Isaac Brock

Isaac Brock - Saviour of Canada

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The man who became known as the "Saviour of Canada" was born on 6 October 1769. Isaac Brock was the eighth son of John and Elizabeth (nee De Lisle) Brock. The Brock family lived in the town of St. Peter-Port on the English Channel Island of Guernsey. Noted for his gentle nature, young Isaac was nevertheless skilled in the martial sport of boxing, and was a good swimmer. Starting school on Guernsey, Isaac left home at ten years of age to complete his education at Southampton.

This schoolboy grew into a handsome man, with a broad forehead and grey-blue eyes. Pierre Berton notes that Brock's portraits tended to make him look slightly feminine, but that his physical bearing would have offset any such impression. In the fullness of manhood Isaac Brock stood about six foot three, a powerful presence with a large build to match his height. Throughout his life Brock was a popular, respected figure, though sometimes aloof. Although he enjoyed the company of women, and was rumoured to have a fiancee at the time of his death, Brock never married.

Like certain famous bachelors of the Victorian era, young Isaac Brock was destined for a military life. Four of his brothers served in the British forces, and Isaac followed this tradition when, in 1785, elder brother John purchased him a commission as an ensign in the 8th Foot.† In 1791, with the rank of captain, Brock transferred to the 49th Foot. By 1797 he was the senior lieutenant colonel of his regiment. In 1799 he was slightly wounded during an attack on the Dutch town of Egmont-op-Zee, and two years later was present during Admiral Lord Nelson's attack on Copenhagen. Brock's career seemed to take a downturn when, in 1802, the 49th was transferred to British North America (Canada).

While battle raged between the forces of Britain and Napoleonic France, Brock spent a peaceful but - for an ambitious military man - frustrating ten years in North America. A true man of action, Brock longed to be where the fighting was. Still, his stay in Canada did give the officer practical experience as an administrator, supplementing that gained during a stint with the 49th in Barbados and Jamaica. Promoted to full colonel in 1805, and to brigadier general in 1807, Brock had acted as commander-in-chief of British forces in Canada, though he continued to chafe at his backwater posting.

A family financial crisis in 1811 saw Brock, through no fault of his own, in debt to the tune of £3000. The following year he applied to Horse Guards (army headquarters) for a transfer out of Canada. Just as permission was granted news arrived that the United States, irritated by British restrictions on its maritime trade, and Royal Navy impressment of American seamen, had declared war. Brock felt duty-bound to remain in Canada where his services were now sorely needed.

By the time war erupted in June 1812 Brock had already done much to prepare Canada for the coming conflict. He persuaded his superiors to renovate and strengthen the neglected defences of Quebec City, considered one of the lynchpins of the province's defence. A major general by 1812, Brock was in charge of all military forces in Upper Canada - today's Ontario - and acted as the province's civil administrator in the absence of the Lieutenant Governor. Ever since America and Britain had almost gone to war in 1807 over the Chesapeake affair, Brock had tried to ready Upper Canada against the possibility of invasion, pleading with Governor General Sir George Prevost (1767-1816) for reinforcements.‡ Although Sir George's top priority was the defence of Lower Canada (Quebec), he managed to augment Brock's troop strength to some extent. This was important as Upper Canada was the setting for many of the War of 1812's land engagements.

Perhaps Brock's greatest contribution to Canadian defence in the weeks after the American declaration of war was the alliance he forged with the First Nations peoples. Although Brock's attitude towards the Natives was ambiguous, he realized that their support was key to bolstering Upper Canada's thinly-stretched force of redcoats and semi-trained militia. Without the support of their Native allies it is doubtful the Anglo-Canadians could have resisted the first American invasions. Although he enlisted the aid of a number of tribes, Brock's most important Native ally was the Shawnee leader Tecumseh (c. 1768-1813), who was promoting an aboriginal confederacy against the Americans. Brock must have impressed Tecumseh who, on meeting the general proclaimed, "this is a man." Tecumseh and many other Natives had no great love for the British, but aggressive westward expansion and a number of land swindles alienated them from the Americans.

Despite Prevost's warnings to be cautious, Brock believed the best way to defend Canada was to go on the offensive. Quite sensibly, Native warriors liked to ally themselves with whoever had the best chances of winning a conflict. A victory would not only bolster their resolve to stand by the British, but would reassure those who feared Canada might be lost to an American force; from 1812-14 the Americans launched eight invasions, only one of which accomplished much.

Brock soon had his first success. Acting on the general's orders, a small band of regular soldiers, Native warriors, and North West Company employees under a British officer spearheaded an attack on Fort Michilimackinac, on Mackinac Island at the northwestern end of Lake Huron. The American garrison was unaware that war had been declared and soon surrendered. Formerly a British outpost, Michilimackinac was strategically located - whoever controlled it could control the important western fur trade. As historian Carl Benn notes, the capture also kept open lines of communication with Natives tribes on the Mississippi, while encouraging tribes of the upper lakes to join the British cause.

News of the British success also reached Brigadier General William Hull (1753-1825), who was leading an American army east across the Detroit River into Upper Canada as part of a three-pronged, if badly co-ordinated, invasion. The loss of Mackinac led Hull to fear that local Natives would rise up against his forces, and might even attack American settlements. Hearing reports that Brock was advancing on his position, Hull withdrew his army from Canada into the safety of Fort Detroit.

Brock arrived on 13 August and, though his force was actually smaller than the American garrison, demanded Hull's surrender. Not a professional soldier, Hull was fearful of Brock's Native allies, led by Tecumseh. Brock played on these fears, indicating that if the Americans resisted he might not be able to control the Indian warriors should his forces take the fort. The implication was clear - fight and they could expect a massacre. To complete the picture, Brock had Tecumseh parade his warriors in full view of the garrison at Fort Detroit, moving so as to make their numbers seem greater. A deadly cannonade broke down the last of Hull's resolve, and he surrendered to Isaac Brock's forces on 16 August 1812.

With this second bloodless victory Brock took a large number of prisoners and badly-needed materiel. The success also made the Niagara Peninsula's western frontier secure for the moment, while persuading even more Native tribes to openly declare for the British. A massive embarrassment for the United States, the action at Detroit was received with joy in Canada and Britain. Isaac Brock earned a knighthood for Detroit, but never received the news - his next battle was his last.

In the Autumn of 1812 the Americans launched a new invasion west over the Niagara River from New York State. Hundreds of regular troops, militia and volunteers made the journey, coming under fire from defenders across the river at the village of Queenston. Although some militiamen refused to cross onto Canadian soil, and there was bad blood between some of the American commanders, the force managed to land successfully and fight their way onto Queenston Heights, a ridge dominating the settlement below.

From Fort George Brock heard the distant sound of gunfire, and galloped off on his horse Alfred to take command. Just after dawn, 13 October, an outnumbered Anglo-Canadian force charged up the heights to drive off the Americans. Brock said he would not ask men to go where he would not lead; he led from the front this morning, an easily identifiable figure, wearing a bright sash given to him by Tecumseh. An American sniper took aim, ending the general's life. It was left to his successor, major general Roger Hale Sheaffe (1763-1851) to win a lopsided victory that will forever be associated with Isaac Brock - Queenston Heights.

Brock became the first hero revered by both English and French Canadians. This was ironic in a way, since Brock never particularly cared for Canada. He also distrusted democracy, and was never convinced of the loyalty of the Canadian militias or the Native peoples. Even his famous dying words, "push on brave York Volunteers," were probably never spoken. In the end, though, Brock did matter to Canada. Apart from being a revered symbol of the nation, with an impressive monument where he died, Sir Isaac Brock's example in the opening weeks of the war mobilized the populations of Upper and Lower Canada. As the producers of Canada. A People's History note, Brock bought the colony precious time to organize its defences, while giving them heart that the American invaders could be beaten. It was an invaluable legacy.

†Until the late nineteenth century it was common for well to do British army and cavalry hopefuls, or those wanting to advance more quickly, to buy their officer commissions. Officer promotions in the navy, engineers and artillery were strictly by merit or seniority.

‡In June HMS Leopard had fired on and boarded the frigate USS Chesapeake to remove four alleged Royal Navy deserters. The attack was not authorized by the British government but still outraged American public opinion.

SOURCES & OTHER REFERENCE


Benn, Carl. Essential Histories. The War of 1812. Oxford: 2002.

Berton, Pierre. Death of Isaac Brock. Toronto: 1991.

The Invasion of Canada, 1812-1813. Toronto: 1980.

Borneman, Walter R. 1812. The War That Forged a Nation. New York: 2004.

Malcomson, Robert. Burying General Brock: A History of Brock's Monuments. 1996.

A Very Brilliant Affair. The Battle of Queenston Heights, 1812. Toronto: 2003.

Nursey, Walter R. The Story of Isaac Brock: Hero, Defender and Saviour of Upper Canada 1812. Toronto: 1909.

Zuelke, Mark. For Honour's Sake. The War of 1812 and the Brokering of an Uneasy Peace. Toronto: 2006.

Drewery, Laine (director). Canada, a People's History. A Question of Loyalties. CBC/Radio Canada, 2000.

PUBLICATION DATE
Monday, November 27, 2006

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