- The Road to Canada: The Grand Communications Route from Saint John to Quebec
"Getting there fustest with the mostest" was General Nathan Bedford Forrest's famous recipe for victory. It also pinpoints a military principle that generals sometimes ignore and their civilian masters and judges seldom learn. Logistics and geography often decide the fate of Empires. Major Gary Campbell, himself an historically minded Canadian logistics officer, argues this case for what contemporaries called the Grand Communications Route from Saint John to Quebec, a road so important that Britain was willing to contemplate war with the United States in the 1840s to protect it.
North America's own history makes the case. Europeans only made headway here because native peoples had long since done the exploring and had developed the means for achieving mobility in all weathers. Long before any European appeared, the Miq'mak and Malecite knew how to reach the river and lake system that penetrated the heart of North America. By canoe or on snowshoes, they travelled up the Saint John River, portaged over the height of land, and came down the Madawaska and along Lake Degelis to the St. Lawrence. To protect their route, Malecites fought wars.
So would their French and British successors. To the French, the inland route became the sole year-round link between New France and the Acadian settlements around the Bay of Fundy. For the British, the Grand Communications Route was the only way to reinforce their remote and isolated inland colonies once the Thirteen Colonies had evolved into the United States.
The march of the 104th Regiment from Saint John to Montreal in the winter of 1812–13 was an epic display of physical endurance. The regiment, recruited mainly in Newfoundland, endured constant snowfall and temperatures ranging between –27 and –32 degrees Celsius. The troops marched 564 kilometres to reach Quebec in twenty-four days. Almost all experienced frostbite but only one soldier had to fall out. An officer recalled him as "a hideous spectacle, altogether one ulcerated mass, as if scalded all over with boiling water." Once recovered, the man rejoined his company, which by then had marched a further 564 kilometres to Kingston on Lake Ontario. This feat would be remembered in the War Office. It underlay a belated priority for protecting a route jeopardized by treaty-makers' vagueness about the boundary between Maine and British North America.
Driven by the local timber lobby and a popular passion for twisting the lion's tail, an aggressive Maine governor almost managed to propel the United States and Britain into a war over the richly wooded Aroostook region. Meanwhile, the British relearned the significance of the Grand Communications Route when it was needed in the winter of 1837–38 to rush sleigh-loads of reinforcements to help defeat the Patriote risings in Lower Canada. Fortunately, local affairs were handled by two War of 1812 veterans who knew and respected each other. General Winfield Scott and New Brunswick's lieutenant-governor, [End Page 512] Sir John Harvey, controlled hotheads and kept the peace, helped by Maine's belated discovery that paying posses of troublemakers was expensive. The Webster-Ashburton Treaty left the British enough land for their route, while Governor John Fairfield could boast that he got most of the trees.
In 1861, the Route got its last and largest use after the Trent Affair brought Britain and the United States to the brink of the war Lincoln's Secretary of State, William Seward, had proposed as a way of either avoiding war with the South or of replacing three million southerners with three million British North Americans. In an amazing logistics exercise, the British Army despatched almost seven thousand troops, artillery, and tons of supplies up the St. John–Madawaska route in the middle of the 1861–62 winter without losing a man. It was a striking revelation of how far the post...