How Brock founded the Canadian myth

He was the only competent leader in an inane war run by nincompoops on both sides. His red coat made him an easy mark for an enemy sniper. But in death he proved that Canada could become a nation against hopeless odds


How Brock founded the Canadian myth

He was the only competent leader in an inane war run by nincompoops on both sides. His red coat made him an easy mark for an enemy sniper. But in death he proved that Canada could become a nation against hopeless odds


ON THE morning of October 13, 1812, a handful of American soldiers looked down from Queenston Heights on the zigzag of the Niagara River and, beyond it, the metallic shimmer of Lake Ontario. They had invaded Canada easily enough and seemed likely to stay there, since they were backed by eight million people and opposed by a sixteenth as many. The possibility of a Canadian nation might well have ended that day but for a tiny speck of red, now seen moving along the river road.

General Isaac Brock, a giant with curly fair hair, narrow face and long knife-blade nose, was galloping alone from Fort George on his grey charger, Alfred. He wore a tunic of scarlet and gold, white breeches and about his waist an Indian sash, bright with woven arrows, the gift of another warrior named Tecumseh. In such a costume he would make an easy mark for any American musket and within two hours he would be dead.

Those two hours would see the future prospects of North America reversed, mainly by Brock’s single hand. His ride was short, his prospects brief. But the giant on the winded horse might accomplish more in the seven miles between Fort George and Queenston Heights than most of the Canadians who had crossed the continent. All the land they had staked out for Canada, all the work begun by Champlain and carried on by eight generations of Canadians now lay at the feet of the American invaders and could be lost by nightfall if Brock arrived too late at the Heights.

Ahead he saw only the reddening autumn maples on the river slope. His simple soldier’s mind—and the abler minds of Washington—could hardly suspect that the Heights would soon mean as much to Canadians as Lexington had meant to the Americans, that if Canada was to have any birthplace as a nation it would be this hill beside the Niagara.

So he rode, knowing little of the ultimate continental war now under way, less of its causes across the Atlantic. In his forty-three years Brock had learned only his trade and his duty. The Americans were here again, for the second time, where they had no right to be. Brock’s duty was to dislodge and hurl them back across the river—a doubtful task, by all sound military calculation impossible, and the man in scarlet would not live to see its issue.

The causes of the tragic and useless War of 1812 went a long way back and were so complex and immeasurable that a century and a half later historians would still be debating them.

Partly they expressed the nature of the continent, the same continental forces that brought Wolfe and Montgomery to Quebec, the perpetual attempt to make North America, or most of it, a single state. The British had achieved this unification in the Seven Years’ War and seen it collapse in the American Revolution. Now the Americans, after the failure of their first feeble Canadian invasion in 1775, were attempting to repeat the strategy of Britain.

Apparently it would be easy this time. Had not Jefferson, the purchaser of Louisiana, announced that “The acquisition of Canada this year, as far as the neighborhood of Quebec, will be a mere matter of marching” across the defenseless border?

Andrew Jackson, a backwoods soldier, judge and duelist, still smarting from a boyhood British sabre cut, summed up the inevitable conquest of a neighbor’s land in a single complacent phrase: “How pleasing the prospect that would open up to the young volunteer while performing a military promenade in a distant country!”

Henry Clay, speaker of the new House of Representatives and leader of the western War Hawks, had assured his countrymen that “It is absurd to suppose that we will not succeed in our enterprise against the enemy’s provinces. I am not for stopping at Quebec or anywhere else; but I would take the whole continent from them, and ask no favors. I wish never to see peace till we do. God has given us the power and the means. We are to blame if we do not use them.”

And William Eustis, Secretary of War, in his total ignorance of that art, had informed his government officially that “We can take Canada without soldiers. We have only to send officers into the provinces, and the people, disaffected towards their own government, will rally round our standard.”

The Americans, therefore, had marched to unify the continent by the laws of geography and power, to free it of an unnatural division, to delete, in a matter of weeks at most, an intolerable boundary line, to repeal for all time the failure of 1775 and the impossible peace settlement of 1783.

Already the groundwork of this invasion had been laid far to the south in the Indiana Territory, where two of America’s greatest Indians, Tecumseh and his brother, the Prophet, after years of labor, had successfully revived Pontiac’s dream of an Indian confederacy to save the ancestral hunting grounds from American settlement.

General William Henry Harrison had accused Canada of fomenting the tribes (which was untrue), had attacked the Prophet’s town of Tippecanoe in Tecumseh’s absence, destroyed the confederacy, driven Tecumseh to the Great Lakes country and ended all serious Indian opposition east of the Mississippi. Now the western War Hawks of the American Congress, led by Clay and John C. Calhoun, were determined to finish the job by seizing Canada.

There was much more to the War of 1812 than these old continental forces. A large part of the American people, indeed, had rejected the whole theory of continentalism, wanted no part of the war and were horrified to find themselves on the side of Napoleon, the tyrant of Europe, against Britain and their peaceable neighbors in Canada. New England, fearing the new power of the west and interested mainly in maritime trade, was talking openly of secession to escape the War Hawks’ adventures and soon would be suspected of treason. But, as always, America could not escape the quarrels of Europe and they were the immediate cause of the republic’s march across the Niagara River.

The parting in bad blood after the American Revolution, the Americans’ lingering distrust of their departed mother, their hunger for Canadian land and furs, their fear of Indians and British power on their flank, the endless haggle over the boundary, the wishful notion that the Canadians only awaited liberation from their overseas masters, and finally Britain’s outrageous seizure of American ships and citizens at sea during its war with Napoleon’s France —all this complex of good motives and bad, of anger and ambition, of deliberate design and sheer accident produced the final war for control of North America.

The United States’ attack opened in scandalous mismanagement. No nation could have been less prepared for Jackson’s pleasant promenade toward the welcoming arms of Canada. The army, on paper, consisted of thirty-five thousand men but hardly a quarter of them were trained. Before the war’s end the United States would raise 575,000—as many soldiers as there were people in Canada—against 125,000 employed by the enemy. But only fifty-six thousand American regulars could be recruited, no general would ever command more than seven thousand in any battle and the state militia would usually go home after a brief term of service.

As they looked to men like Jefferson, Madison, Jackson, Clay and Eustis, the odds from the beginning were ridiculously, almost pathetically balanced against Canada. The odds, in fact, were what they usually had been— about sixteen to one. Eight million Americans faced half a million Canadians. The Canadian regular soldiers numbered four thousand. There was an equal number of British troops in the colonies. The ill-trained or untrained militia totaled a hundred thousand in theory. A few thousand Indians probably could be raised, in changing and unreliable numbers.

A quarter of the English-speaking Canadians in Upper Canada were newly arrived immigrants from the United States and their sympathies lay mainly with their homeland. Two thirds of all Canadians were of French blood, were only fifty-three years from their conquest by Britain and were still restive under their conquerors. Would these people fight for Britain? No, they would not. But, as Jefferson failed to understand, they would fight for Canada. And in fighting they would answer the question posed by the conquest—whether there could ever be a nation state north of the St. Lawrence.

This war, though it would occupy about seven hundred thousand men at one time or another, could be only a diversion from the United States’ continental march; for Canada it was to prove the supreme national watershed.

Loyalists Voted the Funds

And so—lamentable, mismanaged, unnecessary and futile it began with General Henry Dearborn confined to his headquarters in Green bush yet promising to “operate with effect, at the same moment, against Niagara, Kingston and Montreal”; the American armies of the west based on Detroit under the hopeless command of General William Hull, who had forgotten what he had learned in the Revolution; and all Canadian forces under Governor-General Sir George Prevost, a professional British soldier who equalled the martial idiocy of the prospective invaders. In all that dim galaxy of talent there was only one general competent in his trade.

Isaac Brock had been born of military folk in 1769, the birth year of Napoleon and Wellington, had fought well in Europe and, with Nelson at Copenhagen, had learned to turn a blind eye to the signals of stupid superiors. Appointed Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada in 1811, he had tried desperately to prepare his little colony for defense hut was unable, against the opposition of recent American immigrants, to get a military appropriation from his Assembly at York until two months after war had been declared.

The United Empire Loyalist majority finally carried the vote, proclaiming with excessive hope that “By unanimity and dispatch in our councils and by vigor in operations we may teach the enemy this lesson: that a country defended by free men, enthusiastically devoted to the cause of their King and Constitution, can never be conquered.”

As a piece of literature this was a poor substitute for the Declaration of Independence, but as a statement of fact it was just as true. At all events, it must serve Brock as he learned that Hull had crossed from Detroit into Canada on July 11 and had issued to the Canadian people another declaration, somewhat inferior to the original, in these terms:

The United States are sufficiently powerful to afford you every security consistent with their rights and your expectations. I tender you the invaluable blessings of Civil, Political and Religious Liberty . . . The arrival of an army of Friends must be hailed by you with a cordial welcome. You will be emancipated from Tyranny and Oppression and restored to the dignified station of Freemen ... If contrary to your interest and the just expectations of my country, you should take part in the approaching contest you will be considered and treated as enemies and the horrors and calamities of war will Stalk before you. If the barbarous and Savage policy of Great Britain be pursued, and the savages let loose to murder our Citizens and butcher our women and children, this war will be a war of extermination. The first stroke with the Tomahawk, the first attempt with the Scalping Knife, will be the Signal for one indiscriminate Scene of desolation. No white man found fighting by the Side of an Indian will be taken prisoner. Instant destruction will be his Lot.

This lofty language was designed to impress the Canadians with their weakness; Hull was not much impressed with his own strength.

He might be imcompetent himself but he realized that Eustis, the Secretary of War, was a fool, that Dearborn had failed to concert any useful strategy, that the first obvious step was to gain control of Lakes Erie and Ontario, thus cutting Canada in two, and that nothing of the sort had been attempted. Moreover, the daring Provincial Marines of Upper Canada had managed to seize near Detroit an American schooner bearing Hull’s secret campaign plans. He had never sought this military command, he was tired of it already and the Canadians, against all the promises of the statesmen in Washington, refused to embrace the invader.

Nevertheless, he ferried twenty-five hundred men from Detroit to the Canadian village of Sandwich and found only six hundred Canadians, most of them raw militia and Indians, at Fort Malden nearby. He tried to take the fort but was stopped by a few Indians under an abler general, Tecumseh, at a creek called Riviere aux Canards. These, then, were the savages who must bring down the full horrors of the “war of extermination.” Poor Hull was in no position to exterminate even the tiny Canadian force before him.

Now he learned of a disaster in his rear. On Brock’s orders the garrison at  St. Joseph’s Island, between Huron and Superior, forty-five regulars and a hundred and eighty French-Canadian voyageurs, with four hundred Indians, had taken the American post of Mackinac without a drop of blood shed. This was a small but highly significant affair. It had carried the Canadians across the border, rallied the Indians as of old, showed that French Canadians were willing to fight and given Canada command of the main lanes of travel to the far west.

The second item of news was equally depressing. Hull had ordered the evacuation of Fort Dearborn (Chicago) and half its garrison of sixty-one had been massacred by Indians, drunk with the fort’s liquor, which should have been destroyed. The tomahawk and the scalping knife were loose again. Hull forgot his declaration to the Canadian people and retreated to Detroit after a month’s wasted promenade.

A few hours after he had pushed his war budget through the York legislature, Brock hurried by water to Amherstburg, at the western end of Lake Erie. He arrived just after midnight on Aug. 14 with three hundred reinforcements. His operations were small, even in Canadian terms, but they marked him at once as a soldier of imagination. Studying Hull’s captured plans by candlelight, he ordered an immediate attack on Detroit. Upper Canada, a colony of a hundred thousand people, proposed to invade a nation of eight million.

Among those at the midnight council was Tecumseh, of whom Brock remarked later that “A more sagacious or a more gallant warrior does not, I believe, exist.” The great Shawnee was nearly six feet tall, hard, lithe and as nervous as a woods animal. His skin was “light copper, his countenance oval, with bright hazel eyes beaming cheerfulness, energy and decision. Three small crowns or coronets were suspended from the lower cartilage of his aquiline nose.”

The blond English general and the dark master of wilderness war met and instantly became as brothers. Tecumseh turned to his thirty followers and pronounced his verdict: “Ho-o-o-e, this is a man!” The chief then unrolled a strip of elm bark and, with his much-used scalping knife, drew a detailed map of the country surrounding Detroit. On this map a plan of attack was quickly devised.

Next day Brock surveyed his fifteen hundred troops and demanded Detroit’s surrender. Hull refused. He had twenty-five hundred men altogether but about five hundred of them had been foolishly ordered out of the fort into the country, a march of two or three days. Still, Detroit should be easily defended.

That night Tecumseh—whose name had begun to rally the tribes—silently crossed the river with six hundred followers and encircled Hull’s fort without alerting him. Brock crossed in the morning with seven hundred men, half of them raw militia, while his battery of five field guns pounded Detroit from the Canadian side.

He now learned for the first time that the absent American troops were returning from the south. He was caught between them and the fort. A lesser general would have retreated. Brock ordered an instant advance. Resplendent in scarlet, he rode his grey charger with Tecumseh beside him on a pony. At this reckless show of strength Hull’s martial courage oozed out. He raised a white flag and surrendered not only Detroit but the territory of Michigan.

As the Union Jack was raised over the fort Brock presented his sash and pistols to Tecumseh, who gave a gaudy Indian sash spangled with arrows to his new friend. Brock wore it for the remainder of his short span. Tecumseh bestowed Brock’s present on Roundhead, chief of the Wyandots, “an older and more valiant chief.”

The news from Detroit sobered the politicians at Washington. Apparently the wrongheaded Canadians had no appetite for liberation and would fight their liberators. The contest was not to be a mere matter of marching after all. Hull had not launched a war of liberation. He had conducted a comedy.

Brock moved to Niagara, where he rightly expected the main American blow to fall, attempted to forestall it with an attack on Sackett’s Harbor but found that the wavering Governor-General Prevost had arranged an armistice with Dearborn in the hope that the war somehow might be called off. Thus protected from Brock, the Americans rapidly massed along the Niagara and when the armistice ended on Sept. 7 nearly seven thousand of them faced seventeen hundred Canadians across the border.

As a soldier Brock knew the strategy the enemy must follow if he were to conquer Canada. Had he the brains to use it?

The essential strategy was as old as the first wars of America. Britain, lacking an army in Canada, must rely on its old weapon, the navy, to blockade the United States’ commerce. The United States, lacking a navy, must move by land and move fast before British reinforcements could cross the Atlantic.

In order of priority the historic American objectives were, or should be, Quebec, Montreal, Kingston, Niagara and the Detroit River. Quebec could not be taken, had never been taken without naval power, but Montreal was vulnerable by the old Champlain corridor. Its capture, or the capture of the Niagara Peninsula, would split Canada, cutting off its French from its English-speaking people. Yet the Americans made no serious attempt on Montreal, the central objective, throughout the war. They aimed at Niagara, a second-best strategy, but for the most part wasted their strength in bungling raids on the Canadian perimeter.

Brock could hardly credit the enemy with such ignorance of the first principles of North American war. It was an enemy that had recently beaten the British Empire but now found no successors to Washington, or even to Wayne. Sure of early attack, not knowing where he must meet it and outnumbered four to one, Brock waited impatiently in Fort George at the mouth of the Niagara River and directly opposite the American Fort Niagara. 

An American council of war decided to attack simultaneously Fort George and Queenston Heights, a hill rising three hundred and forty-five feet above the river, seven miles to the southward. General Smyth, commanding above Niagara Falls, refused to participate. Lacking his support, General Stephen Van Rensselaer proposed to feint at Fort George and take the Heights. On Oct. 10 his attack failed even to cross the river. The first boats, carrying all the available oars, were seized by the Canadians. The American army waited all night in the rain and returned to camp for breakfast.

Van Rensselaer was in despair. A rich and honorable Federalist, he had doubted the wisdom of the war, he had no wish for a command but had been placed at the head of the New York

State militia by the Democratic Governor Tompkins, so that possible defeat could not be laid to the Democratic Party. Fortunately the American general’s cousin, Solomon Van Rensselaer, a trained soldier, was on his staff. After the opening fiasco, Solomon concentrated the army at Lewiston, opposite Queenston, under the cover of the woods, and prepared another assault. This time, taking no chances, he resolved to lead the advance himself.

At half past three in the chilly morning of Oct. 13 he landed at Queenston village with two hundred and twenty-five regulars. The rest of the four thousand American troops were to follow him before dawn. Only three hundred Canadians held Queenston but they poured a well-aimed volley at the first invaders and gravely wounded Van Rensselaer, who was carried back across the river. The Americans had lost their only experienced leader. His successor, Captain Wool, proved an ingenious substitute. He abandoned the frontal attack on Queenston and led a party of three hundred by an obscure path up the river to approach the Heights from the rear.

Brock, at Fort George, had heard no word of the American landing. He heard only the American guns of Lewiston firing at Queenston. Soon the guns of Fort Niagara started to bombard his own fort. Which target did the enemy intend to attack? Perhaps both at once? Brock could hope to defend only one point. So he waited, husbanding his scanty reserves.

A messenger rode into Fort George with the news that the Americans had crossed the river in force. Still Brock would not be sure that the attack was aimed at Queenston. It might be feint to draw him out of his fort. He called for his charger, Alfred, and galloped up the river road.

Ahead, through a drenching rain, he could see the flash of cannon fire—two Canadian guns against twenty-four American—then a figure of a horseman approaching hell-for-leather from the south. Brock did not even slacken his pace as this man, wheeling and riding beside Alfred, shouted that the Americans were swarming on the Heights. Brock ordered the messenger on to Fort George. He was to bring all the soldiers to Queenston.

Thus after the comedy of Detroit, after all the distant quarrels of Europe, the duel at sea, the whole long history of struggle on the Canadian border, the continental issue was joined at last. And for Canada the issue that day was nothing less than survival.

On those flaming autumn Heights Brock could not hope to win the war of survival or decide whether North America was to contain one nation or two. Repulsed now, the Americans would surely return. But, with luck, he might buy time for his people when only a few more minutes were left to him. If Queenston could be held, the first American attack broken, Canadians of both races might be rallied. If Queenston were lost and Canada split, the whole war doubtless would be lost also. The boundary, which the French had surrendered under Montcalm, which the Canadians had saved under Carleton, would be erased forever.

Brock foresaw all the consequences of his seven-mile ride as he leaned over the neck of Alfred, Tecumseh’s sash streaming in the wind. Would he reach the Heights in time?

Alfred, nostrils red and flanks heaving, pounded through Queenston village in the first light of dawn. Brock paused only for a moment to order the handful of soldiers there to follow him, then spurred his horse up the Heights. At the summit he found eight Canadian gunners. A single eighteen-pound gun fired on the Americans beside the river.

Apparently Brock had arrived in time. He did not know of Wool’s detour around the Heights. Suddenly he heard shouts behind him and beheld three hundred Americans charging straight at the gun pit. Defense, with only eight men, was hopeless. Brock had just told his gunners to “try a longer fuse.” He added in the same breath, “Spike the guns and follow me!” The gunners drove in their spike and scrambled down the hill. Brock had no chance to mount. He led his horse behind him as he ran.

Back at Queenston, he gathered a hundred men and not daring to await reinforcements, prepared to retake the Heights before the Americans could dig in. The Canadians were led out of the village at a run but halted at the foot of the hill. “Take breath, boys,” Brock cried, “you’ll need it presently!” He stroked Alfred’s quivering neck and apologized for pushing him so hard. It was the last farewell between soldier and horse.

After a moment’s pause, Brock drew his sword and started up the Heights on foot, by a curve inland, to take the Americans in the rear. Wool was ready for him on the crest. A hundred panting Canadians faced a solid American line three times their number. It was no time to measure the odds. Brock’s sword led the charge at the American centre. It gave way and the Canadians leaped into the gun pit.

A few yards off, in the woods, a cool American took careful aim at an easy target. As he fired. Brock dropped without a sound. An instant later a dead soldier sprawled across his general’s body. Nerves shattered by their leader’s death, the Canadians fled. They carried Brock with them and laid him in a Queenston cottage.

The Heights had been lost for the second time. There seemed to be no chance of retaking them.

Colonel John Macdonell, who succeeded Brock, was a man of the same mold. He resolved to avenge his dead commander. Two hundred men were collected and Macdonell led them up the Heights. Again the Americans were driven back, the gun recaptured. Again the Canadian commander fell, mortally wounded. And again the Americans drove the Canadians down the hill.

Now the Stars and Stripes floated confidently over the gun pit. About sixteen hundred Americans had crossed the river. Canada’s lifeline apparently was severed. General Van Rensselaer sent mounted messengers to Albany announcing the decisive victory, and made ready to accept the Canadian surrender. In this moment of triumph everything went wrong.

The garrison of Fort George, having silenced the guns of Niagara, at last had reached Queenston. A party of a hundred and fifty Canadians, with a few Indians, was marching down the river from the Falls. This outnumbered force scaled the Heights from the south into what should have been a baited trap. But at the sound of Indian war whoops the Americans fell into panic. Some of them ran down to the river and rowed across. Van Rensselaer stamped through his disordered ranks on the Canadian side, ordering, cursing, pleading. It was no use. His army melted before his eyes.

The Americans across the river refused to move. They had been terrified by the rumor of a great British army approaching from somewhere and “The name of an Indian, or the sight of the wounded or the Devil, or something petrified them,” as a survivor testified.

On the Heights the gallant Colonel Winfield Scott tried to form a line as the Canadians from Queenston and the Falls joined in a bayonet charge. The line broke and plunged downward to the river. A few men managed to swim the current. The remainder waited for their comrades on the far side to rescue them. When no rescue came, they surrendered. Scott raised a white handkerchief on his sword point.

A Nation Was  His Legacy

The army of the United States in its first serious promenade had lost about a hundred dead, two hundred wounded and a thousand prisoners. Canada’s casualties, though only a hundred and fifty all told, included its greatest soldier, now lying in a Queenston cottage. He had not died in vain. Canada held the Heights. The Americans had been driven back across the boundary.

Such a skirmish was a small incident in the affairs of the republic. It was the turning point of Canadian history. For in death Brock was stronger than in life. The embryo nation of Canada had lacked, until that morning at Queenston, the essential nutriment of its growth—a myth shared by all its people. Now it had the myth, carried by a scarlet figure on a grey horse. Brock had proved that even at hopeless odds Canada could fight and win. If it fought on, it might yet be a nation in fact. Such was the legacy left by the young general, who had died in apparent defeat before he could see his victory.

The republic must pay more than brief humiliation and a few casualties as the price of rout on the Heights. The larger and longer price was its neighbor’s hatred, first lighted in the Loyalists, now corroborated, inflamed and deepened by invasion. Perhaps that mattered little to a nation that no foreign hatred could ever quench. It meant more to Canada, not yet a nation, than any foreigner would ever understand. To North America it meant that the continental boundary was permanent—if the Canadians could hold it. The Americans had assaulted the boundary and by their assault confirmed it in the mind of Canada. And Canada, after its baptism of fire, went on to win the War of 1812; for if that war changed nothing on the boundary and apparently left America exactly as before, in fact it saved Canada from the extinction planned by the bunglers of Washington.

Military historians might call it a stalemate. American history books might present it as an American victory. The British and American governments might be glad to call it quits. But to Canada, overwhelmingly outnumbered by the invaders, it was not only an almost unbelievable victory in military terms but national salvation in terms much more important.

Brock died young, by a casual bullet, on a little hill beside the Niagara. He left the kind of myth on which all nations are built. ★


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