Shadrach Byfield, soldier, author (b at Woolley, Wiltshire, England 16 Sep 1789; d c. 1850). A private in the War of 1812, Shadrach Byfield was no great commander, just a tough grunt who wrote one of the few memoirs of the war from the common soldier’s point of view. His book, A Narrative of a Light Company Soldier’s Service in the Forty-First Regiment of Foot (1807-1814), was published in 1840.
Byfield was a weaver by trade, but in 1807 he enlisted in the British army, much to the horror of his parents: his mother died three days after he embarked. In Canada he joined the 41st Foot Regiment. When war came in 1812, Byfield served solidly for two years, participating in and surviving many of the integral battles and campaigns of the war. His veteran record stands as a testament to his skill and luck at avoiding the mortal threat of combat at Detroit, Frenchtown, Fort Stephenson, Moraviantown, Fort Niagara, and the bloodiest of all, Lundy’s Lane.
After surviving more than one whiff of grapeshot, Byfield’s pluck and luck ran empty in August 1814 during the British assault on Black Rock. During the attack, his right arm was hit by a bullet, taking him out of the fight. In the hands of the surgeon, he was told that the bottom half of his arm below the elbow would have to be amputated. According to his own account, Byfield refused anything to deaden the shock or pain of the operation. No blindfold. No one holding him down. This was battlefield surgery at its most raw and red.
Byfield survived the excision of his arm but, according to his memoir, flew into a rage when he was told his old arm had been tossed in a manure pile. With his remaining fist, he decked the orderly who had abused his missing limb, found the now stray arm, and gave it a proper burial. Such limb burials were common in wars of the era. Some 50 years later, American General Thomas Jonathan “Stonewall” Jackson would do the same.
Crippled, Byfield’s time as a soldier was up. He left North America and returned to England, but his old life as a weaver also required being whole. Eking out an existence on the pittance that was his army pension, Byfield tinkered around with tools to overcome his missing arm and found work in the textile industry during the growing boom of the Industrial Revolution.
The Byfield Memoir
His memories of war were not buried. In 1840 his memoir was published, being one of the few accounts of the war from the perspective of a regular soldier. The account of the battles and personalities of war, from General Isaac Brock to the First Nations allies, are engaging, and the horror of war unvarnished. After the conquest of Fort Detroit in August 1812, where British artillery gave good account and Brock fooled the Americans into thinking his armies were larger than they were, Byfield and his men scouted the fort for any resisting American forces. Byfield noted the number of the dead, rounded up stragglers, then nearly slipped on his backside. One of his men noted, “My dear man, that is the brains of a man killed with one of our shot.” Gruesome is the face of war.
Still, some controversy surrounds Byfield’s memoir. Doubts have been raised over its authorship, since Byfield himself was poorly educated, perhaps illiterate, and, of course, had only one arm to write. More than likely, he told this story to a writer who put it down. As much of the data seems to be accurate, Byfield’s memoir is still a critical document in the history of the war. The exact date of his death is unknown, but the 1851 census for Woolley shows his wife, Sarah, as a widow and a pauper.
Author: Jason Ridler