A Canadian Invasion

Brock George Theodore Burton
General Isaac Brock, not to be confused with the singer, or a certain Gym Leader. Photo Credit: George Theodore Burton

From the start of the war the roles of both nations were well defined. America’s larger military strategy called for a three pronged invasion of Canada, relying on their superior local numbers and mobilization to bring down the territory quickly. Conversely, Britain’s ongoing war in the Iberian Peninsula[1] and their more general blockade of Europe meant they would be effectively fighting with just seven percent of their armed forces. Defense was clearly the name of the British game, at least while they had one hand and both feet tied behind their backs.

On paper this must have seemed daunting for men like British General Isaac Brock. A professional soldier tasked with holding effectively the entire Great Lakes Region with 1,200 demoralized British regulars, another 11,000 militiamen of dubious loyalty, and the alliances he had personally built up with Tecumseh’s Shawnee and other tribes. Most of these forces were further scattered across the forts and villages each disparate group considered important. Fortunately for Canadian history Brock was an energetic leader. In 1798 he had been shot in the neck by a spent musket ball and had walked away. In 1805 he stomped down an attempted mutiny, and had even crossed the American border to corral more deserters. While he had never wanted his Canadian posting, now that war was inevitable, Brock had no intention of giving up quietly.

Proclamation_Province_of_Upper_Canada_by_Isaac_Brock library and archives of canada
Brock’s proclamation in response to the U.S. declaration of war. Photo Credit: Library and Archives of Canada

The other advantage the British had was their opponent, a sixty year old American Revolutionary veteran named William Hull. Governor of Michigan, Hull’s appointment was partially political, and partially spoke to the complete dearth of experienced American leaders. Right from the start Hull’s planned invasion stomped on one rake after another. Thanks to poor communication, Hull was still unaware that the war had begun by June 30th, and as he marched towards his command at Fort Detroit, he made the mistake of putting his correspondence and outlined strategy on a schooner heading up the Maumee River. Very much aware that they were now at war, Brock and his men immediately captured the ship. Presumably after laughing at the stupidity of it all, Brock mobilized what he could from the area to blunt the invasion.[2]

Even better for Brock, Hull and his superiors had forgotten to tell the defenders at the northern Fort Mackinac that there was a war on. Surprising the Americans, Brock took the fort without firing a shot.

The capture of Fort Mackinac left the already fretful Hull in a state of indecision. He had already ferried his men across to the Canadian side of the border, but after capturing the nearby town of Sandwich he couldn’t decide where to go next. With Tecumseh’s Shawnee attacking his foraging patrols, Hull’s nerve failed him completely and he withdrew back towards Detroit. Along the way, he ordered the defenders of the crumbling Fort Dearborn to evacuate as well. As its small detachment of about a hundred soldiers and civilians attempted to negotiate safe passage from the surrounding tribes, a force of Potawatomi ambushed the column on August 15 and killed or captured everyone. The region would remain uninhabited by the United States until the end of the war.

Reddition_de_Détroit John Wycliffe Lowes Forster
Hull never lived down his surrender at Detroit, and his subordinates furiously blamed him for the mishap. Photo Credit: John Wycliff Lowes Foster

As for Hull himself, he had fallen back to Fort Detroit, with Brock in hot pursuit. Linking up with Tecumseh, Brock now faced an odd conundrum. His forces had the fort surrounded, but they were outnumbered 2:1 by the American defenders, usually the inverse of any siege. But Brock had the measure of his enemy thanks to his correspondence. Well aware of the boogie men reputation Tecumseh and his warriors enjoyed, Brock leaked a message to Hull, warning that, “the body of Indians who have attached themselves to my troops will be beyond my control the moment the contest commences.”[3] Equally obliging, Tecumseh and his men began to circle the fort at night, marching in long lines and making a racket to double down on the bluff. Finally, Brock marched his regulars straight at Fort Detroit. Normally, and even later in the war, this should have been a recipe for turning British troops into a pile of limbs and red bits, but General Hull promptly surrendered in the face of his opponent. The largest force in the American west surrendered to an army half its size on August 16, 1812.

While Fort Detroit was a disaster of dire proportions for the Americans, unlike the other two prongs of their attack at least Hull could claim to have tapped Canadian soil. By the Niagara, American General Stephen van Rensselaer had taken advantage of a local ceasefire to build up his forces while his British counterpart tried to buy time for diplomacy to work.[4] Further east by Lake Champlain, General Dearborn was struggling to raise the men he needed to launch his own strike. Both generals were also discovering that far from being the lethal force talked up by Henry Clay, the American militiamen were extremely reluctant to take orders or leave their local areas now that war was actually upon them.

The crossing at Queenston Heights. Photo credit: Riverbank Art Museum.

Finally, in October of 1812 van Rensselaer overcame bad weather, worse morale, internal bickering, and an awkward incident where a defector had literally stolen all the oars for his rowboats, to cross at Queenston Heights south of Lake Ontario.[5] Fresh off his victory in Detroit, Brock found himself once again trapped as the man on the spot. Arriving midway through the battle, the situation looked dire for the British.

American forces had already crossed the river under heavy cannon fire, and then ingeniously scaled the 300 foot cliffs using a little known fishing trail. Frantic, Brock grabbed the regulars and militia he could find, and surged back up the heights. While Isaac Brock’s habit of leading from the front probably pulled the counterattack through by force of personality alone, it did the British no favors in the long term. At over six feet tall and wearing a bright sash Tecumseh had given him after Detroit, Brock made an easy mark for American guns, and after one shot smashed into his hand, another pierced he chest. In legend, his final words were “onward York volunteers”! [6] In practice, he likely died without a sound as the bullet punched through his heart.

Brock dies Library and archives canada
The dramatized version of Brock’s death, urging his men on to victory. Much like Andrew Jackson for the Americans, Brock became one of the few British and Canadian heroes. Photo Credit: Library and Archives of Canada.

After Brock’s death, Queenston Heights swung back and forth. With the American commander van Renssalaer also wounded, a young Winfield Scott took command of the bridgehead, but found himself facing an all too common problem. Many of the militia under his command had refused to cross into Canada at all, presumably muttering something about misplaced passports. Others still had crossed, but under attack from a group of Mohawk warriors they had scattered like rabbits. Scott now found himself trapped on the wrong side of the river, and under heavy attack by the reinforced British. Realizing he was doomed, Scott surrendered, and was stunned when over 500 American militiamen shuffled out of the undergrowth to do the same. Queenston Heights was a final flower placed on the rock solid Brock’s grave, as the Americans sustained over a thousand casualties, to Britain’s hundred. With two thrusts easily parried, and the third twiddling its thumbs, the American ground invasion had face planted badly by the end of 1812.

[1] The Peninsular War in Spain and Portugal had been see-sawing back and forth since 1808, with Arthur Wellesley struggling to hold together a dysfunctional Portuguese state, a dangerous and large scale group of Spanish guerillas, and his own demoralized and frustrated British forces. 1812 would incidentally be the year of his big break, as he took advantage of Napoleon’s Classic Blunder of starting a land war in Asia to recapture Madrid.

[2] Not that the Americans were the best at keeping a secret at the time. On the front page of the Baltimore Gazette in early May: “General Hull was in this place last week on his way from Washington city, and, we are told, stated that he was to repair to Detroit, whence he was to make a descent upon Canada with 3,000 troops.

[3] McNamara, R. 2014. The Surrender of Detroit was a Disaster and a Scandal. About Military History.com

[4] In General Prevost’s defense, he legitimately thought that British concessions should have met the stated American reasons for war. Foolishly he forgot that “let’s conquer Canada, that sounds fun”, was also a point of interest for the United States.

[5] Really. A “lieutenant Sim” stuffed most of the oars into a boat the night of the invasion and rowed across. Saboteurs had so much more fun back in the day.

[6] Or it was “Ouch”.


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