Book Review – By Mike Kennedy
The Astonishing General: The Life and Legacy of Sir Isaac Brock – By Wesley B. Turner
Published by Dundurn Press – 369 pp. $35.00
This month will mark the anniversary of the death of what must surely be one of Canada’s best-known and most celebrated military leaders. On the morning of October 13, 1812, while leading a charge against an enemy position at the Battle of Queenston Heights, Major General Sir Isaac Brock took an American musket ball to the chest, and died almost immediately. In the 200 years since that fateful day, the dramatic circumstances surrounding Brock’s death have made his demise an iconic moment in this country’s history, and his legacy has been commemorated in many different ways, including having his name carried with pride by 5 Squadron at RMC. In The Astonishing General, former history professor Wesley Turner provides an intimate and detailed account of the life of this remarkable soldier.
Isaac Brock was born into a merchant family on the Channel Island of Guernsey in 1769. Growing up, his first language was French, and he was noted for his athletic prowess, especially at swimming and boxing. He entered military service at the age of 15, when his family purchased an Ensign’s commission for him, as was the customary practice at the time. In 1791 he joined the 49th Regiment of Foot, and by 1797 he was its senior Lieutenant Colonel and commanding officer. After leading the regiment through brief periods of action against the Dutch in 1799 and the Danes in 1801, in 1802 Brock was ordered to take the 49th to Canada, where he would eventually remain for the rest of his days.
In many ways, Brock found life in Canada to be lonely and isolating, and he longed to be with Wellington in the Peninsular Wars. Nonetheless, he soldiered on, proving himself to be a competent and compassionate leader who did his best to improve the lot of the troops under his command. At the same time, his own career continued to progress, and by June 1811 he had advanced to the rank of Major General.
Throughout the first decade of the 19th century, tensions between Britain and the United States continued to escalate as a result of the Royal Navy’s persistent impressment of American seamen and blockade of U.S. trade with France, and British support for Indian tribes that was intended to stymy the Americans’ attempts to settle the Ohio Valley. By the early part of 1812, it seemed clear that war between the two countries was inevitable, and that Upper and Lower Canada would be the likely battleground.
As the threat of an American invasion loomed ever larger, things did not look too promising for the British. Whereas New York State had a population of nearly one million people at the time, Upper Canada was a vast, thinly-populated expanse that counted barely 77,000 souls within its borders. To defend this enormous territory Brock had a small force of only about 1,000 British regulars at his disposal, augmented by a variety of local militia whose intentions were good, but whose training was at best highly questionable. Even so, the formidable odds he was up against did not deter Brock from boldly affirming his intentions to repel the invaders by whatever means necessary. “Most people have lost all confidence” he famously stated’ “I however look big, and speak loud !”
One of the key themes that emerges from this book is that Brock owed his success as much to his skills as a diplomat and a negotiator as to his actual ability to command on the battlefield. A notable case in point in this regard was the close alliance he forged with Tecumseh, the Shawnee Chief that Brock would describe as being “the Wellington of the Indians”. It was in large part as a result of the support received from Tecumseh and his aboriginal warriors that Brock was able to persuade American Major General William Hull to surrender Fort Detroit and his entire command – without firing a shot – in mid-August of 1812.
Two months after pulling off that remarkable feat of military diplomacy, and exactly one week after his 43rd birthday, Brock lay dead, shot and killed by an American sharpshooter who fired from barely 50 yards. He died in the opening minutes of the first combat engagement he had participated in since his short-lived adventure against the Danes a dozen years earlier, and it was left to his subordinate, Major General Roger Sheaffe, to rally the troops and carry the day. Almost immediately, the circumstances of Brock’s death elevated him to an almost cult-like status, and the memory of his personae served as an important rallying point for the British and Canadians for the rest of the war.
In the closing paragraphs of his book, Wesley Turner describes Brock as being “a large man of great character” and appropriately notes that “it is not often in failing that a person gains both victory and immortality.” The Astonishing General does a masterful job of documenting the life story, character, and accomplishments of one of the central actors in this country’s early history. This is a book that is well worth reading by any Ex-Cadet.