Thursday, December 19

A letter to the Doctor

Captain Thomas Hurlbut,
Lake Ontario Station,
Kingston, Upper Canada.

Dr. Albert Roberts,
Ship’s Surgeon,
HMS Acasta,
Halifax Station

November 23, 1813

My Dear Dr. Roberts.

A delight to receive your letter, thank you! We get little mail ourselves, here in the interior and less as the weather worsens. For myself, with few family connections, I receive virtually none even when communications are at their best. May I congratulate you on your marriage? I regret that I have been too pre-occupied with Naval and military affairs to send you my well wishes but hope to make amends, perhaps with a visit to your station during the winter. Let us plan on that, shall we? Sir Joseph sends you a gift of a sylvia moltonii, you say? He must think very highly of you to send such a specimen, particularly as we are unlikely to visit Corsica in the near future to replenish his collection, yes? Doctor, you must be quite pleased! I am not a naturalist you know, but am familiar with the species as I have served in the Mediterranean, although a long time ago. I was a Master’s Mate aboard HMS Culloden at the Nile in ’98. While there, I developed my interest in antiquities.  You may recall that Culloden was working hard to get in amongst Napoleon’s anchored fleet while entering Aboukir Bay. While I was supervising the helmsmen, we ran hard aground on an uncharted shoal. Captain Troubridge was none too pleased but I console myself in the knowledge that we functioned as a beacon for the rest of the fleet as they sailed safely past us to the great victory. However, I’m certain the incident did not greatly aid my career.

So, you are to speak at the surgical institute in Paris? I envy you, Doctor, for they say no city can compare to Paris and I have never been. I suppose your profession protects you from seizure and imprisonment as a Naval officer? I expect you could observe much of France’s preparedness for war on your visit, but then again, if you are protected by your physicians’ creed, then you might feel that you would be spying and that could compromise your professional ethic and your honour. I am sorry I mentioned it, please forgive me. And yet, you have suggested, hypothetically of course, something in a similar vein, have you not, that a person might find himself in a position to commit mischief against a tyrant by using his unique talents, both to gain access to the high and mighty, and to administer the means to achieve the “sorry end”. Indeed, a most interesting dilemma.

But let us examine this hypothetical proposal. I am flattered that you value my opinion so highly. However, you may find me more pedestrian than you suppose. First, I have made my career in the Navy, an institution that weekly toasts to, ”A bloody war, or a sickly season”, either circumstance guaranteeing rapid promotion. Should the war end tomorrow, the originator of that state would not endear himself to Naval officers who would see their opportunities to distinguish themselves vanish immediately, condemning them to a life of mediocrity. I, who have had promotion delayed countless times due to an abundance of bad luck, should be the last person to welcome the war’s end. The Navy is one of the few places where a commoner can, through merit or good fortune, elevate himself to a knighthood or even a peerage, the Navy can be the path to the House of Lords for a vicar’s son. Third and fourth sons of “milord Pompous” who have all the attributes of their moneyed and titled seniors but lack the coin to make their way in society, can fill their pockets through prize money and can buy a rotten borough in the Commons or obtain a peerage of their own.

War is a part of our society, accepted as a career path to make one’s fortune. It allows persons of indifferent merit or low origins to rise to heights of heroism and valour much valued, that would be denied to them otherwise. Of course, war also means a great number of heads would be knocked off, talented or otherwise, but most know the risks and would roll the dice, feeling that one or the other outcome is preferable to poverty or obscurity. I note that you are examining this philosophical dilemma from your point of perspective, placing your own moral sensibilities on the hypothetical protagonist. Well then, let me expound upon this element, always allowing for my own interpretation of what I perceive your sensibilities to be and the possible errors inherent through my assumptions.

As a physician, you take a solemn oath not to bring a fellow to harm. Yet, in a conflict, you have been known to take up truncheon, cutlass or pistol and smite your opponent who, it seemed likely, was about to do you wrong. Then, while your erstwhile foe lies before you wounded, you employ the latest in medical techniques to save him when, upon recovery, he will likely wish to harm you yet again. On the face of it, can there be anything more absurd? Still, within both our sets of moral sensibilities, it makes perfect sense. It parallels the Naval scene where sailors are quick to rescue enemy seamen from a sinking ship even when the rescued might then attempt to overthrow their rescuers.

So, let us take your hypothetical tyrant and place you in a position where by you might kill him. It seems you could commit the deed if you perceived him to be an opponent and that you were in conflict. In this manner, you would be outside your physician’s creed. Killing in battle is not viewed as murder. Again, this societal concept known as honour translates in a conflict to giving your adversary an opportunity to defend his life. By this code then, poison, or a stiletto to the back of an unsuspecting victim lacks honour. The killer is a murderer, an assassin, a name that carries no merit, or honour.

Finally, would the death of the tyrant end the war? Would there not be other persons willing to take up the concepts that begat the enemy state and carry on the conflict? Would you sacrifice your honour and morals, and the admiration of your peers and friends, and likely your life as well, for a peace that is unlikely to happen until one or the other of the combatants is unable to continue the war? So, my argument is based on ideas more than facts. Would war’s end save countless lives? Indeed, at least for the moment. Another conflict may take them later on, who can say?

Some might thank you. Many would not. And could you take pride in the act? Perhaps this bears more contemplation.

Now Doctor, I am away into the wilderness north of York, to investigate a supply route to the upper lakes used by the Indians. It may prove the saviour of the soldiers and sailors engaged in the war in those northern parts with strange names such as “Michilimacinac”.

Before I depart, I shall compose another letter to Captain Freymann, one detailing the last two months of our struggles here in the Canadas. I am glad that my news has eager followers in the good ship Acasta.

My best compliments to Mrs. Roberts,

I remain,
Your Most Humble and Obedient Servant 
Captain Thomas Hurlbut, 
Upper Canada


  1. Out of curiosity, do you know what regiment the soldiers in the boat are from? At first glance they look as though they should be Royal Marines, but they're wearing the stovepipe shako of a Light Company of a Regiment of Foot, and the lace is wrong for the Marines.

    1. Hmmmm, and excellent question. Captain Hurlbut (also in the picture, standing) might be able to tell us. I shall ask him.

    2. Sharpie- Captain Hurlbut had this in answer to your question:
      "The boys are garbed in the uniform of the light company of the 4th of Foot (King's Own). This regiment served in the campaigns in the Chesapeake and in the Gulf of Mexico during the War or 1812. They would also be at Waterloo in 1815. This is my son's group (he's presenting arms in the bow) who also do 25th (US) Infantry (light coy) and 2nd Connecticut for RevWar."

    3. Ah! Thank you for that. And please pass on my thanks also to Captain Hurlbut; they look a fine body of men - very smartly turned out.