War of 1812peoplefrench

George Prevost

British
Governor General of Canada

Prevost at Plattsburg

Dearborn - Prevost Armistice


Ann Prevost, daughter of Canada's Governor General

George Prevost was born in New Jersey, in 1767. The eldest son of a Swiss-born officer in the British Army, he was educated in England and North America with the a goal of a future military career.

Prevost served extensively in the Caribbean before taking command of the British forces in North America on July 4, 1811. He was shortly thereafter sworn in as the head colonial administrator of Canada.

The bilingual Prevost promptly won the support of French-Canadian leaders and the Catholic Church hierarchy with his conciliatory policies. But this approach alienated some of Quebec’s English-speaking elite. These political enemies would have plenty of opportunity to attack Prevost after his disastrous retreat from Plattsburg.

At the beginning of the war, the British forces found themselves tremendously outnumbered. To defend thousands of square miles of territory, Prevost had to rely on fewer than nine thousand regular troops. The total population of Canada was a little over three hundred thousand, while the United States counted almost eight million inhabitants. Prevost could expect little support from Britain itself, which was preoccupied with the Duke of Wellington’s war against Napoleon in Europe.

This situation led Prevost to adopt a defensive strategy. One of his first moves after the outbreak of the war, was to negotiate a truce with the American commander-in-chief, Major General Henry Dearborn.

The armistice was typical of Prevost. He was a talented diplomat but a much less skilled military commander. Prevost’s policy was to consistently strengthen defenses, wait for the enemy, delay the war when possible, and always avoid serious mistakes.

Until 1814, this approach was very successful but the American dream of conquering Canada was no closer to reality than it had been before the war. Once Napoleon however, was defeated in Europe, Wellington’s troops began pouring into North America. British troops now outnumbered American soldiers and London instructed Prevost to become more aggressive. Prevost however, had trouble shedding his old instincts.

Ordered to take Plattsburg, Prevost invaded the United States with an army of close to 10,000 men in September of 1814. He stopped short of the lightly- defended town, unable to bring himself to order the final assault. Instead, he goaded his Lake Champlain fleet commander, Captain George Downie, into attacking the American Navy anchored in Plattsburg Bay. The battle ended in disaster for the British. The Americans, fighting in the manner and place of their own choosing, destroyed the British fleet.

Prevost had promised Downie a simultaneous land attack, but didn’t order the assault until the naval battle was almost over. As soon as he learned the British fleet had lost, Prevost ordered a general retreat. He withdrew against the advice of his senior officers, who felt Plattsburg was still within easy grasp.

Prevost’s career in Canada ended in a shroud of disappointment. He was recalled to England and a naval court of inquiry blamed him for the defeat at Plattsburg. Hoping to clear his name, he asked for another hearing. Prevost died in 1816, shortly before it was to convene.