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During this time St. Leger had been investing Fort Schuyler. The whole of his miscellaneous force did not exceed six hundred, exclusive of Indians; and on the 5th of August he learned that General Herkimer was advancing to the relief. He instantly dispatched Sir John Johnson with a party of regulars and a number of Indians to waylay him. Herkimer fell into the ambush, and was himself mortally wounded. St. Leger, finding that his light artillery made no impression on the walls of Fort Schuyler, and hearing a false rumour that Burgoyne was defeated, raised the siege, leaving behind him his artillery, tents, and stores. His precipitation was occasioned by the more certain news of the approach of Arnold with ten pieces of artillery and two thousand men, who indeed, reached Fort Schuyler two days after his retreat.
The enemy, meanwhile, were on the alert, trying, by their fleets and armies, to assail us in almost every quarter. In the very opening days of the yearat the very commencement of January, 1781the French made an attack on the island of Jersey. They had sent across the Channel a fleet carrying nearly two thousand men; but their ships met the common fortune that has ever attended invaders of Britain: they were scattered by tempests, many of them dashed on the rocks of those iron-bound shores, and some driven back to port. They managed, however, to land eight hundred men by night, and surprised the town of St. Helier's, taking prisoner its Lieutenant-Governor, Major Corbet, who thereupon thinking all lost, agreed to capitulate. But the next officer in command, Major Pierson, a young man of only twenty-five, refused to comply with so pusillanimous an order. He rallied the troops and encouraged the inhabitants, who fired on the French from their windows. The invaders, surrounded in the market-place, were compelled to surrender, after their commander, the Baron de Rullecourt, and many of his soldiers, were killed. The gallant young Pierson was himself killed by nearly the last shot.When he entered Portugal Massena issued a proclamation, informing the Portuguese that the British were the troublers and mischief-makers of Europe, and that they were there only for their own objects of ambition, and calling on the inhabitants to receive the French as their friends and saviours. Lord Wellington issued a counter-proclamation, remarking that the Portuguese had had too much occasion to learn what sort of friends the French were; that they had learned it by the robbery of their property, their brutality towards the women, and oppression of all classes. He called on them, as the sole means of rescue, to resist to the death; and he ordered them, as the British army retired from Lisbon, to withdraw from their towns and villages, carrying whatever they could with them, so that the enemy might find no means of support. This was part of his great plan; and he assured the Portuguese that those who stayed behind after their magistrates had ordered them to withdraw should receive no assistance from him; and that whoever was found holding any communication with the enemy should be deemed a traitor, and treated accordingly.
The old governor, and the unscrupulous ring with which he was associated, now took a step to which he was doubtless emboldened by the tone of the King's letter, in condemnation of La Salle's enterprise. He resolved to seize Fort Frontenac, the property of La Salle, under the pretext that the latter had not fulfilled the conditions of the grant, and had not maintained a sufficient garrison. Two of [Pg 326] his associates, La Chesnaye and Le Ber, armed with an order from him, went up and took possession, despite the remonstrances of La Salle's creditors and mortgagees; lived on La Salle's stores, sold for their own profit, and (it is said) that of La Barre, the provisions sent by the King, and turned in the cattle to pasture on the growing crops. La Forest, La Salle's lieutenant, was told that he might retain the command of the fort if he would join the associates; but he refused, and sailed in the autumn for France.In the debate on this subject, George Canning, who on many occasions had shown himself capable of better things, breathed the very language of Toryism. He declared the representation of Parliament perfect, and treated the most moderate proposals for Reform as only emanations from the mad theories of the Spenceans. The message of the Prince Regent came down on the 3rd of February, ordering certain papers to be laid before the House, "concerning certain practices, meetings, and combinations in the metropolis, and in different parts of the kingdom, evidently calculated to endanger the public tranquillity, to alienate the affections of his Majesty's subjects from his Majesty's person and Government, and to bring into hatred and contempt the whole system of our laws and institutions." Lord Sidmouth endeavoured to guard the House of Peers against the belief that the insult to the Regent had any share in the origination of this message, but the House of Lords, in its Address, directly charged this event as an additional proof of the public disaffection. Unfortunately, the Regent had two Houses of Parliament only too much disposed to make themselves the instruments of such vengeance. The message was referred to a secret committee in each House, and on the 18th and 19th of February they respectively made their reports. Both went at great length into the affair of the Spa Fields meeting, and the proceedings and designs of the Spenceans were made to represent the designs of the working classes all over the kingdom; that such men as Thistlewood, who not long after suffered for his justly odious conduct, were conspicuous among the Spenceans, and that there had been an affray in Spa Fields, were circumstances to give ample colouring to the reports of these committees. The Lords' report stated"It appears clear that the object is, by means of societies, or clubs, established, or to be established, in all parts of Great Britain, under pretence of Parliamentary reform, to infect the minds of all classes of the community, and particularly of those whose situation most exposes them to such impressions, with a spirit of discontent and disaffection, of insubordination, and contempt of all law, religion, and morality; and to hold out to them the plunder of all property as the main object of their efforts, and the restoration of their natural rights; and no endeavours are omitted to prepare them to take up arms, on the first signal, for accomplishing their designs."
*** Ibid., Juin, 1661.The preparations for invasion turned the attention of the British Government to ports where it was supposed the troops would be embarked. Ostend was regarded with particular suspicion, and Sir Home Popham was sent in May with a small squadron, conveying a thousand men, under Colonel Coote, to destroy the ships and sluices of the Bruges canal there. The troops were landed, and did their work, but found themselves unable to regain the ships from the violence of the wind and the surf, and were surrounded and compelled to surrender. In the autumn of this year Admiral Duckworth sailed for Minorca, and landed eight hundred men, under Sir Charles Stuart, who readily made themselves masters of the island.