Every crisis brings a need for leadership. Numbers, geography and technology matter, but to take advantage of or overcome these factors requires leadership. The War of 1812 was no exception. After the war, Commodore Sir James Lucas Yeo wrote that British success had more to do with the stupidity of the American leaders than with any positive actions by the British. He pointed out that the Americans had failed to focus on the vulnerable St. Lawrence River transportation route.
With the passage of time, the deeds of some leaders become legendary, while those of others fall into disrepute. It is easy to forget that most military leaders were thrust into new and difficult circumstances and that their decisions were made under duress. The following are a few memorable leaders of the War of 1812.
Robert Barclay (1786-1837) entered the Royal Navy as an 11-year-old in 1798 and served on Lord Horatio Nelson’s flagship, HMS Victory, in 1805. As lieutenant aboard HMS Swiftsure, he took part in the Battle of Trafalgar on Oct. 21, 1805. Repeatedly noted for his bravery, Barclay lost his left arm in 1809 in action against the French in the English Channel.
The War of 1812 brought Barclay to Halifax in February 1813. Commodore Sir James Lucas Yeo sent him to Lake Erie as senior officer. At Amherstburg, he took command of the 16-gun ship Queen Charlotte and a small squadron. In number of vessels, he was superior to the American forces, but he lacked naval stores and trained seamen.
On Sept. 9, Barclay sailed to engage American Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry in battle. He found the American squadron among the Bass Islands soon after daylight on Sept. 10, and the encounter began just before noon that day. After furious action, Barclay appeared to be winning, but then the situation was dramatically reversed. Every British captain and all the experienced officers were either killed or seriously wounded. Perry accepted Barclay’s surrender and made prizes of the British vessels.
At a court martial afterward, Barclay was totally exonerated for the defeat.
Sir Isaac Brock
Sir Isaac Brock (1769-1812) is one of the few consensus “heroes” of the War of 1812. Part of his fame is, of course, the legend that has grown out of his death on the battlefield of Queenston Heights. Brock came to Canada in 1802 and showed great energy in improving the defences of the country. In July 1810, with war in the air, Sir James Craig, governor of Lower Canada, sent Brock to take charge in Upper Canada, where, in addition to being military commander, Brock was also administrator of the government.
Well aware of the weakness of the British position in Upper Canada, Brock determined early on that the war would be lost without the support of the First Nations. This was the purpose of his bold offensive actions in seizing Fort Michilimackinac and Detroit, which persuaded the aboriginal leaders, notably Tecumseh, to side with the British. Brock’s dramatic victories also heartened the populace and inspired the militia.
Brock was killed leading a hasty counterattack up the slope of Queenston Heights on Oct. 13, 1812. He was buried at Fort George (Niagara-on-the-Lake), then moved to Queenston Heights beneath a lofty column that still dominates the battlefield. But for his leadership in the summer of 1812, Upper Canada would almost certainly have fallen to the United States.
John Norton (Teyoninhokarawen)
John Norton (dates of birth and death unknown) was the son of a Scottish mother and a Cherokee father. He came to Canada as a private soldier, deserted and was discharged. Norton became a schoolmaster, then a fur trader and an interpreter in the service of Captain Joseph Brant (Thayendanegea), a Mohawk chief who adopted him as his nephew and successor.
While in England between 1804 and 1806, Norton became associated with the evangelical missionary movement. Having found a place in missionary work, he returned to Canada but thought the conditions at the Grand River settlement were depressing. On April 9, 1809, Norton set out from Grand River on a journey that would take him 1,600 kilometres through Ohio, Kentucky and Tennessee, where he was accepted as a Cherokee.
Throughout the campaign in 1812, Norton assembled and commanded fighting men of the Six Nations and other tribes along the Niagara frontier. His leadership in the victory at Queenston Heights in October was the high point in his military career. He used the woods on the right flank of the American force to pin down the enemy’s advance until Major General Sir Roger Hale Sheaffe and his troops came up to sweep the Americans off the heights. Sheaffe honoured Norton by appointing him to the “Rank of Captain of the Confederate Indians.”
In the campaigns of 1813, Norton and about 100 First Nations allies were at Fort George (Niagara-on-the-Lake) when the Americans attacked in late May, and they took part in the subsequent British withdrawal to Burlington Heights (Hamilton). After the American thrust was stopped at Stoney Creek on June 6, Norton and some warriors pursued the retreating enemy.
In 1814, Norton was at the head of a fighting force at the Battle of Lundy’s Lane in late July and at the unsuccessful British assault on Fort Erie in mid-August. After the Treaty of Ghent was signed in December, he retired from fighting and was granted a pension of £200 per annum. He continued to support the claims of First Nations war veterans for losses incurred during the campaigns.
Oliver Hazard Perry
Oliver Hazard Perry (1785-1819) was born in Rhode Island. He became a commissioned lieutenant in the United States Army, and in 1807, at the beginning of the War of 1812, Perry was sent to command the American forces on Lake Erie. When he arrived in Presque Isle (Erie, Pennsylvania), Perry commissioned several carpenters to build a fleet of ships. Within a year, he had nine ships. However, only two—the Lawrence and the Niagara—were fit for battle. Perry also assembled about 500 men to serve under him, and after several months of drilling, they were a capable naval unit.
In September 1813, Perry set sail for Put-in-Bay, Ohio, to meet the British fleet. On Sept. 10, the Battle of Lake Erie took place. Early in the engagement, the British took a heavy toll on the American ships. The Lawrence was destroyed, and Perry took the ship’s flag and rowed for the Niagara. Then the battle began to turn in favour of the Americans. The British ships suffered heavy cannon fire and were unable to fight the Niagara, which rammed the lead ship while the American sailors fired rifles at the British. By nightfall, the British had lowered their flag and surrendered to Perry, who was only 28 years old.
Perry sent a dispatch to General William Henry Harrison recounting the details of the battle. In it, he declared: “We have met the enemy and they are ours.” This naval battle secured control over Lake Erie for the United States and changed the balance of power in the western theatre of operations. Perry died of yellow fever in the West Indies six years later.
Sir George Prevost
Sir George Prevost (1767-1816) was the son of a French-speaking Swiss Protestant who had joined the British Army and was wounded at the siege of Québec in 1759. George was commissioned ensign in his father’s regiment on May 3, 1779. He saw service in the West Indies and, on Jan. 15, 1808, was appointed lieutenant-governor of Nova Scotia.
On Oct. 21, 1811, Prevost was commissioned governor-in-chief of British North America. With the approach of hostilities, Prevost’s strategy was defensive, his priority being to safeguard Québec, the only permanent fortress in the Canadas.
In the spring and summer of 1814, the British government sent Prevost 15,000 troops and expected him to undertake offensive operations, after two years of defence. Prevost planned a combined land and naval operation against Plattsburgh, New York, on Lake Champlain. Early in September 1814, he set out with a powerful army that easily outnumbered the Americans. On reaching Plattsburgh, however, he delayed the assault, insisting that the British fleet, led by Captain George Downie, wrest control of Lake Champlain from the Americans.
Prevost had goaded the junior and inexperienced Downie into joining a supposedly combined operation but then unaccountably failed to provide the promised military backing when the British ships engaged in combat with the Americans on Plattsburgh Bay. Downie was killed and his force defeated. Prevost abandoned the whole enterprise and retired to Lower Canada with a disgruntled army. This decision mortified the Peninsular War veterans, who had grown accustomed to glorious victories under the Duke of Wellington.
On March 1, 1815, Prevost heard with relief that the peace treaty signed between Britain and the United States had been ratified in Washington. The next day, to his utter amazement and mortification, he learned that he had been superseded as governor-in-chief and summoned back to Great Britain to defend his conduct of the Plattsburgh campaign.
In August 1815, a naval court martial of the surviving officers of the Plattsburgh Bay engagement decided that defeat had been caused by Prevost’s prodding the squadron into premature action. Prevost requested a military court martial so that he might vindicate his conduct, but one month before the court martial was to convene, he died of dropsy at the age of 48.
Accusations that Prevost was weak and overly cautious have remained the judgment of most historians. However, his preparations for defending the Canadas had been energetic, and in the end, he had achieved the primary objective of preventing an American conquest.
Born in Ireland, Henry Procter (c. 1763-1822) served in the British Army in the War of American Independence. After the outbreak of hostilities with the United States in the summer of 1812, Sir Isaac Brock sent Procter to take command at Amherstburg, Upper Canada. Procter’s steps to sever communications between Detroit and the Ohio settlements helped to isolate the Detroit garrison and contributed substantially to its capitulation to Brock.
On Jan. 22, 1813, Procter forced the surrender of an advance guard of Americans at Frenchtown (Monroe, Michigan), for which he would be promoted to major general. He failed, however, in two attempts to capture Fort Meigs, in Ohio, suffering considerable losses. Lack of reinforcements and Robert Barclay’s defeat in the Battle of Lake Erie on Sept. 10 of that year persuaded Procter to withdraw, against the wishes of Tecumseh and the First Nations. On Oct. 5, the pursuing Americans caught up with him at Moraviantown, and in the ensuing battle, Tecumseh was killed and British troops were captured or scattered. Procter and a few other survivors fled the scene and continued their retreat to Ancaster.
Procter’s retreat led to a court martial in December 1814 in Montréal. The court found him guilty on several charges, including the failure to rally and encourage his troops and First Nations allies during and after the battle. His sentence was reduced to a reprimand, but this was still sufficient to ruin Procter’s career.
Procter has almost always been condemned as a failure, though few accounts take note of the difficulties under which he operated.
Charles-Michel d’Irumberry de Salaberry
Charles-Michel d’Irumberry de Salaberry (1778-1829) was born in Beauport, Que. At the age of 14, he enlisted as a volunteer in the 44th Foot. He distinguished himself in 1794 by his bravery in the invasions of the French colonies of Saint-Domingue, Guadeloupe and Martinique.
In 1811, with the international situation pointing to war, Salaberry put forward a plan to set up a militia corps: the Voltigeurs Canadiens. He began recruiting for this “Provincial Corps of Light Infantry” on April 15, 1812. By the time of the Battle of the Châteauguay, in October 1813, the Voltigeurs Canadiens had 29 officers and 481 non-commissioned officers and men.
Despite action near Lacolle, south of Montréal, Salaberry was disappointed with the missions he received and wanted to leave the army, but he was summoned to proceed in all haste to Rivière Châteauguay. The Americans had crossed the border with some 3,000 men and were advancing toward Montréal. Anticipating that the enemy would cross the Châteauguay at Allan’s Corners, on the east bank, Salaberry had an abatis thrown up at the spot. Through his shrewd tactics, Salaberry created the illusion that his force was much stronger than it actually was and succeeded in discouraging the enemy. After about four hours of fighting on Oct. 26, the Americans retreated. The Battle of the Châteauguay saved Montréal from attack and took on a legendary character.
Salaberry’s role in this battle was much disputed during his lifetime, but more recently, his victory has been attributed to a fruitful collaboration by various elements against a common enemy.
Laura Ingersoll (1775-1868) was born in Massachusetts. She immigrated to Canada in 1795 and, two years later, married James Secord, a young merchant of Queenston. Early in the War of 1812, James was wounded in the Battle of Queenston Heights and was rescued from the battlefield by his wife. The following summer, on June 21, 1813, Laura learned, probably by overhearing the conversation of some American officers dining at her house, that the Americans intended to surprise the British outpost at Beaver Dams and capture the officer in charge, Lieutenant James FitzGibbon. It was urgent that someone warn FitzGibbon, and since her husband was disabled, Laura resolved to take the message herself early the next morning.
To avoid the Americans, Laura took a roundabout route from Queenston to Beaver Dams, via St. Davids and Twelve Mile Creek, some 30 kilometres through fields, swamps and woods, where she came unexpectedly on a First Nations encampment. After she explained her mission to the chief, he took her to Lieutenant FitzGibbon. On June 24, 1813, with foreknowledge of the attack, some 400 First Nations warriors, led by Dominique Ducharme, ambushed the Americans near Beaver Dams. FitzGibbon then persuaded the Americans to surrender.
Despite doubts among some historians about the nature and value of her enterprise, Laura Secord’s fame did grow near the end of her life. FitzGibbon himself said that he had placed the First Nations in a position to intercept the Americans as a result of the information she had given him. Her fame is such that two monuments have been erected in her honour, one at Lundy’s Lane in 1901 and the other on Queenston Heights in 1910.
Tecumseh (c. 1768-1813) was born in present-day Ohio. His father was a Shawnee chief, and his mother may have been Creek. Tecumseh took part in two of the three major battles over the Ohio country during the 1790s. He distinguished himself in the Battle of Fallen Timbers in August 1794 by charging a group of Americans that had a fieldpiece, or field gun. The millenarian religion preached by his brother Tenskwatawa, the Prophet, predicted that divine intervention would save First Nations from their white oppressors. Tecumseh transformed the Prophet’s religion into a movement dedicated to retaining First Nations land, and he journeyed among the First Nations to unite them in resistance.
After the outbreak of the War of 1812, Tecumseh was first reported in Upper Canada in a council at Sandwich (Windsor, Ont.) on July 8, 1812. On Aug. 5, he ambushed an American provision train in the neighbourhood of Brownstown, near Trenton, Michigan. This action, combined with news that the British had seized Fort Michilimackinac and were advancing from the Niagara frontier, delighted Tecumseh, who had been fretting at British caution. After his role in the capture of Detroit, Sir Isaac Brock wrote of Tecumseh: “A more sagacious or a more gallant Warrior does not I believe exist.”
In May 1813, Tecumseh displayed his compassion when he stopped the slaughter of prisoners taken during the siege of Fort Meigs. Tecumseh begged Major General Henry Procter not to retreat after the British lost control of Lake Erie on Sept. 10. Procter promised to make a stand at the forks of the Thames River, but when he reached the site, Procter continued on ahead of the main force, looking for a more defensible location. Finally, on Oct. 5, the Americans caught up with Procter at Moraviantown. The British troops were so demoralized that they broke and ran, leaving about 500 First Nations to face some 3,000 Americans. During this futile battle, Tecumseh was fatally wounded. With his death, effective Indian resistance south of the lakes practically ceased. Ottawa Chief Naywash (Neywash) pronounced Tecumseh’s epitaph in 1814 when he said, “Since our Great Chief Tecumtha has been killed, we do not listen to one another, we do not rise together.”
John Vincent (1764-1848) was born in Ireland and entered the British Army in 1781. In 1802, he and his regiment embarked for Lower Canada. The following year, they moved to Upper Canada and spent the next nine years in garrison duty at York (Toronto) and Fort George (Niagara-on-the-Lake). In February 1813, Sir George Prevost, governor-in-chief of British North America, made Vincent brigadier general and transferred him to the Niagara frontier. Vincent was commander at Fort George when the Americans attacked on May 25. After a bombardment by the American fleet and batteries at Fort Niagara, an American force of about 5,000 landed nearby. Vincent ordered the fort evacuated, the guns spiked and the ammunition destroyed. The British then retreated westward, taking up a defensive position along Burlington Heights (Hamilton). The Americans, who had successfully occupied the peninsula, sent a force of 3,500 infantry and 150 cavalry in pursuit of Vincent.
Vincent took the advice of an aide to turn on the enemy in a surprise night attack at Stoney Creek. On the night of June 5/6, 1813, the British fell upon the unsuspecting Americans, forcing them to abandon their positions, as well as their guns. Vincent, however, had not been in the battle. En route alone to the fight, he had been thrown from his horse and got lost in the darkness.
James Lucas Yeo
James Lucas Yeo (1782-1818) joined the Royal Navy in March 1793 as a boy volunteer. In 1805, he captured his own first command, the 22-gun French privateer Confiance, during a lightning raid against great odds on Muros, a small fortified port on the northwest coast of Spain. Recognized as a practitioner of unconventional sea warfare, he was promoted to captain in 1807. In the winter of 1808-09, he led an Anglo-Portuguese expedition against Cayenne, French Guiana. With only 400 men and a few heavy guns, he compelled the surrender of a garrison of some 1,200, protected by strong fortifications and more than 200 cannons. This extraordinary feat won Captain Yeo signal honours, including a knighthood.
On March 19, 1813, Sir James Yeo was appointed commodore and commander-in-chief on the lakes of Canada. He reached Kingston on May 15 and, within a fortnight, had deployed his men and readied his ships for action. For the time being, Yeo was unquestionably superior in ships, but his squadron was seriously undermanned.
Although Yeo was in command of Lake Ontario, his squadron on Lake Erie, led by Robert Barclay, was destroyed on Sept. 10 at Put-in-Bay, Ohio, by Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry.
Yeo devoted the winter of 1813-14 to rearmament and the building of more powerful ships, including the 112-gun HMS St. Lawrence, the strongest warship ever launched in the Canadas. He conducted a highly successful attack on the American base at Oswego, New York, and blockaded Sackets Harbor.
Yeo’s fleets suffered two serious defeats, on Lakes Champlain and Erie, when army commanders ordered his subordinates into premature action. Yeo particularly resented Sir George Prevost’s insistence that his commander, George Downie, press into action on Lake Champlain, despite being aware that he was not ready. Yeo sent a report to the Admiralty, clearly implicating Prevost as the author of Downie’s tragedy.
A brilliant officer who earned a place among the honoured leaders of the War of 1812, Yeo died at age 35 of “general debility” while en route from Jamaica to England.
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