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General Brock
Chapter XXI - Consequences of Armistice


THE month of September had seen the arrival at Montreal of the wretched prisoners from Detroit. Colonel Baynes wrote that they had reached there in a very miserable state, having travelled without halt. They had been sent to Fort William Henry on their way to Quebec. The officers were to be on parole and the men confined in the transports on the river. General Hull had been allowed to return home on parole, and also most of the officers who had families with them. "General Hull," Colonel Baynes said, "seemed to possess less feeling and sense of shame than any man in his situation could be supposed to have. The grounds on which he rests his defence are not well founded, as he said he had not gunpowder enough for one day. Sir George showed him the return of the large • supply found in the fort. It did not create a blush!"

The unfortunate and incapable general was tried by court-martial on his return on parole to the United States. He was found guilty and sentenced to death. His defence was that he had not provisions enough to maintain the siege, that he expected the enemy would be reinforced, and that he knew the savage ferocity of the Indians. His sentence of death was remitted on account of his past services, but his name was struck off the roll of the army, and he passed the remainder of his life in disgrace and obscurity.

Colonel Baynes reported in September that about half of the 8th, or King's Regiment, three hundred men, were at C6teau du Lac and the Isle aux Noix. These two places were the keys of Lower Canada, the former commanding the navigation of the St. Lawrence at its entrance into Lake Francis, the latter, in the Richelieu River, being the barrier of Lower Canada from the Champlain frontier. In the conflict of the eighteenth century these places had been much thought of by French engineers. They were, after the conquest, fortified by General Haldimand. Colonel Baynes was confident, he wrote, that the British could bring as many men into the field as the Americans, and of superior stuff, as the militia had improved so much in discipline, and therefore in spirit and confidence. Montreal, he thought, could turn out two thousand volunteer militia very tolerably drilled.

A naval success on the Atlantic on August 19th, when H.M.S. Ghierriere was taken by the Constitution, had gone far to console the Americans for their discomfiture at Detroit, and they were hopefully preparing for another invasion, in this instance on the Niagara frontier, where Major-General Van Rensselaer1 had assembled an army of over six thousand men, with headquarters at the village of Lewiston, opposite Queenston.

At Plattsburg there were about five thousand troops, half of them regulars under the immediate command of Major-General Dearborn, who wrote on September 26th to General Van Rensselaer: "At all events we must calculate on possessing Upper Canada before the winter sets in." Ex-President Jefferson wrote: "I fear that Hull's surrender has been more than the mere loss of a year to us. Perhaps, however, the patriotic efforts from Kentucky and Ohio by recalling the British force to its upper posts, may yet give time to Dearborn to strike a blow below. Effective possession of the river from Montreal to Chaudiére, which is practicable, would give us the upper country at our leisure."

So spoke the generals and politicians. In the meantime, courteous messages were passing from Major-General Van Rensselaer to Major-General Brock as to the disposition of the prisoners of war, and of the women and children who had accompanied them from Detroit. General Brock writes to the American general: "With much regret I have perceived very heavy firing from both sides of the river. I am, however, given to understand that on all occasions it commenced on your side, and from the circumstance of the flag of truce which I did myself the honour to send over yesterday, having been repeatedly fired on while in the act of crossing the river, I am inclined to give full credit to the correctness of the information. You may rest assured on my repeating my most positive orders against the continuance of a practice which can only be injurious to individuals, without promoting the object which both our nations may have in view."

Another letter from John Lovett,—secretary to General Van Rensselaer—to Joseph Alexander, gives an idea of the state of affairs from the American point of view, and indirectly bears testimony to the unceasing labour and watchfulness of the British general:—

Headquarters, Lewiston, September 22nd, 1812. "The enemy appears to be in a state of preparedness to give or receive an attack. Every day or two they make some movement which indicates a disposition to attack us immediately. The night before last every ship they have on Lake Ontario came into the mouth of Niagara. Then, to be sure, we thought it time to look out for breakers. But yesterday, when Colonel Van Rensselaer went over with a flag to Fort George, there was not a ship in sight nor a general officer there; where gone we know not. Notwithstanding, the most positive orders on both sides, our sentries have kept up almost a constant warfare for a month past. On the bank of the river musket balls are about as thick as whip-poor-wills on a summer evening. We are promised reinforcements by companies, battalions, regiments, brigades, and I might almost say armies, but not a single man has joined us in some weeks. Besides our men here are getting down very fast. The morning's report of sick was one hundred and forty-nine. Give Mrs. Lovett the inclosed. It contains an impression of General Brock's seal, with his most appropriate motto, 'He who guards never sleeps.'"

Although this did not happen to be the general's motto, it very well expressed his attitude. That forty miles of frontier to defend with his limited force, was a problem ever present to him. The American army on the Niagara frontier consisted of five thousand two hundred men of the New York militia, three hundred field and light artillery, eight hundred of the 6th, 13th and 23rd Regiments of Foot (regulars), in all six thousand three hundred men, stationed between Niagara and Lewiston, under the command of Major-General Van Rensselaer. At Black Rock and Buffalo, twenty-eight miles distant, were one thousand six hundred and forty regulars, three hundred and eighty-six militia and two hundred and fifty sailors under the command of Brigadier-General Smyth. Four hundred Seneca Indians had also joined the United States forces.

Major-General Brock had under his immediate command part of the 41st and 49th Regiments, a few companies of militia and three hundred Indians, a force in all of about fifteen hundred men, dispersed between Fort Erie, opposite Black Rock, and Fort George, thirty-six miles distant. Only a small number could be available at any one point. With unwearied diligence the British commander watched the motions of the enemy, but under the circumstances he knew that it was impossible to prevent the landing of the hostile troops, especially if their operations were carried out at night. There was one point in his favour, the want of accord between the American generals. Smyth thought the crossing should be made above the Falls, Van Rensselaer favoured the attack on the river below.

A letter to Brock from Sir George Prevost of September 25th, showed that he still held the idea of simply being on the defensive, and had a slavish fear of doing anything that might draw on himself blame from the English ministry. He wrote: "It no longer appears by your letter of the 13th that you consider the enemy's operations on the Niagara frontier indicative of active operations. If the government of America inclines to defensive measures, I can only ascribe its determination to two causes, the first is the expectation of such overtures from us as will lead to a suspension of hostilities preparatory to negotiations for peace; the other arises from having ascertained by experience our ability in the Canadas to resist the attack of a tumultuary force. I agree in opinion with you that so wretched is the organization and discipline of the American army, that at this moment-much might be effected against them; but as the government at home could derive no substantial advantage from any disgrace we might inflict on them, whilst the more important concerns of the country are committed in Europe, I again request you will steadily pursue that policy which shall appear to you best calculated to promote the dwindling away of such a force by its own inefficient means."

These were certainly rather enigmatical words from the commander-in-chief, and calculated rather to dampen than to inspire the ardour of the defenders of the country. The evil effect of the policy of inaction was soon apparent.

On October 9th the brig Detroit (late United States brig Adams), and the North-West Company's brig Caledonia (one hundred tons), having arrived at Fort Erie the preceding day from Detroit, were boarded and carried off at dawn by Lieutenant Elliott of the American navy with a hundred seamen and soldiers in two large boats. This officer was stationed at the time at Black Rock, superintending the equipment of some schooners purchased for service on Lake Erie. Had it not been for the defensive measures forced on General Brock by the commander-in-chief, these schooners would probably have been destroyed. The two British vessels contained forty prisoners, some cannon and small arms captured at Detroit, and also a valuable lot of furs in the Caledonia belonging to the South-West Company. The Americans who attacked the two brigs far out-numbered the crews and militia on board, who amounted in all to sixty-eight men. After the capture Lieutenant Elliott ran the Caledonia close under the batteries at Black Rock, but on account of the heavy fire from Fort Erie he was compelled to abandon the Detroit at Squaw Island. Here she was boarded by a subaltern detachment from Fort Erie, which had come to the rescue. Unfortunately their efforts were unavailing, and the Americans set her on fire.

General Brock's letter relating to the disaster is dated Fort George, October 11th, 1812: "I had scarcely closed my despatch to your Excellency, of the 9th, when I was suddenly called away to Fort Erie, in consequence of a bold, and I regret to say, successful attack by the enemy on His Majesty's ship Detroit and the private brig Caledonia, which had both arrived the preceding day from Amherstburg. It appears by every account I have been able to collect, that a little before day a number of boats, full of men, dropped down with the current unobserved, boarded both vessels at the same moment, and cutting their cables were proceeding with them to the American shore, when Major Ormsby who witnessed the transaction, directed the batteries to open upon them, and soon compelled the enemy to abandon the Detroit, which grounded about the centre of Squaw Island, a little more than a mile below Black Rock. She was then boarded by a party of the 49th Regiment, but as no anchor remained, and being otherwise unpro-290 vided with every means by which she could be hauled off, the officers, throwing her guns overboard, after sustaining a smart fire of musketry, decided to quit her. A private, who is accused of getting drunk, and a prisoner of war, who was unable from his wounds to escape, with about twenty prisoners brought by the Detroit from Amherstburg, remained, however, behind; these it became necessary to remove before the vessel could be destroyed, and Cornet Pell, major of the Provincial Cavalry, offered his services. Being unfortunately wounded as he was getting on board, and falling back into the boat, a confusion arose, during which the boat drifted from the vessel, leaving on board two of the 41st who had previously ascended. In the meantime the Caledonia was secured by the enemy, and a cargo of furs belonging to the South-West Company landed. I reached the spot soon after sunset, and intended to have renewed the attempt to recover the Detroit, which I had every prospect of accomplishing, assisted by the crew of the Lady Prevost, which vessel had anchored a short time before, but before the necessary arrangements could be made, the enemy boarded her, and in a few minutes she was seen in flames. This event is particularly unfortunate, and may reduce us to incalculable distress.

"The enemy is making every exertion to gain a naval superiority on both lakes, which if they accomplish I do not see how we can retain the country. More vessels are fitting out for war on the other side of Squaw Island, which I should have attempted to destroy but for your Excellency's repeated instructions to forbear. Now such a force is collected for their protection as will render every operation against them very hazardous. The manner our guns were served yesterday points out the necessity of an increase, if possible, of artillerymen to our present small number of regulars. The militia evinced a good spirit, but fired without much effect. The enemy, however, must have lost some men, and it is only wonderful that in a contest of a whole day, no life was lost on our side. The fire of the enemy was incessant, but badly directed till the close of the day, when it began to improve.

"Lieutenant Rolette, who commanded the Detroit, had, and I believe deservedly, the character of a brave, attentive officer. His vessel must, however, have been surprised—an easy operation when she lay at anchor, and I have reason to suspect that this consideration was not sufficiently attended to by the officers commanding on board and on shore. We have not only sustained a heavy loss in the vessel, but likewise in the cargo, which consisted of four 12-pounders, a large quantity of shot and about two hundred muskets, all of which were intended for Kingston and Prescott. The only consolation is that she escaped the enemy, whose conduct did not entitle him to so rich a prize.

"The enemy has brought some boats overland from Schlosser to the Niagara River, and made an attempt last night to carry off the guard over the store at Queenston. I shall refrain as long as possible under your Excellency's positive injunctions, from every hostile act, although sensible that each day's delay gives him an advantage."

On the same day General Brock wrote to Colonel Procter, who was still in command on the Detroit frontier. After various instructions the letter concludes as follows: "An active, interesting scene is going to commence with you. I am perfectly at ease as to the result, provided we can manage the Indians and keep them attached to your cause, which, in fact, is theirs. The fate of the province is in your hands. Judging by every appearance we are not to remain long idle in this quarter. Were it not for the positive injunctions of the commander of the forces I should have acted with greater decision. This forbearance may be productive of ultimate good but I doubt its policy—perhaps we have not the means of judging correctly. You will, of course, adopt a very different line of conduct. The enemy must be kept in a state of constant ferment. Nothing new at Montreal. Lord Wellington has totally defeated Marmont, near Salamanca."


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