Dictionary of National Biography, 1885-1900/Prevost, George (1767-1816)

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PREVOST, Sir GEORGE (1767–1816), soldier and governor-general of Canada, was eldest son of Major-general Augustine Prevost (d. 1786), who served under Wolfe, by his wife Anne, daughter of Chevalier George Grand of Amsterdam. Born on 19 May 1767, he entered the army and became a captain on 9 June 1783, took a company in the 25th foot on 15 Oct. 1784, was promoted major in the 60th (Royal American) foot on 18 Nov. 1790, and shortly afterwards was sent to the West Indies with his regiment. Becoming lieutenant-colonel on 6 Aug. 1794, he commanded the troops in St. Vincent in that and the following year, and saw much active service. On 20 Jan. 1796 he was twice wounded in repeated attempts to carry Baker's Ridge, St. Vincent. On 1 Jan. 1798 he became a colonel, and on 8 March brigadier-general.

In May 1798 Prevost was nominated military governor of St. Lucia. Applying himself to abate the discontent of the French population, and to reform the disorganised law courts, he so won the hearts of the people that, on their petition, he was appointed civil governor on 16 May 1801. In the following year his health compelled his return to England. On 27 Sept. 1802 Prevost was appointed captain-general and governor-in-chief in Dominica. In 1803 he aided in retaking St. Lucia from the French, and in February 1805 had a severe tussle with the French for the possession of Dominica. On 10 May 1805 he again obtained leave to visit England, was placed in command of the Portsmouth district, and on 6 Dec. 1805 was created a baronet. He was now major-general, and on 8 Sept. 1806 became colonel in his regiment. In the same year he was second in command when Martinique was captured. In January 1808 he became lieutenant-general.

In 1808 Prevost became lieutenant-governor and commander-in-chief of Nova Scotia, where he increased his reputation. On 14 Feb. 1811 he was, at a critical juncture, chosen to be governor of Lower Canada and governor-general of British North America, in succession to Sir James Henry Craig [q. v.] He found the Canadians suspicious and untractable, while the United States were threatening war, of which Canada was to bear the brunt. Prevost's first action was to undertake a tour of military observation; he next remodelled his executive council. On 21 Feb. 1812 he met his parliament, and was cordially received. The house responded to his request for unusual supplies, and on 19 May the assembly was prorogued. On 18 June the United States declared war; on the 24th the news reached Quebec. Prevost acted with promptitude, yet showed every consideration to American subjects then within his jurisdiction. When the news of the repeal of the orders in council was received, he concluded an armistice with the American general; but it was disavowed by the States, and the war went on. Through his influence Canada made it primarily a defensive war, and the British government retained the confidence of the Canadian people, in spite of the ill-feeling which smouldered in the House of Assembly. But in 1813 the house, irritated with the governor's cautious reception of the impeachment of two judges, Sewell and Monk, resolved that by his answer to the address he had violated the privileges of the house. A few days later, however, the house resolved that ‘they had not in any respect altered the opinion they had ever entertained of the wisdom of his excellency's administration.’

Prevost's intervention in the military operations of the campaigns of 1812–14 was most unfortunate. Though nominally commander-in-chief, he left the chief conduct of the war to others, and his own appearance in the field on two occasions was followed by the humiliation of the British arms. In the one case—on 17 Feb. 1813—Prevost started for Upper Canada, and, after waiting at Montreal for the arrival of Sir James Yeo from England, went with him to Kingston, and concerted the attack on Sacketts Harbour on 27 May. A brilliant attack was made by the British troops—the Americans were already routed—when Prevost, seized with doubt, sounded the signal for retreat. The scheme of invading New York State, in July 1814, was likewise due to Prevost. The Canadian forces had been reinforced by Peninsular veterans; the army and fleet were to co-operate for the reduction of Plattsburg. The attempt ought to have been successful, both by land and sea. But by some error the Confiance was sent into action alone, and Prevost, instead of giving her immediate support, suddenly decided to retreat.

On 21 Jan. 1815 Provost met the new parliament of Lower Canada, and soon announced that peace had been concluded. The assembly proposed to present him with a service of plate of 5,000l. value, ‘in testimony of the country's sense of his distinguished talents, wisdom, and ability.’ The legislative council, however, declined to assent to the bill. In closing the session Prevost announced that he was summoned to England to meet the charges arising out of his conduct before Plattsburg. On 3 April he left amid numerous addresses from the French Canadians. The British section of the population were not so warm in their commendations. He reached England in September, and on learning that he had been incidentally condemned by the naval court, he obtained from the Duke of York permission to be tried in person by court-martial. But the consequent anxiety ruined his health, and he died in London on 5 Jan. 1816, a week before the day fixed for the meeting of the court. He was buried at East Barnet, Hertfordshire.

His brother, Colonel Prevost, still demanded an inquiry, but the judge-advocate decided that it could not be held. Lady Prevost made similar efforts, without result; but at her request the prince regent publicly expressed his sense of Prevost's services, and granted the family additional armorial bearings.

Prevost seems to have been cautious to a fault, wanting in decision, always anticipating the worst; but he was straightforward, ‘amiable, well-intentioned, and honest.’ There seems to be little room for questioning Prevost's success in civil affairs, and he was an efficient soldier while he filled subordinate rank.

He married, 19 May 1789, Catherine Anne, daughter of Major-general John Phipps, R.E., and had a son, George (1804–1893) [q. v.], and two daughters, who died unmarried.

[Army Lists; Ann. Register, 1816; Southey's Chronicles of the West Indies; Christie's Administration of Lower Canada by Sir George Prevost, Quebec, 1818, see esp. the Postscript; Roger's History of Canada, vol. i. Quebec, 1856; Withrow's History of Canada; James's Naval and Military Occurrences of the War of 1812–14; Letter of Veritas, Montreal, 1815; Canadian Inspector, No. 1; Gent. Mag. 1816 i. 183, 1817 i. 83; Some Account of the Public Life of the late Sir George Prevost, &c., from the Quarterly Review of 1822.]

C. A. H.