Were there Canadians at the Battle of Waterloo?
If you’re ever visiting the Duke of Wellington’s tomb in St. Paul’s Cathedral in London, take a moment to look for the bust of Sir John A. Macdonald, Canada’s first prime minister. Nearby you will find a plaque sacred to the memory of Captain Alexander Macnab, a Canadian who died in the Battle of Waterloo on June 18, 1815. Macnab, one of thousands killed in the battle, did nothing special to distinguish himself. How did he wind up being commemorated in such a place of honour? Macnab was not the only Canadian at the Battle of Waterloo.
Captain Alexander Macnab
In 1815 “Canada” consisted of the colonies of British North America: Upper Canada (part of present-day Ontario), Lower Canada (part of present-day Quebec and Labrador), New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Cape Breton Island, Prince Edward Island and Newfoundland. There was also a large chunk of territory known as Rupert’s Land, nominally owned by the Hudson’s Bay Company.
Alexander Macnab was not born in any of these. He was actually born in Virginia around 1775, the second of four sons of James and Anne Macnab. James Macnab served as a surgeon for a Loyalist regiment during the American Revolutionary War. When the Patriots confiscated the Macnabs’ estate near Norfolk, Dr. Macnab moved his family to Canada. Dr. Macnab continued to serve with the Loyalists until his death at Yamachiche, Quebec in 1780. The family was later awarded land from the British crown as compensation for Dr. Macnab’s service and loss of property. Anne remarried at Trois-Rivières in 1782.
In 1797, Alexander Macnab was sworn in as a clerk to the Executive Council of Upper Canada at the provincial capital of Newark (now Niagara-on-the Lake).
After three years of clerical work, in no wise to his taste – for the military instinct in him was strong – an event occurred which enabled him to exchange the pen for the sword. (1)
General Peter Hunter, the lieutenant governor of Upper Canada, was apparently responsible for this career switch.
It happened one forenoon that young Alexander Macnab, a clerk in one of the public offices, was innocently watching the Governor’s debarkation from a boat, preparatory to his being conveyed up to the Council-chamber in a sedan-chair which was in waiting for him. The youth suddenly caught his Excellency’s eye, and was asked – ‘What business he had to be there? Did he not belong to the Surveyor-General’s office? Sir! Your services are no longer required!’
For this same young Macnab, thus summarily dismissed, Governor Hunter, we have been told, procured subsequently a commission. (2)
Thus in 1800 Alexander Macnab became an ensign in the Queen’s Rangers, a colonial unit made up largely of Loyalists. When the Rangers were disbanded in October 1802, Macnab took a patent on a one acre plot of land in York (now Toronto), at the corner of Wellington and Bay Streets. Wellington was then called Market Street (click here to see how small Toronto was).
In 1803 Macnab joined the British army. He started out in the 26th Regiment of Foot, then moved to the 2nd battalion of the 30th (Cambridgeshire) Regiment. On January 16, 1804, Macnab was promoted to lieutenant. He was posted in Ireland until 1809. That year he was promoted to captain and sailed with his battalion to Portugal. Macnab served in the Iberian Peninsula until 1814. He was employed on staff, rather than in the field. Among other things, he served as commandant of the port of Figueira and, later, of Coimbra. In the fall of 1814 Macnab was sent to Antwerp, in the Netherlands.
When Napoleon escaped from Elba in 1815, Macnab’s battalion was part of the allied force organized to combat him. Though several sources say Macnab was seconded as an aide-de-camp to Lieutenant General Sir Thomas Picton, historian John R. Grodzinski of the Royal Military College of Canada has confirmed that Macnab continued to serve with the 2/30th Foot. The battalion was assigned to Major-General Sir Colin Halkett’s 5th Brigade of the 3rd British Infantry Division. Halkett’s brigade fought at the Battle of Quatre Bras on June 16, 1815.
Two days later, at the Battle of Waterloo, Halkett placed the 2/30th on the forward right of his formation. They were repeatedly attacked by Napoleon’s cavalry and artillery. In the evening, when Napoleon’s Imperial Guard began their attack, Halkett shifted his men.
There was a hedge to our rear, to which it was deemed expedient to move us, I suppose, for shelter from the guns. We faced about by word of command, and stepped off in perfect order. As we descended the declivity the fire thickened tremendously, and the cries from men struck down, as well as from the numerous wounded on all sides of us, who thought themselves abandoned, were terrible. An extraordinary number of men and officers of both regiments went down almost in no time. Prendergast of ours was shattered to pieces by a shell; McNab [sic] killed by grape-shot, and James and Bullen lost all their legs by round-shot during this retreat, or in the cannonade immediately preceding it. (3)
As this gallant young Canadian lay mortally wounded…he left instructions with his orderly, who had remained with him to the last, to convey his watch, ring, sword and regimental sash, with messages to his relatives in Scotland and Canada. (4)
Macnab was buried on the battlefield. Years later, his memory was resurrected by his nephew, also named Alexander Macnab (1812-1891), the son of Captain Macnab’s younger brother Simon. This Alexander Macnab became rector of the parish of Darlington (Bowmanville) and served for a time as president of Victoria College in Cobourg, Ontario. In 1868, Reverend Macnab successfully applied to the War Office for the Waterloo medal that would have been awarded to his uncle had he survived the battle. The medal was presented to him by the Duke of Cambridge.
The Reverend’s son, Canon Alexander Wellesley Macnab (1850-1926), wrote,
In addition to this special favor, the Chelsea Hospital Commissioners, consisting of certain members of the cabinet and veteran officers, finding a considerable sum of money lying to the credit of the deceased officer (though an act had been passed many years before, cancelling all claims for prize money), paid the amount over to my father, the late Dr. Macnab, Rector of Darlington. (5)
Reverend Macnab also at some point met
the veteran General Gore and learned from him, who had been Captain Macnab’s greatest friend, many characteristics of his Canadian uncle, how popular he was with the officers and men of his regiment, how brave and steady in time of danger, how patient and God-fearing in fulfilling his obligations in camp or on the battlefield. Just before the engagement with the French army at Waterloo these brothers-in-arms took snuff with each other, according to the custom of those days, and with a clasp of the hand parted, never to meet again. And the white-headed old general, with tears in his eyes made my father take a pinch of snuff from the same box, as he related the story of his friend’s virtues and soldierly qualities. (6)
The attention paid to Captain Macnab’s memory was a source of pride in the newborn country of Canada.
There seems to be a growing desire throughout Canada, now that Confederation has given us a country around which a national sentiment very naturally entwines itself, to preserve from oblivion such incidents as go to make up our country’s history, and to collect from witnesses, every day becoming fewer, such facts relative to the early settlers of these ‘backwoods’ as may be of interest in after times. … Though Canada is young, not a few of her sons have sought and won distinction in the service of the Empire. … The action [regarding Macnab], both as regards the medal and the prize money, indicates that a ‘colonist’ may sometimes command advantages with the Imperial Authorities that would be denied to one who still cultivated the paternal acres in England, and that Canada is esteemed in the highest quarters at home, very much more than some writers would have us believe. (7)
In 1876, the dean and chapter of St. Paul’s Cathedral allowed Reverend Macnab and his son to place the marble tablet in St. Paul’s crypt, preserving Alexander Macnab’s name for posterity.
For more information about Captain Alexander Macnab, see the article by John R. Grodzinski on the Military Re-Enactment Society of Canada website.
As for that acre of land that Captain Macnab owned in Toronto, it later became the site of the Andrew Mercer cottage and subsequently of the Wyld-Darling building, built around 1872. The latter was destroyed in the great Toronto fire of 1904. Click here to see some blurry film footage of the fire and haunting photos of the damage. The land is now occupied by Brookfield Place.
Private Job Gibbs
Though Alexander Macnab is believed to be the only Canadian who died at Waterloo, he is not the only one to have fought in the battle. Thanks to Jason Ubych of the Tain & District Museum in Scotland, I learned through the Napoleonic Wars Forum of Private Job Gibbs from Newfoundland.
Job Gibbs was born in St. John’s. He was baptized on January 31, 1790, at the Anglican church of St. John the Baptist. His parents were Benjamin and Mary Gibbs. His mother may have died when Job was young, as a Benjamin Gibbs married Ann Murray at the same church on August 12, 1797.
On December 10, 1813, at Bristol, Job Gibbs enlisted as a private with the Coldstream Regiment of Foot Guards. His service record began a few months earlier (September 25, 1813) and his age at enlistment was given as 21 (two years younger than what one would expect from his baptismal record). His pension papers credit him with five and half years of service as a private and almost seven years of service as a trumpeter or drummer. Gibbs also had two years of service as a private added for his participation in the Battle of Waterloo.
During the battle, the 2nd battalion of the Coldstream Guards was deployed to defend Hougoumont farm, the vital right flank of the British and allied forces. The British held the farm throughout the day’s fierce fighting. The Duke of Wellington later said,
The success of the battle of Waterloo…turned upon the closing of the gates of Hougoumont. (8)
The battalion took part in the subsequent occupation of Paris, remaining in France until the summer of 1816.
Job Gibbs was discharged on November 18, 1825 for “lameness, depending upon chronic rheumatism,” with the note that “he was wounded in the left thigh at Waterloo.” His general conduct as a soldier was noted as “good.” Gibbs was described as being about 33 years of age, 5 feet 8¾ inches tall, with dark hair, hazel eyes and a sallow complexion. His occupation was given as shoemaker.
It’s not clear what became of Gibbs after that. If anyone knows more about him, or of other Canadians at the Battle of Waterloo, please let me know.
A number of Waterloo veterans later moved to or were posted in British North America and played significant roles in Canadian affairs in the years leading up to Confederation. Some of them are listed in this article by Tom Douglas about Canadian place names tied to the Battle of Waterloo.
If you liked this post, you might enjoy:
- Alexander Wellesley Macnab, “A Canadian U.E. Loyalist at Waterloo,” The United Empire Loyalists’ Association of Ontario Annual Transactions for the year ending March 3, 1900 (Toronto, 1900), p. 77.
- The Canadian Journal of Science, Literature and History, Vol. 13 (Toronto, 1873), p. 567.
- E. Macready, “On a Part of Captain Siborne’s History of the Waterloo Campaign,” Colburn’s United Service Magazine, Part 1, March 1845, p. 400.
- “A Canadian U.E. Loyalist at Waterloo,” p. 78.
- Ibid., p. 79.
- Ibid., p. 77.
- The Journal of Education for Ontario, Vol. 24, No. 10 (October 1871), pp. 155-156.
- George Jones, The Battle of Waterloo, with those of Ligny and Quatre Bras (London, 1852), p. 86.
Just before the engagement with the French army at Waterloo these brothers-in-arms took snuff with each other, according to the custom of those days, and with a clasp of the hand parted, never to meet again.
Alexander Wellesley Macnab