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The War of 1812

Unlike past wars on the North American continent, where Detroit had played a supporting role, in 1812 Detroit would be at the center of the fighting. The territorial leaders realized Detroit was poorly prepared for war. In 1811 Governor Hull traveled to Washington to press the case for a larger military presence in Michigan. Detroit was garrisoned at the time by less than one hundred regular soldiers; in an emergency a militia of perhaps seven hundred men could supplement them. Washington's response was not completely unsympathetic. Hull was appointed a brigadier general and placed in command of the newly formed North Western Army. He returned to Detroit with about twelve hundred additional fighting men, made up of one regiment of "regulars" and three regiments of Ohio militia. But most of his requests for additional military resources, including naval vessels, were denied.

Hull learned of Congress's declaration of war against England only three days before his army reached Detroit on July 5, 1812. Hull responded by promptly invading Canada. Hull's invasion, however, as well as most of the American military activity in the Northwest during the summer and fall of 1812, proved ill-fated. The British commander at Fort Malden, who received news of the war before Hull, intercepted and captured a ship laden with many of Hull's supplies. With three British naval vessels adding to the British fort's firepower, the Americans dared not assault Fort Malden until they could move cannon across the river. This task took a surprisingly long time. As Hull labored to get his cannon across the narrow waterway, the American fort at Mackinac Island fell to the British and Hull began to fear Britain's Indian allies would quickly descend from the north. Fears of an Indian attack on Detroit were intensified when news reached Hull that the soldiers at Fort Dearborn, located in what is today Chicago, had been massacred by Indians as they attempted to abandon the fort. To add to Hull's woes, Tecumseh ambushed a critical supply train just south of Detroit, and it could not reach the American troops. When it must have seemed to Hull that nothing more could go wrong, he learned that as a result of a temporary truce between British and American officers in the New York area, British General Isaac Brock had sailed from Niagara with a large detachment of British regulars to reinforce Fort Malden.

Faced with repeated American military failures in the Detroit area and throughout the Northwest and fearing the imminent arrival of more British regulars near the city, Hull aborted his Canadian invasion and took up defensive positions at Detroit on August 8. He ordered a desperate attack to regain the supplies Tecumseh's braves had stalled. The attack failed on August 13, the same day Brock arrived at Fort Malden with six hundred British regulars.

On August 15, with many of Hull's troops still south of Detroit seeking to recapture the supply train, Brock called upon Hull to surrender Detroit and warned of an Indian massacre if Hull resisted. Hull declined to surrender, and the British promptly began to bombard Detroit, both from shore batteries across the river and from the guns of two of the ships anchored off Fort Malden. As the bombardment continued Brock and seven hundred British regulars crossed the river south of Detroit and joined forces with Tecumseh's Indians. Although a large group of American troops, the force sent by Hull to confront Tecumseh, could have launched a devastating rear attack on Brock's forces, the Americans in this detachment studiously avoided engaging in the battle they almost surely could hear.

His forces divided and with much of his command seemingly unwilling or unable to come to his aid, under heavy bombardment, facing an attack from the south by British regulars, and threatened with an Indian massacre, Hull chose to surrender Detroit to Brock. Hull was taken as a prisoner of war and eventually paroled in October 1812. He knew his surrender of Detroit was intensely controversial, and Hull himself asked for a military inquiry into the matter, presumably to clear his name. In January 1814 he stood before a military court charged with cowardice, neglect of duty, conduct unbecoming an officer, and treason. Although the last charge was dismissed, Hull was stunned when he was found guilty of the other three charges and sentenced to death. The court that sentenced him to die officially recommend that the president grant Hull clemency in recognition of past services, and President Madison obliged. Hull spent the remainder of his life trying to rehabilitate his shattered reputation.

The surrender of Detroit was a stunning blow to American aspirations in the Northwest. William Henry Harrison, who took responsibility for what was left of the American military forces in the area, immediately sought to raise new militias and retake Detroit. In January 1813 almost one thousand Americans reached as far north as Monroe. Although they realized their positions were difficult to defend and that a large body of British troops was stationed at nearby Fort Malden, the American commanders failed to take proper safeguards. The British attacked on January 22 and although many of the American forces retained their ability to fight, they surrendered after the British commander promised safety from the fury of Britain's Indian allies.

Harrison was temporarily stymied, but his goal remained recapturing Detroit. What made this possible was the development of an American naval presence on the Great Lakes. Oliver Hazard Perry's small flotilla of nine ships fought a decisive battle against the British on September 10, 1813. Harrison immediately capitalized on American control of the lakes by transferring virtually his entire force to Canadian soil. Faced with an overwhelming attack, the British abandoned Fort Malden on September 24. Two days later the British also withdrew from Detroit. On September 29 Perry and his fleet arrived in Detroit to reclaim the city. Seven hundred American soldiers arrived later in the day. Harrison pursued the British and their Indian allies into Canada and forced a battle on October 4, winning a decisive victory. Although Canada now lay open to invasion, a lack of equipment and supplies forced Harrison to return to Detroit. When Perry and Harrison left Detroit on October 19, Lewis Cass was placed in command of the city. Ten days later President Madison appointed Cass governor of Michigan Territory, a position he would hold for eighteen years. Soon enough the war would end, and Detroit would be transformed.