Dearborn-Prevost Armistice

August 20- September 8, 1812

An ambivalent approach to the war effort permeated even the highest levels of both administrations. In Quebec City, British Governor Gen. George Prevost had been involved in elaborate negotiations to prevent the conflict. Even after Canada was invaded, Prevost was reluctant to pursue anything but a strictly defensive strategy. In New York , U.S. Army Commander-in-Chief Henry Dearborn’s contribution to the war ranged from half-hearted militia recruiting to outright inaction. The policies of both men frequently frustrated their subordinate officers.

Canada was fortunate that one of its chief administrators, Gen. Isaac Brock, was an experienced and gifted general who had the foresight to prepare for war. America was not so lucky.

News of the British government’s repeal of the Orders in Council reached North America in August of 1812. Prevost immediately dispatched Col. Edward Baynes to Albany, New York for a meeting with Dearborn. Prevost optimistically hoped that the war could now be aborted. If Prevost wasn’t aware of Dearborn’s reluctance to lead the U.S. Army into war, President James Madison and Secretary of War William Eustis certainly were. Even a month after the declaration of war, Dearborn was trying to escape his responsibility for the war effort. “Who is to have command of the operations in Upper Canada?” he wrote. “I take it for granted that my command does not extend to that distant quarter.” After several days of negotiations between Baynes and Dearborn, a cease-fire was agreed upon.

It took effect on August 20, and could be canceled by either side with 4 days notice. Perhaps because Dearborn was a former secretary of war, he didn’t bother to consult William Eustis about the deal. However, Dearborn admitted the armistice lacked legitimacy as long as it was not approved by the president. When Madison learned about the agreement, he ordered it repealed almost immediately. A peace treaty was out of the question, he said, as long as American sailors continued to be impressed by the British Royal Navy. In the short term, the United States benefited greatly from the cease-fire.

Reeling from the defeat at Fort Detroit, the Americans badly needed time to regroup. The cease-fire gave them the opportunity to fortify weak positions. The agreement even allowed American access to Lake Ontario, and reinforcements were quickly moved into position at the the prime British objective of Sacket’s Harbor. The only drawback for the United States was that British envoy Edward Baynes used his trip to Albany to collect information. He was able to gauge firsthand the unpopularity of the war with Americans in the Northeast and America's obvious lack of preparations. Meanwhile, Brock was devastated when he learned of the cease fire on August 23.

The agreement undermined the momentum he had worked so hard to generate and threatened his alliance with Tecumseh. The First Nations Indians were already dubious about the level of British commitment to their cause; now the cease-fire strengthened their suspicions. Brock knew the deal was far too weak to bring an end to the hostilities. He also correctly predicted that the Americans would use this opportunity to strengthen the positions he hoped to attack.

The armistice ended on September 8. Thousands more men would be killed and maimed before attempts to end the war would be reanimated.

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