August 16, 1812—Just how much of a difference a commander can make—and how much a particular engagement can make or break his reputation—can be seen most dramatically in the surrender of American forces at the lonely frontier outpost of Detroit. Their commander, General William Hull (shown here, in a portrait by Rembrandt Peale), though his forces outnumbered the British, gave up without a fight, destroying a career built on valor in the American Revolution. He had been outsmarted by his British opponent, General Isaac Brock, who didn’t want to be in North America at all with the Napoleonic Wars going on in Europe, but who ended up acclaimed by a grateful Canada.
Does Hull get taught in textbooks these days? Has he ever? I remember not a thing about him from my school days. Yet the story of the most massive (2,000 men laying down arms), disastrous (loss of the then-Northwest) American surrender between the Revolution and Bataan in WWII is one that should be taught every bit as much as Yorktown, New Orleans, Gettysburg, Belleau Wood, or D-Day.
Former Vice-President Dick Cheney has been mocked for predicting that American soldiers would be welcomed as liberators in Iraq, but—as wrongheaded as that assessment proved to be—he was not the first nationally prominent politician to be overly optimistic about our chances in a war. Just weeks before Hull’s surrender, Thomas Jefferson wrote in a letter to journalist William Duane, “The acquisition of Canada this year, as far as the neighborhood of Quebec, will be a mere matter of marching, and will give us experience for the attack of Halifax the next, and the final expulsion of England from the American continent.”
The ignominy attending Hull’s surrender was such that, two years later, he would be court-martialed, and found guilty, of “treason, cowardice, neglect of duty and unofficer-like conduct.” His conviction brought a death sentence that the court suggested be set aside because of his age and long-ago valor—a recommendation that President James Madison adopted.
Yet, if incompetence could have been added to the charges, Madison, Jefferson’s longtime faithful lieutenant in the Democratic-Republican Party, would have been tried, along with his predecessor, for a defense policy that ensured that the United States would be unprepared when war with Britain broke out.
It was all well and good to be concerned about the expenditures involved with a standing army, but Jefferson’s own experiences in the American Revolution, when he just managed to escape British invaders in Virginia, should have made him mindful of the possibility of a foreign offensive. Instead, he and Madison supported militia (which most Continental Army commanders, including George Washington, came to scorn for their unreliability) and gunboats to patrol the shore.
Hull was one of those who, if he had pressed the case, might have argued Jefferson and Madison out of their hidebound positions, at least about the militia. But when he visited Washington earlier in the year, he had been intent simply on arguing for the protection of Americans within the Michigan Territory, where he had served as governor for the past seven years. He was at least somewhat more cautious than Jefferson and Madison in that he argued that an invasion of Canada shouldn't even be contemplated until the Great Lakes were secured.
Hull had another motive in going to Washington: he hoped to be appointed Secretary of War—a nice way to cap his career. But—at least at that point—the current holder of that office, William Eustis, was going nowhere.
The Madison administration then sounded Hull out about leading the invasion into Canada. The governor should have stuck to his initial rejection of the offer. But the administration, with its next candidate turning down the post, asked Hull again, who yielded this time upon the assurance that he could simultaneously hold onto his position as territorial governor.
That acceptance turned out to be catastrophic for Hull and the administration. Hull was not quite sixty yet, but, with his snow-white hair, he looked a good decade older—and, with his massive weight limiting his energy, acted like it. His subordinates, especially Colonel Lewis Cass (three decades later, an unsuccessful candidate for President), came to despise and even undercut him. When Hull’s performance in the field turned out to be disastrous, the administration couldn’t wipe its hands of him quickly enough.
When war broke out over issues of impressment of American sailors and British incitement of Indian raids, American leaders liked their chances of success against a foe facing the following deficits:
· * A war against Napoleon that diverted the best British soldiers an ocean away from North America;
* * A Canadian population with very few of British birth, far more French-Canadian Catholics, and a not-inconsiderable number of Americans itching to incorporate the land up north under the U.S. umbrella;
· * The Governor-General of Canada, Sir George Prevost, had clashed constantly with Brock over the best measures of preparedness.
But those pushing hardest for an American thrust into Canada—not just Jefferson, Madison and Hull, but also Speaker of the House and “War Hawk” leader Henry Clay—ignored major disadvantages that they faced:
· *Those in charge of national security—Madison, Eustis, Hull, and General Henry Dearborn—hovered around the age of 60. Their experience of war, if they had any at all, was confined to 30 years before. As Geoffrey Perret pointed out in his history of America’s armed forces, A Country Made by War, even West Point, created in 1802 as the base for the Army Corps of Engineers, became separated from the artillery function of the military, with the engineers “virtually civilians in uniform.” It would take the Mexican War and the Civil War for its graduates to really make their mark in battle.
· *At the time, the Michigan Territory was only sparsely inhabited by whites, who frequently found themselves surrounded by Native Americans. The latter, incensed over land concessions extracted (often under morally ambiguous circumstances) by Hull and William Henry Harrison, governor of the Indiana Territory, gave a willing ear to British incitements to violence.
· * The militia so prized by Jefferson and Madison were about to prove their fecklessness again, arguing, with the same kind of strict-construction logic used by the Virginians, that they were under no obligation to do anything except defend American soil, making their participation in any invasion of Canada out of the question.
Once war was declared, Hull faced additional obstacles that complicated his mission:
* * His army, assembled in Dayton, Ohio, was hundreds of miles away from any of the three expected targets in Canada: Montreal, Quebec and Halifax.
* * Hull’s route to Detroit required his troops to march and clear their way for 35 days through thick forests and swamps—and badly extended his supply lines.
* * Located closer to Washington than Hull, Prevost and Brock knew of the outbreak of war before Hull, depriving him of the element of surprise.
* * A ship containing Hull’s personal papers was intercepted by the British, who discovered the general’s troop estimates, his battle plans, and—crucially for the upcoming weeks—his fear of Indian attacks.
* * The Chippewas’ seizure of Fort Michilimackinac, an American outpost on Lake Huron, emboldened other tribes in the area to ally with the feared Indian chief Tecumseh in his attempt to drive the Americans out of the Northwest.
With no militia to support his regular troops in an attack on Fort Malden in Upper Canada, Hull withdrew to Detroit. By this time, Brock--already blessed with his own native energy, now also possessed of intelligence about his opponent’s timorous psyche—pursued him across the border.
As he moved closer to the Americans’ fortifications, Brock’s own subordinates questioned whether he was putting his 1,300 troops unnecessarily at risk against the 2,000 entrenched U.S. forces. But Brock understood his trump card: that the great portion of his force, Tecumseh’s 1,000 braves, would strike fear into Hull. He sent an artfully crafted message to the American commander, disavowing any “war of attrition,” while immediately following this disclaimer with, “but you must be aware that the numerous body of Indians who have attached themselves to my troops will be beyond my control the moment the content commences.”
The message put Hull—whose own family was inside the garrison--on the edge of a nervous breakdown. Henry Adams, in his History of the United States During the Administrations of James Madison, quotes a witness from his subsequent court-martial, watching Hull sitting on an old tent as Brock poured cannon fire into his fort: “He apparently unconsciously filled his mouth with tobacco, putting in quid after quid more than he generally did; the spittle colored with tobacco-juice ran from his mouth on his neckcloth, beard, cravat, and vest.”
To the rage of his own soldiers, Hull gave up the fort without firing a shot. He would spend the rest of his life insisting that he saved his countrymen from sure massacre at the hands of the Indians. For their part, Americans—humiliated by their leaders’ failure to make good on their promise for a quick, speedy, successful war—made him a scapegoat for the administration's larger failures of policy and strategy.