Military Subjects:  War of 1812

The War of 1812 Magazine

Issue 1: January 2006


Command Structure and Appointments in Upper Canada, 1812 to 1814

By: John R. Grodzinski

During the course of the War of 1812, the British command structure in Upper Canada evolved from a very simple system designed to meet peacetime requirements, to one that met the demands of operations in an active theatre. For purposes of this article, command refers to the authority vested within a commander over the formations and units placed under his command. As Upper Canada became the cockpit of the war in Northern North America, the command structure evolved to maintain adequate control over field operations and to ensure the maintenance of the lines of communication on the Upper St Lawrence. The purpose of this article is to provide a brief overview of the command structure in Upper Canada and its evolution between 1812 and 1814.

During the War of 1812, British North America included two separate commands: Canadian Command and Atlantic Command. Canadian Command included Upper and Lower Canada while New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, Cape Breton Island and Prince Edward Island were in Atlantic Command. As a fishing station, Newfoundland lay outside of this structure, while Bermuda joined it in 1811.  The Commander in Chief and head of the civilian government from 1811 to 1815 was Lieutenant-General Sir George Prevost.[1]

British North America in 1791


As a separate province, Upper Canada had its own Commander in Chief, subordinate to Prevost, who was responsible for all forces assigned to him, including command of the militia within the province. This vast territory from Coteau du Lac to Amherstburg, was known as the Right Division, highlighting its function as a geographic area of responsibility rather than a field formation capable of independent operations. As the war progressed, the responsibilities within this territory became too large for one man to control, particularly as it covered not only operations on the Niagara or Detroit frontiers, but to ensure proper protection of the line of communications on the Upper St Lawrence as well. Brock’s intended to divide these responsibilities by sending  “an Officer of Rank to Kingston to take charge of the Frontier,”[2] who would answer to Brock, but leave him (and his successors) free to focus on the Niagara or Detroit frontiers.

Command Structure in 1812


In July 1812, Colonel Robert Lethbridge was sent from Montreal to Kingston to take command of the “troops and militia in the division between that post and the Lower Province.”[3] His instructions were to “proceed through the line of settlements to see the several colonels and corps of militia so as to fix their quotas an afterwards to proceed to Kingston and assume command of that post.”[4]  Lethbridge was “required to exert a vigilant general superintendence of the whole District to Montreal” [5] and “to arrange a plan for the defence of this frontier for the purpose of securing the communication between Kingston and the Lower Province.” He was to determine “how far boats armed with light guns or swivels would tend to promote this object” and “whether the militia would engage to man and defend them.”[6]


While Prevost readily allowed improvements to be made to the defences, he discouraged any offensive operations so as not to provoke the Americans; Lethbridge was to “preserve the tranquility of that part of the province.”[7] However, if the enemy attacked, defending Kingston was crucial and if it appeared Kingston would fall, those arms, ammunition and military stores that could not be carried were to be destroyed and Lethbridge was to take to the field. If it proved impossible to remain in the open, he was to move westward and join Brock or retreat to Lower Canada.[8]

During his reconnaissance of the frontier, Lethbridge noted the threat posed to batteaux traffic by vessels based at Ogdensburg.[9] Given the importance of the transit point at Prescott, just across the river from Ogdensburg, he suggested that some regular troops destined to reinforce Kingston to be diverted to Prescott, while at Kingston fortifications should be built at Point Henry.[10] Although his command at Kingston was brief, Lethbridge’s basic recommendations for the defence of the St Lawrence would be continued by his successors.

Although there was a strong garrison at Kingston and a large cordon of troops under Major General de Rottenburg stationed around Montreal,[11] the territory between Kingston and Montreal was relatively undefended. Brock pleaded for more troops, in particular “a regiment between Kingston and Montreal…would change matters materially.”[12] There were no fortified positions other than a few minor works thrown up by the militia. No overall defensive plan was developed, forcing local militia leaders to use their own initiative.

On 13 August a convoy departed La Chine with reinforcements for Kingston. Among the passengers was Colonel John Vincent, sent to replace Lethbridge. Colonel John Vincent and the remaining companies of the 49th arrived in Kingston at the end of August. With the growing importance of Kingston as a naval and military centre, Vincent became overall commander of the St Lawrence frontier, while the elderly Lethbridge was to have returned to Montreal,[13] but was then re-assigned to directing the militia flank companies in protecting the batteaux from the lesser post of Prescott.[14]

Following the failure of his raid on Ogdensburg on 3 October 1812, Lethbridge was relieved of his command. Prevost wrote Brock[15] that “having had repeatedly cause to mistrust the judgement in command of Colonel Lethbridge he has been relieved by Lieutenant-Colonel Pearson…”[16] Lethbridge was to return to Montreal, while the colourful Thomas Pearson was now in command at Prescott.[17]


Canadian Command: July 1812 - June 15, 1813

On 8 February 1813, the entire command structure was reorganized. Prevost further divided the province giving his subordinates at Amherstburg, Kingston and Prescott geographical areas of responsibility.[18] Colonel Procter was promoted to Brigadier General and given responsibility for the troops and operations around Amherstburg. The area west of Prescott around Lake Ontario to Fort George came under the new promoted Brigadier-General Vincent with headquarters at Kingston. Security of the line of communication was also enhanced when Thomas Pearson received the local rank of colonel and given command of all troops from there to Eastern District.[19] On 19 February, the boundary of the District of Montreal was extended “upon the line of communication” to Upper Canada, “as far as, and to include the Post of Prescott until further orders.”[20] There was then an overlap of responsibility between the Right Division in Upper Canada and the Left Division between Prescott and the provincial boundary. As any aid on the Upper St Lawrence would more likely come from Montreal than elsewhere in the Upper Province, Pearson tended to look eastward for help and guidance.

Canadian Command: Effective 8 and 19 February 1813


During the summer of 1813, Prevost concluded that “circumstances indicating an insufficiency on the part of Major-General Sir. R.H. Sheaffe to the arduous task of defending Upper Canada,”[21] and a new commander was needed in the Upper province. Major-General de Rottenburg, commanding the troops at Montreal, was ordered to turn over his command and to be in Kingston by 20 June at the latest.[22] On assuming his new command, de Rottenburg set about improving the army and defences in Upper Canada. He found “everything unhinged”[23] and began with improving discipline and the overall efficiency of the troops and improving the command arrangements by establishing new geographical divisions. Proctor’s forces became known as the Right Division of the Army of Upper Canada; Vincent’s command was reduced in size, extending from York to the Niagara River. It was known as the Centre Division. Finally the troops from Kingston eastwards became the Left Division of the Army of Upper Canada.[24] The order did not specify the exact location of the easternmost boundary of the Left Division, but it was probably on the border with Lower Canada.  The officer commanding at Prescott was still obliged to report all extraordinary events to Kingston as well as Montreal.[25]

Canadian Command: Effective 15 June 1813 (GO Kingston)


In November 1813, Prevost relegated de Rottenburg to a subordinate position in Lower Canada[26] and appointed Lieutenant-General Gordon Drummond as commander in Upper Canada. Prevost also replaced Vincent and reorganized the army in Upper Canada. Following the disaster at Moraviantown, the remnants of Proctor’s Right Division “were consolidated into the Centre” Division and became the Right Division, now responsible for entire area west of Kingston. Kingston and the troops to the eastward became the Centre Division. All troops between Coteau du Lac and west of Quebec formed the Left Division.  Major-General Phineas Riall was appointed the new commander of the Right Division,[27] while the Centre Division came under Major General Richard Stovin, who arrived at Kingston on 6 February 1814.[28]

Canadian Command: From October 1813


Drummond was left without a divisional commander following Riall’s capture at Lundy’s Lane on 25 July 1814. Major General Henry Conran, recently arrived from England, was rushed via Burlington Bay to the Niagara in July to assume his new command. He arrived at Fort Erie on 29 July[29], but his service did not last long, as a severe fall from his horse in early August left him with a broken leg[30] and no longer fit for field service. Drummond brought up another officer, Colonel Stewart, “from York (on being deprived of Major General Conran’s services) to assist me in the direction of the details of this division, and who arrived here yesterday, is this day attacked with ague, and is so ill as to be unable to leave his bed.”[31] This left Drummond without any officer to command the division and following the request of Colonel Scott to relinquish brigade command to return to regimental command, Drummond wrote Prevost that he “very anxious that another General Officer should be sent up to this Province as soon as may be possible.”[32]

Citing his health, the “great increase of force” in the Niagara and the extent of the frontiers, Drummond found it necessary to ask “for two general officers with the Right Division.”[33] His call was answered and by 2 September, Major-General De Watteville had arrived,[34] while Major-General Stovin departed for the Niagara once he was relieved at Kingston by Major General Kempt.[35] Stovin established his headquarters at Fort George, while De Watteville took “immediate command of the troops at or in the advance of Chippawa” with his headquarters near Black Creek.[36]

The experience of the previous three campaign seasons had proven the difficulty of conducting operations without any permanent field formation structures. During October 1814, the army in Upper Canada was again reorganized to support prolonged operations in the field, while continuing to protect the Upper St Lawrence. The Right and Centre Divisions were grouped into a Corps D’Armee under the immediate command of Lieutenant General Drummond.[37] The Right Division would be the primary field force, consisting of several infantry brigades, while the Centre Division continued responsibility for the line of communication along the Upper St Lawrence, but also include two brigades. The area between the Lower Province and Brockville inclusive constituted one brigade under Colonel Cameron, while Kingston, its dependencies and Gananoque formed another brigade under Colonel Grant. Each of the divisions were assigned staff and received Adjutant and Quartermaster General staff officers, while the brigades received a brigade major.[38]

Details regarding the composition of the Right Division are provided in orders published through throughout the fall of 1814. On 22 October, the troops in the Niagara were briefly brigaded in two brigades, under Stovin (1st Brigade based at Chippawa) and De Watteville (2nd Brigade, based at Street’s Creek).[39] By 23 October, Drummond considered his “presence on this frontier no longer absolutely required” and planned to return to Kingston. Major-General Stovin was to take command of the Right Division, with Major-General Robinson as his second in command. Major-General De Watteville would assume command of the Centre Division at Kingston.[40] With Drummond’s departure, the final organizational changes to the Right Division were completed. On 24 October, the division was formed into two brigades, “of which those [troops] immediately on the frontier will compose one and the troops at York and the regiment at Burlington the other.” De Watteville was assigned command of the frontier brigade and Colonel McNair that at York.[41] The final appointment came on 30 October 1814, when Major-General Stovin assumed command of the Right Division and the forces in Upper Canada following Drummond’s departure for Kingston.[42]

The command structure of the forces in Upper Canada evolved considerably throughout the War of 1812. Given the pre-war troop levels prior to 1812, these arrangements were quite simple, but as the war progressed, the competing demands of fighting along a number of fronts and protecting the important line of communication along the Upper St Lawrence demanded a better organization. However, the subsequent creation of subordinate commands was largely ad hoc and did not achieve a suitable structure until permanent field brigades were established during the final summer of the war. Had the war continued, this structure would likely again have changed again to suit operational needs and arrival of a large number of reinforcements.


[1] Stuart Sutherland. His Majesty’s Gentlemen Toronto: Iser Publications, 2001, p. 28.

[2] “Memoranda of General Brock on Plans for the Defence of Canada”, n.d. in in Lieutenant-Colonel E.A. Cruikshank. Documents Relating to the Invasion of Canada and the Surrender of Detroit, 1812. Ottawa: Government Printing Bureau, 1912, p. 12, 13.

[3] General Orders Quebec, 10 July 1812, RG 8 I Vol 1168, p. 192.

[4] Baynes to Brock, 8 July 1812, Cruikshank, ibid, p. 114, 115.

[5] Baynes to Lethbridge, 10 July 1812, in Preston, Kingston Before the War of 1812, p. 278.

[6] Cruikshank, ibid, p. 75.

[7] Robert Burns. Fort Wellington: A Narrative and Structural History, 1812 – 1838. Ottawa: Parks Canada, 1979, p. 13.

[8] Ibid, p. 13; Baynes to Lethbridge, 10 July 1812, in Cruikshank, “Militia in the Eastern District”, p. 75, 76.

[9] Ibid, p. 59.

[10] Ibid, p. 58, 59.

[11] Cruikshank, “From Isle aux Noix to Chateauguay”, p. 139.

[12] Brock to Baynes, 4 August 1812, RG 8 C 677, p. 3.

[13] Prevost to Brock, 12 August 1812, Documentary History Part III, p. 169.

[14] Robert Burns. Fort Wellington: A Narrative and Structural History, 1812 – 1838. Ottawa: Parks Canada, 1979, p. 15.

[15] Prevost was unaware that Brock had been killed at Queenston Heights on the 13th.

[16] Prevost to Brock, 19 October 1812, Documentary History Part IV, p. 138.

[17] General Order, Montreal, 10 October 1812, RG 8 I, Vol 1168, p. 294.

[18] Sutherland, op cit, p. 305, 364.

[19] General Order, 8 February 1813, in Cruikshank, Documentary History, Part V, p. 60.

[20] General Order, Montreal, 19 February 1813, Order Book Orders, Montreal, 22 November 1812 to 10 March 1813, McCord Museum, War of 1812 Box, Folder 4a.

[21] Hitsman, op cit, p. 153.

[22] General Order Kingston, 6 June 1813, op cit.

[23] Rottenburg to Prevost, 7 July 1813, in Cruikshank, Documentary History, Part VI, p. 199.

[24] General Order Kingston, 15 June 1813, in Cruikshank, Documentary History, Part VI, p. 87.

[25] General Order Montreal, ibid.

[26] Prevost to de Rottenburg, 11 November 1813, RG 8 I, Vol 1712, p. 56. Prevost was unmoved by de Rottenburg’s reply that he had revoked the order once it was confirmed that the American objective was Montreal. See Graves, Field of Glory, p. 285,  n. 66.

[27] General Order, 7 November 1813, RG 8 I Vol 1171, p. 89.

[28] Drummond to Prevost, 5 November 1813, RG 8 I Vol 1221, p. 169.

[29] Prevost to Bathurst, 5 August 1814, Documentary History, Part I, p. 172.

[30] Drummond to Prevost, attached to Prevost to Bathurst, 14 August 1814, Documentary History, Part I, p. 178.

[31] Drummond to Prevost, 12 August 1814, RG 8 I, Vol 685, p. 79.

[32] Drummond to Prevost, 12 August 1814. RG 8 I C 3174, Vol. 685, p. 79.

[33] Drummond to Prevost, 30 August 1814, Documentary History, Part I, p. 190.

[34] Drummond to Prevost, 2 September 1814, Documentary History, Part I, p. 190.

[35] Kempt arrived with a brigade for the planned siege of Sackets Harbor. See Baynes to Drummond, 26 August 1814, Documentary History, Part II, p. 441. Drummond to Prevost, 30 August 1814, Documentary History, Part I, p. 190; Baynes to Drummond, 26 August 1814, Documentary History, Part II, p. 441.

[36] District General Order, 23 September 1814, Documentary History Part II, p. 227, 228.

[37] General Order, Kingston, 15 October 1814, RG 8 I C 3503, Vol 1172, p. 30, 31.

[38] General Order, Kingston, 15 October 1814, RG 8 I Vol 1172, p. 30, 31.

[39] After Evening District General Order, 22 October 1814, Documentary History, Part II, p. 265.

[40] Drummond to Prevost, 23 October 1814, Documentary History, Part II, p. 267.

[41] District General Order, 24 October 1814, Documentary History Part II, p. 269.

[42] District General Order, Niagara Frontier, 30 October 1814, Documentary History, Part II, p. 281.


Poster provided by Robin Brass.


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