The Story of Isaac Brock: Hero, Defender and Saviour of Upper Canada/24
|←23|| The Story of Isaac Brock: Hero, Defender and Saviour of Upper Canada by
XXIV. Brock's Last Council
It was long past midnight on the morning of Tuesday, October 13th, 1812, when Brock dismissed his advisory council of staff officers. An animated discussion had taken place over the strength of the enemy and the spot he might select to cross the river, for ruses had been resorted to by Van Bensselaer to deceive the British.
"I dare not, gentlemen," said our hero, in opening the debate, "weaken my flanks at Niagara and Erie, though I realize I am leaving Queenston not properly protected. I have just learned that General Dearborn states that while 'Tippecanoe' Harrison invades Canada, at Detroit, with 7,000 men—I do not think it necessary I should point out Detroit on the map," he added with a smile—"and while a United States squadron—not a British one, mark you—sweeps Lake Ontario from Sackett's Harbour, Dearborn himself will threaten Montreal from Lake Champlain. While the east and the west are thus being annexed by the enemy, our friend Van Rensselaer is to entertain us here.
"An ordinary boat, as we all know, can be rowed across the river at Queenston in less than ten minutes. Our spies have reported that forty batteaux, to carry forty men each, are in readiness at Tonawanda. Evans and Macdonell, when they called on Van Rensselaer, saw at least a dozen boats moored at Lewiston, some of which[Pg 129] could carry eighty men. During the deplorable armistice, as General Sheaffe is aware"—looking at that officer—"Van Rensselaer brought up 400 boats and batteaux from Ogdensburg and other points, all of his previously blockaded fleet, so the enemy has no lack of transport. The most effective disposition of our limited force is, I admit, somewhat of a problem. There is no use in evading the fact that in point of numbers and ordnance we are too weak, and as Sir George Prevost has written me not to expect any further aid, Colonel Talbot must send us a few of his militia."
"Macdonell," he said, turning to his aide, "will you write at once, to-night, to Colonel Talbot, at Port Talbot, stating that I am strongly induced to believe I will soon be attacked, and tell him that I wish him to send 200 men, the militia under his command, without delay, by water to Fort Erie."
This was Brock's last official letter dictated in council.
"General Sheaffe," he said, addressing that officer, "you, perhaps, know better than any of us the particulars of Van Rensselaer's appointment. It seems that he is an amateur soldier, pitchforked into command against his own will, a victim of New York State politics. While this is probably so, we must not run away with the idea that his other officers are no better, for, besides Generals Dearborn and Wadsworth—both soldiers of national repute—his cousin, Colonel Solomon Van Rensselaer, his chief of staff, is a first-class soldier, a proved fighting man. The latter is reported to be at the head of 750 well-trained militia, 300 of whom are selected soldiers, and fifty are said to know every inch of the river. Our[Pg 130] spies report the enemy could ferry 1,500 regulars across in seven trips.
"The safety of our redan on the Heights has given me some concern, but Dennis, Williams and others report that the height is inaccessible from the river side. If an attack in force is made at Queenston, we will have to concentrate every available man there—at the risk of weakening our flanks. Lewiston, as you have seen, is white with tents. At Fort Gray the enemy has two twenty-four-pounders, waiting to silence our eighteen-pounder in the redan. The Americans have several mortars and six-pounders on the river bank below Lewiston, ready to ship to any point by boats specially equipped, or to cover the landing of their troops on our side of the river, and to drive us back if we attempt to dispute their passage."
In district general orders prepared that night, the last official document signed by General Sir Isaac Brock, he directed, "in view of the imminence of hostilities, that no further communication be held with the enemy by flag of truce, or otherwise, unless by his special permission."
"I cannot allow looting," he said. "Arms and other property taken from the enemy are to be at all times reserved for the public service." Brock's example might have been followed to advantage in later Canadian campaigns. "I am calling," he continued, "a district court-martial for nine o'clock to-morrow morning, October 13th, for the trial of three prisoners, a captain and two subalterns of the 49th and 41st regiments."
That court-martial was not held.
On the day before, Major Evans and Colonel Macdonell had waited upon Van Rensselaer, with a letter from[Pg 131] Brock proposing "an exchange of prisoners of war, to be returned immediately, on parole." The fact of no reply having been received to this, Brock regarded as ominous.
"I firmly believe, gentlemen," he proceeded, and his confidence and courage was infectious, "that I could at this moment, by a sudden dash, sweep everything before me between Fort Niagara and Buffalo, but our success would be transient. Disaffection and desertion is rife in the American camp. Only the other day we saw six poor fellows perish in mid-stream. To-day more deserters swam the river safely. Our own force, estimating even 200 Indians under Chief Brant and Captain Norton, though I expect less than 100 would be nearer the mark, cannot exceed 1,500 men of all arms. These units I have collected from Sandwich to Kingston. Many of our men, as no one knows better than Quartermaster Nichol, have received no pay, are wearing broken shoes—some have no shoes at all—no tents and little bedding. It is true that they bear the cold and wet with an admirable and truly happy content that excites my admiration, but it is no less a disgrace to the responsible authorities. Sir George Prevost, as you know, has told me 'not to expect any further aid'—the old parrot cry from headquarters, 'Not a man to spare.' Let me ask the chief of the Mohawks, who is present, how many warriors he can muster?"
John Brant, or Thayendanegea, as he was known among the Six Nation Indians, was the hereditary chief. At this time he was but a youth of eighteen—a graceful, dauntless stripling, of surprising activity, and well educated. At his side sat Captain Jacobs, a swarthy, stalwart brave,[Pg 132] famous for his immense strength, and Captain John Norton, an Englishman, and chief by adoption only, who, in consideration of Brant's youth, was acting as his deputy and spokesman. The latter said that since his return from Moraviantown, and the hunting season having commenced, many of his braves were absent, but he would pledge the Mohawks would muster, when wanted, over one hundred tried men. Thanking the chiefs for their assurances, Brock continued:
"The enemy has an army of over 6,000. The four twelve-pounders and two hundred muskets captured with the Detroit is a serious loss to us. If the Detroit is lost to us, however, she is of no further use to the enemy. We are, I repeat, greatly outweighted and outnumbered by the enemy, both in siege guns and artillery, and have no forge for heating shot. I have, as a matter of form, written this day to Sir George Prevost, restating my anxiety to increase our militia to 2,000 men, but pointing out the difficulties I shall encounter, and the fear that I shall not be able to effect my object with willing, well-disposed characters. Of one thing, gentlemen, I am convinced, that were it not for the number of Americans in our ranks we might defy all the efforts of the enemy against this part of the Province.
"As to 'forbearance,' which I am constantly urged by Sir George Prevost to adopt, you are entitled to my views. While forbearance may be productive of some good, I gravely doubt the wisdom of such a policy; but, let me add, I may not, perhaps, have the means of judging correctly. We cannot, however, disguise the fact we are standing alongside a loaded mine. Let us be prepared[Pg 133] for the explosion. It may come at any moment. Vigilance, readiness and promptness must be our watchwords. Might I ask you to remember my family motto, 'He who guards never sleeps.' Even to-morrow may bring surprises—such stormy weather as we are having seems strangely suitable for covering an attack.
"I think, gentlemen, if we weigh well the character of our enemy, we shall find him disposed to brave the impediments of nature—when they afford him a probability of gaining his end by surprise, in preference to the certainty of meeting British troops ready formed for his reception. But do not, because we were successful at Detroit in stampeding the United States troops, cherish the impression that General Hull is a sample of American soldiery. If we are taken by surprise the attack will soon be known, for our range of beacons extends from the Sugar Loaf to Queenston, from Lundy's Lane to Pelham Heights. Signal guns, also, will announce any suspicious movement. One word in conclusion. As soldiers you know your duty, and I think you now all understand the position we are in—as far as I know it.
"General Sheaffe," he continued, turning to that officer, "I am much concerned as to the fate of this town, Niagara, if its namesake fort on the other side of the river should be tempted to forget the rules of war and bombard the private buildings here with hot-shot. However, we will do our best to give the invaders, when they do come, a warm reception. There are two things, Major," looking towards Evans, his brigade-major and intimate friend, "that our men must not omit to observe, namely, to[Pg 134] 'trust God and keep their powder dry,' a most necessary precaution if these storms continue."
It is worthy of note that while Brock was in conference with his staff, expecting invasion any day, General Van Rensselaer, at Lewiston, was writing the subjoined brief historical despatch to his brigadier-general, Smythe:
"Sir,—To-night, October 12th, I shall attack the enemy's batteries on the Heights of Queenston."
The weather was tempestuous. Rain clouds shrouded the Heights of Queenston in a black pall. The wind romped and rioted in the foliage. Brock's estimate of the character of the enemy was a masterly one. Van Rensselaer was about to verify our hero's prediction.