Prevost Becomes Commander Of All British Forces


George Prévost was born on 19 May 1767, in the Province of New Jersey. His father was Augustin Prévost, a French-speaking Swiss Protestant, and a lieutenant-colonel in the British Army in 1767. His mother was Nanette (Ann) Grand. George Prévost was educated at schools in England and in the North American continent.

Service as Governor-in-Chief of British North America

On 4 July 1811, Prévost became a lieutenant-general outside of Nova Scotia, and was promoted to commander-in-chief of British forces in North America. On 21 October, he was appointed to be the governor-in-chief of British North America. As commander-in-chief, he took over the presidency and administration of Lower Canada from Thomas Dunn on 14 September. He would remain the president of Lower Canada until 15 July 1812. During his time as commander-in-chief, he was focused on ensuring the military security of the Atlantic colonies. Prévost, worried about the disposition of Canadians if a war started involving British North America, tried to conciliate Canadian political leaders, who had been disappointed by the partisan alliance between Craig and the British oligarchy. The leader of the Canadian party, Pierre- Stanislas Bédard, was opposed by several people trying to gain his position, and Prévost exploited the rivalry. In 1812, Bédard, losing his motivation for continuing as leader, was given a judgeship in an area of British North America from which he could not have a major influence over the general political system. Prévost worked with the moderate Louis-Joseph Papineau, treating him as the leader. Prévost would also nominate 5 Canadians to be appointed to the Legislative Council between 1811 and 1815, an unusual move as Canadians had usually been excluded from being appointed since 1798. Prévost said, in a report to the Colonial Office, he wanted to create a Legislative Council "possessed of the consideration of the country, from a majority of its members being independent of the government" in order to transfer to it "the political altercations which have been hitherto carried on by the governor in person."

War of 1812

For most of the War, Prévost's strategy was defensive and cautious. Learning in August 1812 that the British government had repealed some of the orders in council which the United States regarded as a cause of war, he negotiated an armistice, but peace did not result and the war resumed. During the early months of 1813, Prévost twice visited Upper Canada where the military and civil situation was unsatisfactory after the Governor and Commander there (Major General Isaac Brock) had been killed in action. As a result, he was present in Kingston in May, and took personal charge of an attack on the main American naval base on Lake Ontario. A victory here could have been decisive but the attack was hastily planned and at the Battle of Sackett's Harbor, both Prévost and the naval commander, Commodore James Lucas Yeo, attacked hesitantly. After meeting stiff resistance, they withdrew.

In 1814, large reinforcements became available after the defeat of Napoleon Bonaparte. Prévost planned an attack along Lake Champlain and the Hudson River, but the army which he led personally was driven back at the Battle of Plattsburgh after the British naval squadron on Lake Champlain was defeated. Commodore Yeo considered that the British ships under Captain George Downie (who was killed in the action) had been ordered into action prematurely by Prévost, and that Prévost had failed to order an attack by his own troops until it was too late to avert the defeat of Downie's squadron.

Prévost had also made himself unpopular among some of the Army officers under his command who were veterans of the Peninsular War (such as Manley Power, Thomas Brisbane, and Frederick Philipse Robinson) by his perceived over-caution, and his niggling insistence on correct dress and uniform. He had also alienated several successful Canadian officers (such as Charles de Salaberry) by apparently claiming their successes for himself and failing to reward them properly. However, it was the complaints by the Navy and Peninsular veterans which prompted his recall. Although the Duke of Wellington accepted that Prévost's strategy was correct, he wrote on 30 October 1814,

It is very obvious to me that you must remove Sir George Prevost. I see he has gone to war about trifles with the general officers I sent him, which are certainly the best of their rank in the army; and his subsequent failure and distresses will be aggravated by that circumstance; and will probably with the usual fairness of the public be attributed to it.

In December, Wellington's former Quartermaster General, Sir George Murray, was sent to Canada with the local rank of Lieutenant General, specifically to order Prévost to return to London to explain his conduct of the Plattsburg campaign. He delivered the order on 2 March, 1815, by coincidence only a day or so after news of the ratification of the Treaty of Ghent, which ended the war, arrived in Quebec. Prévost felt himself publicly humiliated by the manner and timing of his succession. After ordering hostilities to cease and disbanding the militia, he left Quebec on 3 April. He was given a hasty vote of thanks by the Assembly in Quebec.

Later life

On his return to England, the Government and Army authorities at first accepted Prévost's explanations for his conduct at Plattsburgh and during the War generally. Soon afterwards, the official naval despatch on the Battle of Plattsburgh was published, together with Yeo's complaints. Both these accounts blamed Prévost for the defeat. Prévost requested a court martial to clear his name. The trial was set for 12 January 1816, the delay being necessary to allow witnesses to travel from Canada, but Prévost was already in ill health and died a week before it was due to convene. His widow Lady Prévost declined the offer of a peerage in honour of her husband, as she did not consider herself and her family to have sufficient means to support the dignity.

Later historians judge Prévost's preparations for defending the Canadas with limited means to be energetic, well conceived, and comprehensive, and against the odds he had achieved the primary objective of preventing an American conquest.

For although he was strategically inflexible and proved a hopeless field commander, as commander-in-chief facing overwhelming odds in the early years of the war he performed well; his sound political and administrative abilities formed the basis of success.Prévost is buried in East Barnet, near London, England.