This post is part of a continuing series on Isaac Brock begun while posting historical events for the My Town Monday group organized by Travis Erwin (whose link is on the sidebar). The next My Town Monday post will be on the Battle of Queenston Heights. The post today covers correspondence between Isaac Brock, George Provost (Governor-General of Canada), Major-General Van Rensselaer (American army leader) which provides details on the reasons the British preferred defense over attack; including the incident at Black Rock.
The month’s armistice had immensely strengthened the position of the enemy on the Niagara frontier. General Brock hastened from Kingston to Fort George (Niagara-on-the-Lake) [photo above] where he wrote on September 7, 1812 to the commander-in-chief.
From “The Makers of Canada – General Brock” by Lady Edgar (1904) is this letter dated September 7, 1812: —
"Sir, on my arrival here yesterday morning I found that intimation had been received by Major-General Sheaffe to renew hostilities at noon tomorrow. During the cessation of hostilities vast supplies have been received by the enemy. His field artillery is numerous, and I have reason to believe his heavy ordnance has been considerably increased. He is now busy erecting batteries in front of Fort George, and everything indicates an intention of commencing active operations. Reinforcements of troops of every description have evidently arrived. 1 have written to Amherstburg for such troops as Colonel Procter conceived the state of affairs in that quarter enabled him to part with.
Colonel Vincent has likewise been written to on the same subject. The prodigious quantity of pork and flour which have been observed landing on the opposite shore from a number of vessels and large boats which have entered the river during the armistice, are sufficient to supply the wants for a long period of a considerable force. I expect an attack almost immediately. The enemy will either turn my left flank, which he may easily accomplish during a calm night, or attempt to force his way across under cover of his artillery. We stand greatly in need of officers, men and heavy ordnance. Captain Holcroft has been indefatigable and has done everything in the power of an individual, but on such an extended line assistance is necessary.
"I look every day for the arrival of five 24-pounders from Detroit, and other artillery and stores which are not required there, beside two thousand muskets. Should your Excellency be in a situation to send reinforcements to the upper country, the whole of the force at present at Kingston might be directed to proceed hither. One thousand additional regulars are necessary. A force of that description ought to be stationed at Pelliam on the Grand River, to act as exigencies might require. At present, the whole of my force being necessary for the defence of the banks of the river Niagara, no part can look for support. If I can continue to maintain my position six weeks longer the campaign will have terminated in a manner little expected in the states. I stand in want of more artillerymen and a thousand regulars. I have thus given your Excellency a hasty sketch of my situation, and this I can aver, that no exertions shall be wanting to do justice to the important command with which I am entrusted."
Sir George Prevost was again complicating affairs by his vacillating and contradictory orders. He wrote on September 7th finding fault with General Brock's conduct of affairs on the Detroit frontier. It drew from the general the following reply, dated September 18th: "I have been honoured with your Excellency's despatch, dated the 7th inst. I have implicitly followed your Excellency's instructions, and abstained under the greatest temptations and provocations from every act of hostility." He enclosed a letter from Colonel Procter containing the information of the force sent under Captain Muir against Fort Wayne, and continued: "I gave orders for it previous to my leaving Amherstburg, which must have induced Colonel Procter to proceed upon receiving intelligence of the recommencement of hostilities, without waiting for further directions. I regret exceedingly that this service should be undertaken contrary to your Excellency's wishes, but I beg leave to assure you that the principal object in sending a British force to Fort Wayne is with the hope of preserving the lives of the garrison. By the last accounts the place was invested by a numerous body of Indians, with very little prospect of being relieved. The prisoners of war, who knew perfectly the situation of the garrison, rejoiced at the measure, and give us full credit for our intentions. The Indians were likewise looking to us for assistance. They heard of the armistice with every mark of jealousy. Had we refused joining them in this expedition I cannot calculate the consequences. I have already been asked to pledge my word that England would enter into no negotiation in which their interests were not included. Could they be brought to imagine that we should desert them, the consequences must be fatal."
General Brock added that the attack of the enemy on his frontier could not be long delayed, and that he thought the militia could not be kept together without such a prospect.
On September 14th Sir George Prevost wrote again, evidently in a panic, and advised General Brock to take immediate steps for evacuating Detroit, together with the territory of Michigan. This must have indeed been galling to the second in command. The reason for this advice. Provost said, was a despatch dated July 4th from Lord Bathurst, which seems to have been somewhat belated. It said that His Majesty's government trusted he would be able to suspend with perfect safety all extraordinary preparations for defence which he might have been induced to make, also that every special requisition for warlike stores and accoutrements had been complied with, except the clothing of the corps proposed to be raised from the Glengarry emigrants, and that the minister had not thought it necessary to direct the preparation of any further supplies.
Provost added : "This will afford you a strong proof of the infatuation of His Majesty's ministers upon the subject of American affairs, and show how entirely I have been left to my own resources in the event which has taken place." He informed Brock that he could not expect any more reinforcements.
Brock did not agree with Sir George Prevost's opinion as to the advisability of evacuating Detroit and the Michigan territory, the fruits of his splendid victory. He wrote from York on September 28th to the commander-in-chief: " I have been honoured with your Excellency's despatches dated the 14th inst. I shall suspend, under the latitude left by your Excellency to my discretion, the evacuation of Fort Detroit. Such a measure would most likely be followed by the total extinction of the population on that side of the river, as the Indians, aware of our weakness and inability to carry on active warfare, would only think of entering into terms with the enemy.
“The Indians, since the Miami affair in 1793, have been extremely suspicious of our conduct, but the violent wrongs committed by the Americans on their territory have rendered it an act of policy with them to disguise their sentiments. Could they be persuaded that a peace between the belligerents would take place without admitting their claim to an extensive tract of country fraudulently usurped from them, and opposing a frontier to the present unbounded views of the Americans, I am satisfied in my own mind that they would immediately compromise with the enemy. I cannot conceive a connection more likely to lead to more awful consequences. Should negotiations of peace be opened I cannot be too earnest with your Excellency to represent to the king's ministers the expediency of including the Indians as allies, and not to leave them exposed to the unrelenting fury of their enemies.
“The enemy has evidently assumed defensive measures along the strait of Niagara. His force, I apprehend, is not equal to attempt the expedition across the river with any probability of success. It is, however, currently reported that large reinforcements are on their march. Should they arrive an attack cannot be long delayed. The approach of the rainy season would increase the sickness with which the troops [of the United States] are already afflicted. Those under my command are in perfect health and spirits.
"It is certainly something singular that we should be upwards of two months in a state of warfare, and that along this widely extended frontier not a single death, either natural or by the sword, should have occurred among the troops under my command, and we have not been altogether idle; nor has a single desertion taken place."
On September 17th General Brock had written to Colonel Procter that he approved of his expedition against Fort Wayne, which would probably save the garrison from the fate of Chicago. He added, however, in obedience to Sir George Prevost's instructions : "It must be explicitly understood that you are not to resort to offensive warfare for purposes of conquest; your operations are to be confined to measures of defence and security. It may become necessary to destroy the fort of Sandusky and the road which runs through it from Cleveland to the foot of the rapids. The road from the river Raisin to Detroit is perhaps in too bad a state to offer any aid to the approach of an enemy except in the winter. As to the Indians, Colonel Elliott does not possess the influence over them that Captain McKee does. In conversation with him you may take an opportunity of intimating that I have not been unmindful of the interests of the Indians in my communications to ministers; and I wish you to learn (as if casually the subject of conversation) what stipulations they would propose for themselves or be willing to accede to in case of either failure or success. I wish the engineers to proceed immediately to strengthening Fort Amherstburg, the plan for which I shall be glad to see as soon as possible."
On September 18th the general wrote to his brother Savery: "You doubtless feel much anxiety on my account. I am really placed in a most awkward predicament. If I get through my present difficulties with tolerable success I cannot but obtain praise. But I have already surmounted difficulties of infinitely greater magnitude. Were the Americans of one mind the opposition I could make would be unavailing; but I am not without hope that their divisions may be the saving of this province. A river of about five hundred yards divides the troops. My instructions oblige me to adopt defensive measures. It is thought that without the aid of the sword the American people may be brought to a due sense of their own interests. I firmly believe I could at this moment sweep everything before me between Fort Niagara and Buffalo, but my success would be transient.
"I have now officers in whom I can confide. Six companies of the 49th are with me here, and the remaining four are at Kingston under Vincent. Although the regiment has been ten years in this country, drinking rum without bounds, it is still respectable and apparently ardent for an opportunity to acquire distinction. It has five captains in England and two on the staff in this country, which leaves it bare of experienced officers. The United States regiments of the line desert to us frequently, as the men are tired of the service. Their militia, being chiefly composed of enraged Democrats, are more ardent and anxious to engage, but they have neither subordination or discipline. They die very fast. You will hear of some decided action in the course of a fortnight, or in all probability we shall return to a state of tranquillity. I say decisive, because if I should be beaten the province is inevitably gone; and should I be victorious, I do not imagine the gentry from the other side will care to return to the charge. I am quite anxious that this state of warfare should end, as I wish much to join Lord Wellington and to see you all."
In September courteous messages were passing from Major-General Stephen Van Rensselaer [photo] to Major-General Brock as to the disposition of the prisoners of war, and of the women and children who had accom-panied them from Detroit. General Brock wrote to the American general : "With much regret I have perceived very heavy firing from both sides of the river. I am, however, given to understand that on all occasions it commenced on your side, and from the circumstance of the flag of truce which I did myself the honour to send over yesterday, having been repeatedly fired on while in the act of crossing the river, I am inclined to give full credit to the correctness of the information. You may rest assured on my repeating my most positive orders against the continuance of a practice which can only be injurious to individuals, without promoting the object which both our nations may have in view."
In a letter from John Lovett, secretary to General Van Rensselaer to Joseph Alexander, gives an idea of the state of affairs from the American point of view, and indirectly bears testimony to the unceasing labour and watchfulness of the British general: —
Headquarters, Lewiston, September 22nd, 1812.
"The enemy appears to be in a state of preparedness to give or receive an attack. Every day or two they make some movement which indicates a disposition to attack us immediately. The night before last every ship they have on Lake Ontario came into the mouth of Niagara. Then, to be sure, we thought it time to look out for breakers. But yesterday, when Colonel Van Rensselaer went over with a flag to Fort George, there was not a ship in sight nor a general officer there; where gone we know not. Notwithstanding the most positive orders on both sides, our sentries have kept up almost a constant warfare for a month past. On the bank of the river musket balls are about as thick as whip-poor-wills on a summer evening. We are promised reinforcements by companies, battalions, regiments, brigades, and I might almost say armies, but not a single man has joined us in some weeks. Besides our men here are getting down very fast. The morning's report of sick was one hundred and forty-nine. Give Mrs. Lovett the enclosed. It contains an impression of General Brock's seal, with his most appropriate motto, 'He who guards never sleeps.' "
A letter to Brock from Sir George Prevost of September 25th, showed that he still held the idea of simply being on the defensive, and had a slavish fear of doing anything that might draw on himself blame from the English ministry. He wrote: "It no longer appears by your letter of the 13th that you consider the enemy's operations on the Niagara frontier indicative of active operations. If the government of America inclines to defensive measures, I can only ascribe its determination to two causes, the first is the expectation of such overtures from us as will lead to a suspension of hostilities preparatory to negotiations for peace; the other arises from having ascertained by experience our ability in the Canadas to resist the attack of a tumultuary force. I agree in opinion with you that so wretched is the organization and discipline of the American army, that at this moment much might be effected against them; but as the government at home could derive no substantial advantage from any disgrace we might inflict on them, whilst the more important concerns of the country are committed in Europe, I again request you will steadily pursue that policy which shall appear to you best calculated to promote the dwindling away of such a force by its own inefficient means."
[1812 War Ships]
General Brock's letter relating to the disaster is dated Fort George, October 11th, 1812: "I had scarcely closed my despatch to your Excellency, of the 9th, when I was suddenly called away to Fort Erie, in consequence of a bold, and I regret to say, successful attack by the enemy on His Majesty's ship Detroit and the private brig Caledonia which had both arrived the preceding day from Amherstburg. It appears by every account I have been able to collect, that a little before day a number of boats, full of men, dropped down with the current unobserved, boarded both vessels at the same moment, and cutting their cables were proceeding with them to the American shore, when Major Ormsby who witnessed the transaction, directed the batteries to open upon them, and soon compelled the enemy to abandon the Detroit, which grounded about the centre of Squaw Island, a little more than a mile below Black Rock. She was then boarded by a party of the 49th Regiment, but as no anchor remained, and being otherwise unprovided with every means by which she could be hauled off, the officers, throwing her guns overboard, after sustaining a smart fire of musketry, decided to quit her. A private, who is accused of getting drunk, and a prisoner of war, who was unable from his wounds to escape, with about twenty prisoners brought by the Detroit from Amherstburg, remained, however, behind; these it became necessary to remove before the vessel could be destroyed, and Cornet Pell, major of the Provincial Cavalry, offered his services. Being unfortunately wounded as he was getting on board, and falling back into the boat, a confusion arose, during which the boat drifted from the vessel, leaving on board two of the 41st who had previously ascended. In the meantime the Caledonia was secured by the enemy, and a cargo of furs belonging to the South-West Company landed. I reached the spot soon after sunset, and intended to have renewed the attempt to recover the Detroit, which I had every prospect of accomplishing, assisted by the crew of the Lady Prevost, which vessel had anchored a short time before, but before the necessary arrangements could be made, the enemy boarded her, and in a few minutes she was seen in flames. This event is particularly unfortunate, and may reduce us to incalculable distress.
"The enemy is making every exertion to gain a naval superiority on both lakes, which if they accomplish I do not see how we can retain the country. More vessels are fitting out for war on the other side of Squaw Ishmd, which I should have attempted to destroy but for your Excellency's repeated instructions to forbear. Now such a force is collected for their protection as will render every operation against them very hazardous. The manner our guns were served yesterday points out the necessity of an increase, if possible, of artillerymen to our present small number of regulars. The militia evinced a good spirit, but fired without much effect. The enemy, however, must have lost some men, and it is only wonderful that in a contest of a whole day, no life was lost on our side. The fire of the enemy was incessant, but badly directed till the close of the day, when it began to improve.
"Lieutenant Rolette, who commanded the Detroit, had, and I believe deservedly, the character of a brave, attentive officer. His vessel must, however, have been surprised — an easy operation when she lay at anchor, and I have reason to suspect that this consideration was not sufficiently attended to by the officers commanding on board and on shore. We have not only sustained a heavy loss in the vessel, but likewise in the cargo, which consisted of four 12-pounders, a large quantity of shot and about two hundred muskets, all of which were intended for Kingston and Prescott. The only consolation is that she escaped the enemy, whose conduct did not entitle him to so rich a prize.
"The enemy has brought some boats overland from Schlosser to the Niagara River, and made an attempt last night to carry off the guard over the store at Queenston. I shall refrain as long as possible under your Excellency's positive injunctions, from every hostile act, although sensible that each day's delay gives him an advantage."
On the same day General Brock wrote to Colonel Procter, who was still in command on the Detroit frontier. After various instructions the letter concludes as follows: "An active, interesting scene is going to commence with you. I am perfectly at ease as to the result, provided we can manage the Indians and keep them attached to your cause, which, in fact, is theirs. The fate of the province is in your hands. Judging by every appearance we are not to remain long idle in this quarter. Were it not for the positive injunctions of the commander of the forces I should have acted with greater decision. This forbearance may be productive of ultimate good but I doubt its policy — perhaps we have not the means of judging correctly. You will, of course, adopt a very different line of conduct. The enemy must be kept in a state of constant ferment. Nothing new at Montreal. Lord Wellington has totally defeated Marmont, near Salamanca."
Research: The Makers of Canada – General Brock by Lady Matilda (Ridout) Edgar [1844-1910](1904)
Photo credits: Wikipedia