Sir Isaac Brock (1769-1812) was a British Army officer stationed in Upper Canada from 1802 until his death in battle in 1812. He is primarily remembered for his heroic actions in the War of 1812, during which he successfully fought off numerous attempts by American forces to invade Upper Canada. After dying in the Battle of Queenston Heights, Brock became known as "the hero of Upper Canada" and remains one of the most prominent figures of the War of 1812.
Background, Education, and Early Military Service
Brock was born in St. Peter Port on the island of Guernsey in the English Channel on October 6, 1769. He received his formal schooling in both Guernsey and Southampton, England. He was the eighth son in a wealthy family; by numerous accounts, he was a hardy young man blessed with a considerable degree of athletic prowess. At the age of fifteen, Brock enlisted with the British Army.
During the Battle of Egmont-op-Zee during the Anglo-Russian Invasion of Holland in 1799, Brock was praised for his valour and bravery and soon earned a promotion to lieutenant colonel of the British Army's 49th Regiment. After helping transform the regiment from one of the most ill-reputed in the force to one of the top-performing units in the service, Brock and his men were assigned to Upper Canada in 1802. Brock and the regiment spent the next several years at various posts throughout Upper and Lower Canada, and Brock became intimately familiar with the landscape, weather, and social conditions of the regions of Canada that bordered the United States.
Brock and the War of 1812
The United States and Britain's Canadian colonies had maintained a tenuous, strained relationship since the end of the American Revolution. Contentious issues included the regulation of trade and commerce as well as disputes over western expansion. With the outbreak of hostilities becoming an ever-increasing possibility, Brock took it upon himself to improve the Canadian colonies' defence capabilities by recruiting and training local militias and enhancing fortifications.
In 1807 the so-called Chesapeake Incident brought the United States and the Canadian colonies to the very brink of war. Brock—who by that time was the chief commander of all British forces in Canada—set about making preparations for an American invasion. Diplomatic intervention prevented a military attack, although this would prove a temporary delay.
In June of 1812, after years of increasingly hostile relations, war finally broke out. At the time, Brock had an army of 5,200 regulars, including the 1,200 men under his direct command at his post in Upper Canada. He had succeeded in forming important strategic alliances with Canadian aboriginals. Brock had also recruited about 11,000 men into militias; however, by his own estimation, less than half of them were capable of fighting with any effect. Many observers predicted that an American victory would be swift and decisive.
Brock was ordered by his commanding officers to maintain a strictly defensive stance in the war, but he instead acted aggressively to ward off the American invaders and hold Upper Canada against them. On August 16, 1812, Brock led his troops and aboriginal warriors into American territory, where they were able to successfully capture the fort of Detroit. This exploit is oft-cited by historians as Brock's single greatest military achievement.
Brock's success was attributed to the illusion he created that the force he led was much larger and stronger than it was in actuality. It was Brock's alliance with the legendary aboriginal leader Tecumseh (1768-1813) that allowed him to create such a convincing illusion. However, while Brock and Tecumseh are often cited as close brothers in arms, they did not actually have a very intimate relationship, and their period of cooperation lasted a mere few days.
In preparation for the Detroit battle, which was launched in response to an American invasion of Canadian territory in July of 1812, Brock assembled forces made up of his own army regulars, British reinforcements, members of the Royal Newfoundland Fencibles, and volunteer militiamen. He led these men to Fort Amherstburg in present-day southern Ontario, where he and Tecumseh, the war chief of the Shawnee Indian tribe, formed their plan of attack. Brock then proceeded to bombard Detroit with cannon fire while leading a relatively small contingent of soldiers into the city. Believing he was under siege by a much larger force, American general William Hull (1753-1825) surrendered Detroit and the entire state of Michigan almost immediately. Only two injuries existed among Brock's men, and the British would maintain their hold on Detroit until the following August.
Death and Legacy
The American forces spent September of 1812 planning an invasion of Upper Canada through the Niagara region, with the intent of cutting off British supply routes and, eventually, conquering the entire southern portion of present-day Ontario. They launched their attack on October 13, 1812, at Queenston, Ontario. The encounter is known as the Battle of Queenston Heights.
Early on in the Battle of Queenston Heights, Brock was rallying his troops to mount a direct attack before reinforcements could arrive. The maneuver was a calculated gamble, and it proved deadly for Brock, who was caught in the sights of an American marksman. He was killed instantly by a shot to the chest. However, his men would go on to win the Battle of Queenston Heights, despite the fact that they were outnumbered.
Brock was posthumously dubbed "the hero of Upper Canada," and though he did not know it at the time of his death, he had also been knighted for his impressive victory in Detroit earlier that year. His men recovered his body from the battlefield, and after a temporary interment at Fort George, he was buried at the apex of Queenston Heights in 1824. Brock's successors vigorously defended Upper Canada from subsequent attacks, and many historians have scored the War of 1812 as a British victory.
Today, a large memorial known as Brock's Monument marks the site of Brock's death and his final resting place. The city of Brockville, Ontario, was christened in his honour, and he is also the namesake of Brock University in St. Catharine's, Ontario. He remains one of the most revered figures in pre-Confederation Canadian military history.