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1863 A Narrative of the Capture and Destruction of the Steamer "Caroline" (1837) by Andrew Drew (1792-1878)

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I directed the boats to move their oars as gently as possible, just enough to stem the current, and not to talk, or even whisper. Being able to expend half an hour here unseen was a great event for us, to allow it to become darker, as everything depended upon our being able to reach the vessel unseen. At last I judged it dark enough, and we dropped silently down upon our prey literally without moving an oar until we were close alongside of her. These were anxious moments for me, knowing how hazardous it is to climb a vessel's side and make good a footing upon the deck without being knocked on the head; however, in this, as in everything else, fortune favoured us. When within a boat's length of the vessel, one of the watch (who had apparently just awoke out of a sleep) cried out, "Boat, ahoy! boat, ahoy!"

"Give us the countersign," I answered, in a low tone of voice. "Silence, silence! Don't make a noise, and I'll give you the countersign when we get on board." I then mounted the vessel's side, which I had some difficulty in doing for want of a ladder, and when fairly on deck I drew my sword, and found three men lounging over the starboard gangway unarmed, and quite unconcerned. I said to them, "Now I want this vessel, and you had better go ashore at once." She was laying alongside a wharf, to which she was secured. I waved my sword over their heads to make them go, and I do not think that until this moment they fairly understood their position. Then they moved leisurely over to the port-side, I thinking they were going on shore; but as they saw none of my party on the deck but myself they took up their fire-arms, which it appeared had been left on that side the deck, and the foremost man fired his loaded musket at me. Not more than a yard from him, how the ball missed me I do not know; but he was too close to take aim, and it passed me. I thought this an act of treachery, and that I need show him no mercy, so with the full swing of my arm I gave him a cut with my sword over the left temple, and he dropped at my feet. In another second one of the other men put a pistol close to my face and pulled the trigger; fortunately it flashed in the pan, or I should not have been here to have told the tale. Why I was so lenient with this man I do not know, for he deserved death at my hands as much as the other; but I merely gave him a sabre-cut on the inside of the right arm, which made him drop his pistol, and he was unarmed. The other man I disarmed, and drove them both over the side; but as they did not seem to move as fast as I thought they ought, I gave them about an inch or two of the point of my sword, which quickened their pace wonderfully.

All this did not appear to have taken up more than a minute of time, and we were in complete possession of the after-part of the vessel. Three of the boats boarded for ward, where there was a good deal of firing going on, and, as the quarter-deck was clear, I mounted the idle-box and gave orders for the firing to cease immediately, fearing from the darkness of the night we might take friends for foes; and Lieutenant MacCormick had already received a desperate wound.

The vessel was now entirely in our possession, and, to guard against an attack from the shore, I directed Lieutenant Elmsley to head a small party as an advanced guard, to warn us should an attack be meditated. We then roused everybody out of their beds and sent them on shore, a considerable number of persons having been sleeping on board. After this the vessel was set on fire in four different places, and soon began to burn. The next thing was to cast her off from the jetty, which at one time I feared we should have had great difficulty in doing, as she was made fast with chains under water, or rather under ice for this was the middle of a Canadian winter, where water freezes to the thickness of a foot in a short time; but a young gentleman of the name of Sullivan, understanding the difficulty, seized hold of an axe, jumped down upon the ice, and in a short time cleared the chain and set the vessel adrift.

This done, and the vessel in flames fore and aft, I ordered everyone to the boats, which became the more necessary as the enemy had opened a fire of musketry from the shore, and some shot came disagreeably near to me standing on the paddle-box. The order was soon oheyed, for it was also getting too hot to stand upon ihe deck. I did not give any particular orders to the officer of my own boat; but I intended to be the last person out of the vessel, and naturally thought they would wait for me, and, when just ready to embark, I saw a man coming up the fore hatchway. I went forward to ascertain whether it was likely anyone else was down below; but the man said it was not possible, for it was so hot he could not have lived there another minute. I then went to get into my boat, when to my horror I found that every boat had left the vessel. I cannot describe my feelings at that moment, nor shall I ever forget the sensation that came over me: the vessel in flames and fast drifting down the stream. I looked around, and could just see one boat in the distance; another minute would have been fatal to me. I hailed her to come back, calling out as loud as I could that they had left me behind; fortunately, they heard me, and returned and took me and the man on board.

Having now accomplished our object, we had only to find our way safely back; and when we rounded the point of the island before named we saw a tremendous blazing fire on the Canadian shore, not only enough to guide us, but almost to light us on our way back. It was most welcome, for by this time it had become quite dark. Not caring about discovery now, and as little for shot from Navy Island, we kept much closer to it, and felt safe in so doing. We landed between two and three o'clock in the morning at the spot from whence we started, and found hosts of people to receive us with good hearty British cheers. Sir Allan Macnab was most particularly cordial in his welcome, and candidly acknowledged he never expected to see me again, but that our success had far exceeded his most sanguine expectations.

By this time the burning vessel was fast approaching the Canadian shore, and not far distant. Of all the marvels attending this novel expedition, the course which the steamer took of her own accord was the most wonderful. When free from the wharf at Fort Schlosser, her natural course would have been to follow the stream, which would have taken her along the American shore and over the American Falls; but she acted as if she was aware she had changed owners, and navigated herself right across the river, clearing the Rapids above Goat Island, and went as fairly over the centre of the British Falls of Niagara as if she had been placed there on purpose.

There were hundreds of people on the banks of the river to witness the splendid sight, for it was perfectly beautiful, and the descent took place within a quarter of an hour after our landing; and no human ingenuity could have accomplished what the vessel had so easily done for herself.

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Source: NAC/ANC, Elgin-Grey Papers

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