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War of 1812

An outstanding soldier, but his career cost him

By Tom Villemaire, Special to Postmedia Network

James FitzGibbon was an outstanding soldier and a hero of the War of 1812, but his rise in the military got him into debt.(Illustration by Keith Milne and colourist Gord Coulthart, special to QMI Agency)

James FitzGibbon was an outstanding soldier and a hero of the War of 1812, but his rise in the military got him into debt.(Illustration by Keith Milne and colourist Gord Coulthart, special to QMI Agency)

James FitzGibbon was an outstanding soldier and a hero of the War of 1812, but his rise in the military cost him.

Born in Ireland in 1780, he was not quite 32 when the War of 1812 was declared.

It was not his first war. By 1812 he had already distinguished himself in Isaac Brock’s 49th Regiment in Europe. Brock was his commanding officer, lieutenant colonel of the 49th Regiment.

At the time, officers were usually men from wealthy families who “bought” their commissions and promotions. But Brock promoted FitzGibbon because he was intelligent and hard-working – from sergeant major in 1802, to ensign and adjutant in 1806, and lieutenant in 1809. However, as an officer, FitzGibbon had to equip himself, and every promotion led to more expenses.

FitzGibbon managed impressive feats as a young officer. After the War of 1812 began, he brought a small fleet of boats from Montreal to Kingston, including through the rapids in full view of the American side of the St. Lawrence River. In the dead of winter, he led 45 sleighs of supplies from Kingston to Niagara.

After acting as a company commander at the Battle of Stoney Creek in 1813, FitzGibbon took 50 “chosen men” into action with the mandate to “be employed in advance of the army, and with the authority to act against the enemy as he pleased and on his responsibility solely.”

FitzGibbon and his men harassed the U.S. troops so effectively the Americans sent an expedition to take him out of action. Led by Lt.-Col. Charles Boerstler, the Americans camped at Queenston for the night and marched towards Beaver Dams the next morning.

Warned of the attack by Laura Secord, FitzGibbon dispatched about 400 First Nations warriors to intercept the Americans. The First Nations warriors, led by Capt. William J. Kerr and Capt. Dominique Ducharme, both Metis, attacked at the beech woods. After three hours of fighting in the bush, FitzGibbon approached the Americans. Taking a page from Brock’s playbook at Detroit, he led the Americans to believe they were vastly outnumbered by his troops and in danger of falling into the warriors’ hands.

Boerstler surrendered and 462 Americans were marched away by 50 British and Canadian soldiers.

General Edward Baynes praised FitzGibbon for his “most judicious and spirited exploit,” and the press of the day, the Montreal Gazette, cheered “the cool determination and the hardy presence of mind evinced by this highly meritorious officer.”

He was promoted to captain in the Glengarry Light Infantry Fencibles, where for the rest of the war he and his men acted as scouts for the army. After he resigned his commission as an officer, he held a number of public service jobs in Canada. But in addition to his officer’s expenses, FitzGibbon frequently lived beyond his means and his debts were mounting.

During the 1837 rebellion against William Lyon Mackenzie, FitzGibbon managed to whip a poorly trained rabble into shape to meet – and stop – the rebel menace marching down Yonge Street towards Toronto. In gratitude for “rescuing them from the horrors of a civil war”, Toronto citizens proposed a reward but it never materialized. The Upper Canadian legislature requested a 5,000-acre land grant from the Queen, but it was suggested FitzGibbon instead be given money for his civil and military services. However, it wasn’t until 1845 that the legislature rewarded him with the sum of £1,000, half of what he owed and nowhere near the value of the proposed land grant.

FitzGibbon returned to Britain in 1847. He became a knight at Windsor Castle, an honorary position with a pension, and lived there until his death at the age of 83.

 


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