Is Heroism Dumb?

One hundred-and-ninety-nine years ago last month, a very smart, self-taught, stunningly gorgeous, and strategically savvy man had a very bad idea.

There are a few given rules in warfare that should be followed to the letter.  Most of them are quite well known: when on foot and facing cavalry, always form square; avoid the Ross Rifle at all costs; and, straight from The Princess Bride, never get involved in a land war in Asia.

But one that has also come to mind of late, particularly when discussing British gentlemen officers of the past two-hundred-and-fifty years has to be: never make yourself an obvious target.

Major General Sir Isaac Brock is Canada’s pre-eminent hero of the early nineteenth century.  A legion of towns, streets, buildings, and schools are named after him: Brockville, BrockUniversity, and Brock Street– infamous in Kingston for its constant pot-/sink-holes.  Brock was, perhaps, the perfect gentleman-hero: he was beautiful, brilliant, capable of quoting Caesar’s Gallic campaigns and, in the next breath, the latest Byronic sonnet, and, along with Tecumseh and Prevost, was the key influence in planning British North America’s defence against President Madison’s troops in the War of 1812.

And, sadly, he was also dumb.

I say this with all respect for his military sagacity and with great love for my country and for the man on a personal level, but, really, Brock was an idiot.  At the Battle of Queenston Heights in October 1812, Brock attempted to capitalize on his great victory at Fort Detroit by crushing the American forces.  Heroic to a fault – and it was a major fault – Brock decided to lead the charge against the enemy himself.  What made this a true Wile E. Coyote moment was the simple fact that the Americans happened to hold the high ground.  So there goes Brock, medals flashing in the sun, bright red coat painfully visible through the sunlight in the trees…

The Death of Brock - C. W. Jefferys

… and he gets shot straight through the heart.  Game over.

You can now see Brock’s coat whenever you go to the Canadian War Museum.  It’s a lovely shade of red and the bullet-hole is extremely prominent.  Poor Isaac.  He wasn’t that dumb before Queenston Heights – he’d used psychological warfare brilliantly against Hull in the siege of Fort Detroit; Brock is also one of the people I absolutely would have at my dinner party of historical figures (remember to keep Henry and Eleanor at opposite ends of the table!).  But the darling man was blinded by glory.

Maybe Brock was just impersonating the flawed choice made by his comrade-in-arms from the Battle of Copenhagen, The Most Noble Lord Horatio Nelson, Viscount and Baron Nelson, of the Nile and of Burnham Thorpe in the County of Norfolk, Baron Nelson of the Nile and of Hilborough in the said County, Knight of the Most Honourable Order of the Bath, Vice Admiral of the White Squadron of the Fleet, Commander in Chief of his Majesty’s Ships and Vessels in theMediterranean, Duke of Bronté.  (Yes, titles can be fun!)

Nelson did almost the exact same thing as Brock in 1805, as every school child in Britain (and some other countries) knows well.  In the most stubborn vein ever, Nelson refused to “shift his coat” and put on something less appealing to the French sharp-shooters up in the riggings of the Redoubtable.  Medals gleaming in the sunlight (this is a bit of theme with aggravating examples of British heroism), Nelson refused Hardy’s perfectly reasonable suggestion to change and then added that the medals were military orders and he wasn’t afraid to show them to the enemy…

… and then he got shot straight through the spine a little after one o’clock in the afternoon.  “Hardy,” he smiled (presumably with a bit of a grimace), “I do believe they have done it at last… My backbone is shot through.”

Then came the fanning and the kissing below deck (for the best visual interpretation of Kiss Me, Hardy, please visit Kate Beaton’s amazing site: and bequesting Emma, Lady Hamilton to the nation, which didn’t go very well for her at all, and then Nelson died in the moment of his greatest triumph.

“Thank God I have done my duty,” indeed.

It’s beautiful and tragic… and completely unnecessary if he had just put on a less noticeable tunic!  Again, I say this with all affection and adoration and awe for Nelson’s military career and his status as one of my favourite historical lovers of all time along with Hephaistion, Julius Caesar, Simon de Montfort and Richard Burton, but come on!  There’s being brave and then there’s being a git… and, I’m sorry, my darling Horry, but it was all completely avoidable and it was all your fault.

However, my theory here is that Nelson wasn’t thinking of Emma while he was pacing around the deck of the HMS Victory that fine October day (don’t forget – Brock died in October too!).  Rather, I think Nelson had a very specific picture in mind; this one, to be exact:

The Death of General Wolfe is, I believe, the most famous painting in Canadian history – except that, in true Canadian fashion, it was painted an American, Benjamin West.  It depicts the moment when General James Wolfe died on the Plains of Abraham after being shot by the enemy (sound familiar?).  West portrays Wolfe as a Christ-figure, surrounded by his loving officers and men – including a Mohawk ally and Simon Fraser, both of whom were not even at the Plains of Abraham on that cold morning, 13 September 1759.  This is the Pieta for both Canada and the British Empire.  With one image, West managed to re-write imperial history.  It didn’t matter that half the cast of characters were absent from Wolfe’s actual death, and that he probably did not collapse backwards, eyes turned to heaven, with the Union flag waving over him as he breathed his last.  As Simon Schama wrote, “when British children of future generations grew up drilled in the pieties of imperial history, it was West’s scene they imagined rather than any more literal account.  Art had entirely blotted out mere recall, let alone evidence…. After West, nothing could dispel the odour of sanctity that lay over Wolfe’s memory.”

Horatio Nelson was one of those children, as was Isaac Brock.

Just imagine the seductive cultural power that suddenly lay before Nelson when he, too, was facing his most heroic and noble (and suicidal) moment… how could the admiral have dared to “shift his coat” when such a possible death lay before him?  (Nelson even got his own West painting, dying as he did.)  Likewise, how could Isaac Brock have not led that charge up the hill with the deaths of both Wolfe and Nelson fresh in his mind and the minds of every loyal British patriot?

And this is why, this morning, I am beset by the conclusion that heroism is dumb.  There is something beautiful about patriotism, so long as it doesn’t tip into outright jingoism and arrogance; similarly, self-sacrifice is one of the most honoured characteristics of any civilization I can think of (though I am willing to entertain arguments to the contrary if you can come up with any…).  Charles Dickens devized one of literature’s most fitting endings when he sent Sidney Carton up the steps to Mme Guillotine in A Tale of Two Cities; Captain Oates’ memorable, “I am just going outside” before walking out into the blizzard made Scott’s failure in the Antarctic that much more tragic and poignant.

But there is a line between self-sacrifice and heroic lunacy – and both Brock and Nelson crossed it with gusto.

Then again, they were AUIW – Acting Under the Influence of Wolfe, so perhaps they really never had a choice.  So, who do we blame for dumb heroes: James Wolfe or Benjamin West?

It’s really a pity, because I have no doubt whatsoever about who my hero was in 1759… a lovely man in Ireland named Arthur Guinness.

** **

There are some amusing codas to these acts of arrogant, aggravating and dumb-founding martial heroism.  A large statue of Brock exists at QueenstonHeights, looming over the plain and glaring at theUnited States, just daring them to try to cross the border once more.  What most people don’t realize, however, is that the statue is a favourite target for lightning strikes.  In order to avoid damaging the statue, a lightning rod was inserted near the statue’s hand… and it kind of changed the tenor of Brock’s message.  For now, when Americans stand at the border and look at the mighty Brock staring back at them, he’s flipping them off: the lightning rod has given the general the power to give America a one-fingered salute.

My other favourite post-heroic moment tale has often been told, but I just love it, so I will repeat it here.  While Nelson’s body was being brought back to London, a fascinating little ritual kept occurring at his brandy-cask-turned-temporary-coffin.  Upon arrival in the capital, the authorities were shocked to the discover that the cask was empty, apart from the admiral’s pickled body.  After inspecting the cask, it was discovered that a small hole had been drilled in its bottom and the men, throughout the journey home, had been helping themselves to a little bit of courage – literally.  Hence, one of my favourite of all terms: “Tapping the Admiral.”

Further Reading

William Beatty, The Authentic Narrative of the Death of Lord Nelson (republished 2007)
Stephen Brumwell, Paths of Glory: The Life and Death of General James Wolfe (2007)
Graham Dawson, Soldier Heroes: British Adventure, Empire and the Imagining of Masculinities (1994)
Willian Ian Miller, The Mystery of Courage (2000)
Jonathan Riley, A Matter of Honour: The Life, Campaigns, and Generalship of Isaac Brock (2011)
Simon Schama, Dead Certainties: Unwarranted Speculations (1991)
John Tosh, Manliness and Masculinities in Nineteenth Century Britain: Essays on Gender, Family and Empire (2005)

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Midatlantic Musings by Jane G. V. McGaughey is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.

About midatlanticmusings

Historian of the Irish Diaspora and masculinities, wife, mother, lover of good books, red wine, fine whiskies, pop culture aficionado, and Star Wars wonk.
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