Search just our sites by using our customised site search engine


Click here to get a Printer Friendly PageSmiley

General Brock
Chapter XV - Canada's Defence


ON February 3rd, 1812, the House of Assembly at York was opened with all due state and ceremony, and a brilliant suite attended the acting governor. In his speech General Brock deplored the treatment of England by the United States, from whose harbours English vessels were interdicted, while they were open to those of her foes. Although he still hoped that war would be averted, he recommended measures that would defeat the aggressions of the enemy and secure internal peace. He appealed to the sons of those who had stood by England in the past, not that he thought it was necessary to animate their patriotism, but in order to dispel any apprehension in the country of the possibility of England deserting them. On February 12th General Brock wrote to Colonel Baynes: "The assurance which I gave in my speech at the opening of the legislature, of England co-operating in the defence of this province, has infused the utmost confidence, and I have reason at this moment to look for the acquiescence of the two Houses to every measure I may think necessary to recommend for the peace and defence of the country."

General Brock's hopeful anticipation of help from England was not realized during 1812. The preparations for defence were woefully hampered by the instructions which Sir George Prevost undoubtedly received from the home government to avoid expenditure. He was limited as to expenses, and repeatedly cautioned not to provoke hostilities. Consent had been given to the completion of the defences of Quebec, but while millions were given to help Spain, and Austria, and Russia, and Prussia against Napoleon, Canada was left without money or soldiers. There was neither money to meet the cost of a war, nor troops to carry it through with any chance of success. Nor was it in a quarrel of her own that Canada was engaged, but the quarrel was forced upon her because she was the most vulnerable part of the British empire.

The measures that General Brock hoped to carry through the House were: (1) A militia supplementary act; (2) the suspension of the habeas corpus; (3) an alien law, and the offer of a reward for the apprehension of deserters. He knew well that there were traitors even in the House of Assembly and among the militia, men who had recently come from the United States and whose sympathies were with the latter country. He was convinced that it was advisable to require every one to take an oath of allegiance abjuring all foreign powers. He wrote: "If I succeed in all this I shall claim some praise, but I am not without my fears."

The administrator was doomed to be disappointed in securing the support of the two Houses of the legislature to the measures he had thought necessary to recommend. The bill to introduce the oath of abjuration was lost by the casting vote of the chairman. The bill for the suspension of the habeas corpus was lost by a small majority, partly because the members did not see its necessity, not believing that war would take place. General Brock thought that the reason for the acts not passing was the great influence the numerous settlers from the United States possessed over the decision of the Lower House. He thought this influence was alarming, and could be remedied only by encouraging "real subjects" to settle in the province. He recommended that grants of Crown lands should be given to any Scotch emigrants who should enlist in the Glengarry Fencibles. He wrote to Colonel Baynes at Quebec concerning the disappointment he felt at the failure of the assembly to pass the bills he wanted. In reply, Baynes said: "Sir George, who is well versed in the fickle and intractable disposition of public assemblies, feels more regret than disappointment. He has a very delicate card to play himself with his House of Assembly here, who would fain keep up the farce of being highly charmed with his amiable disposition and affable manners."

In March, 1812, congress met, and the president's message was decidedly hostile. It began by charging that British cruisers had been in the continued practice of violating the American flag on the great highway of nations, and of seizing and carrying off persons sailing under it. This was the first time the government of the United States had alleged impressment as its chief grievance, or had announced its intention to claim redress.

There was another grievance that the president brought forward in his message. It will be remembered that in 1808 one John Henry went to the United States from Canada on a secret mission, and entered into a correspondence with Mr. Ryland, the secretary of Sir James Craig, relative to the feeling in the United States at that time as to war with England. Henry wrote fourteen letters in all, none of which were important or incriminating to the government of Canada. They were merely what an ordinary journalist might write on public affairs. Nevertheless he seems to have placed a high value on his services, and not receiving from Sir James Craig as much as he expected, he went to England in 1811 and claimed a reward from the government there. This was refused, and he was told to apply to the successor of Sir James Craig as better able to appreciate the ability and success with which his mission had been executed. Enraged by this refusal, Henry determined to sell his documents to the United States. On his way back to America for this purpose he had as a fellow-passenger a young Frenchman, Count Edward de Crillon, who represented himself as belonging to a noble French family. To this man Henry confided his woes and grievances, and met with much sympathy. The count agreed to accompany him to Washington and assist him in selling his papers to the government there. He also persuaded Henry to purchase from him his family estate of "Castle St. Martine," to which he might retire and renew the health and strength which had been shattered by anxiety and the ingratitude of his country. All the payment the count would ask was the money from the American government which Henry would receive by his assistance from the authorities at Washington. Henry joyfully agreed. De Crillon, who had most engaging manners, was welcomed by the best society at the capital, who lavished on him all the attentions that his rank demanded. The memory of Lafayette still lingered in the United States, and the count touched the right chord in the national heart. By his clever persuasion, Secretary Monroe paid over the sum of fifty thousand dollars for the papers, which were made use of by the president to fan the flame of war.

Madison in his address informed congress that while the Americans were at peace with the British, the governor of Canada had employed an emissary to traverse the states of the union, and especially Massachusetts, in order to excite the people to revolt. A thousand copies of the letters were ordered to be printed and distributed. The English government was charged in the press with fomenting disaffection, intriguing with the disaffected to destroy the union, and draw the eastern states into an alliance with Great Britain.1 Sir George Prevost wrote on the subject to Lord Liverpool: "Before your Lordship receives this letter you will probably be in possession of all the circumstances relative to Henry's treachery. From Mr. Henry's residence in this country and his religion, from his thorough acquaintance with the Canadian character and language, and, above all, from his deep resentment against the government, Bonaparte may be inclined to give him a favourable reception in France, with a view to his keeping his talents in reserve to suit the exigencies of the government of the United States, in event of an alliance being formed between these countries against England."

The sequel of the story, which was not known until long afterwards, was that de Crillon was an impostor. When the money was paid over to him he disappeared, leaving with Henry the worthless title deeds to an imaginary estate. Even in this small affair one can trace the hand of the astute master of Europe, for the so-called Count de Crillon turned out to be an agent of Napoleon's secret police!

The hostile address of the president, and the preparations for war that were being made throughout the United States, inspired Brock to fresh exertions for the defence of his province, which would undoubtedly be the part of Canada to be first attacked. No possible precaution was omitted, there was no weak spot that was not strengthened to the best of his ability. He spared himself no fatigue. One day at York, engaged in the duties of his office, the next day he would be at Fort George superintending the defences of that frontier, reviewing and animating the militia, giving the word of praise where it was needed, cheering the timid, awing the disloyal. Even the Indians were not forgotten, and a visit was paid to the Grand River, where were settled the Six Nation Indians, with whom he was extremely popular.

The boasts in congress of the easy conquest of Canada, and the insolence of the press in the United States, had roused an intense national feeling among both the French and English inhabitants. In Quebec the corps known as "The Voltigeurs" had been raised and placed under the command of Major de Salaberry. We read in the papers of the day that it was completed with a despatch "worthy of the ancient warlike spirit of the country."

In Lower Canada, by the militia law, the province was divided into fifty-two divisions. All males from sixteen to sixty were required to enrol their names with a captain of companies mustered to serve a year. This was the sedentary militia, consisting of about fifty thousand men. The incorporated militia, by an act passed May 19th, 1812, was fixed at two thousand men, but was increased afterwards. This body was chosen by ballot from unmarried men in the sedentary militia, the term of service to be two years, which was afterwards increased to three years. No substitutes were permitted to serve. In the Upper Province, with some trifling modifications, the same system prevailed, but on account of the more scanty population the force was proportionately less.

The commander-in-chief still preached caution and forbearance. In his letter to General Brock, of March 31st, 1812, his says: "I have carefully examined Lieutenant-Colonel Macdonell's report on the American fort at Detroit, written at your desire from information he had received during a residence of a few days in the vicinity. Whatever temptations may offer to induce you to depart from a system strictly defensive, I must pointedly request that under the existing circumstances of our relation with the government of the United States, you must not allow them to lead you into any measure bearing the character of offence, even should a declaration of war be laid on the table of 190 congress by the president's influence, because I am informed by our minister at Washington there prevails throughout the United States a great unwillingness to enter upon hostilities, and also because the apparent neglect at Detroit might be but a bait to tempt us to an act of aggression, in its effects uniting parties, strengthening the power of the government of that country, and affording that assistance to the raising of men for the augmentation of the American army, without which their ability to raise an additional regiment is now questioned. You are nevertheless to persevere in your preparations for defence."

Three weeks later, in a letter to Lord Liverpool, Sir George Prevost's tone had changed, and he was inclined to think war was more imminent. He writes: "The recent passing of an embargo act in congress, the orders issued for the march of sixteen hundred men to reinforce the American positions on Lakes Erie and Ontario and the river St. Lawrence, indicate an inevitable disposition for hostilities, which have induced me to accept the services of five hundred Canadian youths, to be formed into a corps of light infantry, or voltigeurs." On the same date, the minister at Washington, Mr. Foster, wrote to Lord Castlereagh, who had succeeded the Marquis of Wellesley as secretary of war: "The militia in the northern, and particularly the eastern states, are well trained and armed. The general who has been lately appointed commander-in-chief (Dearborn) is a heavy, unwieldy looking man, who was a major in the American revolutionary war, and was a prisoner in Canada. He has apparently accepted his appointment with great reluctance. There is a cannon foundry near here from which a hundred cannon have been lately sent to New York, many of them cast iron. They have fifty more now on hand. Considerable supplies are daily sending to Albany, the contractors having shipped for that place every barrel of beef and pork in the market."

On April 14th, the president of the United States placed an embargo on all American vessels for ninety days, so as to limit the number on the high seas, and also to enable them to man their ships of war and privateers. Their fastest merchant vessels were made into cruisers. The anti-war party in the United States, however, still hoped that the orders-in-council would be repealed or at least some friendly message sent from the English government. But no friendly message came.

In England at this time there was an interregnum of confusion. It was on May 8th, 1812, that Spencer Perceval, the prime minister, was assassinated. A letter of that date says: "Never has the British government been in the situation it now is, Mr. Perceval dead, and all public offices in confusion, and the great men caballing one against the other. If they repeal the orders-in-council, the American trade will flourish beyond all former periods. They will then have the whole commerce of the continent in their hands, and the British, though blockading with powerful armaments the hostile ports of Europe, will behold fleets of American merchantmen enter in safety the harbours of the enemy, and carry on a brisk and lucrative trade, whilst the English, who command the ocean and are sole masters of the deep, must quietly suffer two-thirds of their shipping to be dismantled, and to lie snug and useless in little rivers or alongside huge but empty warehouses. Their sailors, in order to earn a little salt junk and flinty biscuit, must spread themselves like vagabonds over the face of the earth, and enter the service of any nation. If, on the contrary, they continue to enforce their orders, trade will still remain in its present deplorable state. An American war will follow, and poor Canada will be obliged to bear the whole brunt of American vengeance."

On April 21st, 1812, the Regent had agreed to revoke the orders-in-council if the Berlin and Milan decrees should be repealed. It was June 15th, however, when Mr. Brougham, in the House of Commons, moved for their repeal. They were revoked on June 23rd, a few days after the actual declaration of war by the United States.

In May the English government did not apprehend war. So little did they think it was coming that both the 41st and 49th Regiments were ordered back for service in Portugal. In July even Lord Liverpool, the new prime minister, wrote that he hoped there would be no occasion for the sacrifices that the people of Lower Canada were willing to make for the defence of their country, and that the repeal of the orders-in-council would bring about a better feeling between the two countries. He directed that preparations for defence should be delayed, and that the proposed raising of the Glengarry Regiment should be given up. When that letter arrived at its destination, war was in progress. It was well for Canada that by the foresight of one man in command there, preparations had been made to meet it.

In April news came from Washington that five hundred militia from the state of New York were to be sent to Niagara, five hundred to Black Rock, opposite Fort Erie, and six hundred to Lake Cham-plain. It was thought that this measure would provoke hostilities, as it looked as if the Americans were determined to pick a quarrel. Again and again Sir George Prevost cautioned Brock to use every effort to prevent a collision. He was evidently afraid that his energetic colleague would precipitate hostilities.

In spite of his conviction that the sooner events came to a climax the better for Canada, General Brock writes in' obedience to the orders of his commanding officer: "I entreat you to believe that no act within my control shall afford the government of the United States a legitimate pretext to add to the clamour so artfully raised against England." Brock's keen military instinct had divined what the enemy would first attempt, and he had urged upon Sir George Prevost the importance of striking the first blow. Sir George apparently agreed with Brock, yet held back, seemingly in doubt as to the line he should pursue. He was, no doubt, hampered by his instructions from England. In a letter to Colonel Baynes, Brock repeats: "I declare my full conviction that unless Detroit and Michilimackinac be both in our possession at the commencement of hostilities, not only the district of Amherstburg, but most probably the whole country as far as Kingston must be evacuated." As to arms for the militia, he urged that they should be sent to Upper Canada with all speed. He says: "I have not a musket more than will suffice to arm the active part of the militia from Kingston westwards. I have to request, therefore, that the number of arms may be sent according to enclosed requisition to place on the communication between Glengarry and Kingston. Every man capable of carrying a musket along the whole of that line ought to be prepared to act." He wanted to find an enterprising, intelligent commander for that district, and afterwards selected Major-General Shaw, in whom he had much confidence. As for himself, he intended to give his attention to Amherstburg and Niagara. He hoped that both the 41st and the 49th would be placed at his disposal. If so, he would send the former to Amherstburg. He thought it was impossible to send a force from the latter place to reduce Michilimackinac, for no vessel could pass the river St. Clair unless the British occupied both banks of the river. He then suggested a plan which had been contemplated some years before by Sir James Craig and himself, namely, that of transporting a small force by the Ottawa. He advocated sending forty or fifty of the 49th Light Company, and a detachment of artillery by canoe from Montreal. The North-West Company had, in 1808, promised them transport.

With the attention to detail for which Brock was remarkable, he ordered the purchase at Amherstburg of two thousand bushels of corn. It had to be purchased on the American side, and was absolutely necessary in case of war. He also ordered the purchase of horses for the car brigade, as this was a service, he said, which required infinite trouble and practice to bring to any degree of perfection.

This car brigade was a volunteer artillery company of farmers' sons who had offered their services to Brock, together with their draught horses, free of expense. The company was completed in July, fully equipped, and placed under Captain Holcroft of the Royal Artillery. General Brock also ordered a minute survey of stores to be made at Amherstburg and other posts. One effect of the embargo had been to keep forty thousand barrels of flour, 196 the product of the southern shores of Lake Ontario, from the Montreal market. Most rigorous measures were being used by the United States officials to prevent the least infringement of the embargo on the Niagara River. Armed men in civilians' clothing were constantly patrolling the shore. An idle boy was said to have wantonly fired with ball from the Canadian side of the river at the guard opposite Queenston. The Americans were guilty of a similar outrage by firing at night into a room where a woman was sitting.

So the winter and spring passed in constant anxiety and preparation. In May Brock wrote that nothing but the public voice was restraining the United States from commencing hostilities. He thought it probable they would seize some island in the channel. It was reported that six companies of Ohio militia were on their way to Detroit. Fort Niagara had been reinforced, and barracks were building at Black Rock, opposite Fort Erie.

The Indians were now actively engaged against the Americans on the frontier, and Brock thought the neutral policy pursued towards them by the government of Canada was not wise. Each day that the officers of the department were restrained from interfering in their concerns, each time that they advised peace, and withheld the accustomed supply of ammunition, their influence diminished. He thought the British would lose the interest of the Indians if they remained inactive. "I have always considered," he says, "that the reduction of Detroit would be a signal for a cordial cooperation on the part of the Indians, and if we be not in sufficient force to effect this object, no reliance ought to be placed on them."

The inspection of the king's stores showed they were at a very low ebb. There were in them scarcely any articles of use or comfort. Blankets, hammocks, kettles ought to be purchased. Tents were urgently needed. In a letter to Colonel Baynes, General Brock says that he thought the disposition of the people throughout the country was very good. The flank companies had been instantly completed with volunteers, and he hoped to extend the system, but he ends with, "My means are very limited."

There was great inconvenience for want of specie in Upper Canada, an evil which was increased by the embargo. In case of war there would be none to defray ordinary expenses. General Brock had to consider the best means of meeting this difficulty, and consulted some of the leading merchants of the country as to the possibility of a paper currency. He thought it would be generally approved of throughout the province, and that the circulation of ten or fifteen thousand pounds would meet present emergencies. His representations resulted in a number of gentlemen of credit forming themselves into what was called the Niagara and Queenston Association, and several thousand pounds were issued in the shape of bank notes, which were currently received throughout the country, and afterwards redeemed with army bills. So little by little the resourceful commander met every difficulty, and prepared himself for the inevitable conflict.


Return to Book Index Page

This comment system requires you to be logged in through either a Disqus account or an account you already have with Google, Twitter, Facebook or Yahoo. In the event you don't have an account with any of these companies then you can create an account with Disqus. All comments are moderated so they won't display until the moderator has approved your comment.

comments powered by Disqus