Siege of Detroit

Siege of Detroit

:"For the 1763 action in Pontiac's Rebellion, see the Siege of Fort Detroit"Infobox Military Conflict
conflict=Siege of Detroit
partof=the War of 1812

caption=The "Surrender of Detroit" by John Wycliffe Lowes Forster.
date=15 August – 16 August, 1812
place=Detroit, Michigan
result=Decisive British victory
combatant1=flagicon|United Kingdom United Kingdom
Native Americans
combatant2=flagicon|United States|1795 United States
commander1=flagicon|United Kingdom Isaac Brock
commander2=flagicon|United States|1795 William HullPOW
strength1=600 Indians
330 regulars
400 militia
5 light guns
3 heavy guns, 2 mortars
2 warshipsJ. Mackay Hitsman, "The Incredible War of 1812, pp 79-81]
30 guns
casualties1=2 wounded
casualties2=7 killed
2,493 captured

The Siege of Detroit, also known as the Surrender of Detroit or the Battle of Fort Detroit, was a humiliating loss for the Americans early in the War of 1812. The battle cost the Americans an entire army and brought to a halt the planned invasion of Canada, which was an essential part of the American war strategy.


American plans and moves

In the early months of 1812, as tension with Britain increased, United States Secretary of War William Eustis planned to form an army which would secure the northwest against Indians incited to trouble by the British and invade Upper Canada from Detroit. This army was commanded by the Governor of Michigan Territory, Brigadier General William Hull, an aging veteran of the American Revolutionary War.

Hull's army consisted of the 4th U.S. Infantry under Lieutenant Colonel James Miller, three regiments of Ohio militia under Colonels Lewis Cass, Duncan McArthur and James Findlay, and some small detachments of volunteers from Michigan.

Hull marched north from Urbana on June 10. Learning that war was imminent, he hastened his march and put some of his sick and his despatches aboard the packet vessel "Cayahoga" to be brought across Lake Erie. The British at Amherstburg knew that war had already been declared, and the "Cayahoga" was captured by a Canadian-manned armed brig, the "General Hunter". [John R. Elting, "Amateurs to Arms", p.26]

Hull reached Detroit, which had a population of 800, on July 5. Hull planned to attack the British post at Fort Amherstburg. Although short of supplies (Detroit apparently provided only soap and whisky), his army crossed into Canada on July 12. He issued several proclamations which were intended to induce Canadians to join or support his army. Although these moves discouraged many of the militia from opposing Hull's invasion, few of the inhabitants actively aided Hull, even many originally from the United States who had recently settled in Upper Canada.

After some indecisive skirmishes with British outposts, Hull decided he could not attack the British fort without artillery, which apparently could not be brought forward because the carriages had decayed and needed repair, and he retreated. Several of Hull's officers disagreed with this retreat and secretly discussed removing him from command.

British moves

On July 17, the British on Lake Huron had captured the important trading post of Mackinac Island. Large numbers of Indians began moving south from Mackinac to join the warriors already at Amherstburg. Learning of the capture of Mackinac on August 3 and fearing that this had "opened the northern hive of Indians" [C. P. Stacey, "The Defence of Upper Canada, 1812", in Morris Zaslow (ed), "The Defended Border", p.18] , Hull abandoned all the Canadian territory he held.

On Hull's vulnerable lakeside flank, the British armed ships controlled Lake Erie. They were used to slip raiders across the lake to cut Hull's supply lines, which ran alongside the lake and the Detroit River for convert|60|mi|km. On August 4, at the Battle of Brownstown, a party under Tecumseh ambushed and routed an American detachment under Major van Horne, capturing more of Hull's despatches.

To clear his lines of communication and escort a supply convoy which was waiting at Frenchtown, Hull sent a larger party under James Miller. On August 9, at the Battle of Maguaga, Miller forced a British and Indian force under Major Adam Muir of the 41st Regiment to retreat some distance: but when the British re-formed their line, he declined to resume the attack. Miller, whose losses in the engagement were far heavier than those of the enemy, seemed to completely lose confidence: he stayed camped near the battlefield until Hull ordered him to return to Detroit.

Meanwhile, Major General Isaac Brock, the British commander in Upper Canada, was in York, the provincial capital, dealing with the Assembly and mobilising the province's militia. Learning from Sir George Prevost, the Governor General of Canada, that there was no threat to the east of the province from the lethargic American commander in chief, Major General Henry Dearborn, Brock dispatched 100 of his small force of regulars and 300 volunteers from the militia westward to reinforce Amherstburg. On August 5, he prorogued the Assembly and set out himself after them. He and his force sailed from Port Dover and reached Amherstburg on August 13, [C. P. Stacey, "The Defence of Upper Canada, 1812", in Morris Zaslow (ed), "The Defended Border", p.17] at the same time as 200 additional Indian warriors under Tecumseh.

Here, Brock immediately learned from Hull's captured despatches that the morale of Hull and his army was low, that they feared the numbers of Indians which might be facing them, and that their supplies were short. Brock also quickly established a rapport with Tecumseh, ensuring that the Indians would cooperate with his moves. Against the advice of most of his subordinates, Brock determined on an immediate attack on Detroit. The British had already played on Hull's fear of the Indians by arranging for a letter to fall into American hands which asked that no more Indians be sent from Fort Mackinac as there were already no less than 5,000 at Amherstburg and supplies were running short. Brock now sent a demand for surrender to Hull, stating:

:"The force at my disposal authorizes me to require of you the immediate surrender of Fort Detroit. It is far from my intention to join in a war of extermination, but you must be aware, that the numerous body of Indians who have attached themselves to my troops, will be beyond control the moment the contest commences…"

To deceive the Americans into believing there were more British than there actually were, Brock's force carried out several bluffs. Troops were told to light individual fires instead of one fire per unit, thereby creating the illusion of a much larger army. His troops marched to take up positions in plain sight of the Americans then quickly ducked behind entrenchments, and marched back out of sight to repeat the manoeuvre. The same was done for meals, where the line would dump their beans into a hidden pot, then return out of view to rejoin the end of the queue. Brock also gave his militia the cast-off uniforms of regulars to make Hull believe most of the British force were regulars. Tecumseh's warriors also moved rapidly from one position to another and made loud war cries.


On August 15, gunners of the Provincial Marine set up a battery of three heavy guns and two mortars on the Canadian shore of the Detroit River and began bombarding Fort Detroit, joined by two armed vessels (the "General Hunter" and the 20-gun ship "Queen Charlotte") in the river. In the early hours of the morning of August 16, Tecumseh's Indians crossed the river about convert|5|mi|km south of DetroitJohn R. Elting, "Amateurs to Arms", pp.34-35] . They were followed after daybreak by Brock's force, divided into two "brigades" of militia with small detachments of regulars and one brigade consisting of the main body of the 41st with five field guns (three six-pounders and two three-pounders).

Brock originally intended to occupy a fortified position astride Hull's supply line and wait for starvation and bombardment to force the Americans to surrender or come out to fight, but he then learned that Hull had earlier sent a detachment of 500 under Colonels Cass and McArthur to clear his supply routes, and this detachment was only a few miles from the British rear. To avoid being caught between two fires, Brock advanced immediately against Fort Detroit.

As the British bombardment began to cause casualties, Hull despaired of holding out against a force of seemingly thousands of British regulars and, hearing the Indian war cries, began to fear a slaughter. Women and children, including his own daughter and grandchild, still resided within the fort. Against the advice of his subordinates, Hull hoisted a white flag of surrender. He sent messengers to Brock asking three days to agree on terms of surrender. Brock replied he would allow him three hours. Hull surrendered his entire force along with 30 cannons, 300 rifles and 2,500 muskets. Cass's and McArthur's detachments in the area were included in the surrender. The bombardment had killed 2 American officers (including Lieutenant Hanks, the former commander of Fort Mackinac, who was awaiting a court martial) and 5 other ranks. The answering fire from the guns of Fort Detroit had wounded 2 British or Canadian gunners.


The news of the surrender of Hull's army was startling on both sides of the border. On the American side, many Indians took up arms and attacked American settlements and isolated military outposts. [John R. Elting, "Amateurs to Arms", pp.36-37] In Upper Canada, the population and militia were encouraged, particularly in the Western districts where they had been threatened by Hull's army. More materially, the 2,500 muskets captured from Hull were distributed among the hitherto ill-equipped militia.

The British gained an important post on American territory and won control over Michigan Territory and the Detroit region for most of the following year. Brock was hailed as a hero, and Tecumseh's influence over the confederation of natives was strengthened. Brock left Colonel Henry Procter in command at Amherstburg and Detroit and went to the Niagara River, intending to invade New York State. He was thwarted by an armistice arranged by his superior, Governor General Sir George Prevost. When this ended, Brock faced an American attack across the Niagara at the Battle of Queenston Heights, which claimed his life.

General Hull was court martialled and sentenced to death for his actions at Detroit, but the sentence was commuted to dismissal from the Army by President James Madison, in recognition of his honorable service in the American Revolution.

The Americans did not regain Detroit until their naval victory at the Battle of Lake Erie. This cut the British off from their supplies and allowed Hull's successor, General William Henry Harrison, to launch a successful invasion of Upper Canada which culminated in the Battle of the Thames, where Tecumseh was killed.

The British 41st Regiment, which subsequently became the Welch Regiment, was awarded the battle honour "Detroit", one of the few to be awarded to British regiments for the War of 1812. The captured colours of the 4th U.S. Infantry are currently in the [ Welch Regiment Museum] at Cardiff Castle.

Other accounts

Brock and Tecumseh met for the first and only time shortly after Brock arrived at Amherstburg. Legend has it that Tecumseh turned to his warriors and said, "Here is a man". Brock certainly wrote shortly afterwards, "... a more sagacious and a more gallant Warrior does not I believe exist." [Hitsman, "The Incredible War of 1812", p 78] One account claims that Tecumseh was behind the idea of displaying trumped-up troop levels. The Indian tradition claims Tecumseh and company met his British counterparts, surrounded the fort and threatened the upper town. One Canadian captain noticed, "Tecumseh extended his men, and marched them three times through an opening [in the woods at the rear of the fort] in full view of the garrison, which induced them to believe there were at least two or three thousand Indians." [Merritt, in Wood, (Wood, William ed. Select British Documents of the Canadian War of 1812. British documents, 3:554.) Lucas, 412, says that some Indians had appeared behind the fort when the surrender was made.] Because this captain was not an eyewitness, his version has been disputed.

Brock had written while at York in July, "The population, believe me is essentially bad - A full belief possesses them all that this Province must inevitably succumb ...Most of the people have lost all confidence - I however speak loud and look big." [C. P. Stacey, "The Defence of Upper Canada, 1812", in Morris Zaslow (ed), "The Defended Border", p.13] . It is probable that the stratagem of inflating their own numbers would occur naturally to both Tecumseh and Brock.

There were rumours that General Hull had been drinking heavily prior to the surrender. He is reported to have said the Indians were “numerous beyond example,” and “more greedy of violence… than the Vikings or Huns." [Gilbert, Bil. God Gave us This Country: Tekamthi and the First American Civil War. New York: Atheneum, 1989.]



*J. Mackay Hitsman, "The Incredible War of 1812", Robin Brass Studio, 1999, ISBN 1-896941-13-3
*John R. Elting, "Amateurs to Arms", Da Capo Press, New York, 1995, ISBN 0-306-80653-3
*Jon Latimer, "1812: War with America", Harvard University Press, Cambridge MA, 2007, ISBN 0-674-02584-9

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