Archive for August 13, 2012
Success at Sea
While things continue to go wrong for the Army in the West (see below) the Navy scores another small triumph at sea.
On Aug. 13, the American frigate, USS Essex, attacks and captures the British sloop, HMS Alert in the south Atlantic. The 36-gun Essex was built in Salem, Massachusetts and paid for by the citizens of Salem and Essex County, who presented her to the U.S. Navy just before Christmas 1799. By 1812, the 864-ton Essex was already a veteran of engagements with the French in the Quasi Naval War between the United States and Revolutionary France in 1800, and against the Barbary pirates of North Africa in 1805. The youngest crewman aboard was 11-year-old midshipman David Glasgow Farragut, who would rise to become the Navy’s first full admiral, as well as the Union commander at the Battle of Mobile Bay during the U.S. Civil War (“Damn the torpedoes. Full speed ahead!”).
Disaster in the West
Concerned about the Fall of Fort Mackinac in northern Michigan on July 17 and the threat to his own position at Fort Detroit, U.S. Army Brig. Gen. William Hull orders the commander at Fort Dearborn — in what is now downtown Chicago — to abandon the fort and evacuate his tiny garrison eastward to Fort Wayne in the Indiana Territory.
Before closing up shop, Capt. Nathan Heald tells the mostly Potawatomi Indians who are menacing the fort that they can have it and its supply stores if they guarantee safe passage for the approximately 60 U.S. regulars, 12 Illinois militiamen, nine women and 18 children. But following Hull’s written order, Heald destroys all the guns, ammunition and liquor in the fort before leaving — angering the younger Indian warriors.
Not far from Fort Dearborn on Aug. 15, 400 to 500 Indians attack the evacuation column. In the 15-minute battle, 26 regulars and all of the militia men are killed. The Indians also attack the wagons carrying civilians, killing two women and nearly all the children. After a brief stand-off, the rest of the U.S. party surrenders and are taken prisoner.
The attack, called a massacre at the time, inflames the United States, especially along the frontier. Today Native American historians dispute the unverified contemporary reports that the Indians tortured and scalped their victims. This account of the battle/massacre and the quest for historical evidence in Chicago magazine has some very helpful maps. The Chicago History Museum has a model of what the fort looked like here.
Downfall of Detroit
On the same day of the attack outside Fort Dearborn, General Hull finds that his opposite number, Major Gen. Sir Isaac Brock, has crossed the Detroit River from Canada with about 300 regulars, 400 Canadian militia and some 600 Native American warriors headed by the Shawnee leader Tecumseh. Hull has about 1,200 troops at his disposal, both regulars and Ohio and Michigan militia. Hull has previously sent more than 300 troops south to link up with a supply train near the Raisin River, the same supply train that led to two earlier ambushes of Hull’s troops.
Brock and Tecumseh succeed in making Hull believe their forces are much greater in size than his. Tecumseh marches his warriors through an opening in the woods several times to make it look like his contingent numbers over 1,000. They whoop and yell through the night. The idea he is surrounded by savages who might massacre the women and the children in the fort — including his own daughter and grandchild — rattles Hull.
Both sides open fire on each other with canons without doing much damage. On Aug. 16, however, the British gunners start to hit the mark, killing several inside the fort, including the commander who surrendered Fort Mackinac and is awaiting a court martial.
Hull then decides to surrender the fort without firing another shot. The easy victory stuns Brock — who is hailed as a hero in Canada — and emboldens Tecumseh and his Confederacy to become more belligerent toward the Americans. After being paroled, Hull is charged with treason for surrendering so many men and guns. He is convicted of neglect of duty and cowardice and sentenced to be shot. President Madison approves the sentence but waives its execution. Hull is sent home to Massachusetts in disgrace, a sad end for a hero of the American Revolution.