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History of Toronto and County of York in Ontario
Part IV: Chapter IV. Brock and the War of 1812


IT can hardly be said that the thirty months' conflict, in which the Canadian Militia took so large and honourable a part, between the forces of Great Britain and those of the United States, holds that high place in history which its importance claims for it. Occurring so soon after the struggle of the American colonies for Independence, and while Britain was at the time passing through the throes of a terrible conflict in Europe, we can partly understand why it is that what is known on this side the Atlantic as the "War of 1812" has not had its due share of recognition. Recognition from writers in American educational text-books it certainly has had; but this is a recognition which has done justice more to the American faculty of appropriating honours than it has done justice to Canadian patriotism and the cause of truth. Canadians are quite content that the struggle so long and bravely maintained on their soil through the terrible years of 1812-14 should be dwarfed in .the greater struggle of which the continent of the Old World was at the time the witness; but they are not content that the prowess of their forefathers and the rightful honours of the contest should suffer eclipse at the hands of mendacious historians. Fortunately, however, the history of the struggle is now becoming better known, and if American writers are not wholly taking back their words, their assumptions are not quite so vainglorious; and Canada is allowed to have her share of credit. Moreover, among American writers who have given careful thought to the subject, an uncomfortable feeling is beginning to betray itself in finding justification, if not for precipitating the war, at least for invading Canada. What the Americans expected to gain by this step they very quickly discovered was not to be realized; and the incensed protest of Randolph, of Virginia, against "converting Canadians into traitors, as a preparation for making them good American citizens," many of their

historians and public men now wish they had given heed to. Troubles enough Canada at this time had, and she had many and weighty reasons for being dissatisfied with her political rulers; but this did not lessen her loyalty to Britain, nor dissuade her from doing what she could to keep her son inviolate.

For a moment let us look at the work that lay before her. The total population of Canada at this time did not exceed 300,000, of which number only about a fourth was settled in the Upper Province. The regular troops of all arms in the country did not quite number 4,500 men, less than a third being in Upper Canada. With this small body of troops Canada had to rely upon her own militia, actively aided by the patriotism of her people, to defend a frontier of over 1,500 miles, threatened at many points by a large and disciplined army, with a population to draw upon of nearly eight millions! Yet such was the spirit of her sons that, hopeless as seemed the undertaking, she did not hesitate to take the field at the first signal of danger.

With the return to England of Governor Gore, in the autumn of 18:1, Lieutenant-General Isaac Brock became President and acting Administrator of the Province. Throughout this year the growing hostility to Britain shown by the United States, which had never got over the acumen of separation, rose to a flame over some unauthorized acts of British naval officers in command of vessels on the Atlantic coast. Previous acts in asserting England's "right of search" on the high seas for deserters and contraband goods, which the United States had resented, had aggravated public feeling, and Intensified the bitterness between the two countries. President Madison's non-intercourse policy, and his establishment of a close blockade over American ports, so as to cut off all trade with Britain, were portents of the coming storm. With remarkable prescience General Brock saw that trouble was impending, and he set about making preparations for defence. At the opening of the Legislature, at York, in February, 1812, he presses upon the House the importance of adopting at once "such measures as will best secure the 'nternal peace of the country, and defeat every hostile aggression." He expresses the hope, at the same time, "that cool reflection and the dictates of justice may yet avert the calamities of war." This, however, was not to be. On the 18th of June, 1812, Congress declared war against Great Britain, and took instant steps to invade Canada. Canada, with equal promptitude, proceeded to call out her militia, and determinedly braced herself to resist invasion.

It is the fashion among many American writers of to-day to deny that the War of 1812 was a war of aggression. But nothing can well be further from the truth. There was at the time a bitter hatred of England and increasing jealousy of her maritime supremacy. To humiliate her on the seas was a difficult undertaking, but not so difficult, it was thought, would be the task of snatching from her her colony on the North. That this was the design in invading Canada there can be no manner of doubt. From a volume published at Hartford, Connecticut, in 1820, we find the following emphatic corroboration of the aggressive intent of the United States in declaring war against Britain. It was nothing less than to secure possession of the rich peninsula of Upper Canada, and obtain control of the entire trade of the St. Lawrence. After enumerating the advantages of the latter river as a highway to the sea, the writer speaks thus frankly of the forcible annexation of Canada. "From these considerations," says Mr. Niles, "as well as from those of a political nature, the annexation of the Canadas to the United States, which would give us the whole of the great valley of the St. Lawrence, and the entire control of the extensive water communication which forms its natural outlet to the ocean, must always be an object of primary importance; and ought never for a moment to be lost sight of by the councils of the Republic. Our extended and extending Republic can never be considered as complete and consolidated until this object is accomplished. Was there nothing else to awaken our solicitude, to arouse our fears and provoke our pride, in relation to this subject, the great angle or peninsula of Upper Canada, which projects nearly six degrees into the very heart of the United States, ought to be sufficient. It remains a standing monument, admonishing us of our duty to ourselves, our country and posterity.

"The annexation of the territory of the Canadas to the United States would open to the future millions that will inhabit the American borders of the vast interior waters a free and natural channel of commerce down the St. Lawrence; give us a north-western frontier, guarded by impenetrable barriers of frost which would save millions that will be required to defend the present extended and exposed frontier; and remove a permanent cause of differences and wars between the two countries.

"But here is another reason, perhaps more important than any which has been noticed: the acquisition of the Canadas is necessary to preserve the political balance of this Union, and to countervail the immense territory which has been acquired to the south and west by the cession of Louisiana. In addition to these considerations, it is an object worthy of a free, an enlightened and magnanimous nation, which boasts of its liberty, its laws and civil institutions, to extend, by all just and proper means, the inestimable blessings of a free press, free suffrage, and the principles of republican government, to all who are in a condition, to receive and enjoy them; and especially to a brave and hospitable people, whose contiguity to our Republic provides them special objects of our sympathy, and whose destiny seems to have been identified with our own by the common Parent of the human family."

This delectable extract there is no need to enshrine in these pages as very exceptional evidence, from a contemporary American source, of the. designs of the United States in invading Canada. The frank remarks of Mr. Niles are no solitary confession of the feelings and desires of his countrymen at the period. It was, of course, very kind of the "free, enlightened and magnanimous nation" to take that hearty interest in a young colony which led it to treat it as "a special object of sympathy," and to desire, "by all just and proper means"i.e., by a war of conquest, bloodshed and pillage; to extend to it "the inestimable blessings ... of Republican Government." It was, further, a most laudable undertaking to aid "the common Parent of the human family" in his either unwilling or too difficult task of shaping the destinies of this country. But these North American possessions of the British Crown did not appreciate this gratuitous kindness of the good people of the neighbouring Republic; neither were Canadians particularly anxious to avail themselves of the "inestimable blessings ... of Republican Government." Nor was Canada merely coy and waiting to be wooed. She did not like the suitor, and from the mouth of many a matchlock she hotly told him so.

Space will not permit our following, with any detail, the fortunes of the war, nor does it specially lie in our way to do so. Two incidents of the conflict, however, York had special interest in, and with one of these, at least, we must in the present chapter deal. Of these incidents we need hardly say that one connects itself with the York militia and their heroic leader; the other with the attack upon and surrender of Fort Toronto, and the raiding of the capital.

Early in 1812 the Governor-General, Sir George Prevost, had received instructions to permit the return of General Brock to England, that the army of the continent might have the benefit of his services. Of this the Governor-General advised Brock from Quebec. But the latter, impressed with a sense of the critical position of the country, and believing that preferment was as likely to come to him in the fulfillment of duty at his present post, decided to remain and share with Canadians the honour, as well as the risk, of preserving the Province of Upper Canada to the British Crown. What the risk was to him we shall presently see: the sentinel column that stands to-day on Queenston Heights is a sad memorial of the risk while it perpetuates the memory of a deed of undying renown.

Less than a month after the declaration of war, the American general, with an army of 2,500 men, crossed the Detroit River and entered Canada. On hearing of this, Brock at once called an emergency meeting of Parliament, despatched some companies of the 41st Regiment, then in garrison at York, to Niagara, and thither, within a few days, followed them. Colonel Proctor, with the remaining companies of the 41st, was ordered to reinforce the troops at Amherstburg; and Captain Roberts, in command at Fort St. Joseph, was instructed to re-take the old trading-post of Michinnackinac. With the 3rd Regiment of York militia Brock himself set out, on the 6th of August, for Amherstburg. Here he was joined by the Shawnee Chief, Tecumseh, with whom and his Indian followers Brock concerted for the capture of Fort Detroit.

By this time General Hull had withdrawn his army from Canada, and retired upon the stronghold of Detroit. Promptly carrying out his project, Brock put his small force in fighting array, and crossed the river into Michigan. Before assaulting the fort he summoned the garrison to surrender The summons, to Brock's surprise, was complied with, and 2,500 American soldiers gave up to him their arms. Elated at his unlooked-for success, and enabled by the capitulation of the fort to more efficiently arm the Candian militia, he resolved at once to return to York, thereafter to cross Lake Ontario and sweep from the Niagara frontier other detachments of the enemy. By the 27th of August we find him and his troops back at the capital, where he was received with the warmest acclaims of the populace.

Unfortunately, when about to set out again, Brock's design to prevent the enemy from massing on the Niagara River was for the time frustrated by an ill-timed armistice, which had been agreed to by Sir George Prevost, who held supreme command in Lower Canada. This delayed action till the following October, gave the Americans time to concentrate a force of some 6,000 men, under Van Rensselaer, in the neighbourhood of Lewiston. At daybreak on the 13th the advance-guard of this force effected a landing on the Canadian bank of the Niagara River, despite the heroism of its defenders. General Brock, hearing at Fort George the cannonading, galloped with his aides to the scene of action, and at once found himself in the thick of a desperate onset.

The story is now a brief one. Two companies of the 49th Regiment, under Captain Dennis, with about a hundred of the Canadian militia, had for sometime been holding the enemy in check. The engagement speedily became general. A portion of the invading force, gaining the heights unobserved, from their vantage-ground began to pour destruction upon the defenders. Brock, with characteristic gallantry, instantly placed himself at the head of the troops, with whom were two companies of the militia of York, and hastened to dislodge the enemy from the heights. Conspicuously leading the storming-party, and with the cry, "Push on the York volunteers!" on his lips, Brock was struck by a musket-ball, and fell mortally wounded. Maddened at the death of their heroic leader, the troops twice essayed to clear the invaders from the flame-clad heights. Twice, however, were they driven back; and the gallant column, of barely three hundred men, was compelled to retire upon the village, waiting reinforcements. Presently these came up, and under General Sheaffe they now outflanked the Americans, and on the brink of the river forced them to surrender. Victory once more rested upon British arms, though its lustre was grievously dimmed by heavy losses sustained by the victors, and by the death of Brock, their loved commander. Three days afterwards they laid his body temporarily to rest in a bastion of Fort George, and the Canadian people mourned for their dead hero.


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