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General Brock
Chapter XIX - Detroit

Que faut-il pour vaincre les ennemis de la patrie? De l'audace, encore de l'audace, et toujours de l'audace.—Danton.

THE events described in the last chapter show the condition of affairs when General Brock arrived at Amherstburg. He immediately summoned a council of war to meet at Colonel Elliott's quarters. It was here that he first met his Indian ally, Tecumseh, and both seem to have been favourably impressed with each other. After hearing what had happened at Brownstown and Maguaga, the general explained to the savage warrior his intention of immediately advancing upon Detroit. Tecumseh, taking a roll of birch bark, spread it on the ground, and with his scalping knife etched upon the bark a plan of the country, its hills, woods, morasses and roads. One who was present at the meeting reported Tecumseh's speech on the occasion. He said: "I have fought against the enemies of our great father, the king, beyond the great lakes, and they have never seen my back. I am come here to fight his enemies on this side the great salt lake, and now desire with my soldiers to take lessons from you and your warriors that we may learn how to make war in these great forests."

The commanding figure and fine countenance of General Brock seemed to strike the savage chief, and turning round to his people he stretched out his hand, exclaiming in his own tongue, "This is a man."

It is stated that although Tecumseh could speak English, he never spoke any language but his own at any council or when in the presence of any officer or agent of a government, preferring to make use of an interpreter. He held the opinion that the honour of his people and race required official intercourse to be carried on in the Shawaiiese tongue. He is described as being of about five feet nine inches in height, very erect, with an oval face, clear hazel eyes, straight nose, and a Napoleonic mouth, finely formed and expressive. He was invariably dressed in tanned buckskin made in the usual Indian fashion, that is, a fringed hunting frock descending to the knee, over underclothes of the same material. Leggings and moccasins and a mantle, also of buckskin, completed the costume. In his belt was a silver-mounted tomahawk, also a knife in a strong leather case. On the occasion of their first interview General Brock presented Tecumseh with his sash, but the next morning he appeared without it. When asked the reason, he said an abler warrior than himself, the Wyandot chief Roundhead; was present, and he had transferred it to him. This little piece of diplomacy shows how well Tecumseh understood the art of keeping his savage allies in good humour. In a letter to Lord Liverpool, General Brock gives his impression of the chief. He writes: "Among the Indians whom I found at Amherstburg, who had arrived from distant parts of the country, were some extraordinary characters. He who attracted most of my attention was the Shawanese chief, Tecumseh, brother to the prophet, who for the last two years has carried on, contrary to our remonstrances, an active warfare against the United States.. A more sagacious or more gallant warrior does not exist. He was the admiration of every one who conversed with him. From a life of dissipation, he has not only become in every respect abstemious, but has likewise prevailed on all his nation and many of the other tribes to follow his example."

On August 14th, at Amherstburg, General Brock issued the following general order: "The troops in the western district will be formed into three brigades. 1st Brigade, under Lieutenant-Colonel St. George, to consist of a detachment of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, and of the Kent and 1st and 2nd Regiments of Essex Militia; 2nd Brigade, under Major Chambers, to consist of fifty men of the 41st Regiment, and the whole of the detachments of the York, Lincoln, Oxford, and Norfolk Militia; 3rd Brigade, under Major Tallon, to consist of the remainder of the 41st Regiment. Colonel Procter will have charge of the whole line under the orders of the major-general. James Givins, late captain of the 5th Regiment, is appointed provincial aide-de-camp, with the rank of major of the militia."

General Brock called together his principal officers to confer with them on the proposed crossing of the river to attack Fort Detroit. He had already-made up his own mind, but only one officer, the quartermaster-general, Colonel Nichol, agreed with him as to the advisability of the enterprise. The general then said: "I have decided on crossing, and now, gentlemen, instead of any further advice, I entreat of you to give me your cordial and hearty support." If the ideal officer is the man who can decide rightly what to do in any situation of war, who is able to make up his mind quickly what course to adopt and how to carry it out, then Isaac Brock was that ideal officer. Nature had given him the hero's outfit,—"courage and the faculty to do."

Early on August 15th orders were given to advance at once to Sandwich, sixteen miles from Amherstburg and four miles below Detroit. The troops arrived the same day at their destination. A detachment of two hundred and fifty Americans, left by General Hull in a fort on the Canadian side, evacuated it on the approach of the British, and crossed the river to the American side. General Brock occupied as headquarters Colonel Baby's house, so lately vacated by General Hull. Preparations had already been made for bombarding Detroit, for batteries had been constructed under the superintendence of Captain Dixon, of the Royal Engineers. They were equipped for one 18-pounder, two 12½-and two 5½-inch mortars. It is scarcely to be wondered at that doubts were felt as to the possibility of crossing the river to attack a strong fort with the scanty force at the command of the British general. He had but two hundred and fifty of the 41st Regiment, fifty of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, thirty Royal Artillery, four hundred militia, and about seven hundred Indians. For artillery there were but five guns—three 6-pounders and two 3-pounders. In the Detroit River there were two British vessels, one the Queen Charlotte, a sloop of war armed with eighteen 24-pounders, the other the armed brig Hunter. On the Canadian side of the river, directly opposite Detroit, was the battery under the command of Captain Dixon. The river at Sandwich is about three-quarters of a mile wide.

The American general had under his command two troops of cavalry, one company of artillery, the 4th United States Regiment, detachments of the 1st and 3rd Regiments of the regular army of volunteers, three regiments of Ohio militia and one of the Michigan territory. In all there were about two thousand men posted in and around the fort, while a detachment of three hundred and sixty men under Colonel McArthur, wh6 had left for the river Raisin, had been recalled and were now on their way back. All these troops were well armed.

The fort was defended by twenty-six pieces of ordnance of large calibre. There was an abundance of ammunition, as Colonel Cass's report to the secretary of war showed. He stated that they had four hundred rounds of 24-pound shot fixed, and about one hundred thousand cartridges made. There were also forty barrels of powder and two thousand five hundred stand of arms.

It was indeed a bold enterprise to attempt to take the place by assault. As General Brock said afterwards, he made a cool calculation of the pours and contres, and was helped in his decision by the letters that had fallen into his hands at Brownstown addressed to the secretary of war; and also by the private letters of hundreds of the American army to their friends. These showed that confidence in General Hull was gone, and that despondency prevailed throughout the fort.

When General Brock arrived at Sandwich on the morning of August 15th, he determined at once to carry out his plan. From his headquarters he penned a missive summoning the American general to surrender. In coolness and boldness it is only equalled by that of Nelson to the Crown Prince at Copenhagen. Possibly Brock thought of that day when he stood by England's great admiral and saw him write his demand for the surrender of the Danish forts. In almost similar terms the British general wrote: "The force at my disposal authorizes me to require of you the immediate surrender of Fort Detroit. It is far from my inclination to join in a war of extermination, but you must be aware that the numerous body of Indians who have attached themselves to my troops will be beyond my control the moment the contest commences."

This letter was taken to Fort Detroit by the two aides-de-camp, Captain Glegg and Lieutenant-Colonel Macdonell. General Hull refused to see them, and after keeping them waiting about two hours, returned this answer: "I have received your letter of this date. I have no other reply to make than to inform you that I am prepared to meet any force which may be at your disposal, and any consequences which may result from any exertion of it you may think proper to make."

On the receipt of this the batteries were ordered to open fire upon the fort, which apparently threw the enemy into some confusion. An effort was made to return the fire from the opposite bank, but without effect. No damage was done on either side. All night the troops in Sandwich lay on their arms, prepared to cross the river at early dawn. Under the cover of darkness, six hundred Indians led by Tecumseh crossed over during the night, and were ordered to attack the enemy in flank and rear if they should oppose the landing of the troops. At six o'clock on Sunday, the 16th, three hundred regulars and four hundred militia under Brock's immediate command, were embarked in boats and canoes, carrying with them five pieces of light artillery, and were landed at Springwells, four miles below Detroit. One who was present writes: "A soft August sun was just rising as we gained the centre of the river, and the view at the moment was certainly very animated and exciting, for amid the little squadron of boats and scows conveying the troops and artillery were mixed numerous canoes filled with Indian warriors decorated in their half-nakedness for the occasion, and uttering yells of mingled defiance of their foes and encouragement of the soldiery. Above us again were to be seen and heard the flashes and thunder of the artillery from our batteries, which, as on the preceding day, were but feebly replied to by the enemy, while the gay flags of the Queen Charlotte, drooping in the breezeless, yet not oppressive air, and playing on the calm surface of the river seemed to give earnest of success, and inspired every bosom."

Years before Isaac Brock had crossed the river on a peaceful visit to this garden of the West. The landscape was the same but what a change had come! There were still the settlers' homesteads, the orchards laden with fruit, the vines heavy with grapes, the fields of rich grass that lined the water's edge. But the flower-decked homes were deserted. Through the orchards gleamed the bayonets of armed men. Under the vines lurked the half-naked savage ready for his cruel work! Instead of the welcome he had once received, guns pointed their grim muzzles down the road. The women and children who had met him with smiles before were gathered trembling in the fort, and instead of the church bells calling them to prayer this Sunday morning, came the dull boom of the cannon from the shore and fort.

The road from Springwells passed up across the ground between the fort and the river. A few village dwellings were on the river side of the road, and a few farm houses on the west side. Fronting the road and commanding the approach in that direction were two 24-pound field guns, two 12-pound iron and two 6-pound brass guns. The 1st Regiment of Ohio volunteers was posted in an orchard on the west; next to them, extending to the west curtain of the fort, was the 2nd Regiment, and then the 3rd Regiment covering the north-west bastion and wagon train; while in the fort was the entire 4th United States Regiment, and a company of artillery. When the troops had crossed the river they formed and advanced in column, General Brock leading. Colonel Nichol went up to him and said: "Pardon me, General, but I cannot forbear entreating you not to expose yourself thus. If we lose you, we lose all. Let me pray you to allow the troops to pass on led by their own officers;" but the only answer he received was, "Master Nichol, I duly appreciate the advice you give me, but I feel that in addition to their sense of loyalty and duty, many here follow me from personal regard, and I will never ask them to go where I do not lead them."

The Indians under Tecumseh moved through the skirt of the woods covering the left flank, while the right rested on the river protected by the Queen Charlotte. The guns of the fort commanded the road by which Brock led his men, and there seemed no reason why a withering fire should not have met them.1 General Brock continued the advance until within three-quarters of a mile of the fort, and then deployed to the left through a field to a house about three hundred yards from the road, which he selected as his headquarters. In this position the troops were covered. He then ascended the rising ground to reconnoitre. Scarcely had he done so when an officer bearing a white flag was seen coming from the point at which were stationed the threatening guns.

General Brock had not miscalculated the effect of the boldness of his advance. The explanation of the pusillanimous conduct of the American general is not hard to find. The cannonade from the battery on the Canadian side had opened again early on the morning of the 16th, and the true range having been found, some round shot fell into the fort, killing and wounding several. Among the killed was Lieutenant Hanks, who had been in command at Michilimackinac, and was then a prisoner on parole. Fort Detroit at the time was full of women and children and decrepit men from the surrounding country who had sought refuge from the Indians, believing there would be an indiscriminate slaughter. The fear of the Indians, the presence of some members of his own family in the fort, perhaps the entreaties of the non-combatants, combined to make General Hull decide on an immediate surrender.

Lieutenant-Colonel Macdonell and Captain Glegg accompanied Captain Hull, the bearer of the flag of truce, back to the fort to arrange the terms of the capitulation. At mid-day of the 16th the British troops marched in. The territory of Michigan, the enemy, who were closely watching us, and who seemed intimidated hy the confidence of our advance, would not have failed to profit by the discovery, and fearful, in such case, must have been the havoc."— Richardson.

General Brock says in fiis despatch to the commander-in-chief: "I crossed the river with an intention of waiting in a strong position the effect of our force upon the enemy's camp, and in hopes of compelling him to meet us in the field ; but receiving information upon landing that Colonel McArthur, an officer of high reputation, had left the garrison three days before with a detachment of five hundred men, and hearing soon afterwards that his cavalry had been seen that morning three miles in our rear, I decided on an immediate attack."

He wrote to his friend Major Evans, on the 17th. "Detroit is ours, and with it the whole Michigan territory, the army prisoners of war. The force you so skilfully prepared and forwarded to me at so much risk, met me at Point aux Pins in high spirits and most effective state. Your thought of clothing the militia in the 41st's cast-off clothing proved a most happy one, it having more than doubled our own regular force to the enemy's eye."

At the time of the surrender large reinforcements were on their way to General Hull, and had it not been for General Brock's bold and rapid advance, western Canada would undoubtedly have fallen, and perhaps in consequence the rest of the country also. The general well deserved the praise he received. In nineteen days he had met his legislature, settled the public business of the province, had made a troublesome journey of three hundred miles by land and water, and, without the loss of a man, had won for the British Crown a territory almost equal in size to the province of Upper Canada. Colonel Cass, the American quartermaster-general, in his report to the secretary of war at Washington said: "That we were far superior to the enemy, that upon any ordinary principle of calculation we would have defeated them, the wounded and indignant feelings of every man there will testify. I was informed by General Hull the morning after the capitulation, that the British forces consisted of eighteen hundred regulars, and that he surrendered to prevent the effusion of human blood. That he magnified their regular force nearly five fold there can be no doubt. Whether the philanthropical reason assigned by him is a sufficient justification for surrendering a fortified town, an army and a territory is for the governor to determine. Confident I am that had the courage and conduct of the general been equal to the spirit and zeal of the troops, the event would have been brilliant and successful as it is now disastrous and dishonourable."

After the surrender Tecumseh came to General Brock and said: "I have heard much of your fame, and am happy again to shake by the hand a brave brother warrior. The Americans endeavour to give us a mean opinion of British generals, but we have been the witness of your valour. In crossing the river to attack the enemy we observed you from a distance standing the whole time in an erect position, and when the boats reached the shore you were among the first who jumped on land. Your bold and sudden movement frightened the enemy, and you compelled them to surrender to half their own force."

On the morning of August 17th the victory was celebrated by firing a salute from the esplanade in front of the fort, while a general parade of the British troops was held by General Brock, who with his staff appeared in full dress to receive the spoils they had won. The salute from the fort was returned by the guns of the Queen Charlotte which "dressed with flags, and with streamers flaunting proudly, sailed up the stream." Nor was the victorious general forgetful of those whose conduct in their several positions deserved praise at his hands. Dean, the private of the 41st, who had so bravely kept the bridge at the Canard, and had been taken a prisoner to Detroit, was released from the guardroom by General Brock himself, called before the assembled troops and warmly commended. The general shook him by the hand and declared that he was indeed an honour to the service. In the orders of the day, Isaac Brock expressed his admiration of the conduct of the several companies of the militia who had accompanied him, and requested Major Salmon, Captains Hatt, Heward, Bostwick and Robinson to assure the officers and men under their respective commands that their services had been duly appreciated, and would never be forgotten. It was the first enterprise in which the militia had been engaged, and its success imparted confidence. Isaac Brock was the idol of the hour. The untrained men he had led felt there was one standing by them on whom they could depend for sure guidance. He had taught them the value of a citizen soldiery who in the hour of danger could be a "tough and stubborn barrier between an invading force and the homes and hearths of the nation."

That the Americans had anticipated a very different result is easily seen by the letters of their public men. Ex-President Jefferson had written: "The acquisition of Canada as far as Quebec will be a mere matter of marching, and will give us experience for the attack on Halifax and the final expulsion of England from the continent." The scene on the esplanade of Detroit on that 17th of August was a forcible answer to the boastful prediction.

To Captain Glegg, A.D.C., was given the honour of bearing to Quebec General Brock's despatches to the commander-in-chief, together with the colours of the 4th United States Regiment. Another young officer of the militia who had done good service at Captain Dixon's battery, was entrusted with despatches bearing the good tidings to the Talbot Settlement. This was George Ryerson of the 1st Norfolk Militia, of which regiment his father was the colonel. Lieutenant Ryerson rode all day through the woods and by the river Thames, and when night fell found himself in an Indian encampment occupied only by women and children and some aged warriors, who received the good news with shouts of joy, and chanted all night their songs of victory.

One short message General Brock sent to his brothers in England: "Rejoice at my good fortune, and join with me in prayers to heaven. Let me hear that you are all united and happy." This letter was addressed to Irving Brock and reached him on October 13th.

John Beverley Robinson, who had been one of the first to enter Fort Detroit on its surrender, was called upon as acting attorney-general to give his opinion. It was his first legal one. It is as follows:

December 22nd, 1812.

"I am of opinion that they cannot. By the capitulation of August 16th, 1812, Fort Detroit only, with the troops, regulars as well as militia, were surrendered to the British forces. The consequent proclamation issued by General Brock does include the Michigan territory but that is merely an instrument ex parte, proceeding from the capitulation; and whereas it contradicts it, it can have no effect."—Life of Sir John Beverley Robinson, Bart., by Major-General C. W. Robinson, C.B., p. 60.

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