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Nov. 12, 2019 | Tuesday
Entertainment News
Niagara's History Unveiled: How Brock became a Canadian hero
A portrait of General Issac Brock by George Theodore Berthon, circa 1883. (Wikimedia Commons)

We Canadians sometimes have trouble acknowledging a Canadian hero, let alone one who wasn’t even born in Canada, but that is just what we have done with Maj.-Gen. Sir Isaac Brock.

Brock was born in Guernsey, part of the Channel Islands in the middle of the English Channel between France and England, in 1769. It was an auspicious year that also saw the birth of Napoleon Bonaparte, Arthur Wellesley (the Duke of Wellington and commander and chief of the British Army) and Tecumseh (the Shawnee chief).

The eighth son of a moderately wealthy family, Brock’s education started in Guernsey and at the age of 10 he was sent to Southampton to continue his schooling. He also spent a year in Rotterdam to learn French.

In his early years, Brock excelled in sports such as swimming and boxing. However, it was also noted by his many teachers that he had a sharp mind along with a kind and gentle temperament. In 1785, at the age of 15, Brock started his military career, purchasing an officer’s commission as an ensign in the 8th Regiment of Foot, following an older brother who was in the same regiment. (A “Regiment of Foot” was a division of infantrymen in the British Army.)

In the British military, purchase of a commission was a common practice that spanned almost 200 years, from 1683-1871. There were no set requirements for a man to purchase an officer’s rank; in fact, many had never had any military training at all.

The purchase system was to ensure that officers were from wealthy families, well-educated and loyal. It is interesting to note that an overly large number of these officers were killed or wounded in war, creating vacancies that urgently needed to be filled. This need saw an increase in men being promoted to a higher rank without a purchase agreement.

Brock’s military career escalated through the years between promotions and purchases. In 1790, he was promoted to a lieutenant but, later in the same year, through a government program, he gained his captaincy by raising a full company of men.

He then transferred into the 49th Foot in 1791 and that is where he stayed for the remainder of his military career. In 1795, Brock purchased his commission as a major and two years later he purchased his lieutenant-colonel rank.

Brock saw his first battle experience in 1799 against North Holland under the command of Lt.-Gen. Sir John Moore. As the North Holland campaign continued, Brock served under Admiral Sir Hyde Parker, who was part of Lord Nelson’s fleet. These two commanders greatly advanced Brocks military training.

In 1802, under the command of Lt.-Col. Brock, the 49th Foot were sent to Canada. Brock, it is said, felt he was being sent away from the battles of Europe and was not happy with this development. It was in 1803 that Brock moved to Upper Canada and was headquartered in Fort York. His second-in-command was Lt.-Col. Roger Hale Sheaffe, who was stationed at Fort George in Niagara (Niagara-on-the-Lake).

Brock’s first major problem was desertions from the Fort George garrison. At one point, upon hearing that a mutiny was about to take place, Brock himself set across Lake Ontario to put a stop to the desertions. It came to light that many of the men in the garrison did not trust Sheaffe as a commander.

Sheaffe was born in Boston prior to the American Revolution. He attended a military academy in England and then served in Ireland with the British for several years before coming to Upper Canada with the 49th Foot.

His style of leadership, though, was brutal as he was an overly severe disciplinarian and a stickler for detail. Although his actions in the Battle of Queenston Heights were exemplary, his later failures as a leader in Upper Canada overshadowed this victory.

Brock could see, though, that his quiet provincial life as a commander in Upper Canada would soon be over, that war was brewing.

There had been a continuous unrest between the United States and England after the American Revolution. Brock worked with his officers to develop a strategic plan should the United States declare war on England as he recognized that Upper Canada and Lower Canada were vulnerable to invasion.

For five years Brock repaired fortifications and built new ones while stationed in Upper Canada. Although there were 5,200 British regular soldiers who had been sent to British North America, only 1,200 were stationed in Upper Canada under his command.

There were about 11,000 militia volunteers in Upper Canada but Brock questioned their loyalty to Britain. The militia was comprised of men aged 16 to 60 who were poorly trained and ill-equipped for battle. Many had come from the United States just for the land opportunities and Brock worried that when war broke out, they might not be loyal to Britain.

By this time the people were losing all confidence in Britain ever properly defending Upper Canada against a military assault by the Americans. The despondency was so severe that many commanders were on the brink of discouragement. Brock thought otherwise.

He sent his full war plan to Lt.-Gen. Sir George Prevost in December 1811, declaring the importance to a successful outcome would lie not only in well-trained troops and militia, but also in the co-operation of the Indigenous nations, who were loyal to England. It was a bold plan.

Unfortunately, Prevost was not encouraged by Brock’s plans and advised that all care should be taken to avoid aggressive action. Prevost’s fear was that any aggression might cause the new American settlers to unite with the United States against the British in Upper Canada.

On June 18, 1812, the United States declared war on Britain and decided to invade the provinces of Upper and Lower Canada.

Brock’s first battle success at Fort Detroit as well as the surrender of Fort Michilimackinac by the Americans boosted the confidence, not only of the regular British forces but also the Canadian militia and the Indigenous allies. The militia members realized that they could defend their homes and they could beat off the aggressions of the United States. The nay-sayers were silenced.

However, the war was not over and Brock knew full well the Niagara border would be the next point for the United States to attack.

Brock, it is said, sat on the shore of the Niagara River planning his next steps for when the United States attacked. The big question was where. He had his regulars spread out very thinly along the Niagara River. The militia and the Indigenous allies were all at the ready.

On Oct. 13, 1812, Gen. Stephen Van Rensselaer, with 3,000 American troops, crossed the Niagara River attempting to land in the town of Queenston. Just 300 regular British troops were stationed in the small town, however they managed to keep the Americans pinned down at the landing site and saved the town. Not to be thwarted, the American troops found a path up the escarpment and took Queenston Heights.

Brock was awakened by the sound of the gunfire and quickly galloped from Fort George to the town of Queenston. He rallied the British troops and organized an attack to take the “redan battery” (a two-sided fortification) which was halfway up the escarpment.

(Note: On the Niagara Parkway, halfway up the escarpment from Queenston, is a parking area. You will find a sign and a set of stairs leading to the “redan gun.” There are several historical plaques on this path.)

Standing out in his redcoat uniform with gold braid, Brock was an easy target. He was killed at the base of the escarpment even before he could lead the attack on the redan. Brock was shot through the heart and died instantly.

His aid-de-camp, Lt.-Col. John Macdonell reorganized the troops and mounted a second charge up the escarpment, but he, too, was shot. He died several hours later. Both men are buried on Queenston Heights, entombed in the base of Brock’s Monument.

There are few who are ever given the chance to change the course of history. Sir Isaac Brock was one of those people. He gave Upper Canada the confidence and the determination to defend our country against aggressors.

Throughout the remainder of the War of 1812, even during the occupation by the Americans of Niagara (NOTL), his bold spirit remained very much alive.

Brock gave Canadians a true hero.

References: Ron Dale, renowned historian; Niagara Historical Society and Museum; Canadian Biography Dictionary; history on JSTOR; Canadian Encyclopedia.

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To learn more about the topic of this story you can visit the Niagara Historical Society & Museum website at, www.niagarahistorical.museum, or visit the museum for yourself.

The Niagara Historical Museum is located at 43 Castlereagh St. in Old Town, in Memorial Hall. Visit, or give them a call at 905-468-3912.

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