MACDONELL (McDonald), GEORGE RICHARD JOHN (known as Red George), soldier; baptized 15 Aug. 1780 at St John’s, Nfld, son of John McDonald (Leek), who in 1780 was commander of Fort Townshend, Nfld; d. 16 May 1870 at Wardour Castle, Wiltshire, England.
George Richard John Macdonell was commissioned an ensign in the 55th Foot in the British army on 15 Sept. 1796. He rose to lieutenant on 4 May 1798 and then transferred to a vacant captaincy in the 8th Foot on 4 Sept. 1805. He may have been on active service in Europe prior to the commencement of his North American career in 1808, when the 8th Regiment was posted to Nova Scotia and subsequently to the Canadas.
In December 1811 the settlers in Glengarry County who had come to Canada as a disbanded military unit in 1804 with Bishop Alexander Macdonell* became alarmed by the growing hostility between Britain and the United States. They proposed that they be re-embodied as a fighting force. Sir George Prevost* agreed, and chose their clansman, Red George Macdonell, as recruiting agent for the new force, the Glengarry Light Infantry Fencibles. He was given the brevet rank of major in the new militia force in February 1812, but enlistment was so slow that the ambitious Macdonell was not given his next brevet commission until 8 Feb. 1813.
As a new lieutenant-colonel Macdonell succeeded to the command of Fort Wellington at Prescott, and on 22 Feb. 1813, exceeding his orders to make a demonstration of strength, he attacked Ogdensburg, N.Y. His successful assault across the ice with a mixed force of regulars and militia ended the occupation of Ogdensburg by American forces for the remainder of the war. His action helped secure the St Lawrence link between Upper and Lower Canada but did not stop American harassment along the St Lawrence River, as Macdonell later claimed.
After recovering from wounds received at Ogdensburg, Macdonell took command of the 1st Light Infantry Battalion at Kingston. When Wade Hampton’s American forces began advancing upon Montreal, Prevost ordered Macdonell and his militia force to march into Lower Canada. At the battle of Châteauguay on 26 Oct. 1813 Macdonell ably commanded the reserves under Lieutenant-Colonel Charles d’Irumberry* de Salaberry. Although losses on both sides were light, Hampton retreated and refused to participate in subsequent plans to attack Montreal. Hence this British victory stopped the only concerted American effort which could have cut the St Lawrence River supply lines between Montreal and Upper Canada and forced the latter to capitulate.
Macdonell recognized the vulnerability of the St Lawrence as the single supply line and in November 1814, at the end of the war, he explored an alternative route along the Rideau River and lakes. His plan for a canal of temporary dams and rough wooden structures was very different from the precise engineering work done under Colonel John By* a decade later.
The Rideau survey was undertaken as part of Macdonell’s duties as inspecting field officer of militia. Immediately after assuming this new position in June 1814, Macdonell also took command of the Cornwall district. Until the fall of 1815 he was responsible for training and commanding the Stormont and Glengarry militia and for the protection of transportation on the St Lawrence River in that neighbourhood. From Cornwall he went to Fort George (Niagara), York (Toronto), and Kingston inspecting and training militia units until he was granted leave of absence on 3 Oct. 1816.
Macdonell returned to England in 1816 and married the Honourable Laura Arundel in 1820. When the 8th Foot was called to active duty in 1821 Macdonell transferred to a vacant half-pay position in the 79th Foot. He was apparently unable to find a position acceptable to his own sense of prestige and his wife’s social position. Although he was created a cb in 1817 and awarded a medal for Châteauguay, Macdonell was never satisfied with this recognition of his services. During the half century after the war Macdonell revealed a sense of personal grievance; he appealed to the public for recognition and to the secretary for war for recompense. In a scarcely veiled anonymous article in Colburn’s United Service Magazine in 1848, Macdonell claimed that England’s “transatlantic empire” was saved by his “personal exertions” in 1813. To Earl Grey he wrote in 1850 that Ogdensburg was “of one hundred times more political Importance” than Nelson’s victory at Trafalgar. Furthermore he accused the Duke of York and Allan McLean*, speaker of the Upper Canadian assembly from 1812 to 1820, of denying him a medal for Ogdensburg because he was a Roman Catholic.
Macdonell claimed in 1817 that the idea of a Rideau Canal defence work “had occurred, exclusively to me, in the beginning of 1813” and that Sir George Prevost had promised him a reward of 2,000 guineas if he could prove the practicality of his plan. He did not receive the reward because the Colonial Office maintained in 1818 that earlier plans for a military canal had existed. The Colonial Office also refused to recognize Macdonell’s weakly supported contention that he had inspired Sir Isaac Brock*’s successful campaign tactics at the beginning of the war. Tragically, this energetic officer who had displayed such perspicacity on the battlefield had completely lost his sense of judgement.
PAC, RG 8, I (C series), Index entries to G. R. J. Macdonell. PRO, CO 42/177, 42/180; WO 1/563, Macdonell to Grey, 8 April – 4 June 1850; WO 17/1514–15, 17/1519–20. Philalethes [G. R. J. Macdonell], “The last war in Canada,” Colburn’s United Service Magazine and Naval and Military Journal (London), 1848, pt.1, 425–41. G.B., WO, Army list, 1795–1871. J. M. Hitsman, Safeguarding Canada, 1763–1871 (Toronto, 1968). George Raudzens, “‘Red George’ Macdonell, military saviour of Upper Canada?” OH, LXII (1970), 199–212.