Saturday, January 4, 2014

Napoleonic Wars

In the introduction to our Gillespie Family History Cookbook (see previous post), the author introduces her own memory of Mary Gillespie Lerossignol Henderson:
My memory of Mary Gillespie Henderson is of a tall lady of some severity whom we would be taken to visit. She would tell us stories of her life. One was her memory of an uncle who had fought in the Napoleonic war. She had been born in 1840 in Canada, but her family lore went back to the beginning of the 19th century. I have always thought of it as an example of how oral history might be an accurate account. 
As excited as I was to receive the Family History Cookbook, the researcher in me jumped on the part about the Napoleonic War. We've so far never run into any family account, oral or written, that has ever suggested our Gillespie family was involved in that conflict. So now we have stumbled upon another curiosity begging for research attention.

First, when were the Napoleonic Wars? The UK National Archives lists the dates of these series of conflicts with the French Empire to be circa 1803-1815, mostly because there is no clear date between the end of the French Revolution and the start of the Napoleonic Wars. But for our purposes, let's just go with these dates which covers roughly 12 and a half years.

Now, let's consider who might be an uncle of Mary Gillespie. We know her mother was Mary Orr Jamieson, who was born in 1814 in Armagh, Ireland. If we assume that any brother of Mary Orr Jamieson was born around the same time, he would certainly not have been old enough to fight in a military conflict between 1803-1815. So perhaps the uncle Mary Gillespie referred to was the brother of her father, James Gillespie, who was born in 1810. For that to be true, the uncle would have to be a half-brother of James Gillespie, born of John Gillespie's first marriage which produced offspring as early as 1780 and possibly as late as 1795.

The thing that bothers me about the idea of a Gillespie in the Napoleonic Wars is that our family lore, even though essentially unconfirmed, tells us that the Gillespie's were involved in the Irish Rebellion of 1798. This is from the Gillespie Family Record written by Edith Gillespie:
John Gillespie, a farmer and a weaver, whose father came from Glasgow, Scotland, was well-known in the county and was instrumental in raising a company of volunteers for Lord Charlemont in the Rebellion of 1798. 
If this is true, it's terribly hard to imagine any Gillespie wearing a British uniform. But do you see what I just did? I have presumed that any Gillespie involved in the Napoleonic Wars fought for the British. But low and behold and entirely by accident, I fell upon this website, which describes how the L├ęgion Irlandaise which was at first formed in anticipation of an invasion of Ireland, was later manned by expatriots from the failed revolts. The Irish Legion wore distinctive green uniforms, and carried their own flag with a large gold harp and the motto "L'INDEPENDENCE D'IRELANDE". They fought quite valiantly for Napoleon in Holland, Spain, and Portugal although they did not participate in the Waterloo campaign where Napoleon was finally defeated. The regiment was disbanded shortly after Louis XVIII regained power in 1815.

So, this is all very interesting! It's hard to know where to look for records pertaining to Irish soldiers in the Napoleonic Wars, especially given that we don't know the exact name of the Gillespie who might have served. And then there's the additional possibility that the term "uncle" was used more broadly to include maybe a grand-uncle, in which case we could be looking for the surname WOODS, ORR, or RAINEY.

With so little to go on, it seems fairly unlikely that we might be able to chase this one down, but stranger things have happened, especially in the pursuit of family history.  And meanwhile it's exciting to learn something new about this particular time period. All thanks to one small comment made in a cookbook introduction!

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