Friday, April 27, 2012

Monarchist Profile: Sir Isaac Brock

Amongst the great names of the military history of the British Empire many will remember Montgomery, Wellington or Marlborough but few will think of the name of Brock. That is, of course unless one asks students of history in Canada. Although the name of Sir Isaac Brock may be all but forgotten in his native Britain, he is a revered historical hero in Canada. Such admiration is, in this case, entirely justified. Not only did he save Canada from republicanism, ensuring that the subsequent history of the country would be as an independent constitutional monarchy rather than the northern frontier of the United States but he was also a brilliant military commander. In the face of seemingly insurmountable obstacles and overwhelming odds it was Sir Isaac Brock who inflicted the first major defeats ever suffered by the United States since independence. He had almost every quality people traditionally looked for in their national heroes.

Isaac Brock was born in St Peter Port on the island of Guernsey in the English Channel on October 6, 1769 into a fairly typical middle class family. As a boy he did very well in school and was exceptionally athletic, excelling at swimming and boxing. He spent a year in Rotterdam in the Netherlands learning French and went to school in Southampton when he was 10. Perhaps because of his modest beginning, he attached great importance to education throughout his life and adhered to the principle that a person should never stop learning. He spent most of his spare time reading books on science, history, military tactics, political philosophy and, like any good Englishman, the works of Shakespeare. As he grew up he earned a reputation as a disciplined, upright and moral man. Eventually he entered the British army and earned a steady spring of promotion which was unusual in the peacetime army and particularly for a man of humble origins with no political connections.

His brother was already in the army when Brock, at the age of only 15, joined the 8th King’s Regiment of Foot on March 8, 1785 with a purchased commission as an ensign. He later purchased a lieutenant’s commission and after raising his own company was promoted to captain before being transferred 49th Regiment of Foot in 1791. He was posted to the Caribbean where he nearly died of fever but was sent home and later recovered. After a period of time devoted mostly to recruitment he was made commander of his regiment with the rank of lieutenant colonel in 1798. He first saw combat under the famous General Sir Ralph Abercromby in an expedition against the Batavian Republic (the Netherlands) in 1799. His immediate commander was Major General John Moore, himself set to become one of great generals of British military history. In some particularly intense fighting he was wounded in the neck but never left the field and was back on his feet, in command, in less than 30 minutes. Everyone who knew him was impressed by his abilities and deportment. He witnessed Lord Nelson’s great victory at Copenhagen before being posted to Canada in 1802 with the 49th Foot.

Brock had to deal with desertions, mutineers and an increasingly threatening United States almost as soon as he arrived. He dealt with all of these problems and tried to keep up good relations between the French and English-speaking Canadians as well as the First Nations. In 1805 he was able to go home to visit England and was promoted to full colonel and effectively made commander of all Crown forces in Canada. As the United States began to increase the rhetoric of a possible invasion and conquest of Canada, Colonel Brock had to work quickly and with great creativity to prepare in spite of having very little to work with due to British attention being focused on Napoleon in Europe. He built up the fortifications around Quebec and on the Great Lakes but all the while would have preferred (and sought) a transfer to Europe where it seemed that the fate of the British Empire was being decided in the conflict with Napoleonic France. In 1807 he was promoted to brigadier general and in 1811 was promoted to major general because of the fantastic work he had done in Canada. However, when the transfer to Europe he had asked for over so many years was finally offered to him, he turned it down. He believed that an American invasion was imminent and after spending so much time in Canada was determined to stay and defend the country.

A year later, in 1812, his prediction came true and the United States declared war on Great Britain with the goal of what they expected to be a quick and easy conquest of Canada. To defend the vast country, General Brock had only a handful of British regulars, the untried Canadian militia and the First Nations warriors he had persuaded to ally with the Crown. The chances of success seemed hopeless, yet Brock showed nothing but determination. He also had no doubt about exactly what he was fighting for; not only to repel invaders from His Majesty’s Canadian territory but also for the cause of monarchy against republican domination. Brock told his men, “We may teach the enemy this lesson: A country defended by free men devoted to the cause of their king and constitution can never be conquered…” To accomplish this with the meager forces at hand, Brock decided to take bold action. His strategy was an aggressive one, to catch the enemy off guard by doing the unexpected, attacking at every available opportunity to keep them off-balance. This led to an early success with the capture of Ft Mackinac whose American garrison was taken completely by surprise, a victory which also helped persuade the neighboring First Nations to side with the Crown.

Throughout his service in the war, Brock was often at odds with his commander, Governor-General George Prevost, an American born loyalist from New Jersey who favored a more cautious, defensive strategy. He constantly held back valuable forces to protect Quebec in the event that the Americans were able to break through the border areas and devastate the interior. To General Brock this seemed like the wrong strategy and he argued that by staying put and adopting such a defensive posture the Americans would be sure to ultimately win due to their massive superiority in numbers and the close proximity of their base of operations. He constantly argued that all available forces (few though they were) should be used on the front lines, staying as mobile as possible, to fight the Americans at every opportunity. If they didn’t act, Brock argued, the Americans surely would and that they did with an invasion into Ontario from Detroit, Michigan. The American commander, lacking in nerve, abandoned the enterprise at the first setback but this allowed Brock to depart from the defensive and rush his available forces to Detroit. He was joined in his operations against the fort by Chief Tecumseh and despite his enemy having him outnumbered and with the advantage of prepared fortifications, Brock was able to inflict a humiliating defeat on the Americans, capturing the fort and the entire garrison through little more than sheer bluff with practically no loss of life.

The capture of Ft Detroit was an astounding victory for the Crown forces and Brock was awarded the Order of the Bath for this incredible achievement. In their first effort to invade Canada the Americans had been defeated, a general who was a Revolutionary War veteran was utterly humiliated and U.S. confidence in a swift and easy conquest was destroyed. However, Brock had no time to rest on his laurels as the second prong of the American invasion was moving north from New York. With his customary boldness and daring, Brock immediately rushed all available forces to the area and quickly decided to attack the American army as soon as it crossed into Canada before they could grow stronger. It was a brilliant move but a dangerous one. Again, Brock was at every disadvantage yet he knew that if he gave battle immediately, before the American army had moved all of their forces across the river and set up all of their artillery his forces would have their best chance of stopping the invasion before it could really begin.

The result was the dramatic battle of Queenston Heights. Brock was still rushing his forces into place when the Americans began landing on the Canadian side of the river. U.S. forces charged a battery of Royal Artillery on the heights, which had been rushed into action without support to shell the American barges ferrying troops across the river. The Americans seized the position and Brock ordered all available forces to launch a counter-attack, fearing that if the Americans held the heights the battle would be lost and all of Canada would be at the mercy of the United States. Brock had told his men he would never order them to go where he would not lead them and true to his brave and gallant nature, he drew his sword and personally led his troops in the attack. Brock was a conspicuous target in his braided, red uniform as well as the fact that, especially by the standards of that time, he was an exceptionally tall, robust man. Still, he led his men forward into a hail of American bullets. Brock was wounded in the hand but kept going. Then, he was hit by an American sharpshooter and cut down, fatally wounded, shot in the heart. Still, he was committed to his duty and to victory to the very end, encouraging his soldiers to continue the attack with his dying breath, gathering his last remaining ounce of strength to call out, “Push on, brave York volunteers!” before passing from this life to the next.

Brock was dead but his sacrifice had not been in vain. The Crown forces determined to avenge his death and ultimately won the battle at Queenston Heights, thwarting the American invasion and saving Canada from becoming a territory of the United States. Both sides admired Brock for his skill and daring and when he was buried at Ft George the American garrison across the border at Ft Niagara fired their guns in salute to the man who had vanquished them. Today Brock is buried in a monument on his last battlefield, a tribute to the man known even then as “the Hero of Upper Canada”. It is no exaggeration to say that without General Brock, Canada as we know it today might not exist at all. Had he not been killed, the War of 1812 likewise might have ended very differently. He deserves to be ranked among the great commanders of British and Canadian military history, despite serving for such a limited period of time. He was bold, took calculated risks, understood how to exploit the weaknesses of his enemies and defeated forces far superior to his own. Every loyal Canadian particularly should salute him for his role in saving their country from republican domination.

1 comment:

  1. "A country defended by free men devoted to the cause of their King and constitution can never be conquered." What an inspiring sentence, and just as precient today, though of course for most monarchies, the enemy is within !!!


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