Born at the manor house of BeauFort in Lower Canada on November 19, 1778, Charles-Michel d'Irumberry de Salaberry was one of four sons in family with a long tradition of military service. Generations of the family had served as officers of the royal army in France and then in the New World. When the English acquired the French colonies of Quebec in 1760, the family continued its military traditions in British service. Charles-Michel's father, Ignace de Salaberry, was Seigneur de Chambly et de Beaulac, also a British officer who had fought in the defence of Quebec during the American Revolutionary war and had served as a member of the legislative council of Lower Canada for 30 years.
At the age of 14, Charles-Michel followed his father's footsteps into the 44th Regiment of the British army. He saw action with the 60th regiment in the West Indies, where he was cited for bravery, and in the Netherlands. He earned his commission as Captain-Lieutenant in 1799 and was given a company command in 1803, continuing to serve in Europe and the West Indies.
In 1810, de Salaberry was recalled to Canada with the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel, where he devoted his efforts to recruiting and training a corps of volunteers, "les Voltigeurs canadiens" and became a chief of staff for the militia. Les Volitgeurs were essentially militia men, but de Salaberry trained them as regulars similar to the Fencible units raised in Upper Canada. He even paid for some of their equipment out of his own pocket. De Salaberry's military heritage was reflected in his strict code of discipline and honour. The professionalism and high expectations he held for his fellow French-Canadians was repaid by the respect and loyalty of his troops.
The War of 1812
In November of 1812, de Salaberry commanded the advance guard of the force that turned away Henry Dearborn's northern attack at La Colle Mill. Later, the Canadian corps under de Salaberry, including les Volitigeurs, took part in the decisive Battle of Chrysler's Farm, described by some as the battle that "saved Canada." His greatest claim to fame came at Chateauguay the next Fall, in October 1813, when he intercepted and turned the American troops advancing on Montreal under Gen. Wade Hampton. With regular reports from loyal farmers along the border, de Salaberry knew all of Hampton's movements and troop numbers as the Americans approached the Chateauguay River south-west of Montreal. He ordered the felling of trees to build tangled breastworks of "abatis" in the ravines where the Chateauguay met the English River, then dispersed his troops through the woods. Facing Hampton's force of 4000 troops and 10 cannon, de Salaberry led an advance guard or 250 Voltigeurs plus 50 allied warriors of the Kaunawakee Mohawk nation. The rest of de Salaberry's corps, 1500 men, remained in reserve.
On October 26, when Hampton encountered the barricades, he sent 1500 of his troops to surround the French Canadians. De Salaberry used the twilight and difficult terrain to confuse the enemy, ordering bugles to be blown from several locations and convincing Hampton that a much larger force was lurking in the darkness. Les Volitigeurs then launched a withering fire down into the ravine, inflicting numerous casualties. Unable to outflank de Salaberry, Hampton elected to withdraw back to the American border.
The encounter won fame and honours for de Salaberry, but had he not succeeded, his personal fortunes may have been quite different. He was so convinced that victory would be his that he neglected to report the Americans' advance to his senior officers. Failure would likely have meant court-martial for him and, possibly, the fall of Montreal. The gambit worked, however; Great Britain struck a gold medal to commemorate the Battle of Chateauguay and de Salaberry became a legendary figure in Quebec history.
After the war of 1812, de Salaberry became a folk hero in French Canada. He served as justice of the peace for various district courts, and in 1818 became a legislative councillor for Lower Canada. After his father's death, he became Seigneur of St. Mathias.