Battle of Detroit, 16 August 1812

The fall of Detroit on 16 August 1812 was one of a series of defeats that stopped the first American invasion of Canada during the War of 1812. In the build up to the war William Hull, the sixty year old Governor of the Michigan Territory had been appointed to command a new North West Army. Before war was declared Hull was dispatched to Detroit at the head of a force of three regiments of Ohio volunteers and one regiment of American regulars. He had ordered to invade Canada across the Detroit River once if war was declared. Unfortunately for Hull, news of the war reached his British opponent, Colonel Henry Proctor, on 25 June, well before Hull himself received the news. Believing that the war had not yet begun, on 1 July, frustrated by his slow rate of progress, Hull hired a schooner on Lake Erie, loaded it with his sick, his heavier stores, and his official papers and sent it on ahead. To reach Detroit, the schooner had to pass Fort Malden, a British strongpoint at the southern end of the Detroit River close to Amherstburg. There the schooner was captured. Proctor now knew what his opponent was planning.

Hull finally crossed the Detroit River on 12 July. He was at the head of a force of 2,000 men. Proctor had 300 regulars, 400 Indians and an ever decreasing number of militia. If Hull had moved quickly against Fort Malden, it would probably have fallen easily into his hands. Instead, Hull stayed put at the village of Sandwich, opposite Detroit, while his own army began to dwindle. Many of his own militiamen were unwilling to serve outside the United States. Hull caused a series of councils of war, which on 6 August finally decided to attack Fort Malden. Even that display of determination did not last. Two day later Hull retreated back across the Detroit River. He had a number of reasons for this move. Amongst them was news of the fall of Fort Michilimackinac, at the western end of Lake Huron and the approach of the British commanding officer in Upper Canada, Sir Isaac Brock, with reinforcements.

Brock arrived at Amherstburg on 13 August. There he met the famous Shawnee chief Tecumseh, and explained his plans for an attack on Detroit. Brock realised that Hull’s position was likely to get stronger and reinforcements reached him from further south, while his own forces would probably only shrink. In theory Hull still had 2,000 troops, but he could only rely on around 1,200 of them. Brock had 300 regulars, 400 militia and 700 Indians under the partial control of Tecumseh. Detroit itself was a defendable position – the town itself was protected by a palisade and there was a fort on the landwards side of the town. The main weakness of his position was that the fort couldn’t easily fire on British ships on the Detroit River, or on British gun batteries at Sandwich, on the opposite bank of the river.

Hull was very worried about his supply lines back to Ohio. The best routes ran alongside the Detroit River, past the British position at Fort Malden. Accordingly, he detached significant elements from his garrison in an attempt to escort his supply convoys safely to Detroit. On 14 August he sent a force containing 350-400 of his best men to find a supply convoy that was taking a circuitous route through the woods west of the river. On the eve of the battle he had reduced his effective force to around 850 men.

On 15 August Brock summoned Hull to surrender. His message included a warning (or threat) that once the fighting began he would probably be unable to control his Indians. At this point Hull held his nerve, and refused to surrender. That evening Brock began a long range and rather ineffective artillery bombardment from the opposite side of the river. Hull’s biggest concern that night was that Indian forces might infiltrate the town. He distributed his men to prevent this, with most of his regulars in the fort or the shore batteries and the militia in the town. This left the river crossing unguarded, and overnight 700 Indians under the general direction of Lieutenant-Colonel Elliot of the Indian Department crossed the river, followed at dawn on 16 August by Brock with his 700 troops. On the face of it the Americans were badly outnumbered with 850 effectives against 1,400 attackers, but Brock’s Indians would probably not have been of great value in an attack on the fort. The British advanced to within a mile of the town, and then paused to allow the troops to eat their breakfast. During this final pre-battle pause, an 18-pdr shell hit the American officer’s mess, killing four men. That appears to have been the final straw for Hull. He raised the white flag, and began surrender negotiations.

Hull included the 350 men absent in the woods in this surrender. The British captured 1,600 Ohio volunteers, 582 American regulars, 33 cannons, 2,500 muskets and the brig Adams (soon renamed Detroit). The British suffered no casualties.  The volunteers were released on parole, but Hull and his regulars were taken to Quebec City as prisoners of war. Hull was later court-martialled for his conduct of the campaign and sentenced to death, before being reprieved by President Madison.

The loss of Detroit totally transformed the situation on Lake Eire. The next American campaign in the area would have to be an attempt to restore the starting line of 1812, rather than a triumphant march into Canada. The war on land was going according to plan.

The Incredible War of 1812, J. Mackay Hitsman. This is a revised edition of a classic work on the War of 1812, one of the more neglected corners of military history. The author writes from a Canadian perspective, but without distorting his material, and the American side of the war is well represented. This is a good clear account of what can be a somewhat confusing conflict. [see more]
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Books on the War of 1812 | Subject Index: War of 1812

How to cite this article: Rickard, J (21 November 2007), Battle of Detroit, 16 August 1812 ,

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