Major General Sir George Prevost

General Sir George Prevost
Prevost, George
19 May 1767
Province of New Jersey
5 January 1816
London, England

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.

On 3 May 1779 Prévost was commissioned at the age of eleven, as an ensign in the 60th Foot Regiment, in which his father was a senior officer. In 1782, he transferred to the 47th Foot Regiment, as a lieutenant, followed in 1784 by a move to the 25th Foot Regiment as a captain, and then he returned to the 60th on 18 November 1790 with the rank of major, at the age of 23. Prévost's maternal grandfather was a wealthy banker in Amsterdam, and his money is considered to have certainly been responsible for his grandson's quick advancement up the chain of command in the British Army, as promotion could then be made "by purchase".

On 6 August 1794, whilst serving in the 60th, he was promoted to lieutenant-colonel. Prévost became a commander stationed in St Vincent from 1794-1795. During fighting on 20 January 1796, he was wounded twice, and he returned to England shortly after, where he was appointed to become an inspecting field officer. On 1 January 1798, Prévost became a colonel, and on 8 March he became a brigadier-general, at the age of 30. In May he was appointed to be the lieutenant governor of St Lucia, where his fluency in French and conciliatory administration won him the respect of the French planters living there. In 1802, he returned to Britain as a result of ill health.

On 27 September 1802, soon after fighting against France resumed, Prévost was chosen to be the governor of Dominica. In 1803, the French attempted to seize the island, and Prévost fought against them. He would also fight against the French in an effort to reclaim St Lucia. On 1 January 1805, at the age of 37, Prévost was promoted to major-general, and soon after he was granted leave to return to England, where he became a commander of the Portsmouth district, and where he was appointed to be a baronet. In 1806, Prévost became a colonel commandant in his regiment.

On 15 January 1808, Prévost was appointed to become the lieutenant governor of Nova Scotia, and he was also promoted to lieutenant-general, although this was a rank that he held only in Nova Scotia. He was tasked with improving the military defences of the Atlantic colonies. He arrived at Halifax on 7 April 1808 and by the end of April he had taken steps to increase opposition in New England against the American government’s hostile attitude towards Britain. The President of the United States of America in 1808, Thomas Jefferson, had placed an embargo on American trading with Britain. From 1808, to the beginning of the War of 1812, Prévost tried to encourage New England to trade with Britain by setting up ‘free ports’ in Nova Scotia and New Brunswick, where American goods could be landed without a need to pay customs duties. This led to a substantial increase in Nova Scotia’s trading not only with New England, but also with the West Indies. Prévost could do little to improve the sub-standard fortifications in Nova Scotia, but was able to secure the approval of the legislature in Nova Scotia to amend a militia law, which lead to Prévost’s ability to mobilize a small, effective, militia force to work with the regular garrison during an emergency.

The amendment of the law is considered to be a good achievement by Prévost, because Prévost's predecessor as lieutenant governor, John Wentworth, had been responsible for relations between the executive and legislative bodies of Nova Scotia weakening, because Wentworth had tried to increase his own executive power at the expense of the legislative House of Assembly. At the time when Prévost arrived, the House of Assembly, led by William Cottnam Tonge, was struggling to control government expenditures. In an effort to try and appease Tonge, Prévost appointed him to be his second-in-command during an expedition against Martinique. They departed from Halifax on 6 December 1808. Unfortunately, Tonge’s departure did not lead to a peaceful relationship between the House of Assembly and the executive body as Prévost’s replacement during his absence, Alexander Croke, fought with the Assembly over a supply bill. Eventually, Croke rejected the bill on the basis that it did not fit in with royal prerogatives, and then could not reach an agreement with the Legislative Council over how to settle the dispute between himself and the Assembly.

Martinique was captured, and Prévost returned to Halifax on 15 April 1809. Tonge did not return, as he decided to stay in the West Indies. Prévost opposed Croke’s actions, restored “good understanding” with the Legislative Council, and then calmed the Assembly by deciding not to follow the constitution of Nova Scotia down to the letter. On 10 June 1808, the House of Assembly passed the supply bill, and also voted to use 200 guineas to purchase a sword for Prévost as a sign of their approval for Prévost’s conduct during the expedition against Martinique. Prévost believed he had successfully maintained the crown’s prerogative. In 1809, utilising his good relationship with the Assembly was able to secure a tax on distilled liquors, so that he could pay the cost of equipment for the provincial militia. For the rest of his term as lieutenant governor of Nova Scotia, Prévost ensured he did not make an executive act that the Assembly would oppose to a great degree.

Prévost had become a popular lieutenant governor, but this was threatened by his attempts, beginning in 1810, to strength the Church of England in Nova Scotia, since that might alienate other religious groups. He convinced the British government to allow him to use surplus arms funds to develop Anglican churches, and to enlarge King’s College in Windsor. He also appointed Anglican clergy to be civil magistrates, he protected the Anglican ownership of land and their influence over the education of children, and he placed an Anglican bishop in the Legislative Council. On the condition that the bishop resided in Halifax, Prévost was able to increase the salary of the bishop. In an effort to appease other religious groups, he appointed a number of Roman Catholic and Presbyterian clergy to be magistrates, and he authorized a grant of money for the Church of Scotland.

During May 1811, when Prévost was preparing to oppose the Assembly over its policy of compensating its members for their expenses, feeling that it was irregular; open to abuse, and “an evil highly dangerous to the prerogative of the Crown”, he was ordered to move to Lower Canada to replace Governor Craig.

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.”

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.

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.

Prévost is buried in East Barnet, near London, England. George Prevost’s tomb is in the South East area of the churchyard.

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