Siege of Detroit
|Date||Saturday, August 15, 1812|
|Weather||Warm and Hazy - 84 degrees|
|Belligerents||Native Americans, United Kingdom||The United States of America|
|Commanders||Isaac Brock, Tecumseh||William Hull|
The Siege of Detroit, also known as the Surrender of Detroit,or the Battle of Fort Detroit, was an early engagement in the Anglo-American War of 1812. A British force under Major GeneralIsaac Brock with Native American allies under the Shawnee leaderTecumseh used bluff and deception to intimidate the AmericanBrigadier General William Hull into surrendering the fort and town of Detroit, Michigan and a dispirited army which nevertheless outnumbered the victorious British and Native Americans.
The British victory reinvigorated the defenders of Upper Canada, who had previously been pessimistic and affected by pro-American agitators. Many Native American people in theNorthwest Territory were inspired to take arms against American outposts and settlers. Although the Americans were not demoralised by their defeat, it was more than a year before they recovered Detroit
American plans and moves
In the early months of 1812, as tension with Britain increased, President James Madison and Secretary of War William Eustis were urged by many people, including William Hull, Governor of the Michigan Territory, to form an army which would secure the former Northwest Territory against Native Americans incited to take arms against the United States by British agents. In particular it was urgently necessary to reinforce the outpost of Detroit, which was garrisoned in peacetime by only 120 soldiers. It was also suggested that this army might invade the western districts of Upper Canada, where support might be expected from the many recent immigrants from the United States who had been attracted by generous land grants.
Madison and Eustis concurred with this plan. Madison offered command of the army to Hull. Hull, an aging veteran of the American Revolutionary War, was initially reluctant to take the appointment, but no other officer with his prestige and experience was immediately available. After repeated pleas from Madison, Hull finally accepted, and was commissioned as a Brigadier General in the United States Army.
Hull's army consisted of the 4th U.S. Infantry under Lieutenant Colonel James Miller and three regiments of Ohio militia under Colonels Lewis Cass, Duncan McArthur and James Findlay. He marched north from Urbana on 10 June. On instructions from Eustis, he ignored an earlier route established by Anthony Wayne, and created a new route to Detroit across the Black Swamp area of northwest Ohio. Learning that war was imminent, he hastened his march and put some of his baggage, sick men and despatches aboard the packet vessel Cayahoga to be transported across Lake Erie. The British at Amherstburg knew that war had already been declared, and the Cayahoga was captured by a Canadian-manned armed brig of the Provincial Marine, the General Hunter.
Hull reached Detroit, which had a population of 800, on 5 July. Here he was reinforced by detachments of Michigan militia, including the 140 men of the Michigan Legionary Corps which Hull had established in 1805. The American army was short of supplies, especially food, as Detroit apparently provided only soap and whiskey. Hull nevertheless intended to attack the British post at Amherstburg, which was defended by 300 regulars under Colonel St. George, who was later superseded by Colonel Henry Procter of the 41st Regiment, 400 Natives and some militia. Hull's army crossed into Canada on 12 July. He issued several proclamations which were intended to induce Canadians to join or support his army. Although these moves discouraged many of the militia from opposing Hull's invasion, few of the inhabitants actively aided Hull, even many who had recently moved from the United States.
After some indecisive skirmishes with British outposts along the Canard River, Hull decided he could not attack the British fort without artillery, which apparently could not be brought forward because the carriages had decayed and needed repair, and he retreated. Several of Hull's officers disagreed with this retreat and secretly discussed removing him from command. Hull had been quarrelling with his militia Colonels since taking over the army, and he felt that he did not have their support, whether in the field or in the frequent councils of war he called.
On 17 July, the British had captured the important trading post of Mackinac Island on Lake Huron. At least one hundred Sioux, Menominee and Winnebago warriors began moving south from Mackinac to join those already at Amherstburg, while the news induced the previously neutral Wyandots living near Detroit to become increasingly hostile to the Americans. Hull learned of the capture of Mackinac on 3 August, when the paroled American garrison reached Detroit by schooner. Fearing that this had "opened the northern hive of Indians", Hull abandoned all the Canadian territory he held.
On Hull's vulnerable lakeside flank, the British armed ships controlled Lake Erie. They were used to slip raiders across the lake to cut Hull's supply lines, which ran alongside the lake and the Detroit River for 60 miles (97 km). On 4 August, at the Battle of Brownstown, a party under Tecumseh ambushed and routed an American detachment under Major van Horne, capturing more of Hull's despatches.
Hull sent a larger party under James Miller to clear his lines of communication, and escort a supply convoy of 300 head of cattle and 70 pack horses loaded with flour, which was waiting at Frenchtown under Major Brush. On 9 August, at the Battle of Maguaga, Miller forced a British and Indian force under Major Adam Muir of the 41st Regiment to retreat some distance, but when the British re-formed their line, he declined to resume the attack. Miller, who was ill and whose losses in the engagement were heavier than those of the enemy, seemed to completely lose confidence and remained encamped near the battlefield until Hull ordered him to return to Detroit.
Meanwhile, Major General Isaac Brock, the British commander in Upper Canada, was in York, the provincial capital, dealing with the Assembly and mobilising the province's militia. Learning from Sir George Prevost, the Governor General of Canada, that there was no threat to the east of the province from the lethargic American commander in chief, Major General Henry Dearborn, Brock dispatched 50 of his small force of regulars and 250 volunteers from the militia westward to reinforce Amherstburg. On 5 August, he prorogued the Assembly and set out himself after them. He and his force sailed from Port Dover and reached Amherstburg on 13 August, at the same time as 200 additional Indian warriors who joined Tecumseh.
Here, Brock immediately learned from Hull's captured despatches that the morale of Hull and his army was low, that they feared the numbers of Indians which might be facing them, and that they were short of supplies. Brock also quickly established a rapport with Tecumseh, ensuring that the Indians would cooperate with his moves. Against the advice of most of his subordinates, Brock determined on an immediate attack on Detroit. The British had already played on Hull's fear of the Indians by arranging for a letter to fall into American hands which asked that no more Indians be sent from Fort Mackinac as there were already no less than 5,000 at Amherstburg and supplies were running short. Brock now sent a demand for surrender to Hull, stating:
The force at my disposal authorizes me to require of you the immediate surrender of Fort Detroit. It is far from my intention to join in a war of extermination, but you must be aware, that the numerous body of Indians who have attached themselves to my troops, will be beyond control the moment the contest commences…
To deceive the Americans into believing there were more British than there actually were, Brock's force carried out several bluffs. Brock gave his militia the cast-off uniforms of the 41st Regiment to make Hull believe most of the British force were regulars. The troops were told to light individual fires instead of one fire per unit, thereby creating the illusion of a much larger army. They marched to take up positions in plain sight of the Americans then quickly ducked behind entrenchments, and marched back out of sight to repeat the manoeuvre. The same trick was carried out during meals, where the line would dump their beans into a hidden pot, then return out of view to rejoin the end of the queue. Tecumseh's warriors also moved rapidly from one position to another and made loud war cries.
On 15 August, gunners of the Provincial Marine set up a battery of three heavy guns and two mortars on the Canadian shore of the Detroit River and began bombarding Fort Detroit, joined by two armed vessels (the General Hunter and the 20-gun ship Queen Charlotte) in the river. In the early hours of the morning of 16 August, Tecumseh's warriors crossed the river about 5 miles (8.0 km) south of Detroit. They were followed after daybreak by Brock's force, divided into three small "brigades". The first was composed of 50 men of the Royal Newfoundland Fencibles and some Lincoln and Kent militia; the second consisted of 50 men of the 41st with York, Lincoln, Oxford and Norfolk militia; the third was formed from the main body of the 41st (200 men) and 50 men of the Royal Artillery with five field guns (three 6-pounders and two 3-pounders).
Brock originally intended to occupy a fortified position astride Hull's supply line and wait for starvation and bombardment to force the Americans to surrender or come out to fight, but he then learned that on the previous day, Hull had sent a detachment of 400 men under Colonels Cass and McArthur to clear his supply routes, and this detachment was only a few miles from the British rear. (Hull had sent messengers recalling this force the night before, but Cass and MacArthur had already encamped for the night and declined to move.) To avoid being caught between two fires, Brock advanced immediately against Fort Detroit.
As the British bombardment began to cause casualties, Hull despaired of holding out against a force of seemingly thousands of British regulars and, hearing the Indian war cries, began to fear a slaughter. Women and children, including his own daughter and grandchild, still resided within the fort. Against the advice of his subordinates, Hull hoisted a white flag of surrender. He sent messengers to Brock asking three days to agree on terms of surrender. Brock replied he would allow him three hours. Hull surrendered his entire force, including Cass's and McArthur's detachment and Major Brush's supply convoy.
The Ohio militia (1,600) were paroled and were escorted south until they were out of danger of attack from Natives. Most of the Michigan militia had already deserted. The American regulars (582) were sent as prisoners to Quebec City. Among the booty and military stores surrendered were 30 cannon, 300 rifles and 2,500 muskets.
The British bombardment had killed two American officers (including Lieutenant Hanks, the former commander of Fort Mackinac, who was awaiting a court martial) and five other ranks. The answering fire from the guns of Fort Detroit had wounded two British gunners.
The news of the surrender of Hull's army was startling on both sides of the border. On the American side, many Indians took up arms and attacked American settlements and isolated military outposts. In Upper Canada, the population and militia were encouraged, particularly in the Western districts where they had been threatened by Hull's army. More materially, the 2,500 muskets captured from Hull were distributed among the hitherto ill-equipped militia.
The British gained an important post on American territory and won control over Michigan Territory and the Detroit region for most of the following year. Brock was hailed as a hero, and Tecumseh's influence over the confederation of natives was strengthened. Brock left Colonel Henry Procter in command at Amherstburg and Detroit, and went to the Niagara River, intending to invade New York State. He was thwarted by an armistice arranged by his superior, Governor General Sir George Prevost. When this ended, Brock faced an American attack across the Niagara at the Battle of Queenston Heights, and was killed leading a hasty counter-attack.
General Hull was tried by court martial and was sentenced to death for his conduct at Detroit, but the sentence was commuted by President Madison to dismissal from the Army, in recognition of his honourable service in the American Revolution.
The Americans did not regain Detroit until after winning a naval victory at the Battle of Lake Erie. This isolated the British at Amherstburg and Detroit from their supplies and allowed Hull's successor, Major General William Henry Harrison, to launch a successful invasion of Upper Canada which culminated in the Battle of the Thames, where Tecumseh was killed.
The British 41st Regiment, which subsequently became the Welch Regiment, was awarded the battle honour "Detroit", one of the few to be awarded to British regiments for the War of 1812. The captured colours of the 4th U.S. Infantry are currently in the Welch Regiment Museum at Cardiff Castle.
Brock and Tecumseh met for the first and only time shortly after Brock arrived at Amherstburg. Legend has it that Tecumseh turned to his warriors and said, "Here is a man". Brock certainly wrote shortly afterwards, "... a more sagacious and a more gallant Warrior does not I believe exist." One account claims that Tecumseh was behind the idea of displaying trumped-up troop levels. The Indian tradition claims Tecumseh and company met his British counterparts, surrounded the fort and threatened the upper town. One Canadian officer (militia cavalry leader William Hamilton Merritt) noticed, "Tecumseh extended his men, and marched them three times through an opening [in the woods at the rear of the fort in full view of the garrison, which induced them to believe there were at least two or three thousand Indians." Because Merritt was not an eyewitness, his version has been disputed.
Brock had written while at York in July, "The population, believe me is essentially bad - A full belief possesses them all that this Province must inevitably succumb ... Most of the people have lost all confidence - I however speak loud and look big." It is probable that the stratagem of inflating their own numbers would occur naturally to both Tecumseh and Brock.
There were rumours that General Hull had been drinking heavily prior to the surrender. He is reported to have said the Indians were “numerous beyond example,” and “more greedy of violence… than the Vikings or Huns."