In the spring of 1812, President Madison sought to conduct a war against England because their Navy continued to greatly impede United States ships when they sought to conduct trade with European nations. Basically, the British felt free to stop and redirect any American ship traveling to Europe to trade with any of England’s enemies on the Continent. In addition, the United States government leaders were consistently offended by the British Navy’s regular practice of stopping United States ships at sea and pressing sailors into service with His Majesty’s Navy. The British assumed that all persons born in the American colonies before the conclusion of the Revolutionary War were British citizens who could be forced into the British Navy. They also knew that many British citizens were employed as sailors on American ships and felt they had the right to forcefully impress them into service on British naval vessels.
President Madison assumed that United States forces could easily invade Canada at three points: in northern New York State near Montréal, in western New York State near Buffalo and at Detroit. He assumed that American forces would quickly overrun sparsely populated Canada and control that land. He thought that the British would promptly agree to stop their practices of impeding United States ships on the high seas if the United States, in exchange, withdrew its occupying forces from Canada. President Madison apparently believed that the entire war could be conducted during the summer of 1812.
The United States had a small Navy and very few men in military service. The country was extremely ill-prepared for a war. Many who favored the war assumed that this lack of preparation was no problem at all since it would be easy for the United States to occupy Canada with a very small force. They totally misunderstood the power of the British military in Canada and the willingness of many Canadians to fight against the United States invasion of their country. Generally, political leaders in New England strongly opposed the war since they benefitted from trade with England and Europe, impeded though it may be. Political leaders in Kentucky and the Midwest strongly supported the war since they assumed the British were supplying Indians with the weapons they needed to attack settlers who tried to establish farms in the Midwest. At this time, Indian leader, Chief Tecumseh, was trying to organize the Indian tribes in hopes of expelling American settlers from west of the Appalachians. He presumed that British would assist him.
William Hull had been appointed Michigan Territorial Governor by President Jefferson in 1805. He foresaw the war coming. and in late 1811, went to Washington and the East Coast to encourage the government to prepare for war. He argued strongly for the establishment of a U. S. Naval presence on Lake Erie and for a very much larger military presence in Detroit and throughout the Midwest. There was very strong opposition to greater governmental spending and considerable opposition to the idea of a war against Britain so his pleas fell on deaf ears. Before the war, Fort Detroit was probably staffed by fewer than 100 men. The other military force in Michigan, Fort Michilimackinac had a force of not much over 50 men. Leaders in Washington took no action to recruit the men and resources Governor Hull knew were needed.
Governor Hull served honorably in the Revolutionary War. President Madison selected him to lead what was then called the North Western Army. Hull turned down the assignment since he would have had to resign as Territorial Governor. Colonel Jacob Kingsbury was appointed to head the North Western Army but quickly resigned because of gout. President Madison once again turned to William Hull and appointed him Brigadier General of the Army on April 3, 1812 while allowing him to continue as governor of Michigan Territory.
William Hull was in the East at the time of his appointment, but got to Cincinnati on May 7 where he began assembling a military force. This proved to be a very difficult job. The standing army was miniscule so militias were assembled at the state level. These men were paid a bonus and agreed to serve for a brief period of time. Technically, they were state—not federal—troops with their own elected officers, a complication that made it difficult for Hull and others to conduct the war. Many of them assumed that their enlistment as state soldiers precluded their serving outside the United States. There were no arrangements for equipping and supplying the forces that would be needed to invade Canada. Hull gradually and with much difficulty recruited troops, primarily from Ohio, Indiana and Kentucky. By June 1, 1812, Hull made his way to Dayton and slowly continued his difficult trip north but faced three major challenges. He—and many others—assumed that Indians would support the British so they had to prepare their defense against Indian raids. All along his route, he built fortifications where supplies might be held until there were sufficient troops to advance them to Detroit and where injured soldiers could be billeted. In addition, the area south of Toledo was a vast swamp with no roads. Much effort had to be devoted to clearing a way for the thousand or so troops with their large supply train. I believe there are seven State of Ohio historical markers commemorating points on the route General Hall established to get to Detroit. Finally, Hull found it very difficult to find ammunition, uniforms and food for his troops. Apparently, he had to pay women in Dayton to sew uniforms for his troops. Despite all of these challenges, by June 25, Hull’s forces reached Findlay, Ohio and by July 1, the rapids on the Maumee River near present day Toledo.
The United States declared war against England on June 18, 1812. The major British force in the area was a small one stationed at Fort Malden located at the present site of Amherstburg, Ontario. Hull had been ordered by Secretary of War Eustis to get to Detroit as rapidly as possible with the aim of invading Canada.
When Hull reached the Maumee River, he realized that he could ship supplies to Detroit by water. That would be much more rapid than marching north along the shoreline with its numerous marshes and rivers. A vessel, the Cayauga, was chartered and departed from present-day Toledo for Detroit. At this time, Hull had no idea that war had been declared. The Secretary of War sent that information to General Hull by mail and the letter did not reach Hull until the first week of July, more than two weeks after the declaration of war. John Jacob Astor in New York profited greatly from the fur trade in the Upper Midwest. Many of his buyers were British subjects who had been in the fur business since the British replaced the French in the Upper Midwest. For business reasons, Astor and his traders were very concerned about the possible outbreak of war. The Astor firm was able to rapidly tell their agents in the Midwest about the declaration. Thus the British commander of Fort Malden, Lieutenant-Colonel St. Georges, knew the United States was at war a week or more before General Hull did. When the Cayauga sailed north on the Detroit River, he captured it, revealing all the British needed to know about the Army of the North West. Thus the British were well prepared for a possible United States invasion at Detroit.
General Hull finally learned about the declaration of war when a letter from Secretary of War Eustis arrived. He hastened his march to Detroit and arrived on July 6. He knew that he and his forces were in a precarious position. There were few supplies in Detroit, certainly not enough food to support the militia. Supplies and munitions had to be brought from central Ohio. You might think that Hull could have purchased supplies locally but Michigan was very sparsely populated. The British also controlled the Detroit River and could easily either send troops to intercept any supply train approaching Detroit from the South or encourage their Indian allies to attack the supply train and keep the goods for their own use.
Hull, however, assumed that he was under orders to invade Canada shortly after arriving in Detroit. He presumed that United States forces led by General Dearborn had or soon would be invading Canada at a point near Buffalo. If that were happening, the British would not be able to reinforce the small garrison they maintained at Fort Malden. Thus, General Hull decided to invade Canada on July 12, 1812. His forces apparently directly crossed from Detroit to a point near where this historical marker stands—approximately across the Detroit River from Belle Isle. This area was known as Sandwich at that time in honor of the Earl of Sandwich. Hull presumed that a type of pincher movement was underway with General Dearborn attacking the British in Ontario at the Niagara Frontier while his forces were invading Canada from Detroit.
Several of Hull’s subordinates, including Lewis Cass, believed that the British forces as Fort Malden were few in number and should be attacked immediately. Hull was much more cautious. He wished to unleash a substantial artillery attack on Fort Malden from the land but the necessary equipment was still being constructed in Detroit. In addition, bridges in Canada had to be reinforced to allow the heavy artillery to get close to the British fort. Thus he delayed. Hull had no ships in Detroit that could be used to attack Fort Malden from the Detroit River.
Unknown to General Hull, General Henry Dearborn and the British leader in the east, George Provost, agreed to a truce before the war began. The British government wished to avoid the War of 1812, and on June 23, Parliament adopted measures designed to satisfy many of the demands of the United States government, specifically, they agreed to end some of their interference with United States commerce on the oceans. British military leaders in Canada assumed that the United States would call off the war once they realized that the British government had capitulated to several of the US demands. As a result, the British and US generals in the Buffalo area agreed to truce on August 9. General Dearborn—the leader of the United States military in the east—the force that was to invade Canada at two points—apparently thought the truce also applied to the Detroit Theater but British General Brock did not. This gave him an opportunity to send troops and supplies to Fort Malden. At this time, the British controlled Lake Erie and the United States had no ships to control, or even monitor, the flow of supplies to Fort Malden. Gradually, General Hull realized what was happening and recognized that his small contingent would be no match for the British as Fort Malden. Indeed, he felt very threatened by not only the British, but also by Indians who, he assumed, would fight alongside the British. On August 8, General Hull ordered all of his forces out of Canada and they returned to Detroit.
By this time, General Hall had learned about the surrender of the only other military post in Michigan. Lieutenant Porter Hanks commanded 61 officers and men at Fort Michilimackinac. He did not know that war had been declared. However, there was a small British military force on nearby St. Joseph Island. British General Brock and, perhaps, Astor’s fur agents, told the British commander, Captain Charles Roberts, about the outbreak of war. Roberts commanded 46 men but recruited about 230 Canadians and a much larger number of Chippewa and Ottawa Indians. He also secured a boat from the fur traders. On July 17, Roberts landed on the far side of Mackinac Island and marched his troops to the bluff overlooking the American fort while the ship he commandeered lay in the harbor in front of the fort. Realizing that his forces would be destroyed if he fired a shot, Lieutenant Hanks surrendered Fort Michilimackinac. General Hull learned of this from Indians about two weeks later and presumed that those Chippewa and Ottawa, along with other Indians would be on their way to attack Detroit.
General Hull’s woes increased once his forces were home. He had tried to obtain additional food and materials from Ohio but the supply trains could not get north from Toledo. Hull dispatched troops from Detroit to try to protect the supply train. They skirmished with Indians at the Battle of Brownstown on August 8 and the Battle of Mongaugon on August 9. They performed rather well and may have been the victors in the later battle but they were unable to bring supplies to Detroit. On August 13, Hull sent more troops on the mission to bring supplies north from Ohio.
Realizing the troubles General Hull faced and know that his forces were depleted, British Major General Sir Isaac Brock had his forces cross into the United States on August 15. General Brock told General Hull that he could surrender Detroit or have the city attacked by the British. He told Hull that once the US military was defeated, the British would withdraw, and quite likely, Indians would destroy the village. Without firing a shot, General Hull surrendered Detroit to the British on August 16, 1812. Hull was still serving as Territorial Governor and knew that if his forces were defeated, Indians would likely do what the US military had done to Indian villages; that is, burn them to the ground. Perhaps, in his role as governor he sought to protect the largest settlement in the state. However, he was subsequently court martialed for surrendering Detroit and sentenced to be hung for his dereliction but President Madison stayed that order citing his service in the Revolutionary War.
In the spring of 1813, the United States built several large ships and, in the summer of that year the United States routed the British Navy in the Battle of Put-In-Bay on Lake Erie on September 10, 1813. Future president William Henry Harrison led United States troops into Detroit on September 27. On October 5 of that year, General Harrison defeated British and Canadian forces at the Battle of Thames in Ontario. That battle was particularly important since Chief Tecumseh was killed greatly diminishing the efforts of Indians to expel Americans from the Upper Midwest.
That battle gave the United States control of the Detroit Theater in the war but there was much fighting the next year in upper New York State near the Canadian border. Both sides were able to claim some victories. On the high seas, the United States was unexpectedly successful in containing and defeating the British Navy. On December 24, 1814, representative of the United States and England signed the Treaty of Ghent, ending the conflict. That treaty called for a return to the 1811 boundaries in the Upper Midwest. Importantly, the elimination of a British treat in the Midwest, allowed American settlers to move along in their policies to either revoke Indians from this area or confine them to small areas such as the 13 reservations that now exist in Michigan.
Photograph: Ren Farley
Description prepared: May, 2012
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