A Short Historical Background
by Tony Dalmyn
In the War of 1812, the Americans attempted to conquer, or liberate, the British province of Canada - which at that time was a small inhabited area along the St Lawrence River and the northern side of Lake Ontario and Lake Erie, with claims of sovereignty over large areas occupied by the First Nations.
At the beginning of the war, the defence of Upper Canada rested in the hands of General Isaac Brock, a career soldier in the British Army. In July, 1812, he launched a sudden and successful attack on Detroit, temporarily neutralizing an American threat on the western frontier. He returned to the east, to face the next threat, an American army out of New York state, poised to invade across the Niagara River at Queenston.
The American invasion started under cover of darkness on the night of October 12, 1812. At dawn, the next day, the British and Canadian artillery were smashing the invaders in their boats in the water. Brock was commanding the defence from a gun emplacement on Queenston Heights. There was a detachment of infantry to guard the guns, but Brock sent them to drive off some Americans who were landing in the town. An American raiding party had landed below the Heights overnight, and scaled the cliffs. When Brock despatched the British infantry, they were able to attack and capture the guns. The Americans now had an opportunity to cross the river without coming under direct fire.
Brock retreated down the Heights, rallied some troops and charged the American infantry holding the gun emplacement. He was killed in the first charge. A couple hours later, his aide rallied the troops and attempted a second charge against great odds. His aide was killed, and the charge failed.
The British forces contained the invasion, and a reinforcing army recaptured the Heights the next day, driving the Americans back across the river. Brock's defence of Canada in 1812 had been successful, and the Canadians were reinforced over the winter.
After Brock's death, political power gravitated towards a small band of merchants and clergy in Toronto, who became known and hated as the Family Compact. Their abuses of power led to a rebellion in 1837 that convinced the British government in London to install democratic government in Canada.
The Family Compact pretended they had won the War, and they associated themselves with General Brock and his heroic defence of Canada in the early and dark days of the War.
In a short time, the heroism of Brock's Canadian aide was forgotten. The aide was John MacDonell.
John MacDonell was one of the Glengarry County (Ontario)"Greenfield" MacDonells who came to that early Highland settlement (west of Cornwall and up to the Quebec border) from the Gaelic-speaking Highland area of Glengarry, Scotland in 1792.
He was a lawyer and a politician, and joined the army at the start of the war, with the rank of Lieutenant Colonel. He was not a professional soldier, but many of the Scots who settled the eastern counties of Ontario were retired professional soldiers. His cousins, close and distant, formed regiments in the defence of Canada, and some fought with distinction in many other battles in that war. The loyalty of the Scots to the British cause is almost puzzling. The British and the British elites in Canada tended to look down on Scots and Catholics, and these Scots were Catholics, refugees from political persecution in their homeland.
MacDonell was a uniquely talented man, accepted by the English elites. He was a pioneer, bridging the differences between the two groups. Brock recognized his talents, and flattered the Scots community, by appointing him to high rank on his own staff.
If he had lived, he could have been a powerful force for democracy and ethnic equality in Upper Canada.
Stan's song gives a fair account of the battle, and it can not be faulted on historical details except on two points: he spelled the man's name wrong (which has confused a few fans who have visited the monument and have not found the name), and he called him an Eastern Township Scot; the expression Eastern Townships generally refers to a region east of Montreal on the south side of the St Lawrence River.
The liner notes on the album were written after Stan's death. They contain a few factual errors, and an interesting interpretation of MacDonell's part in history. They also provide a rare look at the way Stan shared his enjoyment of Canada's heritage with his family and friends.