Salaberry raised and commanded the famous Voltigeurs Canadiens, a light infantry battalion recruited entirely from the Frenchspeaking inhabitants of Quebec. With them he fought and won the Battle of Chateauguay against impossible odds and staved off an invasion of Lower Canada.
Charles-Michael d’Irumberry de Salaberry was born in Beauport, Quebec, on November 19, 1775, into a Frenchspeaking family proud of its long tradition of military service. Having been dominated by England since 1763, many young Canadians had no reservations about offering their services to the English monarch. Salaberry did so in 1792 at the age of 14 by joining the 44th Regiment of Foot as a volunteer. Shortly after, he received an ensign’s commission in the 60th Regiment (the Royal Americans) through the influence of a family friend, Prince Edward Augustus (the future Duke of Kent). In 1794, he accompanied his regiment to the West Indies and fought with distinction during the captures of Guadeloupe and Martinique. Salaberry rose to captain in 1803 and, three years later, transferred to the regiment’s fifth battalion under Col. Francis de Rottenburg. Rottenburg was the British army’s foremost authority on light infantry tactics, and he made an indelible impression upon all his young officers. In contrast to the rigid tactics- and thinking-of regular soldiers, light infantry officers were expected to be flexible and imaginative in their tactics. The experience of learning from such an expert would hold Salaberry in good stead during the War of 1812. He also apparently made a good impression upon his superior, for in 1808 Rottenburg appointed him his brigade major. The following year Salaberry campaigned with Rottenburg during the disastrous Walcheren Expedition and, like most of the troops, contracted a dehabilitating fever. In 1810, he next accompanied Rottenburg to Canada as his aide-de-camp, receiving a commission as lieutenant colonel of militia. While acting in this capacity Salaberry emerged as one of Canada’s greatest military heroes.
In the spring of 1812, war with the United States seemed imminent, so the legislature of Lower Canada authorized the recruitment of a specialized light infantry militia outfit, the soon-to-be-famous Voltigeurs Canadiens. In contrast to the showy display of British regulars troops, resplendent in their scarlet coats, Voltigeurs were clad in somber gray uniforms better adapted to forest fighting. They also wore short, conical bearskin hats and black shoulder wings (ornaments) and unit facings (collars and cuffs). Salaberry was appointed their lieutenant colonel in April 1812 and took great care in matters of training and discipline. He proved a harsh taskmaster, but his men came to respect him. Thanks to Salaberry’s excellent leadership, the Voltigeurs Canadiens displayed combat effectiveness equaling the vaunted British soldiers they supported.
After the War of 1812 was declared, Salaberry was posted on the frontiers of Lower Canada to watch and guard the approaches to Montreal. On November 27, 1812, his men stiffly resisted a half-hearted attempt by Gen. Henry Dearborn to cross the border at La Colle Mill, and the invaders withdrew. By the summer of 1813 the British had achieved temporary ascendancy on Lake Champlain, and an amphibious raid under Col. John Murray burned various barracks and installations at Plattsburg, New York, and Swanton, Vermont. Afterward, Salaberry was called upon to function as a rear guard, which was effectively done. However, he grew dissatisfied by a lack of recognition and promotions, and he suspected Governor-General George Prevost of attempting to subvert his career. At one point, an angry Salaberry nearly tendered his resignation, but he was persuaded by friends to remain in service.
In the fall of 1813, the U. S. government had embarked upon an ambitious, two-pronged strategy for the conquest of Lower Canada. To the west, a large force of nearly 8,000 soldiers under Gen. James Wilkinson had gathered at Sackets Harbor on Lake Ontario. Their mission was to paddle down the St. Lawrence River in scores of boats, land, and then advance upon Montreal. Concurrently, a smaller army of 3,000 soldiers under Gen. Wade Hampton would march from Plattsburgh, proceed north up the Champlain Valley, and attack Montreal from the south. Should that strategic city be captured, all British posts west of it would be cut off from supplies and be forced to surrender. It was the biggest American offensive launched thus far in the war and, from a British perspective, the most dangerous.
In October 1813, Salaberry found himself stationed near Spear’s Farm, Lower Canada, near the confluence of the Chateauguay and English Rivers. He had at his disposal 510 Voltigeurs, plus various militia detachments, totaling around 1,500 men. Anticipating that Hampton would in all likelihood proceed down the only road in this swampy, heavily wooded wilderness, he erected numerous breastworks and abatis (lines of fallen trees) in his path. During the evening of October 24, 1813, Hampton’s division arrived in force. He possessed two brigades of recently recruited soldiers who were poorly trained and led. For this reason, he decided that a frontal assault against Salaberry’s position would be unproductive. He therefore dispatched Col. Robert Purdy with 1,000 men across the Chateauguay River, with instructions to circle around and catch the Canadians in the flank. This proved easier said than done, for the surrounding region was a tangle of woods, swamps, and marshes. Meanwhile, the next morning, the remainder of his force under Gen. George Izard would attack in front as a demonstration. Izard obeyed as ordered and forced back several of Salaberry’s positions, but the wily Canadian then enacted a clever ploy. Having stationed buglers at various points throughout the woods, he ordered them simultaneously sounded as the Americans advanced. Scores of Native Americans also raised the war whoop, adding to the cacophony. Izard was unperturbed by the din, but Hampton apparently came to believe he was vastly outnumbered. Purdy, meanwhile, had gotten lost during the night and stumbled onto positions manned by Lt. Col. George Macdonnell’s Glengarry Fencibles. After some sharp exchanges, Purdy felt his position was helpless and withdrew back to the main force. Orders also arrived for Hampton from Secretary of War John Armstrong, which directed him to commence building winter encampments back on U. S. territory. Faced with these perplexing orders and discouraged by battlefield events, the general summarily ordered his army to withdraw. Considering the disparity in numbers, Salaberry’s stand at Chateauguay was an unexpected victory, and casualties were light-around 20 killed and wounded on either side. In concert with Col. Joseph Wanton Morrison’s victory at Crysler’s Farm, three weeks later, the American offensive stalled and was finally called off. “The 26th has been a glorious day for me and those of my troops engaged,” Salaberry proudly wrote his father. “This is certainly a most extraordinary affair.”
The Battle of Chateauguay became a rallying point for Canadians in the War of 1812 and after. Salaberry himself was elevated to the status of folk hero, but he remained dissatisfied with the army’s treatment of him. Apparently, both Governor-General Prevost and Gen. Louis de Watteville had been in the vicinity, and they submitted official reports suggesting that they were the ones responsible for the victory. However, in March 1814 Salaberry gained an appointment as inspecting field officer of militia-without a promotion- which further soured his disposition. It was not until 1817, through the intercession of Gen. Gordon Drummond, that Salaberry finally gained a nomination as a Companion of the Order of Bath.
After the war, Salaberry became a justice of the peace for Quebec, and in 1819 the hero of Chateauguay was elected to the legislative council of Lower Canada. He subsequently used his influence to become seigneur (landlord) of Saint-Mathias and accumulated considerable wealth before dying at Chambly, Lower Canada, on February 27, 1829. His stand at Chateauguay remains one of the most celebrated episodes in Canadian military history.
Bibliography Chapman, Frederick T., and John R. Elting. “Canadian Voltigeur Regiment, 1812-1815.” Military Collector and Historian 16, no. 3 (1964): 83-84; Guitard, Michelle. The Militia of the Battle of Chateauguay. Ottawa: National Historic Parks and Sites Branch, Parks Canada, 1983; Sheppard, George. “Deed Speak: Militiamen, Medals, and the Invented Traditions of 1812.” Ontario History 83 (1990): 207-232; Stanley, George F. G. The War of 1812: Land Operations. Toronto: Macmillan of Canada, 1983; Suthren, Victor J. H. “The Battle of Chateauguay.” Canadian Historic Sites 11 (1974): 95-150; Turner, Wesley. The War of 1812: The War That Both Sides Won. Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1990; Wohler, J. Patrick. Charles de Salaberry: Soldier of Empire, Defender of Quebec. Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1984.