The 1812 Surrender of Fort Detroit Was a Disaster and a Scandal

The surrender of Fort Detroit on August 16, 1812, was a military disaster for the United States early in the War of 1812 as it derailed a plan to invade and seize Canada. What was intended to be a bold stroke which might have brought an early end to the war instead became a series of strategic blunders.

The American commander, General William Hull, an aging hero of the Revolutionary War, had been frightened into handing over Fort Detroit after hardly any fighting had taken place.

He claimed he feared a massacre of women and children by Indians, including Tecumseh, who had been recruited to the British side. But Hull's surrender of 2,500 men and their weapons, including three dozen cannon, was highly controversial.

After being released from captivity by the British in Canada, Hull was put on trial by the U.S. government and sentenced to be shot. His life was spared only because of his earlier heroism in the colonial army.

A Planned American Invasion of Canada Backfired

General Hull Surrendering Fort Detroit in August 1812
General Hull Surrendering Fort Detroit in August 1812. Getty Images

While impressment of sailors has always overshadowed other causes of the War of 1812, the invasion and annexation of Canada was definitely a goal of the Congressional War Hawks led by Henry Clay.

Had things not gone so terribly for the Americans at Fort Detroit, the entire war may have proceeded very differently. And the future of the North American continent may have been profoundly affected.

As war with Britain began to seem inevitable in the spring of 1812, President James Madison sought a military commander who could lead an invasion of Canada. There were not many good choices, as the U.S. Army was fairly small and most of its officers were young and inexperienced.

Madison settled on William Hull, the governor of the Michigan territory. Hull had fought bravely in the Revolutionary War, but when he met with Madison in early 1812 he was nearly 60 years old and in questionable health.

Promoted to general, Hull reluctantly took the assignment to march to Ohio, muster a force of regular army troops and local militia, proceed to Fort Detroit, and invade Canada.

The Plan Was Doomed

The invasion plan was poorly conceived. At that time Canada consisted of two provinces, Upper Canada, which bordered the United States, and Lower Canada, territory farther to the north.

Hull was to invade the western edge of Upper Canada at the same time as other coordinated attacks would invade from the area of Niagara Falls in New York State.

Hull was also expecting support from forces that would follow him from Ohio.

On the Canadian side, the military commander who would face Hull was General Isaac Brock, an energetic British officer who had spent a decade in Canada. While other officers had been gaining glory in the wars against Napoleon, Brock had been waiting for his chance.

When war with the United States seemed imminent, Brock called up the local militia. And when it became obvious that the Americans planned to capture a fort in Canada, Brock led his men westward to meet them.

One colossal flaw in the American invasion plan was that everyone seemed to know about it. For instance, a Baltimore newspaper, in early May 1812, published the following news item from Chambersburg, Pennsylvania:

General Hull was in this place last week on his way from Washington city, and, we are told, stated that he was to repair to Detroit, whence he was to make a descent upon Canada with 3,000 troops.

Hull's boasting was reprinted in Niles' Register, a popular news magazine of the day. So before he was even halfway to Detroit almost anyone, including any British sympathizers, knew what he was up to.

Indecision Doomed Hull's Mission

Hull reached Fort Detroit on July 5, 1812. The fort was across a river from British territory, and about 800 American settlers lived in its vicinity. The fortifications were solid, but the location was isolated, and it would be difficult for supplies or reinforcements to reach the fort in the event of a siege.

Young officers with Hull urged him to cross over to Canada and begin an attack. He hesitated until a messenger arrived with the news that the United States had formally declared war on Britain. With no good excuse to delay, Hull decided to go on the offensive.

On July 12, 1812 the Americans crossed the river. The Americans seized the settlement of Sandwich. General Hull kept holding councils of war with his officers, but could not come to a firm decision to continue on and attack the nearest British strong point, the fort at Malden.

During the delay, American scouting parties were attacked by Indian raiders led by Tecumseh, and Hull began expressing a desire to return across the river to Detroit.

Some of Hull's junior officers, convinced he was inept, began circulating the idea of somehow replacing him.

The Siege of Fort Detroit

General Hull took his forces back across the river to Detroit on August 7, 1812. When General Brock arrived in the area, his troops met up with about 1,000 Indians led by Tecumseh.

Brock knew the Indians were an important psychological weapon to use against the Americans, who feared frontier massacres. He sent a message to Fort Detroit, warning that "the body of Indians who have attached themselves to my troops will be beyond my control the moment the contest commences."

General Hull, receiving the message at Fort Detroit, was fearful of the fate of women and children sheltered within the fort should the Indians be allowed to attack. But he did, at first, send back a defiant message, refusing to surrender.

The British artillery opened up on the fort on August 15, 1812. The Americans fired back with their cannon, but the exchange was indecisive.

Hull Surrendered Without a Fight

That night the Indians and Brock's British soldiers crossed over the river, and marched close to the fort in the morning. They were startled to see an American officer, who happened to be General Hull's son, come out waving a white flag.

Hull had decided to surrender Fort Detroit without a fight. Hull's younger officers, and many of his men, considered him a coward and a traitor.

Some American militia troops, who had been outside the fort, arrived back that day and were shocked to discover they were now considered prisoners of war. Some of them angrily broke their own swords rather than surrender them to the British.

The regular American troops were taken as prisoners to Montreal. General Brock released the Michigan and Ohio militia troops, paroling them to return home.

Aftermath of Hull's Surrender

General Hull, in Montreal, was treated well. But Americans were outraged by his actions. A colonel in the Ohio militia, Lewis Cass, traveled to Washington and wrote a long letter to the secretary of war which was published in newspapers as well as in the popular news magazine Niles' Register.

Cass, who would go on to have a long career in politics, and was nearly nominated in 1844 as a presidential candidate, wrote passionately. He criticized Hull severely, concluding his lengthy account with the following passage:

I was informed by General Hull the morning after the capitulation, that the British forces consisted of 1800 regulars, and that he surrendered to prevent the effusion of human blood. That he magnified their regular force nearly five fold, there can be no doubt. Whether the philanthropic reason assigned by him is a sufficient justification for surrendering a fortified town, an army, and a territory, is for the government to determine. Confident I am, that had the courage and conduct of the general been equal to the spirit and zeal of the troops, the event would have been brilliant and successful as it now is disastrous and dishonorable.

Hull was returned to the United States in a prisoner exchange, and after some delays he was eventually put on trial in early 1814. Hull defended his actions, pointing out that the plan devised for him in Washington was deeply flawed, and that support he expected from other military units never materialized.

Hull was not convicted of a charge of treason, though he was convicted of cowardice and neglect of duty. He was sentenced to be shot and his name struck from the rolls of the U.S. Army.

President James Madison, noting Hull's service in the Revolutionary War, pardoned him, and Hull retired to his farm in Massachusetts. He wrote a book defending himself, and a spirited debate about his actions continued for decades, though Hull himself died in 1825.

As for Detroit, later in the war a future American president, William Henry Harrison, marched on the fort and recaptured it. So while the effect of Hull's blundering and surrender was to depress American morale at the beginning of the war, the loss of the outpost was not permanent.