Major-General Sir Isaac Brock KB (6 October 1769 – 13 October 1812) was a British Army officer and administrator. Brock was assigned to Canada in 1802. Despite facing desertions and near-mutinies, he commanded his regiment in Upper Canada (present-day Ontario) successfully for many years. He was promoted to major general, and became responsible for defending Upper Canada against the United States. While many in Canada and Britain believed war could be averted, Brock began to ready the army and militia for what was to come. When the War of 1812 broke out, the populace was prepared, and quick victories at Fort Mackinac and Detroit crippled American invasion efforts.
Brock's actions, particularly his success at Detroit, earned him a knighthood, membership in the Order of the Bath, accolades and the epithet "The Hero of Upper Canada". His name is often linked with that of the Native American leader Tecumseh, although the two men collaborated in person only for a few days. Brock died at the Battle of Queenston Heights, which was nevertheless a British victory.
Brock was born in St Peter Port on the Channel Island of Guernsey, the eighth son of a middle class family. He earned a reputation during his early education on Guernsey as an assiduous student, as well as an exceptional swimmer and boxer. At age ten, he was sent to school in Southampton but spent one year in Rotterdam learning French.
Despite his lack of an extensive formal education, Brock appreciated its importance. It seems that as an adult he often spent his leisure time sequestered in his room, reading books in an attempt to improve his education. He read many works on military tactics and science, but he also read on ancient history and other, less immediately practical, topics. At the time of his death he was in possession of a modest library of books, including works by Shakespeare, Voltaire, and Samuel Johnson.
He kept a reputation as an "unusually tall, robust man throughout his life, with an adult height of about . Measurements taken from his uniform show that at his death he had a waist size of 47 inches (119 cm) and the inside brim of his hat measured 24 inches (61 cm) in circumference. Though noted as a handsome man who enjoyed the company of women, Brock never married.
His nephew and biographer (Ferdinand Brock Tupper) asserts that shortly after joining the regiment, a professional dueller forced a match on him. As the one being challenged, Brock had his choice of terms, and so he insisted that they fight with pistols. His friends were shocked, as Brock was a large target, and his opponent an expert shot. Brock, however, refused to change his mind. When the duellist arrived at the field, he asked Brock to decide how many paces they would take. Brock subsequently insisted that the duel would take place, not at the usual range, but at handkerchief distance. The duellist declined and subsequently was forced to leave the regiment. This contributed to Brock's popularity and reputation among his fellow officers, as this duellist had a formidable reputation, and was reportedly regarded as a bully in the regiment. During his time with this regiment, Brock served in the Caribbean, where he fell ill with fever and nearly died, only recovering once he had returned to England in 1793.
Once back in Britain, he spent much of his time recruiting, and he was subsequently placed in charge of recruits on Jersey. He purchased his majority on 27 June 1795, and rejoined his regiment in 1796, when the rest of his men returned from the West Indies.
In 1801, while aboard the 74-gun HMS Ganges (commanded by Captain Thomas Fremantle, a personal friend of Brock's), Brock was present at the Battle of Copenhagen, where it was intended that his troops would lead an assault on the forts at Copenhagen. Although the outcome of the battle made such an assault unnecessary, Brock observed first-hand the tactical brilliance of Lord Nelson. After the battle, along with Fremantle, he was among those who celebrated the victory with Nelson. In 1802, Brock and the 49th Foot were ordered to Canada.
As it was the dinner hour, all the soldiers were in barracks. Brock ordered the drummers to call out the men, and sent the first officer on the scene, Lieutenant Williams, to bring him a soldier suspected of being one of the mutiny's ringleaders. Pinning the man with a sabre, Williams took him into custody. The other suspected mutineers were also captured.
Brock sent the twelve mutineers and the seven deserters to Quebec for court martial. The mutineers had planned to jail all the officers, save Sheaffe, who was to be killed, and then cross the Niagara River into the U.S. at Queenston. Seven soldiers were subsequently executed by firing squad. The mutineers testified that they were forced to such measures by the severity of Sheaffe, and how, had they continued under Brock's command, they would never have taken such action. Brock was evidently upset by the news that the conspirators had been shot. In a botched execution, the firing squad discharged their weapons at too long a distance so that the condemned men were not killed instantly.
Interestingly, Brock's younger brother, John Savery Brock was compelled to retire from the Royal Navy after his involvement in a mutinous incident; he induced "his brother midshipmen, of the fleet at Spithead, to sign a round robin against their being subjected to the practice of mast-heading" for which "he was recommended privately to retire from the service.
In 1807, Brock was appointed brigadier general by Governor General Sir James Henry Craig, the new commander of Canadian forces. He was to take command of all forces in Upper Canada in 1810. During this time, Brock continued to ask for a posting in Europe. In June 1811, he was promoted to Major General, and in October of that year, Lieutenant Governor Francis Gore left for England. Brock was sent to Upper Canada as Senior Officer Commander of the Troops and Senior Member of the [Executive] Council, putting him fully in charge of both the military and civil authority. He was usually referred to as President of the Council or Administrator of Upper Canada (never as Lieutenant Governor). When permission to leave for Europe finally came in early 1812, Brock declined the offer, seeing it as his duty to defend Canada in war against the United States.
As Upper Canada's administrator, Brock made a series of changes designed to help Canada in the event of a war. He amended the militia act, allowing the use of all available volunteers, and he ordered enhanced training of these raw recruits, despite opposition from the provincial legislature. Furthermore, he continued strengthening and reinforcing defences. Also, Brock began seeking out First Nations leaders, such as the Shawnee chief Tecumseh, to see if they would ally with him against the Americans in the event of war. Although the conventional wisdom of the day was that Canada would fall quickly in the event of an invasion, Brock pursued these strategies to give the colony a fighting chance.
Meanwhile, back in England, Brock's brother William faced financial difficulties, as the bank in which he was a senior partner failed. Isaac's commissions had been purchased with a loan entered into the bank's books by his brother, and the Brocks now faced a demand for payment. Isaac could not meet the £3000 debt, but made over the whole of his salary to another brother, Irving, to be used as Irving saw fit, either to pay the debt or the family's other bills.
The United States declared war on Britain on June 18, 1812. Brock's preparations meant that Canada was not unprepared for the war; however, Brock felt that those preparations would not be enough to keep the colony secure. In Upper Canada, besides the militia, there was only one British infantry regiment, a detachment of veterans and a company of artillery. These had to be dispersed between several widely-separated posts. Brock did have one vital advantage in that the armed vessels of the Provincial Marine controlled the lakes, and allowed him to move his reserves rapidly between threatened points.
With war apparently imminent, Brock had continually kept the commanders of his posts informed of all developments. When news of the outbreak of war reached him, he sent a canoe party under the noted trader and voyager William McKay to the British outpost at St. Joseph Island on Lake Huron, with orders which allowed the commander (Captain Charles Roberts) to stand on the defensive or attack the nearby American outpost at Fort Mackinac at his discretion. Roberts immediately launched an attack on Mackinac with a scratch force of regulars, fur traders and Indians. On July 17, the American garrison was taken by surprise (not being aware that war had been declared) and surrendered. This victory immediately encouraged many Indians who had hitherto been neutral or undecided, to give their active support to the British.
Despite this complete success, Brock felt he needed to go further. He was hampered in these efforts by Governor General George Prevost, who had replaced Craig in late 1811. Prevost's orders from the government, and his own inclinations, were to place a strict emphasis on defence. Prevost kept the bulk of his forces in Lower Canada to protect Quebec, and opposed any attack into American territory. Brock also considered that he was handicapped by inertia and defeatism among the Legislature and other officials. He wrote to Prevost's Adjutant General,
My situation is most critical, not from anything the enemy can do, but from the disposition of the people – The Population, believe me is essentially bad – A full belief possesses them that this Province must inevitably succumb – This Prepossession is fatal to every exertion – Legislators, Magistrates, Militia Officers, all, have imbibed the idea, and are so sluggish and indifferent in all their respective offices that the artful and active scoundrel is allowed to parade the Country without interruption, and commit all imaginable mischief... What a change an additional regiment would make in this part of the Province! Most of the people have lost all confidence – I however speak loud and look big.
On July 12, an American army under William Hull had invaded Canada at Sandwich (later known as Windsor). The invasion was quickly halted, and Hull withdrew, but this gave Brock the excuse he needed to abandon Prevost's orders. Having finally obtained limited support from the Legislature for his measures to defend the Province, Brock prorogued the Assembly and set out on August 6 with a small body of regulars and some volunteers from the York Militia (the "York Volunteers") to reinforce the garrison at Amherstburg at the western end of Lake Erie, facing Hull's position at Detroit. Travelling mainly by water in bad weather, Brock reached Amherstburg on August 13.
Here, Brock met Tecumseh, and was immediately impressed. Brock also read American dispatches captured from Hull's army, and quickly judged Hull to be timid and afraid of the Indians in particular, and the American force to be demoralised and short of rations. Against the advice of the officers on the spot, Brock immediately prepared to launch an attack on Detroit. He later (September 3) wrote to his brothers,
Some say that nothing could be more desparate than the measure, but I answer that the state of the Province admitted of nothing but desparate remedies. I got possession of the letters my antagonist addressed to the Secretary at War, and also of the sentiments which hundreds of his army uttered to their friends. Confidence in the General was gone, and evident despondency prevailed throughout. I have succeeded beyond expectation. I crossed the river contrary to the opinion of Cols. Procter, St. George etc.; it is therefore no wonder that envy should attribute to good fortune what in justice to my own discernment, I must say, proceeded from a cool calculation of the pours and contres.
At this point, even with his American Indian allies, Brock was outnumbered approximately two to one. Brock thus decided to use a series of tricks to intimidate Hull. He dressed his militia contingent in worn-out uniforms discarded by his regulars, making it appear (at a distance) as if his force consisted entirely of British regular infantry. Brock then laid siege to Fort Detroit, from established artillery positions across the river in Sandwich, and through a carefully crafted series of marches, made it appear he had far more natives with him then he actually did. He had Tecumseh's forces cross in front of the fort several times (doubling back under cover), intimidating Hull with the show of a large, raucous, barely controlled group of natives. Finally, he sent Hull a letter demanding his surrender, in which he stated, in part, "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. Brock then hammered the fort with cannon fire. On August 16, the day after receiving Brock's letter, Hull surrendered. Hull, elderly and without recent military experience, was terrified that the civilian population of the fort, including his own daughter and grandson, would face torture at the hands of the natives.
The capture of Detroit and Hull's army wounded American morale, and eliminated the main American force in the area as a threat, while at the same time boosting morale among his own forces. It allowed Brock to take the American supplies at Detroit and use them for his own forces, particularly the ill-equipped militia. Had Brock lived longer, he would probably have been freed from financial worries, since under prize regulations a substantial part of the value of the captured military stores would accrue to him. Brock himself valued the captured ordnance supplies at £30,000. Finally, the victory secured the support of Tecumseh and the other chiefs in his confederation, who took it as both a sign of competence and a willingness to take action.
Tecumseh evidently trusted and respected Brock, reportedly saying, "This is a man" after meeting him for the first time. Although Brock's correspondence indicates a certain amount of paternal condescension for the natives, he seems to have regarded Tecumseh himself very highly, calling him "the Wellington of the Indians", and saying "a more sagacious or a more gallant warrior does not I believe exist". In enlisting the help of Tecumseh, Brock made a number of commitments to the Shawnee. He promised to negotiate no peace treaty without addressing the Shawnee's vision of an independent homeland. Although this was undoubtedly because Brock needed the help of Tecumseh, there is no evidence Brock negotiated in bad faith. Brock's personal integrity and respect for native peoples has been well documented, and suggest that if he had lived he would have kept his word to the Shawnee.
The capture of Detroit led to British domination over most of Michigan Territory. Brock had planned to continue his campaign into the U.S., but he was thwarted by the negotiation of an armistice by Prevost with American Major General Henry Dearborn. This stalled Brock's momentum, and gave the Americans time to regroup and prepare for an invasion of Canada. Unable to predict the point of invasion, Brock frantically worked to prepare defences throughout Upper Canada.
Meanwhile, American general Stephen Van Rensselaer III, a Federalist political appointee, in command of a sizable army near Lewiston, came under presidential pressure to invade. Although Van Rensselaer had severe doubts about the quality of his troops, he had no choice but to attack. Making matters worse, Van Rensselaer was an inexperienced militia general, and thus not trusted by the majority of regular army troops. In the early morning of October 13, 1812, he attempted to cross the Niagara River, leading to the Battle of Queenston Heights. Despite heavy fire from British artillery, the first wave of Americans (under Captain John E. Wool) managed to land, and then follow a fishermen's path up to the heights. From this point, they attacked and routed the British artillery. Brock himself had arrived from nearby Fort George and moved up to the artillery battery to gain a better view only minutes before Wool attacked. He, his aides and the gunners were forced to beat a hasty retreat, leading their horses down the steep slope.
Fearing that the Americans, with the artillery out of the way, would move the rest of their troops across the river, Brock ordered an immediate attack on their position. True to his philosophy of never ordering men where he would not lead them, he personally led the charge on foot. The charge nearly succeeded, but was repelled. An obvious target with his commanding height and in his general's uniform, Brock was wounded in the hand and then shot and killed by American sharpshooters. Brock's last words have been reported as "Push on, brave York Volunteers" (in reference to a group of the militia Brock favoured) or "Push on, don't mind me or Surgite! (Latin for "rise" or "push on"—now used as a motto by Brock University), and even "a request that his fall might not be noticed or prevent the advance of his brave troops, adding a wish, which could not be distinctly understood, that some token of remembrance should be transmitted to his sister. These accounts are considered unlikely, as it is also reported that Brock died almost immediately without speaking, and the hole in his uniform suggests that the bullet entered his heart.
Following his death, John Macdonell became the senior officer present. Macdonell led another unsuccessful charge in which both he and, according to some accounts, Brock's own horse which Macdonell was riding were mortally wounded. During the charge, it is reported that the 49th used "Revenge the General" as a battle cry. In the afternoon, Sheaffe arrived on the battlefield with reinforcements and took command of the British forces. In sharp contrast to his predecessors' direct attacks, Sheaffe took a more cautious approach. This ultimately proved successful, leading to a total victory over the Americans.
A small cairn at the foot of the Niagara Escarpment marks the spot where Brock fell. In 1824, Brock and Macdonell's remains were moved into Brock's Monument, which overlooked the Queenston Heights. That original monument was bombed and heavily damaged in 1840 by Irish-Canadian terrorist Benjamin Lett, and was replaced by a larger 185 ft (56 m) high structure built at public expense, that still exists. Brock was finally buried inside the new Monument on October 13, 1853. An inscription reads: "Upper Canada has dedicated this monument to the memory of the late Major-General Isaac Brock, K.B. provisional lieutenant-governor and commander of the forces in the province whose remains are deposited in the vault beneath. Opposing the invading enemy he fell in action near these heights on 13 October 1812, in the forty-third year of his age. Revered and lamented by the people whom he governed and deplored by the sovereign to whose services his life had been devoted."
Since his death, several legends and myths about Brock have arisen. In 1908, the story of Brock's betrothal to Sophia Shaw, the daughter of General Æneas Shaw was first published. There is no supporting evidence for the claim and most biographers consider it apocryphal. Another legend, that of Brock's horse Alfred, was first published in 1859. The horse was supposedly shot and killed during the battle while being ridden by Macdonell, and it is commemorated in a monument erected in 1976 in Queenston near the cairn marking the spot where Brock fell. However, again there is little supporting evidence. The General's Horse "fully caparisoned, led by four Grooms" is listed as preceding the coffin at the General's interment at Fort George.
Brock's successor at Detroit, however, fared much worse. Colonel Henry Procter faced an attack from a resurrected American Army of the Northwest under future President William Henry Harrison. Harrison set out to retake Detroit, but a detachment of his army was defeated at Frenchtown on January 22, 1813. Procter, displaying poor judgement, left the prisoners in the custody of his native allies, who proceeded to execute an indeterminate number of them. Subsequent American victories allowed Harrison to attempt another invasion of Canada, which led to the Battle of the Thames on October 5, 1813. After a successful American charge, Procter's forces turned and fled, leaving Tecumseh and his American Indian troops to fight alone. They fought on, eventually being defeated. Perhaps of more importance to the British, at this battle Tecumseh died, and their alliance with the American Indians effectively ended.
As for Governor General Prevost, who often clashed with Brock, he remained in command of all British forces until after the Battle of Plattsburgh, in 1814. The battle was intended to be a joint naval/infantry attack, but Prevost did not commit his forces until after the naval battle had nearly ended. When he finally did attack, his forces proved unable to cross the Saranac River bridge, which was held by a small group of American regulars under the command of the recently promoted John E. Wool. Despite a heavy advantage in manpower, Prevost finally retreated upon hearing of the failure of the naval attack. For his failure at Plattsburgh, Prevost was recalled to England to face an inquiry, and a naval court martial determined that the blame for the loss at Plattsburgh primarily rested with Prevost. Prevost's health failed him, and he died in early 1816.
Canadians regard Brock as one of their greatest military heroes, since he helped save the Canadian colonies when all seemed hopeless. He was even voted #28 on The Greatest Canadian television show, despite not actually being a Canadian.
Although many Canadians have come to view Brock as one of their own, Brock never really felt at home in Canada. On the whole he viewed the country as a backwater, and earnestly wished to return to Europe to fight against Napoleon. Furthermore, Brock mistrusted the Canadian colonists, many of whom he suspected of being American sympathizers, and he was reluctant to arm them indiscriminately to help defend the colonies, instead favouring the expansion of volunteer forces, as well as the employment of British regulars and Tecumseh's native fighters.
In 1816, a series of private half-penny tokens were issued by an unknown company which honoured Brock with the title "The Hero of Upper Canada". Private copper tokens became common in Canada due to initial distrust of "army bills", which were paper notes issued by Brock in response to a currency shortage caused by economic growth.
Brockville and Brock in Ontario, Brock in Saskatchewan, General Isaac Brock Parkway on Highway 405 and Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario are all named in tribute to Brock. Schools named in his honour include one in Winnipeg, and public schools in Toronto, Guelph, Hamilton, London and Windsor, Ontario.
Although Brock's achievements were overshadowed by larger-scale fighting in Europe, his death was still widely noted, particularly in Guernsey. In London, he is remembered at a memorial in St Paul's Cathedral, paid for by £1575 voted by the House of Commons, which also granted pensions of £200 to each of his four surviving brothers. For his actions in the capture of Detroit, Brock was appointed a Knight Companion of the Order of the Bath (KB) on October 10, 1812, though he died at the Battle of Queenston Heights before news of his knighthood reached him. As a mark of esteem, the Prince Regent made special grant to allow the heraldic supporters that would have been incorporated into his coat of arms if he had lived to be incorporated into the arms of Brock's father's descendants, and on monuments raised in Brock's memory. A British naval vessel named in his honour, HMS Sir Isaac Brock, was destroyed while under construction at the Battle of York.
Brock's childhood home on High Street, St Peter Port, Guernsey still stands, and is marked with a memorial plaque. A memorial, paid for by Canada, is fitted into the side of the Town Church, the parish church of St Peter Port. Brock University provides scholarships to Guernsey students who achieve sufficiently high grades. In 1969, the Guernsey Post Office issued postage stamps to commemorate his life and achievements.
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