stobo, Stevens, Denbo, Lakin, Clark, and, incredible as it seems, Clark’s wife and three children. (The ages and the sex of the children are not known, but at least one of them appears to have been a grown girl.) Of the nine, only Clark had any experience as a seaman.
What happened to this strange company over the next twenty-six days is so improbable that the narrative, if it depended on Stobo’s Memoirs alone, would have to be almost completely discounted. The story, however, is validated by at least five other contemporary accounts, including a day-to-day journal kept by Lieutenant Stevens and published in Boston within the year.
The fugitives paddled until dawn, reaching the Isle Madame, about twenty-one miles below Quebec, where they pulled their canoe into a thicket, refreshed themselves, and set about making more paddles. During the next three days they made good progress; on Saturday, they came upon and took captive an Indian and his squaw. Stevens wrote: “I took hold of the Indian and march’d forward; but before we march’d far, the Indian sprang from me with a Design to make his Escape; upon which Clark being the next behind me, shot him dead. I then gave Orders to Denbo to kill the Squaw, who immediately obeyed my Orders.” Clark took the scalps of each (worth£24 in New York), tied stones to their feet, and sank them in a pool. Into their canoe they loaded the Indians’ possessions: a half bushel of corn, thirty weight of dried beaver fur, two hundred pounds of maple sugar, and two guns.
Meantime, back in Quebec, the alarm had been sounded. Montcalm wrote in his journal: The arrival of a special messenger … informed of the escape of Robert Stobo. … He has gone with an officer of New England and three or four English. They have promised 1,000 écus (silver crowns) reward to those who bring him back; they should have allowed him less liberty, especially after having attempted to escape twice.
By Wednesday, May 9, the fugitives were some two hundred miles below Quebec near Isle Verte. They woke to find a shallop (a large two-masted, four-oared boat) landing near their camp. They promptly captured the crew of four on firing several shots. Said Stevens: “We then examined the boat, and found to our great joy, about 40 bushels of wheat, a barrel of sturgeon, and about a hundred weight of sugar. We hove out about one-half of the wheat, and put in our own stores, and set sail with a fair wind, with our canoe at the stern.” They impressed the four prisoners as oarsmen.
That same afternoon they were challenged by a French sloop and ordered to come to. There was no wind, and a strong tide was against them, but they continued rowing. Stobo, at the tiller, promised “with a sacred oath” to kill the first prisoner “who offered anything to stop the shallop’s way, by slighting of his oar, or otherwise.” They were fired upon and pursued by boat, but were then favored by a rising wind. In Stevens’ words, “By good Fortune no Person was hurt, but very wonderfully escaped.”
At the River Metis on the following afternoon, having gone without sleep or rest since capturing the shallop, they elected to set their four prisoners ashore, giving them all but four bushels of their wheat and one gun with some powder and shot. “We watered and refreshed ourselves; and having a fine breeze of wind, continued on our course all night.”
They emerged from the wide mouth of the St. Lawrence, turned south around the Gaspé Peninsula, and then, in the Bay Chaleur, suffered a catastrophe. A severe storm forced them to shore and “drove in one Plank” of the shallop. Stevens wrote, “By this disaster we lost what little wheat we had, and eight cod; our condition was very deplorable, having a shattered boat, and almost deficient of all necessaries (except fish).”
The party held “a consultation.” Some were for going on foot through the woods to Fort Cumberland (formerly the French Fort Beauséjour, on the Chignecto Peninsula), well over a hundred miles away, but changed their minds when they found snow drifts four feet deep. Clark spent the next several days trying to get the boat up on land and made seaworthy again.
At that point, chance brought two enemy vessels to anchor near them to wait out the flood tide, one of them a sloop and the other, anchored at some distance, a schooner. The small company immediately resolved to capture both vessels, the nearer one first. At sundown, Stobo concealed two of his men in the bushes, attracted the attention of the sloop with a handkerchief tied on a stick, and signalled that they were friends in need of help. The obliging captain sent three of his men in a canoe. As they stepped ashore, Stobo demanded and got their surrender. By questioning he learned that both vessels were bound for Miramichi on the Gaspé to pick up provisions and some three hundred Indians who were to reinforce the garrison at Quebec. The sloop had two other men aboard; the schooner had six. The sloop’s captain, for unaccountable reasons, was not concerned when his three men failed to return. One suspects that he was drunk.
That night they bound two of the prisoners to trees, placed them under the guard of Mrs. Clark, and, taking the third prisoner as a pilot, set out in the leaky shallop to storm the schooner. (The ship’s boat was too small to hold six men.) Lakin and Denbo bailed furiously to keep the boat afloat; Clark stood at the helm, Stevens stood at the bow, and Stobo, a gun in his hand and a pistol and cutlass in his belt, placed himself in the middle, ready to board first.
At about 1 A.M., Stevens grappled the vessel. There was no watch. He leaped aboard and, seeing nobody, ran toward the companion doors. One of the crew now came out of the steerage; Stevens turned, levelled his weapon, and took the man prisoner.
Clark, second on deck, ran immediately to take the candle that lighted the compass and then headed for the captain’s cabin. Stobo, in the meantime, had become helplessly entangled in the ratlines of the shrouds and had dropped his cutlass and pistol. He managed to free himself and, in the ensuing confusion, killed the man to whom Stevens had given quarter. At this point the captain emerged from below decks and surrendered.
“I hope the Reader will excuse my being so very particular in this Affair,” wrote Stevens gravely in his account, “as Capt. Stobo has reported that he was the first that boarded the Schooner, and the only Instrument in taking her.”
After they had secured their prisoners, the conquerors weighed anchor, spread sail, and moved alongside the sloop. They ordered its two men to come aboard, hands raised. They refused. Stobo and company opened fire with small arms at short range, firing about twenty rounds and hitting no one, whereupon master and crewman surrendered. All except the two captains were locked with the other prisoners in the hold of the schooner.
The company was now in possession of two vessels, ten prisoners, one corpse, an arsenal of weapons, and ample food to complete the trip. They sailed the schooner, Stevens wrote, to our old Camp, sent the Boat on Shore, and bro’t off our Women and Prisoners, and what small Quantity of Provisions we had left. We set sail, and after we had sail’d about five Leagues, we put on Shore six of our Prisoners: We gave them three Days Provisions, one Gun, and some Ammunition. We kept on board the two Masters, with three Prisoners more, whom we ordered to carry the Vessel to St. John’s Island [now Prince Edward Island] where we all safe arrived (thank GOD) May 27th, 1759.
In Louisbourg, where they arrived on June 6 under friendly escort, the escaped men were welcomed as triumphant heroes. Within a matter of days their story had travelled down the seaboard to Boston and beyond. A correspondent of the Maryland Gazette wrote: “He [Stobo] is a Man of Most enterprising Genius. His Tale is very long and very romantic. … [He] appears to be a sensible Gentleman,” and followed with a long account of the Major’s adventures over the past five years.
On June 7, Stobo and Stevens reported to the military governor, Brigadier Edward Whitmore, who, with two admirals and a commodore attending, interrogated the men separately. Stobo’s estimate of the strength and disposition of French forces in Canada was detailed; for example, he listed the eight regiments of regulars by name.
Whitmore considered their stories important enough to be conveyed to William Pitt by express boat. He sent a copy to Jeffery Amherst, commander of all the British forces in North America, who was at Lake Champlain, preparing his n,ooo-man army for another attempt to take Ticonderoga. He sent another to General James Wolfe, who had begun a weary and apparently hopeless siege of the Great Rock of Quebec. (See “The Battle That Won an Empire” in the December, 1959, A MERICAN H ERITAGE .)
Both Stevens and Stobo volunteered to return to Quebec to make their knowledge available to Wolfe. They were transported by special vessel and arrived at Wolfe’s headquarters early in July.
According to the Memoirs, Stobo “constantly attended the general, and of his house made one.” He took part in the defeat at Montmorency Falls, where he was slightly wounded. Serving under Lieutenant Colonel Guy Carleton, he conducted Wolfe and a party of Highlanders and Royal Americans to Pointe aux Trembles, some sixteen miles upriver. He spearheaded the attack there in command of a force of three hundred men, capturing about sixty prisoners. Stobo was later able to give gallant protection and safe conduct back to Quebec to 150 ladies who had fled there to escape the terrible shelling of the city, among them a number of his former friends.
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.
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.”
The bleak words evoke an untold and unknowable story of disappointed hopes and unrealized ambitions; of low pay; of ill health from old wounds. Robert Stobo’s most admirable characteristics were tenacity, durability under pressure, and the ability to land on both feet, fighting. Somewhere in the ten years following 1760, these qualities failed him.
But in the seven crucial and formative years during which the American colonies freed themselves of French power and dependence on British arms, and so laid the groundwork for the American Revolution, Captain Stobo of the Virginians earned an honored if minor place in our early history. He still deserves from us today, in the words of the House of Burgesses of Virginia, “Thanks for his steady and inviolable attachment to the interest of this country, and for his singular bravery and courage exerted on all occasions.”