Sunday, 7 September 2008

My Town Monday - James FitzGibbon - Hero of War of 1812 (Canada) Part 2

The 49th, as indeed all the British regiments of the line, were at that time in a very inferior state of discipline in regard to drill and field exercises. Sir John Moore's new code of drill was being generally introduced, and FitzGibbon's training under the drill-sergeant in Ireland, as well as his practical knowledge gained in the yeomanry corps, was of great value to him and his company.

[1][Quebec Citadel fortifications - click to enlarge]

In June 1802, the 49th was sent to Quebec. FitzGibbon, in order to take advantage of the long voyage and comparative release from duty, to study, provided himself with books upon military tactics and field exercises. Lying in the boat which hung over the stern of the vessel, he made himself master of every detail contained in the "Rules and Regulations for the Field Exercises of His Majesty's Forces."

This unusual application was not unnoticed by the colonel, whose attention had been already so favorably drawn to the young sergeant, and upon arrival in Quebec the sergeant-major was promoted to be quartermaster-sergeant, and the sergeant-major's sash given to FitzGibbon, over the heads of the forty older sergeants in the regiment.

In the summer of 1803, his company moved to York from Montreal where they had been since September, 1802.

In September, 1803, Lieutenant Lewis resigned the adjutancy but not the lieutenancy, and though Colonel Brock recommended FitzGibbon for the vacant adjutancy, there was no available lieutenancy for over two years, and he could only act as adjutant until 1806, when Colonel Brock obtained an ensign's commission for his " favourite sergeant-major," as FitzGibbon was known in the regiment, from the Duke of York, who had not forgotten the lad and his romantic application for his protection, and in December of the same year he succeeded to the adjutancy.

During FitzGibbon’s first years in Canada, there are many stories told of the sergeant-major. Desertions from the regiments stationed in Canada to the United States were frequent, but it is recorded of Colonel Brock that he only lost one man during the three years of his personal command. He owed this to his popularity and personal influence with his men, and to the vigilance of his sergeant-major.

FitzGibbon had always protested against the use of the "cat" for trifling offences, arguing that it degraded a man not only in the eyes of his comrades but in his own; that the sense of shame such punishment left in a man's consciousness pointed invisible fingers of contempt at him and robbed him of the courage necessary to face an enemy, as well as of the love for his officers which would carry him to the cannon's mouth with unflinching devotion.

The invariable kindness with which Lieut.-Colonel Brock, although a strict officer in enforcing duty, was repaid by their devotion to him. In several of his letters he spoke of the ingenuity of the inducements held out by the Americans to the privates in the regiments at the frontier to desert, and of the necessity of great watchfulness on the part of his officers to defeat them.

[2 - Fort York in 1804]

Soon after their arrival at York, the sergeant of the guard informed the sergeant-major that three of his men were missing, and that a boat had been taken from a shed in charge of one of his sentries, who had also disappeared. Although at midnight, FitzGibbon reported the circumstance to the colonel, who ordered him to man a bateau with a sergeant and twelve privates.

The roll was called in the barrack-rooms, when three other men, as well as a corporal of the 41st, who had been left at York as an artificer, were found to be missing.

At half-past twelve the colonel embarked, taking FitzGibbon with him. They steered direct for Niagara, thirty miles across the lake, and arrived soon after daylight. The night was dark, but there was little wind, and though the passage had been made before in an open boat, it was considered a venture of some undertaking. Lieut.-General Hunter, who commanded the troops in both provinces, is said to have expressed his displeasure at the colonel for so rashly risking his life. The deserters were overtaken and induced to return to their duty.

[3] A short time after this adventure a very serious mutiny was discovered at Fort George, then garrisoned by a detachment of the 49th, under the command of Lieut.-Colonel Sheaffe [photo], which, had it succeeded, would have certainly ended in the murder of that officer.

The four black holes in the fort were constantly full. Flogging was the sentence awarded for even trifling offences. The passing of a sentence so heavy that it required to be inflicted at two, three, and even four different periods, when the victim was incapable of bearing the whole number at once, was not uncommon. The "cat" was steeped in brine, before as well as during the infliction of punishment, and the sufferings of the men and their hatred of the tyrant may be easily imagined.

From an extract from the Returns of the 49th Regiment, during the six months from the 13th November to 31st May, 1811 gives an idea of the punishment metted out:

Edward Marraly. 15th Nov., 1810.
Deficient of frill, part of his regimental necessaries.
Sentenced 100; inflicted —

Deficient of a razor, part of his regimental necessaries, and for producing at an inspection of his necessaries a razor belonging to Private James Rooney, thereby attempting to deceive the inspecting officer.
Sentenced 200; inflicted 100.

Also to be put under stoppages of 1/ per week until the razor is replaced.

For being deficient of a shirt, part of regimental necessaries.
Sentenced 200; inflicted 75.

For having in his possession some pease for which he cannot honestly account, and for making an improper use of the barrack bedding.
Sentenced 400; inflicted 250.

There are numerous entries of "Drunk before dinner although confined to barracks."
Sentenced 150; 100 inflicted.

"Drunk before morning parade although confined to barracks."
Sentenced 200; 150 inflicted.

"Quitting the barracks without leave after tattoo."
Sentenced 300; 295 inflicted.
[Is it any wonder that the men deserted?]

Upon the discovery of the intended mutiny, the officers in the garrison held a private meeting and decided to send a secret message to Colonel Brock before taking any public action.

Although not distinctly stated, the impression given is that Colonel Sheaffe was not one of the officers holding this meeting, nor was he aware of the message sent to Colonel Brock. The feeling against him was so strong in the Upper Province that, later, it was considered advisable to remove Sheaffe to Lower Canada.

A schooner then in the river was dispatched at once to York. Colonel Brock hurried back in the same schooner, taking his devoted sergeant-major with him. Upon arrival, the colonel requested that the boat should be anchored below the town, where he landed alone, leaving FitzGibbon behind, with orders not to appear until sent for.

Colonel Brock's prompt action in personally arresting the principal mutineer, and by the force of his commanding presence and influence over the men making each one of them in turn arrest his fellow-conspirator, is one of the most dramatic instances of a military command anywhere recorded.

From Brock's letters it is apparent he regretted that any of his regiment had been under another's command, when at the trial and conviction of the ring-leaders in this unfortunate mutiny, they reiterated their assertion that "had they continued under the command of Colonel Brock they would have escaped their melancholy end."

Lieut.-General Hunter, then in Quebec, ordered that the delinquents should be tried in that garrison, and thither they were sent in September.

FitzGibbon was sent with them. In a letter from Colonel Brock (now in the Canadian Archives), in reference to this court-martial, he says:

"After what I have stated, the general may think proper to give directions to Colonel Mann to keep Sergeant Fern and Private Gagnes and the rest of the witnesses at Quebec during the winter, but I entreat His Excellency's permission for Sergeant-Major FitzGibbon and Sergeant Steans being permitted to join me without delay, which I imagine they will be able to accomplish if allowed to depart the instant it is found their presence is of no further use. Being by themselves they will be able to travel infinitely more expeditiously."

Colonel Brock had been ordered to assume the command at Fort George, and the desertions ceased. He allowed the men greater latitude, permitting them to fish in their fatigue dresses, and in proper uniform to visit the town of Niagara freely, and even to use their muskets to shoot the countless wild fowl, on condition that they provided their own powder and shot.

In June, 1804, Lieut.-Colonel Brock, with a detachment of the 49th, removed to Kingston, and in the September following, to Amherstburg.

Colonel Brock was appointed to the command at Quebec in October, 1804, and it is probable that FitzGibbon went to Quebec with him, but there are no letters or positive mention of him or where he was stationed until the summer of 1806, when he was in Quebec.

In the autumn of 1805, Colonel Brock returned to England on leave, and before his return to Canada in the summer of 1806, he laid before the Commander-in-Chief a scheme for the formation of a veteran battalion for service in the Canadas, in which FitzGibbon was very interested; and as his ensign's commission was given him at this date, it is not unlikely, nor out of accordance with Colonel Brock's well-known character for generosity, that he gave his favourite full credit for all the information he had gathered for him of the feeling among the soldiers and the inducements offered to them to desert, both by the Americans across the international boundary line and the settlers in Canada who had taken advantage of the free grants of land and were now prosperous farmers.

FitzGibbon always said he owed everything to Colonel Brock. He lent him books, had him with him at every opportunity, encouraged him in the effort to improve and educate himself, not only in every branch of his profession, but in all that was either of worth or likely to be of practical use to him as a gentleman or in any position he was ever likely to fill, at home or in the colony. FitzGibbon called the orderly room of the 49th his grammar school, and the mess-room his university, Lieutenants Stratton, Brackenbury and Loring his tutors.

When in Quebec he often wrote to Colonel Brock's dictation, learning much of the correct pronunciation of words previously unknown to him, through the colonel's corrections.

Upon one occasion, at Quebec, in 1805, Colonel Brock asked the sergeant-major why he had not done something he had ordered. FitzGibbon replied that he had found it impossible to do it.

"By the Lord Harry, sir, do not tell me it is impossible," cried the colonel; "nothing should be impossible to a soldier. The word impossible should not be found in a soldier's dictionary."

Two years afterwards, in October, 1807, when FitzGibbon was an ensign, Colonel Brock ordered him to take a fatigue party to the bateau guard, and bring round to the lower town twenty bateaux, in which to embark troops suddenly for Montreal, fears being entertained that the Americans were about to invade the province in consequence of the affair between the Leopard and the Chesapeake.

On reaching the bateaux the party discovered that the tide had left them, and about two hundred yards of deep, tenacious mud intervened between them and the water. It appeared to FitzGibbon impossible to drag the large, heavy flat-boats through such mud, and he had given the word, "To the right face," when it occurred to him that in answer to such a report the colonel would ask, "Did you try it, sir?': He therefore gave the word, "Front," and said to his men, " I think it impossible for us to put these bateaux afloat, but you know it will not do to tell the colonel so, unless we try it. Let us try — there are the boats. I am sure if it is possible for men to put them afloat, you will do it; go at them."

In half an hour the boats were in the water. The troops were thus enabled to embark a day earlier than if the order had not been carried out.


Life and Times of Major-General Sir Isaac Brock, K.B. by D.B. Read, Q.C.,
A Veteran of 1812: The Life of James Fitzgibbon by Mary Agnes Fitzgibbon (1894)

Photo Credits: [1]-Diof CC=nc-sa-flickr, [2][3]-Wikipedia.

My Town Monday is the brainchild of Travis Erwin at, where you can find other posts from around the world.


Charles Gramlich said...

You know, I tend to think of the British as always being well trained militarily and well prepared for battle. I guess any army can have a tough period.

Barrie said...

I am amazed at what a detailed job you're doing on these MTM posts. Thank you!

gary rith said...

Desert from Canada to the US? I thought it was usually the other way around!

pattinase (abbott) said...

I Halifax we saw the Citadel. Interesting to iimagine a life centered in such a place.

Terrie Farley Moran said...

Breath-taking. thanks for the great research and artful presentation.


laughingwolf said...

gad... the horrors of military life for non coms... :(

Linda McLaughlin said...

My DH and I visited Quebec years ago and enjoyed it tremendously. Great job of bringing history to life.


Travis Erwin said...

Flogging is a word you don't see used much anymore. I'm gonna try to work it into a sentence today. Hmmm ... maybe while talking to my less than intelligent boss. I'll let you know how that goes over.

Barbara Martin said...

Charles, the British had officers who were well trained. Often they had to work with raw militia at a moment's notice to prepare them for any skirmish or possibility of war.

Barrie, it seems the more research I do by reading the older texts the interesting tidbits pop up. The plus side is the information is valuable to a writer. Any writer reading these posts would have an opportunity to find some interesting slice of history to weave into a story.

Gary, soldiers in any army at those times who deserted did so because of the treatment. Usually deserts who were convicted ended up executed.

Barbara Martin said...

Patti, it is fortunate both our countries have kept these former military defense sites as a reminder of our history.

Terrie, for such a history buff how could I resist.

Tony, I would think being put into one of those dark holes would make anyone crazy and claustrophobic. Those being punished were not given the regular soliders' fare, which was an added incentive in the punishment.

David Cranmer said...

I love this detailed history and old terms like "cat" are fascinating... I did a Wikipedia search and found out that "in 2003 his descendants donated some of his personal effects, including a signet ring and a ceremonial sword, to the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa." Your post has me caught up in reading more. Thanks!

BernardL said...

It should have been common sense to figure lashings of the magnitude you mention would destroy discipline rather than enforce it. What a difference leadership makes.

Steve Malley said...

This *is* a bit different from military life as protrayed by Jane Austen.

Not as many dances here. Not as many floggings there...

Barbara Martin said...

Linda, apparently the Citadel at Quebec City is the only fortification in North America except for those in Mexico.

Travis, good idea and I'll share mine with you, too. Two people from my last work place need a good flogging. All the firm will get is a fine from the OHSA. Explanation: I got hurt during work and was relieved of my position because of refusal to work afterwards. I have other options in the works.

Barbara Martin said...

David, "cat" isn't that old of a term. The cat-o-nine tails was used in Canadian prisons until the late 1960s, and corporal punishment was only abolished in1972.

For a proper explanation: the cat o' nine tails with nine doubled twisted and knotted cords was used. Ten to 200 lashes were laid on, in the latter case repeated at intervals over a day or so. Those chosen to apply the lash were stout, robust men. Flogging often turned a man's back into a mangled piece of flesh from which enough blood ran to fill his shoes "till they gushed over."

And the holes were cubes within stone squares no higher than 27" where the inmates were kept up to 4 months on bread and water. It was no wonder some went insane.

Bernard, it wasn't until 1860 that those in authority came to the conclusion that lashing had no effect on behaviour except to make it worse, and went to other methods of providing rewards for good behaviour. It was when the rewards were withheld that the bad behaviour stopped.

The other British military figure that had excellent leadership with his men was Sir Francis Drake.

Barbara Martin said...

Steve, when isaac Brock was in Quebec City he held wonderful parties whenever someone of rank came. I thought I had covered that in an earlier post.

But in York, Brock considered it a backwater.

laughingwolf said...

nice to get a uni named after you, too....