Archives for: October 2006, 13

10/13/06

Permalink 07:00:00 am, by Email , 1822 words   English (CA)
Categories: One Dozen Canadian Heroes

Fourth of Twelve: James FitzGibbon

For the next Nine Fridays, I'm doing blog posts about Canadian heroes of History... some you may have heard of... others you may not know... in under 800 words (not including my usual last note), I'm going to TRY and introduce them to you as best I can...

So far, I've done posts about...

- Harriet Tubman Davis
- Crowfoot
- Charles-Michel d'Irumberry de Salaberry

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James FitzGibbon

If I may quote a little bit of "Flames Across the Border" by the late Pierre Berton...

Lieutenant James FitzGibbon and his Bloody Boys are in hot pursuit of Dr. Cyrenius Chapin, an American surgeon from Buffalo whose band of mounted volunteers has been plundering the homes of Canadian settlers along the Niagara River. Leaving his men hidden near Lundy's Lane, FitzGibbon moves up the road seeking information about Chapin's movements. Ahead he spots a fluttering handkerchief: Mrs. James Kerby, wife of a local militia captain, is trying to get his attention. She runs to him, urges him to flee: Chapin has just passed through at the head of two hundred men.

But FitzGibbon does not retire. Up ahead he has spotted an enemy dragoon's horse hitched to a post in front of Deffield's Inn. He rides up, dismounts, burtsts into the inn. An American rifleman covers him, but FitzGibbon, who is wearing a grey-green fustian overall covering his uniform as a diguise, clasps him by the hand, claims an old acquaintance, and having thus thrown the enemy off guard, seizes his rifle barrel and orders him to surrender. The man refuses, clings to his weapon, tries to fire it while his comrade levels his own piece at FitzGibbon. FitzGibbon turns about and, keeping the first rifle clamped in his right hand, catches the other's with his left and forces it down until it points at his comrade. Now FitzGibbon exercises all his great strength to drag both men out of the tavern, all three swearing and calling on one another to surrender.

Up runs Mrs. Kerby, begging and threatening. Up scampers a small boy who throws rocks at the Americans. The trio continue to struggle until one of the dragoons manages to pull FitzGibbon's sword from it's sheath with his left hand. He is about to thrust it into his opponent's chest when Mrs. Deffield, the tavern keeper's wife, who has been standing in the doorway all this time, a small child in her arms, kicks the weapon out of his hand. As he stoops to recover it, she drops the infant, wrenches the sword away from the American, and runs off.

FitzGibbon throws one of his assailants against the steps and disarms him. The other is attacked by Deffield, the tavernkeeeper, who knocks the flint out of his weapon, rendering it useless. FitzGibbon mounts his horse and, driving his two prisoners before him, makes his escape two minutes before Chapin's main force arrives.

Meet "The Colonel Hisself", James FitzGibbon, born November 16th, 1780 into what might be considered a "lower-middle-class" family in Glin, County Limerick, Ireland.

Semi-literate, but an omnivorous reader/learner/student, FitzGibbon enlisted into a local Yeomanry at age fifteen where he soon made Sergeant. He then joined the 49th (The Green Tigers), a red-coated British regiment where he caught the eye of his commanding officer, Lieutenant-Colonel Isaac Brock (soon to be General Brock commanding all the forces of Upper Canada.)

He saw action Egmond aan Zee, Holland, in 1799. He served as a marine in the battle of Copenhagen (1801), for which he received the Naval General Service Medal. In 1802, FitzGibbon landed in Quebec with the 49th Regiment; he remained in Canada for 45 years.

Brock did what he could, helped FitzGibbon gain promotion without using the traditional "purchase" methods to Sergeant Major, then Ensign, then to a Lieutenant in the green jacketed Glengarry Light Infantry Fencibles... FitzGibbon also improved his education with self teaching... The orderly room, he remarked once, was his high school and the mess room his university.

Brock also taught him how to treat the men... as a lady would her piano - that is put them in tune (good humour) before I played upon them. FitzGibbon, like Brock, was a popular and well liked commander.

FitzGibbon's task is to do the most with the least... act as a guerilla in the Niagara region with a hand-picked squad of forty-men... his "Bloody Boys"...

Where a lot of Canadians might know of FitzGibbon is when a beddraggled, worn, and foot-sore wife of a militia man from Queenston appeared at FitzGibbon's headquarters at the DeCou (DeCew) house near St. Davids... a treacherous and dangerous thing to do... especially for a woman... but none-the-less, she arrived with the help of some friendly Caughnawaga natives.

This woman let FitzGibbon know that the Americans planned to attack his headquarters and take his men. She found this out while she was forced to serve them dinner at her home in then occupied Queenston.

That woman's story would be re-told often... sometimes including her leading her cow all the way (not entirely a myth... she did, perhaps, take it part of the way... but not all the way as it would have been impossible... and her memory of the story got a little muddled as she aged...) but either way, Laura Secord had alerted FitzGibbon and his men of the American advance.

They selected a good ground near a place known as Beaver Dams, and with about 400 Caughnawaga and Mohawk warriors and 46 "Bloody Boys", attacked. The battle raged for three hours mostly between the Caughnawaga and Americans before FitzGibbon rode out towards the American lines with a white handkerchief flying. He "explained" to the American commander that he had a force of 500 battle-seasoned red-coats in reserve and more "savage Indians" were expected at any moment... and worst of all, he couldn't promise to control the natives once they were there.

At first, the American commander, Lieutenant-Colonel Charles Boerstler demanded to see this main body of British soldiers, but FitzGibbon played the bluff back saying that he was not there to prove his word, but to try and ease the bloodshed that was inivetable from the Native warriors.

Boerstler surrendered.

Just as the American troops were lining up and grounding their arms, British Major De Haren and a small troop came up to the scene... FitzGibbon had to act fast... first, as De Haren was his commanding officer, if he took control, he would take all the credit for the victory... secondly, if his subterfuge was discovered and the American's realised that there was only a small force "capturing them", they would re-seize their weapons and... well...

FitzGibbon was not Brock's disciple for nothing...

He stepped up to De Haren's horse, laid his hands on the horses neck, and in a firm, low voice he said, "Not another word, sir; these are my prisoners.", stepped back and loudly said, "Shall I proceed to disarm the American troops?"

De Haren can only agree.

Native leader John Norton was reported to have quipped, "The Caughnawaga Indians fought the battle, the Mohawks got the plunder, and FitzGibbon got the credit."

FitzGibbon went on to take part in many scrimmages and battles... and at the end of the war, was made Captain of the Glengarry Light Infantry.

The Glengarry Light Infantry Fencibles were disbanded in 1816 and FitzGibbon went on half-pay until 1825 when he sold his commission. He became a militia colonel in 1826.

FitzGibbon also stayed on in public life in Upper Canada taking many positions of civil service.

He is largely credited for keeping a riot at bay when he quelled his fellow Irishmen who were working on the first Welland Canal and were fed up with the lack of pay. His presence and speech turned them back to their labours.

He was also instrumental for stopping the "Types Riots" in York (present day Toronto) when, as constable, literally walked through the rioters (who, according to eyewitness reports, literally stopped in their tracks) to the head of the fellows attacking the presses of William Lyon Mackenzie and put a stop to the troubles.

His wit, courage, strength, and overall mythos were his greatest assets in the fledgling city and province.

He was also to have been in charge of the militia during the rebellions of 1837, but Sir Francis Bond Head, in an incredibly bad move, decided to put Allan McNabb in his place... FitzGibbon knew that Mackenzie and his rebels were close to attack, but Bond Head and McNabb vacillated... this sent FitzGibbon into a deep depression... but when they finally decided to act, FitzGibbon managed to get the militia out, line them up, and put a stop to the rebelion post haste.

In later years, he continued to serve in whatever capacity he could within the civilian and militia ranks... but debts and issues plagued him. Even with the citizenry of Upper Canada giving him a reward for his service of 5,000 acres of land in the province, it wasn't enough to keep up with his old debts which included things like his commissions and even his horse and uniform.

He finally took a post in England in Windsor Castle as one of the "Poor Knights of Windsor" (The Military Knights of Windsor) where he spent the last of his remaining days... although, he did read every newspaper and notice he could find on his adopted land over the ocean and still had family living in the Canadas from his marriage to Mary (neé Haley), with whom he had four sons and a daughter.

Of note, one of FitzGibbon's sons died in one of the more gruesome deaths recorded in York... He was sitting on some bleachers near St. Lawrence Market taking in some speeches when the bleachers gave way and collapsed into the cattle-butchers area below... he was impaled on a meat-hook.

With his pensions paying off his debts, FitzGibbon died at 83 and was buried in the crypt of St George’s Chapel.

A Canadian hero... full of swash and buckle... with a commanding presence... and yet, many don't know him or his deeds.

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Not a bad amount of work for a really sick guy with pneumonia, eh?

Sources:
Flames Across The Border by Pierre Berton
James FitzGibbon - Defender of Upper Canada by Ruth McKenzie
A Veteran of 1812 - The Life of James Fitzgibbon by Mary Agnes Fitzgibbon

Historica Video Minute on Laura Secord

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