Brock Centenary: Appendix 5
Captain Joseph Birney
Contributed by J. L. Birney, Toronto, Son of Captain Joseph Birney, from whose Narrative these Statements have been Compiled.
Captain Birney was born in Orange County, in the State of New York, on the 1st of February, 1777.
In 1779 his father, William Birney, was killed at the battle of Lackawack, New York, in suppressing an Indian uprising, and upon their bereavement his mother, with his sister, a child in arms, and himself a child two years old, made her way through the forest, sixty miles, to New York City. In the year 1783 or 1784 he was baptized in Trinity Church, New York City. When the British evacuated New York, Captain Birney, with his family and friends, went with the British to where now is situated St. John, New Brunswick, and resided there until 1801, when he came to Upper Canada, and settled where Hamilton is to-day. While in New Brunswick he taught the Duke of Kent to skate, both of them often practising together on St. John's River.
In Upper Canada Captain Birney entered into the military life of the time. He was over six feet in height, powerfully built, and was well fitted for the stirring life then before him.
In 1812 he was Ensign in Captain Hatt's company, which accompanied Sir Isaac Brock to Detroit, and his commission as Ensign, signed by Sir Isaac Brock, is now in possession of his son, John L. Birney, of Toronto. Captain Birney was present when General Brock first met Tecumseh, and he often related how the General was impressed with the wonderful personality of the great chief.
As Lieutenant he served in Captain Durand's company of 5th Lincoln Militia at the Battle of Queenston Heights. He was attached to Brock's staff as a special aide, to supervise the laying of the batteries. Shortly before the Canadians were driven from the heights, General Brock found that in firing at the Americans who were coming across the river the bullets were flying short, and he gave the order to Colonel Williams to cease firing, but Colonel Williams, mistaking the order to mean "retire," began to retire by Niagara. Sir Isaac remarked, "That's effective," but Captain Birney, noticing Colonel Williams' movement, remarked, "But, General, you did not mean to retire!" "By no means," answered Sir Isaac. "Oh, for one to bring them back!" "May I go?" offered Birney. "By all means go, Birney," ordered the General, whereupon Captain Birney ran down the steep slope of the heights as fast as he could. On the way down he noticed the mullein stalks being cut off, and stepping on a slippery spot he fell violently on the broad of his back.
At this he heard a great cheer, and looking up saw the cause of it all. The Americans were in possession of a portion of the heights, and their sharpshooters, thinking they had succeeded in intercepting him in his errand, had set up a cheer, but Birney was soon afoot, and came up with Colonel Williams, who upon seeing Birney, called his men to halt, and enquired, "What's the matter, Birney? Orders from the General?" Birney, being entirely out of breath, from his efforts and fall, could not answer, and Colonel Williams further enquired, "Did the General not order us to retire?" Birney shook his head. "What, then?" asked Colonel Williams. "To cease firing," Birney managed to whisper. At this the Colonel uttered an oath and smote himself a terrific blow on the forehead with, his fist. They had not returned far when they heard a voice say "Halt!" and looking up they saw the General and his men, they having been driven from the summit. There was a short conference, when the General decided to go around by St. David's and there attack the enemy. But they had not gone far when Birney, who was immediately behind the General, heard a groan, and looking up saw the General falling from his horse, and, rushing forward he assisted him to the ground. With a few parting orders the General was dead.
After this Birney had to take command of his own company, and with the rest they fell in order and marched around the mountain by St David's and there surprised the Americans eating their (the Canadians') breakfast, as the Americans had surprised them earlier in the morning. And then commenced the real fighting of the day. The Americans after a hand-to-hand fight were charged and driven out, many of them being forced over the heights into Niagara River. Captain Birney used to remark that with his sword in one hand and a broken gunbarrel in the other he led his men in this charge, and it was a sorry day for any American who came within his reach. Among the many prisoners Captain Birney assisted in capturing that day was his cousin, Captain Winfield Scott, afterwards General Scott, who, after being taken to York, was exchanged for prisoners.
Captain Birney led his company, the 5th Lincoln, in the battle of Lundy's Lane in 1814, coming out of it, as he did in all his engagements, without a scratch.
He used to take pleasure in relating how, after the Americans had been badly beaten and had made a hasty retreat, leaving their men to be buried, there was left behind a lone gunner who stuck to his cannon. Birney and a number of his men marched down upon this man for the purpose of capturing the gun, and as they approached him, three times did this gunner swing his torch with the purpose of firing his gun, but each time he drew back from the fuse and finally threw his torch upon the ground. Birney said it was well he did, as he and many of his men would not have lived to tell the tale, as they were walking directly in the face of the cannon. He also took pride in telling how one Canadian cannon was taken and retaken many times that night, while lying in heaps around it were Canadians and Americans who had fought and died bravely.
When the Rebellion of 1837 broke out Captain Birney was the oldest officer surviving the troubles of 1812–14. Being at that time over age he did not wish to take any part in the fighting, feeling he had served his country well and sufficiently up to that time, and he felt in addition that through favoritism many who had served under him had been promoted over his head. However, through the personal efforts of Sir Allan McNab and Colonel Land he was persuaded to take command of a company of the 3rd Gore Militia, which post he held until about 1841, being actively engaged in military affairs during all that period.
Some of his work at this time was the building of the bridge for the troops to cross the water-gap at Burlington Heights, and he also was engaged in constructing the defence works on Burlington Heights during the battle of Stoney Creek for use in case of retreat. He was afterwards with his company in charge of the 112 prisoners who were held and tried at Hamilton.
When Captain Birney died, in 1873, being in his 96th year, he was the oldest living Mason in Canada, having joined the Craft in 1803.