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Chapter 9

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The War of 1812

Francis F. Beirne

published by
E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc.
New York, 1949

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 11

Chapter Ten

 p96  General Hull's Martyrdom

There had been no more gallant soldier in the Revolutionary War than young William Hull. He had taken part in several pitched battles and acquitted himself as a gallant soldier should. Now, in 1812, the same William Hull was approaching the close of his career. He was 59 years old and a grateful country had rewarded him for his services by making the old soldier Governor of Michigan.

In the winter of 1812 official business carried Hull to Washington where he conferred with President Madison over the situation in the Northwest. From the President he obtained an outline of the grand strategy to be executed by the American forces in the event of war with Great Britain. Canada, as almost every orator in the Twelfth Congress had made clear to the world, including the prospective enemy, was to be the first objective. Canada, according to the plan, was to be spitted on a three-pronged fork. Prong number one, on the right, was to project from Lake Champlain toward Montreal. Prong number two, in the center, was to extend from Niagara and neatly sever the connecting cord between Lower and Upper Canada. Prong number three, on the left, was to penetrate from Detroit. To serve as generalissimo over the entire Northern front, except Detroit, and also to command the right wing of the embattled American forces, the President designated Major General Henry Dearborn, like Hull an aging and rheumatic warrior.

To Hull the President offered the honor of commanding the left flank with the rank of brigadier general. Hull was, no doubt, flattered by the confidence placed in him by Mr. Madison, but his satisfaction was considerably impaired by his sense of the responsibility the post entailed. For what the President calmly asked of him was that he go to Detroit and leave behind him a line of communications  p98 two hundred miles long, part of it through a wilderness full of hostile Indians and part of it bordering on Lake Erie which was then controlled by a British fleet. What the President held out to him was the imminent prospect of getting himself into an untenable position which could only lead to disaster. Not only that, but the President proposed that he should still further extend his line of communications by invading Canada. (See Map I)

True enough, Upper Canada was sparsely settled and little opposition was to be expected from the Canadians. A young and more audacious man might have jumped at the opportunity to take the risk and perhaps achieve glory, but Hull was long past the imaginative stage. He saw only the insuperable obstacles. These he took pains to point out to the President, but Mr. Madison was persistent. He refused to take no for an answer. And so, at last, Hull was persuaded to accept the commission. He confessed that he was not so sure about the invasion of Canada, but he promised to do his level best to help Michigan.

Ever dear to the hearts of soldiers are the firesides which they must abandon on the way to meet the foe. In this particular matter Hull displayed an ingenuity that was not to prove characteristic of his military plans. He solved the problem by taking his fireside with him to the front. Accompanying him on this doubtful venture were his son, who was to serve as an aide, and his daughter and two of her children.

Every day war was growing nearer and if the grand strategy was to succeed the army of the left must be in its jumping‑off place before the official declaration. Preparations were considerably expedited by the zeal of the Governor of Ohio, who bore the intriguing name of Jonathan Return Meigs. On April 5, 1812, Governor Meigs ordered the Ohio militia to rendezvous at Dayton. Enthusiasm for war was high in the West and, on the day appointed, 1,500 patriotic Ohioans responded to the call.

On May 25 General Hull arrived at Dayton and took command. "His gray locks," says a historian, "commanded reverence and respect." Nevertheless history records that the unruly Ohio militia were not sufficiently awed by the old man's presence to refrain from riding one of their officers on a rail. The assumption of command was attended by due ceremony and speechmaking on the part of  p99 Governor Meigs and the General. On June 1 the column set out from Dayton and marched by way of the Miami River first to Staunton and then to Urbana where it was joined by the 4th Regiment of regulars under the command of Lieutenant Colonel James Miller. The joining of the two forces was made the occasion of more celebration. A triumphal arch was raised bearing the words "Tippecanoe — Glory" and again Hull treated his command to a flow of oratory.

"The General," said he, "is persuaded that there will be no other contention in the army but who will most excel in discipline and bravery. . . . The patriots of Ohio, who yield to none in spirit and patriotism, will not be willing to yield to any in discipline and valor."

Reverence and respect for the gray locks of their commander and discipline and valor, all were soon in great need, for at this point the expedition entered a wilderness whose distinguishing feature was the Black Swamp. Immediately trouble began and the Ohio militia began to discover that a military expedition is something more than triumphal arches and oratory. There was no road and the first task of the patriots was to build one sufficiently sound to carry the supply wagons and other impediments. For two solid weeks the men labored and sweated in the heat of the summer sun and by June 16 were rewarded by seeing the road extended to Kenton, in Hardin county, a distance of about 40 miles. The column was advancing at the rate of three miles a day. On June 22 the struggling army reached Blanchard's Fork on the Au Glaize. Here heavy rains began to fall and, to make matters worse, the army met its first attack; not by the British, but by what at the time seemed even worse — black flies and mosquitoes. The morale of the troops was at a low ebb and, as though to add insult to injury, two days later Hull received a dispatch from the War Department in Washington ordering him to hasten forward. As though he were not already making as much haste as swamps, rains, black flies and mosquitoes would allow!

Had war been declared? On that point the dispatch was silent. The expedition had now somehow struggled to the falls of the Maumee River which flows into Lake Erie. And there, at the falls of the Maumee, before their eyes lay peacefully riding at a New York on the bosom of the river the sturdy schooner Cuyahoga. To the weary,  p100 footsore troops the Cuyahoga appeared as a godsend, for here was an easy means of transportation for much of the heavy equipment which had been weighing them down and delaying them on the march. Into the spacious hold of the schooner went the officers' baggage, the hospital stores and the entrenching tools. On board her, too, went two lieutenants and 30 men as guards for the precious baggage, not to mention the wives of three other officers who had followed their commander's good example by taking their domestic establishments with them. Assisted by the river's current and favorable winds the Cuyahoga should be in Detroit with its cargo unpacked well before the head of the column reached the town.

But that was not all. According to Hull's later testimony there was added to the Cuyahoga's cargo by mistake a trunk in which were the muster rolls of the army, containing complete data on the number and character of his force, and also his official orders in which the plan of his campaign was duly set forth. On July 1 the Cuyahoga dropped downstream with her miscellaneous and precious cargo. The army, relieved of so considerable a part of its burden, took up the march with revived spirits.

The relief, alas! was not for long. The following day, as the expedition approached Frenchtown it was overthrown by a courier, who in great excitement demanded to see the General without delay. The courier was the bearer of an important dispatch. Hull received him, took the letter, broke the seal and hastily read its contents. It was the official announcement of the declaration of war, bearing the signature of Eustis.

Good Doctor Eustis had employed an ingenious method of informing the commander of an expeditionary force that hostilities had commenced. He had sent the letter through the regular mail to postmaster at Cleveland with the request "please forward!"

Hull knew all too well that on her way to Detroit the Cuyahoga must pass under the guns of Fort Malden on the Canadian shore. He immediately dispatched a messenger in the hope of catching and warning the Cuyahoga before she put out into Lake Erie. But, alas! the schooner had met with ideal weather, made excellent time and was already beyond recall. On that very day she was sailing up the Detroit River, and, when she came abreast of Fort Malden, a shot was fired across her bow, an armed vessel put out from shore and  p101 the British officer in command announced to the surprised passengers on the Cuyahoga that war had been declared, that they were prisoners and that the schooner, the intrenching tools, the hospital supplies, and the precious muster rolls and official orders were prizes of war.

The declaration was a shock to the American commander of the left wing, but not to the Canadians. In those days John Jacob Astor, the fur merchant, had agents throughout the country and had lost no time in notifying them of the action of the United States Government. Astor was a business intimate of Albert Gallatin, the detested alien, and at once the enemies of the Secretary of the Treasury spread the rumor that Gallatin had been responsible for sending the news to Canada. Gallatin, not good Dr. Eustis, was blamed for the disaster and came in for a full share of public opprobrium.

The rest of the journey proved uneventful. On July 5 the long, weary column wended its way into Detroit, then a town of 800 inhabitants. Before setting out Hull had expressed certain reservations with respect to the invasion of Canada, but now that he was on the scene he resolved to make the attempt. His information indicated that Fort Malden was held by a garrison of only 200 men, and his decision to attack was no doubt considerably stimulated by the arguments of several young and adventurous officers in his command. So the order for invasion was issued and the necessary scows assembled for the crossing.

On July 12 Hull's command, except for some 100 members of the Ohio militia who stood on their constitutional rights not to be employed outside the United States, was ferried to the Canadian shore to a point north of Fort Malden and the town of Amherstburg. The General issued a high-sounding proclamation to the inhabitants announcing that he had come as their liberator. The manifesto was well received and many persons evidenced a desire to go over to the American side which, for the moment, seemed the safest and most bloodless course to pursue.

Having won this moral victory Hull proceeded to send reconnoitering parties in the direction of Fort Malden which lay 18 miles to the south, while the main body followed at a more leisurely pace. As a matter of fact the garrison at Malden was so weak that it despaired of successfully defending the fort and was on the point of  p102 abandoning it. Of this, however, Hull was ignorant. He concluded that it would be folly to attack the stronghold until he could bring over cannon and, in consequence, valuable time was lost. Several days were consumed by brushes with the Indians who were allied with the British, followed by successive advances and retirements. Meanwhile Queen Charlotte, a British armed vessel of 18 guns, anchored in the Detroit River near the port and served as a support to the garrison.

Upper Canada was greatly alarmed by the presence of the Americans at Detroit, at Niagara and other points along the frontier and many of the inhabitants were ready to capitulate. But, at this critical moment, Canada was fortunate in having the services of an experienced, energetic soldier and capable administrator in the person of General Isaac Brock, Governor of Ontario. Brock, who was 43 years of age, acted with vigor. He suppressed the defeatist party, dispatched Colonel Henry Proctor to Malden, hastily collected a force of militia and followed. The reinforcements arrived while Hull remained at a safe distance, unable to make up his mind whether to risk an attack.

Hull was soon to experience another shock to his already overtaxed nervous system. On July 17 news reached him of the fall of Mackinac Island, which lies in the straits between Lake Huron and Lake Michigan. Mackinac was regarded as the Gibraltar of the Lakes and to Hull its collapse was interpreted as releasing all the Indians in the north country to descend in a deluge upon him. His worst fears were realized when a letter from an agent of the Northwest Company was intercepted — possibly it was intended to reach Hull — in which the writer reported that the Indians in the neighborhood already numbered some 1,700 and, within a day or two, were expected almost surely to reach a total of 5,000.

This blow was too much for the old man to endure. On July 21 he returned to Detroit where he remained more or less in seclusion for four days, leaving his expeditionary force in Canada to its own devices and arousing the suspicion of his subordinates that he was either a coward or a traitor. In his dilemma Hull sent an urgent appeal to the governors of Ohio and Kentucky for reinforcements, and a few days later received the welcome news that Captain Henry Brush was at the River Basin, 30 miles south of Detroit, with 200  p103 volunteers, 100 head of cattle, provisions, and mail. Fearing an attack from the British and Indians, Brush asked for a guard to see him over the rest of his journey. Hull promptly responded by sending out Major Thomas Van Horne and 200 men. But at Brownstown Van Horne and his force were ambushed by the British and Indians, under the leader­ship of the redoubtable Tecumseh, and were defeated. In the engagement Van Horne lost dispatches from Hull to the War Department in which Hull complained to his superiors of the defection prevailing in the American Army. When Hull heard of Van Horne's defeat he abandoned all hope of an offensive against Fort Malden and recalled his forces to Detroit.

Thanks to the capture of the orders and dispatches, General Brock now knew as much about the Americans as they knew about themselves and was fully aware of the weakness of the leader opposed to him. He lost no time in playing upon the old fellow's fears. Brock dressed newly recruited Canadian militiamen in the red tunics of British regulars and paraded them where they were sure to be seen by the enemy. He planted a letter so that it could be readily captured by the Americans. This one purported to be from Colonel Proctor to the British officer commanding at Mackinac and in it Proctor directed him not to send down any more Indians for the present as there were at Malden "already 5,000!"

Hull took the bait, hook, line and sinker. He made an estimate of the situation. According to the information he had received, there was in front of him on the Canadian shore a large body of soldiers, the majority of them regulars, accompanied by 5,000 Indians, while many thousand more were merely awaiting the word of command to swoop down from Mackinac. He was 200 miles from his base and his line of communication had been cut. He was responsible for the lives and safety of several hundred civilians, including old men, women and children. Not the least of his considerations were his own daughter and grandchildren. And to defend his post against the almost unnumbered hosts that were assembled against him he had not more than 1,000 men. Actually, the British and Indians were only slightly superior in number to Hull's own force which was protected by a fort. To such an extent had Brock played successfully upon the old general's fears and gullibility.

On the same day he ordered the withdrawal from Canada Hull  p104 sent out another party, this time one of 600 men under Lieutenant Colonel Miller in the hope of forming a junction with Captain Brush. This force, too, had a battle with the British and Indians in which Miller was wounded, though the enemy was driven back. But Miller failed to get through to Brush with the result that Hull felt his situation was even more desperate.

What, meanwhile, had happened to the other features of the grand strategy — the thrust by way of Niagara and the thrust by way of Lake Champlain and on to Montreal under the personal supervision of Generalissimo Dearborn? Hull appealed to the army of the center to create a diversion only to receive the reply from Niagara that the army was not ready to move.

As for Dearborn, through some unaccountable failure to receive instructions, or to construe them correctly if he ever received them, Dearborn did not understand that he was commander-in‑chief over the Niagara as well as the Champlain front. As late as July 28 he was writing to Secretary Eustis inquiring, "Who is to have command of the operations in Upper Canada? I take it for granted that my command does not extend to that distant quarter." What hope could Hull expect of Dearborn relieving the pressure by attacking at Niagara when Dearborn did not know that he commanded there?

Aside from the hazy notion of his duties, Dearborn was deterred for another reason. After the declaration of war Augustus J. Foster, the British Minister, had received his passport in Washington and departed for home. Upon the arrival of his ship at Halifax, however, he received news of the withdrawal of the orders in council. Since the orders were one of the principal issues of the war Foster quite naturally thought that their withdrawal might serve as a basis for the cessation of hostilities. Foster immediately communicated with Dearborn, informed him of the change in the situation and proposed an armistice until the matter could be examined. This seemed reasonable enough to Dearborn who, though he had been uncertain about the extent of his authority in the field of operations, now did not hesitate to agree to an armistice without first consulting Washington. When President Madison heard what Dearborn had done he promptly advised him that he had no business to be making an armistice when the administration was intent upon making war. The interchange between Dearborn and the President consumed valuable  p105 time. From August 9 to August 29 this false armistice paralyzed American operations on the Niagara at the very time they might have relieved the pressure on Detroit.

Meanwhile Captain Brush and his reinforcements and 100 head of cattle remained just beyond reach. Hull stuck to his task of sending out rescue parties from Detroit. The third party went out on August 14 under the joint command of Colonel Cass and Colonel McArthur. Hull, no doubt, was glad to be rid of those two gentlemen, for they had been his severest critics. With them went 350 men.

The following day, August 15, Brock and his cohorts, consisting of 330 regulars, 400 militia and 600 Indians appeared in sight on the Canadian shore opposite Detroit. Brock pointed his guns in the direction of the town and, having assumed this threatening attitude, requested a parley.

In the war of nerves Brock was now ready to play his trump card. He drew attention to the Indians, terrible in feathers and war paint. As an English officer and a gentleman he found it incumbent upon him to warn General Hull that, once the battle had commenced, he would not be able to restrain the savages; and, therefore, could not be responsible for their conduct. To prevent this tragic episode Brock demanded the immediate and unconditional surrender of the town, its fort and garrison. To this bold demand Hull returned an equally bold refusal. The parley came to an end.

From the Canadian shore Brock proceeded to bombard the fort whose guns replied. Throughout the night the artillery duel continued while, under cover of darkness, Tecumseh and 600 Indians crossed the river to the American side, taking station in the woods below the town. At dawn Brock followed with the rest of his force.

Hull placed several of his guns, shotted with grape, outside the fort and these were trained on the advancing enemy with every prospect of accomplishing great destruction. But when he saw the British and Indian forces on his own side of the river, Hull's caution overtook him and he called his troops inside the fort. As the attacking party approached, the British batteries across the river maintained a lively bombardment and, at the crucial moment, a shell exploded inside the fort, killing several officers, terrifying the women and causing temporary confusion.

From the fort, guards reported that the Indians could now be seen  p106 in the tanyard at the edge of the town. The bloodshed that had already occurred, the thought of the old men, the women and children, including his own daughter and his grandchildren, and what might happen if the Indians stormed and took the fort, was too much for the commander. Even if the first attack was unsuccessful, his line of communications had been cut and no relief was in sight. The fort could be starved into submission before help arrived.

A young and bold commander might have taken the risk, for Hull was only slightly, if at all, outnumbered by the enemy. Protected by the fort he might reasonably expect his losses to be much smaller than those of his adversaries. But Hull was neither young nor bold. He had never wanted the command. He had foreseen exactly what was now happening. The roar of the guns across the river was dinning in his ears. Hull could stand the strain no longer. Without firing a shot he ordered a white flag to be raised!

Cass and McArthur with their 350 men had set out in search of Captain Brush but had somehow managed to get lost in the wilderness. However, a courier dispatched during the night by Hull found them, explained the imminent peril of the garrison and handed them an order from Hull to return at once. The men immediately turned their faces toward Detroit, Cass and McArthur urging them on. Had Hull held out the detachment might have taken the Indians in the rear. As it was it arrived just in time to hear of the surrender. And, to the anger and disgust of Cass and McArthur, they were informed that Hull had included them in the capitulation.

Thus ignominiously ended the first attempt at an American invasion of Canada.

Brock held the United States regulars as prisoners of war but, whether from compassion or from scorn of their ability as soldiers, he permitted the captured Ohio militiamen to return to their native state. General Hull was released on parole and went home to face an enraged public and, two years later, a court-martial. In North Carolina they burned the old man in effigy. In Baltimore Editor Niles of The Register exclaimed, "Gen. Hull went into the army with high popularity — so did Arnold; that both were purchased there is too much reason to believe."

The court-martial, which oddly enough was presided over by General Dearborn whose own inactivity had had much to do with the  p107 disaster, did its duty nobly. Responding to public opinion, it found Hull guilty of cowardice and condemned him to be shot. Madison, fortunately, had the humanity to extend clemency, using Hull's fine record in the Revolution as an excuse. Hull himself for the rest of his life defended his action, declaring that if he had to do it over again he would do exactly the same thing.

Henry Clay, it will be recalled, had boasted that the Kentucky militia alone could conquer Canada. There was no Kentucky militia at Detroit, but at Vincennes was a fine body of 4,000 Kentucky volunteers, including 2,000 expert mounted rifle­men, under another venerable commander, General Samuel Hopkins. Orders came to Hopkins to take the horsemen on a punitive expedition into the Indian country on the Illinois River and annihilate the Kickapoo and Peoria villages.

On October 14 Hopkins crossed the Wabash. No sooner had the expedition set out than the men began to murmur and complain and give other evidences of lack of discipline. Five days had passed when a major rode up to the General and demanded that he march the party home. A prairie fire in the distance served further to alarm and demoralize the detachment. Next day a council of officers met to discuss the situation and arrived at the conclusion that the men were unmanageable and advised a retreat. As a last resort Hopkins assembled his men, addressed them eloquently and called for 500 volunteers to save the expedition from disgrace. Not a man came forward. Hopkins had led the Kentucky volunteers out; he had to follow them back.

Still another disaster befell the Americans. At Chicago, Captain Nathan Heald and a detachment of 54 men with their wives and children were established in Fort Dearborn, a blockhouse on the south side of the Chicago River. Relations with the Indians were friendly up to the battle of Tippecanoe, but after that they began to deteriorate. When General Hull retired from Canada he sent orders to Captain Heald to evacuate the post at Chicago. The order arrived on the very day of the fall of Detroit.

Through Tecumseh the Indians at Chicago learned of the disaster to the American arms and their attitude became more threatening. Members of the garrison urged Heald to disregard Hull's order and remain in the comparative safety of the blockhouse, but Heald insisted  p108 upon following his instructions. Even when some friendly Miamis arrived at the fort and warned Heald if he attempted to get away he would be attacked en route, the Captain stuck to his purpose.

Small arms and ammunition which could not be carried along were destroyed and the whisky at the post was poured into the river. Other supplies were distributed among the Indians as a gesture of appeasement. On August 15 the garrison, accompanied by their women and children, set out from the fort on a road that ran through the dunes on the shore of Lake Michigan. With it as a guard went the friendly Miamis.

The party had gone only a few miles when they were set upon by a band of 500 Pottawattomies. While the Miamis fled the field, the Americans battled for their lives, some of the women fighting as gallantly as the men. But the odds against them were too great. Under the determined assault of the Indians two‑thirds of the Americans were killed or wounded. Those who survived were taken back as prisoners to Chicago where the Indians burned the fort. Among the victims were a dozen children. With the loss of Fort Dearborn the Americans now had not a post left in the Northwest beyond the Ohio and the Maumee rivers.

The left prong of the trident that was to be thrust into the side of Canada had been badly blunted. But General Dearborn on the right and New York's militiaman, Van Rensselaer, at Niagara in the center were still to be heard from. There was yet time for glory to crown the American arms and, as the writers of the day expressed it, "to redeem the American character."

Page updated: 11 Nov 13