Macdonell, John

John (Greenfield) Macdonell, lawyer, militia officer, politician (b at Greenfield, Scotland, 19 Apr 1785; d at Queenston, Upper Canada, 14 Oct 1812).

John Macdonell's family immigrated to Glengarry County, Upper Canada, in 1792. He studied law and served in the law office of William Dickson at Niagara [Niagara-on-the-Lake]. He was called to the bar in 1808 and established himself successfully in business at York [Toronto]. He had a meteoric legal career, being appointed in 1811 to conduct criminal prosecutions on the western circuit of Upper Canada.

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 assumed the duties of attorney general on 28 September 1811, the first such appointment for a native-trained barrister. Amid fears of an imminent war with the United States, Macdonell, mindful of the need for a loyal assembly, decided to contest the riding of Glengarry for the sixth parliament. He was successful. Macdonell so impressed the province's administrator Isaac Brock that on 15 April 1812 Brock appointed him provincial aide-de-camp with the rank of lieutenant colonel in the militia.

The Americans declared war on 18 June 1812. Macdonell accompanied Brock to Amherstburg in August and was present at the council of war called on the 14th. Macdonell and Major John B. Glegg, Brock's military aide-de-camp, were sent to negotiate the American capitulation.

When word reached Brock on 13 October that the Americans had attacked at Queenston Heights, he hastened there, followed by Macdonell. After Brock was killed, Macdonell led a detachment of York militia and the 49th Foot in a new (perhaps foolhardy) attack. He was seen there mounted, and urging the men to press on. He was struck by musket fire 3 or 4 times as well as being trampled by his horse. He died the next day after 20 hours of "excruciating suffering," his last words lamentations for his lost friend Brock. Macdonell shared the solemn funeral and burial with Brock in both of the monuments on Queenston Heights. His gallant death, like that of Brock, became part of the lore of the War of 1812 that flourished in the 19th century.

Author: James Marsh

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