War of 1812: Lieutenant General Sir George Prévost

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Lieutenant General Sir George Prevost. Photograph Source: Public Domain

Early Life:

Born in New Jersey on May 19, 1767, George Prévost was the son of Major General Augustine Prévost and his wife Nanette. A career officer in the British Army, the elder Prévost saw service at the Battle of Quebec during the French & Indian War as well as successfully defended Savannah during the American Revolution. After some schooling in North America, George Prévost traveled to England and the Continent to receive the remainder of his education.

On May 3, 1779, despite being only eleven years old, he obtained a commission as an ensign in his father's unit, the 60th Regiment of Foot. Three years later, Prévost transferred to the 47th Regiment of Foot with the rank of lieutenant.  

A Rapid Career Ascent:

Prévost's rise continued in 1784 with an elevation to captain in the 25th Regiment of Foot.  These promotions were possible as his maternal grandfather served as a wealthy banker in Amsterdam and was able to provide funds for the purchasing of commissions.  On November 18, 1790, Prévost returned to the 60th Regiment with the rank of major.  Only twenty-three years old, he soon saw action in the Wars of the French Revolution.  Promoted to lieutenant colonel in 1794, Prévost traveled to St. Vincent for service in the Caribbean.  Defending the island against the French, he was wounded twice on January 20, 1796.  Sent back to Britain to recover, Prévost received a promotion to colonel on January 1, 1798.

  In this rank only briefly, he earned an appointment to brigadier general that March followed by a posting to St. Lucia as lieutenant governor in May.  

Caribbean:

Arriving on St. Lucia, which had been captured from the French, Prévost earned praise from the local planters for his knowledge of their language and even-handed administration of the island.

Falling ill, he briefly returned to Britain in 1802. Recovering, Prévost was appointed to serve as governor of Dominica that fall. The following year, he successfully held the island during an attempted invasion by the French and mounted an effort to reclaim St. Lucia which had fallen earlier.  Promoted to major general on January 1, 1805, Prévost took leave and returned home. While in Britain, he commanded forces around Portsmouth and was made a baronet for his services.

Lieutenant Governor of Nova Scotia:

Having established a track record as a successful administrator, Prévost was rewarded with the post of lieutenant governor of Nova Scotia on January 15, 1808, and the local rank of lieutenant general.  Assuming this position, he attempted to aid merchants from New England in circumventing President Thomas Jefferson's embargo on British trade by establishing free ports in Nova Scotia. In addition, Prévost endeavored to strengthen Nova Scotia's defenses and amended the local militia laws to create an effective force to work with the British Army. In early 1809, he commanded part of the British landing forces during Vice Admiral Sir Alexander Cochrane and Lieutenant General George Beckwith's invasion of Martinique.

  Returning to Nova Scotia following the successful conclusion of the campaign, he worked to improve local politics but was criticized for attempting to increase the power of the Church of England.

Governor-in-Chief of British North America:

In May 1811, Prévost received orders to assume the position of Governor of Lower Canada. A short time later, on July 4, he obtained a promotion when he was permanently elevated to the rank of lieutenant general and made commander-in-chief of British forces in North America. This was followed by an appointment to the post of Governor-in-Chief of British North America on October 21. As relations between Britain and the United States were increasingly strained, Prévost worked to ensure the loyalty of the Canadians should a conflict erupt.  Among his actions was the increased inclusion of Canadians in the Legislative Council.

  These efforts proved effective as the Canadians remained loyal when the War of 1812 commenced in June 1812.  

The War of 1812:

Lacking in men and supplies, Prévost largely assumed a defensive posture with the goal of holding as much of Canada as possible.  In a rare offensive action in mid-August, his subordinate in Upper Canada, Major General Isaac Brock, succeeded in capturing Detroit.  That same month, following Parliament's repeal of the Orders in Council that had been one of the Americans' justifications for war, Prévost attempted to negotiate a local ceasefire.  This initiative was quickly dismissed by President James Madison and fighting continued in the fall.  This saw American troops turned back at the Battle of Queenston Heights and Brock killed.  Recognizing the importance of the Great Lakes in the conflict, London dispatched Commodore Sir James Yeo to direct naval activities on these bodies of water.  Though he reported directly to the Admiralty, Yeo arrived with instructions to coordinate closely with Prévost.

Working with Yeo, Prévost mounted an attack against the American naval base at Sackett's Harbor, NY in late May 1813.  Coming ashore, his troops were repulsed by Brigadier General Jacob Brown's garrison and withdrew back to Kingston.  Later that year, Prévost's forces suffered a defeat on Lake Erie, but succeeded in turning back an American effort to take Montreal at Chateauguay and Crysler's Farm.  The following year saw British fortunes dim in the spring and summer as the Americans achieved successes in the west and on the Niagara Peninsula.  With the defeat of Napoleon in the spring, London began to transfer veteran troops, which had served under the Duke of Wellington, to Canada to reinforce Prévost.  

The Plattsburgh Campaign:

Having received over 15,000 men to bolster his forces, Prévost began planning a campaign to invade the United States via the Lake Champlain corridor. This was complicated by the naval situation on the lake which saw Captain George Downie and Master Commandant Thomas Macdonough engaged in a building race.

Control of the lake was critical as it was required for re-supplying Prévost's army.  Though frustrated by naval delays, Prévost began moving south on August 31 with around 11,000 men.  He was opposed by around 3,400 Americans, led by Brigadier General Alexander Macomb, which assumed a defensive position behind the Saranac River. Moving slowly, the British were hampered by command problems as Prévost clashed with Wellington's veterans over the speed of the advance and niggling matters such as wearing proper uniforms.  

Reaching the American position, Prévost halted above the Saranac.  Scouting west, his men located a ford across the river that would allow them to attack the left flank of the American line. Planning to strike on September 10, Prévost sought to make a feint against Macomb's front while assaulting his flank. These efforts were to coincide with Downie attacking MacDonough on the lake.  The combined operation was delayed a day when unfavorable winds prevented the naval confrontation.  Advancing on September 11, Downie was decisively defeated on the water by MacDonough. 

Ashore, Prévost tentatively probed forward while his flanking force missed the ford and had to counter-march.  Locating the ford, they went into action and were having success when a recall order from Prévost arrived.  Having learned of Downie's defeat, the British commander concluded that any victory on land would be meaningless.  Despite strident protests from his subordinates, Prévost began withdrawing towards Canada that evening.  Frustrated with Prévost's lack of ambition and aggressiveness, London dispatched Major General Sir George Murray to relieve him in December.  Arriving in early 1815, he delivered his orders to Prévost shortly after news had arrived that the war had ended.

Later Life and Career:

After disbanding the militia and receiving a vote of thanks from the assembly in Quebec, Prévost departed Canada on April 3.  Though embarrassed by the timing of his relief, his initial explanations of why the Plattsburgh Campaign failed were accepted by his superiors.  Shortly thereafter, Prévost's actions were severely criticized by the Royal Navy's official reports as well as by Yeo.  After demanding a court-martial to clear his name, a hearing was set for January 12, 1816.  With Prévost in ill health, the court-martial was delayed until February 5.  Suffering from dropsy, Prévost died on January 5, exactly a month before his hearing.  Though an effective administrator who successfully defended Canada, his name was never cleared despite his wife's efforts.  Prévost's remains were buried in the St. Mary the Virgin Churchyard in East Barnet.  

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