The Last Month In The Life Of
John McNelly

John McNelly was my maternal 3rd Great-Grandfather through my mother the former Jennie Louise Barnes (born Chicago, Cook County, Illinois), her father William Hood Barnes (born Jackson County, Michigan), his mother the former Mary W. Hood (born in Portland, Chautauqua County, New York), and her mother the former Catherine McNelly (born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania).

John McNelly, a.k.a. John McAnnelly (and sometimes referred to as John McAnally), arrived in America from Ireland on June 18, 1798.

After the Great Irish Rebellion of 1798 was crushed by the British, many of its participants found it expedient to immigrate to the United States, where most, if not all, landed at Philadelphia. They, along with French activists who were excited and empowered by the “successful” French Revolution, inspired much turmoil, mostly against the British, amongst citizens of the young United States. Ancestor McNelly could not have been part of this uprising, since he was already on the boat to America when it started in May. However, his anti-British sentiments proved themselves when he partook in the War of 1812.
John married Isabella Duncan, a young woman from Paisley, Scotland, at the 100-year-old First Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia on June 15, 1799. John and Isabella's children were Mary, William, Catherine, Isabel, and James.

John became a US citizen in Philadelphia on September 23, 1808, and enlisted in the War of 1812 on December 10, 1812, as part of the 22nd Regiment US Infantry. Unfortunately, John did not survive the war. It appears, after studying the war records of his immediate commander, Captain John Pentland, and other sources listed below, that John McNelly took part in and survived, if only for a short while, the only full-scale US invasion of Canada.

Taking Montreal would give us Canada

Grenadier Island is one of the Thousand Islands lodged in the Lake Ontario mouth of the St. Lawrence River. During a brief episode in 1813, it was the troop rendezvous for the only United States invasion of Canada. US forces were brought there from Fort George and Sackets Harbor in preparation for a campaign up the St. Lawrence, with the taking of Montreal, and thus Canada, the objective.

Conditions on Grenadier Island were far from sanitary; not unusual when too many people are gathered too closely together for too long a time. Water used for drinking and the making of bread, the primary food staple, was badly contaminated with sewage and putrefaction. Even before the Montreal campaign mobilized in mid-October, diseases like typhoid, diarrhea, dysentery, pneumonia, and atrophy of limbs (a form of dry rot) were taking their toll of casualties.

Major-General James Wilkinson was senior commander of US forces and in command of the expedition. He was absent for such an extended period due to illness, however, that the Secretary of War for President James Madison, John Armstrong, left Washington, D.C., traveled to Grenadier Island and personally took charge of the build-up. Armstrong's presence forced Wilkinson to return to his post.

Wilkinson was still not well when he resumed control of the united forces. In fact, he did not fully recover until some time after the campaign had met its inglorious end. This factor may well have contributed to the campaign's conduct and outcome.

The impressive mass of soldiers made its way up the St. Lawrence River towards Montreal, engaging the enemy en route. The concluding battle took place somewhat short of the main objective, however. On November 11, Mr. John Crysler of Upper Canada had the honor of hosting what became known as the Battle of Crysler's Farm.

The old Province of Quebec had been divided, in 1791, into two parts: Upper Canada and Lower Canada.

Montreal was especially vulnerable to attack at this time. Yet, Wilkinson believed its garrison size far superior in strength to what it actually was. Perhaps this belief plus the fact that the Battle of Crysler's Farm had proven inconclusive helped to dissuade Wilkinson from further pursuing the campaign. Instead, his combined army ceased its aggression and traversed eighteen miles back down the St. Lawrence to Salmon Creek, then up that tributary to the US hamlet of French Mills.

French Mills was later renamed Fort Covington in honor of a fallen general.

Winter was setting in. French Mills was rough, poorly sheltered, and rations were hard. Besides the troops having to deal with the many body discomforts, the disease nemeses again took hold and the death toll mounted. Now that further action in the campaign was canceled, Wilkinson removed himself south to find more favorable conditions in which to recover from his own illness. Other officers were also removed, to fight elsewhere, including John McNelly's immediate commander, Captain John Pentland. Pentland received orders at Grenadier Island on November 22. John McNelly had died the day before; whether at French Mills, at Grenadier Island, or somewhere in-between may never be known. As to whether John McNelly died of sickness or by action of the enemy, forty-two years later his widow deposed that he was "slain by the enemy," when she applied for an "Old War" widow's pension.

The controversial General Wilkinson was called before a court of inquiry in 1815 to answer a number of charges, including neglect of duty. He was acquitted, was honorably discharged, and spent the last part of his life in Mexico.

Copyright 1997 by Charles W. Paige


Berton, Pierre. Flames Across the Border, The Canadian-American Tragedy, 1813-1814. Boston: An Atlantic Monthly Press Book. Little, Brown and Company: 1981.

Ellis, Isabella (Duncan) McAnnally, for. "Old War Widows Pension file No. 10,947, War of 1812." From National Archives, Washington, D.C.

Funk & Wagnalls Encyclopedia. "Wilkinson, James." USA: Copyright MCMXCIII by Funk & Wagnalls Corporation. Printed and bound by R.R. Donnelley & Sons Company.

Macneil, Robert Lister of Barra. Clan Macneil, Clann Niall of Scotland, The. With introduction by the Duke of Argyll, Chief of Clan Campbell. USA: New York: 1923.

Pentland, Capt. John, for. "Military Pension file No. 5914, War of 1812." From National Archives, Washington, D.C.

World Book Encyclopedia, The. "Canada, the history of"; USA: Copyright 1979 World Book-Childcraft International, Inc.

Following is a little background information on McNelly ancestral history:

The McNellys are a sept, or branch, of the Clann Niall (Neil, Neill, MacNeil, etc., of Scotland and O'Neill, etc., of Ireland), whose chieftains resided on the Outer Hebrides island of Barra for several hundreds of years starting just after the turn of the 11th century. The clan's seat was, and is again, Kisimul Castle (pronounced Kishmul) that the early Chiefs built at Barra. The castle still exists today, on its own island in Barra's Castle Bay, thanks to the restoration project carried out by the 45th clan Chief, the late Robert Lister Macneil.

The current Chief is Ian Roderick Macneil of Barra, and the President of the Clan Macneil Association of America is Royce Neil McNeill.

Prior to settling on Barra, the MacNeills had a 500-year dynasty as Kings and High Kings of Ireland. Return

World Wide Web URLs of interest:

macneil tartan - The Clan MacNeil
macneil tartan - The Clan Macneil Association of America Home Page
macneil tartan - The MacNeils
macneil tartan - William Wallace - The Stone of Destiny
macneil tartan - The Stone of Destiny

Last modified: Saturday September 1, 2007

Jennie Paige at the helm on Lake Minnetonka, MN Return to home page or Return to the top