History is reconstruction of the past we have never known.
When a British soldier deserted his post during the Gulf War in 2001, his punishment was a "discharge with disgrace" and a 14-month jail sentence. In the 18th century the penalty "for that disgraceful crime was discharge by death." Despite the drastic consequences, abandoning colours and country was a regular occurrence. In fact, it reached crisis proportions in Upper Canada until well into the 19th century. Thousands of soldiers sought freedom by flight from the boredom, brutal discipline, monotony and drudgery of army life. Various means of finding these deserters were implemented, the most successful being the use of Aboriginal braves who were employed to track down and routinely return those who left without leave. For this abandonment of military duty, the sentence was death. The death sentence was not generally pronounced unless a soldier deserted to the enemy in time of combat and it was rarely ever applied during periods of peace.
As an alternative to the death penalty, the Articles of War permitted "such other punishment as a general court martial may award." But these were perilous times and desertions at Niagara had reached alarming numbers at incalculable cost to the British army. The beckoning American border was an ever-present enticement to enlisted men who fled across it with distressing regularity. Boredom, brutality, poor food, monotony, loneliness and draconian discipline resulted in many men taking advantage of a quick way to quit the King's service. A life of servitude as a soldier was eagerly exchanged for freedom as a civilian.
Flight from the flag was a crime "disgraceful to the character of the British soldier" and it had to be ended. Lieutenant Governor John Graves Simcoe was ordered "to stop the evil of desertion so detrimental to the service." Because of the "absolute necessity of a public example," Simcoe decreed that there would be no exceptions to the sentence of death for soldiers caught attempting to desert. The utmost rigour of the findings of a court-martial would be carried out with the martial strictness he had learned at Quebec from his military mentor, the Hanoverian, Prince Edward, Duke of Kent. The Duke, father to be of Queen Victoria, was brutal, some even said sadistic in his dedication to harsh punishment. Before 1800 a military execution normally meant death by hanging. During the 19th century a military death sentence was carried out by firing squad
In Upper Canada the first victim of the ultimate penalty was a private in the 5th Northumberland Regiment of Foot. Dubbed the "Shiners because of its gay appearance," the famed 5th Regiment of Foot had arrived in Quebec on the 26th of July, 1787. It had taken up its posting with Simcoe at Fort Niagara in June, 1792. The 5th Regiment had developed a regimental order of merit that was unique for the military. Designed for non-commissioned officers and regular soldiers, the order consisted of three classes which recognized 7, 14 and 20 years of uninterrupted good conduct.Private Charles Grisler never qualified.
Grisler, who like many young men with no money or hope of finding employment, had joined the army. The adventure, glory and grandeur promised by the recruiting officer were little better than a lie. Instead of action, honour and excitement he found service for the sovereign to be bleak, dreary, lonely and harsh. Faced with the daunting prospect of long years of servile duty in this remote posting at the end of the world, Grisler decided to follow friends who had yielded to the beckoning border. Others had sought freedom in flight and successfully slipped across the border to a new life in a new land. He decided he would too.
Escape was extremely risky for generous rewards were offered for the capture and return of deserters. The money attracted all kinds of bounty hunters, the most relentless of whom were Native braves who rarely returned without their quarry. Grisler decided to cross under cover of night and lose himself in the darkness before dawn on the other side. He resolved to desert while on duty at Fort Erie where he guarded the boats that had been disappearing with disturbing regularity. One of those boats would see him to safety.
Grisler never made it to the sanctuary he sought for his absence was detected almost as soon as he had quit his post. He was quickly captured and transported in chains to Fort Niagara to face the charge of desertion. A court-martial followed with predictable results: conviction and the sentence of death by firing squad. There would be no remission.
The sentence was executed outside the gates of Fort Niagara on Tuesday, October 29th, 1793. At first dawn the party appeared with the prisoner. The day was cool but sunny, made brighter by the coloured leaves that adorned the fall forest about them. They were ordered to proceed in the following manner: first the provost with his arms reversed; then the band and drummers playing the Dead March, the drums muffled with black; next the firing party with arms reversed; then the coffin borne by four men; the prisoner in company of the minister praying followed, a comrade on the left of him flanked by a man on either side with drawn swords; the escort brought up the rear. As the men of the famous 5th marched from the fort, the scarlet coats of the regiment and the radiant rays of the sun flashing on bayonets and buttons added to the brilliance of the scene. All moved to the mournful dirge of the march and the relentless beat of the drums, which some admitted later made their blood run cold.
The regiment formed a three-sided square, the open side left for the shot to pass through when the soldiers fired. Accompanied by the chaplain, Private Grisler with arms pinioned followed the coffin into the fourth side of the square. As he passed his regiment he bowed his head, bidding the officers and the men farewell. The minister had hold of his are but he walked with a firm step, keeping time with beat of the drum. While the chaplain read the prayer for malefactors and general thanksgiving, the prisoner with eyes blindfolded, knelt on his coffin in readiness for the Edwardian execution.
The six-man firing squad selected by lot took up their positions some eight yards from the prisoner. Everyone in the fort including the sick had been summoned to view the grisly spectacle, whose primary purpose was not punishment but prevention. There was nothing like an execution to free one's head of the fantacies of flight. Sharply barked commands by the provost marshal broke the eerie silence. Rifles were raised and at the commnd "Fire!" they belched forth dense smoke and death. As the missles found their mark and ripped into the kneeling figure, Grisler's body was thrown violently backward. On some such occasions the corpse was carried three times around the parade, but this time the troops filed past the body before returning to their quarters.
The motto of the 5th Northumberland Regiment of Foot was "Quo Fata Vacant - Whither the Fates Call." Far from home, family and friends, the fates had summoned Grisler to a dishonorable death. He was buried in an unmarked grave within the shadows of the woodland wilderness that embraced them like a bastion - unwept, unhonoured and unsung.
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