The War of 1812 Magazine
Issue 6: April 2007
The Western Theatre in the War of 1812
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
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
25 May 1812
18 June 1812
2 July 1812
12 July 1812
16-25 July 1812
26 July 1812
5 August 1812
7 August 1812
8 August 1812
14 August 1812
16 August 1812
19 August 1812
Late August 1812
14 September 1812
30 September 1812
13 October 1812
Early January 1813
18 January 1813
22 January 1813
23 January 1813
Early May 1813
5 May 1813
May 1813 onward
6 June 1813
20 July -3 August 1813
10 September 1813
15 September 1813
18 September 1813
27 September 1813
31 September-4 October 1813
5 October 1813
18 October 1813
24 October 1813
22 February 1814
28 December 1815
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
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.” 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
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). 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
Initially, general works were not overly influenced by
James Hannay (1905) 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
Charles Lucas (1906) offered
a view similar to that of Hannay: “The wonder is not that
Lake Erie and the
Subsequently, the emphasis of interpretation shifted with the
increasing popularity of 1902 edition of
A most prominent example of these opinionated works is J.M.
Hitsman’s Incredible War of 1812 (1965) 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
After the initial American invasion in the west, Brock perceived
the situation in the west as so grave that he conceded his inability
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
In May of 1813, Procter disrupted American preparations south
of Lake Erie with a spoiling attack against
During the summer of 1813, Procter continued to be denied regulars
(Brock had intended 1600 troops at
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
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
In 1999, Donald Graves 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 relating
to his struggle in the west and Prevost’s role in it.
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, Wesley Turner presents a
stimulating comparison of the senior commanders in
Most recently, Mark Zuelhke (2006) 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) 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
John Sugden (1997) 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
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). 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). 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). In it, he observes that
undue attention to the
One final work that deserves mention is a little-known but competent topical study prepared by Parks Canada researcher, Paul Morgan Couture. 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). 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
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
The long-promised troops for Amherstburg were withheld in light
of the tenuous British hold on the
Another lost opportunity occurred earlier at
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.
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
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 (
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