By Kevin Werner. News Staff
Stoney Creek native and former teacher John Nixon took Canadian author Pierre Berton’s advice to heart when deciding to write his first novel about the War of 1812.
“He said, ‘Tell people what it was like living there.’”
So Nixon set his first fictional novel, Redcoat 1812, during one of Canada’s bloodiest wars and focused on an intriguing character, Irish native James FitzGibbon. Nixon did a lot of research, enabling him to paint a portrait of what it was like to live and die in the 19th century. Nixon also crafted the novel to engage the reader and find the emotional centre of the environment.
Nixon, who was a guidance counselor at Bishop Ryan, St. Jean de Brebeuf and St. Thomas More, for about 34 years, has always been interested in the War of 1812. He lived about 100 yards away from Stoney Creek’s Battlefield Park as a youngster, and the conflict kept him interested in history over the years.
“It’s one of the most important events in Canadian history,” said the 63-year-old, who has discovered over the years that Canadians know little about their own heritage. “I’m always astounded not too many people know much about it,” he said.
For his first novel, he settled on FitzGibbon, born in 1790, who left his home at 18 to serve in the British Army’s 49th Regiment of Foot.
He gave members of the Stoney Creek Historical Society a taste of his novel, reading the first chapter in which he tells his family he has joined the British army and would be leaving the family soon.
“I want for a brief period to bring the person and his environment to life,” said Nixon.
FitzGibbon had a long and intriguing life that began in Ireland. He relocated to Upper Canada, became Isaac Brock’s trusted adjutant and watched his commander die at the Battle of Queenston Heights, he rose through the ranks, was involved in many battles during the War of 1812 and fell in love with an inn-keeper’s daughter, Mary Haley.
FitzGibbon’s first battle took place in 1799 in the Netherlands. In 1802 he went to Canada as a sergeant in the regiment, where he helped to suppress a mutiny at Fort George. In 1806 he was made sergeant-major of the regiment, and three years later his commanding officer Isaac Brock made him a Lieutenant – unusual at the time for an enlisted man.
FitzGibbon fought at the Battle of Stoney Creek June 6, 1813, and he was the one who Laura Secord warned about the 500 American soldiers planning an impending attack against the British. He then oversaw the capture of more than 400 soldiers during the Battle of Beaver Dams.
He subsequently became a captain of the Glengarry Light Infantry Fencibles and took part in the Battle of Lundy’s Lane in 1814.
“I was able to go to all of these places,” said Nixon, who savoured the opportunity to view the geography.
After the war, FitzGibbon climbed the political ladder in Upper Canada. He organized and led the forces that defended Toronto against William Lyon Mackenzie’s rebel forces in 1837. A decade later he moved to England and after his wife died, he passed away in 1863 at Windsor Castle. He left four sons and a daughter.
“What an amazing life (FitzGibbon) had,” said Nixon.
It’s that passion for history that prompted him to write about it. Soon after he retired from teaching, he took a writing course at Mohawk College, with the aim of using his love of history and research to create a screenplay.
But after discovering historical Canadian films were not getting made, he transformed his work into a novel. It took him13 months to complete the novel, working about 20 hours per week.
“The novel is my attempt to get people who may not normally go out and buy history books to know something about it and get emotionally engaged,” said Nixon.