Lieutenant-Colonel John Macdonell is a neglected figure of Canadian history, but in his short life he earned the status of a folk hero. Born in 1785, Macdonell studied law and opened his own office in 1808. His demeanour, however, was not as cool-headed as might be typical of the profession today. As described in The Canadian Encyclopedia: “In his personal life Macdonell was quick to take offence and it appears was as quick to give it. In 1808 he challenged a fellow attorney to a duel for a statement made in court (he was refused). Later, in April 1812, he did end up in a duel with William Warren BALDWIN, receiving Baldwin's fire and choosing to acknowledge his fault by holding his own fire rather than by apologizing."
Macdonell volunteered to join the York Militia months before the War of 1812 broke out, serving faithfully as aide-de-camp under the revered Sir General Isaac Brock. This continued months into the war until the fateful battle of the Queenston Heights took both mens’ lives and planted their flags in Canadian history.
In October of 1812, the Americans crossed the Niagara River from the camp at Lewiston to take Queenston. To do this, they needed to capture the redan, an arrow-shaped fortification situated at the top of the Heights above the American landing, which was crucial to stopping the flow of troops across the river. Without it, the only opposition the crossing Americans would face would come from a 24-pounder at Vrooman’s Point, almost 1500 meters from the landing.
Despite the British artillery using the vantage point to unleash carnage on the landing soldiers, after an hour and a half, the redan fell to the Americans, led by Captains Wool and Ogilvie. On the suggestion of a Lieutenant who was familiar with the area, the two captains had taken a detachment upstream and scaled the Heights. General Brock, who had just recently arrived with a small party, and the artillerymen could not repel the detachment and were forced to flee to the village. Luckily, they had time to spike the guns before making their retreat, rendering them inoperable by jamming an iron spike into the touchholes to prevent ignition. Brock called for reinforcements from Fort George before attempting the redan, refusing to await reinforcements. General Brock was killed during this attempt and command over the York Militia fell to his aides-de-Camps, Lieutenant-Colonel John Macdonell.
After the General’s body was brought back to the town, the Lieutenant-Colonel decided to obey his General's dying command and “Push on the York Volunteers.” Macdonell, along with Captain John Williams of the 49th, led a second attempt up the heights. Despite the fact that they had to attack a fixed and elevated position with low numbers, the force of no more than 80 men, following either Williams up the right side near the escarpment, or Macdonell on the left, managed to force the Americans back, and very nearly succeeded in retaking the redan. Unbeknownst to the two fearless officers, Captain Wool had received reinforcements at the redan and now had nearly 400 troops to help him hold it. After the initial loss of ground, the Americans regrouped and were able to hold their position firmly. To make matters worse, Macdonell’s horse was hit by a musket ball, and while the horse tossed in pain, Macdonell himself was shot in the small of his back. Macdonell was transported away from the battle to recover, but died the next day.
Reinforcements from Fort George and from Chippawa (today the city of Niagara Falls) arrived in the early afternoon. With 800 additional men under the command of Major General Roger Hale Sheaffe, the British could now force the Americans into a retreat and, when General Van Rensselaer failed to rouse reinforcements, a surrender. While some in hindsight would see the battle as an outstanding victory, Canadian MP George Denison going so far as to call it “Canada’s glorious Thermopylae”, at the time, the loss of Brock and Macdonell shook the men of the 49th, many of whom had fought with Brock for the entire American invasion. One York Volunteer summed up the common sentiment in a letter to his brother “Were it not for the death of General Brock and Macdonell our victory would have been glorious… but in losing our man… is [sic] an irreparable loss”
“Were it not for the death of General Brock and Macdonell our victory would have been glorious… but in losing our man… is [sic] an irreparable loss”
After his passing, Macdonell’s body was placed next to Brock’s in Queenston and they were both buried at Fort George a few days later. In 1824 the bodies of both Brock and Macdonell were moved to Queenston Heights and laid to rest beneath General Brock’s monument. The monument was severely damaged in an explosion in 1840 and the new monument erased all mentions of Corporal-Lieutenant John Macdonell save for a small plaque inside the monument that reads “Beneath are deposited the mortal remains of Lieut. Colonel John Macdonell P.A. D.C. an Aide-de-camp to the lamented Major General Sir Isaac Brock. K.B. Who fell mortally wounded at the Battle of Queenston on 13 October 1812 and died on the following day. His remains were removed and reinterred with due solemnity, on 13 October 1853”. MacDonell is, however, also honoured by a small plaque attached to a stone near the site of the redan battery. The plaque was put in place in 1906 by the Lundy’s Lane Historical Society.