Sunday 21 September 2008

My Town Monday - James FitzGibbon - Hero of the War of 1812 (Canada) - Part 4

[1-Fort Henry] In January 1813, James FitzGibbon was sent from Fort Henry at Kingston in charge of forty-five sleighs containing military stores for Niagara. This was an extremely arduous undertaking, the difficulties of overcoming bad roads, snowstorms, and the bitter cold of a Canadian winter,

[2-Fort Henry Martello Tower] being scarecely less than those which beset the river highway from Montreal. Avoiding the trackless forest and the softer snow beneath the trees, the sleighs needed to follow the shores of the Bay of Quinte, and after crossing the narrow stretch of land between Prince Edward County and the mainland, known as the "Carrying Place," and along the low shores of Brighton Bay, to face the wide sweep of wind over Lake Ontario to York.

[3-Prince Edward County]

Upon his arrival at Niagara, he was detached with his company and sent to the shores of Lake Erie, to the most distant post on the right of the army on the Niagara frontier. The lake was frozen completely over from shore to shore, and thus formed a firm bridge upon which it was expected the enemy would cross. FitzGibbon was set to watch and prevent this.

[4-Fort George defence walls] When the ice broke up in April, he was withdrawn to the Niagara River, and posted at Frenchman's Creek. It was from this post that FitzGibbon made one of the daring raids for which he was well known. Seeing a party of the enemy on one of the islands in the river at sunset on the 6th of April, he crossed in a bateau with twelve men, succeeded in reaching the island unobserved, and surprising the party, took them prisoners and brought them back with their own boat.

FitzGibbon was frequently employed in conveying dispatches from the frontier to headquarters at Kingston, but there is no detailed record of each occasion upon which this duty was entrusted to him. His intimate knowledge of the roads, his expeditious promptitude and rapid movements, as well as the fact of his having been at so many different places, while that part of the 49th to which he of right belonged remained at one post, makes this more probable.

He was with his regiment on the Niagara frontier on April the 6th, when the raid on Strawberry Island was perpetrated. He was at York when that post was attacked by the Americans under Chauncey and Dearborn, and back again at Fort George when it was taken by them on May 27th.

[5-Burlington Heights] There is no official record extant of the strength of the force that, after the gallant defence of Fort George, retreated to Burlington Heights.

[6-Burlington Heights earthworks]

The situation was critical. The recent bombardment of York and its evacuation by its chief magistrates and officials; the presence of the American fleet under Chauncey, a fleet capable of commanding every port on the lakes and in actual possession of the Niagara frontier shores; Fort George taken and occupied by the enemy; the British force, harassed and wearied by previous patrol duties, followed by defeat, and further weakened by the permission which almost amounted to an order given to the militia to return to their own homes.

The American force, 3,550 strong, flushed with victory, following up the retreat of the defeated and well disheartened British army, made the prospect appear gloomy. Nothing but the entire evacuation of the western peninsula seemed possible. Against less odds York had been deserted. There seemed nothing for it but to destroy all the stores that could not be carried away, evacuate the Heights, and escape to Kingston, leaving the land to the enemy. Fortunately for Canada there were a few dauntless spirits to whom the words “defeat” and “retreat” required many letters to spell — enough of the ignorance of “when they were beaten” left in the British ranks to sustain them.

Collecting all the women and children in the fort on the Heights, and levelling all the fences on the deserted farms on the plains below, the British prepared to make a last stand against the enemy.

Tidings were brought to the camp of the approach of the American army, and Lieut. Crowther, with a small party, was sent out to reconnoitre, and if possible, check the advance.

Upon reaching Red Hill, a scout brought him word that the enemy were close on the other side of the Big Creek. This information prompted the idea of attempting to surprise and capture the whole force. Concealing his party in the bush, the lieutenant watched the enemy approach in evident ignorance of the proximity of any ambushed foe.

All seemed to favour the successful issue of his stratagem, when the excitable Irish temperament defeated it. The Americans were scarcely within range when one of the 49th, forgetful of orders, fired. The enemy started, broke for shelter, and the lieutenant seeing all was up, fired a full volley to hurry them before withdrawing his party.*

Ascertaining that the main body of the enemy were preparing to encamp at Stony Creek, he returned to the Heights, and reported to General Vincent.

It was now FitzGibbon's turn. From his knowledge of the ground and the enemy’s behaviour under sudden attack, of how the unsteadiness of the few affected the steadiness of the many, FitzGibbon felt confident that a night attack might be made with success. Colonel Harvey was in favor of attempting it, and FitzGibbon volunteered to learn the exact position and disposition of the enemy's forces, and personally obtain all the knowledge necessary.

Disguising himself as a settler, he took a basket of butter on his arm, and went boldly into the American camp.

There is no doubt whatever that he made himself very entertaining to the soldiers, to whom he sold all his butter, getting the best price for it, or that the purchasers believed they were obtaining much valuable information of the position, panic and numerical inferiority of the British troops now fleeing before their victorious arms. The disguise was so complete, the vendor of butter so simple, that he was allowed to traverse the entire camp, and gain considerably more information than he appeared to give.

FitzGibbon returned more than ever convinced that if General Vincent would consent to a night attack it would be successful.

He reported the enemy camped on Mr. James Gage's farm, on the easterly bank of a rivulet just west of the Stony Creek, which ran through a shallow valley some two hundred yards wide, with steep banks twelve or fifteen feet high, their guns planted on the edge of the bank as on a parapet overlooking the flat. The infantry were encamped behind them in an orchard on the north and in the fields on the south of the road, while Generals Winder and Chandler had possession of Mr. Gage's house as their headquarters. The luckless advance guard was posted in the meeting-house on the west side of the flat, a quarter of a mile from the camp."*

Upon FitzGibbon's report being received, an anxious council of war was held, and Colonel Harvey proposed a night attack being made. It was the only chance, the forlorn hope. The men had but ninety rounds of ammunition remaining. Sail had been seen on the lake. If time were allowed them to effect a junction with the land force, disastrous, precipitate retreat or annihilation was inevitable. The proposal was accepted, and Colonel Harvey given the command.

Five companies of the 8th under Major Ogilvy, and five of the 49th under Major Plenderleath, with an unrecorded number of militia and other corps then in the camp — in all, a handful of seven hundred and four rank and file — set out in the silent summer night to strike what every soldier thought might be a last blow for the British flag on that fair Canadian frontier.

Ascertaining that every musket was empty, even the flints removed, that no excitable Irishman might again betray their proximity, Harvey gave the order to march.

Three hours passed. No sound broke the silence, no report of cannon carried tidings to the anxious hearts upon the Heights. Meanwhile, the troops had crept across the plains. Upon reaching the scene of Lieut. Crowther's ambuscade the men were halted, and the various posts of attack or vigilance assigned to the different officers.

Stealing from the cover, the enemy's advance pickets were bayoneted in silence ere the challenge had well passed their lips, and deploying into line the attacking force marched up the steep bank of the valley to the very mouth of the cannon, every man knowing that any moment they might roar forth wholesale destruction down the ranks.

FitzGibbon was one of the first men to reach the summit of the bank, at the moment that the first volley of the American musketry roused the sleeping gunners, who, springing to their feet, fired the guns just where they stood.

[7-American soldiers] Heedless of the death-dealing shot, the 49th charged, and carrying the guns at the point of the bayonet, turned them upon the now flying enemy. The camp was taken; whole regiments fired but once and fled, leaving their dead to be buried by their enemies. The two American generals, Chandler and Winder, were captured by the British, together with seven other officers and 116 rank and file. The retreat of the front ranks carried panic with it to the rear; the ships, instead of supporting the land force, served only as a means of escape to the flying soldiers, and one of the most brilliant victories of the campaign was won by the British — a victory that more than compensated their arms for the loss of York and Fort George.

[9-British Army - click to enlarge]

FitzGibbon always said in reference to this battle, that if the victory had been followed by immediate pursuit of the retreating Americans, Fort George might have been recovered without much, if any, loss. The advance, however, only reached Forty Mile Creek two days later.

This suggested to FitzGibbon the idea that he might do good work if he had a few men under his immediate command, detached for skirmishing duty in advance.

To decide upon a line of conduct and to act was one with the soldier. He lost no time in applying to Lieut.-Colonel Harvey, then Deputy Adjutant-General.

To his intense satisfaction his request was received by Lieut.-Colonel Harvey with the words, “Most cheerfully. I have been looking for an officer I could send in the advance, and did not think of you. Come to me in an hour with written details of your projected plan of operations, and I will propose you to the general.”

The general's consent obtained, the next difficulty was to select men. Had all who volunteered and wished to go with him been accepted, he would have had nearly the whole regiment. But the number was limited to fifty.

“We all wanted to go,” wrote an old 49th man, in 1862. “We knew there would be good work, fighting and success wherever FitzGibbon led, for though impulsive he was prompt, and as brave as a lion. Though apparently foolhardy, every man in the regiment knew that he knew what he was about, and forgot nothing.”

[10-James FitzGibbon] During the day, FitzGibbon made up the company's accounts and transferred them to another officer; selected his men from the several companies himself; purchased a sufficient quantity of fustian to make shell-jackets, in order that he might be able to show fifty red-coats at one point and fifty grey-coats at another, and three cow-bells to be used as signals in the woods, where the bugle, whistle or even words of command might serve only to betray their whereabouts to the enemy.

The 49th had long ere this date won for themselves the sobriquet of the “Green Tigers” from the enemy, the name being suggested by the colour of the facing of their tunics and the fierceness of their fighting. Detachments of this regiment were generally sent to the front of every engagement. Batteries and guns, whose fire was proving disastrous to the advance or retreat of the British, had been stormed and carried by small handfuls of men from the regiment, and their appearance was now almost sufficient to ensure victory, and certainly carried fear into the ranks of the enemy.

FitzGibbon's little band well sustained the character of the regiment. He knew each one of the men and of what they were capable; knew that his faith in them was returned fourfold in their devotion to him, and in that esprit de corps so essential to the successful career of soldier or regiment.

With Ensign Winder and forty-eight rank and file, he successfully interrupted the communication between Fort Erie and Fort George, then in the hands of the enemy, and pursued and well-nigh captured a marauding troop of licensed freebooters under a Captain Chapin, whose warfare had been principally directed against defenceless farms, his men burning and destroying barns and farm produce, terrifying the women and children, and making prisoners of the few laborers they found in charge.

By dividing his company into three parties, and sending them by different pathways and tracks through the woods and ravines, FitzGibbon was able to cover a larger area and give the impression that he had a greater number of men under his command than had he kept them all together. A code of signals was arranged by which they could communicate with each other, and, though separated, be able to act in concert.

Once when FitzGibbon and two of his men were crossing from one rendezvous to another, they were nearly captured by a party of ten or twelve Americans. It being impossible to retreat unseen, they concealed themselves under an overhanging bank of earth, from which a luxuriant growth of wild vines formed a screen, and waited. Listening intently, FitzGibbon made signs to his men not to move, and, turning, crept cautiously along, close to the bank to where he knew there was a deep hole or cave. A great tree had fallen and partially barred the entrance; resting his hands on the trunk, he raised himself and dropped lightly on the other side, not, however, without having caught a momentary glimpse of the enemy. The path they had followed had come to an abrupt end on the top of the rise; they were evidently uncertain of their locality and had halted to consider, undecided whether to return by the way they had come or to break a fresh track and advance. FitzGibbon crawled along until he was within a few yards of below where they stood. Pausing a moment to recover his breath, he uttered a succession of Irish yells and Indian war cries, which, reverberating from side to side of the cave, startled and struck terror to the hearts of the enemy above. Believing themselves surrounded by ambushed Indians, they decided that there was but one path and took it, not stopping to look behind them. FitzGibbon returned to his men, and they went their way without further encounter with the enemy that day.

On the 21st, FitzGibbon, by a judicious disposal of his men through the woods and destroying the bridge over the Chippewa by removing the planks, had Chapin's whole troop in a corner, and would have captured them had not 150 infantry coming from Fort Erie been entrapped at the same time. The combined force so far outnumbered FitzGibbon's that he deemed it advisable to draw off his men and let the United States infantry escort their own cavalry back to Fort George.

Later on the same day, when entering a village through which the enemy had just passed, FitzGibbon saw a dragoon's horse at the door of a tavern, and, hoping to surprise and capture the rider in order that he might obtain information of the enemy's movements and intentions, he advanced.

[11- Musket] When within a few paces of the door, an infantry man came out and presented his musket. FitzGibbon, having his grey fustian jacket on over his uniform, still advanced, saying quietly, “Stop, my friend, don't fire.” The musket dropped to the charge, while FitzGibbon went on, “I advise you to go away quickly as there are British soldiers in the barn over there.”

Then, being within reach, he sprang forward, seized the man's musket and ordered him to surrender. Instead of obeying, the man held on firmly. The sound of voices attracted the dragoon, who, issuing from the door, pointed his piece at FitzGibbon's shoulder. Lithe as a cat and of great muscular strength, FitzGibbon turned, and still retaining his hold upon the infantry man's musket with his right hand, he caught the one pointed at his shoulder with his left, and brought it to the front beside the other. The man pulled, but FitzGibbon held fast. Finding he was too strong for them, the dragoon drew FitzGibbon's own sword with his left hand, and attempted to cut him over the head with it, but failed. He then grasped it as a dagger and tried to stab him. But there was help near. As he raised his arm to strike, FitzGibbon saw two small hands seize it from behind, grasp the wrist, and the sword was wrenched from his hold by a woman. An old man coming up at the moment, the two Americans were made prisoners, and carried off from within hearing of their own detachment, had it occurred to them to call out.

It is interesting to add that at the close of the war, in 1816, James FitzGibbon obtained from the Government a grant of 400 acres of land for the woman's husband, as a reward for her assistance, and in 1837 when her son, who had joined the rebels, was taken prisoner, and tried, and would have suffered the penalty of death, FitzGibbon, in consideration of certain circumstances which came out in the investigation, obtained a full pardon for the lad from Sir George Arthur.*

* The Life and Correspondence of Major General Sir Isaac Brock, K.B. by Ferdinand Brock Tupper (1845)

A Veteran of 1812: The Life of James Fitzgibbon by Mary Agnes Fitzgibbon (1894),

Photo Credits: [1]-Julie and Mark CC=nc-flickr, [2]-Robert in Toronto CC=nc-nd-flickr, [3]-Glandrid CC=nc-sa-flickr, [4]-lone primate CC=nc-nd-flickr, [5][6]-ilmo joe CC=nc-sa-flickr, [7]- [9][11]-jah32, [10]-wikipedia

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


Charles Gramlich said...

I've toured several old forts down here and always enjoyed it. It's so strange to see them empty and lorn when you know once they echoed to the tramp of many feet.

pattinase (abbott) said...

My God, you put a lot of work into these posts. I have to assume your book follows.

gary rith said...

the butter was brilliant

BernardL said...

Well told.

Barbara Martin said...

Charles, perhaps the next time you visit go to a quiet area, stand and listen for awhile. You may have a moment of wonder appear.

Patti, my fiction does have historical content, but not to this extent, yet. The first manuscript is current time while the suceeding ones carrying the story forward will deal with historical episodes.

Gary, FitzGibbon was an enterprising man.

Travis Erwin said...

Talk about buttering someone up.

Barbara Martin said...

Travis, that term may have originated with FitzGibbon.

Linda McLaughlin said...

FitzGibbon was a canny fellow; the butter episode was fascinating. Very interesting post.


Reb said...

Wow! Barbara, your posts amaze me every time I read them and I was certain I could smell gunpowder for a moment there.

Barbara Martin said...

Linda, a necessary requirement in a soldier or a man of fortune.

Reb, the research and putting these historical posts together is turning out to be an excellent exercise for my fiction writing.

Steve Malley said...

Fitzgibbon was cool, in a way folks don't much get to be these days. Looking at that engraving of him, I'd say a young Tom Jones might play him in the movie, or maybe Collin Farrel or Clive Owen. Clive'd be good...

Also, kept checking photo #3 for signs of Green Gables. Alas.

Barrie said...

Fascinating. You're such the historian!

Barbara Martin said...

Bernard, thank you.

Steve, Clive Owen is an excellent choice.

Unfortunately, you are looking for Prince Edward Island for "Green Gables" which is nestled in the Gulf of St. Lawrence between Nova Scotia, New Brunswick and the Gaspe Penninsula of Quebec. Prince Edward County is located near Belleville, Ontario.

Barbara Martin said...

Barrie, it all started with finding topics to write about for MTM. Then I began receiving requests to continue...the rest is history.