Heroes on the River Canard

by Jim Yaworksy


In one of the first actions of the War of 1812, a detachment of the 41st guarding the River Canard bridge on the route between Windsor/Sandwich and Fort Malden, were attacked by American forces on 16 July, 1812. The first recorded British casualties of the War were suffered, as James Hancock was killed and John Dean wounded and captured. The question of this little piece is this: were Hancock & Dean dedicated soldiers and heroes, or drunken louts who foolishly got cut off from the detachment of the 41st as it fell back under overwhelming American pressure from its position guarding the Canard River Bridge?

Dispatches and letters describing the incident call them heroes, and when General Brock entered newly-captured Fort Detroit on August 16 1812, it is reputed that his first deed was to personally release Dean and congratulate him in front of the troops. However, Ensign Cochran's notes say they were drunk, cut off by their slow reaction, and "fought" because they were too "out of it" to recognize the peril of their position; and his "debunking" of the Hancock/Dean story is being increasingly repeated in new works on the war.

The Cochran comments would appear to receive some support from the overall description of the action: it sounds like the members of the picket had plenty of time to rouse themselves and fall back in good order in the face of the overwhelming American attack.

However, there are many recorded instances of the outermost picket (usually just two or three men) at any given location being overrun in the initial enemy attack and I have not seen a detailed description of the River Canard incident that places exactly where Hancock & Dean were stationed. The official version has them putting up a stout resistance, as opposed to Cochran's version, which has them staggering out in a semi-conscious drunken stupor from where they were "kipping", then putting up a totally senseless and ineffective "resistance".

My question is: why is Ensign Cochran the only one who tells his version of "the story?" John Richardson, a true 19th century "gentleman", is not one to lie - at least consciously - yet backs the "official" version; would General Brock give "official" sanction both by dispatch and personal action in congratulating Dean, to a story that everyone on the Detroit frontier would have known was "baloney"? The American accounts don't remark upon capturing drunken louts, which if true, one thinks would have been a good "propaganda" weapon: "vaunted British regulars just a bunch of drunks' ".

Finally, it must be noted that Cochran was not even in Canada until a year later, he arrived with the 2nd Battalion: his is therefore a secondhand account. Still, one wonders what his motives would have been in repeating or making up a "Dean & Hancock - debunking" story.

A mystery we may never know the answer to.

However, I submit that until much better evidence surfaces, it would be a disservice to the memory of brave men to regard Hancock & Dean as anything less than legitimate heroes - assuming brave infantrymen who would probably have said they were "just doing their duty" deserve such an appellation. That last question I leave to you, dear reader.