SEELY (Seeley, Seelye), JOSEPH, militiaman; b. 1786, probably in western Quebec, son of Augustus Seelye (Sealey); m. with children; last known to be living in 1814.
Details concerning the Seely family are scarce. Seelys from Connecticut were common in New Brunswick and in the Johnstown District of Upper Canada [see Caleb Seely*; Peet Selee*], and it is likely that the various families were related. According to Joseph Seely, his father had served under Jeffery Amherst* during the Seven Years’ War and in a corps commanded by Captain James Campbell during the American revolution. The elder Seelye was on the United Empire Loyalist list for Lancaster Township, Upper Canada, but the family probably never resided there. By 1801 they were in Elizabethtown (Brockville), where Joseph took the oath of allegiance the same year. Six years later he petitioned for 200 acres of land as the son of a loyalist and received a patent for a lot on Lake Gananoque in Leeds and Lansdowne Township on 24 March 1812.
Here Seely might have spent a life toiling in happy obscurity but for the intervention of the War of 1812. “As became a good subject,” he volunteered for duty and served nine months with Captain Charles Jones*’s dragoons. He then enlisted in the 1st Leeds Militia, enticed by Captain Adiel Sherwood*’s “promise of a Sergeants situation and rations for my small family.” The higher pay must have seemed a boon to a prospective young farmer and the supply of provisions essential to a family dependent upon the male to clear, sow, and harvest the land. In April 1813 the newly enlisted men were ordered to Prescott, where they were divided into companies the following month.
Seely’s hopes were quickly scotched. Since Sherwood had failed to recruit the required quota for his unit, Seely was assigned to Captain Archibald McLean*’s company as a private. The promotion to sergeant was not forthcoming and the rations for his family were never issued. After serving briefly under McLean, Seely was transferred to the “Engineer Employ.” Aggrieved, dispirited, and no doubt anxious about his family, the young soldier deserted in late August. About 20 November he was captured “in the Enemy’s Camp” on the American shore by a party of Leeds and Grenville militia led by Captain Herman Landen.
It had been a critical year for the civil and military administration of the province. The problems that had confronted Isaac Brock worsened under his successors Roger Hale Sheaffe* and Francis Rottenburg*: disaffection was widespread and desertion endemic among the militia; the House of Assembly was reluctant to allow the administration to use arbitrary powers to meet the civil problem; and initial military successes at Ogdensburg, N.Y., and at Frenchtown (near Monroe, Mich.) had been offset by the capture of York (Toronto) in April, the defeat of Robert Heriot Barclay* on Lake Erie, and the rout of Tecumseh and Henry Procter* at the battle of Moraviantown on 5 October. The outbreak of disorder during the occupation of York had been particularly unsettling [see Elijah Bentley]. In an atmosphere charged with fear and suspicion even judges such as William Dummer Powell* urged dispensing with the due process of civil law to overawe the disaffected. In July Governor Prevost, possibly acting upon information supplied by Powell, empowered Rottenburg to convene courts martial to make examples. The pervasive belief that such action would quell the disloyal culminated in the execution of eight men at the Ancaster “Bloody Assize” in 1814 [see Jacob Overholser].
Charged with desertion to the enemy and with aiding “in piloting one of the Enemy’s boat’s,” Seely was tried before a court martial at Kingston on 9 and 10 Dec. 1813. The court was composed of 13 of the leading militia officers of the Johnstown, Midland, and Eastern districts. The prosecution was handled by the acting judge advocate general, Edward Walker. Seely was left to conduct his own defence – a daunting task for a mere private; he pleaded not guilty. Walker called four witnesses: Landen, Archibald McLean, and two privates from Landen’s party. Walker’s aim was simple: to establish that Seely had served with the militia until late August and that at his capture he was in an enemy camp within the United States. An unabashed Seely handled his defence with marked aplomb. He did not deny the charges but rather emphasized a family and personal history of loyalty, a laudable record of military service, and a reasonable motive for desertion – the breaking of the promise that had occasioned his enlistment.
Seely’s previous military record was not disputed. In testifying to his loyalty, Landen, who had known the prisoner for 16 or 18 years, stated, “No one would I have ventured my life with sooner. . . .” He also mentioned that Seely had fought with “some Americans . . . on account of their celebrating the Independence.” After his capture Seely’s behaviour was extraordinary. Landen related how he “cried very much and said although you were a prisoner, you were going to a Country you loved, and that you had not been contented since you left it.”
Seely’s speech in his own defence did not attempt to prove his innocence but rather addressed the circumstances of the case. His loyalty was instinctive, inspired by the attachments of family and by traditions learned from a loyalist father: “I reluctantly left the Country In which I have been brought up from my childhood and to which I was attached by all the ties of Loyalty, Friends and Kindred not with smallest or most distant ideas of aiding or assisting in the service of an Enemy that I have always been taught to detest. . . . With such a parent to instil the Principles of Loyalty into his Family, it is almost impossible for any member of it, to have any attachment to any other Government than that to which he belongs. . . .” His motivation was simply a sense of injustice – “I considered my promise to serve as void.” All the conditions of his enlistment had been broken. Although he had been an acting sergeant for a few days, Seely’s application for permanent rank was rejected when McLean called attention to his lack of education. The extra rations, which Landen stated were “the reason that many men with large families engaged,” were not delivered. Although Seely was on the ration list, his family was not “in consequence of their being such a number.”
The court found Seely guilty of desertion but acquitted him of the second charge. He was sentenced to be transported for seven years but in spite of Rottenburg’s approval of the court’s judgement he did not meet his fate. Rottenburg had intended to pardon Seely on condition that he enlist in the New Brunswick Fencibles. On 29 Jan. 1814 Rottenburg wrote to his successor, George Gordon Drummond*, on this and other related matters. Drummond acted accordingly and on 18 April 1814 issued a “full, and unlimited Pardon” with the suggested proviso attached. It does not seem that Seely complied with the terms. Neither did he return to his land on Lake Gananoque; it was sold in two instalments many years later.
Seely might have fared worse. Another militia private tried for desertion at the same court martial was promptly shot. What distinguished the two cases was Seely’s adroit defence. His ability to combine a sense of just cause and personal loyalty no doubt resulted in the milder sentence and later the pardon. It is commonplace, and perhaps sensible, to see in instances of disaffection and treason the American political sympathies of an Elijah Bentley or an Abraham Markle*. It is also prudent to bear in mind the frustrated self-interest of an Ebenezer Allan and an Andrew Westbrook*. And as a reminder that personal lives sometimes do not fit any mode of interpretation, it is instructive to remember the case of Joseph Seely.