U.S.S. Constitution in Tremendous Victory at Sea: Fort Michilimackinac, Detroit, and Ft. Dearborn Lost to the Brits
Posted By James on August 29, 2012
Washington, August 29, 1812, Jacob C. Blacklidge, Special Correspondent
A Great Victory
We have just received news from Boston that the U.S.S. Constitution has encountered the H.M.S. Guerriere on August 19th some 600 miles out of Boston. The strongest ship is our navy, at 54 guns, gained fame some weeks ago in the escape off the coast of New Jersey from four British ships of the Halifax squadron, under the gallant Captain Isaac Hull. Last week, Capt. Hull confronted British Capt. James M. Dacres, who was spoiling for a fight, as he came closer to a perceived victim. At 5 P.M. Dacres in non-naval terms showed his backside to Capt. Hull and in response, Capt. Hull opened with a raking fire of some 700 pounds of metal which double-shotted guns delivered at a distance of half a pistol shot. Then the reeling Guerriere after several mutual collisions lost in the artillery duel her masts, most of her crew, and suffered severe damage to her hull after two broadsides were fired. These disabled two gun ports and left a large gaping hole in the side. The hull was literally broken into pieces. In thirty-five minutes, according to the official report, the enemy ship was out of action, and as it was in no condition to be taken as a prize, her crew was removed and the ship burned. The heavy construction of the Constitution caused the enemy’s cannon fire to bounce off as if from iron. We see the making of a good nickname here, “Old Ironsides.” Now it will be no longer necessary to keep the ships of our navy in port.
Capt. Hull is son of a Revolutionary War brigadier and the nephew of Michigan Territorial Governor-General William Hull of whom more later. He served on the Constitution from 1798-1802 and rose in rank to first lieutenant. He has served since on several ships, notably the President and the Chesapeake and returned to the Constitution some two years ago. Early this month he destroyed British merchant ships off the Gulf of the St. Lawrence and then went to cruise British islands off Bermuda. We now have an authentic naval hero, and those of us in the Carolinas who hale from Wilmington and the coastal areas may now feel more secure from the Prince Regent’s raiders.
A Series of Humiliating Defeats: Fort Michilimackinac Captured on July 17th
Captain Charles Roberts. British commander at Ft. St. Joseph, traveled some forty miles and before dawn on July 17th and overpowered the 61 American soldiers at Ft. M. His force is reported as 45 regulars, 200 Canadian boatmen and 400 warriors. The fort was surrounded at dawn and the Red Savages fired into the air with hideous screams. The commander of the fort a Lieut. Porter Hanks was told the death of a single Indian warrior would mean death for himself and his 60 men. Hanks was unaware that war had been declared and in fear of a massacre by the savages, he surrendered. There were no casualties on either side, but the fur trade is now secure for the Brits and the passage between Lake Michigan into Lake Huron is closed. Even worse, this will win over more savages to the British plan for reconquest of the West.
Governor General William Hull Surrenders Detroit on August 16th
Needless to say, Captain Hull of the Constitution is nothing like his Uncle Will who has surrendered Detroit to a smaller British force after a disgraceful summer campaign into Canada. Detroit itself was prone to military disaster as there are normally 100 men at the fort and there are 10,000 Red Savages to 4700 Americans. Four-fifths of the population of Michigan are French-Canadians, who being French are inherently disloyal to both sides, but will side with the stronger in any case. Across the river are an equal number of British subjects who remember well the American Revolution where their fathers and uncles had their property stolen and they fled to Canada. Now their sons and grandsons are promised freedom by Revolutionary war leaders in the Second War with the British Empire. They did not welcome General Hull with open arms, but they welcomed him heavily armed and spoiling for a get-even fight. Even worse, any retreat to the south is across the 200 mile Black Swamp to settlements in Ohio.
The Campaign That Failed
The War Hawks had promised an easy conquest of Canada, a walk-over; well, General Brock has walked all over us. In the spring General Hull took his brilliant plan to Litttle Jimmy and friends; he would invade Canada through Detroit, not across Lake Champlain, and eventually reach Montreal. He would need only a small army and seize the British naval ships in Canada on the Great Lakes. The vessels would be taken in their ports, and the war would be over at a minimal cost! There would no need to build a lake fleet. The enfeebled military mind of the President, thinking politics first and common sense later, agreed to three small armies to invade Canada and please everyone. The politically connected generals despite age, obesity, and incompetence would triumph. One army would cross over from Detroit, another at Niagara, and the third across Lake Champlain.
On May 25th, General Hull moved forward from central Ohio with 2000 men, even though war had not been declared, that was no concern. He had the blessing of the Commander-in-Chief Madison. The month of June was spent in exploring the Black Swamp. He had his men build a road from Urbana, Ohio to Detroit, and General Hull took copious amounts of alcohol to ward off fever, although it made his public speeches and orders somewhat difficult to comprehend. When sober, he looked every inch the soldier in resplendent uniforms. In only a little over a month he reached the Maumee River after a monumental six miles a day, and he sent his luggage on ahead by boat. On July 5th he reached Detroit. His baggage did not, and the British at Amherstberg seized and enjoyed his letters which described the weaknesses of his forces and his arguments with everyone. Hull avoided the British fort and landed in some Detroit suburb named Sandwich, and the inhabitants promptly fled. He quickly proclaimed he came to free everyone from Britain, but any white man found fighting along side the Indian horde would not be taken alive. This meant all the Candian militiamen fighting with Britain would be executed because very unit had Red Indians among them. In one proclamation nearly every Canadian became a confirmed supporter of the British Empire. If only our leaders knew such simple ways to unify a nation.
Soon Hull’s supply line from Ohio was interrupted by a seasoned warrior named Tecumseh. The Ohio soldiers had stopped with supply wagons some 35 miles distant from Hull’s Fort Detroit. First 150 and then 600 men were sent to break through to Ohio, and after limited success they fled back to Detroit. Next officers Lewis Cass and Duncan McArthur were sent out with 1600 men and could not locate the Ohio camp. They were hunkered down for a while and then ordered back. Then word came of the surrender of Fort Michilkimackinac and Gen. Hull collapsed. He saw massacres at any moment and fell into heavy drinking, according to reports.
Some weeks before, in the Niagara district many resisted the draft and attempted to flee from Canada to the United States. The watchword spreading fear was “Hull is coming!” Then Hull promised to protect the land rights of neutral Indians, and most abandoned the war. With all of this, how did he lose the campaign? With all this dissension General Isaac Brock decided to rally troops and attack Hull, despite the official policy of a defensive war. From York and Newark he found Loyalist volunteers and then he had the best of luck, our whiskey-tippling Hull allowed his troops to loot Canadian property. Next despite numerical superiority of two to one, Hull refused to attack. Then Hull retreated into Detroit and on August 13th General Brock was in Amherstburg. Brock had over 1900 men to Hull’s 2500 but these were Canadians fighting for their homes and safety from looters.
Two days later General Brock was across the river and firing into Detroit. Ther officer’s mess took a direct hit and Uncle Will Hull headed for a shelter and the comfort of his bottle. Then Gen. Brock used the Fort M. plan; surrender or face annihilation as the savage horde could not be contained. The next 1300 men under General Brock landed by Fort Detroit, Hull kept him men inside, and despite the advice of his officers as he had a fortified position and superior numbers, he surrendered despite their protests.
The British captured 2500 men, 33 cannon, some 35,000 pounds sterling in valuer of supplies, paroled in this disgraceful surrender and sent home were 500 Michigan militia and 1600 Ohio volunteers. The local units stayed on in the fort. Hull blamed all of his problems on a lack of reinforcements. There are claims that there was 5000 pounds of black powder in the fort as well. The cannon were symbolic as most had been taken from British forces in the Revolution over 30 years ago. The word is that Ft. Dearborn was also ordered to surrender and we are attempting to find more details, but we can confirm this was done on Gen. Hull’s orders a few days before the surrender of Detroit.
Hopefully, things will improve on land as they are at sea. Next week we will describe events on the Niagara frontier.