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Sketches Illustrating the Early Settlement and History of Glengarry in Canada
Chapter 19

General Wilkinson Assembles Ten Thousand American Troops at Sackett's Harbour.— Kingston Threatened. —Defenceless State of Montreal.—He Determines to Attack that Place with General Hampton.—Colonel George Macdonell Asked When His Light Battalion Would be Ready to Embark to its Defence—"As Soon as my Men Have Finished their Dinner."—His Extraordinary Descent of the St. Lawrence in Batteaux.— "Here, Sir; Not One Man Absent."—Battle of Chateauguay.—Gold Medals.—Defeat of the Americans at Chrystler's Farm.—Gold Medals for that Action.— Presentation of Colours to Lower Canadian Militia by the Prince Regent.—Hampton Declines Juncture with Wilkinson.—Attack on Montreal Abandoned.— Unfair Treatment of Colonel Macdonell.

Though the enemy, under General Harrison, had thus been successful in the West, yet his success was barren of any considerable results, and discovering at last his erroneous strategy, he wisely determined upon again turning his attention to the St. Lawrence. His General, Wilkinson, forthwith commenced assembling a disposable force of ten thousand regular troops at Sackett's Harbour, with a view of seizing upon our naval depot at Kingston, only four hours' sail from him; and the Governor-General, in consequence, immediately repaired in person to that post, concentrating there all the force he could possibly muster, though this compelled him to strip Lower Canada of nearly all his regular troops, and thereby left that Province exposed to the most imminent danger of a surprise. But in his destitute state he had no alternative.

Indeed, so weak, after all, was the garrison of Kingston, that he was obliged to bring thither, from Montreal, the eight flank companies of the four recently embodied regiments of the French or Lower Canada Militia, to be there organized by Lieutenant-Colonel George Macdonell, into a Light Battalion for immediate service, which, considering this officer had not one single individual who had ever worn uniform to assist him in the task, was by no means a sinecure employment.

The enemy, however, getting information from Montreal in October that there were "no fortifications in that city or in advance of it," and that it was only garrisoned "by two hundred sailors and marines, with the militia, numbers unknown"—that is, as we have seen, the four recently embodied battalions, less their flank companies, Wilkinson abandoned the idea of Kingston and wisely determined upon the immediate capture of Montreal itself by a combined and rapid coup de main with his general, Hampton, who for this purpose advanced from Four Corners across the frontier of Lower Canada, about the 20th October, with seven thousand regular infantry, two hundred cavalry and ten pieces of artillery, to penetrate to that city by the Chateauguay River, knowing well that he would meet with no opposing force on the way except three hundred French-Canadians, being half the Voltigeurs and the Light Company of the Canadian Fencibles under Lieutenant-Colonel DeSalaberty, whom he was then driving in before him. Wilkinson, about the same time, embarked in boats at Sackett's Harbour fourteen battalions of infantry, three corps of artillery and fifty-eight guns, accompanied by two regiments of cavalry, as if to attack Kingston, but, ii reality, suddenly to "slip down the Sr. Lawrence, lock up the enemy in his rear to starve or surrender;" and, when arrived at the mouth of the Chateauguay, was to act in concert with the division of Major-General Hampton and take Montreal.

About noon, of the 20th October, His Excellency received, at Kingston, an express from Lower Canada that Hampton was certainly advancing upon Montreal. Alarmed at this imminent danger, and not daring to take a regiment of the line from Kingston, then in daily danger of the attack from Wilkinson, the Governor-General had nothing to do for it but to send for Lieutenant-Colonel Macdonell, to ascertain if his Light Battalion—five months previously at the plough—was fit to meet an enemy, single-handed; and being assured that it would move down to the beach to embark as soon as the men had finished their dinner, His Excellency mounted his charger and started at once for the Chaieauguay, ordering Colonel Macdonell to follow with his corps, and giving him carte blanche to deal with Hampton at his discretion. Twenty-four hours, however, elapsed, before a sufficient number of boats could be procured, and even then the requisite and usually indispensable pilots to navigate the batteaux through the succession of dangerous rapids of the St. Lawrence could not be obtained. As delay would prove fatal Colonel Macdonell determined upon trusting to his personal knowledge of the navigation of the river to dash at the risk which would have proved fatal to almost any other commander, and which no other officer would have dreamt of undertaking. Indeed, even he was, owing to the inexperience of his officers, in imminent peril of repeating in the dangerous cataract at the Coteau du Lac, the awful catastrophe which befel four hundred men of Lord Amherst's army, formerly drowned there, and had he not been aware of the tradition, and known also how to regain the only safe channel in that rapid, the consequences would have proved fatal to his whole corps. But notwithstanding the perilous currents and difficulties of the St. Lawrence, and the labour of rowing such a fleet of unwieldy batteaux, for many hours in the dark, across thirty five miles of the broad Lake St. Francis, in the teeth of a very heavy gale of wind, which provokingly compelled him at last to halt nearly a whole day at the Cedars—the pilots there positively refusing to embark in such a. storm, and, eventually, forced him to cross to the Beauhamois shore, and take his chance of penetrating at least twenty miles of that forest in the dead of night in file, without any guide, and by a doubtful wood track, this willing young battalion, cheerfully surmounting all obstacles, found themselves on the bank of the Chateauguan River before daylight of the 25th October—some hours, indeed, before the Governor-General, with twenty-four hours' start, reached the spot by relays of horses, from Kingston, and notwithstanding the day's delay at the Cedars. They had, in fact, traversed no less than one hundred and seventy miles by water and nearly forty more by land in about three days and a half, during twenty-four hours of which they were inevitably compelled to halt, a rapidity of movement unequalled in Canada and unprecedented in the Peninsular or elsewhere. Indeed, Sir George Prevost, on seeing Colonel Macdonell approach, single, to meet him on his arrival, concluded that he had by some means hurried down the St. Lawrence without his corps, and began a severe reprimand, which, however, soon changed into complimentary terms of astonishment when that officer, with some degree of pride, pointed to his still exhausted soldiers sleeping on the ground, said. "Here, sir, not one man .absent." After five hours' repose, the Light Battalion moved on cheerfully to the ground where they, still in their slop, clothing, next morning drove from the field nearly twelve times their number of regular troops, and supported by both cavalry and artillery.

Hampton had on the 25th October advanced to within a mile or two of the site of the action of the 26th at Chateauguay, which lay in the midst of a primeval forest, and DeSalaberry, who had stuck close to the enemy for several days previously, then occupied a favourable spot in the wood, which he had hastily strengthened by a slight abatis, and had gallantly determined to dispute the ground even before the arrival of the Light Battalion. Macdonell coming up from the rear, found a ford in the river about two miles below DeSalaberry, and seeing the necessity of occupying that position, sent forward an officer to report his arrival and intention.

Most fortunately the enemy had not a conception that Macdonell and his Light Battalion had ever quitted Kingston, and therefoie, calculating only on the opposition of DeSalaberry's handful of men, had secretly passed three strong battalions to the right bank of the river, with the view of recrossing at this ford in DeSalabeiry's rear, and thus making his whole force prisoners when the American left wing should attack him in front. Accordingly on the morning of the 26th, Hampton, with the four thousand men he had on the left bank, dashed at DeSalaberry's abatis through some rounds of a sharp fire of the Voltigeurs, and, as might well be expected, instantly crushed in the brave little defensive band, driving their irresistibly before his overwhelming superiority, and strangely passing unobserved to the confusion the gallant DeSalaberry himself, who, when his men gave way, remained standing on the stump of a tree he had occupied at the beginning of the action! At the same moment the three American battalions on the right bank of the river, made a rapid and somewhat irregular push to gain the ford but before reaching it unexpectedly received a destructive volley-bout portant from a company of the Light Battalion, hidden by Macdonell in the forest on that side, and actually then nearly enveloped by the more advanced portions of the enemy's columns. This instantly threw the three battalions into disorder, for not seeing then opponents, and blinded with the smoke, they in their confusion opened a heavy and continued fire upon each other. The detached company, having thus done its work, immediately crept back out of the woods unseen, crossed the ford and rejoined its own corps, leaving the enemy there fully occupied with their own embarassment. Macdonell soon heard by the approaching cheers of Hampton's forces that he was driving the Voltigeurs before him. and seeing clearly that there was no immediate danger to be apprehended from the brigade of the enemy in confusion on the right bank, advanced rapidly to support DeSalaberry. By the happiest accident possible, he was joined at this moment by one hundred and seventy Indians from the rear. He instantly threw them into the wood to his right, with instructions to scatter and scream their war whoop, and by an incessant fire to threaten Hampton's left flank, sending with them a dozen of his bugles to spread widely and keep sounding "the advance" in every direction; and making his remaining bugles frequently repeat the call and his companies in succession to cheer loudly (to appear to be distinct bodies), he pushed on in double quick to rally the front line. He had scarcely met the retreating Voltigeurs, who then turned upon the enemy, when Hampton, paralyzed at once by the screams and fire of the Indians, the constant clang of bugles and the cheering at different distances—and convinced also by the heavy fire that his brigade on the right bank was warmly opposed by a considerable force, declared that there was certainly ten thousand British in the forest, and thinking he had been drawn into some fatal ambuscade, he halted, broke and instantly abandoned the field, as did also his right wing, in the course of the day and following night, leaving some prisoncrs in the hands of the light Battalion, from whom were obtained the details of the enemy's strength. And just as the last shots of the retiring enemy were dying away, Sir George Prevost and his staff arrived, and received the verbal report of Lieutenant-Colonel Macdonell, who had by that time returned to watch the ford; and shortly after Major General de Watteville also came up in consequence of a note written to him in pencil by Colonel Macdonell at the commencement of the action.

It is incontestable that the battle of Chateauguay—absolutely lost for about half an hour—would have been no impediment whatever to the advance of the enemy upon Montreal, and must have ended in the irresistible capture of DeSalaberry and his little band but for the ardent zeal which brought the Light Battalion so opportunely on the ground, and for the active manner in which it there handled the enemy—an enemy of British descent, consisting of seven thousand infantry and two hundred cavalry, with ten pieces of artillery, to which were opposed just nine hundred men, all of whom except Lieutenant-Colonel Macdonell and Captain Ferguson, of the Canadian Fencibles, were of French blood and but recently embodied, the only three officers of the regular army being the two gentlemen named and Lieutenant-Colonel DeSalaberry.

Chateauguay being made a medal day, gold medals were awarded to Lieutenant-Colonel George Macdonell, Glengarry Light Infantry; Lieutenant-Colonel DeSalaberry, Canadian Voltigeurs. Both these officers were also created Companions of the Bath for their services upon this occasion.

The despatch of Sir George Prevost to the Secretary of State, dated just four days after the battle of Chateauguay(i), shows the imminently critical state of Lower Canada at that moment. He there states, "almost the whole of the British troops being pushed forward for the defence of Upper Canada, that of the Lower Province must depend in great measure on the valour and continued exertions of its incorporated battalions—only five in number—and its sedentary militia until the Seventieth Regiment and the two battalions of marines now daily expected, shall arrive:" "the sedentary militia" being neither more nor less than the mere unarmed and unorganized French-Canadian peasantry working at their ordinary avocations on their farms. Had Hampton won the battle of Chateauguay, there cannot be a doubt that, quite independent of Wilkinson's division, there would in the space of ten days after the action have been at least sufficient American volunteers in the city of Montreal to have rendered the probability of its recapture extremely problematical.

DeSalaberry and his little corps, being much exhausted with the fatigues of the last ten days, were relieved on the evening of the action, and Macdonell took charge of the advance posts with his Light Battalion, and with these six hundred comparatively raw recruits he held Hampton (who had returned to Four Corners on the 28th) completely at bay until the 11th November following.

Wilkinson's orders from his Government were "to precipitate his descent of the St. Lawrence by every practicable means." He had accordingly moved to Grenadier Island, in Like Ontario, between the 17th and 24th October, but hearing of Hampton's defeat on the 26th, his flotilla advanced by slow steps to give that General time to make a second attempt on the Chateauguay; and thus he only dropped down to French Creek on the 3rd November, remaining there some days, which delay kept Kingston in suspense as to his intentions, as it was assailable from that quarter. Finding, however, on the 6th November, that Hampton could not be brought to attempt another passage by the Chateauguay, Wilkinson that day altered the original plan of the campaign, ordering the others to march from Four Corners, and to meet him, on the 9th or 10th, at the Indian village of St. Regis, on the St. Lawrence, opposite Cornwall, and to effect this juncture he himself floated down to the head of the Long Sault on the 10th, where (to lighten his boats in running the rapid) he landed most of his men and marched the greater part down on the British side to within five miles of Cornwall. He had thus been compelled, by the loss of the action at Chateauguay, to waste sixteen days in descending a distance that Macdonell coveted in thirty-one hours! Of course Montreal gained thereby a respite of about a fortnight.

Fortunately General de Rottenburg, at Kingston, had convinced himself on the 7th of the month that Wilkinson's real object was Montreal, and had accordingly, that day, despatched Lieutenant-Colonels Morrison and Harvey to follow him with five hundred and sixty men of the Forty-Ninth and Seventieth Regiments and some field artillery, and these, being joined at Prescottby Lieutenant -Colonels Pearson and Plenderleath, with two hundred and forty of the troops at that post, this small regular force overtook at Chrystler's Farm, on the 11th November, the rear guard of the enemy, amounting to between three thousand and four thousand men. They turned upon Morrison, but after a gallant action of about two hours, he compelled them to retire.

Chrystler's Farm was made a medal day: The following officers received gold medals:—

Colonel Miller Clifford, C.B., K.T, Fifty-Eighth Foot, died in 1837 (then Major Eighty-Ninth Regiment).

Lieutenant-General Sir J. Harvey, K.C.B., K.C.H., Fifty-Ninth Foot (then Lieutenant-Colonel and Deputy Adjutant-General).

Major-General F. Heriot. C.B., died in 1844 (then Major of the Volngeurs).

Liutenant-Colonel Henry Geo. Jackson, R.A., died in 1849 (then Captain R.A.).

Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Plenderleath, C. B., Forty-Ninth Foot (then Lieutenant Colonel Forty-Ninth Regiment).

Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Pearson, C.B., K.C.H, Eighty-Fifth Foot, died in 1847 (then Lieutenant-Colonel commanding detachment at Prescott).

Colonel J. W. Morrison, C.B., Forty-Fourth Foot, died in 1826 (commanding at Chrystler's Farm).

This was unquestionably a very brilliant affaire d'armes, but it is quite a mistake to suppose it had any effect upon the ulterior operations of the enemy, as Wilkinson's flotilla pursued its course down the rapids next morning, and by mid-day re-united his whole division nearly opposite St. Regis. Morrison followed by land and reached Mille Roches on the 13th, but as the enemy were in boats and a day ahead of him down the stream he could not possibly impede their progress upon Montreal—which, indeed, they might easily have reached on the following day, while Morrison would have required nearly a week to march that distance by land.

It was only on the 10th or 11th of the month that the Governor-General received, at Lachine, intelligence for the first time of Wilkinson's intended combination with Hampton. His dismay can easily be imagined at finding this new force of ten thousand men within two days' run of Montreal, then almost defenceless, and Hampton's co-operating division only held in check by the six hundred men of the Light Battalion. His Excellency, having no disposable regular soldiers to send to impede the progress of either column, and knowing that there were no troops between him and Wilkinson except three companies at Cornwall and the 103rd Regiment at Coteau du Lac, a post that could not be abandoned, his only resource was in "the zeal and alacrity evinced by the militia of the Scotch settlement," who from their locality might cripple Wilkinson in some of the rapids, and therefore "solicitous to forward their laudable exertions and the good of His Majesty's service by placing them under the direction of an officer who from talents, local information and influence is best qualified to promote that object," he ordered a field officer to proceed express to the Chateauguay frontier to relieve and send into headquarters Lieutenant-Colonel Macdonell, who arrived at Lachine on the afternoon of the 12th, and was forthwith despatched to Upper Canada with carte blanche to do as he might think proper.

General Wilkinson states in his report to the American Secretary at War of the 16th November, 1813, that on reaching the fort at the Long Sault on the 12th, he "confidently expected to hear of Major-General Hampton's arrival on the opposite shore," but that to his unspeakable mortification and surprise he there learnt that Hampton had not only declined the junction ordered, but had actually, on the 11th November, quitted the Canadian frontier altogether, and had marched back from Four Corners towards Lake Champlain, evidently in order to avoid being forced into any further co-operation in the proposed attack upon Montreal, and thus we see why Wilkinson's immediately-assembled Council of War at once decided that the contemplated attack upon Montreal should be abandoned for the present season, because the loss of the division under Hampton weakened the force too sensibly to justify the attempt. It is clear that had Hampton screwed up his courage to wait for the arrival of Wilkinson on the 13th, at French Mills, the two armies might that night have supped together half way between those mills and Four Corners, or they might, the next morning, have both united within fifteen miles of Macdonell's Light Battalion, still in its old position on the Chateauguay, and Wilkinson's boats could have been either sent down the St. Lawrence to meet them at the mouth of the Chateauguay, or they could have been drawn across the short isthmus of four miles between this last stream and the Salmon River, and Montreal would still have been as much at their mercy as if Colonel Morrison had remained quietly in garrison at Kingston; indeed, their defeat at Chrystler's Farm had but the effect of accelerating their advance upon Montreal. It is apparent, therefore, that the effect of Chateauguay was much more important than that of Chrystler's Farm, and though both were made medal days several brevets were conferred for the latter but none for Chateauguay; indeed, Colonel Macdonell was not even confirmed in the local rank he held when he so opportunely arrived by his own gratuitous activity to snatch the victory out of the half-closed grasp of the enemy. Nay, more, neither the general order issued on the occasion, nor the official despatch to the Secretary of State, ever once mentioned the name of that officer as having been present in the action, or gave the slightest hint that he was in any way connected with it, or even that he had stirred one foot from Kingston to hasten to save it. What made the remissness all the more extraordinary and unjust was the fact that both these state papers specially named with praise some of the captains of his corps who acted under his eye and his express direction; but as if to cheat him of any, even the slightest part of the merit, not calling them officers of the Light Battalion, but designating them only by the little known numerical titles of the several different regiments "of the embodied militia" from which they had been originally drafted to form his Light Battalion—not one of those embodied militia regiments being within twenty miles of the action! This studied omission is attributable to an influential official, who had profited too much by a previous injustice to Colonel Macdonell ever to permit him to acquire any distinction which would enable him to plead that wrong with effect at the Horse Guards.

What made the transaction deplorably base was the fact that the whole of the injustice Macdonell experienced throughout the war, on this and other occasions, hinged notoriously on mean and contemptible fanaticism—that he, a free-born Briton, chose to hold by the .religious faith of the royal heroes who won the fields of Cressy and Agincourt. Surely his devotional opinions were his own. and Government should have recognized with gratitude how with his co-religionists of Scotch and French descent he turned them to the service of the Crown, and won with the one Ogdensburg and the other Chateauguay—achievements which saved, in the former instance, the free navigation of the St. Lawrence and the connecting link between the Upper and Lower Province, and in the other the certainty of the capture of Montreal. On the 26th March following, His Excellency issued a general order, expressing the approbation of the Prince Regent of the affair at Chateauguay, and "his peculiar pleasure in finding that His Majesty's Canadian subjects had at length had the opportunity of refuting, by their own brilliant exertion in defence of their country, the calumnious charge of disaffection and disloyalty, with which the enemy had prefaced his first invasion of the Province." To Lieutenant-Colonel De Salaberry in particular, and to all the officers and men under his command, the sense entertained by His Royal Highness of their meritorious and distinguished services was made known. The Commander of the Forces at the same time acquainted the militia of the determination of His Royal Highness to forward colours for the various battalions of embodied militia, feeling that they had evinced an ability and disposition to secure them from insult, which gave the best title of such a mark of distinction. So flattering a mark of the Prince Regent's approbation was eminently gracious, and wise withal, and well calculated to raise the pride and enthusiasm of the French-Canadians; but it should be borne in mind that the battalions themselves were many miles distant from the scene of action, only their flank companies forming the Light Battalion, under Macdonell, and it was due to him therefore that they won their colours. The only recognition of his services which Lieutenant-Colonel Macdonell obtained was the gold medal and C B. given to him.

General Hamilton having declined the juncture with General Wilkinson, to the surprise and mortification of the latter, nothing was left to the American commander, on whom countless difficulties momentarily crowded, but to re-cross to his own side and a Council of War being held, it was determined "that the attack on Montreal should be abandoned for the present season and that the army near Cornwall should immediately be crossed to the American shore for taking up winter quarters," which was accordingly done on the following day, when they proceeded to Salmon River, where their boats and batteaux were scuttled, and extensive barracks, surrounded on all sides by abatis, were at once erected.

Sir George Prevost, every appearance of immediate danger having subsided, by general orders of 17th November dismissed the sedentary militia in the neighbourhood on Montreal, with acknowledgments of the cheerful alacrity with which they had turned out, and the loyalty and zeal they had manifested.

And thus terminated the great and imminent danger which had threatened Montreal through the armies of General Wilkinson, the Commander-in-Chief of the American army, and General Hampton. It was the intention of the former to have landed on Isle Perrot, when he had formed his juncture with Hampton, which is separated from the Island of Montreal by a small channel over which he intended to throw a bridge of boats and thence to fight his way into the city. To Colonels DeSalaberry and George Macdonell, Morrison and Harvey, is the credit chiefly due for the total defeat of the enemy's plans.


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