Sunday 27 July 2008

MY TOWN MONDAY - Isaac Brock (War of 1812) Part 1

“The acquisition of Canada this year, as far as the neighborhood of Quebec, will be a mere matter of marching, and will give us experience for the attack of Halifax the next, and the final expulsion of England from the American continent.“

Statement during an early stage of the War of 1812 by Thomas Jefferson, in a letter to William Duane (August 4, 1812)

When war had been declared, some Americans thought the British colonists to the north would enthusiastically flock to the banner of freedom. It never occurred to Jefferson that the Canadians might not want to join the Americans—especially the settlers of the Niagara region, many of whom were Loyalist exiles from the Revolution.

From a brief excerpt at of Pierre Berton’s “The Invasion of Canada: 1812-1813:

“To America’s leaders in 1812, an invasion of Canada seemed to be "a mere matter of marching," as Thomas Jefferson confidently predicted. How could a nation of 8 million fail to subdue a struggling colony of 300,000? Yet, when the campaign of 1812 ended, the only Americans left on Canadian soil were prisoners of war. Three American armies had been forced to surrender, and the British were in control of all of Michigan Territory and much of Indiana and Ohio.”

[1] A key British player in the War of 1812 was Lieutenant-Colonel Isaac Brock.

Isaac Brock was born on the small English Island of Guernsey in 1769, the same year as Napoleon and Wellington. He was the eighth son in the family and, following the example of three older brothers, decided early on to make a name for himself in the British army. Brock began as an ensign in the Eighth Regiment of Foot (The King's) in 1785 and went on to become a captain in the 49th. After serving with this regiment in the Caribbean, he purchased a lieutenant colonelcy in 1797 and became the regiment's commander.

In 1801 Brock learned military tactics from his association with Nelson during the Battle of Cophenhagen, in numerous opportunities to participate in the formal and informal planning sessions when Nelson exhibited his belief that “the boldest measures are the safest” when he tried to promote aggressive tactics against the Danes. After serving with Admiral Nelson in Holland, Brock was ordered to bring his regiment to the Canadas where he arrived in 1802.

[2] The Citadelle—the French name is used both in English and French—is a military installation and official residence located atop Cap Diamant, adjoining the Plains of Abraham in Quebec City, Quebec. This citadel is part of the fortifications of Quebec City, the only city with extant city walls in North America. This sunken or flat citadel, typical of late 18th century and early 19th century castrametation. Brock was stationed here for a time.

Brock's capabilities as a commander were well known by this point. He was a demanding but fair and humane officer who had earned the sincere respect of his men. Brock's considerable military talents allowed him to fill many positions during his tenure in Canada. His numerous postings, from Montreal to York (Toronto) and from Fort George on the Niagara frontier to Quebec, allowed him to gain a good knowledge and appreciation of the colony and its inhabitants. He commanded the garrison in Quebec, and following the Chesapeake incident of 1807, in which a British frigate battered an American ship into surrender to reclaim four alleged deserters, when war seemed imminent, Brock found himself in command of all British forces in Canada but was unable to call out the provincial militia as he had no muskets available. Assessing the colony's strategic situation, Isaac Brock felt that the only tenable post was Quebec, and he remained skeptical that even that city could be held against a determined foe. Although he feared the worst, the diplomatic crisis soon passed and the war fever abated somewhat. While in Quebec, Brock noted that “every American newspaper teems with violent and hostile resolutions against England, and associations are forming in every town for the ostensible purpose of attacking these Provinces.”

[3-Inside the Citadelle] The Citadelle of Quebec still survives, as the largest citadel still in official military operation in North America, after more than two hundred years of existence.

After being made a major general in 1811, he was assigned command of all troops in Upper Canada. Over these years, Brock frequently requested that he be allowed to return to Europe to fight in the war against Napoleon. But his stay was extended when Lieutenant Governor Francis Gore was called to England indefinitely and Brock became the administrator of Upper Canada.

Writing to his brother in 1811, Brock lamented that, "You who have passed all your days in the bustle of London, can scarcely conceive the uninteresting and insipid life I am doomed to lead in this retirement." Little did he know his fame and fate would hinge on the leading role he would soon play in the drama that was to unfold in a far away colony.

As word spread of the American Congress's increased calls for action against what they felt was unlawful British action on the high seas, Brock realized that he was in a unique position to prepare for hostilities. Governor General Prevost, like most other British officials, believed nothing would come of the issue. But if the Americans were to invade Canada, many of these same men would have believed that forces in Canada could do little to stop them. But Brock was always ready for a challenge, and by early 1812 was reinforcing defenses as well as courting many First Nations regarding a possible alliance. Being Upper Canada's administrator allowed Brock to amend the Militia Act in such a way as to make use of all possible volunteers and to step up training.

Isaac Brock was 42 when war eventually broke out in June 1812. The situation in Upper Canada (present-day Ontario) at the time was scarcely better than five years previous. Of the 5,200 regulars in the colony, 1,200 were stationed with Brock in Upper Canada and of the 11,000 militia, Brock estimated that fewer than 4,000 could be trusted to fight. Even the population's loyalty to the British cause gave rise to serious concerns. Most of the province's inhabitants consisted of United Empire Loyalists and of "late Loyalists" who had just recently arrived from the United States. Many of these felt no great attachment to the British crown and a great number of them did not doubt an American victory. This prompted Brock to remark: "Most of the people have lost all confidence. I however speak loud and look big!"

In the summer of 1812, while General William Hull’s American Army of the Northwest, consisting of 600 regulars and 1,600 militia, was hacking its way northward through the forests of Michigan, William Beall was aboard the schooner Cuyahoga Packet, drifting calmly up the Detroit River to rendez-vous with Hull at Fort Detroit. Beall, an assistant quartermaster general, considered himself lucky to travel by water. The alternative was to accompany Hull on the forced march through mosquito-infested terrain in the heat of early July.

Beall had relieved Hull's troops of some of the heavier supplies, including the army's musical instruments. He had also taken on board thirty or so regular soldiers who were too sick to make the journey overland. Hull's son and aide-de-camp, Abraham, thought it wise to pack the general's personal belongings on the boat, including his journals and all his correspondence with U.S. Secretary of War William Eustis. Nowhere in his recent letters does Eustis state clearly just how close his country is to declaring war on Great Britain.

On the Canadian side of the Detroit River, at Amherstburg, a young French-Canadian officer of the Provincial Marine can make out the Stars and Stripes waving on the schooner as it drifts casually by the British fort. Lieutenant Frederic Rolette is about to add to his reputation as a bold and quick-thinking officer. He orders six armed men into a longboat and they row vigourously towards the larger American ship.

The Cuyahoga's captain, Luther Chapin, was likely expecting greetings from the usually-friendly Canadians. Instead, he was shocked to find himself staring down the barrels of six muskets as Rolette ordered the mainsails lowered. Chapin looked to a confused Beall for orders, but one warning shot from Rolette is all the persuading the captain needed to bring his vessel to a stop.

Rolette boarded the schooner to find the thirty American soldiers on deck - a force six times the size of his own party. Lucky for the French Canadian officer, all the Cuyahoga's arms are stowed below decks and the Americans are too sick to fight. As Rolette orders everyone locked-up, he informed Beall that news of the United States' declaration of war had arrived in Amherstburg the previous evening.

Beall and his men offer no resistance, no doubt convinced this young lieutenant is somehow mistaken. As a final touch to the proceedings, Rolette discovers the stash of musical instruments. He then proceeded to sail the Cuyahoga into Amherstburg while the humbled Americans play "God Save The King."

Only upon closer inspection of the captured goods do the British realize their good luck. General Hull's correspondence with Eustis describes in detail the army that is presently marching north towards Detroit; the strength and morale of its regiments, the state of supplies, and possible offensive strategies. Hull's personal papers betrayed his growing concerns about facing native warriors in battle. All of this information was forwarded to Brock who used it to develop his strategy for attacking Fort Detroit.


My Town Monday is the brainchild of Travis Erwin. His link is on the sidebar: where you will find other My Town Monday posts from around the world.

Research:;; Wikipedia; The Invasion of Canada: 1812-1813 by Pierre Berton.
Photo Credits: [1]-wikipedia, [2]-Diof CC=nc-sa-flickr, [3]-LukeGordon CC=flickr.


Joshua said...

Thanks for the book recommendation. I'll have to check it out. :)

Charles Gramlich said...

Yeah, the USA got a bit cocky there and got their butts handed to 'em.

Bernita said...

Have always admired Brock, one of the few I'd really call a hero.

Barbara Martin said...

Joshua, welcome and hope it provides the answers you require.

Barbara Martin said...

Charles, Isaac Brock got a good foundation in military tactics of warfare while he was in the planning stages of attack on Copenhagen with Admiral Nelson. He was an avid reader and known to have volumes of books on military manoeuvres.

pattinase (abbott) said...

It's humiliating how little of this I know, having grown up on the US east cost. We were just in Amhersberg a few weeks ago. too.

Terrie Farley Moran said...

Hi Barbara,

I am a real American History buff for the period from the 1760's to the civil War (1861) so I love to read the Canadian view of "how it happened" re: the War of 1812.

Thanks so much. I'll be back for part two.


debra said...

Thanks for another interesting post, Barbara. Isaac Brock was quite a man.
Thank you for a fascinating look at our shared history.

Mary Witzl said...

I love Brock's description of his life as uninteresting and insipid. Little did he know that he was making history! Food for thought.

And I also admire -- and wonder at -- Nelson's insistence that the safest plan was the boldest one. There are times this might be true, but he really did take some amazing risks.

Travis Erwin said...

Brock seems like quite the leader. I'm ashamed to say it but again you've given me a history lesson about things I really knew nothing about.

BernardL said...

If not for Admiral Perry’s destruction of the British fleet on Lake Erie, and General Harrison’s defeat of the retreating British troops at Moraviantown, including the death of Shawnee Chief Tecumseh, America might indeed have been under British rule once again. Great post, Barbara.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the history lesson and the beautiful photos!

Steve Malley said...

We didn't hear much about the War of 1812 when I was kid in the US. Probably not too hard to guess why...


Reb said...

Good post Barbara! I am just reading an historical fiction set at about that time, but in S. Carolina.

Barbara Martin said...

Pattinase, since historical posts seem to be a hit I will continue with them. Then you will know part of the Canadian perspective on the early history. I am limited in the amount of summary due to space, thus, sometimes cutting out some choice bit. And there are many choice bits on both sides of the War of 1812.

Terrie, I will try to appease your curiosity of the "Canadian viewpoint".

Debra, Isaac Brock was a gentleman, and now I will have to fit more of his background into Part 2 so readers, like yourself, can see his true nature.

Mary Witzl, there is another reason why Brock was impulsive and aggressive in his military manoeuvres which I am saving for the end.

Barbara Martin said...

Bernita, I agree with you. Brock showed great empathy for the men in his command and respect for Chief Tecumseh's abilities. I had better leave this for the next couple of posts.

Travis, soon you'll know all the pertinent history of eastern Canada.

Bernard, one never knows how things will play out in life. One choice cancels out another.

Mary, welcome and thank you for commenting.

Steve, I had heard back in the 60s that Americans did not learn much international history. As to why, I'm not certain.

Reb, glad you dropped by. History of any place makes for good background in novels.

Lana Gramlich said...

Have you ever visited Brock's monument in Queenston? It's actually pretty cool. I have a picture of it on my defunct homepage.

Barbara Martin said...

Lana, yes, several times while en route on trips to North Carolina and South Carolina. If I didn't stop on my way down, I would on the way back. The area has an aura to it.