a far-away colony, Isaac Brock would emerge as one of Britain's most
ablest and tragic figures
Of the military leaders who emerged from the brief and bitter conflict known as the War of 1812, few have been able to carve a reputation for themselves as bold, imaginative and inspiring leaders. Isaac Brock, however, personified these qualities in a military career that spanned three decades. Yet what is known about this man who was a nemesis to his enemies, a relative unknown to the country of his birth and a hero of mythical stature in the adoptive country in which he served?
Isaac Brock was born in 1769, the same memorable year which gave birth to Napoleon and Wellington. A native of Guernsey, in the Channel Islands, he was raised the eighth son in a well-to-do family. At an early age, Brock was already being singled out as an exceptional youth. Tall, robust and athletic, he was also described as having a kind and gentle temperament. At the age of fifteen, he entered the 8th Regiment as an ensign and gained valuable combat experience. He greatly distinguished himself at the battle of Egmont-op-Zee in 1799, where has was wounded fighting alongside Sir John Moore. Two years later, he was made second in command of the land forces in Nelson's attack on Copenhagen. It was during this time that he attained the rank of lieutenant-colonel of the 49th Regiment at the age of 28 and was largely responsible for transforming this unit from one of the worst to one of the best in the service.
With a lull in the fighting in Europe, Brock was shipped with his regiment to Canada in 1802. 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. Over the next ten years, Brock worked tirelessly, improving the colony's defences, establishing and training militia units for a possible war with the United States.
Since the end of the American Revolution, both countries harboured grievances which stemmed from issues of trade, commerce and westward expansion. Short of manpower, Britain resorted to the impressment of American sailors to serve aboard British warships. Following the Chesapeake incident of 1807, in which a British frigate battered an American ship into surrender to reclaim four alleged deserters, war between the two countries seemed imminent. At the time, 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, Issac 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 worse, the diplomatic crisis soon passed and the war fever abated somewhat.
Over the next five years, Brock continued to build and repair fortifications while tensions between Britain and the United States remained strained, if not overtly hostile. One can readily imagine that, with his fellow officers fighting the French in Spain, Brock must have felt distressed to having been posted to such a remote and uneventful colony. Writing to his brother in 1811, he 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 of the leading role he would soon play in the drama that was to unfold.
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 that "Most of the people have lost all confidence. I however speak loud and look big!"
Such words would soon translate into action when, on July 12, Brigadier-General William Hull crossed into Canada from Detroit with an army of 600 regulars and 1,600 militia. He occupied the town of Sandwich (Windsor) and stopped short of an advance on the British base at Amherstburg. With the defence of the province hanging in the balance, Brock set off from York with a small army of regulars and militia to confront the invaders.
At the same time, news reached Hull that the American post at Michilimackinac, at the mouth of Lake Michigan, had fallen to the British. Fearing for his rear and hearing that British reinforcements were on the way, Hull withdrew to the safety of his base at Fort Detroit on the American shore. When Brock arrived at Amherstburg, his forces numbered 300 regulars, 400 militiamen and over 800 native warriors who, through the urgings of the Indian Department, had thrown in their lot with the British.
It is here that Brock met with the famous Shawnee chief Tecumseh and instantly the two men formed a close bond. "Now here is a man!" Tecumseh is reported to have declared when he learned of Brock's intentions to carry the offensive. Despite their divergent backgrounds, the two men shared common characteristics. Both were instinctive, aggressive fighters and each earned the respect and trust of their men.
Meanwhile, Brock's immediate superior and the Governor of Canada, Sir George Prevost, had cautioned Brock not to risk battle and to remain on the defensive. Brock, however, believed that "the state of the province admitted of nothing but desperate measures" and, subsequently, he and Tecumseh crossed the Detroit River and laid siege to the fort on August 14. The next day, Brock impetuously demanded Hull's surrender and hinted that if it came to a fight, he would not be able to restrain the wrath of his native allies. Perhaps because he still outnumbered the British by a margin of nearly 2 to 1, Hull initially refused. Brock then proceeded to bombard the fort with the few cannon at his disposal. While he could not expect to capture the fort, Brock hoped to lure Hull out from his defence works to meet him in open battle, where he assumed Hull's militia would be no match for his own trained regulars. Hull, however, languished inside the fort for another day, unable to decide what course of action to take. With the natives whooping at his gates, with no reinforcements forthcoming, and with increasing discontentment by his subordinates over his own inaction, Hull finally sent his son under a flag of truce to ask for terms of surrender.
The surrender probably came as much as a surprise to Brock as it did to Hull's subordinates, some of whom threatened to mutiny. Yet three hours later, over 2,000 U.S. troops surrendered to the British and sought their protection from their native allies. The fall of Fort Detroit had a catalyzing effect in Upper Canada. Not only did it allow Brock to arm his militia with captured American weapons, but it also rallied support for the British cause and established Brock's reputation as a truly remarkable soldier and leader.
With the Detroit frontier stable, Brock raced back to Niagara to prepare for an imminent American attack across the river. Notwithstanding his earlier success, Brock was again given explicit instructions by Sir George Prevost to hold a strictly defensive position. Brock was thus compelled to scatter his troops along the entire length of the Niagara frontier, with the bulk of his forces stationed at Fort Erie and Chippawa where the Americans were expected to effect a crossing.
On the night of October 13, General Stephen Van Rensselaer crossed the Niagara River from Lewiston N.Y. with 3,000 troops to the small village of Queenston. The landing was initially opposed by a force of some 300 British, who prevented the Americans from capturing the town. Scaling a nearby path, the Americans soon gained control of the surrounding heights and succeeded in capturing a small redan battery with an 18-pounder cannon which commanded the area.
Awakened by the firing, Brock quickly dressed, mounted a horse and galloped from Fort George to the battle now unfolding. Upon his arrival, he rallied the British forces now assembled below the heights and led them up the hill to recapture the battery. Repulsed, he organized a second wave and again mounted an attack. Resplendent in his red uniform, cocked hat and gold lace, Brock was spotted by an American sharpshooter (some say it was a Kentucky rifleman) and shot in the chest.
It is at this point that Brock passes into legend. Later accounts would claim that Brock, now fatally wounded, would have urged the York volunteers to "push on" and take the battery. Contemporary accounts, however, suggest that Brock was instantly killed by the bullet which hit him. In the end, the British recaptured the heights, won the battle and took nearly 1,000 prisoners.
While it can be said, with some truth, that Brock should have never exposed himself to such danger, his precipitous charge at the head of his men was entirely in keeping with his character. As was seen at Fort Detroit and again at Queenston Heights, Brock was not a man to be dictated by prudence and caution. He may even have been lulled into a false sense of invulnerability, as are many men of reckless bravery.
Following the battle, Brock was interred temporarily in the northeast bastion of Fort George, alongside his aide-de-camp, Lieutenant-Colonel Macdonell, who had also been killed in the battle. Brock had been made a Knight of the Bath for his victory at Detroit but, regrettably, the news did not reach him before his death at Queenston Heights. For the duration of the war, other British commanders stepped to the fore and performed their duties reasonably well. None, however, displayed the instinctive penchant and aggressive spirit so ably demonstrated by Brock. While his lost was irreparable, his victories made it inconceivable to his successors to abandon Upper Canada.
Twelve years after his death, a 130 foot stone monument was erected in his honour on the heights near the spot where he had met his untimely end. His remains, as well as those of Macdonell, were reburied beneath the monument in an elaborate ceremony attended by many of his contemporaries. In 1840, the monument was destroyed by a massive blast of gunpowder, believed to have been ignited by an American sympathizer with the Upper Canada Rebellion. The monument was subsequently rebuilt in 1856, 52 feet taller than before. Today, the monument, which now straddles the longest undefended border in the world, remains one of the most imposing historical landmarks in Canada. Relics of Brock's career can be seen at the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa, where his bullet-pierced tunic is prominently on display.
While Brock was certainly an important military figure in Canada, some dispute the lavish attention and praise accorded to him. After all, it could be argued that, at Fort Detroit, he was simply pitted against a mediocre opponent. His victory, in this case, would have owed more to the ineptitude of the American commander than to any feat of strategic genius. Even the victory of Queenston Heights was not assured until well after he had been killed, although it is difficult to assess the effect that his death had on the morale of the British units present.
Yet if a country gauges its heroes by the way in which it remembers them, then it can truly be said that Sir Isaac Brock occupies a place of prominence in Canada, where a city, a university, countless streets, public buildings and parks have been named in his honour. Historians and military buffs alike wonder what Brock might have accomplished had he not been shot in the prime of his life, like General James Wolfe and Lord Horatio Nelson before him. In the end, his legacy will have been to inspire the inhabitants of a fledgling colony to have confidence in their leaders, confidence in themselves and confidence in their emerging sense of nationhood.
Copyright: Alain Gauthier 1997