Defender of Canada: Sir George Prevost and the War of 1812

Defender of Canada: Sir George Prevost and the War of 1812

by John R. Grodzinski

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When war broke out between Great Britain and the United States in 1812, Sir George Prevost, captain general and governor in chief of British North America, was responsible for defending a group of North American colonies that stretched as far as the distance from Paris to Moscow. Defender of Canada, the first book-length examination of Prevost’s career

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When war broke out between Great Britain and the United States in 1812, Sir George Prevost, captain general and governor in chief of British North America, was responsible for defending a group of North American colonies that stretched as far as the distance from Paris to Moscow. Defender of Canada, the first book-length examination of Prevost’s career, offers a reinterpretation of the general’s military leadership in the War of 1812. Historian John R. Grodzinski shows that Prevost deserves far greater credit for the successful defense of Canada than he has heretofore received.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
“Prevost’s role as governor general of Canada has long been diminished or underestimated. In this well-written, thoroughly researched account, John R. Grodzinski successfully restores Prevost to his rightful place as British North America’s key military figure during the War of 1812.”—John H. Schroeder, author of Commodore John Rodgers: Paragon of the Early American Navy

“This full-dress study and reassessment of Sir George Prevost is long overdue. John R. Grodzinski does a masterful job of tracing Prevost’s career and demonstrates that this much-maligned leader deserves to be remembered as the savior of Canada.”—Donald R. Hickey, author of The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict

“Sir George Prevost has had many critics and almost no defenders. In the course of rehabilitating Prevost’s reputation, John R. Grodzinski gives us a fresh, comprehensive analysis of British strategy and policy-making in North America, 1811 to 1815. This book will stand as one of the more significant studies to emerge from the bicentennial of the War of 1812.”—J. C. A. Stagg, author of The War of 1812: Conflict for a Continent

“In a major contribution to scholarship, John R. Grodzinski shifts the focus from the drama and glory of battles and campaigns to the higher direction of war. His focus on the combined civil-military command that defeated a succession of American invasions places Sir George Prevost in the wider context of imperial power, and makes a strong case in Prevost’s defense.”—Andrew Lambert, author of The Challenge: Britain against America in the Naval War of 1812

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University of Oklahoma Press
Publication date:
Campaigns and Commanders Series
Product dimensions:
6.40(w) x 9.10(h) x 1.00(d)

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Defender of Canada

Sir George Prevost and the War of 1812

By John R. Grodzinski


Copyright © 2013 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8061-5073-4



He was not without reason selected by His Majesty's Government. —Edward B. Brenton, 1823

When he arrived in Quebec to take up his new duties as captain general and governor-in-chief of British North America in September 1811, Lieutenant General Sir George Prevost had, in thirty-two years of commissioned service, amassed considerable experience in military operations and colonial administration. To understand the professional background Prevost possessed in military affairs, joint operations, and colonial government prior to his appointment as political and military head of British North America, it is necessary to examine his family background and career between his joining the army in 1779 to the end of his tenure as lieutenant governor of Nova Scotia in 1811.

George Prevost was the son of Major General Augustin Prevost, a Protestant Swiss who had found his way into the British army. The Prevost family were French Huguenots who originally came from Poitou, and by the late sixteenth century were established in Geneva, where Augustin's father became a jeweller. In 1756, Augustin became a major in the British 60th Regiment of Foot, also known as the Royal Americans, a four-battalion regiment raised principally from German émigrés living in Britain's North American colonies. Augustin's younger brothers, James and Marcus, who had settled in the New World, also joined the Royal Americans and together the three held considerable influence within the regiment from the 1750s until the conclusion of the American War of Independence in 1783. The Prevost brothers also amassed considerable wealth from investments, perquisites associated with lucrative appointments and land speculation in the colonies of New York and Nova Scotia. Through their service and fortune, the Prevosts also enjoyed the patronage of the British court, colonial administrators, and several officers who rose to high command in the army during the Seven Years' War and American War of Independence.

James Prevost used his influence in London to obtain an important concession for officers serving in the 60th Foot, most of whom were foreigners. Nervous that this high proportion of foreign officers could create questions of loyalty, the British government had placed limitations on their commissions by stipulating that none could be employed outside of North America or rise above the rank of lieutenant colonel. James attempted to have these restrictions struck down by the New York legislature, and when that failed, in 1760 he made an appeal to the Parliament at Westminster. Any opposition was calmed by the euphoria following the annus mirabilis of 1759, the "year of wonders" that witnessed British victories in North America, Europe, and on the high seas. Charles Townshend, the secretary of war, supported James's petition and presented a revised bill to Parliament in 1762. The result was an ordinance naturalizing foreign Protestants after two years in the 60th Foot and guaranteeing their property rights in the colonies. James and Augustin benefited from their new status and became general officers, with James becoming governor of Antigua. Naturalization also meant that the Prevosts' offspring, including Augustin's son, George, were naturalized Britons, enjoying the same rights and privileges as anyone born in Britain.

Following service with Major General James Wolfe's army at Quebec in 1759, Augustin Prevost was promoted to lieutenant colonel in March 1761 and given command of the 3/60th Foot. The following year, he was involved in the capture of Martinique and Havana. At the conclusion of the Seven Years' War in 1763, he was sent to recruit for the 60th Foot in England. He afterward returned to North America and settled in Paramus, New Jersey, where he was joined by his brother James and his illegitimate son, Augustine. He entered into several successful land consortiums, but when the American War of Independence began in 1775, Augustin was sent to Europe to recruit for the 60th Foot. He was promoted to colonel and appointed commander in East Florida, and in April 1777, he became a brigadier general. Augustin managed to repulse a weakly pressed American counteroffensive; this action led to the capture of Savannah and the restoration of royal government in Georgia in December 1778. He then undertook an incursion into South Carolina, where another brother, Jean-Marc, served as his second-in-command. In February 1779, Augustin was promoted to major general and successfully held Savannah against an attack by a superior Franco-American force. In 1780, after twenty-four years of active duty in North America, he returned to England and purchased an estate north of London, where he died in 1786.

In August 1765, Augustin had married Anne-Françoise-Marguerite, née Nanette Grand. Unlike many of his fellow officers, Augustin did not marry into the colonial elite but chose instead the daughter of Viscount Isaac-Jean-Georges-Jonas Grand, a wealthy Amsterdam banker who resided in Lausanne. Augustin and Nanette had two daughters and three sons. Of the two younger sons, William rose to be a major general in the British army and James a captain in the Royal Navy. The eldest boy, George James Marc Prevost, was born under the British flag in Paramus in the colony of New Jersey, on 19 May 1767.

George Prevost was destined for a military profession and began his training in England when he was six years old. His father was determined that unlike the majority of youths, who had little or no professional education when they became officers, George was to receive preparatory instruction. In 1773, he was sent to the Lochée Academy in Little Chelsea, London, operated by Lewis Lochée, a naturalized Belgian émigré and self-described author of books on military subjects and education. At his school, the "sons of gentlemen intended for the Army learnt not only Fortifications and Tactics, but also Mathematics and Geography, History, Map Reading, Military Sketching and languages." The curriculum was designed to correspond with the course at the Royal Military Academy, the training establishment for officers of the Royal Artillery and Royal Engineers, established in 1741. Once he had finished at Chelsea, George completed his education at another military academy at Colmar, in southeastern France, that catered to young Protestants, who were not permitted to attend the École Militaire, an academic college in Paris opened in 1760 to train cadet officers of the Catholic faith for the army.

It was no surprise when George Prevost joined his family's regiment, the 60th Foot. On 3 September 1779, at the age of twelve, George received a commission as an ensign in the 4th Battalion of that unit. At this time, one of George's uncles, Jean Marc, was a major in the 1st Battalion and his half brother, Augustine, a captain in the 3rd, along with his cousin Ensign George William Augustine. The elder Major General Augustin Prevost was Colonel Commandant of the Fourth Battalion, and through family connections George would have been known to most officers of the regiment, including the colonel in chief of the 60th and future commander in chief of the army Lieutenant General Jeffery Amherst and Major General Frederick Haldimand, colonel commandant of the 1st Battalion. Haldimand had been recruited by George's uncle James when the regiment was first raised.

George's early career benefited from his mother's wealth, although not to the extent that some historians have claimed. Family connections were of even less significance. Commissions in the infantry and cavalry were governed by purchase, a system unique to the British army that in the period prior to the reforms implemented by the Duke of York, the commander in chief of the army, in the 1790s, was subject to many abuses. All ranks from lieutenant colonel downward were subject to purchase, whereas advancement to colonel and general officer was determined by seniority. Under this arrangement, blocks of officers of similar seniority were advanced to the next rank together, usually on the same day. A young man such as Prevost would buy his ensigncy, and as vacancies at the next rank appeared, whether due to retirement, the selling out of a commission (as a form of retirement fund), or transfer to another regiment, the vacancy was offered to the senior officer of the next lower rank. If he refused, the offer was repeated to the next senior man until it was filled. In an expanded, wartime army, however, upwards of 30 percent of the vacancies, normally resulting from the death of an officer, were filled without purchase. Active employment up to lieutenant colonel was subject to fluctuations in the army establishment between wars and peacetime when the number of senior command positions was limited, and a senior or general officer was never guaranteed active employment. Such was not the case with Prevost, who enjoyed continual employment, except for one brief period following the American War of Independence.

Most of his father's estate went to his older half brother, Augustine; therefore, George relied on the assistance of his mother to finance his early career. Fortunately for his mother's purse, the stationing of the 60th Foot in the disease-ridden West Indies made commissions in it more affordable than in a fashionable regiment, such as the Guards or the cavalry, which illegally charged purchase fees above official rates. Patronage, the influence exercised by family members and friends with senior officials, including the commander in chief of the army, could hasten promotion, but this was not the case with Prevost. His uncle James died in 1778, before George received his commission. Jean Marc passed away in 1781, and his father five years after that. By 1784, Haldimand was gone, and Amherst retired in 1795. Despite his apparent advantages, Prevost's advancement—at a time when rampant abuse of the purchase system brought swift promotions, leaving mere boys in command of regiments—was slow. George achieved a lieutenant colonelcy only after fifteen years of service, and his subsequent promotions proved no more rapid.

George Prevost remained in England during the final stages of the American War of Independence. As was common at the time, he moved between different regiments, purchasing vacancies at the next higher rank as they became available. In 1782, he obtained a lieutenancy in the 47th Foot, but returned to the 60th as a captain in July 1783. This proved to be bad timing, for with the end of the American war, reductions were made to the establishment and the first two battalions of the 60th were reduced in strength and the other two disbanded. At age sixteen, Prevost was now one of twenty-three captains in excess of the regimental establishment's needs, and on Christmas Day 1783, he was placed on half-pay, an allowance or retainer provided when an officer was not in actual service. Fortunately for him, this period of enforced leisure did not last long, and in October 1784, Captain Prevost secured a vacancy in the 25th Foot and left England to join his regiment at Gibraltar, the important British possession guarding the entrance to the Mediterranean, which had recently been heavily besieged by France and Spain. The young Prevost not only found time for regimental duties at Gibraltar, he also courted and, in May 1789, married Catherine Anne Phipps, daughter of Major (later Major General) John Phipps of the Royal Engineers.

The outbreak of the French Revolution in 1789 initiated a period of political and social upheaval in France. With the arrest of King Louis XVI in 1792, the Revolution gave birth to a republic whose excesses against its own people grew more violent while its policy of territorial expansion eventually caused a Europe an conflict. Revolutionary France went to war with Britain in February 1793, and the government of Britain, having joined a coalition that included all the principal powers of Europe, deployed forces to the Continent while the powerful Royal Navy quickly secured command of the seas. Threats to British commercial and maritime interests in the West Indies, a group of islands that also held strategic and economic importance to France, led to the dispatch of an expedition to attack the French colonies. It was in the part of the island chain known as the Windward Islands that twenty-seven-year-old George Prevost would experience his introduction to combat, and through the course of several campaigns he established his reputation as a military commander and colonial administrator.

In November 1790, Prevost was promoted to major, and the following year, he joined the 3/60th Foot at Antigua. This battalion had been reraised in October 1787 when increased tension with France brought an expansion of the army. In March 1794, Prevost became a brevet lieutenant colonel, an irregular form of war time promotion that provided the status and authority, but not the pay, of the higher rank. He achieved substantive, or permanent, rank in August 1794, when he was appointed commanding officer of the 3/60th Foot. The battalion sailed for Demerara, a Dutch-held island, but when the governor, fearing French retaliation, refused them permission to land, they continued to Bermuda, from whence Prevost was ordered to St. Vincent, in the Lesser Antilles, or Windward Islands.

The West Indies are an archipelago strung in a gentle arc that delineates the eastern and northern edges of the Ca rib be an Sea. The Windward Islands, situated at the southernmost end of the chain, are so named for their exposure to the northeast trade winds that propel sailing vessels westward. Threatened in the summer by hurricanes, exposed to earthquakes and volcanic eruption all year-round, the islands pose a variety of dangers. The hot, wet, mosquito-breeding summer months, which became known as the "sickly season," exposed Europeans to deadly yellow fever and malaria. These diseases killed merchants, soldiers, seamen, and settlers by the thousands regardless of social status and rank. It was the wealth these islands offered that caused Britain, France, the Netherlands, Spain, and other seagoing nations to dismiss these dangers and to compete for control of the islands. During the eighteenth century it was found that the West Indies had the ideal climate for growing luxury commodities such as sugar and coffee and for producing cotton and indigo needed by textile manufacturers. These products, which could be easily accessed by merchant vessels, transformed the West Indies into the hub of trade and shipping in the Atlantic Ocean. The potential disruption to an opponent's trade and economy made these islands valuable military targets during the latter stages of the American War of Independence and the French Revolutionary War.

Britain's objective was to keep its trade with the islands open, while halting the commerce of its rivals, France and Spain. In March 1795, the indigenous Caribs on the British possession of St. Vincent, whose republican sentiments were fueled by French emissaries who were "busy all over the place," rose in rebellion and gained control of the windward half of the island. St. Vincent is a rocky, mountainous island, eigh teen miles long and eleven miles wide. The mountainous terrain was believed to be impassable, thus restricting movement to the shoreline. The island had been colonized by the French in 1719 and acquired by Britain in 1763. About twenty thousand Europeans (mainly British and French) and Caribs lived on St. Vincent.

Rebel forces quickly drove the British garrison, consisting of invalids from the 4/60th and a weak company of the 46th Foot, into the capital at Kingston, at the southern end of the island. Similar uprisings took place on Martinique, while almost the entire island of Grenada was lost. In June 1795, the British garrison at St. Lucia was evacuated, and it appeared the British flag would soon be expelled from the Windward Islands.


Excerpted from Defender of Canada by John R. Grodzinski. Copyright © 2013 University of Oklahoma Press, Norman, Publishing Division of the University. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF OKLAHOMA PRESS.
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