Captain John McDonell's Grenadiers


The History of the Yorker Grenadiers
Today's Yorker Grenadiers
Lieut. John Prenties
The Original Grenadiers

Every regiment has its collection of naughty lads. Of course, most are in the Other Ranks, after all, they substantially outnumber the Commissioned; however, officers were not immune from silliness.

Probably, the most outrageous commissioned officer in the Royal Yorkers was Grenadier lieutenant, John Thomas Prenties. Young John seemed to collect problems like some folk collect stamps. His many indiscretions came to a head in a Regimental Court Martial held outside Montreal in June 1782.

John Thomas was the son of an Irishman, Miles Prenties, the Provost of Wolfe’s Army. After the ‘conquest,’ Miles managed a successful tavern in the city, which boasted a carved stone device above its door portraying an enigmatic gilded dog chewing on a man’s thighbone. Later, a 19C novelist made this tavern famous as the Golden Dog, Le Chien D’or.

When the Americans invaded Quebec, Miles returned to service acting as the city’s Provost Marshal. This meant that Miles was in opposition to his old friend and fellow British officer, Richard Montgomery, who commanded the rebel army besieging the city. Montgomery died in a night attack on New Year’s Eve 1775 and, the morning of New Year’s Day 1776, it was Miles’ wife Elizabeth who identified the frozen corpse of her husband’s old friend.

John Thomas apparently saw action in the Canadian militia during the siege, while his brother Samuel did service in the Royal Highland Emigrants. John surfaces again as a Volunteer in the Royal Yorkers in 1777 and, by August 25, was ranked as ensign, serving in Alexander McDonell’s Line Company. Nothing more is known of him until 15Nov81, when he ranked as lieutenant. Exactly a year later, he was 2lieutenant of the Grenadiers, but whether he was with the company on the Schoharie/Mohawk Valley expedition of Oct80 is unknown.

When court-martialled in 1782, six charges were laid.

  1. “His constant practice of fighting and abusing inhabitants which brought much censure upon the regiment.”
    Readers may not recognize that the constant presence of so many British, German and Provincial troops in the Quebec towns was not a happy situation for many Canadien families. These interlopers had different religions, customs and attitudes, spoke different languages and, being away from home and lonely and frustrated, often resorted to excessive drinking. It may be that Prenties was abnormally belligerent; having grown up in Quebec as a member of the ‘superior, conquering race.’
  2. “His conduct at the Riviere Du Chaine where he stabbed a Canadian in his own house which was like to bring on a Rupture between the Regiment and the Inhabitants when a number of the Canadians assembled to defend the wounded man, till Capt Duncan then Commanding Officer interfered by getting his men under arms, sent a Guard to the house of the wounded man and was obliged to apply to the Priest, to assure the Inhabitants who were then ready with Arms and Bludgeons to begin the Fray; that he would secure Mr Prenties and give the injur’d man all the Justice that could be expected at the same time order’d Mr Prenties to deliver his Sword and go immediately to his room Both which Mr Prenties refus’d to do.”
    This charge tells only part of the story and only from the viewpoint of keeping the peace between the inhabitants and the soldiery. If I remember correctly, the event transpired as follows – Lieutenant Prenties, Ensign McAlpin and Adjutant Valentine were on the town one night, ‘disguised in liquor,’ as the saying went at the time. It seems they arrived late at night at the door of the house where Valentine was billeted and pounded on the door to arouse the owner. Said owner, the local captain of militia, was a man of means and influence and not happy to be pulled from his bed in such a fashion. He went to the door and told them to ‘bugger off.’ When the pounding and shouting continued, the owner fired his firelock through the door and slightly wounded Valentine, whereupon the enraged Prenties broke down the door and took his sword to the man. The rest is as written in the charge. While it’s easy to have some sympathy for Prenties’ reaction to the shooting, it was his subsequent refusal to submit to Captain Duncan that roused the ire of the regiment.
  3. “Braking his Arrest at Several times.”
    Of course, Prenties was confined to quarters while the hubbub of his assault on the captain of militia was investigated and resolved. It appears that John Thomas failed to see his guilt in the various offences, and knowing better than his superiors, broke confinement.
  4. “Disobedience of Orders.”
    A standard charge that logically grew out of the others.
  5. “His drinking and keeping Company with the soldiers, going to their Quarters at unseasonable hours in the night, Challenging them to fight.”
    Keeping company and drinking with the men would be considered detrimental to good order and discipline, as it was believed necessary to maintain a proper distance between commissioned officers and Other Ranks to foster respect and obedience. “Unseasonable hours” would add to the offence, but much worse would the coarse behaviour of scrapping with the men. What this does tell us is that John Thomas was one tough lad, as calling out Grenadiers – the select men of the regiment for brawn and athleticism – would take some nerve.
  6. “Boxing with his Servant in his own Quarters.”
    More fraternizing with the Other Ranks and another example of poor judgment and improper behaviour. Simply not the ‘done thing,’ don’t you know.

At the tail end of this woeful story, we find John Thomas begging the regiment for forgiveness and, when granted, resuming his position in the company after a period of thirteen months off duty. Rather remarkably, by the time of disbandment he had risen to 1Lieutenant and third senior in that rank, indicating that his shenanigans had not affected his career. Prenties chose not to settle in western Quebec with his company, nor to return home to his parents, instead locating in the Gaspé settlement.