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William Halifax was born in Justice Hill, the traditional home of his family in Suffolk on 25 September 1786. He was the second son of George Halifax. Halifax grew up very close to both his mother and his older brother George. His mother died in 1792 and, in his autobiographical notes, Halifax wrote a touching description of how he would lay on a hill and gaze up at the sky, wondering if his mother could see him. His relationship with his father seems to have been a bit more complex. Based on his assorted writings and musings, it seems probable that William attempted to earn his father’s affection and respect by being an overly dutiful son, serving in the army and studying law at the Middle Temple at his father’s request and was never quite satisfied that he earned his father’s approval.
The Halifax family purchased a Coronet rank for William in 1798. William was sent to Ireland where he reported to Charles, Earl Cornwallis, an old friend of George Halifax. Having just crushed the Irish uprising, Cornwallis apparently had no desire to have a mere boy on his staff and sent William back to England where he served as an aide to Sir William Howe. For the next six years, until Howe’s retirement, William Halifax served as an aide to the old general, taking notes on their assorted conversations and, as Halifax would admit many years later, “Inspecting coastal Defenses & keeping the good General’s glass full.” In 1802, in reward for these services, Halifax purchased a vacancy for a second lieutenant’s commission. He also was able to study law at the Middle Temple at this time, finishing in the middle of his class.
After Howe’s retirement in 1805, Lieutenant Halifax was transferred to the staff of Francis, Lord Rawdon, in Scotland. Rawdon immediately assigned Halifax to a garrisoned company of the 92nd regiment. Considering Halifax’s unusual strain of loyalty to his commanders (it is fair to say that Halifax was loyal to a fault to a number of his superiors), it is odd that he remained very hostile to Rawdon. Part of this may have been due to Rawdon’s liberalism clashing with Halifax’s essentially Tory views. But this animosity ensured that Halifax would be kept out of the Napoleonic Wars, despite numerous letters that Halifax apparently sent demanding transfers to the Continent.
Sometime early in his tenure in Scotland, certainly between 1805–1807, William Halifax met and courted Susan Grant, a grandniece of General James Grant, a soldier that Halifax admired greatly. They became engaged in 1807 and traveled from Scotland to Suffolk where she caught fever and died. Little is known about Susan Grant. Based on the painting that survives of her, she appears to have been a retiring brunette who was slightly overweight. She is buried in the Halifax family plot and her tomb lists her as a Halifax who had been a member of the family for a short time. There are no records of an official marriage between William and Susan. However the grave certainly seems to confirm family legends that William married Susan on the last day of her life.
The death of Susan Grant Halifax changed William dramatically. Before her death, William came off as a pleasant young officer who was something of a dreamer. After her death, based on contemporary descriptions, Halifax became something of a stern soldier, dedicated to King, Country and Duty. The death of his father in 1806 may have also affected his personality as he seemed to take on many of his father’s characteristics. In 1807, Halifax purchased a First Lieutenancy, probably after the death of Susan Grant Halifax. In 1810, he purchased a Captaincy.
Military and colonial duties
In 1810, Halifax was named a Provincial Major to inspect the Canadian-American Border. He accepted the position with alacrity, and his notes provide one of the best worm’s eye descriptions of the impending crisis that led to the War of 1812. In 1811, he met the Shawnee chief Tecumseh and wrote a number of dispatches based on their conversations regarding the Battle of Tippecanoe. That same year, the Canadian Legion, a newly formed militia regiment of dragoons, elected Halifax to serve as their lieutenant colonel.
While he would have argued that his chief military skill was in leading hit and run cavalry raids, it appears that training militia was really where Halifax’s chief military abilities were. His unit engaged in numerous actions along the New York border and there appear to be some notes that indicate that Halifax served in Michigan and Illinois as well. There is also a family tradition that Halifax was attacked by a bear at this time though that seems to be a legend at best. His regiment was involved at the battles of Niagara, Lundy’s Lane and Buffalo Creek. Halifax was seen by most contemporaries as a competent cavalry commander whose regiment was best used for scouting and screening the enemy though the Canadian Legion served with merit on the border.
In the summer of 1814, Halifax and his unit were transferred to the Chesapeake theatre where they served at Bladensburg and in the raid on Washington, D.C. Halifax grew very close to Sir Robert Ross and wrote a moving account of his death in that campaign. It appears that Halifax named his favorite horse after Ross. Family legend indicates that Halifax was one of the group of British officers who toasted the burning White House from one of the local taverns. His time in Maryland and, later, Louisiana seems to have left in Halifax a strong hatred of the practice in human slavery.
Halifax also served in the ill-fated New Orleans campaign of January 1815. The attack on Andrew Jackson’s position devastated his regiment as well as the rest of the British forces. Halifax’s stirring defenses of the commander of the attack, Sir Edward Michael Packenham, seem misplaced and, along with his excuses for William Howe’s mishandling of the British forces during the American Revolution, indicate a loyalty that often seemed blind. Halifax himself was wounded in the arm during the attack and was dragged from the field.
Halifax recovered from his wounds at Sint Eustatius, in the Dutch Antilles in the first half of 1815. At this time, he apparently met his half-sister, Kitty van de Graaf (it seems that George Halifax met her mother in 1796 during his visit to the islands for the winter). He apparently was able to convince her to return to England and they remained close until his death. Kitty van de Graaf was an accomplished woman in her own right despite her handicap (based on descriptions, it appears that she had been struck by infantile paralysis in her childhood and remained in a wheelchair her entire life) as well as her Jewish faith. Kitty would later serve as one of Disraeli’s leading patrons.
In 1817, after the death of his brother George, William became the Ninth Earl of Stirling. That same year, Halifax was kicked upstairs to a Brigadier Generalship and served as one of the chief British liaisons with the Greek independence movement. It would seem that his militia training skills were the chief reason for this sudden promotion and assignment.
He later served as lieutenant governor of St. Lucia during the late 1820s.
Based on his notes, through his antislavery activities, in 1817, Halifax met Lady Alexa Weston who, even more than Susan Grant, must have been the love of his life. In one of the most charming equestrian sculptures in the region, there is a statue of them across from the old church in Suffolk that contains the family plot. Oddly enough, she seems to be riding ahead and he is behind her, looking at her with a look of great affection. Family legend has it that they shared their first kiss at that spot. William Halifax admitted that Alexa Weston was the only person he knew in England who was a better horseman than he was.
They married late in 1817 though William appears to have spent most of the next year in Russia. During that period, Alexa gave birth to William Alexander, their first child. William returned from Russia in December 1818.
In 1840, Halifax wrote a report for the Prime Minister regarding the political and military career of William Henry Harrison before he won the American presidency. Halifax considered Harrison to be the greatest American commander of his age due to his victories at Tippecanoe and the Thames. Halifax also wrote a number of books on his military career including Conversations with Sir William, Fifth Viscount Howe, K.B and General of the Army From His Time in Plymouth Concerning the Defense of England and Assorted Notes on the New York and Philadelphia Campaigns from the War Against the Rebellious Colonies and A History of the Campaigns of 1812 and 1813 and 1814 along the Canadian Border with New York with Appendixes Concerning the Chesapeake Campaign of the Summer of 1814, the Louisiana Campaign Led by the Late General Packenham as well as Assorted Notes Concerning the Militia.
William Halifax died at Justice Hill on 11 November 1871 at the age of 85. While not one of the great commanders of his age, Halifax served his country well and must be considered one of the best British cavalry commanders of the War of 1812. How he would have fared in the Napoleonic Wars remains unknown. While he would not admit it, Halifax was probably at his best as an inspector general, training militia than as an actual field commander. Still, with his sense of duty and loyalty to the Crown, Halifax may have served as a tenacious soldier if fate allowed him to take part on a larger stage in the drama of history.