Friday, September 13, 2019

From Braddock to Wolfe: Able Seaman Henry McCann

Today is the 260th anniversary of the Battle of the Plains of Abraham. It capped a massive imperial conflict that permanently removed the French from their North American holdings and replaced it with the British rule that persists to this day.

General Wolfe's legendary victory in Canada served as a bookend to the French and Indian War. His conquest was the opposite end of the spectrum from the defeat on the Monongahela four years earlier. The massive casualties suffered by British and provincial forces in that earlier battle meant there were few that would witness both Braddock's loss and Wolfe's triumphant victory, both of which proved fatal to the generals.

Seaman Henry McCann of the Centurion was the only sailor to have experienced both events.
Detail from Robert Orme’s A Plan of the Line of March with the Whole Baggage, printed by Thomas Jefferys in 1758, in the
Richard H. Brown Revolutionary War Map Collection of the Norman B. Leventhal Map Center at the Boston Public Library
McCann was one of thirty five officers and men assigned to the naval detachment of Braddock's expedition to capture Fort Duquesne at the beginning of the French and Indian War. He spent three months marching from Alexandria, Virginia to what is today Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. McCann and the naval detachment were essential in hauling guns with block and tackle, floating supplies and troops down rivers, and carving Braddock Road, much of which is still used today. Just as the army was closing in on the French fort, they were ambushed at the Monongahela. The naval detachment stood in the van of the army and took heavy casualties in the battle.

Disease, desertion, and especially death in combat reduced the thirty five sailors to nineteen or twenty over six months. Only eleven of these were fit for duty.[1] At least three of the survivors would be dead within a year, two of whom may have succumbed to wounds inflicted during the battle.[2] If we include the three men who died within a year of the battle, the navy lost well over half the men in the detachment as a direct result of the expedition.

McCann was exceptionally lucky, escaping without a wound as we can see here in the original return of the naval detachment when finally loaded aboard the frigate Garland for return to their vessels.
Detail from ADM 1/2009 f.20, photographed by Alexa Price
McCann was returned to the Centurion and spent most of the war on the North American station. He and his shipmates took part in the fall of Louisbourg, a successful conjunct expedition in 1758 during which sailors built batteries and lobbed shells at the anchored French fleet. On July 25th, sailors under Admiral Boscawen rowed out to the surviving French vessels, capturing a 64-gun ship, and burning a 74.
The Siege of Louisbourg, artist unknown, c.1760, eBay.
The following year, McCann and the Centurion were on station at the siege of Quebec. There were key differences between the sailors participating in the Braddock Expedition and the Siege of Quebec. Wolfe's sailors were rarely employed in manual labor, their accommodations were within the Wooden World with which they were accustomed, and they were not expected to serve as infantry. Indeed, unlike Louisbourg, there was relatively little for the sailors to do. During several landings they would shuttle soldiers back and forth, and they worked the guns when they could, but they could not elevate them to reach the heights of the city.

There was, of course, a flurry of activity when Wolfe ordered the landing at Anse-du-Foulon over the night of September 12 to 13. Sailors, including many from the Centurion and quite possibly McCann himself, once again took to their boats and helped ferry the troops ashore. This time, they also helped rig block and tackle to move artillery up the steep precipice that faced them, a task that McCann would have been very familiar with from his time on the Braddock Expedition.
Detail from A View of the Taking of Quebec, Laurie & Whittle, 1797, John Carter Brown Library of Early American Images.
These sailors then rushed their guns to the Plains of Abraham to prepare for the battle, as you can see in Benjamin West’s 1770 masterpiece The Death of General Wolfe.
Detail from The Death of General Wolfe, Benjamin West, 1770, Wikimedia Commons.
On the Plains they were expected to retire back to the boats. As an anonymous naval volunteer wrote, “I was a volunteer among a large body of seamen, landed about five o’clock in the morning, and appointed as a corps de reserve. But such was their impetuosity to engage, and their resentment at being kept out of danger, that, according to their accustomed politeness, they were perpetually damning their eyes, &c. because they were restrained from pushing into the heat of the fire, before they were wanted.”[3]

The Scots Magazine echoes this account: “Observing the foot-soldiers drawn up for engagement, instead of continuing their route, they fell into the ranks among the soldiers, some having cutlasses in their hands, others sticks, and some nothing at all.” General Wolfe “thanked them for the service they had performed, and desired they would immediately repair to their ships, as their stay among the soldiery, unarmed, and unacquainted with the discipline of the army, as they must necessarily be, would only expose their lives, without their being able, in such a situation, to be the least service to their king and country.” The sailors replied, “God bless your honour, pray let us stay and see fair play between the English and the French.” Some of the seamen did return to the shore, “but others...swore, that ‘the soldiers should not have all the fighting to themselves, but that they would come in for some way or other;’ and actually remained in the ranks, and when a soldier dropped in the action near any of them, they put on his accoutrements, charge, and fired with the rest.”[4]

The French and Indian War was effectively ended on the Plains of Abraham. As yet, I do not know what became of able seaman Henry McCann after that event. Most likely, he returned to sea and continued his career afloat.

What I can say with certainty is that Henry McCann was an exceedingly common sailor. The extraordinary circumstances that sent him marching hundreds of miles from the sea to the Monongahela, and up the St. Lawrence River to witness the death rattle of French Canada left a trail of documents that allow us to follow their lives. By exploring individuals like McCann, we can see that seamen protested their abominable conditions, and suffered at the hands of their officers, the enemy, and nature. Further, we can use their experiences as a lens to observe broader trends in the Atlantic World and in their Wooden World. The average person is worthy of our study.

[1] “An Account of the Detachment of Seamen sent with his Excellency General Braddock on the Late Expedition against Fort du Quesne,” ADM 1/2009, f.20.
[2] Garland muster book, April 1754-December 1756, ADM 36/5659, f.293.
[3] “Letters of a Volunteer,” transcribed in The Siege of Quebec and the Battle of the Plains of Abraham, Appendix Part II, Quebec: Desault & Proulx, 1901, page 24.
[4] “Brave sailors,” The Scots Magazine, Volume 24, March 1762, pages 119-120, via Google Books, accessed September 13, 2019, <>.

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