Wednesday, June 22, 2022

William Hull And the Fall of Detroit (War of 1812)

William Hull
(from Harper's New Monthly Magazine. May 1863.)

When the War of 1812 began, Tecumseh traveled to Malden, joining forces with Major General Sir Isaac Brock.

The British erected defensive works at Sandwich, opposite Fort Detroit, on August 14 and set up a battery consisting of two eighteen-pounders and an eight-inch howitzer. The Americans watched as the British fortified their position but did nothing to stop them.

The next day Colonel McDonald and Captain Glegg crossed the river to Detroit under a flag of truce to deliver a message from General Brock ordering the garrison to surrender.

After that, the British and Native Americans played an elaborate game of psych with the Americans. First, Brock ordered the Canadian militia to wear the uniform of the 41st regiment to make it seem like he had a more experienced force. Then, when the army camped for the night, he had the men light individual fires, so it appeared he had a more significant force.

Tecumseh completed the deception, marching his warriors around the fort three times. To General Hull, who was already worried about the Native Americans, it seemed like there must be savages lurking behind every tree.

He remembered Brock’s surrender demand: “It is far from my inclination to join in a war of extermination. You must be aware that the numerous body of Indians who have attached themselves to my troops will be beyond my control the moment the contest commences.”

Two American twenty-four pounders loaded with grapeshot were set up and ready to sweep the field. “Every man expected a proud day for his country,” wrote the New York Evening Post. Every man stood ready for battle. Instead, General Hull ordered the guns not to fire and the men to stack their weapons. Then he raised a white flag over the wall and surrendered without firing a shot.

The next day, Brock wrote his superiors: “2500 troops have this day surrendered prisoners of war. Twenty-five pieces of ordnance have been taken without the sacrifice of British blood. I had not more than 600 troops, including militia, and about 600 Indians.” He was “astonished” by his good fortune.

William Hull defended his actions, saying he only had eight hundred effective troops to fight the British assault. That left the camp’s women, children, and elderly vulnerable to attack. His only option was to surrender. His troops were outnumbered, and the fort was short on powder and provisions.

But what really preyed on his mind was the Native Americans. “The bands of savages which had then joined the British force were numerous beyond any former example. Their numbers have since increased.”

The fall of Detroit gave the native forces free rein over the Michigan Territory. Tribes that were once neutral or on the cusp of siding with the British took advantage of the situation, joined the British, or sent raiding parties to terrorize the scattered settlements.

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