De Salaberry: A Canadian-born hero of the War of 1812
Charles-Michel de Salaberry was a French hero of the War of 1812. (Illustration by Keith Milne and colourist Gord Coulthart, Special to QMI Agency)
Like father, like son. And then some.
Ignace de Salaberry, from a French-Canadian family with a long history of military service, joined the British Army and was a proud member of the 44th Regiment. So it was no surprise that’s the regiment his son joined — at the age of 14.
Eventually, Charles-Michel de Salaberry changed to the 60th Regiment and saw action in the West Indies (where he was recognized for bravery) and Belgium. He became a captain-lieutenant in 1799 and was given a company command in 1803.
By 1810 he had been recalled to Canada as a lieutenant-colonel and aide-de-camp to Maj.- Gen. Francis de Rottenburg. In 1812, just before the war, de Salaberry was a given a new command — as chief of staff for the militia and direct command of the Canadian Voltigeurs light infantry, a new corps of predominantly French Canadian volunteers.
His unit was militia, but de Salaberry’s experience with British Army units led him to train his men as regular soldiers. They became some of Canada’s best soldiers, and the Americans soon realized this fact.
American politicians and army commanders had seen Quebec as the weak link in the British line — a conquered people straining to be free of the yoke of British imperialism. But after the Seven Years War, the British had told the French Canadians they could keep their language, their traditions, their legal system and their religion, as long as they swore allegiance to the British Crown. While some resistance to the British remained, many French Canadians embraced the change, as de Salaberry’s father demonstrated.
Under Benedict Arnold, the Americans attacked Quebec City during the American Revolution, believing once they liberated that city, the whole French section of the country would join them. Ignace de Salaberry fought against the American “liberators” and successfully repelled them.
Charles-Michel fought in the battle at Crysler’s Farm (called by some the battle that saved Canada) but his most famous battle was at Chateauguay in October of 1813. That victory caused the Americans to abandon the Saint Lawrence campaign, their major strategic effort that autumn.
The Americans had a force of 4,000 men under Gen. Wade Hampton. Even with only 250 Voltigeurs and 50 Mohawk warriors (with another 1,500 men in reserve), de Salaberry was so confident of victory he gambled by not informing his superiors of the impending battle.
He anticipated the American force intended to advance toward Montreal. With the friendly local population providing a stream of intelligence on the American advance (including numbers, condition of the troops and morale) de Salaberry was easily able to estimate Hampton’s speed and direction, and form his strategy.
The Chateauguay River is a natural defensive position southwest of Montreal. De Salaberry used a tried and true method of building a quick bush fort of “abatis” by felling trees with the branches facing the expected advance of the enemy and then sharpening the branches. He built the ancient barbed wire-style defence in strategic positions like ravines and trails through the woods.
When Hampton’s men walked into the barricades, he tried to surround de Salaberry's force with 1,500 men. Using the darkness of twilight and the forested, hilly ground, de Salaberry had buglers stationed in various positions in the woods sound calls to make his force seem larger than it was, which confused the Americans trying to surround them. As the Americans blundered about in the ravines and dead ends caused by the felled trees, the Voltigeurs and Mohawks fired into them, killing and wounding many. Hampton retreated across the border.
Although he could have been court-martialled for failing to keep his superiors informed of the American advance, de Salaberry’s victory at Chateauguay gave him rock star status in Quebec after the war. His deeds are remembered with a town named after him in Quebec and a number of commemorative statues, including one in Ottawa. His home in Chambly, where he died in 1829, is a historic site.