Military Subjects:  War of 1812


The War of 1812 Magazine

Issue 6: April 2007


The Duke of Wellington, the Peninsular War and the War of 1812

Part II: Reinforcements, Views of the War and Command in North America

By John R. Grodzinski

Despite the drama regarding grain, the War of 1812 continued to be of secondary concern to the British Government until Napoleon abdicated in 1814. Thereafter, the focus changed and Britain sent large numbers of reinforcements across the Atlantic, while the government, eager now to end the war, sought the Duke of Wellington’s advice on how it might successfully conclude the conflict.

Not surprisingly, Wellington’s responsibilities in the Peninsula allowed him little time to follow events elsewhere. In early 1814, while preparing for what would be the final campaign year of the Peninsular army, he told Lord Bathurst that he could say little about the war in America, as, “I have turned my mind but little to American affairs; that I have but little knowledge of the topography of that country and I have no means here of obtaining information to enable me to form an opinion on which I could at all rely.” [1]

Nonetheless, Wellington, ever the professional soldier, followed events closely enough to formulate some views on the American conflict and of the British commander-in-chief, Lieutenant-General Sir George Prevost.

Before proceeding, some digression is necessary to provide some context on the American War. The British strategy followed in North America had been determined in 1811, before the first shots were fired. With Britain’s primary objective being the defeat of Napoleon, Sir George Prevost, the Governor and Commander in Chief of British North America, was instructed by the Prince Regent to avoid offensive operations “except it be for the purpose of preventing or repelling Hostilities or unavoidable Emergencies.”[2] This strategy of an operational defence with limited tactical offensives was generally adhered to, much to the annoyance of Prevost’s subordinates, who for reasons unknown remained ignorant of Prevost’s instructions from the Prince Regent. Ironically, this strategy resulted in concrete gains, aided by the inability of the United States to effectively prosecute a war it had declared.

The North American theatre was large and offered many complex problems.  British territory included the provinces or colonies of Upper and Lower Canada, New Brunswick, Nova Scotia, the islands of Prince Edward and Cape Breton, Newfoundland and the Bermudas.  To give some perspective of the size of Prevost’s operational command, the distance from Halifax, Nova Scotia to Amherstburg in south-western Upper Canada - near Detroit - is 1,338 miles, just shy of the 1,550 miles between Paris and Moscow. All warlike stores, such as weaponry, which could not be manufactured in British North America, travelled a 3,200-miles long supply line from Britain to Montreal, before moving another 180 miles up the St Lawrence River to the main depot in Upper Canada at Kingston. From there, they were sent further inland. The Niagara frontier, scene of much fighting throughout the war, was 242 miles away from Kingston by overland route. From Montreal, the Niagara frontier was just less than the 403 miles between Badajoz and Vitoria. There was no road network to speak of; therefore, most communication was by water, and part of the main supply route between Montreal and Kingston was contiguous to the American frontier and thus easily cut. There was also a significant difference in the respective populations as 600,000 inhabitants of British North America faced 6 million Americans.

To defend this territory, Sir George Prevost commanded, in June 1812, 9,777 British troops, supported by the Canadian militia and Native allies. As the war progressed, the number of British regulars on Canadian and American territory grew to 48,163. There was also a naval establishment on the Great Lakes, which grew considerably after 1813, when the Royal Navy replaced the colonial naval service known as the Provincial Marine.

It was not until early 1813, however, that Prevost received any significant reinforcements, including De Watteville’s Regiment from Wellington’s army, which Wellington chose to use to offer his first observations on the American war. At the time, he was dealing with myriad shortages in men, money and transport, exacerbated by obstruction, procrastination and political interference from home.[3] Logistical matters, including supplies from America , were also much on the Duke’s mind.[4] Writing in February 1813, Wellington warned Bathurst that expansion of the American war would further complicate matters in the Peninsula and that: “Sir George” should not “be induced by any hopes of trifling advantages to depart from a strong defensive system,” which “would only weaken him, and … augment the spirits and hopes of the enemy.”[5] To Wellington the American war served the interests of France by forcing Britain to split her resources between two continents and this diversion could ultimately create a division between Britain and her allies.[6]

Almost a year later, in February 1814 just before Wellington’s final Peninsular offensive, Bathurst invited Wellington to provide a second assessment of events in America . “The defence of Canada ,” Wellington wrote in reply, “depends upon the navigation of the lakes … Any offensive operation founded upon Canada must be preceded by the establishment of naval superiority on the lakes.” The key difficulty in achieving this was that British North America was “very extensive, thinly peopled, and producing but little food in proportion of their extent.” Consequently, “military operations by large bodies are impracticable, unless the party carrying them on has the uninterrupted use of a navigable river, or very extensive means of land transport, which such a country can rarely have.”[7] In some ways, Wellington was harking back to problems he experienced in Portugal and Spain , where roads were few, army transportation difficult to develop and the rivers serving an important means of communication and supply.

Wellington also wondered how victory could be achieved in the vast expanses of North America. Regardless of any military or naval successes, the British might do no “more than secure the points on those lakes at which the Americans would have access.” Most significantly, Wellington observed, even if the British committed sufficient forces and established control of the lakes and waterways, there was no readily apparent key objective that could win the war:

I do not know where you could carry on such an operation which would be so injurious to the Americans as to force them to sue for peace, which is what one would wish to see …[8]

This indeed was the rub as the commanders in North America discovered.

Much like the end of the Cold War allowed western countries to turn their attention to other global military problems, it was not until the abdication of Napoleon and the end of the war in Europe, that the British government could finally focus on the American war. In April 1814, Colonel Torrens notified Sir George Murray of the new emphasis:

the government have determined to give Jonathan [the British nickname for Americans] a good drubbing, and orders have been sent to Lord Wellington to prepare a corps of 12,000 infantry and a small detachment of cavalry to be sent to America.[9]

The force to be dispatched was to include four companies of artillery, one regiment of cavalry and 14 battalions of infantry, organized into two divisions, one under two Peninsular veterans, Lieutenant-General Sir George Murray and Sir Henry Clinton. These reinforcements would allow Prevost, as Bathurst would instruct him, “to commence offensive operations on the Enemy’s frontier.” The goal was not, as it popularly believed, to seek regaining the former American colonies, but to “give immediate protection [to Canada ]: secondly, to obtain if possible ultimate security to His Majesty’s Possessions in America .”[10]

Wellington was instructed to bring the units selected from his army up to strength and ensure they had the proper arms, equipment and mounts. Furthermore, he was to select the commanders and staffs of the new divisions and brigades being formed. [11]  For myriad reasons, the composition of this force changed over the next few months and ultimately included four brigades each of four infantry regiments totalling 16,300 officers and men with 369 horses. The brigades were commanded by Major-Generals Sir James Kempt, Frederick Robinson, Manly Power and Robert Ross, all experienced and proven commanders.[12]

Three of the brigades would support the main offensive entrusted to Prevost, while Ross would proceed with his command to Bermuda and undertake operations in the Chesapeake Bay area of the United States . Originally, Major-General Edward Barnes, who had held several brigade commands under Wellington, was considered for this post, but as it would be an independent command requiring cooperation with the navy, the more energetic, even-tempered and distinguished Robert Ross was selected in his stead. [13]

Another persistent myth found in American literature of the War of 1812, was that these reinforcements consisted solely of Peninsular veterans. Certainly Wellington played a key role in selecting certain units, commanders and staffs, which meant that Britain would be left with “having many of its best troops across the Atlantic in North America,”[14] this is not true. Of the 44 cavalry, artillery and infantry units sent to America , only 21 - less than half of them - came from the Peninsular Army. The Cavalry Division contributed one regiment while seven of the eight infantry divisions (including the Light Division) sent two battalions each, with the 2nd and 4th Divisions each sending three. Only the 6th Division, weakened after the battle of Toulouse, was excused from providing any units. Three veteran artillery companies were selected as well.[15]

The remaining 23 units were drawn from elsewhere, coming from Germany , Italy , the “East Coast” Army in Spain , and from garrison duties in Britain , the West Indies, Gibraltar, or the Mediterranean, and these were of greatly mixed quality. [16]

By December 1814, the arrival of all these units in North American, brought the overall total of troops there to over 37,000 British regulars in the northern theatre, while another 10,000 were in Maine, the Chesapeake and Louisiana, giving a grand total of 48,163 officers and men. These figures do not include two battalions of Royal Marines, ship marine detachments, the Royal Marine artillery, Royal Navy personnel and 4,000 Canadian “regular” troops that had been recruited for the duration of the conflict.[17]

The operations carried out by these troops in the summer of 1814 were aimed at Washington, Baltimore and Plattsburgh and met with mixed success. After initial reports of the results of the various northern offensives, Wellington grew furious with Prevost, particularly when he learned of the treatment of veterans had received. He wrote that Prevost had “gone to war about trifles with the general officers I sent him, which are certainly the best of their rank in the army.” [18]

Trifles indeed. Peninsular veterans, accustomed to the rigours of hard campaigning under seasoned commanders, faced in Prevost a different commander and a different style of discipline. “The Commander of the Forces,” read a General Order issued by Prevost on 23 August 1814,

has observed in the dress of Several of the Officers of Corps & Departments, lately added to this Army from that of Field Marshal the Duke of Wellington, a fanciful vanity inconsistent with the rules of the service. [19]

Lieutenant William Gratton of the 88th Regiment, viewed such orders as petty and contrary to good discipline, noting how different things were compared to when they were under Wellington,

provided we brought our men into the field well appointed, with sixty rounds of good ammunition, he [the Duke] never looked to see whether their trowsers were black, blue or grey, and as to ourselves, we might be rigged out in all colours of the rainbow if we fancied it.[20]   

Of course, dress and deportment were not the issue; the question lay with Prevost’s leadership, particularly regarding his performance during Plattsburgh offensive in the summer of 1814. While the attacks against Washington, Baltimore and Maine were designed to “effect a diversion on the coasts of the United States of America in favour of the army employed in the defence of Upper and Lower Canada,”[21] Prevost was instructed to lead the main British effort into New York State, aimed at securing the frontier. Once the Royal Navy destroyed the American squadron on Lake Champlain, Prevost’s division would take Plattsburgh, on the Western side of lake. Unfortunately for the British, this was not to pass: their naval squadron, pressed into action by Prevost before it was ready, was defeated and Prevost, with the troops outside of Plattsburg, called off the land attack, which had just gotten underway with only a portion of his troops committed.

To be fair, Prevost’s army at Plattsburgh was not the invincible juggernaut it is often made out to be by American historians.  Prevost had brigades led by such veterans as Frederick Robinson and Manly Power and six Peninsular battalions among the 14 battalions in his division – but only four of the six Peninsular units actually fought at Plattsburgh on 11 September 1814. [22]

That October Bathurst asked Wellington what to do next and the Duke’s reply was clear about where the problem lay: “it is very obvious you must remove him [Prevost].”[23] By December, Wellington was more forgiving, perhaps after considering Colonel Torrens’ cautionary observation in November, that “it is not fair … to prejudge Sir George Prevost’s case before his own account is received.[24] Regardless, the government decided to act and in March 1815, Prevost was recalled to London to explain his conduct.

Despite having earlier recommended Prevost’s removal, Wellington tempered his judgement with facts not gossip and, given the problems he had faced during his recent campaigns, he showed a hint of professional respect, at least until the facts could be learned. He wrote as much to Lieutenant-General Sir George Murray, who would later bring the news to Sir George of his recall to England that,

I admire all that has been done in America, as far as I understand it generally. Whether Sir George Prevost was right or wrong in his decision at Lake Champlain is more than I can tell; but of this I am very certain, he must have retired to Kingston [Montreal] after our fleet was beaten [at Plattsburgh], and I am inclined to believe he was right.[25]

Wellington held “that Prevost will justify his misfortunes, which … I am quite certain are not what the Americans have represented them to be.”[26] It is interesting to note that British policy was being influenced by American reports, through newspapers, on the conduct of the campaign, a situation that modern commanders might appreciate.

During November 1814, the Duke provided a third analysis of the American War. His military assessment remained unchanged, but now reflected Britain ’s fatigue of being at war for so long. Indeed the Duke’s own experience is a demonstration of the effects of prolonged warfare as he had been campaigning almost continuously since 1794 and had served in the Peninsula without taking leave between 1808 and 1814. Wellington wrote,

the continuance of the American War will entail upon us a prodigious expense, much more than we have had any idea of, along with the other burdens it would bring.[27]

The Question of Command in British North America

As the question of Prevost’s suitability was being debated, the search for a replacement was underway. In November 1814, while the outcome of the peace talks with the Americans remained uncertain, Prime Minister Lord Liverpool told his foreign secretary that he believed Wellington was ideal for the job and that he could make the difference; “I confess I feel most anxious, under all circumstances, that he [ Wellington] should accept command in America .” Wellington, he continued, “would restore confidence to the army, place the military operations on a proper footing, and give us the best chance of peace.” Ending the war was now a priority. If Wellington refused, the only other suitable candidate was Sir John Hope, Lord Niddry, who had commanded a wing of Wellington’s army, however his health was poor and would not permit him to “undertake the service for some months.” [28]

Wellington was neither effusive over the potential appointment, nor did he shirk from it. In November 1814, Wellington told Bathurst and Liverpool that he felt “no objection to going to America ,” though he “didn’t promise to myself much success there.” His views had changed little: “there were troops enough there for the defence of Canada … and even for the accomplishment of any reasonable offensive plan that could be formed.” He remained confident British troops and sound generalship could prevail: “all the American armies of which I have ever read would not beat out of a field of battle the troops that went from Bordeaux last summer, if common precautions and care were taken of them.”[29]  Perhaps Prevost had, in Wellington’s view, indeed sinned.

Wellington also noted that generalship alone would not bring the desired results. A coordinated theatre campaign plan was necessary, which in itself would serve to defend Canada and not necessarily defeat the Americans:

that which appears to me to be wanting in America is not a General, or General officers and troops, but a naval superiority on the Lakes. Till that superiority is acquired, it is impossible, according to my notion, to maintain an army in such a situation as to keep the enemy out of the whole frontier …[30]

It was not enough to simply send him there, Wellington wrote, and without the proper authority and plan, he might in the end “only prove the truth of Prevost’s defence.”

As questions of strategy and command were ongoing, events in Europe were conspiring to again reduce the importance of events in America . Wellington, now at the Congress of Vienna, paid heed to the unsatisfactory state of negotiations there and the alarming situation in France, which he believed made it imperative to “sign a peace [with the Americans] which might as well be signed now.”[31] The American War was again an unwanted diversion from the cockpit of British interests.

This advice was accepted by the Prime Minister, who instructed the Foreign Secretary, Lord Castlereagh, that Britain should “not continue the war for obtaining, or securing any acquisition of territory” for the very reasons outlined by the Duke.[32] The following month, the Treaty of Ghent was signed and the American War was over. Wellington never went to Canada and within a few months, he would be campaigning once again, although without the help of Surgeon Dunlop and most of the soldiers serving in British North America.


While the War of 1812 and the soldiers who fought it have been largely “forgotten”, it can hardly be said that conflict was a simple affair. The seminal study of the conflict, written by Canadian historian J. Mackay Hitsman, was titled “The Incredible War of 1812”, and in terms of geographical, operational and logistical challenges, it was indeed extraordinary for the era. Much as Britain might have wished to forget the war, she was, for various reasons, forced to glance over her shoulder from time to time at this almost fantastically remote theatre. Wellington too was involved. Had the war continued into 1815, he may have found himself commander in British North America and overseeing several naval and land operations against the Americans. One wonders how he would have fared there and whether, upon learning of Bonaparte’s return to France , he could have accepted command of the British forces in Europe, with the campaign season already underway in North America. How would the subsequent campaign of Napoleon unfolded has Wellington either been forced to remain in North America or arrived much later, during the crucial time in which the British contingents were being assembled, commanders and staff appointed and discussions underway with the Prussians over how the coming campaign would be conducted.

Although strategic planning and the setting of conditions for victory during the Napoleonic era is generally viewed as much more simplistic that today, we have seen that the interrelationships and effects between operational theatres was considered and often led to challenging problems that had to be resolved, requiring the effort of theatre commanders, diplomacy and the apparatus of government. This was no easy feat given the difficulties of communications. This essay only examined four of these interrelationships: the American sale of grain to Britain for the Peninsular Army, Wellington’s assessments of operations in North America and his advice to the government, the dispatch of reinforcements to North America in 1814 and the question of command there and discussions of Wellington’s possible appointment as  commander-in-chief in British North America. One can also identify other interrelationships, including trade and defence in the West Indies, and that region’s relationship with the Atlantic provinces of British North America and to the Peninsula as well. Troops, equipment and supplies were regularly moved around the quadrilateral of the West Indies, British North America, the Iberian Peninsula and Britain depending on the threat or to aid upcoming operations.

Clearly, Wellington did not view his command in isolation and pressed his logistical staff and officials in London to ensure his army was adequately supplied. He may have occasionally over-exaggerated the state of supply problems or the threat from privateering, but this was likely done to stir his superiors to act. We might today, given the advantage of knowing the outcome of event dismissal his claims, but at the time they were real and required resolution. In the end, there was no shortage of grain or any other foodstuffs. The British faced a significant challenge when they the lack of adequate supplies locally led them to procure foodstuffs from other markets and import them into Iberia . This brought the further need to create a theatre land transportation and distribution system from scratch, while campaigning was underway.

Arguably, the results of several years of campaigning made the units and formation commanders in Wellington’s Army the best fielded by Britain . Once Napoleon abdicated, the need to reinforce Sir George Prevost conflicted with the hasty demobilization of the British Army and only a handful of Peninsular regiments were left to go. The British government and Wellington too, sought to end the North American war. Although they authorised the largest British offensives against the Americans of the war, their strategy was akin to that outlined by the Prince Regent in 1811: to defend Canada ’s frontiers. A quarter century of costly conflict, had left Britain , much like she would be at the end of the Second World War, exhausted.

Within months, the British commissioners in Ghent concluded the peace that was desperately wanted. The shaky state of affairs in Europe was shifting attention back there, particularly after the return of Napoleon to France in April 1815. Although Wellington had accepted command in North America – pressed somewhat to leave Vienna by his superiors, in order to escape death threats made to him – he never went and wound up fighting one more important campaign

Wellington may never have gone to Canada , but his influence remains there to this day. His comprehensive analysis of the defence of Canada , contained within an eight-page memorandum he wrote in 1819, proposed an entirely new strategic concept for Canadian defence and was the bible for this subject for several decades. Naval supremacy on the lakes was abandoned for a defensive strategy based on land operations and massive fortifications. Three great citadels and many other fortifications and canals would be built over the next 40 years. Wellington oversaw the implementation of these plans, based upon the lessons of the War of 1812, while he was Master General of the Ordnance.

Let us leave the last words to Wellington, who had this to say to a Select Committee of the House of Commons on 15 April 1828:

I have never been in that country [Canada], but I must admit that I have been astonished that the officers of the army and navy employed in that country were able to defend those provinces last war; and I can attribute their having been able to defend them as they did only to the inexperience of the officers of the United States in the operations of the war, and possibly likewise to the difficulty which they must have found in stationing their forces as they ought to have done, upon the right bank of the St Lawrence.”[33]

[1] Wellington to Earl Bathurst, 22 Feb 1814, WD 11, p. 525-526

[2] Prince Regent to Prevost, 22 Oct 1811, CO 42, Vol 23, p. TBC.

[3] Charles Eisdale, “The Peninsular War,” London, 2004, p. 439.

[4] Ibid, p. 430.

[5] Wellington to Bathurst, 10 Feb 1813, WD 10, p. 108.

[6] Wellington to Sir Henry Wellesley, 23 May 1813, WD X, p. 395.

[7] Wellington to Earl Bathurst, 22 Feb 1814, WD XI, p. 525-526.

[8] Wellington to Earl Bathurst, 22 Feb 1814, WD XI, p. 525-526.

[9] Colonel Torrens to Major-General Sir G. Murray, 14 April 1814. The Duke of Wellington, “Supplementary Despatches and Memoranda of Field Marshal the Duke of Wellington,” London, p. 58. Hereafter SD and volume number.

[10] Bathurst to Prevost, 3 June 1814, in Hitsman, “Incredible War,” p. 290.

[11] The Duke of York to Wellington, 14 April 1814, SD, p. 82-84.

[12] State of Divisions Formed in Compliance with Instructions from Earl Bathurst, Dated 18 May, SD IX, p. 119.

[13] Robin Reilly, The British at the Gates: The New Orleans Campaign in the War of 1812, p. 146.

[14] Christopher D. Hall. British Strategy in the Napoleonic War, 1803 – 1815. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1999, p. 204.

[15] Donald E. Graves, “The Redcoats are Coming: British Troop Movements to North America, 1814,” unpublished essay, pp. 2.

[16] Ibid, pp. 2, 3.

[17] Ibid, p. 4.

[18] Wellington to Bathurst, 30 October 1814, from Hitsman, Incredible War, p. 267.

[19] William Kingsford, The History of Canada , Vol 8. Toronto: Roswell and Hutchinson, 1892. p. 532n.

[20] William Gratton, Adventures with the Connaught Rangers, London, p. 50.

[21] Bathurst to Sherbrooke, circa May 1814, PRO WO 6, vol 2, 1.

[22] Donald E. Graves, “The Finest Army …”, p. 4.

[23] Wellington to Bathurst, 30 October 1814, from Hitsman, p. 267.

[24] Torrens to Wellington, 3 Nov 1814, SD IX, p. 404.

[25] Wellington to Murray, 22 Dec 1814, WD XII, p. 224.

[26] Wellington to Liverpool, 9 Nov 1814, SD IX, p. 425.

[27] Liverpool to Wellington, 3 Nov 1814, SD IX, p. 402.

[28] Liverpool to Castlereagh, 4 November 1814, SD IX, p. 405.

[29] Wellington to Liverpool, 9 Nov 1814, SD IX, p. 425.

[30] Wellington to Liverpool, 9 Nov 1814, SD IX, p. 425.

[31] Wellington to Liverpool, 9 Nov 1814, SD IX, p. 426.

[32] Goulbourn to Castlereagh, 18 Nov 1814, quote in Hitsman, Incredible War of 1812, p. 271.

[33] Wellington to the House of Commons, 15 April 1828, reprinted in Hitsman, Incredible War of 1812, p. 278.


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