THIS WEEK in the War of 1812 (February 23 – March 1)
Winter 1814: Indian leader Tecumseh and British General Isaac Brock are dead … Fort Detroit, which they captured in 1812 through subterfuge and bravado, is back in U.S. hands … and American General William Hull, who surrendered Detroit without a fight, is on trial for his life.
After surrendering Detroit in August 1812, Hull is first transported to Montreal as a prisoner of war before being returned to the United States in a prisoner exchange.
In January 1814 Hull’s court-martial began in Albany, New York. On January 17, he pleaded not guilty to charges of treason.
Witnesses – mostly subordinates who had been infuriated when Hull surrendered—testified that he had seemed panicky and distracted during the brief siege. It was noted that in addition to more than 2,000 troops – most of them Ohio and Michigan militia – Hull’s surrender presented the British with more than 3,000 muskets, 37 cannons and other ordnance, 400 rounds of twenty-four-pound solid cannon balls and 100,000 cartridges.
It turned out Hull had surrendered to a smaller force. Brock had only 700 British regulars and militia and about 600 Indians. But through ruse and bluff, he led Hull to believe he faced a far larger force (the Indians marched past the same gap in the woods three times loudly shouting war cries.
Brock had also captured a Detroit-bound ship that carried Hull’s personal possessions, including his papers and war plans. He know U.S. morale was low and the Americans feared the Indians after troops and civilians evacuating Fort Dearborn in Illinois Territory (the site of present day Chicago), were attacked and massacred by Indians.
Hull’s supply lines had been cut, he had poor communications with Washington and Secretary of War William Eustis. His troops were mostly poorly trained and unruly militiamen and volunteers. Th head of the Army, General Henry Dearborn had been slow to launch other attacks into Canada to take some of the pressure off Hull. Dearborn presided over the court-martial.
The final straw in the capture of Detroit probably came when Brock sent a letter to Hull warning that the Indians with the British “will be beyond my control the moment the contest commences.” In other words, surrender or I’ll turn the Indians loose and who knows what savagery that might unleash. There were women and children at Fort Detroit, including Hull’s own children and grandchildren.
A Revolutionary War veteran who had fought bravely at White Plains, Trenton, Princeton, Saratoga and other battles, the 60-year-old Hull had been territorial governor of Michigan and originally turned down command of the Army of the Northwest.
Compounding his bad luck, papers Hull believed could exonerate him were burned up when the ship carrying them was attacked by the British. The trial will continue until late March.