Henry Milnes | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Henry Milnes

Henry Milnes, soldier (birthdate unknown; died 25 August 1813). Captain Henry Milnes was an infamous figure more for his private life than for his soldiering.

Henry Milnes, soldier (birthdate unknown; died 25 August 1813). Captain Henry Milnes was an infamous figure more for his private life than for his soldiering. He served as part of Governor General Sir George Prevost's staff, but his name became famous for his near scandalous love life in Upper Canada during the War of 1812, recounted in the diary of Prevost's daughter.

Milnes arrived in Canada on 6 December 1812 to serve Prevost as an aide-de-camp. He quickly took to the social scene in Upper Canada, and turned the head of Prevost's 18-year-old daughter, Anne, whose diary recounts their early romances of dates, dances and social functions. While Anne never made her affections for him clear (the marriage of a governor general's daughter required strategy and cunning, both of which Anne exercised with her suitors), she was clearly taken with Milnes. "Poor Captain Milnes was very prepossessing. He was unbecomingly tall and had an awkward stoop, but his countenance was very intelligent and pleasing . . . when Captain M. was in good humour, he was the most agreeable person I ever met with. He was fond of his mother and spoke of her with such affection . . . I could not see so much of his character and receive so much pleasing attention from him, without feeling my heart in some danger. Had he tried to gain my affection he probably would have succeeded."

But Milnes had more salacious tastes. According to Anne, he was infatuated with the wife of Major George Cockburn, who was at the time fighting in Upper Canada. Such preying on the "home front widows" was common during times of war, though not praised or supported by social conventions. But almost as bad was the discrepancy in age, for Mrs. Cockburn was ten years older than Milnes. Such scandalous behavior, grinding against social mores and under the nose of the governor general no less, could not be tolerated. After a relative intervened to force Milnes to change his ways, another plot was hatched and in short order Milnes was sent to the front, far away from the temptations of older, married women.

It was a fatal decision. Milnes soon found himself in battle at the skirmish at Cranberry Creek, 20 July 1813. Two American sloops had ventured up the St. Lawrence from Sackets Harbor to intercept a British bateaux convoy. The British ships and their bounty of material were captured between Prescott and Gananoque. One British ship escaped and sounded the alarm. Two gun boats and some ships went hunting the Americans, who had absconded to Cranberry Creek, formed a barricade, and prepared for a fight. Bolstered by army and Royal Navy reinforcements from Kingston, the British made their advance, straight into an ambush. It was a brief and deadly affair that ended in a retreat for the British, allowing the Americans a safe return to Sackets Harbor. Counted among the casualties was Captain Milnes, who received a bullet through the head as a rather sad end for his affairs of the heart. He lingered for several weeks and died on 25 August.

While there's no evidence that Milnes consummated his affair with Mrs. Cockburn, his story of love and lust in the time of war reminds us that such indiscretions with sad endings are not just the stuff of melodramatic novels, but part of the panoply of experiences within the human condition.