Battle of Queenston Heights
George Prevost

Portrait of Sir George Prevost, attributed to Robert Field, circa 1808-11.  (courtesy McCord Museum/McGill University).

On September 13, 1811, Lieutenant-General Sir George Prevost arrived at Quebec to take up the duties of Captain General and Governor-in-Chief of British North America. Prevost, an officer with considerable military and colonial experience, was appointed the task of readying British North America for a war with the United States.

The Prince Regent and the government gave Prevost specific guidance that limited his military and diplomatic authority. He could not undertake offensive action into the United States or declare war on his own. Most importantly, as Britain was pre-occupied with the war against Bonaparte, he could not expect any large-scale reinforcements.

Nonetheless, Prevost set about on an active legislative programme in Lower Canada that helped win over the French speaking population and that made vast improvements to that province’s militia. He also confirmed Major-General Brock as the President and Commander of Upper Canada, allowing Brock to commence preparations in Upper Canada (to this point, Brock had been “acting” in this capacity, a distinction that may seem unimportant but that had significant implications on the authority granted him). This completed the installation of a military regime in British North America.

Prevost immediately set about his task and began an inspection tour of the Lower Province. He ordered improvements to fortifications (without having to seek approval from the Board of Ordnance), enhanced the militia, ordered the movement of warlike stores, weapons and a provincial unit from the Atlantic provinces into both Canadas, oversaw the raising of provincial units in both Canadas and obtained financial support from the legislature of Lower Canada. He also initiated improvements to the provincial marine. He also advised London of his plan to defence the Canadas. Taking a departure from previous assessments that Upper Canada would not survive any attack, Prevost held that Upper Canada could be held, particularly if the Americans proved less capable in executing their attacks and if certain steps were taken. He set about improvement the line of communication between Montreal and Kingston, sent more forces into the Upper Province and ordered other improvements. This was an impressive achievement, given that so little had been done between 1807 and 1811. British preparations between September 1811 and June 1812 prepared the colony for war.

Prevost would continue to lead the war effort in British North America until 1815, when he was recalled. Faced by charges submitted by Commodore Sir James Yeo, ( and which caused the First Sea Lord to question Yeo’s conduct) Prevost was unable to clear his name due to his untimely death in 1816. History has suffered as a result as many historians and writers merely repeated each other in their assessment of Prevost, painting him as a cautious general without reference to the documentation and understanding the context within which many of his decisions were made. He had demonstrated boldness in the West Indies, especially at Dominica in 1805; his plan to raid Sackets Harbor in 1813 was certainly bold in design, but plagued in execution, largely due to poor winds and a spirited American defence. During 1814, he also commenced implementing a well-considered plan designed to regain ascendency on Lake Erie and the north west in 1815.

Perhaps Prevost’s most important achievement during the war was to have the government commit the Royal Navy to the inland seas. The failure of the Provincial Marine against the U.S. Navy convinced him that professional sailors were required and the navy, somewhat reluctantly, sent several contingents to the inland seas. This was a strategically decisive commitment of British resources.

The latest issue of the War of 1812 Magazine will be available on the Napoleon Series website on 15 September 2011. Visit The Canadian Encyclopedia for more on the War of 1812

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About John R. Grodzinski

Major John R. Grodzinski is a military historian and assistant professor at Royal Military College in Kingston. Prior to teaching at the college, he served with Lord Strathcona’s Horse (Royal Canadians) and held several staff positions. He regularly conducts battlefield tours for RMC, field force units, the Canadian Forces College and other CF units, with primary focus on the War of 1812.

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