Historians agree this event took place, but there is no record of what British General Isaac Brock said that night. However, from subsequent events, it is clear his speech was remarkably effective. At Culver’s Tavern, Brock changed the minds of Upper Canada farmers and shopkeepers who had, only days before, steadfastly refused an order to muster for duty. Somehow Brock transformed reluctant civilians into companies of men willing to fight an invading American army.
Perhaps your interest is peaked. What did Brock say and how did he say it?
At this point, historians typically pass to other matters, explaining, ‘It’s only speculation from here on.’ However, it is the aim of a writer of historical fiction, who has studied the times and people involved, to portray what happened. If done skillfully, the novelist allows readers to stand in that audience to witness an event that occurred two hundred years ago.
But that’s guess work! Well of course it is, to a certain extent, but the novelist’s account is based on a calculation of probabilities, given facts that are known. What then are the probabilities? What issues might Brock have spoken to that evening?
Almost certainly, General Brock acknowledged the presence of traitors and American spies standing among the audience as he spoke, acknowledged the success those provocateurs had instilling fears among people who might otherwise be loyal.
Another rumour was that disaffection among civilians in Upper Canada was so widespread, the militia would not fight, leaving only vastly outnumbered British regulars to defend the province. Disaffection among recent immigrants to Upper Canada was real, easily recognized, and dangerous.** As Brock spoke to the people of Norwich and nearby communities, a number of whom ranked themselves among the disloyal, Brock had a perfect retort – accompanying him in his dash to defend Upper Canada's frontier were two hundred militiamen of 1st York and 5th Lincoln. It must be supposed Brock took the opportunity to introduce them to the audience as paragons of loyalty, as men willing to defend the province’s western front, already hard-pressed by Hull’s invading army.
Finally, at some point, Brock presumably appealed to the compassion and patriotism of the Loyalist families who stood before him, knowing full well that the sympathies of American immigrants were beyond his reach. Perhaps in this appeal Brock said something very much like the following:
“The people of Baldoon and Sandwich and Amherstburg are hoping, praying, for our help. Their homes are being looted, their farms are burning. Their need is urgent.
Before you stand men of York and Niagara. We leave at midnight to throw the invaders out.
I ask you now. Will you join us?”
This is but a small part of how the novelist imagines Brock’s speech that night.
Could there be errors of omission or commission, compared to what actually occurred? Again, of course there could be, but it can be argued convincingly that probabilities lie strongly in favour of Brock speaking on these issues.
The complete version of the novelist’s recreation of Brock’s speech appears on pages 192-195 of 1812 The Land Between Flowing Waters. (Order information appears on the opening page of this website.)
by Ken Leland, 2014
* The Journal of Major John Norton, 1816, pages 294-198, published by the Champlain Society, 1970
** Plunder, Profit, and Paroles, Chapter Two, by George Sheppard, McGill-Queens University Press, 1994.