War of 1812 Bicentennial

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Brock Centenary: Introduction


Brock and Queenston

By John Stewart Carstairs, B.A., Toronto

Brock's fame and Brock's name will never die in our history. The past one hundred years have settled that. And in this glory the craggy heights of Queenston, where in their splendid mausoleum Brock and Macdonell sleep side by side their last sleep, will always have its share. Strangely enough, who ever associates Brock's name with Detroit? Yet, here was a marvellous achievement: the left wing of the enemy's army annihilated, its eloquent and grandiose leader captured and two thousand five hundred men and abundant military stores, with the State of Michigan thrown in!

But Britain in those days was so busy doing things that we a hundred years later can scarcely realize them. However, so much of our historic perspective has been settled during the past hundred years. Perhaps in another hundred years, when other generations come together to commemorate the efforts of these men that with Brock and Macdonell strove to seek and find and do and not to yield, the skirmish at Queenston may be viewed in a different light.

Perhaps then the British Constitution will have bridged the oceans and the "Seven Seas"; perhaps then Canada will be more British than Britain itself—the very core, the centre, the heart of the Empire in territory and population, in wealth and in influence, in spirit and in vital activities. Then Queenston Heights may be regarded not merely as a victory that encouraged Canadians to fight for their homes but as a far-reaching world-event.

The year of Queenston, let us remember, was the year of Salamanca and of Moscow—the most glorious year in British military annals. But what has Salamanca to do with Canada? Britain was fighting alone, not merely for the freedom of Britons but for the freedom of Europe. Since 1688 she had been for more than one-half of the one hundred and twenty-four years actively in arms against France. Since 1793 there had been peace—and only nominal peace—against France for only the two years following the Treaty of Amiens (1801). The generation approaching maturity in 1812 had been born and had grown up "in wars and rumours of wars." In this struggle against France and later against Napoleon, the Motherland had increased the National Debt by £500,000,000, or nearly twenty-five hundred millions of dollars; she had spent every cent she could gather and taxed her posterity to this extent. This is what Britain had done for her children—and for the world at large!

But ever since Jefferson had purchased (1803) Louisiana from Napoleon the United States had found she was less dependent on Britain. Accordingly, Jefferson grew more and more unfriendly. And now in 1812, the world campaign of Napoleon had spread to America. He had hoped for this, but on different lines. He had planned for it, but those plans had failed.

"The War of 1812–14," as we call it, was merely a phase, a section, of the greatest struggle in the history of mankind—the struggle of Britain against the aggrandisement and cheap ambition of Napoleon to become the Dictator of Europe and the civilized world. Brock, though invited to take a share in the long drawn out contest in Spain, decided—fortunately for us—to remain in Canada.

The year 1812 was the climax of the war with Napoleon—the most splendid, as we have said, of all years in British military annals. Since 1808, the British forces had been striving to drive the French from Spain. First under Sir John Moore, later under Wellington, inch by inch, year by year, they had beaten them back toward the Pyrenees. Then on July 22, 1812, just as Brock was struggling with all his difficulties here in Canada, there came Wellington's first decisive victory at Salamanca. The news reached Brock in October and a day or two before he died he sent the tidings forward to Proctor—Proctor then struggling with his Forty-first Regiment to do as much damage as he could to the enemy hundreds of miles out from Windsor and Detroit, Proctor who was to be eternally much abused for faults he never was guilty of, and to be blamed for Tecumseh's death next year. With the news of Salamanca went Brock's prophetic comment: "I think the game nearly up in Spain"; and within a year the game, Napoleon's game, was up, not only in Spain but in all Europe. Within a year Leipsic had been fought and won and Napoleon was a wanderer on the face of the earth, to be gathered in and lodged on Elba.

Meanwhile other great events were shaping. Just a month before Salamanca—in fact, four days before the United States declared war—Napoleon had set out on his fatal expedition against Russia. Two days later he crossed the Niemen. More than a million Frenchmen were now in arms in Europe; and Britain was the only active enemy in the field.

What wonder then that Brock, as the civil and military head of the Government of Upper Canada, should view with extreme anxiety the situation in the Province? He had been in Canada for ten years. He knew that the Motherland could not furnish any more men. There were fifteen hundred regular troops in Upper, and two thousand in Lower Canada. Forty years before there had not been a single settlement in what is now Ontario from the Detroit to the Ottawa, from Lake Ontario to Sault Ste. Marie. Now there were seventy-five thousand inhabitants; and under a wise Militia Act they had imposed yearly military service on themselves; every male inhabitant had to furnish his own gun and appear on parade or be heavily fined. Thus there was a volunteer force more or less trained amounting to about ten thousand men—a militia that under Brock rendered splendid service.

But arms were scarce and supplies had to be brought long distances. The men at Queenston won their victory with guns that were captured two months before at Detroit. Throughout the war, when our mils had been burnt by a ruthless enemy that made war on women and children and old men, supplies were brought up the toilsome course of the St. Lawrence in Durham boats and bateaux. The devoted militia of the river counties guarded the frontier, and only once did they lose a convoy, part of which they afterwards recovered by a raid into the enemy's territory at Waddington, N.Y.

In front of Brock was a nation of eight or nine millions, a nation that believed they could "take the Canadas without soldiers;" as the United States Secretary of War said—"we have only to send officers into the Province and the people, disaffected towards their own Government, will rally round our standard." Yet they placed, during the three years of the war, 527,000 men in the field and were defeated in thirty-two engagements. The odds were twenty-six to one against us. That was Brock's grand bequest to this land—the spirit to fight against odds that were at first sight positively overwhelming.

For years sedition and disloyalty had been gaining ground in Upper Canada. In 1802, Colonel Talbot classified the inhabitants of the western part of the Province as (1) those enticed hither by the free land grants; (2) those that had fled from the United States for crime; (3) Republicans anticipating that the colony would shake off its allegiance to Britain. Lieutenant-Colonel Ernest Cruikshank, who is justly regarded as the most eminent authority on the War of 1812–14, believes that in a large portion of the Province "the recent immigrants from the United States outnumbered all the other inhabitants at least two to one. Two-thirds of the members of the Assembly and one-third of the magistrates were natives of the United States."

On the 28th of July, 1812, Brock called together the Legislature of Upper Canada. In his speech from the throne he stated that "a few traitors have already joined the enemy, have been suffered to come into the country with impunity, and have been harboured and concealed in the interior." The peroration should be memorized by every young Canadian: "We are engaged in an awful and eventful contest. By unanimity and despatch in our councils and by vigour in our operations we may teach the enemy this lesson, that a country defended by free men, enthusiastically devoted to their king and constitution, can never be conquered." He especially desired the suspension of the Habeas Corpus Act and the passing of an Act to compel suspected persons to take an oath abjuring their allegiance to other countries. But Brock, to use his own words, could "get no good of them. They, like the magistrates and others in office, evidently mean to remain passive. The repeal of the Habeas Corpus will not pass, and if I have recourse to the law martial, I am told the whole armed force will disperse. Never was an officer placed in a more awkward predicament."

The very next day he wrote in much the same spirit to Colonel Baynes: "The population, believe me, is essentially bad—a full belief possesses them all 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 their respective offices that the artful and active scoundrel is allowed to parade the country without interruption and commit all imaginable mischief. . . . Most of the people have lost all confidence. I, however, speak loud and look big."

On the same day, moreover, he reported: "The militia stationed here (at York) volunteered their services to any part of the Province without the least hesitation."

Day after day his Legislature wasted their time. For eight days they discussed a mere party question of changing a clause in the School Bill. Brock prorogued Parliament and took the reins in his own hands. He declared martial law, and soon after three members of the Legislature, Willcocks, Markle, and Mallory, deserted and joined the United States forces.

At once he set out on his expedition to Detroit. Through the wilds of Upper Canada, by lake and field, he led his small band of men two hundred miles. In nineteen days he was back again in his capital. He had annihilated the left wing of the enemy's army; he had captured two thousand five hundred men, thirty-seven cannon and immense military stores. The State of Michigan practically remained in our possession till the close of the war.

A hundred years ago Brock spent the last week in August and the first part of October in strengthening the defences on the Niagara frontier. He needed one thousand more regulars, but Sir George Prevost could not spare another man. He mounted new batteries with the Detroit cannon. He established a system of communication and the use of beacon lights from Lake Erie to Lake Ontario, with a spur line inland to Pelham Heights. He refitted his men from the stores captured at Detroit. Ceaseless activity and eternal vigilance were the very laws of his life. The motto on his seal is said to have been "He who guards never sleeps." The legend may not be correct, but it is so appropriate that one likes to perpetuate the tradition.

The United States army as a whole was attacking Canada at tree points: its right wing was trying to force its way up the valley of the Richelieu; its left wing had been disposed of by Brock at Detroit; its centre was being strengthened every day along the Niagara frontier. From the old French fort at the mouth of the Niagara River to the village of Buffalo there was on both sides of the Niagara an uninterrupted scene of fearful and warlike activity. The heights of Lewiston and the red beach below were white with the tents of nearly four thousand soldiers.

From Queenston a small body of British and Canadian soldiers were watching and waiting. Then—a hundred years ago—it was much the same straggling village as to-day. Here the eddying, foaming, turbulent waters of the Niagara issue from the narrow, rocky gorge to spread out into a gentle stream and wind their way to Lake Ontario, seven miles distant. At the foot of the Canadian cliff nestles Queenston; at the foot of the sister cliff opposite is Lewiston in New York State. A hundred years ago, from the "Heights" a spectator would have seen the same glorious panorama of fertile fields and autumn tints; but since June the whole line of the Niagara River had resounded with din of preparations to resist a ruthless and aggressive invader.

But while Brock was absent at Detroit, about the middle of August, Sir George Prevost, the British commander-in-chief, had very unwisely concluded an armistice with General Dearborn, the terms of which extended only to the right wing of the United States army. Accordingly, this gave Major-General Van Rensselaer, who was in command of the enemy on the Niagara, a splendid opportunity to array still larger forces against Brock. Artillery and stores were brought up from Oswego; thousands of additional troops had been hurried forward to the enemy; scows and boats were built for the purpose of crossing the Niagara.

"Major-General Stephen Van Rensselaer," says Colonel Ernest Cruikshank, the careful historian of the war, "who held chief command by virtue of his rank as major-general of the New York State troops, was an entire novice in all military affairs, and could scarcely even be termed an amateur soldier. The last patroon of the manor of Rensselaer-Wyck and the leading Federalist in the State, his appointment was a sharp stroke of party tactics on the part of the Governor, who discovered in him a prospective and dangerous opponent. The recent congressional elections had seemed to indicate that the Federalists had regained the confidence of the people of New York, and most of their leaders were uncompromising in their hostility to the war. If Van Rensselaer accepted the command his immediate following would be committed to its prosecution; if he refused his conduct could be denounced as unpatriotic.

"Stephen was an amiable and benevolent, but rather dull man of about fifty years of age. On all strictly military subjects he was compelled to rely upon the advice of his adjutant-general and cousin, Colonel Solomon Van Rensselaer, who had been bred a soldier, had served in the United States army for ten years, and had held his present appointment for as many more. He had been wounded in Wayns's campaign against the Indians, and possessed the reputation of being a brave and skilful officer."

The close observer who comes up the Niagara River will see just after he leaves the wharf of Niagara-on-the-Lake the far-extending green bastions of Fort George. A hundred years ago there was no barn there which a thrifty Government later allowed to be built within its lines. But a hundred years ago this morning, on Tuesday, October 13, it was a fort and Brock's headquarters. For weeks there had been persistent rainstorms. In the dull grey foggy chill of the morning, about for o'clock, there came an alarm that the enemy were crossing the river at Queenston. In a few minutes, Brock dashed out of the fort unattended and galloped headlong up the river road. Macdonell, his young and faithful aide-de-camp, soon followed. At Brown's Point, two miles from Queenston, was a battery manned by the militia of York, among them such men as John Beverley Robinson and Archibald Maclean, both afterwards chief justices. As Brock passed he waved his hand to them; and very likely it was then he said, "Push on, brave York Volunteers." And as they advanced to support their leaders there was plenty of evidence that the invaders had made a landing. Troops of the enemy were met under guard—miserable, wounded wretches.

The mouth of the Niagara Gorge is barely two hundred yards wide; and this had been selected as the place at which to cross. Fifteen hundred United States regulars and nearly three thousand militia, it was hoped, could be ferried across in seven trips. At Queenston to oppose them there were merely two companies of the Forty-ninth (Brock's regiment) under Captain Dennis, and three companies of militia. In all, in and about Queenston there were less than two hundred men.

In less than fifteen minutes ten boats had landed three hundred men, exactly as they had planned. When discovered by a sentinel, they were forming up under the command of Colonel Solomon Van Rensselaer.

At once from Brown's Point, from Vrooman's Point, from the gun halfway up Queenston Heights, there belched forth an incessant fire. The Lewiston batteries opened on the village and soon reduced several of the houses to ruins.

Meanwhile, Captain Dennis, with forty-six men, sought out the invaders at the foot of the cliff. Through they soon took to the cover of the trees and brush in disorder, many were killed, and Colonel Van Rensselaer himself received no less than six wounds.

After dawn, however, they observed how few men were working the one-gun battery halfway up Queenston Heights. They ascended by a narrow fisherman's path, under the command of Lieutenant Wool, and gained the Heights unopposed.

It was "at this instant Brock rode into the village, splashed with mud from head to foot. . . . A striking scene presented itself to his gaze. Battalion after battalion of troops in rear of the American batteries in readiness to embark; other detachments entering their boats, some already on the river; their guns throwing round and grape shot into the village, where Dennis still contrived to maintain a foothold" (Cruikshank).

Brock rode up the slope toward the redan half-way up the Heights. From the hillside above him burst a shout and down rushed an overwhelming body of the invaders. With barely time to spike the gun with a ramrod, the three officers and the dozen artillerymen withdrew and left the enemy in possession.

Fresh troops were now landing to assist the invaders; and Brock was fully convinced that the lost position must be recovered at once. He sent Captain Williams with about seventy men by a round-about way to attack Wool's left. Seeing Wool's force driven in, Brock mustered a hundred and ninety men, including the militia flank companies. Waving his sword, he led his men up the steep ascent toward the battery they had lost. As he moved toward the right of the mountain, a bullet struck his sword wrist. Within fifty yards of him, an Ohio rifleman stepped out from a thicket, took deliberate aim and fired. Shot through the left breast, he fell. "My fall," he murmured, "must not be noticed, nor impede my brave companions from advancing to victory." Mindful of duty, mindful of others, thus died Sir Isaac Brock, the hero of Upper Canada.

Three days before, a grateful sovereign had created him a Knight of the Order of the Bath. Subsequent generations of Canadians placed over his remains the noble shaft, that from its commanding position is the most notable landmark of the historic battleground he made famous. But he lives in the hearts of the people whose country he saved, whose fathers he inspired to resist the invader. He had found them a panic-stricken people, he left them vigorous, united, aggressive.

The remaining incidents of that day at Queenston Heights are well known. Two hours later, Macdonell, Brock's military secretary and aide, tried to regain the one-gun battery. A fierce fight ensued: Macdonell, Dennis and Williams were all wounded; and the next day the bright young Scotsman, attorney-general at the age of twenty-seven, passed away. In life he was united with Brock, and in death he was not separated. The bodies of the two heroes rest together under the Queenston Monument, where the river has been singing their requiem for a hundred years.

The third stage of the battle was reached at two o'clock in the afternoon. Then Major-General Roger Hale Sheaffe advanced from Fort George along the river road. Turning to the right down the little Queenston Creek, he led his forces across the Dr. Hamilton property. On the left he flung out his Indians under Norton and Brant, and they moved forward and made trouble.

Ascending the escarpment west of the invading troops, Sheaffe came upon the terrified invaders, drawn up near the site of the present monument. Their left rested on the river verge of the cliff. A volley or two—and the Canadians found themselves embarrassed with prisoners. Within a few days, 958, including stragglers, had surrendered as prisoners of war. Among these were General Wadsworth, who had been in command, and Lieutenant-Colonel Winfield Scott, later to become commander-in-chief of the United States army and conqueror of Mexico.

[Public Domain mark] Copyright/Licence: This work was published in 1922 or earlier. It has therefore entered the public domain in the United States.
[Public Domain mark] Copyright/Licence: The author or authors of this work died in 1964 or earlier, and this work was first published no later than 1964. Therefore, this work is in the public domain in Canada per sections 6 and 7 of the Copyright Act.