The Battle of Saint-Eustache was a battle that occurred between Patriote forces and British troops on 14 December 1837 during the first rebellion in Lower Canada. This third and final battle of this rebellion ended in crushing defeat for the Patriotes. On that day, some 300 to 600 rebels found themselves trapped in the village of Saint-Eustache, encircled by nearly 1500 redcoats. The Patriotes were forced to surrender after a bitter struggle in which 70 of their number died. The church of Saint-Eustache, in which they had taken refuge, still bears the scars from the cannonballs fired by the British artillery.
Tenuous Situation in the Patriote Camp
In December 1837, the situation of the Patriote forces was tenuous (See Rebellion in Lower Canada (The Patriotes’ War)). They had already engaged in several violent clashes with the British, including the battles of St-Denis and St-Charles. The former was a victory for the Patriotes, the latter a defeat, after which the leaders had difficulty in maintaining the troops’ morale. A number of Patriote leaders had already quit the rebellion, and the British army, under commander-in-chief Sir John Colborne, was preparing to deal it the final blow.
After the defeat at the Battle of St-Charles on 25 November, several hundred rebels fell back to their camp at Saint-Eustache. They were led by Dr. Jean-Olivier Chénier, of Saint-Eustache, and Amury Girod, a farmer and one of the most ardent champions of the Patriote cause. But these leaders did not have the same military experience as their adversaries and had trouble in organizing their side. Their soldiers were poorly equipped habitants, armed with an insufficient number of weapons of various gauges.
The parish priest at Saint-Eustache, a Loyalist partisan named Jacques Paquin, mocked the rebels in his memoirs: “One often saw them passing through the village in little bands of five or six men, with old, rusty, ill-maintained muskets on their shoulders, blue bonnets trailing halfway down their backs, and stubby old black pipes in their mouths, puffing huge clouds of tobacco smoke. They usually wore large leather mittens and homespun clothes and walked heavily, often stumbling under the effects of drink.”
Day to day, the Patriote leaders spent more time on purchasing and requisitioning weapons and food than on military training per se. This lack of professionalism drew sharp criticism from Father Paquin, who was hostile to the Patriote rebellion and attempted to thwart it. A few times, Chénier and Girod attempted to convince him to switch sides, but in vain. The village of Saint-Eustache was deeply divided by the conflict. In his journal, the priest also described the Patriotes’ lack of preparation: “All of these unfortunates thought themselves completely safe and never expected to be attacked in their own camp.”
Battle of Saint-Eustache
Meanwhile, General Sir John Colborne mobilized an army of nearly 1500 British troops to crush what remained of the rebellion. (See Rebellions of 1837-38.) His army was composed of two brigades. The first, commanded by Colonel John Maitland, comprised two professional regiments of 600 soldiers each (the 32nd and 86th regiments), supported by 52 volunteers from the Royal Montreal Cavalry. The second brigade was commanded by Colonel George Augustus Wetherall, the victor of the Battle of St-Charles; it was composed of a corps of artillery of 78 men, 53 volunteers from the Montreal Rifle Corps and 83 loyalist volunteers from Saint-Eustache. This detachment was commanded by Captain Maximilien Globensky, an ardent opponent of the Patriote cause.
In the days preceding the battle, the alarm bell was sounded in the village several times, as the rebel pickets spotted British detachments come to reconnoiter the terrain. At 11:15 on the morning of 14 December 1837, the bell was sounded again to announce the enemy’s arrival when British troops were sighted on the other side of the Mille Îles River. They were only the second brigade of the British army, but thinking that he was facing the entire army, Chénier immediately sent 150 to 300 volunteers out to attack the enemy across the frozen lake that separated the two armies. But as the Patriotes advanced across the ice, they were met by hails of gunfire that forced them to retreat.
This flight from the battlefield cooled the Patriotes’ ardour considerably. Having no cannon with which to respond, they were at a major tactical disadvantage. By the time the rebel troops had fallen back to the village, half of them had already deserted. Girod and Chénier deployed their remaining forces in the village’s main buildings—the convent, the presbytery, the church, and the seigneurial manor, as well as a few neighbouring houses — an urban guerilla tactic that had proven its value in the Patriote victory at St-Denis. (See Battle of Saint-Denis.) But this time, the Patriotes could not overcome adversity. General Colborne, personally commanding the British assault, immediately bombarded the main buildings where the rebels had sheltered. Girod, claiming that he was going out to rally the troops, instead abandoned the battlefield and fled to the village of St-Benoît. He committed suicide three days later.
By noon, the village of Saint-Eustache was totally surrounded by the British army. Little by little, the redcoats managed to penetrate the convent, the presbytery and the manor. To dislodge the Patriotes, the set fire to the buildings. Soon, only the church still withstood the flames and cannon fire. Chénier took refuge there with his brothers in arms. Their situation was desperate. Knowing that his men had no weapons, he told them, “Don’t worry. Some of them will be killed, and you can take their muskets.”
The church soon suffered the same sad fate as the other buildings in the village. In the heat of the battle, a group of British soldiers managed to enter the church through the vestry and set it on fire. The Patriotes had no choice but to jump out the windows to avoid being burnt alive. But as soon as they hit the ground, most of them were killed by British infantry, including Chénier, who was hit with two rounds of fire and fell dead near the cemetery shortly thereafter.
By 4:30 p.m., the village of Saint-Eustache was in flames. Nearly 65 houses had been torched and the village was looted. The Patriotes suffered about 70 dead and 15 wounded, compared with only a few dead on the British side. About 120 Patriotes were taken prisoner.
The defeat at Saint-Eustache put a definitive end to the first rebellion in Lower Canada. Following the battle, Louis-Joseph Papineau fled to the United States, from which he launched a second rebellion in 1838, with no more success than the first.
Today, the rebellions in Lower Canada are often wrongly perceived as an embryonic form of the Quebec sovereigntist movement born out of the Quiet Revolution of the 1960s. This misperception belies the Patriotes’ actual demands: to have their own responsible government while remaining part of the British Empire. The Patriotes drew their inspiration mainly from the republican ideals that characterized revolutions on both sides of the Atlantic in the late 1700s and early 1800s, such as the American Revolution the Haitian Revolution (1798–1804), the Irish Rebellion of 1798 and the revolutions in Latin America from 1810 to 1825.
The walls of the church of Saint-Eustache still bear the scars of artillery fire from the battle fought on 14 December 1837. They represent one of the few remaining signs of the violence of the period and an important reminder of the struggles that led to the unification of Upper Canada and Lower Canada in 1840.