Isaac Brock was born on October 6, 1769 in St. Peter Port on the British Channel Island of Guernsey. The year 1769 also happened to be the same year that the era’s two greatest generals were born: Napoleon and the Duke of Wellington. Brock was the eighth son of a fairly well-to-do family. He was said to have a good nature and enjoyed boxing and swimming. At the age of 10, Isaac left home to complete his education at Southampton. Like four of his brothers, Isaac’s future would lie in the military. He was fifteen when he entered the 8th Regiment as an ensign and would gain valuable combat experience. He was tall, robust and athletic for his age, perfect for the rigors of a military life.
Isaac saw action during a British expedition against Holland, an ally of France, in the summer and autumn of 1799. His regiment the 49th was part of a 10,000 man force that attacked the town of Egmont-aan-Zee on the shore of the North Sea 20 miles northwest of Amsterdam. During the close action, Brock narrowly missed being killed when a spent musket ball hit him in the throat and knocked him off his horse. His neck cloth had absorbed the shock, leaving him bruised and stunned.
In 1801, Brock was present at one of the greatest naval battles in history – the battle of Copenhagen where the British fleet defeated the Danish fleet. Brock was one of the officers who congratulated Vice Admiral Lord Nelson on his victory.
The year 1802 finds Brock, now a lieutenant colonel, and the 49th regiment stationed in Canada. This posting would last for the next ten years. Brock, under the authority of Governor General James Craig works tirelessly to establish and train militia units for a possible war with the United States along with repairing and improving fortifications especially the crumbling defenses around Quebec City. He has gained practical experience as an administrator. After a brief leave in England, Brock returns to Quebec in 1806. He is soon given the command of all the troops in both Upper and Lower Canada, with the pay and allowance of a brigadier. Brock continues his work to shore up the defenses of the colonies – especially Upper Canada. With tension mounting between the United States and Great Britain, there is a real growing threat of invasion from the south.
By 1812 Major General Isaac Brock is in charge of all military forces of Upper Canada and the province’s acting administrator. Now in his forties, he is a physically powerful man with a massive figure almost six foot three in height. Brock is impetuous and has a reputation for audacity. The word impossible is not in his dictionary nor does he believe it should be in a soldier’s dictionary either. He is well liked and admired especially by those in his command. But there is a certain aloofness and frustration he carries with him. Perhaps it is the aloofness of command and the frustration of not being where he really wants to be. Brock would have much preferred to be with Wellington and the main British army on the European Continent fighting Napoleon.
When war finally broke in June 1812, Brock’s situation despite all his preparations the past several years was still desperate. He had 1,200 regular soldiers with him and of the 11,000 militia in the province Brock had estimated that as few as 4,000 would fight. Considering the overwhelming numbers the U.S. army could muster it was looking like a struggle between David and Goliath. Brock, fully aware of this would remark “Most of the people have lost all confidence. I however speak loud and look big!” Strong words soon followed by strong action.
Instead assuming a defensive posture, General Brock takes the fight to the Americans at Michilmackinac and Detroit and won decisive victories. Brock with the help of the Shawnee Chief Tecumseh captured the entire garrison at Detroit using superior tactics and deception. Despite his strong position at Detroit, Brock rushed back to Fort George in Niagara with all possible speed. He was certain of an imminent American attack across the Niagara River. His assessment of the strategic situation was correct. The American Army was forming at Lewiston and would soon use their bateaux to cross the treacherous Niagara River.
In a letter written hurriedly only hours before his death, General Brock reports his situation to Sir George Prevost (commander-in-chief of all British forces in North America):
October 12, 1812.
The vast number of troops which have been this day added to the strong force previously collected on the opposite side, convinces me, with other indications, that an attack is not far distant. I have in consequence directed every exertion to be made to complete the militia to 2,000 men, but fear that I shall not be able to effect my object with willing, well-disposed characters. Were it not for the numbers of Americans in our ranks, we might defy all their efforts against this part of the province.
In the early hours of the morning of October 13, 1812, Brock, who was at Fort George heard distant canon fire at Queenston. The attack was on and despite heavy fire from 300 British defenders in Queenston, an American Invasion force was crossing the Niagara River. Within a matter of hours the Americans held the heights due in part to a daring and steep 300ft climb up the escarpment by 60 American soldiers. Now General Brock had the task of counterattacking and retaking the heights. Believing he could not give the Americans time to establish their position, Brock decides not to wait for the reinforcements he asked for from Chippawa and Fort George. Twice he attempts to retake the heights, the second time he takes a bullet in the chest from a sniper. Brock is dead and Upper Canada is in peril.
Although this was a desperate situation, Canada’s defenders would ultimately win the day thanks to the Mohawk Indians who were making running hit and run raids creating fear in the American troops on both sides of the river and to the combined British and Canadian reinforcements from Chippawa and Fort George.
Despite being killed early in the battle, Brock would become known as the “Saviour of Canada”. His courage and audacity had made him a key influence in the early months of the War of 1812 and a key figure in the history of Canada.