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The Detroit Campaign: Annals of the War

The Detroit Campaign

In selecting officers for the divisions of the American army that had to be mobilized, in the event of war, on or near the frontiers of Canada, President Madison met with not a few obstacles. The demands of the party men, to have themselves or their friends appointed to military positions, had to be listened to, whatever might be their fitness or unfitness to take command in active warfare. General Henry Dearborn had been made commander-in-chief; and, though recognized by everybody as a soldier of matured experience and judgment, he had too often to leave the selection of his associate generals to the repre­sentatives of the party in power. On the other hand, in Canada, the selection of officers was made under the British system, appointment or promotion being deter­mined by efficiency. General Isaac Brock was Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada in 1812; but, when war was once proclaimed, there was no one to doubt his ability as a military man to deal with the mobilization of what­ever forces there were in Canada, with a full professional knowledge of what ought to be done to meet the invader in the open field. This was hardly the case when General William Hull was called upon by Governor Meigs of Ohio to act as brigadier-general over the American forces in the west. Some time before war broke out, these forces had been under process of mobilization on a camping ground at Dayton, then a small town some twenty-five miles north-east from Cincinnati; and it was there that General Hull was called upon to assume the command of an army in active service for the first time in his life, with the confidence neither of himself nor of his men in his favour as a prospective successful commander. The various contingents mobilized at Dayton numbered nearly three thousand men; and these, in face of his inexperience, the newly appointed brigadier-general was called upon to conduct, through an all but impossible country, to Detroit, two or three hundred miles away.

War was proclaimed on the 19th of June, but Hull did not hear of the actual fact until the very last day of the month. So expeditiously, however, had the announce­ment that Madison had declared for war been carried to the official centres in Canada direct from New York, that Sir George Prevost knew of it in Quebec on the 24th; General Brock at York on the 27th; and Colonel St. George at Amberstburg on the 30th, the same day General Hull heard of it while he was still in the woods on his way down the Miami River, to the head of Lake Erie. The delay in the delivery of such intelligence involved a serious mishap to the American general as a sequel to his laborious and disheartening march through the morasses of Northern Ohio. From the estuary of the Miami, a day or so before he received a final despatch that the proclamation of war had been issued officially, he had sent forward, by the schooner Cuyahoga on its way to Detroit a consignment of war implements and military stores, including his official trunks and other valuable baggage, together with thirty soldiers, three of his officers' wives, and several of his men who were on the sick list. This he would hardly have done had he known for a certainty that war had been proclaimed, or that the colonel in command at Amherstburg was likely to know of it, as soon as he was to know of it. Nor was it until he had reached Detroit that he received the depressing news that the Cuyahoga had been seized by the British as it was passing Fort Malden, on its way up the Detroit River. Such a mishap could not but impress the general that his troubles were by no means over, grievous as they had been on his way through the wooded marshlands of Ohio.

On reaching Detroit, General Hull no doubt had it in his mind, as the veriest novice could not but have had, the idea of crossing the river, in order to make an im­mediate descent on Fort Malden. But, when he saw the British soldiers busy with their fortifications immediately on the other side of the channel at Sandwich, he suddenly halted in his intentions; and, in spite of the urgent pleadings of his staff, decided to remain quiet at Detroit, until, as he said, he had received more explicit instructions from the War Office at Washington as to what course he ought to adopt. When these instructions arrived he learned, to the ill-concealed amusement of some of his officers, that he was expected to do what his staff had advised him to do, namely, to make instant descent on the poorly equipped Fort Malden, and otherwise to act as his discretion bade him. By this time reinforcements had been sent forward by General Brock down the River Thames. There was also time to concentrate the British troops and Indians around Amherstburg. For, when the troops at Sandwich saw that the Americans had decided to cross at a point above their fortifications, they im­mediately withdrew and retreated to join their comrades at Fort Malden. When Hull had succeeded in getting a large contingent across, only to find Sandwich deserted, he determined to exploit the road between Sandwich and Amherstburg, with a limited number of men under suc­cessive commanders; and, when these returned disheart­ened or asking for reinforcements, the wavering general began to think that it would have been better for him not to have crossed the river, but to have awaited results in and around Detroit. Indeed, the only injury that befell Fort Malden, from Hull's men getting across the river, was the seizure of a quantity of military supplies at Mo­raviantown up the River Thames, which were being transmitted to Amherstburg in advance of the troops that were on their way from the east to the western seat of war, under orders from General Brock.

Nor was Hull's generalship seen to any better advantage in his operations on the Detroit side of the river. Governor Meigs had sent a train of supplies from the Miami district for the relief of the invading army. The captain of this relief party discovered, before he had gone half-way along the western bank of the river, that a company of British soldiers, who had crossed from Fort Malden with a band of Indians to guide them, lay in ambush to inter­cept any advance on his part to Detroit. And, when a messenger was sent post-haste to General Hull to ask him for an escort, word was returned that no such escort could be sent. Afterwards, Hull did decide to send the necessary escort; but the force in ambush proved too much for the rescue-contingent, the men being forced to return to Detroit, after leaving behind them several of their comrades killed and wounded. Among other things, the Britishers seized a mail-bag which was being carried forward by the proposed escort, and from its content they learned something of the difficulties that were besetting the unwary Hull, with evidence enough in some of the officers' letters that a serious disaffection was breeding against his mismanagement of the campaign.

A second attempt was made by a larger contingent to provide an escort to Governor Meigs's relief party; but this ended even more disastrously than the first. Before a third attempt was made, Hull had brought back all his troops from the Sandwich side, with the exception of a few who were left at what was known as Gowris House, to protect those of the settlers in the neighbourhood, who had given heed to the somewhat bombastic proclamation which General Hull had issued when he first arrived in Canada, promising to grant Canadians all they could possibly desire, if only they would become citizens of the United States. Yet, with his army re-concentrated around Detroit, he had to face the necessity for additional supplies. The disaffection of his troops was fast assuming the virulence of open mutiny. An escort to the inter­cepted relief party had to be provided for. A third attempt had to be made with a very much larger force in command, notwithstanding the reports that had been forwarded by scouts that the intercepting force had been greatly augmented by additional troops sent across from Fort Malden, including a company of grenadiers sent from Niagara by General Brock. Finally, Hull sent forward six hundred men to break up the ambush, which by this time had increased to army-size. The issue of this meeting of army with army was the pitched battle of Maguaga, in which the Americans, after gaining a first advantage, were at last driven back to Detroit, without accomplishing their task of securing the supplies sent forward by Governor Meigs. Shortly after this, General Brock arrived by water at Amherstburg, to take charge in person of the campaign. When General Brock heard that an American army was on its way through the woods of Ohio towards Detroit, he knew that there was no time to be spent in delays for further mobilizing. On the eastern side of the Detroit River, the defence numbered hardly five hundred men, exclusive of the Tecumseh warriors. These he knew had to be supplemented at once, while the relays were as yet being mustered at York and Kingston. He had sent forward one of these relays by way of the River Thames. A second relay was sent forward under Colonel Proctor, and at last he himself appeared upon the scene with a third relay. On his arrival at Amherstburg, Colonel Proctor was in command, with Colonel St. George for his associate. Nearly two months had transpired from the time war had been proclaimed, during which the troops in the Detroit district had been measuring their strength in secondary engagements on both sides of the river. Brock arrived on the 13th of August. His re­sources were by no means more than he needed. He had brought with him three hundred men, and had received promises of further additions to his militia and Indian contingents, should the campaign be prolonged. A war subsidy had been raised for him before he left the Niagara frontier, by the yeomanry of that district, in addition to what had been voted by the Legislative Assembly at York. And, before a day had passed, he had matured his plans for an immediate assault on Detroit. The story of that assault is the subject of the accompanying ballad, with further details in the Explanatory Notes that follow.

The surrender of Detroit was a serious blow to the American cause, involving, as it did, the disintegration of the western army and a temporary suspension of hos­tilities at the end of Lake Erie. The relief party which General Hull failed to succour was forced to seek safety in flight to Ohio, while the last of the rescuing parties, sent out by the same general after much hesitancy, was obliged to take a circuitous route back to Detroit, only to learn that Hull had surrendered, and that those com­prising it were included as prisoners of war, in terms of the capitulation drawn up by General Brock. Hull's career as a general was now at an end. As a prisoner, with hundreds of others, he was conveyed to Fort Malden and thence to Fort George on the Niagara. Afterwards he was sent to Montreal, where he was courteously received by Sir George Prevost, and finally allowed to return to his own country on parole. Eventually he was sum­moned before a court-martial at Philadelphia, which returned a verdict against him for all manner of soldierly misconduct, and which was no doubt arrived at, in large measure, in order if possible to allay the public indigna­tion aroused all over the United States against the war department at Washington, by providing a scapegoat of incapacity in Hull's person. He was sentenced to be shot. It is well for the good name of his country, how­ever, that such a cruel sentence was never carried out. After some suspense as to what should be done to him, he was pardoned by President Madison, and allowed to retire to his farm in Massachusetts, where he lived until time had thrown new light upon his conduct, to the better understanding of his true character. He had proven himself a failure as a general, simply because he had not been trained a soldier. In a word, he had carried to the field of action at Detroit the predilections of the politician, having taken up his task at the bidding of Governor Meigs, with the conviction that the attempt on Canada was premature, if not more or less a bit of ad­ministrative folly, indulged in to retain favour with the adherents of the "war-party." And who is there to say that the results of his generalship, as well as the after events around the Detroit region, did not prove it to have been a folly, with so little to be gained from the effusion of blood, beyond the intensifying of the passions of inter­necine hatred?

The immediate advantages arising from the surrender of Detroit included much that General Brock had im­mediate pressing need of, namely, arms, ammunition and other military stores, with a breathing space during which to prepare for future emergencies at Niagara as well as at the head of Lake Erie. In securing these advantages, it can hardly be said that General Brock succeeded more on account of the incapacity of his opponent than from his own skill and courage. When he had once arrived at Amherstburg, he found that he was face to face with an enemy numbering more in men and much better equipped than the force at his command. He heard of the deadly struggle at Maguaga, where Hull's sub-commanders had shown courage, skill, and persistency. He saw Detroit stronger in every respect as a fortified place than Fort Malden. And yet he showed no hesitancy in crossing over to Spring Wells with his whole available force, and in thence marching up to the mouth of Hull's cannon. Lucas, the historian, says: "Detroit might not have fallen, if another general than Hull had commanded the Americans; it certainly would not have fallen if another general than Brock had commanded the English."

This view of the case may or may not find support from what occurred in the succeeding campaign around the upper waters of Lake Erie, when Colonel Proctor had been left in full command by General Brock, on his having to leave for Niagara, and when General Harrison had been appointed to the command so ingloriously vacated by General Hull. At the close of that campaign. Proctor found himself forced to flee before Harrison's approach, leaving as many prisoners in the latter's hands as had General Hull in Brock's hands. The first of the events of that campaign, however, gave ample proof of Proctor's skill and experience as a soldier, even if he was afterwards accused of the very opposite, after the engagement at Moraviantown. At the battle of Frenchtown he defeated Winchester and contrived to capture five hundred of the enemy. He also invaded the Miami region, and there won credit for himself in several engagements. Even before Fort Meigs, he succeeded in driving back a sortie, although he was unable to capture the place itself, on account of the insufficiency of his resources and the fickle­ness of his Indian allies. At length, he made his way back to Fort Malden, doing what he could to concentrate his strength at Sandwich and Detroit, under cover of the Canadian vessels in the roadstead of the river, when all at once Commodore Perry appeared on the scene with his naval armament, and wiped out the British naval force for the time being, in what is known as the Battle of Lake Erie. This was succeeded by the approach of General Harrison with an army drawn from the Miami region, having for his object the re-taking of Detroit and the further invasion of Western Canada. Under such cir­cumstances, there was nothing for Proctor to do, save to retreat with all his belongings up the River Thames. He was now General Proctor, having been raised to the rank of major-general, as a reward for the victory he had gained at Frenchtown, as well as for his previous good services as a soldier. Up to this time he had nothing but plaudits from those in authority. And yet, before long, his retreat from the Detroit region, which was the only prudent step for him to take, came to be as loudly decried throughout Canada as General Hull's surrender had been throughout the United States. In both instances the regret over the misfortunes of the battlefield were buried out of sight in the indignation of the people.

When General Brock had taken over Detroit, he issued a proclamation annexing the Territory of Michigan to Canada; and when General Harrison had re-taken that place, he restored the same Territory to its former status as a part of the United States. Then he started in pursuit of Proctor. The latter reached Moraviantown a day or two ahead of his pursuer, and there he decided to make a last stand against a force more than twice the size of his own, thus making good his record as a brave soldier to the bitter end. And the end for him was bitter enough. On the battlefield of Moraviantown the odds were all against him. His opponent's skill and experience were equal to his own, with an equipment vastly superior and a purpose more definitely marked out as to what had to be accomplished by a body of fresh troops. Proctor's men were disheartened on account of their tedious advance and the delays up the river. Their labours had been incessant and their victuals were neither plentiful nor palatable. They felt that they were face to face with a forlorn hope. Hence the first volley from Harrison's vanguard at once decided the fate of the day, with no less than six hundred of the redcoats taken prisoners and their commander fleeing from the field as fast as a pair of fleet steeds could carry him towards Burlington Bay. The same thing had happened to many a brave general other than Henry Proctor. Had he fallen mortally wounded, as some one has said, while leading his men, he might have escaped all the calumny that was brought to stain his character as a soldier. Even, as was the case with General Hull, with very much less reason, Proctor was eventually court-martialled, and accused of all manner of deficiencies. He had delayed too long before retreating from the Detroit River, it was urged against him, and had lingered by the way more than was necessary; while Sir George Prevost claimed that he ought to have made more of a struggle before leaving Amherstburg. He had hampered his progress up the Thames with unnecessary impedimenta. His inferior officers accused him of having made blunder after blunder; while General Harrison, who overcame him at Moraviantown, claimed that only his infatuation could have led him to take that last stand against superior numbers. From being a soldier worthy of being created a major-general, he was denounced as one who was incapable of making a proper disposition of his men on the battlefield; and finally was publicly reprimanded and suspended from service for six months. General Hull had been accused of cowardice and incom­petency for having surrendered, in presence of his own superior numbers, a section of the United States to Great Britain; and General Proctor was condemned for having allowed a portion of British territory to be invaded by an army of the United States. And when we try to estab­lish the cause of these dissimilar cases of condemnation we locate it for the most part in the desire to allay the public indignation aroused by a loss of prestige on the battlefield. Had Hull held his ground at Detroit he would in all probability have been hailed by his country­men as a great general; and had Proctor been successful at Moraviantown or had died on the field, we would have heard little or nothing about his deficiencies as a com­mander.

In referring to Hull's surrender to General Brock, Lossing, the American historiographer, places the American general in a light which ought not to be overlooked by those who would read the story of the Detroit campaign aright. "The conception of the campaign was a huge blunder," says that writer, "and Hull saw it; and the failure to put in vigorous motion, for his support, auxiliary and co-operative forces, was criminal neglect. Hull was actuated throughout the campaign by the purest impulses of patriotism and humanity. When he saw that there was no alternative but surrender or destruction of life, he bravely determined to choose the most humane course." In other words, the general in the field is too often made the scapegoat for the blundering of those who have failed to provide him with the means of making a success of the campaign he is called upon to undertake.

And in referring to General Proctor's flight from the battlefield of Moraviantown, the British historian, C. P. Lucas, in his animadversions against that soldier, finds an excuse for him, which he really does not need, in such a sentence as this: "There are many instances of officers who, having done good service and shown high fighting qualities, when a particular crisis comes, are found unequal to responsibility, and, it may be through temporary loss of health and nerve, break down hopelessly under the strain." Yet he is honest enough to say that General Proctor was fully acquitted by the court-martial that tried his case of any misconduct in the battle, and that his whole previous career as a brave soldier spoke in his behalf.

Immediately preceding General Proctor's retreat up the River Thames, the culminating events included the raising of the siege of Fort Meigs and the seizure of the Canadian vessels of war by Commodore Perry. Fort Meigs had been erected as a point of concentration for the American army that had been mobilized for the protection of Michigan. The stronghold had been built at the foot of the lower rapids of the Miami River, not far from its estuary at the south-western extremity of Lake Erie. When General Proctor invested the place he had over two thousand men under his command; but for the first three days of the month of May he was able to make little or no impression on its fortifications. On the 4th of May the garrison of the fort was reinforced by twelve hundred men who had descended the river to provide relief against the besiegers; and thus Proctor soon found his attacking batteries in a state of siege by a force over­whelmingly superior in numbers to his own. There was no chance for him save in open battle, severe as it turned out to be for both contestants. Proctor held his own in the fight, and drove the Americans back with a loss of twelve hundred men. Afterwards, however, he was unable to follow up his advantage on account of the disintegration of his own forces. A number of his militia­men went back, without asking his leave, to their own homes. Many of the Indian tribesmen also forsook his camp, until all that were left of them was the faithful Tecumseh with twenty of his more reliable associates. In presence of such defection and his failure to make good his attack on Sandusky, there was no recourse left him but to cross over to Amherstburg, and there prepare, as best he could, for the approach of Harrison, the brave and soldierly trained American commander-in-chief, on his way from the district of the Miami.

Between General Proctor's retreat from Fort Meigs and his final evacuation of Amherstburg and Sandwich, a naval engagement, as has been said, occurred, in which Commodore Perry overcame a British squadron of six vessels that had been stationed at Amherstburg, to provide relief to Proctor in case of his being hard pressed by land or water. The story of this naval engagement is given elsewhere. The victory was a decisive one for the Ameri­cans; and immediately after the loss of ships and men it involved. General Proctor had to make up his mind to withdraw from the district around the Detroit River, and leave General Harrison in possession of all that had been gained from the generalship and foresight of the brave Isaac Brock.

[Public Domain mark] Copyright/Licence: This work was published in 1922 or earlier. It has therefore entered the public domain in the United States.
[Public Domain mark] Copyright/Licence: The author or authors of this work died in 1964 or earlier, and this work was first published no later than 1964. Therefore, this work is in the public domain in Canada per sections 6 and 7 of the Copyright Act.