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A Peninsular and Waterloo Man from Canada: The Story of Captain Alexander Macnab, 2/30th Foot
By John R. Grodzinski
The upcoming bicentenary of the Battle of Waterloo will undoubtedly spark great interest into the course of events during June 1815, and of the exploits of those British, Netherlander, French and German officers, NCOs and men who fought in that great battle. Few, however, will consider that a “Canadian,” or rather, a man born under the British flag in American colonies and later resident of Upper Canada fought and died at Waterloo, while in command of a company with the 2/30th Foot, and who is also memorialized in the crypt of St. Paul’s Cathedral in London.*1
Alexander Macnab *2 was second son of Dr. James Macnab, who had immigrated to the American colonies from Scotland before the American War of Independence, and who, in that conflict, served as assistant surgeon to Major McAlpin’s Corps of Loyalists, that was raised in the Colony of New York. James Macnab had settled near Norfolk, Virginia, and in 1772 or 1773, he fathered a son Alexander.*3 Following the war, James’ property was confiscated and like many Loyalists, he moved his family, now with four sons,*4 to the Province of Quebec where he died at Machiche in 1780.*5
Some years after his father’s death, Alexander took up residence in York (later Toronto) in Upper Canada (in 1791, the Province of Quebec was divided into Upper and Lower Canada), where came to own “a considerable property” of one acre at the junction of what is now Wellington and Bay Streets.*6 In 1797, he was sworn in as Confidential Clerk to the Executive Council of Upper Canada—a body roughly equivalent to the English cabinet, but with an authority limited to domestic policies—at Newark, the provincial capital, now known as Niagara on the Lake.*7 Three years later, Alexander turned his pen in for a sword and commenced a military career.*8 On 28 February 1800, Alexander became an ensign and adjutant in The Queen’s Rangers, a colonial regular unit formed in 1791 and comprised largely of Loyalists. In October 1802, following promulgation of the Peace of Amiens, the regiment was disbanded, and Alexander transferred to the 26th Foot, before moving to the 2nd Battalion, 30th Foot, where on 16 January 1804, he was promoted to lieutenant and appointed battalion paymaster.*9
In May 1809, the formation of a depot for the 2/30th Foot, led to the increase of the establishment by two companies, and Lieutenant Alexander Macnab received command “without purchase” of one of the companies. However, rather than join the depot, in 1809 Alexander went sent to Spain. Alexander not the first resident of British North American to serve in Iberian Peninsula; Lieutenant Edward de Salaberry, Royal Engineers and Captain Francis Simcoe, 3/27th Foot, son of the John Graves Simcoe, the first Lieutenant Governor of Upper Canada, and Captain William Johnston Hughes, 39th Foot, were among several “Canadians” present. Both of these de Salaberry and Simcoe would later be killed at Badajoz on 6 April 1812.*10
Throughout its peninsular service, sickness, detached duty and casualties left many vacancies in the 2/30th; unfortunately, for Alexander, this shortfall did not translate into field duty with the battalion, and he was employed on the staff. In January 1810, Alexander was appointed town major of Gibraltar, and in November, he moved to Lisbon. Around this time, the 2/30th joined the 5th Division at Sobral, about 22 miles from Lisbon. Wellington’s army was drawn up behind the Lines of Torres Vedras, providing Alexander an opportunity to meet up with several regimental officers. In February 1811, Macnab, accompanied by Lieutenant William Stewart and Quartermaster John Kingsley, they explored the Tagus and a portion of the fortifications, including the famous library at Plaça. Later in the year, illness forced Alexander to remain at Lisbon. By March 1811, the French had withdrawn from the Lines, Wellington had gone on the offensive and Alexander had recovered. Instead of rejoining his battalion, Alexander was sent north and appointed commandant of the important coastal port of Figuera, at the mouth of the Mondego River.*11
On 11 May 1809, while he was still at Figuera, Alexander was promoted to captain. Despite the absence of nearly every captain from the battalion, Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Hamilton, was unable to pry any of those serving on the staff from Wellington’s grasp.*12 In the autumn of 1810, Macnab became commandant at Oyres, and in February 1811, he took charge of the brigade of convalescents at Belem. He then became commandant at Coimbra, a post that held until March 1814. When the war ended in April 1814, Alexander left Portugal for Britain sometime in August or September
1814, for some well-deserved leave (he had not taken leave since 1809). By this time, he, along with a great number of other officers, was wrongly listed with the 1/30th Foot, which was stationed in India. However, the commanding officer of the second battalion, Lieutenant-Colonel Alexander Hamilton intervened and requested that Macnab proceed to Antwerp, where in December, following an extended leave in Scotland, Alexander gained command of No. 4 Company;*13 several sources published afterwards claim incorrectly that he was appointed to the staff of Lieutenant-General Thomas Picton.*14
The 2/30th Foot was at Antwerp when Napoleon escaped Elba. It soon joined the allied force being assembled in the Netherlands to resist the new threat. The battalion was assigned to the Major-General Sir Colin Halkett’s 5th Brigade of the 3rd British Infantry Division, a composite formation comprising British, Hanoverian, and King’s German Legion units, under the command of Lieutenant-General Charles, Count Alten, a Hanoverian officer.
Assigned to 1st Corps, commanded by the Prince of Orange, the division was stationed in the area centred on Braine Le Comte at the opening of the campaign. Napoleon invaded Belgium on 15 June, and it was not until the next day that Wellington ordered his scattered army to concentrate at Quatre Bras, while to the east, the Prussians moved on Ligny. The French opened their attack on Quatre Bras during the mid-afternoon, and the first of Wellington’s troops began arriving on the field around 3 p.m. The first two of brigades of the 3rd Infantry Division reached Quatre Bras around 5 p.m. Halkett’s brigade was deployed between the Charleroi Road and the Bois de Bossu. The 30th, less its light company, which was still on the march, was posted on the left of the brigade. Halkett’s immediate task was to clear the Bossu Wood.*15
After detaching the 2/69th Regiment to support Major-General Sir Thomas Pack’s brigade, Halkett had his three remaining battalions advance in open column, with the 33rd and 73rd clearing the wood, and the 30th moving through the open ground to their left, closest to Quatre Bras. A group of Brunswick infantry were also in wood, withdrawing to the north. Then, perhaps unaware that French cavalry were approaching, the Prince of Orange created confusion by countermanding orders to form square, which left the 30th and the 33rd in square, while to their rear, the 69th remained in line, as the 73rd retired to the wood. Caught off guard by the approach of cavalry, the 69th was cut down by Cuirassiers before they react, and the battalion lost 150 men and its king’s colour. The sight of this tragedy caused the men of the 33rd and 73rd to lose their nerve, and both battalions broke as their men sought the protection of the wood. The 2/30th demonstrated the advantages of its experience and training, and held its ground against repeated cavalry attacks, while their steady fire saved the 69th from heavier losses. The British then regrouped as they readied for another assault by the French.*16
While Halkett responded to a new threat from the French by shifting his brigade to the right, Lieutenant-Colonel Hamilton went forward to assess the threat and was wounded in the leg by a French sharpshooter, forcing the commanding officer of the 30th to seek medical attention. Now joined by its light company, the 30th formed square and successfully drove off repeated attacks by French cuirassiers and lancers. Reinforcements then arrived, and as the light began to fade, the French withdrew as the British line advanced. By 10 p.m. the battle was over and the men of the 30th were able to pile arms, and get some well-deserved rest. Losses to the battalion included four officers wounded, a sergeant and four men killed and two sergeants and 27 men wounded, and five men missing. Unfortunately, there is no account of Macnab’s actions at Quatre Bras.*17
The following day, the battalion joined in the general withdrawal north, and upon reaching the crossroad at Mont St. Jean, the 30th moved into position on the British centre-right around 8 p.m., where its men spent an uncomfortable night on the wet field, exposed to a heavy rain.*18
At the outset of the battle of Waterloo on 18 June 1815, the 3rd Division was the strongest of the British formations present, with 8,091 men. Halkett organized his four battalions into two larger units, placing the 2/30th on the forward right, with the 2/73rd to the left. The 33rd and 2/69th were to their right rear. Alexander Macnab was in command of No. 2 Company. A brigade of 9-pounder guns under Captain A. Cleeves, RA was forward of the brigade and to their east of the battalion, another brigade of 9-pounders under the command of Major W. Lloyd, RA.*19
The battle opened just before noon on 18 June 1815, with an artillery bombardment, that at around 1 p.m. was followed by the advance of the Comte D’Erlon’s I Corps, who attempted to smash through the British right. The British responded with cavalry, and the Household and Union Brigades charged into the French lines, where they were met by a perfectly timed French counterattack. Fighting also continued at La Haie Sainte and Hougoumont.
Sometime around 3:00 p.m., Marshal Ney, interpreting Wellington’s adjustment of his line as a withdrawal, mounted the first of several large-scale cavalry charges against the Anglo-allied infantry between La Haie Sainte and Hougoumont. Over the next several hours, nearly 9,000 horsemen from twenty different regiments, supported by at least twelve artillery batteries, attacked the defenders repeatedly. One survivor from the Macnab’s battalion, a seventeen year old ensign at the time, recalled thirty years later, that the “square a little advanced of the 30th and 73rd English regiments, was charged eleven times.” *20 Wellington initially deployed the twenty-six infantry battalions into twenty-two squares. The paired battalions of Halkett’s suffered considerable losses, and they then formed two large squares, the 2/30th with the 2/73rd and the 33rd with the 2/69th.
With the cavalry unable to break the British-Allied line, the Prussians closing in, and dusk approaching, Napoleon decided to make one final effort against Wellington. At 7:30 p.m., eight battalions, five in the first wave, of the Imperial Guard began the attack. Two battalions, the 4th Grenadiers and the 1/3rd Grenadiers, with Marshal Ney at their head, advanced against the combined 30/73 square. Halkett ordered his two battalion groups to form line. The two forces were only 40 metres apart.
As the losses mounted, Halkett moved his brigade behind the crest line to shield it from the artillery fire. The combined 2/30th and 2/73rd turned about face, and as they began moving down a slope, the “fire thickened tremendously,” and an “extraordinary number of men and officers from both regiments went down almost in not time.” *21 The chronicler of the action, Major Edward Macready (or Macreary) continued: “[Edmund] Prendergast of ours was shattered to pieces by a shell; McNab [sic] killed by grapeshot, and James and Bullen lost all their legs by round-shot during this retreat, or in the cannonade immediately preceding it.” *22 A Dutch-Belgian brigade from the 3rd Netherlands Division then advanced past the right of the 30th/73rd in an attempt to push back the enemy, only to find the Imperial Guard was leaving the field.*23
As Macnab lay dying, his orderly remained with him. Alexander apparently instructed his orderly to convey his watch, ring, sword and regimental sash, along with some messages, to his family in Scotland and Canada. Upon his death, Alexander was buried on the battlefield.*24 Six of the 41 officers in the 2/30th were killed, and Macnab was the only company commander that was lost. In 1903, his sword and watch were still with Alexander’s nephew, Canon Alexander Wellesley Macnab in Toronto.*25
Alexander was ineligible for the Military General Service Medal, which was instituted in 1847, but not awarded posthumously; however he was eligible for the Waterloo Medal, the first British campaign medal “awarded to next of kin of men killed in action.” Although the medal was issued in 1816, it was not until 1868, following a visit to England by Reverend Dr. Alexander Macnab, Rector of Darlington, than an application was made to the War Office, requesting a Waterloo Medal for the Rector’s grand-uncle Alexander. The application was submitted to Sir John Palington, the Secretary of State for the War Department, who referred it to the Commander-in-Chief, the Duke of Cambridge. An unappropriated medal was named to him, impressed as “Captain Alex. Macnab, 2nd Battalion, 30th Regiment,” and presented to Alexander’s brother by the Duke of Cambridge, over 50 years after the event! The Home authorities also discovered that an allotment of prize money was due to Alexander, and although a previous act had cancelled all claims to this money, “an exception was made and the money paid over.” *26
At some point, Alexander’s nephew had a chance meeting with a former officer from the 30th Foot, Arthur Gore, who commanded the Grenadier Company at Waterloo. Gore, described as Alexander’s “greatest friend,” was wounded during the battle. During their meeting in England, Gore related something of Alexander’s character; describing him as being very “popular with the officers and men of his regiment … brave and steady in time of danger … patient and God fearing in fulfilling his obligations in camp or the battlefield.” Just prior to Waterloo, he related, the two men, as was the custom at the time, “took snuff with each other” and “with a clasp of the hand parted, never to meet again.” *27
1 I am indebted to Carole Divall, who generously assisted with the preparation of this article.
2 Several variations of the spelling of this name appear in the sources, including McNab, McNabb, M’Nabb, MacNab and Macnabb. The form “Macnab” will be used in this article as it appears to be the one used by the family.
3 None of the sources consulted have revealed a birth date for Alexander.
4 The four sons were Colin (1764-1810), Alexander, James (?-1820), and Simon., and the moved between the Niagara Peninsula, York, Thurlow (now Bellville) and Kingston in Upper Canada. During the War of 1812, James served as a Commissariat agent in Kingston in Upper Canada. James and Simon also established close links with transshipment merchants and financiers at Kingston. Colin, who resided in the Niagara Peninsula, eventually held an impressive number of offices, including Superintendent of Inland Navigation, Deputy Commissary of Stores, magistrate and a customs officer. “James McNabb,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography On Line, accessed 28 May 2013, http://www.biographi.ca/009004-119.01-e.php?id_nbr=2546 Richard Preston. Kingston Before the War of 1812: A Collection of Documents. Toronto: Champlain Society, 1959, 209n28.
5 Canon Alexander Macnab, “A Canadian U.E. Loyalist at Waterloo,” Annual Transactions of the United Empire Loyalists’ Association of Ontario, Toronto, 1903, 73. Edith G. Firth. The Town of York, 1793- 1815: A Collection of Documents of Early Toronto. Toronto: The Champlain Society, 1962, 69n34.
6 Captain Alexander McNab, Journal of Education, Province of Ontario, vol. XXIV, no. 1, October 1871, 156.
7 Frederick H. Armstrong. Handbook of Upper Canadian Chronology. Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1985, 38, 41. Richard Tickell, Mcnab’s predecessor to this appointment, died in June 1795, while holding this office. There is no listing of subsequent appointees to this post, until 1831.
8 This military career may have commenced earlier, as Alexander is shown on the regimental roll for 1797; see Firth. The Town of York, 1793-1815, 69. Canon Alexander Macnab, “A Canadian U.E. Loyalist at Waterloo,” Annual Transactions of the United Empire Loyalists’ Association of Ontario, Toronto, 1903, 77.
In September 1876, the Dean and Chapter of St Paul’s Cathedral permitted the placing of a marble tablet in the crypt of the basilica in the memory of Alexander Macnab, the first colonial memorial to be erected there. The tablet is located in the archway, near a memorial to Sir John A. Macdonald, the first Prime Minister of Canada, while nearby is the crypt of the first Duke of Wellington, making this a most honourable location for a memorial to a junior officer.28
A monument that for Sir Thomas Picton was also placed in the northwest transept, and one of the mourners present for the second funeral service that coincided with the unveiling of the memorial, was the Reverend Dr. McNabb, nephew of Alexander.29
While several “Canadians,” or rather, resident from the provinces of British North America, served in the Peninsula and with the British forces elsewhere during the Napoleonic Wars, Macnab’s experience was unique, as he appears to have been the sole member of this group to have been present at Waterloo.
9 “Officer’s of the York Militia, 1798,” Firth. The Town of York, 1793-1815, 229. Army List 1806, 170. Lieutenant-Colonel Neil Bannatyne. History of the Thirtieth Regiment Now the First Battalion, East Lancashire Regiment, 1689-1881.Liverpool: Littlebury Bros., 1923, 463.
10 Bannatyne. History of the Thirtieth Regiment, 243. For the story of Lieutenant Edward de Salaberry, see John R. Grodzinski, “Universally Esteemed by His Brothers in Arms: Lieutenant Edward de Salaberry, R.E. at Badajoz, 6 April 1812.” Napoleon Series website at http://www.napoleon-series.org/ Simcoe’s story is recounted at Mary Babcock Fryer. Our Young Soldier: Lieutenant Francis Simcoe, 6 June 1791- 6 April 1812. Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1996.
11 Carole Divall. Inside the Regiment: The Officers and Men of the 30th Regiment During the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2011, 125.
12 Army List, 1812, 188. Charles Dalton. The Waterloo Roll Call. London: Arms and Armour Press, 1971, 140.
13 Another list for the time of Badajoz, April 1812, shows Macnab with No. 1 Company, although he never held this appointment. Both these entries may simply be an administrative means for the battalion to account for him rather than showing his actually employment. It may be strange for some readers to learn that similar problems plague armies today. Despite digitization, lists are rarely up to date and not always accurate. For the Badajoz list, see Bannatyne. History of the Thirtieth Regiment, 273.
14 Bannatyne. History of the Thirtieth Regiment, 244, 246, 247, 250, 273, 292, 295, 307, 348. An entry appears on page 203 for “Captain McNabb Alexr., Killed 18th June.” Mcnab is listed with Captain Henry Cramer’s company.
15 Mark Adkin. The Waterloo Companion. Mechanisburg: Stackpole Books, 2001, 31, 33.
16 Carole Divall. Redcoats Against Napoleon: The 30th Regiment During the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. (Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2009), 148-151. Mike Robinson. The Battle of Quatre Bras, 1815. (Stroud: The History Press, 2009), 296. 297.
17 Divall, Redcoats Against Napoleon, 151. Robinson, Quatre Bras, 312.
18 Divall, Redcoats Against Napoleon, 155.
19 Ibid, 158, 159.
20 Major Macready in Reply to Captain Siborne, The United Services Magazine, Part II, June 1845: 257n.
21 Major Macready in Reply to Captain Siborne, The United Services Magazine, Part I, March 1845: 400n.
22 Major Macready in Reply to Captain Siborne, The United Services Magazine, Part I, March 1845: 400n.
23 Major Macready in Reply to Captain Siborne, The United Services Magazine, Part II, June 1845: 255 passim. Dival, Redcoats Against Napoleon, 177.
24 In December 1815, a compassionate allowance of £50 was granted to Mary McNicol, Macnab’s sister. “Estimates of Army Service for the Year 1818,” Estimates and Accounts: Army; Navy; Ordnance; Civil; Miscellaneous Services, vol. XIII, June 1818, 62.
25 Bannatyne. History of the Thirtieth Regiment, 347, 348. Charles Dalton. The Waterloo Roll Call. London: Arms and Armour Press, 1971, 15. H.B. Robinson. Memoirs of Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Picton ,Volume II. London: Richard Bentley, 1836, 389. Canon Alexander Macnab, “A Canadian U.E. Loyalist at Waterloo,” Annual Transactions of the United Empire Loyalists’ Association of Ontario, Toronto, 1903, 78. Carole Divall. Inside the Regiment: The Officers and Men of the 30th Regiment During the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars. Barnsley: Pen and Sword, 2011, 99.
26 Unfortunately, the location of this medal could not be determined. Canon Alexander Macnab, “A Canadian U.E. Loyalist at Waterloo,” Annual Transactions of the United Empire Loyalists’ Association of Ontario, Toronto, 1903, 77. The author wishes to acknowledge the assistance of Jay Medves in attempting to learn details of Macnab’s Waterloo Medal. E.C. Joslin, A.R. Litherland, B.T. Simpkin. British Battles and Medals. London: Spink, 1988, 69, 86. The Waterloo Medal Roll: Compiled from the Muster Rolls. The Naval and Military Press, 1992. The entries for the 2/30th Foot appear on pages 201-226. Captain Alexander McNab, Journal of Education, Province of Ontario, vol. XXIV, no. 1, October 1871, 156.
27 Canon Alexander Macnab, “A Canadian U.E. Loyalist at Waterloo,” Annual Transactions of the United Empire Loyalists’ Association of Ontario, Toronto, 1903, 77.
28 Canon Alexander Macnab, “A Canadian U.E. Loyalist at Waterloo,” Annual Transactions of the United Empire Loyalists’ Association of Ontario, Toronto, 1903, 78.
29 Dalton. The Waterloo Roll Call, 142. “Casualties since last publication-Deaths,” Army List 1816, n.p. Robinson. Memoirs of Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Picton, Volume II, 394