BY KEN DAVIS
Copyright is held by the author.
Le Petit and Etienne: Letter 11
A NOTE to our readers:
This past spring a close friend contacted me about a small valise he had purchased during holiday at the Grande Braderie flea market in La Rochelle, France. Closer inspection revealed an interior false panel concealing an aged, broken wax-seal envelope wearing the faded script of an addressee, Monsieur Etienne de Reluquer, Église Notre-Dame-de-Cougnes, La Rochelle and the sender, Le Petit, Fort du Quesne.
Upon return to Quebec he brought the artifact to me for conservation and examination.
La Rochelle was a major French 18th century naval centre providing troops and colonists to New France. Through comparison of this 11th example with surviving letters, I believe it to be an authentic composition by the Marine soldier, Le Petit. In addition, this writing provides reinforcement to my theories that Le Petit had academic training before joining the Marines, and more importantly that Le Petit was female, both situations quite unusual for the times.
The original document has been accepted as an addition to the surviving chronicles, Le Petit and Etienne.
Yours truly in preserving Canadian history,
Jolycœur Sleeman, PhD
Director, The Queen’s Archives
LaBatt’s Institute of Historical Research
Mont Tone, Quebec
3 août 1755
depuis Fort du Quesne
My Dearest Etienne,
It is with a mixture of melancholia, revulsion and exhilaration that I write to you of the past month’s events. It is by the grace of God that I still possess the good health and quickness of mind to form characters for this correspondence. Such fortune can be no accident and I feel that you, too, share my providence, as we have shared in so many, many other occasions.
I trust notice of our great victory over the quarrelsome English at the Monongahela River has preceded this letter. Be secure that I survived the affair with no serious injury, particularly in the areas that we so much like to share. Details of the affair are provided in another dispatch, which by the grace of God, will arrive to be caressed by your hands in the near future.
But for now, my sharp quill must describe a singularly amusing and yet appropriate incident that was concurrent to the battle.
About the beginning of July, the honorable Captains Beaujeu and Dumas arrived by bateaux at the Ohio forks with two additional Companies of Marines, increasing our strength to 72 troupes. Traveling with him was a journalist by the name of Marquis de Culdâne.
This curious man’s travel baggage, which I helped commit to his private quarters, included two young attendants dressed in fine boy’s clothing, whom I thought the wilderness would put to great peril. I later found the great peril was with Culdâne himself.
While Beaujeu and Dumas joined Captain Contrecoeur in preparing a defense against the English swine moving against us from the East, Culdâne remained secluded in his quarters, emerging sporadically for necessary personal relief or meals at which times his conversations served to cast debilitating thoughts amongst our troupes about our Canadian officers’ ability to lead as well as lack of savoir faire.
Such insinuations quite upset us, but for me, of greater distress was the visible absence of his young servants, piquing my curiosity as to their wellbeing. The Marquis’s pompous, aristocratic gait when moving to and fro served to escalate my concern.
A few days after his arrival, I overheard Captain Dumas talking about Culdâne to our company ensign. He was appalled by the journalist’s behavior and revealed that Culdâne had arrived in New France directly from the greatest salons of Paris, all the while believing that his inherited position and luster would precede him in America. What irritated Dumas most was his insistence that we should defer to his class in all matters, and in particular, wilderness military tactics. As you shall see, this did not rest well with our officers.
As a horde of 200 Militiamen and 500 Savages had descended upon Fort du Quesne in the last days before the action at Monongahela, Culdâne in particular was taken with those from the area north of the straits of Detroit. I witnessed him with spyglass in hand leering at them from behind obstructions or foils.
Unlike the local natives who have taken to wearing ruffled shirts during their daily routine, these western Savages were magnificently untamed, wearing nothing but the slightest breech-clout and leggings. Heat of the July sun made moist the bear-fat base of their vermillion paint and it glistened on their pristine bodies. It reminded me of the days of Carnival when we painted each other in those special places whilst preparing to portray demon spirits in the cathedral Passion Plays. How I still love the smell of rouge paint in my nostrils and the tender touch of horse bristles on my flesh.
But I digress.
In preparation for the afternoon’s battle, Contrecoeur had the Militia and Savages assemble with our Marine units on the parade ground outside of the stockade. He ordered us troupes to strip to our shirts (you can imagine the risk to my secret!) and to wear no hats, so as to lend support to our allies who were similarly attired.
Beaujeu encouraged us to join the singing of the natives’ song of bravery and at its completion Marines and Militiamen joined the Savages in their wild war dancing, undulating our bodies with joy and the most primal abandon. My blood ran hot as I threw myself about in the most obscene contortions, hoping (I’m embarrassed to say) to brush against the frenzied naked sinews of our unfettered allies.
But although the greatest numbers of Savages participated in the revelry, Poutiawatamie warriors from the Detroit narrows stood silent in the shadows of a fort wall. When Contrecoeur asked of them the source of such impassiveness, they explained in detail how they had seen harbingers that pointed to a great victory over the English on the morrow. But if we were to march by the war drum today, our efforts would reap failure.
Upon learning this Contrecoeur hid his frustration and conferred with Militia officer, Captain Langlade who was half Ottawa. His detachment had travelled here from an area west of the Great Lakes known as Ouisconsin. He explained that we should honour the Poutiawatamie visions and that entering battle against the English without the strength of our native allies would be rash. He also made clear that to demonstrate our respect for the Savages and their beliefs, we should host a feast to prepare all for the next day’s battle.
As the Savages will not take victuals after daylight when a battle is foreseen for that day, they were greatly moved by this decision as testament to our concern for them and all the tribes eagerly joined us in consuming a lavish meal.
Culdâne, however, was outraged with this action and complained that no Frenchman should bow to the desires of Savages, that Langlade be overruled and the army march against the English immediately. But Contrecoeur’s faith in his Captain was unshakable.
Like a young boy who has not gotten his pleasure, Culdâne sulked away to the blockhouse closest to where we were dancing and feasting. There he spent the last hours of the sun alone, drinking brandy until returning to his quarters.
It was during this time that I learned from a farmer’s Wyandot wife, Mrs. Emilie Pelletier, that Culdâne’s servants were not boys, but orphan girls that the journalist had kidnapped from the streets of La Rochelle and brought along for sexual entertainment during his foray into our wilderness. The perverse journalist had bribed the ship’s captain to hide the girls in his private quarters during the voyage.
Emilie and I conspired to free them from his clutches.
On the next morning, Beaujeu had us awake and ready to attack the English at first light, but the Savages lagged in their preparations. It wasn’t until we brought out barrels filled with musket balls, powder and flints that their zeal returned.
It was during this time that I noticed Culdâne staggering, still in full dress and accoutrements, into one of the old officers’ privies. Unlike the new privies that we had been dug two weeks previous in preparation for our reinforcements, its odorous contents had accumulated to a height much closer to the seat.
Somehow, probably due to the massive quantity of brandy imbibed just hours before, Culdâne lost his gorget in the privy’s nether regions. Unsure of how to retrieve it, he emerged just as Captain Langlade appeared, wearing just shirt and loincloth.
Culdâne then made a grievous blunder, one that would provide us all with continuing delight.
He ordered Langlade to retrieve his gorget as if he was lower class, being so poorly dressed. This proved to be a grave error for the Captain glared at him and spewed out a torrent of epithets. Those which I could clearly hear were “you are a leftover from an abortion” and “you have a stubby sausage.”
Culdâne stuttered and stamped his precious feet as Langlade walked away saying he would send the appropriate help.
Coming across some naked young Ottawas who were armed only with vermillion, tomahawks and spears, Langlade talked with them, motioning towards the still animated Culdâne. At a run, they darted to the noble journalist, grabbed him by the arms and legs, and carried him back inside the privy. His cries of indignation more muffled now, they ducked him head first into the privy holding him by his inglorious legs until he retrieved the gorget. They stuffed his handkerchief in his mouth and secured him fast to the privy seat with lengths of cord they always carry that are made of twisted basswood bark and in like fashion, the privy door.
Shrieking their war cries amidst bursts of laughter, the warriors were met by Langlade, who by this time was returning from the armory with three Tulle muskets, which he divvied out to their eager hands in payment for their recent labour.
This diversion allowed me to make haste in freeing Culdâne’s servants. Emilie met me at his quarters. We unfastened the door, explained to the girls our plan and with tears of joy they accepted our offer of freedom. Emelie quickly shepherded them away to the safety of her cabin outside the fort walls and I erased all evidence of our intrusion, firm in the belief that you too, my dearest Etienne, would have done the same for children in distress.
At about that same time, Contrecoeur called us to arms and we joined the Savages to move toward the Monongahela crossing and the English scum. The cavalier Culdâne’s muffled entreaties for help were drowned out by the resolutions of the Marines and war cries of the Savages.
As they say, my dearest Etienne, the rest is history. The English were slaughtered in a glorious victory, but at the loss of our brave Beaujeu, four of our Marines and 18 militiamen and savages. I was one of the Troupes chosen by Dumas to tabulate English losses. They were 976.
It’s not known who finally released Culdâne from his odorous cell, but great wails of distress echoed from his quarters upon discovery that the girls were gone.
Captains Langlade, Dumas and poor Beaujeu were acclaimed as heroes for their role in the victory and we Marines were awarded unit commendations.
I lost count of the times that I discharged my musket that day against the English, the action lasting hours. Yet I took greater joy in providing freedom for Culdâne’s captives. Rest assured my favoured Etienne, I performed both services with the greatest bravery so that none would cast averse eyes upon me, and maybe suspect my secret.
With the fondest memories and great love, I remain your . . .