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A Canadian commander of the War of 1812

Gordon Drummond after he served as a general in the War of 1812.
Wikimedia
A figure of history , Gordon Drummond—from his high-necked collars to his oil-painted profiles—doesn’t appear the trailblazer he was. An intuitive leader and clever military strategist, Drummond was refreshing as the lieutenant governor of Upper Canada in 1813, replacing Francis de Rottenburg who was said to be too timid. Drummond had gumption and a mastery of combat the British needed to keep the Americans at bay during the War of 1812.

He made history as the first Canadian-born lieutenant governor and officer of the colonial military and Upper Canada’s civilian governments. And through his command, Drummond set an important precedent: Canada required Canadian leadership.

Born in Quebec in 1772, Drummond’s family moved back to England shortly after his father’s death. When he had completed his education, Drummond joined the 1st Regiment of Foot in 1789. “He rose rapidly in rank,” wrote Kenneth Stickney in a Dictionary of Canadian Biography article, “even by the standards of the time.”

The British night assault on Fort Erie.
E.C Watmough/Wikimedia

“This brief but decisive campaign restored control of the Niagara frontier to the British.”

Having served in the Netherlands, Egypt and Jamaica, Drummond’s legacy was cemented when he took command of troops in Upper Canada in 1813. However, Drummond wasn’t home long before he saw the devastating impacts the war had on the province. Following crippling defeats in Moraviantown and on Lake Erie, morale was at an all-time low, mutiny was frequent and food was scarce for both the general population and the military.

Aiming to weaken the Americans’ position, Drummond set his sights on Fort Niagara, N.Y., and stormed the post on Dec. 19, capturing 344 Americans and much-needed supplies. Major-General Phineas Riall then led additional raids south of the border, avenging the U.S. burning of Newark, Ont., by razing Black Rock and Buffalo.

“This brief but decisive campaign restored control of the Niagara frontier to the British,” wrote Stickney, “and greatly improved the confidence of the army and the people of Upper Canada.”

With the dawn of the new year, Drummond proposed an attack on Sackets Harbor, N.Y. A successful attack on the key American naval base on the south shore of Lake Ontario would restore British control of the lake and a key supply route. But lacking the necessary reinforcements, the British attacked the American depot at Oswego in May instead. The raid, while deemed a success, failed, however, to secure American naval parts critical to disrupting U.S. vessels.

“Much of the campaign he was subsequently forced to fight,” wrote Stickney, “is testimony to the frustration an intelligent and aggressive officer must suffer under the orders of a more timorous one.’

With heavy reinforcements on both sides, the British and Americans clashed at Lundy’s Lane, near Niagara Falls.

In early-July 1814, some 4,000 U.S. troops captured Fort Erie and the British retreated to Fort George. Drummond was determined to drive the Americans out of the province. In late July, he headed to the Niagara front himself.

With heavy reinforcements on both sides, the British and Americans clashed at Lundy’s Lane, near Niagara Falls. Each side suffered more than 850 casualties, in what was the bloodiest battle ever fought on Canadian soil. And despite being shot in the neck, Drummond continued to lead his soldiers to victory, making it Britain’s most hard-earned win of the war.

“It was the decisive battle of the campaign,” wrote Stickney, “and it was won by Drummond’s persistence no less than that of his troops.”

The war wound down as 1814 came to an end, with the Treaty of Ghent signed on Christmas Eve. Fighting concluded early the following year.

By 1816, Drummond returned to England to continue his career until his death in 1854, leaving behind an illustrious military career and having played an influential role in North American history.


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