Quebec Town Major William Dunbar: Captured, April 1775

The War Years (1775-1783)

May 30, 2019
by Steve Leet Also by this Author


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In early 1775, the town major of Quebec decided to pay a visit to Gen. Thomas Gage in Boston. William Dunbar had been an officer in the 44th Regiment of Foot during the French and Indian War, and although he had sold his regimental commission after that conflict ended, he settled in Canada and been given the post that made him responsible for law and order in the colony’s largest city. He had been sent by Canada’s governor general, Sir Guy Carleton, to Fort Ticonderoga where he arrived on April 18.[1]  After a brief stay there he made his way over land towards Boston. His timing was unfortunate.

A grenadier of the 44th Regiment of Foot from a series of 1751 illustrations of British regiments by David Morier. (Royal Archives)

William Dunbar of Woodside, Morayshire, Scotland, was the third son of Sir George Dunbar, second Baronet of Mochrum.[2] He was likely born about 1740, and on June 6, 1757 he obtained a commission as a lieutenant in the 44th Regiment of Foot. In this regiment he became acquainted with the future American general, Charles Lee. In the spring of 1755 their regiment was “shot to pieces” in the infamous defeat of Gen. Edward Braddock’s expedition. Survivors of the 44th then moved north and the regiment was brought back to strength “so that it was soon composed primarily of Native Americans;”[3] that is, Englishmen born in North America. The regiment was part of the failed 1757 assault on the French Fortress at Louisbourg (which fell to the British in 1758); the following year the regiment was present at the failed attack on Fort Carillon (later renamed Ticonderoga), where Charles Lee had “two ribs smashed by a musket ball before the earthworks.”[4] Dunbar was promoted to captain on July 22, 1758, soon after the battle.

During the winter, Charles Lee wrote a letter to his sister Sidney dated Long Island, December 7, 1758, describing an incident that occurred in the months after he was wounded:

my wound which I rec’d at the lines of Ticonderoga has at length heal’d up, but I have had since an Escape infinitely more surprising; a little cowardly Surgeon had treated me very ill; compos’d a stupid libel on me, which he read to the General and the whole Camp, I thrash’d him as he deserved; the scoundrel had not the spirit to resent it properly, but waited for me on the road which he knew I was to pass, seiz’d my horse by the bridle, presented a pistol to my heart, (so close that the muzzle almost touc’d me) and fir’d. My horse fortunately at that instant started to the right, which sav’d me; but the shock was very violent, and the contusion very great, exactly under my heart; He wou’d have dispatched me with a second pistol, but Capt. Dunbar (who was with me) struck it out of his hand.[5]

In a subsequent letter from Fort Niagara, dated July 30, 1759, Lee wrote, “your friend Dunbar, for such I find he is, altho’ you never saw him, is safe. He behav’d as usual much to his reputation.”[6]

At the end of the fighting in North America, Lee secured leave to “go to England, rather than vegetate with his messmates.”[7] Captain Dunbar retired some years after the peace of 1763, retaining a half-pay commission (a sort of reserve status that allowed him to return to the army if needed), and settled in Canada.[8] By 1770 he was married to Josette Catherine, daughter of Fleury D’Eschambault of Montreal. Her father was the agent for the Compagnie-des-Indes, headquartered in the Chateau de Ramezay. Dunbar accepted the appointment to town major of Quebec shortly after returning from a trip to England.[9]

William Dunbar, arriving at the outskirts of Boston on his trip from Fort Ticonderoga, was captured in Cambridge on April 29, 1775, ten days after hostilities had broken out. Traveling through the Massachusetts countryside, he must have been aware of the fighting that occurred on April 19, but perhaps did not realize that Boston was surrounded by hostile militia from all over New England. The Committee of Safety directed that he be sent north to Woburn and held there.[10] On May 6, Benjamin Thompson, a Woburn Loyalist, himself confined, wrote to General Gage that “Dunbar from Canada, & Ens. Hamilton . . . with their servants are prisoners in this Town, But I have not been permitted to see them tho I have made frequent application for that purpose.”[11] Hamilton, an officer in the 64th Regiment of Foot, had been captured on April 20 while making his way from Boston to Castle Island. Somewhere between being taken prisoner and his confinement in Woburn, Dunbar encountered Capt. Samuel Osgood, a militia officer from Andover, an aid to General Artemas Ward, who helped him in some unspecified way.[12]

The Samuel Osgood House in North Andover, Massachusetts. (Wikimedia Commons)

Rather than being held in close confinement, as officers and gentleman, they were granted parole, allowing them some freedom of movement within a specified distance of the home or inn where they were quartered. After a time in Woburn, their parole was moved farther north to Newbury. Andover was on the way to Newbury, and Dunbar took the opportunity to visit the wife of the officer who had assisted him during his early confinement: “on my journey hither I did myself pleasure to call on Mrs. Osgood at Andover, who by her behavior confirmed any good opinion her husband may have of me. We compared notes together and both seemed to be unhappy enough from the present melancholy situation of affairs.” He subsequently remained in correspondence with Captain Osgood, initially expressing “gratitude for the kindness shown him . . . in obtaining mitigation, of the severities attending his condition as a prisoner.” After being exchanged, Dunbar adopted, “a more distant and dignified address,” perhaps fitting for an “enemy of war.”[13]

The two officers were soon exchanged. Their return to Boston was reported in a Massachusetts newspaper:

Cambridge June 8 Tuesday last being the day agreed on for the exchange of prisoners, . . . Major Dunbar, and Lieutenant Hamilton of the 64th on horseback . . . entered the town of Charlestown, and marching slowly through it, halted at the ferry, . . . Major Moncrief landed from the LIVELY, in order to receive the prisoners, . . . Major Moncrief and the other officers, returned with general Putnam and Dr. Warren, to the house of Dr. Foster, where an entertainment was provided for them, . . . Between 5 and 6 o’clock Major Moncrief, with the other officers that had been delivered to him, were conducted to the ferry, where the LIVELY’s barge received them.[14]

Quebec’s Town Major William Dunbar was free to return to his duties, one month before his old colleague Charles Lee, now a general in the Continental Army, arrived outside of Boston. Dunbar was given a captain’s commission in the Royal Highland Emigrants, a new corps being raised largely by recruiting army veterans settled in Canada who had emigrated from Scotland.[15] In addition, General Gage appointed Captain Dunbar to the staff position of brigade major for the regiments serving in Canada.[16] He departed from Boston and returned to Quebec to take on his new military duties.

The date of Dunbar’s commission made him the regiment’s senior captain, and once his company had been raised he was appointed major. This appointment roused the ire of Capt. Alexander McDonald, who repeatedly wrote querulously on the injustice of making Dunbar outrank him.[17] The justification for the complaint was that Dunbar had sold his commission at the end of the last war whereas Captain McDonald apparently had not. He complained, “when a Capt’n in the Army Sells his Commission he sells his rank by what means or justice and Such shall come over the heads of old Capt’ns Lieutenants and people who had served above thirty years in the army from first to last.”[18] He went on:

by a List that came here of ten Companies that Col McLeans, Major Smalls and William Dunbar’s Commissions are dated the 13th June and all the rest of the Captains dated the 14th, I suppose to Settle their Ranks when they come together by a throw of the dice and I may have the good luck to be the youngest in place of the oldest Captain in the Regt. Capt’n Dunbar Sold his Company Som’time agoe and of Course his rank of the Army the same time and I think it hard that he should now be put over my head after all my services, and the trouble I have taken from the first to Last about this Regiment.[19]

Captain McDonald received no redress, likely because of Dunbar’s connections; as town major of Quebec he had served with Gov. Guy Carleton, and his association with General Gage went back nearly thirty years.

Dunbar’s freedom from captivity was not long-lived. Gov. Carleton, in need of reinforcements in Montreal, had sent to Quebec for the Royal Highland Emigrants, now numbering about 200 men.[20] With Montreal on the verge of falling, the Emigrants were sent back to Quebec on November 12, but Dunbar had taken the staff position of brigade major and remained in Montreal. He was one of 162 officers and men captured on vessels fleeing down the Richelieu River from Montreal on November 17.[21] By February 1776, he and other prisoners were being held in Trenton, New Jersey.

His second captivity would be much longer than the first, but by June 1779 he had been once again exchanged and was back in Montreal in his administrative role of brigade major.[22] He spent 1782 and 1783 at Fort Niagara, and died in Montreal on October 16, 1788.


[1]H. Commager and R. Morris, The Spirit of Seventy-Six (New York: DeCapo Press, 1995), 100; De la Place to Thomas Gage, April 19, 1775, Thomas Gage Papers, William L. Clements Library.

[2]W. MacBean, Biographical Register of Saint Andrew’s Society of the state of New York (New York: printed for the Society, 1922). William Dunbar’s basic biography was provided to me by the David Library of the American Revolution (DLAR) during extensive electronic correspondence throughout the spring of 2016.

[3]John W Shy, “Charles Lee: The Soldier as Radical,” in George Washington’s Generals, George Athan Billias, ed. (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1964), 1: 24.


[5]Collections of The New York Historical Society for the Year 1871. The Lee papers, Vol. 1, 1754-1776 (New York: New-York Historical Society, 1872), 18.

[6]Ibid., 19-20. For more on the incident with the surgeon, see Lee’s letter of March 1, 1760, ibid., 26-30.

[7]Shy, “Charles Lee” (see note 3). 1: 24.

[8]DLAR biographical sketch.

[9]MacBean, Biographical Register; The Gentleman’s Magazine, 1773; S. Baule and S. Gilbert, British Army Officers Who Served in the American Revolution 1775-1783 (Westminster, MD: Heritage Books, 2001), 56.

[10]The Committee of Safety on April 29, 1775, voted that Col. Jacob Garrish send Dunbar from “headquarters, to Woburn, under a strong Guard, and order him to be there kept in safe custody, till further orders from this committee,” and “That Capt. Hill and company be furnished with provisions at any tavern they see fit to call at, in conveying Major Dunbar to a place of safety, at the expense of the province.” The Journals of each of the Massachusetts Provincial Congress (Boston: Dutton and Wentworth, 1838).

[11]Benjamin Thompson to Gage, May 6, 1775, Thomas Gage Papers, William L. Clements Library.

[12]S. Bailey, Historical Sketches of Andover, (comprising the present towns of North Andover and Andover) (Boston: Houghton, 1880), 305-306.

[13]Ibid., 305-306.

[14]Essex Gazette, June 9, 1775.

[15]Baule and Gilbert, British Army Officers, 56.

[16]C. Carter, ed., Correspondence of General Thomas Gage with the Secretaries of State 1763-1775 (Hamden, CT: Archon Books, 1969), 1: 685.

[17]MacBean, Biographical Register.

[18]Alexander McDonald to John Small, November 15, 1775, “Letter-book of Captain Alexander McDonald of The Royal Highland Emigrants 1775-1779,” Collections of The New York Historical Society for the Year 1882 (New York: New-York Historical Society, 1883), 219.

[19]McDonald to William Howe, October 30, 1775, ibid., 223-5.

[20]Derek Beck, The War before Independence (Chicago: Sourcebooks, 2016), 219, 246-8, 251-2.

[21]The Remembrancer, or Impartial Repository of Public Events, for the Year 1776 (London: J. Almon, 1776), 234.

[22]As evidenced by his extensive correspondence in WO 28, British National Archives.

One thought on “Quebec Town Major William Dunbar: Captured, April 1775

  • Interesting article. I would like to know who the name of the ‘Little Cowardly Surgeon”, that nearly killed Lee. I doubt I will ever see Lee’s letter of March 1, 1760. Thank you, Karen in Canada.

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