CM . . .
. Volume XX Number 10. . . .November 8, 2013
The Bully Boys is an adventure novel for youths with Lieutenant James FitzGibbon (1780-1863) as hero. Irish-born FitzGibbon served in the British army in the Netherlands, and, in 1802, as a sergeant, he was sent to British North America. In June 1812, at the height of the Napoleonic War in Europe, the United States declared war on Britain because of Britain's shipping blockade, the impressment of Americans into the British Navy, and American territorial ambitions. The U.S. attacked Lower and Upper Canada, capturing Fort George and invading the Niagara Peninsula in May 1813. With a special force of 50 British soldiers, FitzGibbon conducted a guerilla war against the invaders. It was to him that Laura Secord reported rumours of an American surprise attack. After the war, FitzGibbon remained in Upper Canada, rose to Acting Adjutant General of Militia and headed the forces that suppressed the 1837 Upper Canadian rebellion against colonial rule. In 1847, he retired to England.
The narrator, a fictional 14-year-old named Tom Roberts, is a farm boy whose father is away with the local militia assisting the British troops. After Tom helps FitzGibbon intervene against two American soldiers robbing the local general store, he must join FitzGibbon for protection against retaliation. Tom stays with Fitzgibbon's special forces, the "Green Tigers", so named because their green uniforms blended with the landscape. According to historian Jason Ridler (www.eighteentwelve.com), they were also known as "Bloody" Boys. (Perhaps "The Green Tigers" might have been a better title for the novel.)
Tom's knowledge of the area makes him invaluable to FitzGibbon and his men. Tom joins them in a supply raid on an American-held blockhouse. With them, he evades American soldiers in the woods. Eventually he finds his father and witnesses the Battle of Beaver Dam. Through Tom's eyes, readers see FitzGibbon's cunning in warfare. To spy inside American-held Fort George and scare the Americans about the strength of the forces opposing them, he disguises himself as a farmer selling butter. Later, his echoing war whoop in a cave plays on the American fear of Natives.
Through Tom, Walters shows the magnitude of taking a life in battle. Caught up in the excitement of guerilla warfare, Tom's view of war changes when he visits a field hospital in search of his father. He had "never imagined" the state of the wounded or the stench. His "Pa" later speaks of his dread of a battlefield death and of the threat of disease from so many corpses.
Walters does not demonize the enemy. "I had no quarrel with the Americans... at least not until they invaded our country," Pa says. "That's the only reason I'm part of this war... to take care of my family." Since many settlers in Upper Canada had relatives across the border, and since allegiances were fluid, Pa's remark rings true.
In an interview included in the novel, Walters says: "I read somewhere that the Battle of Beaver Dams was won by the First Nations people and they didn't get the credit they deserved. I wanted to give them that credit. Their bravery and honour in keeping their commitments were essential in turning the tide of war in our favour."
Indeed, Mohawk Chief John Norton observed after the Battle of Beaver Dams that "the Caughnawaga fought the battle, the Mohawks or Six Nations got the plunder and FitzGibbon got the credit." (quoted by Ronald J. Dale in www.canadianencyclopedia.com) But, by focussing on FitzGibbon as hero, Walters cannot adequately show First Nations motives for participating in the war nor the full extent of their contribution.
Historians disagree on the number of Native warriors who fought at Beaver Dams. Ronald J. Dale says there were 440. Jason Ridler writes (www.canadianencyclopedia.com) that "three hundred Caughnawaga attacked the Americans from the rear near Beaver Dams (present day Thorold), and were soon joined by 100 Mohawk under Captain William Kerr....After three hours of firing at shadows, the American forces were ready to surrender, but feared what Aboriginal soldiers might do to them as prisoners. FitzGibbon arrived with fifty soldiers of his own 49th regiment." In the quote at the beginning of this review, Walters has FitzGibbon estimate their number to be just over 100.
Ridler quotes FitzGibbon as saying: "With respect to the affair with Captain Boerstler, [the U.S. commanding officer at Beaver Dams] not a shot was fired on our side by any but the Indians. They beat the American detachment into a state of terror and the only share I claim is taking advantage of a favourable moment to offer them protection from the tomahawk and scalping knife." By omitting this quote, which is available on websites, Walters misses a chance to show FitzGibbon's modesty, while also minimizing the significance of First Nations warriors in the battle.
Later, in a readers' note, Walters states: "It was the First Nations people who lost much in this war." The Treaty of Ghent "did nothing to secure their territory." Indeed, the First Nations expected the British to secure for them a large territory including present-day Ohio, Indiana and Wisconsin. Britain's failure to do so is regarded by many historians as a major betrayal of her First Nations allies.
Of Lieutenant FitzGibbon, Walters writes: "Without his bravery and daring there would never have been a Canada." Yet, as Walters notes, the Treaty of Ghent (1815) restored the status quo ante bellum. All American land captured by the British was returned to the United States, and American-held areas of Upper Canada were returned to British control. If the Americans had conquered Upper Canada, they would have had to relinquish the colony after the war.
"... [Y]ou can't let history get in the way of the story," says Walters in his author interview. "The worst mistake a writer can make in crafting historical fiction is to get too bogged down in history and not tell a story." The Bully Boys is a fast-paced tale that should attract boys 10 to 15 and may interest them in reading more about the War of 1812.
Ruth Latta's teen novel, The Songcatcher and Me is available from email@example.com and firstname.lastname@example.org.
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