Canadian Historic Sites: Occasional Papers in Archaeology and History No. 17
by John Joseph Greenough
Of Mr. McCully's Cow and Other Matters
In October 1857, Colonel Stotherd drew up the last report of cumulative expenditure on the Citadel.1 It showed that £241,122 had already been granted toward the completion of the work and that another £1,000 had been requested for the following year (1858-59) for a grand total of £242,122. Of this, £237,521 had already been spent. The return is marked "Discontinued not required by the I.G.F." a sure sign that London considered the project completed.
Stotherd endorsed this view when he reported a couple of months later that the entire Citadel "with the exception of the glacis" was complete.2 The glacis, however, was still a major expense. Stotherd requested and got £1,000 toward its completion in the annual estimate for 1858-593 and asked for a like sum in the annual estimate for 1859-60.4 The work proceeded at a leisurely pace. Apparently the glacis was built up section by section, with only one part of it under construction at any one time. Stotherd, therefore, felt secure enough to rent out the remainder of it for grazing, and a notice inviting tenders was issued in April 1858.5 The highest bidder was one Mr. Thomas Neville, who leased the glacis for the period from 9 May to 30 December 1858 for the sum of £33 5s. 0d.6
Stotherd's slow and methodical way of proceeding suited everyone. All the Commanding Royal Engineers from Boteler on had realized that, because of the shape of the ground and the boundaries of the War department property, the construction of the glacis would be difficult. In some areas especially on the eastern front, it would be impossible to produce a shape which conformed exactly to that prescribed in the fortifications textbooks. Stotherd's approach to the problem was one of unobtrusive compromise. He would build the best glacis he could under the circumstances, and try both to keep expenses low and to prevent any hint of the difficulties involved from reaching his superiors. He reasoned, correctly, that no one had any desire to have old wounds reopened; the roots of the difficulty went all the way back to Nicolls's original designs 30 years ago. The lease of the glacis was probably only a way of announcing that business was proceeding as usual.
It was at this juncture that Stotherd was recalled to England. His successor, Colonel Richard John Nelson, was in many ways the most singular Commanding Royal Engineer ever to serve in Halifax. He was a specimen of that peculiarly Victorian type the insatiably curious amateur scientist. Humourless, righteous and pedantic, Nelson nonetheless had some impressive achievements behind him when he came to Halifax. He was the author and illustrator of the definitive study of Bermudan geology. He had produced articles for the professional papers of the Royal Engineer corps on a variety of topics in military and civil engineering, and he had been one of the editors of The Aide-Memoire to the Military Sciences, the standard dictionary on the subject for all his fellow military engineers. His most recent publication had been a book on the study of German which he had given the curious title, Lockspeise or Inducement to the Study of German of the Last Serious Difficulty in the Way of a Beginner.7
Despite the apparent variety of his writings, most of Nelson's works fell into two classes; descriptive catalogues of physical phenomena and articles presenting systematic approaches to specific tasks or problems. In the second category, his articles on the composition of military reports8 and on the duties of an engineer officer9 reflected his belief that there were correct and incorrect ways of doing things. This rigidity of opinion, coupled with his natural interest in the minutiae of engineering, made him potentially troublesome as a practicing military engineer. He had, after all, spent several decades studying the various aspects of permanent fortifications had even advanced a system of his own.10 The Aide-Memoire, which he had helped to edit, laid down the requirements for a proper glacis for a fortress. It was hardly possible that such a man could ignore the defects of his predecessors' work at Halifax. His appointment only served to stir up an old controversy at a time when all the principals devoutly hoped that the whole business of the Halifax Citadel was finally settled. Fortunately Nelson's narrowness of mind prevented the affair from being little more than a long series of exchanges between himself and his immediate superior, a farcical epilogue to a five-act bureaucratic comedy.
Nelson's first letter on the subject began on an optimistic note. "In the course of the financial year 1859-60 it is probable that the Citadel Glacis will assume its main form and final dimensions," he wrote General Burgoyne on 14 December, and added that "it is equally probable that it will not be completed within that time."11 There were, however, numerous problems, and the colonel requested in the same letter, "authentic information on the greatest effective depression of guns on garrison carriages [emphasis his]." It appeared that there would be some problem with the steepness of the glacis slopes. They were "perhaps too steep for direct defence from their own guns" and it was
The second letter put the problem more directly and referred specifically to the eastern front of the Citadel. Nelson posed two questions.
He then proceeded to supply his own answers:
In other words, Nelson was proposing a major alteration to the accepted design of the eastern front by placing a battery in front of the ditch to cover the dead ground below the town clock. Realizing, perhaps, that it might be impolitic to propose further alterations in an already much-altered design, Nelson concluded by stating that he had "avoided all allusion to details . . . pending, decision on the question now submitted."
The tone of these communiques sounds false. The ostensible question which prompted them the maximum depression of the guns was not the sort of thing an experienced engineer should have had to refer to London, and the suggestion of an alteration, even under a separate cover, sounds much too convenient. Nelson, in all probability, had taken one look at Stotherd's arrangements, decided to alter them, and set about pushing Burgoyne into agreement. His methods must have been as transparent in 1858 as they are now Burgoyne, after all, was an experienced politician but then subtlety was never one of Nelson's salient features.
As it happened, London had unwittingly provided Nelson with a second excuse to raise the issue of the glacis. On 2 December, the Inspector General's office requested information on the item for £1,000 which Stotherd had included in the estimate for the following year. The text of the letter has not survived, but apparently it requested sections showing the progress of the glacis and information explaining the need for so much money. This providential coincidence of interest between London and Halifax (even if both sides were pulling in opposite directions) must have delighted Nelson. He promptly replied that he was unable "to give any detailed account, until I shall be favoured with your decision as regards my letters nos. 970 & 976" (those concerning the depression of the artillery).14
The matter now rested in London's hands. Unfortunately there are no copies of the Inspector General's replies at present available in North America, and as a result the considerations behind the policy finally adopted are unknown. The policy itself, however, is plain enough. London procrastinated at first, as usual; Nelson requested a reply to his two letters twice (on 23 February and again on 21 April).15 It was tactless of him to try to hurry a decision; the most tangible fruit of his labours was a reduction in the amount granted in the 1859-60 estimate from £1,000 to £500. On 24 June, Nelson complained that this would "hardly last out until the end of Sept." and asked for £250 to £300 more to enable him to work until the end of the season.16 This request was apparently denied.
The next round opened in the fall of 1859 when Nelson again included an item for £1,000 for the glacis in the annual estimate for 1860-6117 This time, the Fortifications department deleted the item entirely. The estimate arrived back from London with the £1,000 struck out with red ink and a marginal note in the same colour which read:
London was employing the same tactics which had slowed up the work of Boteler, Peake, Jones and Calder, although in this instance the delay was more justifiable. The only new element in the process was the prominent role allotted to the General Officer Commanding in Nova Scotia. The structure of command of the post-Crimean army allowed London to relegate the controversy to the comparative obscurity of the colonial command, and after April 1860, it was largely conducted at that level. The other protagonist in the ensuing battle was Major General Charles Trollope (the novelist's cousin) who was well acquainted with Nelson's foolishness; by the spring of 1860, the two men had been conducting a comic vendetta over another aspect of the glacis for almost two years.
Nelson's skirmishing with Trollope stemmed from the colonel's conception of the management of an efficient military establishment. The conditions under which work on the glacis had to be carried on appalled him. Even in the 1850s, urban development had spread as far as North Park Street on the north side of the Citadel and South Park Street on the south. Since the Citadel was squarely in the centre of the city, the local citizens were wont to treat it as their collective property. They took shortcuts across the slopes of the hill in getting from one part of town to another, took tourists to the crest of the glacis to get the best view of the city, picnicked there on holidays and (apparently) caroused there during the summer nights all of which was bound to offend Nelson's sensibilities. Moreover, some of the citizens kept livestock on the common, and the animals were forever straying (Nelson claimed that they were purposely allowed to stray) onto the glacis, pawing up the turf and eating the grass. All this, so far as Nelson was concerned, was intolerable. Proper respect was not being shown for the War department's property. What was worse, the work being so carefully performed by the engineers was being undone by the wanton depredations of the populace. Soon after he arrived in Halifax, Nelson resolved to do something about it.
His colleagues first learned of his intentions in the spring of 1859. The Deputy Commissary General had routinely called for tenders for the lease of War department lands in Halifax on 12 March. The land to be leased out included, of course, the Citadel glacis. When the tenders were opened on 15 April, it was found that only one man had applied for the glacis, the same Mr. Thomas Neville who had rented the land the previous year.19 At this point, Colonel Nelson announced that he considered it inadvisable to lease the glacis at all. He justified his position in a letter to Lieutenant Colonel Fordyce.20
In refusing Neville's tender, Nelson presented General Trollope with a fait accompli. Trollope allowed the incident to pass, but took it as a slight on his authority. As he observed to the Secretary of State for War,
Nelson had, therefore, managed to offend Trollope even before the colonel opened his campaign against the citizens of Halifax. He had, moreover, picked the worst possible time to begin such a campaign. In the summer of 1858, the military removed fences and destroyed gardens on the west side of the common, claiming that they infringed on War department property. The city counterclaimed that the land in question belonged to the city corporation, and proceeded with litigation claiming £1,000 damages. In December 1858, Nelson was given power of attorney for the War department, and as a result was named as defendant in the city's suit. On 7 June 1859, he was summoned to appear in court on the following 1 October.23 Nelson, writing to Fordyce on 19 July, alluded to the possibility of an 'amicable" settlement,24 but one cannot accept his phrase at face value: at the same time as he wrote, he was devising ways and means of keeping the citizens off his beleaguered glacis. A few weeks later he wrote again, suggesting specific measures which could be taken. The letter has not been located, but it would seem to have suggested fairly drastic measures to uphold the rights of the military. It brought a withering reply from Trollope.
The remainder of the general's letter displayed commendable common sense. Trollope promised to forward Nelson's complaint to the Secretary of State for War and suggested a practical way in which cattle could be kept from trespassing. He gave it as his opinion that "the posts and ropes erected at the angles of the ditch were calculated to attract children and Idlers to the Crest of the Glacis" (Nelson annotated this: "Not so but ordered to be immediately removed this day"). He promised support "in any measure indispensible to prevent specific damage" but was "unwilling to enter into any measures which may extend contested points with the citizens."
Surprisingly, the Secretary of State for War, when informed of the problem, dispatched detailed suggestions for its alleviation. These were, if anything, even sillier than Nelson's. The secretary suggested the construction of formal walkways, letting the property (apparently on the theory that, if it were fenced for cattle, the populace would be kept off the glacis) and planting trees along the east side of the glacis.26 Trollope again defended the existing situation.27 He noted that the slopes were too steep to allow walks to be built; that the CRE had prevented the leasing of the glacis; and that both the walks and the planting of trees would interfere with the fortifications. He hinted delicately that trees presented an additional problem:
Trollope was concerned that the adoption of the secretary's suggestions might weaken the War department's claims to control of its land, and concluded with an assessment of the situation between the town and the garrison on the subject:
Throughout the whole business, Trollope displayed a good deal of common sense which, unfortunately, was entirely lost on Nelson's literal mind. The colonel simply paid no attention to the general and continued to try to get his own way. Having failed to defeat Trollope by direct assault, he resorted to all the strategems available to an engineer launching a long siege. He sapped, mined, made surprise attacks and patiently waited.
Nelson's next approach was through the War department's solicitor, Mr. J. W. Ritchie. Because of the court battle with the city, the two men had been in almost constant communication for a year, and in December Nelson formally requested an opinion on the subject of the glacis. The violent exaggeration in his letter is typical of the man.
All this was for the benefit of the gallery; Nelson knew that the letter would ultimately be forwarded to London. The actual question he posed was whether or not access to the glacis could be granted to the citizens "under such restrictions that they can be excluded whenever the interest of the Service shall require it."
It is at this point that one begins to have one's doubts about Nelson. It seems inconceivable that any educated man, especially one who had been through a year of litigation about trespass, could seriously have asked such a question. The answer, of course, was yes; the War department could refuse access to the glacis whenever it chose, and could prosecute anyone who failed to obey.29 Nelson must have known the answer before he wrote. Why, therefore, had he taken the trouble to ask? Was it another device for getting Trollope to reconsider the matter, and if so, for what purpose? Nelson was, by now, in the unenviable position of being at loggerheads with the citizens, Trollope and the War department all at once. If he went through the motions of besieging Trollope, it was to no purpose: he was himself under siege.
Surprisingly, Nelson's letter to Trollope enclosing his correspondence with Ritchie was relatively restrained. The colonel blustered on for a few paragraphs, complained that Ritchie's reply threw "not one fresh ray of light on the subject" and concluded with a few comparatively sensible (if complicated) suggestions.
Trollope concurred with the last suggestion. He recommended against the fences suggested in the first, since they would lead to "no other effect than to excite boys to climb and leap on them." He noted that, in his opinion, the citizens had done no real damage to the glacis and that the newly built portions could be easily protected, and recommended that the glacis be leased immediately for sheep pasture.31 With the last suggestion, Nelson strongly disagreed.
The controversy now moved into its penultimate stage. The two aspects of it the dispute with the Fortifications department about funds and alterations, and the dispute with Trollope about the manner of protecting the glacis converged. Since the annual estimate had to be approved by the General Officer Commanding, Trollope had known about Nelson's dispute with London since its beginning, but had held his tongue. He proceeded to intervene, whether because London prodded him to do so or because of his exasperation with Nelson's goings-on is not certain from the surviving correspondence. Trollope's intervention took the form of two questions, forwarded to Nelson by Colonel Fordyce.
It was a brilliant stroke on Trollope's part. Nelson was finally obliged to defend his actions since his arrival in Halifax, first to Trollope and then (since the latter promptly forwarded the correspondence to London) to Burgoyne. Having lost the initiative, Nelson never quite regained it.
Nelson's response to Fordyce's questions was more than a little arrogant. Yes, of course he had altered Stotherd's plans; Nelson had "differed from him as to our common end i.e. the formation of the most effective glacis." In any case, "each CRE is responsible to the IGF not to his predecessor." Yes, he had removed the earth, but he "did not know from whence it was taken" in the first place. As for his authority for his actions, he invoked "the discretionary power and latitude indispensible to the execution of a large project." He trusted that his explanations would be sufficient.33
Unfortunately for Nelson, they were not. In the first place, he had not consulted Burgoyne about alterations in Stotherd's plans; he had merely indicated that some alterations might be desirable. In the second place, General Trollope had been perfectly correct in his recollections of the strange travels of the fill. In forwarding Nelson's explanations to London, Trollope indulged in a little sarcasm.
For the rest, Trollope exercised restraint; but his letter was sufficient to rouse the Inspector General to action. Nelson was called upon, both to explain his actions and to provide detailed plans of the glacis.
Nelson complied in two letters dispatched in August 1860. In the first he enclosed plans showing, among other things, the location of the earth he had moved in the summer of 1859.35 In the second he defended his actions. The second letter is, unfortunately, couched in terms of a plan which has not been located and is in consequence almost impossible to understand. But the basis of Nelson's self-defence is clear enough.
It ought to be noted that this argument is somewhat different from the one Nelson had advanced earlier in answering Trollope's two questions. It raised the whole question of the original design of the glacis, and indeed whether one had existed at all (in all probability it had not) and it paved the way for a new project for its completion, to be included in the next annual estimate.36 This was what Nelson had wanted from the beginning, and it seemed for a few months that Trollope's intervention in the purely technical side of the problem would ultimately lead to the colonel's getting (at least partly) his own way.
The new project was duly dispatched as an appendage to the Fortifications annual estimate for 1861-62.37 In it, Nelson estimated the expenditure for completing the glacis at £5,217, of which he proposed to ask for £980 in the coming year. Anyone intimately acquainted with the history of the Citadel could have predicted the outcome of such a suggestion, but Nelson seems to have been genuinely surprised when the Inspector General's office baulked at the additional expense. The Inspector General's letters to Nelson on the subject are not available, but Nelson's replies to them are long and detailed. "Your letter of November 16th . . . went into considerable detail of scrutiny," he wrote to Burgoyne on 8 January 1861, "as if evidently surprised at the estimated cost of completing the Citadel Glacis"38 He went on at length to defend his calculations, noting that they were based both on wide experience with such things and on his observations of the work done under his command since he had arrived in Halifax. He concluded, "I beg respectfully to decline the responsibility of recommending you to undertake the work for less." In the matter of detailed calculations, Nelson was, in all probability, unassailable. After all it was one of his strongest points, and in tackling the technical aspects of the problem head-on, he at least displayed some of the common sense which had been so conspicuously absent in most of his earlier letters on the subject.
Since Nelson could not be budged on the issue of costs, the Inspector General tried a different tack. Could not the problem of dead ground be solved by placing more guns on the ramparts? Nelson replied,
He went on to demonstrate that additional armament, by itself, could not resolve the problem of dead ground at various points on the glacis, and marvelled that such a glaringly obvious difficulty could have been so completely ignored in the original designs for the work. He stated again that he could not agree to anything less than what he had proposed in his estimate; anything else would be inadequate for the fortress. He did make one surprising admission:
If Nelson had had any subtlety at all, one could see in this statement the possibility of a compromise. If the upper parts of the glacis were complete, would it not be possible to smooth the rest so that there would be no glaring errors, and leave the matter at that? Whether or not such was Nelson's intention, it seems very likely that this was the course which was ultimately adopted a difficult contention to prove, since there is almost no documentation on the subject.
This exchange marks the last major appearance of the glacis in the Citadel correspondence, and the £500 which was finally allowed for the glacis in the 1861-62 estimate was the last major grant of money. A year later, Nelson's successor, Colonel Westmacott, was content to spend a mere £200 for maintenance,40 and in the estimate for 1863-64, only £400 was allotted for repairs.41 In the following year, this sum dwindled to a trifling £5042 thereafter it disappears from the estimates altogether.
As for Nelson, his last year in Halifax was marked by the absence of serious controversy. He resigned on 25 July 1861,43 probably because of ill-health. It is difficult to assess his contribution to the Citadel with any fairness. There is no doubt that, at bottom, he was justified in his complaints about the glacis and sound in his proposed solutions. Unfortunately, both his methods and his attitudes (especially toward the Halifax civilians) were entirely unsuited to his position. One emerges from his correspondence with the feeling that he may have been a little mad. Although he muted his complaints about trespassing after his noisy collision with Trollope, he apparently maintained his rigid convictions right to the end of his stay in Halifax. In one of his letters to Mr. Ritchie, Nelson tried to get the solicitor to prosecute the owner of a cow he had caught trespassing on the glacis. "Mr. McCully's cow is an old offender;" he wrote. "She may be a good 'fencer': I have seen a cow take the railing round the citadel at a clean bound; cleverly."44 There is no record of Ritchie's reply. But then, what could he have said?