Research Subjects: Biographies


A Canadian Peninsular and Waterloo Man: The Story of Captain Alexander Macnab, 2/30th Foot

By John R. Grodzinski, FINS

Alexandr Macnab
Captain Alexander Macnab (? – 1815) Painting by an unknown artist. (Author’s Collection)

Alexander Macnab[1] was second son of Dr James Macnab, who served as assistant surgeon to Major McAlpin’s Corps of Loyalists raised in the Colony of New York, during the American War of Independence.  James Macnab had settled near Norfolk, Virginia, where Alexander would be born.[2] Following the war, James’ property was confiscated and like many Loyalists, he went to Canada and died at Machiche, in the Province of Quebec in 1780.[3]

Some years after his father’s death, Alexander took up residence in York (later Toronto) in Upper Canada, where he came to own “a considerable property” on Bay Street at the junction of Queen and Dundas Streets. In 1797, he was sworn in as confidential clerk to the Executive Council of Upper Canada at Newark, the provincial capital, now known as Niagara on the Lake. Three years later, he turned his pen in for a sword and commenced a military career.[4] On 28 February 1800, Alexander became an ensign in The Queen’s Rangers, a colonial regular unit formed in 1791 and comprised largely of Loyalists; Alexander served as adjutant on the regimental staff.[5] When the regiment was disbanded in October 1802, Alexander decided to join the British Army and served initially with the 26th Foot before moving to the 2nd Battalion, 30th Foot, where on 16 January 1804, he was promoted to lieutenant.[6] He remained on the roll of the junior battalion of this regiment from then until his death in 1815.[7]

The 30th (Cambridgeshire) Regiment had a long and distinguished service since its formation in 1689. The Revolutionary and Napoleonic Wars took it to many places, including Messina, Valetta, Egypt , Java, Macao, and India . Until 1803, every “regiment” consisted of single battalion of roughly 1,000 men. As the British army was expanded during the war, new regiments were raised, while many existing regiments raised a second battalion. Preference for service normally went to the senior battalion, which also enjoyed priority for replacement personnel, whether they were officers or recruits from the regimental depot. Either way, this was done at the cost of the junior battalion. Normally one battalion was on active service, while the other was at “home.” Occasionally, all the battalions of a regiment saw active service overseas and such was the case for the 30th Regiment of Foot.[8] 

The second battalion of the 30th Foot, or 2/30th Foot, was raised in July 1803 at Chelmsford, England and was soon sent to Ireland . In March 1809, the battalion sailed from Cork to Lisbon, landing there on April 7th. During May, the battalion was sent to replace another unit in Gibraltar. In April 1810, five companies[9] were sent to drive the French from Tarifa. By June the battalion was at Cadiz and in October, it sailed for Lisbon, where it joined the 5th Infantry Division, just recently created in Wellington’s army. The battalion was soon in the field and although present at Fuentes de Oñoro in May 1811, it did not see any action, although four soldiers were wounded. The battalion remained largely inactive until March 1812 when it participated in the siege of Badajoz. During the assault on the town on 6 April, it escaladed the walls of the San Vincente Bastion, losing 130 men in the process. In July 1812, the battalion was at Salamanca, where it lost another 27 men. The 2/30th Foot was present at the siege of Burgos and during the retreat fought a sharp rear guard action at Villa Muriel. By December 1812, casualties, illness and the lack of reinforcements had reduced the strength of the battalion[10] and six skeleton companies were sent home to recruit, while the rest were combined with four companies of another weak battalion, the 2/44th Foot, to form the 4th Provisional Battalion, 5th Division.   Wellington preferred grouping under strength units in this way as it allowed veteran troops to remain in his army, rather than be replaced by less experienced regiments from home. This arrangement continued until May 1813, when the provisional unit was ordered home and was broken up, with the remaining soldiers of the 2/30th rejoining the battalion, now at Jersey in the Channel Islands. Later that year, the battalion sailed to Bergen-op-Zoom and remained in Antwerp at the close of the campaign. It was still there in March 1815, when it was learned that Napoleon had escaped Elba.[11]

Officer's Uniform of the 30th Foot 1806
An officer from the 30th (Cambridgeshire) Regiment, 1806. Alexander Macnab would have worn a similar uniform. (Author’s Collection)

In May 1809, two companies were added to the establishment of the 2/30th Foot in order to form a depot and Lieutenant Alexander Macnab received command of one of the new companies “without purchase.” Rather than serve with the depot, Alexander went to the battalion, joining it in Portugal in 1809. Alexander was not the first Canadian or person associated with Canada to serve in the 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, were both killed at Badajoz on 6 April 1812.[12]

Throughout its peninsular service, the 2/30th Foot suffered from having too few officers. Sickness, detached duty and casualties left many vacancies; unfortunately, for Alexander, this 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 until his battalion returned to Lisbon. The battalion joined the 5th Division at Sobral, about 22 miles from Lisbon. At this time, Wellington’s army was drawn up behind the Lines of Torres Vedras. Alexander was listed as being effective at the battalion, but had to remain behind at Lisbon due to illness, which may have influenced his future employment. By March 1811, the French had withdrawn from the Lines, Wellington went on the offensive and Alexander had recovered. Instead of rejoining his battalion, Alexander was sent north and was appointed commandant of the important coastal port of Figuera, at the mouth of the Mondego River. On 11 May 1809, Alexander was promoted to captain.[13] When the 2/30th Foot joined the 4th Provisional Battalion in 1812, Alexander was still at Figuera, although his commanding officer may have attempted to get him back into the battalion. Despite the absence of nearly every captain from the battalion, Lieutenant Colonel Alexander Hamilton, the commanding officer, was unable to pry any of them serving on the staff away from Wellington’s grasp. The war ended in April 1814 and Alexander appears to have left Portugal for England sometime in August or September 1814. In October, he was ordered to join the battalion at Antwerp. Captain Macnab is shown on one roll[14] as being in command of No. 4 Company; however he was then appointed to General Picton’s staff, on a date and for reasons unknown. Alexander just seems to have been one of those officers that experienced minimal regimental duty.[15]

As stated, the 2/30th Foot was at Antwerp when Napoleon escaped from Elba. It soon joined the allied force being organized for the coming campaign and was allotted to the 3rd British Infantry Division, under Lieutenant General Sir Thomas Picton. At Waterloo the 2/30th was placed on the west side of the crossroads of Mont St Jean. Alexander Macnab was not with his battalion as he had been seconded as an aide de camp to Picton. Neither Picton’s memoirs nor any other source consulted on Waterloo mention this appointment, yet the history of the 30th Regiment and Dalton’s Waterloo Roll Call confirm it was made. It remains uncertain whether Alexander was actually employed as an aide or elsewhere within the headquarters, so his fate is known. During the Waterloo campaign, Picton had four ADCs and the group proved to be an unlucky lot; Picton, still suffering from wounds received at Quatre Bras on 16 June, was shot through the head while leading his men forward to repulse a French attack. Captain J. Tyler, had been with Picton in the Peninsula, was wounded at Quatre Bras and was with Picton when he died; Captain Algeron Langton suffered wounds at Quatre Bras; and Captain N. Chambers was killed shortly after Picton fell. Barrington Price was a half-pay captain employed as an extra aide de camp; he was wounded by French cuirassiers at Waterloo and died a few months later. Alexander may have been at Quatre Bras and at Waterloo was mortally wounded at some point during the battle. As he 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. He was one of six officers from his regiment killed during the battle. In 1903, the sword and watch were still with Alexander’s nephew, Canon Alexander Wellesley Macnab in Toronto.[16]

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” and issued in 1816. However, the application for the medal was not make until 1868, when his nephew, Dr A. Macnab, Rector of Darlington, applied to the War Office, requesting a Waterloo Medal for his uncle Alexander. A medal was named to him, impressed as “Captain Alex. Macnab, 2nd Battalion, 30th Regiment,” and was presented by the Duke of Cambridge. Unfortunately, the current location of this medal is unknown despite an extensive search.[17]

Tablet in St. Paul's Cathederal in honor of Alexander Mcnab
The tablet honouring Captain Alexander Macnab in St Paul’s Cathedral, London, forming part of a “Canadian Corner.” A bust of the first Prime Minister of Canada, Sir John A. Macdonald, is nearby. It is unusual to find a tablet to so undistinguished an officer in such an honoured place for the tomb of the first Duke of Wellington lies just beyond this tablet. (Author’s Collection)

At some point, Alexander’s nephew had a chance meeting with a former officer from the 30th Foot, Arthur Gore (Goore), and described him as Alexander’s “greatest friend.” During their meeting in England, Gore related something of Alexander’s character; he was 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.” Apparently just prior to Waterloo, Alexander and the then Captain Gore,[18] as was the custom at the time, “took snuff with each other” and “with a clasp of the hand parted, never to meet again.” Unfortunately, the specifics of Alexander’s fate, if they were discussed, were not recorded.[19]

In 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 was unveiled in September 1876 and among those present were Alexander’s nephew, Rev A. Macnab and his son, Rev A.W. Macnab. The tablet is located in the archway, near the memorial to Sir John A. Macdonald, the first Prime Minister of Canada and close to the crypt of the first Duke of Wellington, a most honourable location to a junior officer with such an unspectacular career.[20]

A monument was also placed in the northwest transept for Sir Thomas Picton and one of the mourners present for the second funeral service that coincided with the unveiling, was the Reverend Dr McNabb, nephew of Alexander.[21]

Thus ends the story of yet another “Canadian” who saw service with the British Army during the Napoleonic Wars. While several Canadians served in the Peninsula and elsewhere during this period, Macnab’s experience was unique, as he appears to be the sole “Canadian” to be at Waterloo. His military career was not particularly spectacular and is noteworthy for his limited regimental duty. Although most of his time was spent on the staff, the story of Captain Alexander Macnab is indeed interesting and part of the fabric of this incredible period.

Notes:

[1] It should be noted that various spellings 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.

[2] None of the sources consulted have revealed a birth date for Alexander.

[3] Macnab, Canon Alexander, “A Canadian U.E. Loyalist at Waterloo,” Annual Transactions of the United Empire Loyalists’ Association of Ontario, Toronto, 1903, p. 73. Firth, Edith G. The Town of York, 1793 – 1815: A Collection of Documents of Early Toronto. Toronto: The Champlain Society, 1962, p. 69n34.

[4] This military career may have commenced earlier, as Alexander is shown on the regimental roll for 1797; see Firth, Edith G. The Town of York, 1793 – 1815: A Collection of Documents of Early Toronto. Toronto: The Champlain Society, 1962, p. 69. Canon Alexander Macnab, “A Canadian U.E. Loyalist at Waterloo,” Annual Transactions of the United Empire Loyalists’ Association of Ontario, Toronto, 1903, p. 77.

[5] “Officer’s of the York Militia, 1798,” Firth, Edith G. The Town of York, 1793 – 1815: A Collection of Documents of Early Toronto. Toronto: The Champlain Society, 1962, p. 69. Army List, 1803, p. 229.

[6] Army List 1806, p. 170.

[7] Bannatyne, Lieutenant-Colonel Neil. History of the Thirtieth Regiment Now the First Battalion, East Lancashire Regiment, 1689 – 1881.Liverpool: Littlebury Bros., 1923, p. 463.

[8] Some regiments had more, such as the 60th with six battalions, the Royal Scots, which had four battalions, the 1st Foot Guards, 14th, 27th and 95th, which had three each. See Oman , Sir Charles. Wellington’s Army, 1809 – 1814. London: Greenhill Books, 2006, p. 178 – 179, 181.

[9] This force included the grenadier company, light company and three line companies. See Bannatyne, Lieutenant-Colonel Neil. History of the Thirtieth Regiment Now the First Battalion, East Lancashire Regiment, 1689 – 1881.Liverpool: Littlebury Bros., 1923, p. 244.

[10] The poor state of the battalion is reflected in a return dated 25 December 1812, showing the 2/30th Foot with only 206 effective rank and file and 317 rank and file sick or wounded! Bannatyne, Lieutenant-Colonel Neil. History of the Thirtieth Regiment Now the First Battalion, East Lancashire Regiment, 1689 – 1881.Liverpool: Littlebury Bros., 1923, p. 292.

[11] Bannatyne, Lieutenant-Colonel Neil Bannatyne. History of the Thirtieth Regiment Now the First Battalion, East Lancashire Regiment, 1689 – 1881.Liverpool: Littlebury Bros., 1923, p. 242, 248. Reid, Stuart. Wellington’s Army in the Peninsula, 1809 – 1814. London: Osprey Publishing, 2004, p. 58, 59 Glover, Michael. The Peninsular War, 1807 – 1814. London: Penguin, 2001, p .360. Fletcher, Ian. Wellington’s Regiments: The Men and Their Battles. Staplehurst: Spellmont, 2005, p. 151, 152. Oman , Sir Charles. A History of the Peninsular War, Volume IV. London: Greenhill Books, 2004, p. 623. Oman , Sir Charles. A History of the Peninsular War, Volume V. London: Greenhill Books, 2005, p. 594, 596. Oman , Sir Charles. A History of the Peninsular War, Volume VI. London: Greenhill Books, 2005, p. 79.

[12] Bannatyne, Lieutenant-Colonel Neil History of the Thirtieth Regiment Now the First Battalion, East Lancashire Regiment, 1689 – 1881.Liverpool: Littlebury Bros., 1923, p. 243. For the story of Lieutenant Edward de Salaberry, see Grodzinski, John R. “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 Fryer, Mary Babcock. Our Young Soldier: Lieutenant Francis Simcoe, 6 June 1791 – 6 April 1812. Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1996.

[13] Army List, 1812, p. 188. Dalton, Charles. The Waterloo Roll Call. London: Arms and Armour Press, 1971, p. 140.

[14] 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, Lieutenant-Colonel Neil. History of the Thirtieth Regiment Now the First Battalion, East Lancashire Regiment, 1689 – 1881.Liverpool: Littlebury Bros., 1923, p.273.

[15]Bannatyne, Lieutenant-Colonel Neil. History of the Thirtieth Regiment Now the First Battalion, East Lancashire Regiment, 1689– 1881.Liverpool: Littlebury Bros., 1923, p. 244, 246, 247, 250, 273, 292, 295, 307, 348. An entry appears on page 203 for “Captain McNabb Alexr., Killed 18th June.” Macnab is listed with Captain Henry Cramer’s company.

[16] Bannatyne, Lieutenant-Colonel Neil. History of the Thirtieth Regiment Now the First Battalion, East Lancashire Regiment, 1689 – 1881.Liverpool: Littlebury Bros., 1923, p. 347, 348. Dalton, Charles. The Waterloo Roll Call. London: Arms and Armour Press, 1971, p. 15. Robinson, H.B. Memoirs of Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Picton ,Volume II. London: Richard Bentley, 1836, p. 389. Macnab, Canon Alexander, “A Canadian U.E. Loyalist at Waterloo,” Annual Transactions of the United Empire Loyalists’ Association of Ontario, Toronto, 1903, p. 78.

[17] Macnab, Canon Alexander, “A Canadian U.E. Loyalist at Waterloo,” Annual Transactions of the United Empire Loyalists’ Association of Ontario, Toronto, 1903, p. 77. The author wishes to acknowledge the assistance of Jay Medves in attempting to learn details of Macnab’s Waterloo Medal. Joslin, E.C., Litherland, A.R., Simpkin, R.T.. British Battles and Medals. London: Spink, 1988, p. 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.

[18] Gore was wounded at the battle and later rose to become a lieutenant general. See Dalton, Charles. The Waterloo Roll Call. London: Arms and Armour Press, 1971, p. 140 and 142n6.

[19] Macnab, Canon Alexander, “A Canadian U.E. Loyalist at Waterloo,” Annual Transactions of the United Empire Loyalists’ Association of Ontario, Toronto, 1903, p. 77.

[20] Macnab, Canon Alexander, “A Canadian U.E. Loyalist at Waterloo,” Annual Transactions of the United Empire Loyalists’ Association of Ontario, Toronto, 1903, p. 78.

[21] Dalton, Charles. The Waterloo Roll Call. London: Arms and Armour Press, 1971, p. 142. “Casualties since last publication-Deaths,” Army List 1816, n.p. Robinson, H.B. Memoirs of Lieutenant-General Sir Thomas Picton, Volume II. London: Richard Bentley, 1836, p. 394.

 

Placed on the Napoleon Series: October 2007

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