(September 3, 1724–November 10, 1808)
English General; Colonial Governor
The earnest, efficient Carleton was among Britain’s ablest military leaders during the American Revolution. His adroit handling of an indifferent French Catholic population, coupled with sound military action against a serious invasion, preserved Canada as part of the British Empire. He laid the seeds of Canada’s transformation from a conquered French province into a prosperous English colony.
Guy Carleton was born in Strabane, Ireland, on September 3, 1724, the son of Protestant, landholding parents. His early exposure to a large Catholic population there apparently inoculated him against religious bias and prepared him for events later in life. Carleton joined the British army as an ensign in May 1742, transferring to the elite First Regiment of Foot Guards as a lieutenant colonel nine years later. In this capacity he ventured to America and fought at the siege of Louisbourg under Sir Jeffrey Amherst in 1758. Shortly after, Carleton transferred as lieutenant colonel of the 78th Regiment of Foot and accompanied Gen. James Wolfe, a personal friend, during the campaign against Quebec. He fought bravely at the decisive battle on the Plains of Abraham on September 13, 1759, and was wounded. After recovering, Carleton returned to Europe as an acting brigadier general and performed well during the siege of Belle Isle off the coast of France in 1761. He was wounded again at Port Andro shortly thereafter, gained promotion to full colonel, served capably during the siege of Havana in 1762, and was wounded a third time. In recognition of his sterling service to the Crown, and his marked administrative abilities, Carleton became lieutenant governor of Quebec in September 1766. The following year he advanced to full governorship.
Canada had only recently been captured from France, and the inhabitants were only sullenly cooperative. But Carleton played a vital role in bringing this important territory firmly into the British fold. Despite his Protestant background, he entertained no prejudice against the overwhelmingly Roman Catholic population, and he took active measures to protect their religious practices. This was done over the protest of a small but vocal English community, who demanded preferential treatment as in England. Carleton rather wisely catered to the ruling provincial elites of Quebec, carefully cultivating their friendship. Thus, when he departed for England in 1770, he had secured the loyalty and cooperation of the French-speaking upper classes and the Catholic Church—no small feat in an age of religious intolerance. Back home, Carleton’s good conduct resulted in his promotion to major general in 1772, but he continued working vigorously on behalf of Canada. He became a vocal proponent of the Quebec Act of 1774, through which the English government granted full recognition to the Catholic faith, along with economic rights to the French-speaking population of Canada. Furthermore, this authority extended far beyond the boundaries of Quebec and as far away as the Mississippi Valley. The act served to further shore up Canadian loyalties, but it set off alarm bells in the largely Protestant American colonies farther south, whose inhabitants now believed the English government was hatching a “Popish” plot against them. It was the latest in a series of British official missteps that helped hasten the onset of the American Revolution. Carleton returned to Canada in late 1774, where he was warmly greeted, and the following spring he gained appointment as governor of Quebec.
Carleton’s arrival coincided with the onset of the American Revolution, which had been brewing in the city of Boston. The British commander there, Thomas Gage, felt his available manpower inadequate to the task of maintaining order, and so he directed reinforcements be brought down from Canada. Accordingly, Carleton stripped Quebec of all but 800 regulars and shipped them south. This left the province in a weakened condition, but Carleton felt that the French population would rally to England if the Americans attempted to invade. He was sadly mistaken. Carleton’s previous effort placated French sympathies but scarcely endeared the French to England; hence, relatively few militiamen stepped forward to serve. Although not overtly hostile, most Frenchmen were content to simply remain on the sidelines. Furthermore, many officials within the Indian Department, such as Guy Johnson and John Butler, openly advocated unloosing Native Americans against American settlements. But Carleton, formally trained in the art of “civilized” warfare, would hear none of it. He thereupon expressly ordered all Native Americans to be kept on a short leash—under strict control and supervision—to prevent atrocities. This was a noble gesture, firmly grounded in the general’s altruism, but did little to enhance Canadian security.
The consequences of French apathy and the reluctance to employ Indians was underscored when the American forces under Gens. Philip Schuyler and Richard Montgomery invaded Canada in the fall of 1775. Badly outnumbered, Carleton gave up ground slowly and was forced to abandon Montreal without a fight. He then fell back and entrenched himself at Quebec, where Montgomery received timely reinforcements under Gen. Benedict Arnold. Carleton was backed against the wall, but he proved grimly determined to resist. On December 31, 1775, Montgomery gambled on an all-out assault against Quebec in a blinding snowstorm and very nearly succeeded, but Carleton’s small, professional garrison repulsed him with heavy losses. Montgomery was killed, Arnold was wounded, and a body of riflemen under Daniel Morgan was captured. The Americans then settled upon a loose siege of the city while Carleton held fast and awaited reinforcements from England.
In May 1776, newly arrived British forces under Carleton began rolling back the American invaders. The following month he expertly defeated 2,000 Americans under Gen. William Thompson at Trois Rivieres, and Gen. John Sullivan abandoned Montreal to the advancing British. Carleton then prepared to invade northern New York and ordered a small flotilla of warships constructed upon Lake Champlain. An Americans fleet was also built under the guidance of General Arnold. The opposing forces clashed at Valcour Island and Split Rock in mid-October and the Americans were completely defeated, but not before inflicting heavy losses upon Carleton’s men. Rough terrain and the impending onset of winter convinced him to abandon his offensive and return to Canada. His operations had been criticized by some for a lack of dash, but he permanently secured the province for the remainder of the war. Carleton was subsequently knighted and promoted to lieutenant general for his good conduct.
By the summer of 1777, the British government had adopted an offensive strategy based in Canada, aimed at winning the war outright. Part of this entailed using various Native American tribes offensively, unleashing them across the frontier to wreak havoc and mayhem. This was accomplished over Carleton’s protests, for he considered such tactics to be uncivilized. Moreover, the new army would be led by Gen. John Burgoyne, who would retrace Carleton’s steps in northern New York and capture Albany, thereby severing New England from the rest of the colonies. The fact that the relatively inexperienced Burgoyne was selected over the veteran Carleton was the work of Lord George Germain, secretary of state for the colonies, who hated Carleton and wished to see him discredited. Carleton, taking the hint, angrily resigned his governorship, although he lent as much field support to Burgoyne’s operations as possible. Following Burgoyne’s surrender at Saratoga in October 1777, Carleton was recalled to England to serve as governor of Armagh, Ireland, and was succeed by Gen. Frederick Haldimand. However, his open and scathing criticism of Lord Germain made it impossible to employ him as long as that official still held power.
By 1781, the defeat of Gen. Charles Cornwallis at Yorktown ended the war in American victory and caused the fall of the north government. Once a new ministry under Lord Rockingham assumed power, Carleton was called out of retirement to succeed Gen. Henry Clinton as commander in chief of British forces in America and was also authorized to seek political reconciliation with the rebels. However, after arriving in New York, Carleton concluded that no effort, diplomatic or military, would curtail the colonial drive toward independence. He therefore spent the bulk of his time organizing an orderly withdrawal of British forces; he also assisted the departure of thousands of Loyalists. In 1786, Carleton was created Lord Dorchester and dispatched to Canada for a third time. As previously, he made sincere gestures toward accommodating French aspirations and helped implement a new system of government for this vast territory. That entailed creating two new provinces, Upper Canada (now Ontario) and Lower Canada (Quebec), along with their respective legislative assemblies. He departed Canada for the last time in 1796, having played a large and successful role in the founding of that country. The distinguished Carleton spent the rest of his life in retirement and died on November 10, 1808, one of the most capable military administrators of his age. The viability of Canada as a nation, and its independence from the United States, remain his greatest legacy.