Read the Revolution
A Bard of Wolfe's ArmyNovember 23, 2022
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Born and raised in northern Scotland, James Thompson (1733-1830) volunteered to serve in North America in the conflict known as the Seven Years’ War (1756-1763), with a regiment commanded by Lieutenant Colonel Simon Fraser of Lovat. Fraser’s unit was one of three British units raised in the Highlands of Scotland for service in America. These Highland regiments wore elements of traditional Scottish military dress, including tartan kilts and flat blue bonnets, and carried basket-hilted swords and distinctive iron-stocked pistols. Serving in campaigns against French, Spanish, and Native American forces, the Highland regiments served from Newfoundland and Cape Breton to the Caribbean and the Mississippi Valley. Historian Matthew Dziennik has investigated how 12,000 soldiers sent from the Scottish Highlands to North America shaped the course of the British Empire during the Seven Years’ War and the American Revolution.
James Thompson was the last surviving veteran of the 1759 Battle of Quebec. After deciding to settle in Quebec following the Peace of 1763, he helped to prepare defenses against invading American forces and supervised the recovery and burial of American General Richard Montgomery’s body following a failed attack on the city in 1775. In A Bard of Wolfe’s Army: James Thompson, Gentleman Volunteer, 1733-1830, editors Earl John Chapman and Ian Macpherson McCulloch transcribe and annotate Thompson’s recollections, which were first recorded by his son.
In this excerpt, read one anecdote that explains why, in his later years, Thompson became known as a great storyteller. Thompson recounts a story about a fun-loving Irish tailor named David Kanavan, the only member of Fraser’s regiment who was not of Scottish descent. As the regiment’s tailor, Kanavan had access to officer’s uniforms left in care for mending and tailoring, leading to a brush with the military justice system.
Another adventure of Kanavan [the master tailor of the 78th] is when we got to Albany in New England. The Duty was rather slack for a time, and Kanavan bethought himself to put on his Officer’s Coat again, that is when the Officers [were out] of the way – in this way he went strolling about and met a Lieutenant of another Regiment. They exchang’d bows, and presently became a little better acquainted. Kanavan was not long about proposing to go to the nearest Tavern, and, as the weather was very warm, that they should take a nip of Punch together. The Lieutenant said, “with all my heart,” and to it they went, and nip after nip was order’d on the table until they both became well prim’d. Some subject or other led to argument, and the Lieutenant said something that nettled Kanavan, when he seizes hold of his pistol (the Highlanders all wore Pistols in their belts in those days) by the muzzle, and with the cock of it, he gives the Lieutenant such a gash on the head, that he fell on the floor, and was bleeding at a great rate! This alarm’d the people of the house, and Kanavan was supposed to have mortally wounded the Lieutenant, and was accordingly put into confinement.
This affair coming to the Colonel’s ears, he went to see Kanavan, and after list’ning to his story, he told him it was a very serious affair, and that he must remain in confinement until he was tried by a General Court Martial, which would in all probability go hard with him. This he did in order to cure him of his capers for which he was always in some hobble or another.
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The Colonel then goes to see the Lieutenant, who also told his story, and thought that it would be a matter of Civil law, by which he could rec? heavy damages. No, no, Sir, said the Colonel (wishing to get Kanavan out of the scrape) it will become a matter for the consideration of a General Court Martial by which it will be prov’d Sir, that you, as an Officer, were keeping company with a private Soldier of my Regiment, and you may depend on it Sir, that you will be cashier’d. The Lieutenant protested that he thought himself to have been in company with an Officer and a gentleman, but as it prov’d to be the contrary, he was very ready to think no more about it, and was very thankful to the Colonel for his advice. By this means Kanavan got scot free once more.
[Book Editors' Note] Thompson’s son James Jr. is mistaken in his “helpful” parenthesized footnote. His account of a Highland pistol worn “in” a belt should more properly read “on” a belt, for in the 18th century the Highland pistol was slung on a narrow shoulder belt or strap suspended from the right shoulder and hanging slung by its hook just under the left armpit for easy access [...]
Earl John Chapman and Ian Macpherson McCulloch, A Bard of Wolfe’s Army: James Thompson, Gentleman Volunteer 1733-1830 (Robin Brass Studio, 2010), 167-169.