A Matter of Honour: The Life, Campaigns and Generalship of Isaac Brock.
by Jonathan Riley.
Montreal: Robin Brass Studio, 2011.
336 + xiv pages. $27.95 (paper).
The Astonishing General: The Life and Legacy of Sir Isaac Brock.
by Wesley B. Turner.
Toronto: Dundurn Press, 2011.
369 pages. $35.00 (cloth)
Reviewed by John R. Grodzinski
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Major-General Sir Isaac Brock, who was killed early in the War of 1812, is regarded by Canadians as the “Saviour of Upper Canada.” Interest in the life of Brock is so powerful that two new biographies have been published this year. With the bicentennial of the War of 1812 now upon us, interest in this popular figure is bound to increase.
In 1812, Brock was head of the provincial government and commander in Upper Canada; he was a relatively inexperienced officer, who, during the previous decade, held various posts in the Canadas. While his military service was lengthy, his operational experience was not-Brock’s last action had occurred in 1799. Nonetheless, Brock is credited with saving Upper Canada in 1812. Indeed, the hagiography (an idealized biography) that is so evident in many works about Brock is both pervasive, and, in some ways, perverse. The cult associated with his legacy is so strong, that when I dared present a different perspective in which Brock vacillated over some decisions, was credited with victories not his own, and that the Americans were incapable of conquering Canada in 1812, the Parks Canada employee I was speaking with at the Brock Memorial on Queenston Heights asked me to leave the grounds.
The publication of these biographies provides an opportunity to re-assess Brock’s leadership and his legacy. The authors of these works are no strangers to the War of 1812 or the Napoleonic War, and they present their subject differently. For Jonathan Riley, an accomplished soldier, leadership and command form the heart of his work, while academic historian Wesley Turner has written a biography that seeks to understand Brock and to explain why he remains such a popular figure. Complicating the task for both authors is Brock’s unique position as the sole British general to meet the Americans in the field during 1812. Comparisons with subsequent commanders are difficult, given the dramatic improvements to American tactical leadership, training, and performance. And, while, as one of the authors reveals, four other British generals fell in combat during 1812, they fell in Spain, a theatre where conditions were distinctly different from those in Canada.
Wesley Turner subscribes to the heroic view of Brock. Turner is a professional historian, and he conducted his studies at the University of Toronto and Duke University. Until his recent retirement, he spent 31 years teaching history in high schools and at Brock University. His previous writings on the War of 1812 include The War of 1812: The War That Both Sides Won (2000), and British Generals of the War of 1812 (1999 and 2011).
To Turner, Brock was the most unlikely of heroes; his high birth and unimpressive combat record in Upper Canada – amounting to two battles – does not have the makings of a glorious figure. It was following his death that Brock’s glorification came to life, and memories of his character and personal bravery transformed his setback at Queenston Heights into a victory, and transformed him into a Canadian hero. He suggests that Brock (aided by others) prevented the American conquest of Canada in 1812. Had Brock not taken Detroit, Brigadier-General William Hull would have marched into Upper Canada, outflanking Fort Mackinac in the north, and the Niagara Peninsula in the south. Another American army would have crossed the Niagara River and advanced towards Burlington Bay, leaving all of Upper Canada west of Kingston in American hands. How the Americans would have achieved this, especially since their logistical capability was almost non-existent, and their lack of command of the lakes is never considered. Hull was defeated by his lack of will, and he returned to the United States on his own. American forces collecting in the Niagara region and near the border of Lower Canada were in disarray. What Turner proposes was simply impossible.
In my view, a much better perspective on these events is provided by historian Jonathan Reilly. As War of 1812 historian Donald E. Graves, notes in his foreword, A Matter of Honour is “… a study of a good soldier by another good soldier.” Riley’s experience in the interplay between regular troops and indigenous tribal fighters, and his academic training, provides him with a unique perspective towards his topic. Lieutenant-General Jonathon Riley, CB, DSO, PhD, is currently the Master of the Armouries, responsible for the Royal Armouries collection of arms, armour, and artillery held in the Tower of London. During an impressive career in the British Army that spanned nearly 40 years, Riley held battalion and brigade commands in the Balkans, division-level command in Iraq, and, latterly, as Deputy Commander of NATO ISAF in Afghanistan. He also completed a doctorate in history, and has written 12 books on military subjects, including Napoleon and the World War, 1813 (1999 and 2007) and Napoleon as a General: Command from the Battlefield to Grand Strategy (2007).
In this, his latest book, Riley contends that Brock was guided by the moral compass of the era, and that honour, bravery, and loyalty, tinged by an impulsive nature, were his key character traits. These attributes are evident in the examination of Brock’s tenure as acting Commander-in-Chief of British North America between 1805 and 1807, and his later appointment as administrator and commander in Upper Canada. Here we see Brock dealing with, on one hand, “… the timeless struggle between the primacy of civil authority and the requirements of sound military preparations;” while on the other, achieving a “decisive effect” in establishing aboriginal engagement with Britain before hostilities commenced, and prior to his meeting with the influential war leader, Tecumseh.
Brock differed with his superior, Lieutenant-General Sir George Prevost, the Commander-in-Chief of British North America, over pre-war plans for the defence of the Canadas. Prevost’s concept relied upon an operational defensive with tactical offensives as necessary, and this was not to Brock’s liking. Brock, like many officers serving in near-isolation, may have felt local conditions were being misread, and he thus pursued matters on his own, including engaging in an alliance with the western natives, and advocating the expansion of Crown authority into American territory, which “… [committed] Britain to a strategy no one was calling for either in London or in North America.” As inept generalship and poor preparation on the part of the Americans allowed Brock to get away with this potentially- dangerous course of action,a factor that is often overlooked by historians, Riley wonders how Brock, if he had survived, would have fared against a revived American army and an expanding American navy in 1813 or 1814.
Turner provides no adequate answer for his question regarding Brock’s legacy: why has so much attention been given to a general officer who died in the early months of a conflict that lasted over three years? He refers to accounts by contemporaries of the irreparable loss to the British war effort following Brock’s death, newspaper articles that, in the post-war years, presented him as a hero, as well as the popular songs that praised Brock’s bravery. Little mention is made of the historiography of the War of 1812, and how, over the course of time, certain figures were written out of the history, while others were praised. The motives for erecting the first monument to Brock in 1827 are not explained, nor are the reasons for the construction of the second, larger monument. Many questions remained unanswered, while the military analysis is untenable.
The Astonishing General is a fair biography of Major-General Isaac Brock, yet it has many shortfalls, whereas there is little to quibble about in A Matter of Honour. Riley has presented a fresh examination of a compelling figure from the War of 1812. It is an even-handed biography that navigates clear of that mythology and hagiography that has so plagued the historiography of Sir Isaac Brock. By doing so, Riley offers a new perspective of Brock’s generalship during the War of 1812.
Major John R. Grodzinski, CD, PhD, teaches history at the Royal Military College of Canada