Read Canada Under Attack Online

Authors: Jennifer Crump

Tags: #JNF000000, #JNF025000

Canada Under Attack (12 page)

Also that spring, Meares returned to England where he quickly whipped up anti-Spanish sentiment over the seizures of his ships and nationalistic fervour over his claim to have settled the Sound first. Public outcry forced a government response and then British Prime Minister William Pitt the Younger announced that British ships had the right to trade wherever they chose, regardless of what Spanish law might have to say about it. The comments were inflammatory and could very well have led to war. The British Navy began to prepare and Parliament took up the cause. Fleets of warships were sent from both Spain and Britain and war would likely have been inevitable had they encountered one another. Luckily they did not. The governments of both nations then called upon their network of alliances for support. The Dutch sided with the British and sent a fleet to their aid, as did the Germans. The Spanish were closely allied with the French and dependent on their response. But although the French did mobilize their navy, in August they announced that they would not go to war.

While the posturing and sabre rattling was still going on, another Spanish expedition, this one on a scientific mission under the command of Alejandro Malaspina, arrived in Nootka Sound and mapped some of its inlets. Two of Malaspina's lieutenants took the opportunity to travel into the interior to meet with Maquinna and repair Spanish relations with the chief and the Nootka. Fortunately for Spain, they were successful. Shortly after the Spanish left, two American traders also arrived and secured several deeds to land on Nootka Sound. Generations of their heirs would unsuccessfully press the U.S. Congress to pursue their claims.

Without their French allies, the Spanish decided to press for terms and in 1790 the first Nootka Convention was signed. Under the terms of this first convention, the northwest coast would remain open to traders from all nations, captured British ships would be returned, British prisoners released, and reparations made by Spain for the cost of British losses in Nootka Sound. They were initially unable to come to terms over who had laid claim to Nootka Sound first. For several years the Spanish maintained their fort on Hog Island. The British still backed Meares' claim but the Nootka, won over by Malaspina's officers, denied selling him any land. The two sides decided to meet in Nootka Sound to continue their negotiations. For their representative the Spanish chose Juan Francisco de la Bodega y Quadra, a naval office. The British sent another naval office, George Vancouver. Although friendly, the two men could not agree to terms. Both wanted access to the Columbia River and the Spanish insisted on retaining control of Nootka Sound, something Vancouver could not accept. In the end, both countries agreed to abandon the territory they had tried so hard to acquire. The Spanish fort was handed over to the British but either country could visit the area and trade as they wished. The two also agreed to jointly prevent any other nation from laying claim to the area. Of course, that was not the end of the struggles to control Nootka Sound. Much later, once they had secured Spanish interests in the Pacific Northwest, the Americans tried, again unsuccessfully, to lay claim to the area. The Russians would never venture south of Alaska, but the British would come again, from the Pacific and over the mountains.


Their claim to the Canadian Pacific thwarted, the Americans had once again decided to “rescue” the inhabitants of central Canada. In 1812, Thomas Jefferson declared to the American people that capturing Canada would be, “a mere matter of marching.” Between 1812 and 1814, the Americans launched several ill-fated attacks on Canadian soil: on Montreal, Niagara, Erie, and dozens of other towns, villages, and forts. The Canadians and British were vastly outnumbered — in most cases two to one — yet they still remained unbowed. Even after what the Americans believed would be a symbolic death blow — the razing of York — the Canadians still refused to give up. The “march” lasted for two years but Canada eluded capture and fought back — eventually taking the war to the steps of the White House before the American government finally sued for peace.

For most of the 10 years that Major-General Sir Isaac Brock had been stationed in Canada, he had wanted nothing more than to leave. The career soldier yearned to be where the real action was — on the battlefields of Europe, fighting Napoleon. But instead he was stuck in Fort George, an old wooden fort outside the town of Newark, Upper Canada (present-day Niagara-on-the-Lake, Ontario), waiting for a war that might never happen. He had sent several letters to the Prince Regent — the head of the British armed forces — requesting permission to return to England, but to no avail. His boredom and frustration with life on the Niagara frontier is reflected in a letter he wrote to his brother in 1811: “You who have passed all of your days in the bustle of London, can scarcely conceive the uninteresting and insipid life I am doomed to lead in this retirement.”

Blonde, blue eyed, and well over six feet tall, Brock was a dashing figure in his scarlet uniform. At 42, he was the commander in chief of all the troops in Upper Canada. He had proved himself in battle and was respected and admired by his men. In the early 19th century, Canada, then known as “the Canadas,” was a loose confederacy of villages scattered along the eastern half of the continent in two provinces, Upper Canada and Lower Canada. Most of the colonials were farmers, and many were recent immigrants from the United States — Loyalists who had fled following the American War of Independence. The fluid border that had been drawn after that war was still defended by a series of isolated wooden forts, most of which were in a state of frightening disrepair. The British soldiers who manned them buffered their isolation with rum and dreams of past victories. The Canadian militia was a largely ad hoc force. They met once a year for training, were seldom available during harvest or other critical times for their farms, and received no pay. Few of the British officers expressed confidence in the abilities of the militia and many were concerned that the Canadians — many of whom were recently arrived immigrants from the United States — could not be counted on in the event of a war with their former country. In fact, Brock's commander, Lieutenant-Governor Sir George Prevost, referred to them as, “a mere posse, ill-arm'd and without discipline.”

When a letter arrived from the Prince Regent in early 1812, finally granting Brock permission to return to England, he should have been ecstatic. His opportunity had arrived. Fame and glory in the fight against Napoleon could be his. But, by that time, things had become a whole lot more exciting in Canada. Every sign pointed to war with the Americans, and Brock, as the acting political administrator of Upper Canada, felt duty bound to stay. His next letter to England requested leave to remain in Canada. The colonials had whispered of war with the Americans for most of the decade, but recent rumours seemed to hold more substance. Some members of the American Congress were openly calling for war. Indeed, many of them believed that a war with Canada would barely be a war at all. The odds did seem to be in the Americans' favour; America's population was seven million, it had a trained army of more than 35,000, and an ample supply of arms. By contrast, Canada's population was barely half a million, it had only 5,000 British soldiers, a possible 4,000 militia, and very few arms.

All able-bodied Canadian men could have been called up to serve on the militia, but Brock thought it prudent to arm a mere 1,500 of them. He knew that few had any deep attachment to Britain, and fewer still could be counted on to commit to a war they saw as a fight between the British and Americans. Brock had little respect for the Canadian militia. He believed that they were ill-trained and ill-equipped, and that they would desert at the first opportunity. However, the general's opinion about Canadian fighting men would change over the next few months.

On June 19, 1812, while at a formal dinner with his American counterparts at Fort George, Brock was informed that President Madison had declared war on Canada. The officers, who had frequently socialized until then, politely finished their meal before returning to their respective headquarters to plot strategy. The whispers of war became a deafening shout as word spread. No one doubted the outcome. Canadian politicians, civilians, and the Native peoples believed an American victory was inevitable. Brock desperately needed the Natives as allies, but they were reluctant to back the losing side.

No one, it seemed, had counted on Isaac Brock.

“Most of the people have lost confidence,” he wrote to one of his brothers. “I, however, speak loud and look big.”

Isaac Brock was a natural leader with a reputation for boldness and quick thinking. His ability to bluff was legendary. In his youth, he had been challenged to a duel. He had accepted, stating that he would fight the duel, but not at the usual 30 paces. Instead, he and his opponent would fire at each other over a handkerchief. His opponent had quickly backed down. This kind of quick thinking helped Brock to even the odds against the Americans before the first volley had even been fired. As soon as he heard that war had been declared, Brock passed the news Amherstburg, more than 300 kilometres away at the northwest end of Lake Erie. Shortly after Brock's courier arrived at the quiet fort on the banks of the Detroit River, the American schooner
blithely sailed past, on its way to Fort Detroit, Michigan. A young French Canadian lieutenant at the fort, Frederic Rolette, ordered a British captain and six sailors into a longboat. The men calmly approached the
Cuyahoga Packet
, boarded her, and told the captain and crew they were prisoners of war. The Americans were stunned — they'd had no idea that war had even been declared.

The capture of the
Cuyahoga Packet
had provided Brock with some critical information. The boat had been carrying correspondence from William Hull, an American general who was slogging his way through the forests of western Michigan, en route to Fort Detroit. Hull, it turned out, was also oblivious of his country's declaration of war.

The correspondence found on the
Cuyahoga Packet
confirmed what Brock had already suspected. Once Hull reached Fort Detroit, he would launch an attack on the village of Sandwich, near Fort Amherstburg. The correspondence also revealed that Hull felt he had greatly overestimated his enemy's strength, and that he was terrified at the prospect of fighting the Native warriors who were aligned with the British. Further, his army was small and demoralized. Brock estimated it would take Hull at least four weeks to reach Fort Detroit, and he planned to pay him a visit there. But first he arranged to deliver a blow to the Americans on another frontier. During the tedious years before the war, Brock had been quietly placing his men in strategic areas so they would be ready for the Americans' opening move. Since that war had been declared, he sent a missive to Robert Dickson, one of his leaders. Dickson, a Scott known as “the red-haired man,” had married a Sioux woman. His loyalties were with the Native peoples who had accepted him as one of their own. He considered himself a Sioux warrior.

Dickson and his 250 warriors had already joined a group of pensioned British soldiers at St. Joseph Island in the northern arm of Lake Huron. When they received word from Brock on July 17, the warriors and old soldiers, accompanied by a handful of fur traders, immediately followed his orders. Under cover of darkness, they silently paddled across Lake Huron to Michilimackinac Island. The island, which had been reluctantly abandoned by the British following the American War of Independence, had been crucial to the western fur trade — and would be again. After quietly waking the villagers and taking them to safety, the old soldiers, along with Dickson and his men, confronted Porter Hanks, the American commander. Terrified at the sight of the Native warriors, Hanks immediately surrendered the fort.

For Brock, it was an important moral victory, albeit a bloodless one. The British had won the first battle. It also sent a clear message to the Native peoples: the British were willing to fight and able to win. The distribution of spoils from the capture sent another message: there were rewards to be had if one sided with the British. Despite orders from his superiors to act defensively only, Brock immediately attempted to provoke a fight with General Hull. On August 15, he ordered an artillery barrage of Fort Detroit. Then he audaciously demanded that the Americans surrender. Safe within the walls of the fort with a large contingent of soldiers, Hull, not surprisingly, refused.

Later that night, after the guns had faded into silence, Brock sent the Shawnee war chief Tecumseh and 500 of his warriors across the Detroit River. Once across, they silently surrounded the fort and stayed hidden in the dense forest. With 500 Native warriors, 7000 local militia, and barely 300 regular soldiers,
Brock knew his men were hopelessly outnumbered. To compensate, he used the two strategies that he became famous for. First, he ordered the British soldiers to give the militia their spare uniforms. There were not enough uniforms to go around, so they shared them — a bright red jacket here, a pair of white breeches there. Then he invoked the second part of the plan. On the morning of August 16, after leading this ragtag army across the river, Brock organized the men into columns and ordered them to march at twice the usual distance from one another. To the Americans watching from the fort, Brock's troops seemed twice as numerous as they really were.

Brock rode at the head of the line, his great height and red and gold uniform making him an easy target. When an aide suggested that Brock would be safer somewhere within the column, he refused. He would not, he said, ask his men to go where he was not willing to lead.
Just as the British came within range of the American guns, Brock veered off and led his men into the safety of a nearby ravine. Remembering Hull's fear of Native warriors, Brock had ordered Tecumseh to parade his troops across a field in full view of the fort immediately after the army and militia had taken refuge in the ravine. The warriors crossed the field, disappeared into the forest, and doubled back to the place where they had begun their march. Then they marched again — and again. General Hull was convinced he was facing 1,500 warriors and over a thousand British regulars.

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