Sunday 3 August 2008

My Town Monday - Isaac Brock (War of 1812) - The Battle of Detroit - Part 2

[1] With the news that Brigadier General William Hull (photo), an aging veteran of the American Revolutionary War, with 2,500 American troops had invaded Upper Canada and established his headquarters at a farm house in Sandwich, Isaac Brock could no longer remain stationary. Despite Sir George Prevost’s orders not to provoke the enemy, Brock left York for the front. Prevost, meanwhile was still hoping for a diplomatic solution to the conflict.

[2-Governor-General of Canada, Sir George Prevost]

Lieutenant-Colonel Isaac Brock left York on August 5, 1812 marching his troops overland to Fort Erie, where they commandeered boats from the local population. Nine days later, ten large and leaky bateaux deposited his modest force of four hundred soldiers, the bulk of whom were militia he had gathered along the way, on the east side of the Detroit River.

[3] Isaac Brock (photo) sailed to Amherstburg secure in the knowledge that morale was low among the poorly-supplied American troops. The British acquired this information after seizing the American schooner, Cuyohoga Packet (see post of July 27/8-Part 1). The schooner contained, among other things, a bag of Hull’s personal correspondence. These letters betrayed both Hull's overestimation of the size of his enemy and his intense fear of Tecumseh's warriors. En route to Amherstburg, Brock learned that Hull's insecurity about the strength and ability of the British forces was so great that he had abandoned his foothold at Sandwich.

[4- Shawnee Chief Tecumseh]

Shortly after arriving, Brock had his first meeting with the legendary Tecumseh and was deeply impressed by his ally. Brock was inspired when he learned that Tecumseh and his warriors had already fought the enemy twice. These skirmishes had effectively stopped badly-needed supplies from reaching the American forces upriver at Fort Detroit. By committing immediately to an attack of Fort Detroit, Brock won himself the support of one of the most influential leaders among the First Nations.

Tecumseh evidently trusted and respected Brock, reportedly saying, "This is a man" after meeting him for the first time. Although Brock's correspondence indicates a certain amount of paternal condescension for the natives, he seems to have regarded Tecumseh himself very highly, calling him "the Wellington of the Indians", and saying "a more sagacious or a more gallant warrior does not I believe exist". In enlisting the help of Tecumseh, Brock made a number of commitments to the Shawnee. He promised to negotiate no peace treaty without addressing the Shawnee's vision of an independent homeland. Although this was undoubtedly because Brock needed the help of Tecumseh, there is no evidence Brock negotiated in bad faith. Brock's personal integrity and respect for native peoples has been well documented, and suggest that if he had lived he would have kept his word to the Shawnee.

Using the captured information about the American forces, Brock decided that his best chance at success lay in playing on Hull's fears. He decided to launch a British offensive spearheaded by a large and visible Indian force. Tecumseh agreed wholeheartedly.

Brock was aware that he was overstepping the mandate given him by his superiors. Direct action with the Americans was exactly what Governor General Prevost had been trying to avoid. Brock however, had made no secret of his distaste for Prevost's policy. Undoubtedly, Brock and Tecumseh would have been equally disgusted to learn what Prevost was up to while they were preparing for the first major confrontation of the war. One week earlier, Governor General Prevost had agreed to an armistice with U.S. General Dearborn. Brock was unaware of the deal, however. His strategy was to attack.

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 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 York Volunteers, the cast-off uniforms of regulars to make Hull believe most of the British force were regulars.

In the dark hours of early morning, over five hundred braves, painted for war, paddled silently across the river towards Fort Detroit. The previous evening the warriors of the Shawnee, the Potawatomi, the Ottawa, the Kickapoo, the Delaware and the Wyandot had performed a war dance. As they made the crossing, they carried with them the hope that the coming battle would incite their brother tribes to join their confederacy, with the knowledge that the American troops feared them more than anything else.

Once across the river, Tecumseh and his men waited unseen around the perimeter of Detroit until the first light of day. At daybreak, the warriors descend on the town from the north and from the west. Not one person attempted to stop them. Nearer to the fort, within view of the American soldiers, the Natives crossed a small clearing, and disappeared into the woods, and doubled back to cross it again several times. This trick convinced the Americans that there are more than 1,500 First Nations warriors when in fact they numbered only 500.

The British began an artillery barrage of Fort Detroit on August 15, 1812, after Hull refused to surrender. Though the cannonade lasted well into the night, little physical damage was done to either side. Inside Fort Detroit, however, Hull's state of mind was quickly deteriorating. Hull was terrified of being attacked by Tecumseh's tribesmen.

As day broke, the Americans realized that the warriors and 700 of Brock's troops were boldly marching on their position. From across the river, British guns fired a deadly stream of fire into the overcrowded American stronghold. The atmosphere in the fort descended into chaos.

With Tecumseh's forces marching unopposed through the town, Hull quickly lost his stomach for fighting. Although the troops were eager to engage their opponents, Hull gave no such order. The repositioned British cannons had wreaked havoc inside the fort. Hull witnessed his men killed and dismembered by the hot iron shot. Unlike his soldiers, who were spurred on to avenge the carnage, Hull could envision what a prolonged battle would bring to his family and friends within the fort.

The native war cries had a devastating effect on Hull: his mind filled with visions of a bloody massacre of soldiers and civilians that included his wife and children. Hull surrendered despite the vehement disagreement from his officers and troops. The British were able to take the fort without a fight. The Americans lost 2,200 men, the fort, all their military equipment, and control of the Michigan Territory.

True to his word, Tecumseh prevented the ritual killing of American prisoners after the surrender.

[5 - The Surrender of Detroit by John Wycliffe Lowes Forster]

Isaac Brock became a hero throughout the British Empire while his army secured a windfall of bounty and supplies. The victory at Detroit provided much needed momentum to the British cause in Upper Canada. Besides inspiring confidence amongst the militia it convinced many neutral native tribes to join Tecumseh's alliance. For the Americans it was a tremendous setback, and not the easy war Jefferson had promised.

Brock's capture of the fort, which would not have been achieved without the presence of Tecumseh's forces, gave the British more than just badly needed supplies; it gave the population of Upper Canada the sense that a defense of Canada was actually possible.

In the aftermath of the surrender of Hull and Detroit, many Indians took up arms and attacked American settlements and isolated military outposts. 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 honourable service in the American Revolution.

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.

Part 3 of Isaac Brock continues next Monday, August 11th.

Photo Credits: Wikipedia
Research: wikipedia; The Invasion of Canada: 1812-1813 by Pierre Burton; The Life and Correspondence of Major General Sir Isaac Brock, K.B. by Ferdinand Brock Tupper

My Town Monday is the brainchild of Travis Erwin at where you can find other posts from around the world.


Reb said...

Well done Barbara! Great post.

Anonymous said...

Wow. I'm spellbound. The imagery in this is wonderful "500 braves painted for war paddled silently across the river toward Fort Detroit." Imagine the sound of the paddles in the water. And General Hull knowing all the terrifying paths ahead and not knowing which to take. By not wanting to see his friends and family massacred (who would make that choice for those we love) he knew he would be sentenced to death by court martial. Add all this to blood-curdling war cries and this is an adventure story and a half.Absolutely intriguing!

pattinase (abbott) said...

We have a charming town named Tecumseh not far from here. They pronounce it Tecumsey though. Maybe he did also, come to think of it.

Terrie Farley Moran said...

Thanks, Barbara,

Another wonderful post. I look forward to part three.


Barbara Martin said...

Reb, thank you for your kind comment.

Barbara Martin said...

Pam, there were tough choices all around in this battle. Choices that changed the course of history.

Travis Erwin said...

I love this stuff.

Barbara Martin said...

Patti, there is a Tecumseh Street in Toronto and that's how its pronounced here.

Terrie, perhaps the choices of the next good bits will be easier. There are so many little side stories that are interesting in their own right. It seems a shame to leave them out.

Barbara Martin said...

Travis, my pleasure to provide these posts.

Charles Gramlich said...

Ah, love the tidbits about strategy, like lighting all the fires. Cool stuff.

Bernita said...

Barbara, thank you.
Both Brock and Tecumseh were of the Kiplingesque type.

Barbara Martin said...

Charles, the touch about using the cast-off uniforms was nice, too.

Bernita, they were men of their word. Something one doesn't see too much these days.

Steve Malley said...

Such subterfuge-- shades of Sun Tzu!

Thanks for the entertainment!

David Cranmer said...

I just love posts like this. Lots of information about a little slice of history I've misplaced.

Mary Witzl said...

I find all this so fascinating. Sometimes I just ache to be able to to go back to this time and see with my own eyes what it was really like. It is easy to think of the past as a load of dates and facts from history, but of course it was a whole world of wonder that we can hardly grasp. It is lovely to see it all come alive like this, so thank you for writing this.

I love the men hiding their beans, then getting back in line for more. Nothing new under the sun!

debra said...

Interesting stuff, Barbara. Thank you for sharing all your research. I love it when history comes alive!

Barbara Martin said...

Steve, I will post the names of a few of the military books Brock carried around with him to review in part 3.

David, I find it's easier to learn about history in small doses as some of the larger volumes or books about history can be dry. Though Pierre Berton's book is easy to read.

Mary, you can go back in time where locations have their historical recreations. Niagara-on-the-Lake has one in the summer with people wearing costumes from the period (i.e. the Battle at Queenston Heights); or the one held at Fort York in Toronto.

Debra, I'm finding this history more interesting now than I did when I was in school. Of course, some of the material wasn't available then and children were taught what the school board decided to teach. There are areas in history which have been changed to suit whichever governing authority is in power at the time (i.e. the truth about the Louis Riel Rebellion). What you read in the historical books is not always the truth.

Ruth L.~ said...

Thanks, I need that. I know next to nothing about Canadian history.

Barbara Martin said...

Ruth, well, you will learn some of it here.

Linda McLaughlin said...

Very interesting post, Barbara. A little known part of North American history.


Barbara Martin said...

Linda, Isaac Brock is considered a hero by Canadians, and we're looking forward to the upcoming 200th anniversary in 2012.

BernardL said...

I really like this series. It illustrates clearly how unimaginative America's leaders were at the time. If they had used common sense and logic, they would have fortified the border, and concentrated on their grievances on the seas and lakes. Instead, they risked their new found freedom on a lark in a land mass where they could have no reliable supply line.

Barbara Martin said...

Bernard, they did have a reliable supply line; only Tecumseh kept raiding the supply wagons en route. Also, things might have gone quite differently if Hull wasn't so terrified of the Indians method of massacre: extermination. Once in awhile the aboriginals took prisoners and used them as slaves.

Anonymous said...

thanks barb. you really saved us.
do you know a bill Joly? :D

g said...

Warfare is a fascinating subject. Despite the dubious morality of using violence to achieve personal or political aims. It remains that conflict has been used to do just that throughout recorded history.

Your article is very well done, a good read.

Barbara Martin said...

G, welcome. Warfare will never cease as there will alwyas been someone who wants power over someone else, despite any mediation on the topic.