Commander-in-Chief, North America

Commander-in-Chief, North America

The office of Commander-in-Chief, North America was a military position of the British Army. Established in 1755 in the early years of the Seven Years' War, holders of the post were generally responsible for land-based military personnel and activities in and around those parts of North America that Great Britain either controlled or contested. The post continued to exist until 1775, when Lieutenant-General Thomas Gage, the last holder of the post, was replaced early in the American War of Independence. The post's responsibilities were then divided: Major-General William Howe became Commander-in-Chief, America, responsible for British troops from West Florida to Nova Scotia, and General Guy Carleton became Commander-in-Chief, Quebec, responsible for the defence of the Province of Quebec.

This division of responsibility persisted after American independence and the loss of East and West Florida in the Treaty of Paris (1783). One officer was given the posting for Quebec, which later became the Commander-in-Chief of The Canadas when Quebec was divided into Upper and Lower Canada, while another officer was posted to Halifax with responsibility for military matters in the maritime provinces.

Following Canadian Confederation in 1867, these commanders were replaced in 1875 by the General Officer Commanding the Forces (Canada), whose post was succeeded in 1904 by the Chief of the General Staff Canada, a position which was established for a Canadian Army commander.


Commanders-in-Chief, North America 1755–1775

Officer Start of command End of command Notes Ref
Major-General Edward Braddock November 1754 July 1755 Braddock's commission was issued in November after word arrived of Major George Washington's actions with French forces in the Ohio Country. Braddock was mortally wounded in the Battle of the Monongahela, and died on 13 July 1755. [1]
Major-General William Shirley July 1755 1756 Shirley, who was also the royal governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, assumed command upon Braddock's death, and had limited military experience. His tenure was marked by failed expeditions on the New York-New France frontier and disagreements with Indian agent William Johnson. [2]
Major-General The Right Honourable John Campbell, 4th Earl of Loudoun Arrived July 1756 1758 During Loudoun's tenure, thousands of British troops were sent to North America. He was ordered to make a single major expedition, to take the Fortress of Louisbourg. The expedition failed when the French were able to send a fleet to defend the approaches to the fortress. The expedition weakened British forces at Fort William Henry in New York, which fell after a brief siege. [3][4]
Major-General James Abercrombie 1758 1758 Abercrombie served as Loudon's second in command in 1757, and was appointed in part for political reasons. Troops and militia numbering more than 45,000 were under his overall command, with three ambitious campaigns planned. Although the British captured Fort Duquesne and Fortress Louisbourg during his tenure, his spectacular failure in the Battle of Carillon led to his recall. [5]
Lieutenant-General Sir Jeffery Amherst, 1st Baron Amherst, KB 1758 1763 Amherst was the victor in the Siege of Louisbourg. He oversaw the conquest of New France in 1759 and 1760, personally leading forces in the capture of Fort Ticonderoga and the 1760 Battle of the Thousand Islands. He then instituted military rule of the conquered territories, introducing policies concerning Indian relations that led to Pontiac's Rebellion. He has controversially been associated with allegations of schemes to deliberately infect Native Americans with smallpox, although there is no hard evidence this occurred due to orders he issued. During his term he also coordinated military efforts in the West Indies in the later years of the Seven Years' War, and organized the successful response to the French seizure of St. John's, Newfoundland. [6]
Lieutenant-General The Honourable Thomas Gage 1763 1773 Gage served under Braddock and Abercrombie during the Seven Years' War. He oversaw the military response to Pontiac's Rebellion, and was responsible for implementing official responses to the rising unrest of the American Revolution in the Thirteen Colonies. He returned to England on leave in 1773 without relinquishing the post. [7][8]
Major-General Frederick Haldimand (temporary) 1773 1774 Haldimand, a professional officer originally from Switzerland, carefully avoided involving British troops in civil unrest unless specifically requested by local authorities. He also resisted entanglement in the territorial disputes of the New Hampshire Grants, although during his later term as governor of Quebec (1778–1786) he was involved in controversial negotiations over the status of what later became the state of Vermont. [8]
Lieutenant-General The Honourable Thomas Gage 1774 1775 Gage returned to North America as Commander-in-Chief and as governor of the Province of Massachusetts Bay, with orders to implement the punitive Intolerable Acts, passed to punish Massachusetts for the Boston Tea Party. Troop movements he ordered in April 1775 led to the Battles of Lexington and Concord and the start of the American Revolutionary War. He was recalled after the British Pyrrhic victory in the Battle of Bunker Hill. [7][9]

Commanders-in-Chief, America 1775–1783

Officer Start of command End of command Notes Ref
Lieutenant-General Sir William Howe, 5th Viscount Howe, KB assumed command September 1775 departed May 1778 Howe oversaw the rest of the Siege of Boston, before embarking on a campaign in 1776 that resulted in the capture of New York City and parts of New Jersey. In 1777 he captured Philadelphia, but controversially failed to support John Burgoyne, whose campaign for control of the Hudson River ended in the surrender of his army, leading to the entry of France into the war. [10]
Lieutenant-General Sir Henry Clinton, KB arrived May 1778 departed May 1782 Clinton, who had served as second in command to Howe, personally led the withdrawal of British troops from Philadelphia, including the Battle of Monmouth fought en route. He directed the disposition of military troops along all of the frontiers between rebel and Loyal colonies, from West Florida to Nova Scotia. He conducted the successful Siege of Charleston before leaving Major-General Charles, Earl Cornwallis in command of the south. Miscommunication and disagreement between Clinton and both Cornwallis and Admiral Marriot Arbuthnot contributed to British failures that culminated in the 1781 Siege of Yorktown, in which Cornwallis surrendered his army. [11][12]
General The Right Honourable Guy Carleton, KB arrived May 1782 departed December 1783 Carleton, who had served as Governor of Quebec early in the war, oversaw the withdrawal of British troops from the United States, and assisted in the relocation of thousands of Loyalists to other parts of the British Empire. Although he indicated a desire to resign in August 1782, his appointed successor, Earl Grey, was withdrawn before his departure when the government in London collapsed. [12][13]

Commanders-in-Chief, Quebec 1775–1791

Officer Start of command End of command Notes Ref
General The Right Honourable Guy Carleton appointed August 1775 departed 1778 [12]
General Frederick Haldimand arrived 1778 departed 1786
General The Right Honourable Guy Carleton, 1st Baron Dorchester, KB appointed April 1786 continued in 1791 as Commander-in-Chief of The Canadas The second tenure of General Carleton (named Baron Dorchester in August 1786, after his appointment as commander-in-chief and as the first Governor General of The Canadas) was marked by the ongoing consequences of the arrival of needy Loyalist settlers in the provinces. He oversaw the division of Quebec into Upper and Lower Canada and the creation of New Brunswick from Nova Scotian territory, and engaged in prolonged wrangling with the Americans over the continued occupation of frontier forts in the Northwest Territory, whose transfer Carleton oversaw in 1796 after the signing of the Jay Treaty. [12]

Commanders-in-Chief of The Canadas 1791–1864

Officer Start of command End of command Notes Ref
General The Right Honourable Guy Carleton, 1st Baron Dorchester, KB appointed April 1791 departed July 1796 Carleton during this time engaged in prolonged wrangling with the Americans over the continued occupation of frontier forts in the Northwest Territory, whose transfer Carleton oversaw in 1796 after the signing of the Jay Treaty. [12]
General Robert Prescott appointed December 1796 departed April 1799 Prescott's tenure in North America, which began in April 1796 with appointment as Governor General of The Canadas, was militarily uneventful; in addition to ongoing issues surrounding land grants, he was concerned with intrigues (real and perceived) against British rule by French agitators. [14]
Lieutenant-General Sir George Prévost, Bt. 1811 1816 Prévost oversaw the British conduct of the War of 1812 in British North America, for which he was much criticised. Sent to London to defend his conduct, he died in 1816 before the court martial was convened.
Major-General Sir John Colborne, GCB 1836 1839 Colborne, who had previously served a difficult term as governor of Upper Canada (1828–1836), oversaw the official response to the Rebellions of 1837, personally leading forces in the Battle of Saint-Eustache. [15]
Sir Richard Downes Jackson 1839 1845 During Jackson's tenure, there was tension with the United States over a variety of border disputes, with significant tensions on the disputed Maine-New Brunswick frontier. This led to a rise in troop strength in North America to about 12,000; the disputes were peacefully resolved with the Webster-Ashburton Treaty in 1842. He died quite unexpectedly shortly before the arrival of his replacement, Earl Cathcart. [16]
General Charles Cathcart, 2nd Earl Cathcart, GCB (Lord Greenock) 1845 1847 Cathcart was appointed first as commander-in-chief and later also governor-general amid tensions between Britain and the United States over the Oregon Country. These were resolved peacefully with the signing in 1846 of the Oregon Treaty. When a new governor-general was appointed, Cathcart resigned both his positions. [17]
Lieutenant-General William Rowan, CB 1849 1855 Rowan, who had served as an aide to Colborne during his tenure in the post, had a largely uneventful time in office. The only major incident was rioting in Montreal that led to the burning of the Parliament buildings there. [18]
Lieutenant-General Sir William Williams, 1st Bt. of Kars, GCB 1859 1864 Appointed to the post when North-South tensions rose in the United States, Williams oversaw defensive arrangements to prevent the American Civil War from spilling into British territories. A diplomatic incident known as the Trent Affair in 1861 led to an increased in the troop strength in the British provinces, and Williams made vigorous preparations for war before the crisis subsided. [19]

Commanders-in-Chief, Maritime provinces 1783–1875

Officer Start of command End of command Notes Ref
Major-General John Campbell December 1783 April 1786
General His Royal Highness Prince Edward, Duke of Kent and Strathearn, KG, KP, PC arrived September 1799 departed August 1800 Kent's tenure was short. The fourth son of King George III, he had been given command of the Halifax station in 1794, at which time he embarked on a major program to upgrade the city's defences. He was appointed commander-in-chief upon Prescott's recall, but illness cut short his tenure. [20]


  1. ^ Anderson, pp. 70–104
  2. ^ Anderson, pp. 110–132
  3. ^ Anderson, pp. 132–305
  4. ^ Brumwell, pp. 18–23
  5. ^ Brumwell, pp. 24–32
  6. ^ Stacey, C. P. "Biography of Jeffery Amherst". Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online. Retrieved 2010-12-16. 
  7. ^ a b Wise, S. F. "Biography of Thomas Gage". Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online. Retrieved 2010-12-16. 
  8. ^ a b Sutherland, Stuart R. J; Tousignant, Pierre; Dionne-Tousignant, Madeleine. "Biography of Frederick Haldimand". Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online. Retrieved 2010-12-16. 
  9. ^ Billias, pp. 22–31
  10. ^ Billias, pp. 45–62
  11. ^ Billias, pp. 79–94
  12. ^ a b c d e Browne, G. P. "Biography of Guy Carleton". Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online. Retrieved 2010-12-17. 
  13. ^ Billias, pp. 130–131
  14. ^ Burroughs, Peter. "Biography of Robert Prescott". Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online. Retrieved 2010-12-17. 
  15. ^ Cooke, O. A; Hillmer, Norman. "Biography of Richard Downes Jackson". Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online. Retrieved 2010-12-16. 
  16. ^ Cooke, O. A; Hillmer, Norman. "Biography of Richard Downes Jackson". Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online. Retrieved 2010-12-16. 
  17. ^ Cooke, O. A; Hillmer, Norman. "Biography of Charles Murray, 2nd Earl Cathcart". Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online. Retrieved 2010-12-16. 
  18. ^ Preston, Richard A. "Biography of William Rowan". Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online. Retrieved 2010-12-15. 
  19. ^ Waite, P. B. "Biography of William Williams". Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online. Retrieved 2010-12-15. 
  20. ^ MacNutt, W. S. "Biography of Prince Edward Augustus, Duke of Kent and Strathearn". Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online. Retrieved 2010-12-17. 


  • Anderson, Fred (2000). Crucible of War: The Seven Years' War and the Fate of Empire in British North America, 1754–1766. New York: Alfred Knopf. ISBN 9780375406423. OCLC 237426391. 
  • Billias, George Athan (1969). George Washington's Opponents. New York: William Morrow. OCLC 11709. 
  • Brumwell, Stephen (2006). Redcoats: The British Soldier and War in the Americas, 1755–1763. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press. ISBN 9780521675383. OCLC 62344054. 

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