Hapless American General Gets Tricked Into Surrendering His Command and Thousands of His Men
Early in the War of 1812, British general Isaac Brock marched on Fort Detroit with a force of 1330 men, comprised of 330 Redcoats, 400 Canadian militia, and 600 Native Americans. They were supported by 3 lights guns, 5 heavy guns, 2 mortars, and 2 warships. His target, Fort Detroit, was garrisoned by an American force nearly twice as big, comprised of 600 US Army regulars and nearly 2000 militia. They were sheltered within the protective walls of a fortress bristling with over 36 cannons, commanded by an American Revolutionary War veteran and hero, General William Hull.
Brock learned from captured messages that American morale in the Fort was low. The garrison was short of supplies, and the Americans were terrified of Brock’s Native American allies. Emboldened by that information, Brock decided to immediately attack. Playing upon his enemy’s fear of Indians, he arranged for a misleading letter to fall into American hands. It greatly exaggerated the number of his native allies from an actual 600 to a fanciful 5000.
Brock also tricked the Americans into believing that he had more British regulars than was the case, by dressing up his Canadian militia in castoff British regimental uniforms. Outside Detroit, he had the same troops march in a loop within eyesight of the garrison, duck out of sight, then return to march anew as if they were fresh reinforcements. He also ordered his troops to light 5 times as many fires at night, in order to further convey an illusion of greater strength.
Brock sent a message demanding surrender, and informing Hull that he did not want to massacre the defenders, but that he would have little control over his Indian allies once fighting started. General Hull’s already low confidence collapsed at the prospect of facing a strong British army, accompanied by 5000 Natives, and he decided resistance was futile.
Unwilling to sacrifice his men against hopeless odds, and fearing for the safety of the women in children inside the Fort, including his own daughter and grandchild, Hull raised a white flag and asked Brock for three days to negotiate the terms of surrender. Brock gave him only three hours before he would attack. Hull caved in and surrendered his entire command of nearly 2500 men, three dozen cannons, 300 rifles, 2500 muskets, and the only American warship in the Upper Lakes. The British cost was 2 men wounded.
The surrender of Fort Detroit was a military disaster for the US, derailing as it did plans to invade and seize Canada early in the war before the British had time to rush in reinforcements. It reinvigorated the Canadians, who had been pessimistic about their chances of defending Canada. It also fired up Native Americans in the Northwest Territory to go on the warpath against US outposts and settlers.
An American invasion of Canada was attempted later on, but by then the British and loyal Canadians were better prepared and more confident, and beat back the invasion. As to general Hull, after his release from British captivity, he was tried, convicted, and sentenced to be shot. However, his life was spared out of consideration for his heroism decades earlier during the American War of Independence.