After the Revolutionary War and the American colonies became the United States of America, adventurous people began to expand westward and settle new parts of the country. Thomas Jefferson fully supported and encouraged westward settlements. However, many of the Indian tribes did want to share their land with the Americans. Additionally, much of the western frontier (today known as the Midwest) was being settled by French who believed that part of the continent belonged to them. Secondly, even though the British signed a treaty to grant America its independence, they still wanted to control the colonies.
At the turn of century in 1800, there was no clear border between America and Canada. Canada was a British colony, so a number of border disputes erupted between the British Canadians and the Americans.
One of the newer settlements in the frontier was a small community and fort called Detroit, in the Michigan territory. Detroit was located along the Detroit River with Amherstburg, Canado on the other side of the river.
On July 11, 1812, Michigan Governor William Hull, who also was declared to be a general of the militia, arrived in Detroit, crossed the river into Canada and established his headquarters in a Canadian headquarters and then issued the following proclamation to the Canadians:
“INHABITANTS OF CANADA
“After thirty years of peace and prosperity, the United States have been driven to arms. The injuries and aggressions, the insults and indignities of Great Britain have once more left no alternative but manly resistance or unconditional submission. The army under my command has invaded your country. The standard of the union now waves over the territory of Canada. To the peaceful and unoffending inhabitants it brings neither danger nor difficulty. I come to find enemies, not to make them; I come to protect not to injure you … I have a force which will break down all opposition, and that force is but the vanguard of a much greater. If, contrary to your own interest, and the just expectations of my country, you should take part in the approaching contest, you will be considered and treated as enemies, and the horrors and calamities of war will stalk you …”
Hull’s proclamation was printed and distributed to the people in Canada, which was not taken lightly. British troops in Canada along with some of the local Indian tribes began attacking forts along Lake Michigan. They captured Fort Michilimackinac and Fort Dearborn (Chicago). Hull had failed to fortify and protect these other forts and they easily fell to the British and Indians.
News of the Indian victories traveled among many tribes in the area, leading to many other Indians from the Ohio and Mississippi river areas to go north and join the force of Tecumseh who was encamped along the Canadian border. Before long, Tecumseh had a force of over 600 Indians who were eager to stop the advancement of the American settlers.
On August 11, 1812, Hull feared the growing Indian force and buildup of British troops, so he ordered his army of about 2,500 to cross the river and move back into Fort Detroit. Along with General Hull and his troops, his daughter and granddaughters were also at Fort Detroit and their safety was of utmost concern to Hull.
On August 13, 1812, British General Isaac Brock arrived at Amherstburg and conferred with Tecumseh and his officers. The main issue of their discussion involved the border and the fact of what Hull had done. It was agreed that they would cross the river and set siege to Fort Detroit.
On this day, August 16, 1812, General Hull surrendered Fort Detroit and all 2,500 troops to Brock. He found the fort surrounded by 300 British troops,400 Canadian militia and 600 Indians and felt that it was best to surrender and live than fight and possibly die. British guns at Amherstburg had begun to shell Fort Detroit from across the river. Brock sent Hull a letter calling for his surrender:
“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.”
By 10am on August 16, 1812, Hull ordered the hoisting of a white flag over Fort Detroit to signal his surrender to Brock. Supposedly, Hull stated:
“I have done what my conscience directed. I have saved Detroit and the Territory from the horrors of an Indian massacre.”
Not everyone shared Hull’s decision and reasoning and some believe Hull was a coward. Most of his officers were against surrender and wanted to fight off the British, Canadian and Indian attackers. American Captain Thomas Jessup wrote:
“He is a coward.”
With the shelling and early firing on the fort, Hull lost 7 men killed and surrendered 2,493 troops along with a shipment of supplies that was approaching the fort. Brock paroled militia members of Hull’s forces, but sent the regular military troops to be imprisoned in Quebec.
On October 13, 1812, British General Brock was killed at the Battle of Queenson Heights.
In the fall of 1813, Major General William Henry Harrison took back Fort Detroit from the British.
In the winter of 1814-15, Hull faced a court martial for his actions of surrendering Fort Detroit without putting up a defense. Although he was sentenced to death on the charge of treason, President James Madison, per the board’s recommendation, granted Hull clemency, but he was removed from the military. The reason for the clemency was based upon Hull’s service during the Revolutionary War.
In 1825, Hull died in Massachusetts where he retired after escaping his death sentence.
Sources for the above includes: “He is a coward”; Detroit Surrenders Without a Fight; The Capture of Detroit 1812; War of 1812: Detroit Showdown; War of 1812: Siege of Detroit; Capture of Detroit, War of 1812