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Red George Macdonell

An interesting, even controversial, Newfoundland connection in the War of 1812  was Lieutenant Colonel George Macdonell, Commanding Officer of the Glengarry Light Infantry  Fencibles.

Macdonell was the son of the British commandant at Fort Townshend in St. John’s. Born in St. John’s (date unknown) and christened there in 1780, it appears he spent a good part of his young life in that city, leaving to return to England and join the British Army  as an Ensign in 1796, eventually posted to Nova Scotia and Quebec with the 8th (King’s) Regiment in 1805.

Macdonell is perhaps best remembered for his dashing (and forbidden) attack across the St. Lawrence on the New York town of Ogdensburg. He was known as ‘Red George’ because of his colourful hair and possibly also because of his volatile nature. Macdonell was frustrated by American raids from Ogdensburg led by Major Forsythe into Ganonoque and Elizabethtown (both between Kingston and Cornwall).

Lt Col ‘Red George’ Macdonell, the highest ranking Newfoundlander in the War of 1812. (photo from G.F. Stanley, War of 1812 Land Operations)

Macdonell and Lt Col Thomas Pearson, Macdonell’s superior officer, argued with Governor Prevost for a retaliatory attack on Forsythe’s base at Ogdensburg.  Prevost, at best an indecisive and hesitant commander, refused any attack, believing it was best to not ‘irritate’ the Americans. Permission was granted by Prevost to only mount a ‘demonstration’, and Macdonell was warned  to   ‘… not undertake any offensive operations against Ogdensburg…’.

Prevost was briefly visiting Macdonell at his garrison in Fort Wellington, Prescott, when he issued this order. Barely 48 hours after Prevost’s departure, 22 February, 1813, Macdonell led the Glengarry Light Infantry at 7 AM in two columns across the frozen St. Lawrence River.  The task of the right column, equipped with light field cannon manned by a Royal Artillery detachment, was to draw the American’s attention away from the left column under Macdonell. The American garrison fired cannons on the right column led by  Capt John Jenkins. Heavy canister fire horribly shredded Jenkin’s left arm and the column’s progress was halted about halfway across the river. Though wounded, Jenkins later received an additional wound to his right arm while exhorting his men forward,  permanently disabling him.

The left column of the Glengarries was led by a vanguard of 50 Royal Newfoundland Regiment Fencibles reinforced by some Canadian militia. Capt. Tito Francois LeLievre, who served with the RNR from 1795 to disbandment after the war, was involved with the vanguard, but his command role is not clear today, though mentioned in dispatches after the action. Macdonell commanded the left column.  The Americans, drawn away by the apparent threat of the feint by Jenkins on the right, were outflanked and the Americans fled the town. The American fort was dismantled and the barracks burned,  some boats destroyed, and a large amount of military stores and supplies confiscated.

After one and half hours action the British returned home. The repercussions for Canada were enormous: Ogdensburg was never again garrisoned by American troops at the request of the residents, who also set up trade deals to supply the British with provisions such as sheep and oxen for the remainder of the war. More significantly, the St. Lawrence remained open as a vital supply route for British forces throughout the war.

Macdonell survived the war but was never satisfied with the lack of recognition for his exploits, and his reputation subsequently suffered. One historian, Donald Graves, has been very critical of Macdonell, and suggests that Lt Col Pearson, not Macdonell,  should have received the credit for this action.

Accounts vary as to casualties for the British forces: George Stanley in wWar of 1812  counted 6 dead and 34 wounded; MacDonell in an after-action report, cites 8 dead, 71 wounded; and Dan Graves in Fix Bayonets claims 8 dead, 52 wounded.

Newfoundland casualties:

Pte. Joseph Laborde

Pte. Antoine O’May

Pte Andrew Bray 9 (died of wounds 8 March 1813, in Prescott)

Pte. xx  xx (died of wounds 22 March, 1813)