Today marks the bicentennial of the surrender of Detroit to the British in the War of 1812. The key figure is American General William Hull.
Historian Roger Rosentreter stops by from time to time to help us remember important anniversaries related to Michigan’s role in the Civil War 150 years ago. Today’s visit is different.
August 16th marks the bicentennial of the surrender of Detroit to the British in the War of 1812.
Rosentreter tells WKAR’s Scott Pohl that the central character is William Hull, the territorial governor of Michigan appointed to serve as a general in command of an army of 2,000 men, mostly militia from Ohio. He had hunkered down in Detroit when British general Isaac Brock crossed the Detroit River.
ROGER ROSENTRETER: He will lay siege to Detroit, and from the Canadian side and the American side, he’ll begin to fire artillery rounds into Detroit, creating a fair amount of panic and chaos. At that point Brock, again, who is smart and capable, recognizes that he’s got Indian allies, and that’s something that the Americans are always concerned about. There’s a long history of Indian warfare in this part of the world at that point. He will send a note over saying hey, if you don’t surrender, there’s a good chance that when I ultimately beat you, my Indian allies can’t be controlled. That will prompt Hull to surrender Detroit without even consulting with his subordinate officers, and it’s the only time an American city, to this very day, has surrendered to a foreign enemy.
SCOTT POHL: What was the population of Detroit at the time, and what happened to the people of Detroit?
ROSENTRETER: Well, most of the Detroiters were French, because again, there were very few Americans out there, possibly 1,000 people at the time. It’s really quite small. The American soldiers, the regular soldiers who have been surrendered, will be taken to Canada, put in a prison there for a period of time. The Ohio militia will be sent back to Ohio. They’ll be paroled is the word; basically, you say I won’t come back and fight again. They will be sent back home, and the other Detroiters will have to deal with the reality. They’ll be asked at some point to take an oath of allegiance to the King. This takes a period of time over the course of a good, solid year, when the Americans have to endure, the French, actually. The French are sympathetic to the British to a certain degree, and the Americans, if they don’t flee, basically have to put up with it.
A good start for the British
POHL: So we’re a month into the War of 1812. The British have captured Fort Mackinac, they’ve claimed the city of Detroit. Off to a good start for the British.
ROSENTRETER: The surrender of Detroit is a shock to all Americans. As a matter of fact, the eastern press are just outraged. Hull is tried in the press, and found guilty. And then, the James Madison administration decides they need to go a step farther, and they will charge him with cowardliness, neglect of duty, and treason, and there will be a three-month trial in early 1814.
Now, the deck is stacked against Hull. No surprise in the outcome here; Hull is found guilty on all the charges except treason, and yet they still recommend his execution.
He’s not executed. They suggest mercy because of his American Revolution record, which was substantial, and his advance age, as they explain.
POHL: How old was he?
ROSENTRETER: He was 60 years old at the time this took place.
POHL: So, what happens to Hull after the court-martial trial?
ROSENTRETER: Well, he’ll spend the 10 remaining years of his life trying to exonerate himself, and the reality is that Hull was just too cautious to command in a situation that required decisiveness and imagination. He was just the wrong man for this position, and yet, it was the Madison administration that appointed him the general and made him in command of this army.
Hull had suggested before the war that the United States needed to improve its navy on the Great Lakes. In September of 1813, there was a naval battle on Lake Erie that is decisive. It really forces the British to surrender Detroit, and is important. If they had seen the wisdom of his suggestion, maybe this terrible surrender would not have taken place.
The reality is Hull probably had no alternative to surrender. As a matter of fact, one British officer on the scene claim that, look, if you guys had not surrendered, he said there’s a good chance that our Indian allies, and there were far more Indian allies than British regulars or militia, couldn’t have been controlled. And, Hull’s family was in Detroit; he felt he did the best job.