Born October 6, 1769
St. Peter Port, Guernsey, England
Died October 13, 1812
Queenston Heights, Canada
Despite his death during the first year of the War of 1812, Isaac Brock was probably the most famous and respected general on the British side of the conflict. His military skill, knowledge of the Canadian terrain and people, and demanding but humane approach to his troops all made him an effective leader. Called the "hero of Upper Canada," Brock helped to show that Canada could be successfully defended against a U.S. invasion. He is credited with inspiring self-confidence not only in the troops who fought under his command but in the residents of Canada.
An ambitious young officer
Isaac Brock was born in St. Peter Port on Guernsey, one of the Channel Islands that lie off the coast of England. The eighth son of John Brock and Elizabeth DeLisle Brock, he decided as a teenager to follow three of his brothers into military service. When he was fifteen, Brock joined the Eighth (King's) Regiment of Foot (an infantry unit of the British army) as an ensign (the lowest rank).
Five years later, Brock was promoted to the rank of lieutenant. He was later transferred to the Forty-ninth Regiment and made a captain. He served in Barbados and Jamaica (two British colonies in the Caribbean region). In 1795 Brock became by purchase (a traditional practice in which officers paid a fee to receive a rank) a major and two years later became a lieutenant colonel by the same method.
By the end of 1797, when he was twenty-eight, Brock had been given command of the Forty-ninth Regiment. He participated in Great Britain's ongoing war against French forces under Emperor Napoleon I (1769-1821), and was wounded during a battle in Holland in 1799. Two years later he was aboard a ship in the fleet of the great naval commander, Horatio Nelson (1758-1805), when the British attacked Copenhagen, Denmark (the Danish had been aiding France).
Assigned to Canada
In 1802 Brock was ordered to take his regiment to Canada, Great Britain's vast, mostly undeveloped colony in North America. He viewed his time in Canada as a stepping stone that would carry him to more challenging places and assignments. Still, Brock did his work well, becoming a colonel in 1805 and a major general in 1811. He commanded the garrison (army outpost) at Quebec from 1805 to 1811 and then was put in charge of all the British troops in Canada. In addition, he became the head of the colony's civil government for a short time.
During his prewar years in Canada, Brock made many requests to be transferred to Europe. By the time his request was granted, though, Great Britain was on the verge of war with the United States. Disputes between the two countries over the right to free trade, impressment (the act of British officials boarding U.S. ships to capture deserters from the British navy, but often taking American soldiers instead), and westward expansion (Great Britain was suspected of encouraging Native Americans to attack white American settlers) seemed likely to erupt into a full-blown conflict. Knowing that he could play a key role if a war did start, Brock decided to stay in Canada.
Preparing for war
Even before the United States made its June 12, 1812, declaration of war against Great Britain—and despite the belief of some leaders, including the governor, George Prevost (1767-1816), that the United States would never actually take such a drastic step—Brock began preparing Canada to fend off any invasion attempts. At the beginning of 1812, there were fifty-two hundred regular British soldiers stationed in Canada, about twelve hundred of them serving with Brock in what was called Upper Canada (now Ontario). Another eleven thousand militia troops (temporary soldiers, usually called into service only in emergencies as a means of defense) were available, but Brock believed that only about four thousand of these could be considered completely loyal to Great Britain. Many residents of Canada had only recently arrived from the United States or other countries and were thought to still have divided loyalties.
Brock immediately called for more regular soldiers to be sent to Canada, and for training of militia to be stepped up. In February 1812 he enlisted the help of an influential fur trader named Robert Dickson (c. 1765-1823) who had some strong connections with Native Americans in the Northwest Territory (including a third of Wisconsin, half of Minnesota, and almost all of Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan) of the United States. Hostilities between Native Americans and white Americans had increased as large numbers of settlers moved farther and farther west. Brock felt it was important for Great Britain to form alliances with Native Americans and enlist their support in fighting the United States.
When the War of 1812 began, Prevost called for a restrained, nonaggressive approach, but Brock believed that Great Britain should go on the offensive from the beginning. Thus he ordered an attack on Fort Michilimackinac (pronounced mi-shu-LEE-ma-ku-naw), a U.S.-held outpost strategically located on the northern straits of Lake Michigan, in the northern part of what was then Michigan Territory. British troops surrounded the fort on July 17, 1812, and its small band of American defenders, taken by surprise and unprepared for a battle, offered no resistance. Just as Brock had hoped, the bloodless victory showed both the Americans and the Native Americans in the region (many of whom would join the British in future confrontations) that Great Britain would take this war seriously.
The surrender of Detroit
Meanwhile, U.S. troops under the command of General William Hull (1753-1825) launched an invasion of Canada from Detroit in Michigan Territory that began with the conquest of the town of Sandwich (now Windsor, Ontario), directly across the Detroit River from Detroit. Hull returned to Detroit, though, when news of the surrender of Fort Michilimackinac reached him. After meeting with Canada's legislature (law-making body) in early August, Brock headed out to challenge the U.S. invasion with a counterinvasion.
Brock arrived at Fort Malden, located near Amherstburg (in southern Ontario across from Detroit), on August 15. There he met the dynamic Native American leader Tecumseh (c. 1768-1813; see biographical entry), who had been rallying his fellow Shawnee and other Native American peoples to form an alliance to resist white encroachment on their lands. As quoted in a biographical essay of Brock by Alain Gauthier, Tecumseh was reportedly so impressed with the forceful Brock that he exclaimed, "Now here is a man!"
The next day Brock again demonstrated bold leadership when he decided to attack the fort at Detroit, even though he knew that his troops were outnumbered (Hull had about twenty-five hundred soldiers, whereas Brock had about thirteen hundred, plus six hundred Native American allies). Aware that morale among the American troops was low—a U.S. mailbag containing letters of complaint from U.S. soldiers had been captured—and that Hull's leadership was weak, Brock sent a message to Hull demanding that the United States surrender. He claimed that he had a large number of Native American warriors with him, and that he was not sure he could control them in battle.
A new hero for Upper Canada
Hull did not agree to Brock's order immediately, but after the British troops had crossed the Detroit River and begun to bombard the fort, the U.S. troops did soon surrender. With this quick and easy victory, the main U.S. force in the region had been put out of commission, and the British were now in control of the Northwest and would remain so for another year. They had solidified the support of Native American allies, and captured a large number of much needed weapons and ammunition. Perhaps most significantly, though, was the victory's psychological effect on the people of Canada. They now believed that they could resist an American invasion. Brock was now considered "the hero of Upper Canada," and a knighthood was bestowed on him by King George III (1738-1820; ruled 1760-1820).
Brock now hurried back to the Niagara region, where the war's next major confrontations would take place. Major General Roger Sheaffe (1763-1851) was already there with his army, and more British reinforcements were on their way. Brock was determined to stomp out any chance for the United States to gain dominance on the Great Lakes, which were vitally important as routes for transporting troops and supplies. Thus he formulated a plan to attack Sacket's Harbor and Buffalo, New York, both towns where the U.S. Navy was either building or harboring ships.
Meanwhile, Prevost had reached an armistice (peace agreement) with Major General Henry Dearborn (1751-1829), who was in charge of the American troops in the northeastern region. Although this peace was fragile, it gave the Americans more time to build their troops. Believing that the United States would attack either Fort Erie (at the southern end of the Niagara River, close to Lake Erie) or Fort George (at the northern end of the river, close to lake Ontario) Brock worked on bolstering defenses along the Niagara River.
A major loss for the British side
Brock was incorrect in his assumption about the place of attack. Instead on October 13, 1812, U.S. troops crossed the river from Lewiston, New York, to the Canadian shore near the town of Queenston (located just south of Fort George). The battle that followed centered on a battery of guns that the British had set up on the steep hill called Queenston Heights, with the two armies fighting for control of this position. Brock was awakened by the sound of the battle and hurried to Queenston, recruiting militia units he found along the road to join the fight.
Brock and his troops reached the scene of the battle and started moving up the hill toward the gun battery. Suddenly they saw that a regiment of Americans troops had just arrived at the top, so Brock's men scrambled back down again. They charged on the hill again with Brock in the lead. Six feet tall and dressed in the red jacket of the British army, Brock made an easy target for the American sharpshooters. One of them shot him in the chest, and he died almost instantly.
After Brock's death, command passed to Lieutenant Colonel John McDonnell, and then to Sheaffe when McDonnell also was killed. The British went on to win the battle, but the victory was tarnished by the loss of the dynamic Brock, who seems to have earned more respect and fondness from the troops than any other British commander in the War of 1812. Canada embraced him as one of its national heroes, and in 1824 a 130-foot stone memorial to Brock was placed on Queenston Heights. This monument was destroyed by an explosion in 1840, but another—this one fifty-two feet taller than the first—replaced it in 1856. The bodies of both Brock and McDonnell were interred in its base.
Where to Learn More
Elting, John R. Amateurs to Arms!: A Military History of the War of 1812. Algonquin Press, Chapel Hill, N.C., 1991. Reprint, New York: Da Capo Press, 1995.
Heidler, David S., and Jeanne T. Heidler, eds. Encyclopedia of the War of 1812. Santa Barbara, Calif.: ABC-CLIO, 1997.
Hickey, Donald R. The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1989.
Tupper, Ferdinand Brock. The Life and Correspondence of Major-General Sir Isaac Brock. 2nd ed. London: Simpkin, Marshall, 1847.
Gauthier, Alain. "Biography of Isaac Brock." The War of 1812 Website. [Online] http://www.militaryheritage.com/brock.htm (accessed on November 26, 2001).
Monument to Sir Isaac Brock. Canadian History Image Gallery. [Online] http://canadahistory.about.com/aboutcanadahistory/library/b…/b177-brockmonument.htm (accessed on November 26, 2001).
"War of 1812." [Online] http://www.galafilm.com/1812/e/index.html (accessed on November 26, 2001).
Hull's Proclamation to the Citizens of Canada
The following proclamation was issued by General William Hull after his troops had crossed the Detroit River into Canada in July 1812. This attempted invasion quickly proved a failure when Hull, worried that the British would soon unleash huge numbers of their Native American allies, retreated to Detroit.
Inhabitants of Canada
After thirty years of peace and prosperity, the United States have been driven to arms. The injuries and aggressions, the insults and indignities of Great Britain have once more left no alternative but manly resistance or unconditional submission. The army under my command has invaded your country. The standard of the union now waves over the territory of Canada. To the peaceful and unoffending inhabitants it brings neither danger nor difficulty. I come to find enemies, not to make them; I come to protect not to injure you … I have a force which will break down all opposition, and that force is but the vanguard of a much greater. If, contrary to your own 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 you …
Source: Documents on the War of 1812. [Online] http://www.hillsdale.edu/dept/History/Documents/War/FR1812.htm (accessed on November 26, 2001).