Military Subjects:  War of 1812


The War of 1812 Magazine

Issue 6: April 2007


The Western Theatre in the War of 1812

By Sandy Antal

Of all the principal theatres of the War of 1812, none has been as neglected in Canadian and British historiography as the Detroit frontier. The following article an introduction to a forthcoming series in this journal on the War of 1812 in the west.

Historiography and the “Canadian” War in the West

Enough American accounts have been written on the war in the west to fill a small library. Such is not the case with the British and Canadian side which has devoted little in-depth attention to this front, much of that being controversial.

Few accounts mention that after the capture of Detroit, Brock unilaterally “ceded” Michigan to the British crown or that the British victory at Frenchtown was one of the most complete battle victories of the war. More American prisoners were taken on this theatre than any other. It was on this distant frontier that the British contended with Fort Meigs, the largest wooden fort ever built in North America. It was the scene also for the largest amphibious assault conducted by the Americans to that time. The western theatre was interwoven with the final great attempt by the Northwest Natives to establish a state south of the Great Lakes. The 41st Regiment which gained more battle honours during the war than any other British unit, was captured here as was an entire squadron at sea, unprecedented embarrassments in British military and naval annals. Governor General Prevost was so alarmed by these reverses that he directed the evacuation of all Upper Canada to Kingston. Dramatic as these events might be, they have been largely overshadowed by an argument over personalities.

Prior to delving into this subject, a review of the principal events is in order to provide a framework for the subsequent discussion:


12 Feb. 1812

Maj. Gen. Brock prepares “Plans for the Defence of Canada” proposing to fight the war largely from Ft. Amherstburg where he would concentrate most of his troops and secure the support of American Native tribes; Gov. Prevost cool to his plans, calling them “vain”

25 May 1812

Brig. Gen. Hull arrives at Dayton, Ohio to take command of the 2500-man Northwest Army charged with the invasion of the Western District

14-17 June

Brock promises Native chiefs recovery of their lands south of Lake Erie in return for their participation in the impending hostilities

18 June 1812

US declares war on Britain

2 July 1812

Colonial mariners capture Cuyahoga containing Hull’s orders and muster rolls in the Detroit River

12 July 1812

Hull lands unopposed at Sandwich, ravages the Western District and threatens the small British garrison at Fort Amherstburg

16-25 July 1812

Four inconclusive skirmishes just north of Fort Amherstburg

26 July 1812

Col. Procter arrives with ten men to assume command of the 250-man garrison; he halts militia desertions and through Tecumseh, wins over the Michigan Wyandot for offensive operations

5 August 1812

A Native contingent under Tecumseh ambushes and routs an American column attempting to secure provisions at Frenchtown

7 August 1812

Hull evacuates Upper Canada and retreats to Ft. Detroit

8 August 1812

An Anglo-Native force checks a second American attempt to reach Frenchtown at the battle of Maguaga; Hull’s army running out of food; Western District militia units return to full strength and Native warriors flock to British side

14 August 1812

Brock arrives at Ft. Amherstburg with reinforcements

16 August 1812

Brock secures surrender of Ft. Detroit and the entire Northwest Army; he “ceded” Michigan

19 August 1812

Brock returns to Niagara frontier and Procter resumes command

Late August 1812

“Governor” Procter consolidates hold on Michigan, establishing its civil government and demanding oaths of allegiance from its citizens; he explores northern Ohio

Prevost’s fall armistice precludes Procter’s assistance to Native tribes besieging American forts in Indiana; Tecumseh leaves alliance

14 September 1812

Prevost urges evacuation of Detroit and all Michigan while Procter sends his disposable force against Ft. Wayne, Indiana (the armistice having expired); the expedition withdraws after colliding with the reconstituted Northwest Army

30 September 1812

Apprehensive of a Native backlash, Procter insists on keeping Brock’s commitment to the Native tribes and maintains positions in Michigan

13 October 1812

Brock killed at Queenston

Early January 1813

Brig. Gen. Harrison 6,300- man Northwest Army converges in three columns on the Maumee Rapids, Ohio

18 January 1813

An American column of Kentuckians under B. Gen Winchester occupies Frenchtown with 1000 men

22 January 1813

Procter recaptures Frenchtown; all but 30 of Winchester’s men rendered casualties; this decisive action places Harrison’s invasion of Upper Canada on hold for eight months; Kentuckian volunteer numbers fall off drastically

23 January 1813

Native warriors murder 30 wounded American prisoners convalescing at Frenchtown

February-April 1813

Harrison builds Fort Meigs, a huge fortification of nine acres, at the Maumee Rapids

Early May 1813

Tecumseh rejoins Procter after an absence of seven months

5 May 1813

Procter and Tecumseh besiege Fort Meigs and destroy a relief brigade of draftees from Kentucky; Procter raises siege after Native warriors and militia abandon it

May 1813 onward

Native leaders become increasingly critical of weak British presence in the west, inadequate provisioning and overall lack of success in recovery of their lands

6 June 1813

Captain Barclay, RN arrives with a handful of seamen to take charge of the Lake Erie squadron

Summer, 1813

Long promised reinforcements for Amherstburg are detained on Niagara frontier, precluding destruction of the American naval preparations on Lake Erie

20 July -3 August 1813

Procter’s second attempt against Fort Meigs is inconclusive and he is repulsed with loss in an attack on Ft. Stephenson; during this time, Barclay fails to hold the American fleet in Erie harbour and is, in turn, blockaded at Amherstburg; the British supply line is cut

10 September 1813

Acute provisioning shortages compel a British attempt to re-open the supply line, despite a 3-2 naval disparity in favour of the US Navy; the entire British squadron is captured at the battle of Put-in Bay rendering British position untenable

15 September 1813

Procter’s proposal for prompt retreat to Lake Ontario violently opposed by Tecumseh; Indian Department officials warn of a blood bath

18 September 1813

Procter and Tecumseh compromise on a retreat to the lower Thames River

27 September 1813

Allied retreat begins with 600 effective troops and 1500 Native warriors, while Harrison lands 5000 men near Amherstburg

31 September-4 October 1813

Harrison pursues with a light mobile force of 3000, leaving Procter no time to establish a position; British fall back toward Fairfield (Moraviantown); British ammunition reserve outpaced and captured

5 October 1813

Procter halts the main body for a general engagement; 430 British troops offer token resistance and are quickly overrun; 500 Native warriors in the adjacent marsh hold out longer but are routed and Tecumseh killed; Procter escapes to Ancaster

Mid-Oct. 1813

Prevost directs the evacuation of Upper Canada to Kingston; Procter instrumental in countermanding that order and holding firm at Burlington

18 October 1813

Prevost issues general order critical of Procter’s management of the Thames campaign

24 October 1813

Prevost’s second general order of “unparalleled severity” condemns Procter and his division, prompting a public outcry; Procter demands a hearing

22 February 1814

London approves a court martial but leaves it to Prevost’s management; he does not frame charges for another year

28 December 1815

Procter found guilty of four (later three) of fifteen specifications within five charges

General Comments

Two features figure prominently among general works relating to the war in the west. First is the sparse research done on it and second is the overwhelming tendency to interpret events through personalities –Brock, Tecumseh, Procter and Prevost. As Procter was the central and continuous figure in this conflict, accounts overwhelmingly attribute the eventual British collapse to his alleged incapacity. Prior to that time, Procter squared off against generals Hull, Winchester and Harrison and bested them, in turn until his own defeat at the battle of Moraviantown. Prior to that debacle, he stood high in the public estimation, the Montreal Herald referring to him a “surviving Brock.” The legislatures of both Upper and Lower Canada gave him a unanimous vote of thanks. In dispatches to London, Governor General Prevost referred to him as “that distinguished leader” and had him promoted from colonel to major general. Yet, after Procter’s final campaign a court martial found his management of it to be “deficient in energy and judgment,” effectively terminating a promising career with unforgiving finality. In many respects, the judgment of posterity has been harsher.

Among general works on the war, Procter, has been consigned largely to the historical junkyard with writers sacrificing form for substance in seeking easy explanations to complicated events. Overwhelmingly, they depict Procter as incompetent on the battlefield and go on to assign blame to him alone for the entire British failure in the west. To this day, many writers figuratively spit at the very mention of Procter’s name. In a recent article (1996), Bill Twatio reviewed Procter’s role in a balanced manner but summed up his historical legacy aptly with the old adage “No one likes a loser.”[1] Twatio’s assessment reflects the tendency to write on the basis of likes and dislikes, leaving the historical record egregiously incomplete. Whether Procter was a hero or a heel is of secondary importance to gaining an understanding of the broader events that swirled around him.

The Evolving Historiography

In order to gain a sense of what actually happened, it is necessary to first separate fact from opinion. One would expect that the benefits of modern scholarship would have been applied to gain increasing clarity in this regard. But the very opposite has occurred. General works done in the last century are, for the most part, “dumbed-down,” short on detail, long on opinion and replete with errors. With a handful of prominent exceptions, they have left the pertinent primary materials undisturbed. Procter’s voluminous court martial transcripts, for example, were unavailable in North America until I had a copy deposited in the National Archives of Canada, some years ago. For all the judgments rendered on the Thames campaign, the transcript sign-out sheet reflected only five names to that time! Likewise, despite their illuminating contents, Procter’s captured correspondence has collected dust in the US National Archives, ignored for almost two centuries. In the absence of primary research one finds the prevailing crust of vaguely proved but distinctly negative interpretations that have grown with the telling over the years. Few demonstrate original research, most comprising a reiteration of previous opinions that were poorly documented in the first place. All this has produced a murky picture of the western theatre with Henry Procter emerging as a flawed character, incompetent and cowardly, despite his court martial acquittal on these very charges.

Traditional Canadian interpretation of the war in the west has been mixed. The earliest work to deal exclusively with this theatre is that of participant John Richardson(1842).[2] Written thirty years after the fact largely from the reminiscences of a fifteen year-old participant, it is, nonetheless an enjoyable read. But it is also error-ridden, self-serving and highly opinionated. In particular, it projects a consistently negative presentation of Procter’s role. But Richardson also placed Prevost at “the head of calumny” for his “imbecility” in neglecting the Right Division to the point of “destitution.” It was Richardson’s opinions on Procter that would endure to the present day as his opinions have been uncritically regurgitated in generations of accounts as a convenient alternative to meaningful research.

Initially, general works were not overly influenced by Richardson’s account.  In his History of Lower Canada, Robert Christie (1848)[3] devotes considerable attention to the war in the west. He describes Procter prior to his final battle as one who had “served with honour and distinction…universally considered a brave and able officer” and his command as highly popular for its “gallantry.” He also mentions the public dissatisfaction with the “severity” of Governo Prevost’s “premature [and] ungenerous” general orders on the battle of Moraviantown. Christie drives his point home by comparing Procter’s campaign to Prevost’s head-long yet unpursued retreat from Plattsburg at the head of the largest army assembled in North America to that time. Some 900 of the men under Prevost’s command deserted, more regulars than Procter ever commanded on the field of battle.

James Hannay (1905)[4] concluded: “If Sir George [Prevost] had attended to his duty as Commander-in-chief of the Right Division and had kept them properly supplied and reinforced, the command of Lake Erie would have been retained and the army would not have been defeated. No regiment that fought in Canada during the war performed better than the 41st but a greater strain was put upon them than men could endure and finally they suffered defeat.”

Charles Lucas (1906)[5] offered a view similar to that of Hannay: “The wonder is not that Lake Erie and the Detroit frontier were lost but that in view of the miserably inadequate resources on the British side, the distance from a base of supplies and reinforcements, and the difficulty of communications, Barclay and Procter had held their ground so long.”

Subsequently, the emphasis of interpretation shifted with the increasing popularity of 1902 edition of Richardson’s War of 1812. The editor of this reprint, Alexander Casselman,[6] provided further context to this account through his extensive footnotes but drew attention to its questionable interpretation. He concluded that Procter’s defeat was attributable to the neglect that his command endured and that moreover, that Procter was “disgracefully used.” Few heeded Casselman’s reservations as Richardson’s opinions established the pattern among subsequent general works as a convenient substitute for in-depth research. Thus, blame pre-empted cause and opinion pre-empted research with little or no attempt to apply the tools available to the military historian. Aside from the noteworthy exceptions to be mentioned later, most accounts are shockingly biased and precarious, brimming with generous doses of revisionist conjecture and outright fiction masquerading as history.

A most prominent example of these opinionated works is J.M. Hitsman’s Incredible War of 1812 (1965)[7] In this concise work, Hitsman rolls up a tremendous amount of detail in surprisingly few pages to provide a good overview of the war as a whole. But when it comes to the western theatre, he marginalizes it by depicting the Native warriors as lazy and the local militiamen as malingerers. But Hitsman surpasses even Richardson in his criticisms of Procter through ill-substantiated one-liners, always without evidence or citation, to substantiate his conclusion that “Procter managed to bungle continuously.” The footprint of this bias is easily found by following Hitsman’s index entries on Procter.

After the initial American invasion in the west, Brock perceived the situation in the west as so grave that he conceded his inability to defend Upper Canada with the few regulars on hand and seriously considered the abandonment of the entire colony to Kingston. Nonetheless, he sent Colonel Henry Procter with ten men to join the small garrison at Ft. Amherstburg and counter the Northwest Army. Although the invaders outnumbered his regulars by ten to one, Procter marshaled his resources to force an American retreat prior to Brock’s arrival with reinforcements. One would expect a military history to take note of this salient fact. But since it runs counter to Hitsman’s conclusion, he assesses Procter’s actions in the following manner “Undoubtedly, Colonel Procter had been acting in too cautious a fashion to suit the Indians.” Such as it is, Hitsman’s assessment flies in the face of the facts since the number of Native warriors had actually tripled since Procter’s arrival. Moreover, Hitsman missed the self-evident conclusion that within two short weeks, Procter not only drove the invaders from the colony, but actually reversed the military situation in the west by isolating the Northwest Army at Ft. Detroit, preparatory to its capitulation. If Hitsman missed the significance of these events, Procter’s superiors did not. His actions were fully recognized up the chain of command from Brock to the Prince Regent.

During the winter of 1812-13, Maj. Gen. William Harrison advanced on Procter’s positions with a second even larger Northwest Army in three divisions. Given the few troops available to him, Procter resolved to beat his enemy piecemeal before the three elements could unite. When the American vanguard under B. Gen Winchester rushed forward to occupy the British outpost at Frenchtown, he immediately assembled all available able-bodied men -regulars, mariners, militia and Native warriors to annihilate that wing on 22 January. This hard fought and very complete allied victory was widely recognized as derailing the American winter offensive against Upper Canada. Indeed, Harrison would not make another attempt for some eight months. Yet, instead of noting the strategic significance of this action or the high praises it earned from all quarters, Hitsman highlights an obscure comment by a hospital-assistant mate in a private letter that a timely bayonet charge might have produced fewer British casualties! But his bias emerges further in his continued “digging for dirt.” He attributes the Natives’ subsequent murder of some thirty American prisoners to Procter’s “nonchalance or negligence.” Had he researched the facts, Hitsman might have recognized this criticism as nothing more than American “sour grapes” and ill-proven war-time propaganda.

In May of 1813, Procter disrupted American preparations south of Lake Erie with a spoiling attack against Fort Meigs, Ohio. Although the fort was too strong to be reduced, he did destroy a relief brigade from Kentucky, hastening to its defence in an action that Harrison termed “another disaster” to his side. Yet Hitsman manages to engineer another criticism. By blaming Procter for not having made the attack earlier, in the winter, Hitsman tells the truth, but not all of it. He neglects to point out that it was Governor Prevost who prevented that very movement, by withholding promised troops on the grounds that a winter attack was too “hazardous.” Nor does Hitsman observe that when Procter did undertake the attack, his regulars were still a small minority of the Right Division, three-fourths being militia and Native warriors. Auxiliaries of this description were of limited value in storming the largest wooden fortification ever built in North America but Procter had to work
with what he had.

During the summer of 1813, Procter continued to be denied regulars (Brock had intended 1600 troops at Fort Amherstburg alone, while Prevost had promised to send down the entire 41st Regiment some months previously). By July of 1813, Native warriors outnumbered his 550 regulars by six to one. The tribesmen became increasingly dissatisfied with inadequate provisioning, the weak British presence and the overall lack of progress in the recovery of their lands. Rather than lose the Native contingent altogether, Procter acceded to their demands to conduct another inconclusive siege of Fort Meigs. His subsequent frontal assault on the smaller Ft. Stephenson failed, producing dozens of casualties. Rather than acknowledge that Procter undertook his second Ohio expedition as the best of the bad options available, Hitsman simply labels Procter’s attack as “unwise” without proposing wiser alternatives.

While the Americans were massing more thousands in the west than Procter had hundreds of regulars, the US Navy had been busily fitting out vessels of war on Lake Erie. On emerging onto the lake, the American fleet immediately cut the British supply line, producing a provisioning crisis at Fort Amherstburg. As the British presence was entirely dependent on the supply line, Governor Prevost repeatedly pressed for a decision on Lake Erie. But Procter refused to sanction a naval engagement until the squadron was properly manned, something he had demanded since the winter. By the time a woefully inadequate handful of seamen arrived, the starvation conditions called for immediate action. After a sharp action, the entire British squadron was captured, along with the fort guns hastily mounted on the vessels and a third of Procter’s effective regulars serving on board as marines and gunners. Hitsman places the blame on Procter again, this time for pulling rank on his naval junior, Robert H. Barclay by forcing him into an unequal contest. Hitsman’s assessment is plain wrong as the command correspondence of both Barclay and Procter reveal their unequivocal agreement and not from a matter of choice but out of sheer necessity.

After the battle of Lake Erie, Procter’s positions became untenable for strategic, tactical and logistic reasons but the native chiefs, notably Tecumseh, were enraged by Procter’s proposed retreat to Lake Ontario. Indignant that Brock’s promise was jeopardized and perceiving another treacherous British abandonment (as in 1783 and 1794), they threatened a bloodbath among the Detroit River communities. In the face of this latest crisis, Procter again resorted to the best of the bad options available. He agreed to limit his retreat to the lower Thames, a fatal but necessary compromise that set the stage for the disastrous battle of Moraviantown. Oblivious to the Native impact on the delay, slow progress and destination of the retreat, Hitsman conveniently blames the entire mess on Procter’s “ineptitude.” In sum, Hitsman’s interpretation of the war in the west is simplistic, biased and poorly researched, aimed at supporting his contrived conclusion that Procter “managed to bungle continuously.” Given Hitsman’s attitude, one can only wonder if Procter had harmed him in another life. Such self-evident manipulation of fact does little to shed light on what actually happened.

In 1999, Donald Graves[8] undertook to provide citations to Hitsman’s account as these were not provided in the original work. But he did little to correct Hitsman’s errors and omissions. On the contrary, he expanded on them through cherry picking of detail. This becomes especially evident in his treatment of a post-war article written by Procter[9] relating to his struggle in the west and Prevost’s role in it. Graves depicts a subsequent book by Prevost’s civil secretary, Edward Brenton,[10] as “refuting point by point almost every criticism” of Prevost in Procter’s account. This is an extraordinary statement as Procter’s account is centred on the war in the west and Brenton makes no mention of it, the Native alliance, the Right Division or the western district. Even Procter’s name appears only once! As an account of Prevost’s political administration, Brenton’s book is civil in its very focus with nothing of military interest, explaining why most accounts of the war simply ignore it. That being the case, Graves would be rather hard put to itemize non-existent “point by point” refutations. Once again, the stories keep growing with the telling.

Extreme though Hitsman’s interpretation is, he is not alone in his negative views. In a recent work, British Generals in the War of 1812,[11] Wesley Turner presents a stimulating comparison of the senior commanders in Upper Canada. But his two passing references to Procter are both incorrect reflections of conventional works. Turner asserts, “Without Brock’s energetic massing of forces at the western end of Lake Erie, there is a strong possibility that Hull would have eventually captured Fort Malden and Amherstburg. In the absence of Brock, it is difficult to see Tecumseh and his followers playing a major role under Procter.” In fact, it was prior to Brock’s arrival or any massing of force that Procter gained Tecumseh’s support to not only drive the Americans from Upper Canada but to isolate the Northwest Army at Ft. Detroit. This co-operation continued after Brock’s death on three additional campaigns. In a second case, Turner alludes to Procter’s performance at the battle of Moraviantown and presents the prosecutor’s stirring argument: “Why was he [the soldier] not animated by the example of the General; why, when dismay fell upon him and he looked for him in vain?” Had Turner examined the transcript fully, he would have learned that Procter was not only “fully and honourably acquitted” of this allegation but that the prosecutor actually expressed regret at having made it in the first place. Such depictions offer little understanding of the events, beyond pointing to a prosecutor anxious to secure a conviction at any cost. Turner’s comments are indicative of the ease with which even fair-minded historians can be influenced by the crust of conventional interpretation.

Most recently, Mark Zuelhke (2006)[12] published an account of the war with a commendable emphasis on its diplomatic implications that are missing in comparable works. But, like George Stanley (1983)[13] and other writers, he has been drawn into another erroneous interpretation. He attributes Procter’s alleged incompetence to his being a twenty-six year old general. This seemingly logical explanation holds no water at all, since Procter was, in fact, fifty years of age, having spent thirty years in the army, ten of them in the Canadas ! Moreover, far from being an upstart, Procter earned most of his promotions through merit, unlike many of his peers (ie Brock and Drummond) who gained most of them through purchase.

John Sugden (1997)[14] has conducted the most exhaustive research on Tecumseh to date. To his credit, he readily acknowledges the prevailing bad press associated with Procter, asserting “Commentators on the war enjoy abusing him…After the best part of two centuries, it is time for a fairer assessment.” Moreover, he debunks popular myths associated with Procter’s alleged brutality as utter fantasy. But then, he too joins in the fun, introducing Procter in 1812 at first mention as deficient in leadership skills and a sinister individual who “relied on a cabal of officers but failed to communicate with the army at large.” He provides no evidence or citation to this generalized characterization; indeed, none exists. The single documented suggestion that Procter was secretive appears later in the form of another unproven allegation at Procter’s trial. Once again, Procter is found guilty of the very charge that his court martial had acquitted him two hundred years ago! Throughout the remainder of his narrative, Sugden makes selective use of the facts, depicting Tecumseh as one who could do no wrong and crediting allied misfortunes to Procter’s incapacity. Being one of the few to examine the court martial transcripts, Sugden might have mentioned Tecumseh’s personal impact on the second Ohio campaign and the Thames campaign. Even the much-criticized allied dispositions at the battle of Moraviantown came about as a direct result his influence. Being human, Tecumseh, like Procter, was susceptible to error. It is entirely possible to depict the war chief in his full colours without diminishing his overall place in history and it is equally possible to present both men in a balanced light without detriment to either.

Given the myriad of confusing and conflicting accounts, I undertook to gather the scattered materials and produce a systematic reconstruction of the events from which to draw the conclusions. In the last century, only a handful of works had attempted to do this to any degree. As these stand out from the opinion parade, they deserve mention.

Among the first to examine the western theatre in some depth was Victor Lauriston (1952).[15] Although not a historian, Lauriston conducted extensive research and his account is largely correct in point of fact. His writings are particularly noteworthy since he had been misled previously by conventional accounts to label Procter “the most pathetic mockery in Canadian military history.” But he recanted, not only to declare his initial assessment “immature,” but to assert “No other commander and no other men in the War of 1812 were so utterly neglected and in the face of utter neglect achieved so much… All that remained for the superior officers [was]… finding a scapegoat”

A prominent writer to examine this conflict is that quintessential Canadian, the late Pierre Berton (1981-82).[16] In contrast to most comparable accounts, his two-volume set on the war devotes considerable attention to the western theatre with an extensive bibliography that surpassed previous accounts. Berton thrust aside prevailing opinions, conducted original research and used a “show” rather than “tell” approach to deliver an objective and credible account. By his analysis, Procter and his soldiers were both worn out by extended deprivations, leaving the outcome at Moraviantown predictable.

The most accurate biographical sketch of Henry Procter is that done by Jack Hyatt (1983)[17]. In it, he observes that undue attention to the Thames campaign in most works has overshadowing his prior contributions. Although Hyatt acknowledges his role on that campaign as “uninspired,” he questions whether inspired leadership would have made any difference to the outcome, given the circumstances of the day. This observation draws attention to the self-evident implication in most works that the battle of Moraviantown was winnable.

One final work that deserves mention is a little-known but competent topical study prepared by Parks Canada researcher, Paul Morgan Couture.[18] This writer conducted extensive research on the war’s impact on the Western District and emphasizes the low priority that Governor-General Prevost attached to that quarter, leaving Procter “to sustain himself on promises.”

Interestingly, the unanimity of the above writers in attributing the root causes of the British failure to strategic neglect meshes with the early ones by Christie, Casselman, Lucas and Hannay. Had it not been for these dissenters, the history of the war in the west might well have languished in a state of confused mythology. Their works provided me with a solid springboard for further research that culminated in A Wampum Denied (1997).[19] My principal findings are summarized as follows:

The British Strategy in the West

A peculiar feature of this theatre is its bewildering double-barrelled strategy. On the outbreak of war, Brock’s plan for a strong concentration in the west was diametrically opposed to that of Governor General Prevost who embraced a defensive posture on all fronts. This dichotomy has prompted writers to hang their hats on one of two horns. Some depict Brock’s aggressive stance in the west as undermined by Prevost’s passive defensive policy. Others argue that Prevost’s strategy was essentially sound in light of the scarce resources on hand, that Brock’s approach was unsustainable and doomed to failure. Since both strategies had merit, it is problematic to determine which one would have been more successful in the long run if they had been implemented fully. To me, the important point is their non-harmonization which left Procter with an non-resourced plan and ultimately, a no-win situation. Simply put, the Americans mounted superior naval and military efforts that the British side did not match because of an incoherent mélange of strategies. It was left to Procter to implement Brock’s amibitious western strategy while that of Prevost denied the resources requisite for success.

The Native Role

Given the weak British presence in the west, Native warriors always formed Procter’s strongest arm. The victories at Detroit, Frenchtown and Fort Meigs simply would not have been possible without them. Indeed, the Natives were central to Brock’s western strategy that was aimed specifically at securing their early participation. But their commitment came with a price. Brock had promised them restoration of their lands seized by the Americans south of Lake Erie. Far from being a series of unrelated actions without strategic purpose, Procter’s subsequent thrusts into Michigan, Ohio and Indiana were fully consistent with this aim. But with Native warriors outnumbering his troops by as much as six to one, allied operations had to be consistent with their interests. In the end, he was compelled to commit himself to a fatal compromise that culminated in his defeat and public disgrace. In a word, Native allies were the central consideration to allied operations in the west. As such, they were instrumental to both British successes and failures.

Prevost’s Role

The governor’s role in the British collapse in the west is more perplexing. His defensive strategy during the first year of the war was hardly inappropriate given his limited resources. Often depicted as strictly defensive, it actually made provision for the occasional bold stroke aimed at maintaining the integrity of the defensive posture. But it was Prevost’s execution of that strategy that was limp. His late attention to Sackets Harbour led directly to the American’s capture of forts York, George and Erie with direct detrimental impacts on the west. These included the irreplaceable losses of naval ordnance and hardware that had been accumulated specifically for Amherstburg. Moreover, the subsequent uncertainty on Lake Ontario further deprived the western front of seamen, regular troops, money and other vital resources.

The long-promised troops for Amherstburg were withheld in light of the tenuous British hold on the Niagara frontier. But Prevost seemed to have learned nothing from his late response to the naval threat on Lake Ontario. He discounted the urgent warnings of the American shipbuilding activity on Lake Erie and took no decisive steps to ensure that troops were sent to Procter (at least on a loan basis) for its timely destruction. Despite the handicapped condition of the British squadron, Prevost now demanded a decision on Lake Erie. The predictable outcome of that engagement sealed the fate of the British presence in the west.

Another lost opportunity occurred earlier at Fort Meigs. Had Prevost reinforced the Right Division immediately after the battle of Frenchtown, that fort could have been destroyed before its walls were erected. But Pevost withheld the troops, declaring a winter attack too hazardous. When Procter did undertake the attack, it was against finished works, the largest wooden fortification ever constructed in North America. Subsequently, Procter became so concerned about the growing American naval threat that he considered attacking the American naval facility at Erie without the promised reinforcements but as the warriors would not accompany an expedition to the east end of Lake Erie with Fort Meigs separating them from their unprotected families.

The cumulative effects of Prevost’s missed opportunities became glaringly evident on the western theatre but it was the late implementations of his strategy (rather than the strategy, itself) that jeopardized his doctrine.

Procter’s Role

The incoherent British strategy combined with Prevost’s reluctance to undertake pre-emptive strikes against vital targets ultimately left allied defenders in the west severely disadvantaged. Procter found himself on a non-resourced “fool’s errand,” forced repeatedly to play his best with an increasingly bad hand. Under these circumstances, he deserves credit for skilfully marshalling a small mixed force under adverse conditions to avert the invasions of Upper Canada for the first critical year of the War of 1812. Procter might have saved his force and his reputation, had he abandoned Tecumseh’s confederacy after the battle of Lake Erie. But he adhered to the Native alliance from a sense of responsibility and also, as he put it, a matter of “honour and policy.”

The immediate cause of the British defeat in the west was “strategic over-reach” but the road to Moraviantown was far more complicated than the flimsy arguments associated with blame and personalities. In the subsequent series, the events on this theatre will be examined through several thematic issues. The next installment will focus in greater detail on the evolving British strategies as applicable to the western theatre.

About the Author:

Sandy Antal served in the Canadian Forces for twenty years, retiring in the rank of major and holds the following degrees: BA (Western), B Ed ( Toronto) and MA (Carleton). Now an independent scholar, he lives in Newmarket, Ontario. Recently, he co-authored another comprehensive first with Kevin Shackleton, Duty Nobly Done: the Official History of the Essex and Kent Scottish Regiment (Walkerville Publishing: 2006).


[1]  Bill Twatio. “The Rise and Fall of General Procter.” Esprit de Corps.Vol. 13, Issue 10, November, 2006.

[2] John Richardson. War of 1812, First Series Containing a Full And Detailed Narrative of the Right Division of the Canadian Army by Major John Richardson K.S.F. Brockville: 1842.

[3] Robert Christie. A History of Lower Canada 3 vols.. Montreal: T. Carey, 1848.

[4] James Hannay. The History of the War off 1812. Toronto: Morang, 1905.

[5] Charles P. Lucas. The Canadian War of 1812. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1906.

[6] Alexander Casselman, ed. Richardson’s War of 1812 (John Richardson). Toronto: Historical Publishing 1902.

[7] J. Mackay Hitsman. The Incredible War of 1812. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1965.

[8] Donald E. Graves, ed. The Incredible War of 181. (J. MaKay Hitsman). Toronto: Robin Brass Studio, 1999.

[9] Henry and George Procter. “Campaigns in the Canadas ,” Quarterly Review 27 (1822).

[10] Edward B. Brenton. Some Account of the Public Life of the Late Lieutenant-General Sir George Prevost, Bart. London:1823.

[11] Wesley B. Turner. British Generals in the War of 1812: High command in the Canadas . Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 1999.

[12] Mark Zuehlke. For Honour’s Sake: The War of 1812 and the Brokering of an Uneasy Peace. Toronto: Robert Knopf, 2006. The error about Procter’s age made by Zuehlke, Stanley and others is rooted the first attempt at a collection of Canadian biographies. In Sketches of Celebated Canadians (Quebec: Hunter and Rose, 1862.) Henry J. Morgan had confused Henry Procter with Henry Adolphus Procter, a younger officer who also served in the Canadas during the war and later rose to major- Procter’s fortunes recovered after his career after his trial.general. This confusion between the two men has given rise to the mistaken notion that Procter’s successful military career continued after the cloud of the Thames campaign.

[13] George Stanley. The War of 1812, Land Operations. Toronto: Macmillan, 1983.

[14] John Sugden. Tecumseh’s Last Stand. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1985  and Tecumseh, a Life. New York: Henry Holt, 1997.

[15] Victor Lauriston. Romantic Kent . Chatham, Shepherd Printing, 1952.

[16] Pierre Berton. The Invasion of Canada and Flames Across the Border. Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1981 and 1982.

[17] AMJ Hyatt. “Henry Procter.” Dictionary of Canadian Biography Vol. 5. Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1983.

[18] Paul Morgan Couture. “War and Society on the Detroit Frontier, 1791 to 1815.” Parks Canada Manuscript Report, 1986.

[19] Sandy Antal. A Wampum Denied: Procter’s War of 1812. Ottawa: Carleton University Press and  Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1997.


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