Book review: Hector Maclean: The Writings of a Loyalist-Era Military Settler in Nova Scotia by Jo Currie, Keith Mercer, John G. Reid (Gaspereau Press, 2015)
Recent scholarship has placed more focus on the plight of Loyalists who were displaced from their homes and livelihoods in the United States, and the struggles they faced settling tracts of newly-surveyed land in Canada. A number of excellent books and articles tell portions of the countless tales of individuals and populations, but there are few published accounts by the participants themselves. The stories become more poignant when we can read the words of those who experienced them. A new book from Gaspereau Press allows us to do that.
Hector Maclean: The Writings of a Loyalist-Era Military Settler in Nova Scotia is a compilation of material written by a man who served as an officer in the Royal Highland Emigrants, a regiment raised by the British army in America in 1775 which, by the time the war ended, had become the 84th Regiment of Foot. Hector McLean spent most of the war recruiting for the regiment, including an unfortunate sea voyage along the Nova Scotia coast that ended by being shipwrecked in Ireland. The resilient officer returned to North America, fought in one campaign in the Carolinas, and then was among the thousands of Loyalists forced to resettle in Canada after hostilities ceased. McLean’s letters and journal, although often personable and upbeat, reveal the struggles he faced for more than a decade with displacement, debt, and deprivation caused by war. Contrary to the impression given by the books title, a substantial amount of the content was written by McLean during his service in the Revolutionary War. He was in only one major battle, but it was a significant one, Eutaw Springs in September 1781, and his letters include the most detailed surviving first-hand account of that action.
It is McLean’s post-war letters from Canada that strike the most compassionate chord. It sounds simple enough to say that displayed Loyalists were given land grants with which to establish new lives, and the typical grant of 100 acres for an individual sounds quite generous by modern standards. Lost in this brief view are the years-long personal struggles that included administrative issues of getting land surveyed and allocated, and, more significantly, the labor of building first shelter, then home, then village infrastructure, followed by clearing land, and eventually cultivating sustainable crops, surrounded by hundreds of others facing the same challenges. As a former military officer, McLean had leadership responsibilities in his new community similar to those he’d had in the army, helping individuals through myriad difficulties while also dealing with issues of his own.
Historians, including the editorial staff of this journal, tout the importance of primary sources; there is much post-period misinformation about the American Revolution in print, so it’s critical to seek out accounts that were recorded when the events actually occurred, or as close to them as possible. What this admonition usually fails to mention is that using primary sources is often difficult. It’s rare that writers simply recorded the events that they witnessed; most often, they wrote with some other purpose in mind, and included only the details necessary to make their point, or things that stood out as remarkable. Primary sources give us fragments rather than a complete picture, and perceiving the picture based on the fragments is the historian’s challenge.
Hector McLean’s orderly book exemplifies this challenge. McLean used one notebook to record orders in 1781, and then in 1786 and 1787 used the same notebook to keep a journal for a twelve month period. The orders, a series of daily entries recording directives to his regiment, contain fascinating details on the issues and activities of soldiers on campaign. But the entries are like a random handful of pieces from a jigsaw puzzle; without extensive support from other documents, the entries can be difficult or impossible to interpret. The book contains extensive introductory material and annotation to provide context for the orders, but they are nonetheless challenging reading for those not familiar with period military terminology and operations.
The editors have done an excellent job of transcribing McLean’s handwritten material, a task always complicated by the tendency of writers to use dots, dashes and other scrawls instead of the consistent punctuation conventions used in print; the assumptions and conventions used by the editors are explained in the introduction, and the result is very readable text. The orderly book contains a large number of charts describing mundane activities such as duty rotations. These are faithfully rendered and very readable, but the information they provide is of questionable value; page after page of grids with shaded boxes are useful only to those few researchers attempting to understand details of military duties within this specific regiment, while leaving the more general audience wishing for other content. This represents the difficult choices faced by anyone attempting to publish primary source material – include everything, and risk limiting the appeal, or abridge, and risk omitting important details.
Although eclectic in content, Hector Maclean: The Writings of a Loyalist-Era Military Settler in Nova Scotia offers valuable information for a diverse audience, including those interested in the war in the Carolinas, those focused on military operations, and most importantly anyone wishing to have better insight on the plight of displaced Loyalists.