The Fall of Detroit

Isaac Brock, The Fall of Detroit, August 1812

by Jonathon Riley

Brock’s Plans for War

Shortly before the turn of the year 1811, Major-General Isaac Brock had been in Upper Canada for about 5 years. Believing war with the USA inevitable, he sent a despatch to Governor-General Sir George Prevost in Quebec, summarising his view of the situation in the Upper Province. Being by nature an impulsive and offensively-minded commander, he thought that simply sitting back and waiting for an American invasion would be to invite defeat: the citizens would be disheartened – and indeed he found it very difficult to persuade the militia to turn out en masse and moreover the native people would never rally to the cause of Britain if they felt that the mother country did not have its heart in the business of defending its territory. He therefore recommended that, in the event of hostilities, he should be allowed to go on the offensive at once in order to seize the initiative from the area of Amherstburg, by capturing the American forts of Detroit and Mackinac. To generate forces for this he would establish economy of force elsewhere and mobilise those of the militia who were willing to fight into a high-readiness force of volunteers, deployable anywhere.

Brock’s assessment of the situation from the point of view of a military commander at his level was largely borne out by later events; and given the need to harness the white civilian population and maintain the alliance with the native people, his suggested course of action makes sense. It was bold, it demonstrated that Brock had a firm understanding of what we would now call the operational level of war – or as it was then thought of, grand tactics. It fulfilled several key principles of war: the primacy of the offensive, speed, seizure and maintenance of the initiative, good intelligence to lead operations; however, it was wanting in some others, especially the requirement to secure one’s own force and for a solid logistic supply. Moreover it missed the over-riding principle of political primacy, for it was at variance with the view from the strategic level.

Prevost had received a set of instructions and guidance from London that placed limits on his actions before the commencement of war. These were the exact opposite of what Brock proposed: given the constraints on resources and the need to hold Quebec and the St Lawrence, Prevost was not to undertake any offensive action ‘except it be for the purpose of preventing or repelling Hostilities or unavoidable Emergencies.’ Prevost therefore replied to Brock’s proposals in a short letter on Christmas Eve 1811. He approved Brock’s measures regarding the militia but urged caution in egging on the Indians.

The other important element in Prevost’s thinking was the importance of maritime power. British control of the lakes in 1812 provided security for Brock's flanks and patrolled the large open spaces between the garrisons. It also aided rapid movement, allowing Prevost the ability rapidly to shift his meagre resources of men and munitions from front to front. We should remember that in addition to the 2,500 miles from Britain to North America across the Atlantic Ocean that any resources had to travel, it was then as far from Halifax, Nova Scotia, to Amherstburg as it is from Paris to Moscow.

For Prevost, control of the city of Montreal was without doubt a decisive point on the road to success in any campaign in the Canadas. It dominated the St Lawrence, and controlled the access both to the Great Lakes, and to Quebec and the Maritime Provinces. Through the city passed large quantities of supplies for the allied army in the Canadas. Quebec was even more important, for it remained central to the strategic situation and there could be no question of weakening it. As the instructions put it:

Defective as Quebec is, it is the only post that can be considered tenable for a moment, the preservation of it being of the utmost consequence to the Canadas, as the door of Entry for that Force the King’s Government might find it expedient to send for the recovery of both, or either of these provinces . . .

The diplomatic situation was clearly delicate and Prevost was well aware of the considerable body of anti-war feeling in many of the United States – a feeling that could easily be turned by precipitate action. He also knew that any casualties suffered early in the war would not be replaced for up to a year, given the distance from home and the additional effects of winter weather when the St Lawrence froze. In March 1812, Brock’s aide John MacDonnell made a covert reconnaissance of Detroit and Brock sent his report on to Prevost as evidence that a pre-emptive blow could be struck. Prevost replied sternly:

Whatever temptations may offer to induce you to depart from a system strictly defensive, I must pointedly request that, under the existing circumstances of our relations with the Government of the United States, you will not allow them to lead you into any measure having the character of offence, even should a declaration of war be laid on the table of the Congress. . .

There was another factor in Brock’s interest in Detroit, one that was very personal. When he had been first commissioned into the Army, he had followed his brother John into the 8th Foot, The King’s. The 8th at the time Brock joined it in 1785 contained a great deal of experience of war in the American wilderness, having spent eighteen years in North America, including eight before the war had started. When the Revolutionary War began, the 8th had occupied a series of forts at Niagara, Detroit, Michilimackinac and Oswego, guarding the navigation of the St. Lawrence River and the Great Lakes. This placed the officers of the Regiment close to the powerful Iroquois Confederacy and the native American nations to the west. Two officers in particular were prominent in cultivating the Indian alliance: they were Captain Arendt DePeyster and Lieutenant John Caldwell. DePeyster was appointed commandant of Fort Michilimackinac in 1776 and took control of Detroit in 1779. DePeyster was actually in command of the 8th when Brock was commissioned on 8 March 1785.

There were others with a breadth of experience, like Captain Robert Mathews, Lieutenant Henry Bird – an infamous name in Kentucky – and Richard Beringer Lernoult after whom the fort was named which later became Detroit. When the 8th returned from America in 1783, the vast majority of the officers had active service experience: the Major, all the Captains commanding companies bar one, all the Lieutenants bar one, and seven out of ten ensigns. By 1789, there were still fourteen officers with the Regiment with war service in America. They would surely have been a powerful influence on the young Brock, shaping his thinking about the profession of arms. He would have become familiar with the ways of the Indians and with the importance of forts like Detroit and Mackinac, places which, as fate would have it, were to feature so large in his later life.

After Madison’s declaration of war in June 1812, an army under General William Hull, a revolutionary war veteran, formed around the 4th US infantry regiment and contingents of militia from Ohio and Michigan was sent to Detroit. Once there, and in spite of an insecure line of communication that was raided by the British and their native allies, Hull’s force immediately invaded the Canadas, seized the village of Sandwich and threatened the main British base at Fort Malden, Amherstburg. But Hull lost his nerve and the invasion stalled.  In the meantime, the British seized the American fort at Mackinac, which greatly encouraged the native people. Isaac Brock, who was also the civil administrator of Upper Canada, prorogued the uncooperative Provincial Assembly and assembled a force consisting of several companies of the 41st Regiment, a regular British regiment, a few hundred volunteers from the militia and about 60 warriors from the Grand River people. On 8 August he embarked in a fleet of small boats and made the long passage down the Lake to Amherstburg, to join the British force there, mainly again drawn from the 41st Regiment, under Colonel Henry Proctor.


Isaac brock On that same 8 August, Hull lost his nerve. His supply line was in danger of being cut and he feared over-extending himself. To the disgust of many of his subordinates he withdrew from Sandwich, back across the river into the fort at Detroit. Hull had the means and the ability to sustain action but he had surrendered the will, the offensive and the opportunity to Brock. The initiative passed in that moment from the U.S. army to the British and their allies.

On 14 August Brock and his men arrived at Amherstburg, where he announced his arrival in General Orders, making specific reference to the rigours of this journey, which was fully 200 miles across open water: “In no instance have I seen troops who would have endured the fatigue of a long journey in boats during extremely bad weather, with greater cheerfulness and constancy, and it is but justice to this little band to add that their conduct throughout excited my admiration.”

At Amherstburg there was also another contingent of native people under their chief, the legendary Tecumseh, who had been very active in harrying the American communications and who were eager to fight. Matthew Elliott of the British Indian Department went out in the night as soon as Brock arrived to seek out Tecumseh and to bring him, at the general’s request, straight to Brock. Soon afterwards, Tecumseh arrived in the headquarters: Tecumseh saw a big man, taller and stouter than any Indian, but alert, keen-eyed and obviously ready for action.

The best information on Brock’s appearance at this crucial early period of the war comes from some contemporary accounts and from his biographer and nephew Ferdinand Brock Tupper and has been pulled together in a scholarly analysis by Ludwig Kosche. Tupper said of him that ‘In stature he was tall, erect, and well proportioned, although in his later years his figure was perhaps too portly . . . His fine and benevolent countenance was a perfect index of his mind, and his manners were courteous, frank and engaging.’ William Hatch and John Richardson, who both saw him in life at this time say that he was ‘tall, stout and inclining to corpulency.’ It seems that he shared the family tendency to a large head, which is apparent in several family portraits. What we do know is that from the evidence of the coat he was wearing at the time of his death, aged 42, he was indeed six feet two or three inches tall, with a waist measurement of 47 inches and a chest measurement of 53 inches: not far off the dimensions of Henry VIII at the same age. We do not know the colour of his hair. The only authenticated picture of him is this pastel, probably painted by William Berczy of Quebec some time on 1808 or 1809.

Of Tecumseh, Brock himself wrote to Lord Liverpool: “A more sagacious or a more gallant warrior does not, I believe, exist. He was the envy of everyone who conversed with him.” The meeting was very short, for the hour was late and the party broke up, with an agreement to meet again in council after daybreak. When they met again, Brock laid out his intentions. He had the great advantage of having read all of Hull’s despatches, which had been intercepted. He had seen his withdrawal back over the river – a withdrawal he publicly described as disgraceful – and thus Brock had not only a full understanding of the enemy’s physical strength, dispositions and supply situation, but also a good picture of his opponent’s state of mind: in other words from a military intelligence point of view, he had complete penetration of the other side. He decided to fight the battle in the mind of his enemy, by playing on the strength of his fears. He would cross the river with as large a force as could be formed and try to draw the Americans out of the fort to fight a pitched battle. If he could not draw Hull out, he would storm the fort. Brock later wrote that “I crossed the river with an intention of waiting in a strong position the effect of our fire upon the Enemy’s Camp and in the hope of compelling him to meet us in the field.” He knew that a body of 350 militiamen under Colonels Lewis Cass and Duncan McArthur had left the fort to link up with a supply convoy at the Raisin River, thus reducing the overall force ratios.

Although the entire plan was never written down and this account is a reconstruction, It seems clear that by destroying Hull’s army, Brock believed, rightly, that he would neutralise the main threat against Upper Canada, allowing him to concentrate his meagre forces for what he felt sure would be a more dangerous attack which was still to come on the Niagara frontier.  It was a plan founded on psychological factors and on deception, for it was plain that the very idea of the native warriors filled Hull with terror and Brock immediately set out to fuel these terrors. But the plan to attack was not popular with his subordinates: all save John MacDonnell – and of course Tecumseh – were opposed to it, including both Henry Procter and Quartermaster-General Robert Nichol. But Brock was having none of their fears. One account says that he listened to their objections and then said firmly and in a friendly tone, “I have decided on crossing. And now, gentlemen, instead of further advice, I entreat you to give me your cordial and hearty support.”

The troops available in the Western District around Amherstberg were to be formed into three so-called brigades, scarcely more than regiments. The first brigade was to be under Lieutenant Colonel Thomas Bligh St George’s command and would consist of detachments of the Royal Newfoundland Fencible Regiment – about two companies – the Kent Militia and the 1st and 2nd Regiments of Essex Militia. The second brigade was commanded by Captain Peter Chambers and comprised fifty men of the 41st Regiment and all the detachments of volunteers that had accompanied Brock from Fort George. The third brigade was the remaining men of the 41st Regiment under Captain Joseph Tallon. The whole force amounted to about 1,400 officers and men.

Later that day, Brock sent a letter to Hull with Macdonnell and Glegg under a flag of truce, requiring the immediate surrender of 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 controul [sic] the moment the contest commences.’ Hull rejected this demand and Brock issued his orders for the attack.

Fort Detroit

The fort had originally been built on the river in 1701 by the French and named Ponchartrain. After the end of the French and Indian Wars it passed into British hands. During the Revolutionary War, the site was deemed unsatisfactory. It was accordingly demolished and a new fort constructed to the north of the original site above a low escarpment which shows up clearly on the Board of Ordnance survey of 1779. British accounts from 1812 continue to refer to the Fort as Lernoult, although the Americans had officially renamed it Detroit in 1805. In a letter to Brock dated 11 January 1811, Matthew Elliott described the fort as being equipped with twenty 24-pounder guns, four 12-pounders, one 10-inch, two 8-inch and four 4 ½-inch howitzers, six mortars of various calibres and four 6-pounder field pieces for the militia.

Brock himself had made a personal visit to Detroit before the war to confirm what he had been told of the place as a young officer and subsequently learned. He had the report from MacDonnell’s covert reconnaissance. He had a similar report from Thomas Bligh St George from which a detailed plan, also describing the approaches to Detroit from the West, was drawn by Captain Mathew Dixon of the Royal Engineers. He would also have had access to the plans drawn up by the Board of Ordnance for the construction of the fort. In addition, he had a very detailed and up-to-date plan of the fort, dated 26 January 1812. The plan is signed ‘RR’. This is probably Robert Reynolds, whose father Thomas had been the Commissary to the garrison of Lernoult from about 1760 and had moved to Amherstburg where Reynolds kept his appointment until his death in 1810. Brock therefore had about as much intelligence on the terrain as was available given the technology of the time.


General William Hull
The town of Detroit, lying outside the fort, was inhabited by about 2,500 souls occupying 150 houses, surrounded by a picket palisade and reinforced by four small bastions. Within the town and outside the walls of the fort were barracks and a magazine which was probably intended either for the local militia or for trade goods for the Indians, or both. The town had actually been built between the fort and the river which meant that the fort’s guns had to fire over the houses at long range in order to engage targets on the water.

Hull’s arrival had greatly increased the garrison, which now numbered 582 regulars of the 4th Infantry and some artillery men. There were about 1,000 Ohio and Michigan militia who were dispersed around the fort and in the small redoubts which protected the town, ready to fight off an Indian attack. An advanced battery of two 24-pounders and a six-pounder had also been thrown up about a mile south of the fort, along the portage road. However with these dispositions and the detached bodies of militia, Hull had no forces left to hold the river bank and contest any landing.

But in spite of their numbers, American morale was not good. Exasperation with their General’s unwillingness to press the fight had grown in the ranks inside Fort Lernoult after the withdrawal from Sandwich; it is even said that there was a conspiracy to remove him from command. Certainly, Cass wrote to Governor Meigs of Ohio that:

. . . this army has been reduced to a critical and alarming situation. We have wholly left the Canadian shore and have abandoned the miserable inhabitants who depended on our will and power to protect them, to their fate. . .

When looking in detail at the composition of the assaulting force, especially its want of heavy guns, one has to question whether Brock was serious about attacking a fortified position, held by a force more than twice his size, well supplied with artillery, ammunition and food. Certainly, a prolonged siege was out of the question: Brock had no sappers to construct field works, no siege train, and insufficient troops to invest the fort. He had little chance of making a viable breach with the throw-weight of shot available and an insufficient number of troops to prevail in a close quarter battle with heavy losses. One is forced to the conclusion that this was a gamble, a demonstration designed to tip Hull psychologically over the edge in order to fulfil Sun Tzu’s great maxim that the acme of success in war is to win without fighting.


41st RegimentThe Approach

When crossing an obstacle, an assault force must first secure the home bank; then effect a lodgement or bridgehead on the enemy bank large enough to prevent the enemy from interfering with operations; then it must establish ferries or bridges with enough capacity to build up the assault force at a rate faster than the opposition can bring its forces to bear in order to achieve favourable force ratios and then break out of the bridgehead. There must also be sufficient direct and indirect fire support available to suppress enemy fire and give cover to the assaulting troops. Brock’s orders required the troops to be ready for embarkation at McKee’s Point, just south of Sandwich, at 3.00 a.m. on Sunday, 16 August This meant an approach to the embarkation site of fifteen miles, or up to five hours’ march, from Amherstberg; Thomas Bligh St George was ordered to march his brigade that evening and “canton” the men close to the embarkation site. We know from the journal of Charles Askin that at least one other brigade had continued from Amherstburg by boats of the provincial marine, in the craft which were to be used for the crossing.

Fire support was provided from three sources. A battery immediately opposite Detroit under the direction of Captain Matthew Dixon. Secondly, the guns of the accompanying brig Queen Charlotte and the schooner General Hunter. Last, the assault force carried with it three 6-pounder and two 3-pounder guns designed to give close supporting fire during field operations and could have little effect on prepared positions; however their moral effect on the troops was important.

The first force to cross to the far side of the Detroit River, less than a mile of water, well before dawn, were around 500 warriors, accompanied by Matthew Elliott, who would scout the landing site two miles south of the fort, between a small tributary of the Detroit, the Rouge River, and Spring Wells: this was Brock’s bridgehead force. Once Elliott sent word back to Brock that the far bank was not held in strength, the main force would cross and head for the objective, Fort Detroit.

The assault force formed by Brock’s three brigades consisted of 330 regulars of the Royal Artillery, the 41st Foot and the flank companies of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, the sixty or so warriors of the Grand River nations, and 400 Canadian militia, a total of 730 British and Canadians out of an available force of 1,370; the rest remained to secure Amherstburg and man the battery at Sandwich. At the suggestion of the brigade major, Thomas Evans, many of the militia had been kitted out with discarded coats from the 41st: red with red facings. Brock later acknowledged Evans’s quick thinking, writing that: ‘Your thought of clothing the militia in the 41st cast off clothing proved a most happy one.’ Although these were old and faded, they were enough to deceive an enemy from a distance. The men were ordered to stand-to at 4.00 a.m. and the crossing began as soon as it was light with Brock’s three small brigades being ferried across in small craft, covered by the guns of the Provincial Marine ships. The 3rd Brigade, consisting entirely of regulars, accompanied by Brock and his staff, crossed first, followed by the militia. There were enough boats to lift two brigades at once and given the width of the river, the entire operation should have been completed in about one hour. John Norton, however, reported that: “The Breadth of the River as well as the Scarcity of Boats – caused us some delay, ere we were in readiness to advance.” The whole force was on the far bank between 6.00 and 7.00 a.m.; by the time the landing was completed, unopposed, and the troops formed up, 16 August had turned into a warm, sunny day with a pleasant breeze off the lake.

The Attack

It was the guns of Hall’s battery that began the attack on Detroit. Fire had been opened the previous afternoon so that the guns could find the range and elevation; seven American 24-pounders had returned the fire but without effect and both had fallen silent as night fell. Once the assault crossing began, the British guns re-opened their fire. The guns and mortars now had the range and according to Hull’s own account, ‘almost every shot and shell had their effect.’ Mortar shells were particularly effective against wooden forts for they could be lobbed over the defences and burst inside confined spaces, causing enormous damage. At least one documented round fell inside the fort’s mess hall and then passing through the wall into an adjoining room, mangling during its passage two officers and injuring a fourth, ‘scattering their brains and blood against the walls of the apartment’. Another exploded near the gatehouse, killing two soldiers instantly. A third exploded on the parade ground killing another man. Yet another exploded in the hospital, decapitating a patient and killing a surgeon. By now the fort was full of civilians, as the population of Detroit, terrified by the approach of the British and more especially the native warriors, had crowded in. ‘. . . all was panic and confusion’, according to one witness, ‘crying infants clinging to their half-distracted mothers, older children everywhere but where they should be.’

The British column marched straight up the portage road along the river, as John Richardson described it, ‘with the river close on our right flank and a chain of alternate houses and close fences on our left’ and was preceded by a screen of warriors acting as scouts or skirmishers; the warriors also formed a flank guard on the western or left flank of the British, about one-and-a-half miles away. Next came an advanced guard formed by the Grenadier Company of the 41st and then Brock’s small train of artillery. Behind them came the rest of the 41st, the Newfoundlanders and the militia. The usual distance between sections and companies had been doubled to increase the length of the column. With all the red coats, including cast-offs being worn by the militia as a deception measure, it made for a formidable appearance.

As the column closed on the fort, John Norton suggested that he should scout to the left where there were some enclosures, a few deserted houses, and a ‘ravine’ which might conceal an ambush. This ravine has long since disappeared under the urban sprawl of modern Detroit but in all likelihood it was an incised watercourse, probably dry at that time of the year, at least deep enough to conceal a standing man. From the general lie of the land, this ravine was probably the course of the little River Savoyard; Norton’s group pushed on up the ravine until they closed to 150 yards from the edge of the village where they could see the American militia behind their picket fence. On seeing the Indians, the militia fled, joined by some horsemen: the American force included two troops of cavalry.

Meanwhile the main force had continued its march. Approaching the Claude Creek, the troops received a nasty shock, for there, pointing straight at them ‘planted in the road’ was the advanced battery of three guns, loaded ball over canister, with the smoke of the gunners’ slow-match drifting in the air. The approach to the guns was confined by the river on one side and houses and fences on the other, so that there was no possibility if deploying off the line of march. Before the range closed, Brock directed the head of the column into a covered approach. This cannot have been the same ravine that Norton used for it ran too close to the American battery and only a detailed examination of the ground can unravel this. Fortunately there is an excellent map available, drawn by the French cartographer Leeseman in 1796, after the new fort was constructed. As well as the Savoyard, running gradually down into the Claude Creek, there is a second watercourse running north-east from the mouth of the creek to the rear of the fort. This detail from another survey shows it very clearly The final proof that this was the line of approach is an annotated sketch map of the attack sent by Brock himself to John Hale, the Receiver-General of Lower Canada, after the operation – reproduced above. On this sketch, Brock in his own handwriting marked the creek as the ‘Ravine where the Column halted, and took a position, a mile and a quarter from the fort. It also appears that the area was planted with corn, which at that time of the year would have been green, about six feet tall and this would have helped to conceal movement. The British and Canadian troops paused in the cover and rapidly ate a cold breakfast accompanied by some heroic rum-drinking, it being a matter of pride that British troops never went into action on empty stomachs.

Beyond the covered approach, while Procter and his officers deployed the troops from column into line, Brock went forward to reconnoitre the fort. The deployment position was, according to John Richardson, ‘through an open field and orchard, leading to a house about three hundred yards off the road which he [Brock] selected as his Head Quarters. In this position we were covered.’ The guns were manoeuvred into a position from which they could support the assault from a flank and ‘a company of riflemen from York’ dressed in green, who ‘were most all painted as Indians’ was sent further left to make contact with Tecumseh’s warriors in the woods. The sight was too much for the Michigan Militia who began to leave their posts: at least half refused to take part in any fighting. When Hull’s son Abraham ordered a company of Ohio militiamen to the ramparts, they refused.


At 10.00 a.m. the British soldiers, waiting for the order to begin the assault, were puzzled by the sight of a white bed-sheet hung over the south-western bastion. At the same time, the American guns ceased firing and the crews of the advanced battery limbered up the guns and withdrew into the fort.  Clearly, the Americans wanted to parley. In preparation for the negotiations, Hull’s aides erected a marquee, decked out in the red and blue colours of the Republic.

Brock sent his aides John MacDonnell and John Glegg to the fort, under a flag of truce, with instructions to arrange the surrender of the fort in no more than three hours, or the assault would commence. The two men were stopped short of the fort and conducted to Hull. They reported back to Brock an hour later. Hull had not made a good impression. Like many Americans, he chewed tobacco and either nerves or carelessness in spitting out the juice had left trails of nicotine-coloured spittle over his face and his neck-cloth. His hands trembled and his voice faltered; all in all, he appeared to be in the grip of a great fear: fear of the native hordes who would surely massacre his men, his women, his children and himself.

The terms of surrender were to all effects unconditional. Hull surrendered the fort, the garrison, all its stores and equipment, the town and, unbelievably, the detachments of militia under Cass and MacArthur. The 1st Regiment of Michigan Militia was exempted, for this regiment had turned its coat and gone over to the British as soon as Brock’s force had appeared on the American shore. Hull asked for the honours of war – that is, for the garrison to march out with its Colours flying, drums beating, and bayonets fixed. This was a mark of respect accorded to a gallant foe, after an honourable resistance. Brock, quite rightly under the code of the time, refused to grant this.  It is easy to be scornful of Hull’s apparent cowardice; and then there are plenty of conspiracy theories suggesting that the attack was a sham. Hull was an old soldier – too old for war in the wilderness which was a young man’s affair. An old soldier is often a careful soldier and the most likely answer is that Brock had correctly understood the psychological weakness of his opponent from the tone of his correspondence.

The soldiers of the British army had wound themselves up to a pitch, no doubt fortified by the rum ration with their cold breakfast, ready for the assault. The feelings of anti-climax, followed by relief, followed by elation must have been immense. In a daze, the British and Canadian soldiers marched into the town and formed two lines either side of the fort’s gates. The American regulars and militia-men, rather dishevelled and themselves also no doubt the worse for rum, marched out of the fort and stacked their arms on the esplanade between the fort and the town. Charles Askin described the American soldiers in less than glowing terms: ‘the whole of their army were ill dressed, and few of them appeared healthy or well, indeed they seemed to me the poorest looking sett of men I have seen for a long time. . . Just after midday, Lieutenant Richard Bullock led the grenadier company of the 41st Foot into the fort, followed by the light company; the fifes and drums played The British Grenadiers – the first British soldiers to enter since it was handed over to the Americans sixteen years before. The stars and stripes were lowered and the Union was raised in their place, while the fifes played God Save the King. British gunners manned several of the captured artillery pieces on the ramparts and fired a general salute of seventeen guns, to the hurrahs of the British and Canadian soldiers, while Tecumseh’s warriors fired their muskets and danced with savage glee, gloating over the vanquished Americans and doing nothing to allay Hull’s fright. The sullen United States’ regulars and indeed the stouter hearts among the Ohio militia could scarcely believe what had happened. Some smashed their muskets and rifles rather than surrender them; one American soldier, it is said, attempted to burn the Colours of the 4th U.S. Infantry and was physically restrained only in the nick of time. They were formerly handed over by Captain Crook of the 4th Infantry, who ‘felt much chagrin . . . presented them saying “Sir the fortune of war has placed these in your hands . . .”’’ These Colours are still held by the 41st Regiment and can be seen in Cardiff castle in South Wales.

The American regulars were embarked in ships or held in barracks as prisoners to be sent to Quebec, from where they would be exchanged or paroled. The militia were embarked in smaller craft and sent home on parole. Hull was imprisoned at Montreal and later returned to the United States where he stood trial by court-martial. As well as his own failings, he was without doubt the scapegoat for an unprepared and over-confidant U.S. Administration. He was found guilty as charged and sentenced to death, a sentence that was later commuted in recognition of his honourable service during the Revolutionary War. He died a broken man.

The captured ordnance and stores in the fort included thirty-five guns and mortars of various calibres up to 24-pounders, along with enough field and garrison carriages to mount all the guns for either contingency. Among these guns were nine 24-pounders and four brass pieces which had been taken from Major-General John Burgoyne’s British Army after the surrender at Saratoga in August 1777. The brig Adams was added to the Provincial Marine and renamed the Detroit. Along with large quantities of arms and ammunition, these seizures immediately solved all Brock’s logistic shortages. The value of the haul, which also included quantities of food, drink and garrison stores, amounted to around £40,000.

The news hit Washington, literally, like a bolt from the blue. At first, the accounts were disbelieved but when Hull’s despatch describing the events and the surrender arrived, there was outrage. What made it worse was that Hull was also governor of the Michigan territory and with his surrender, this vast area returned to British sovereignty. This was not necessarily a good thing for the British – for no-one had demanded an expansion of British territory and holding it would further stretch already thin resources. In the Canadas, the effect was electrifying. Gone was the feeling of inevitable defeat, for the greater part of the attacking force had, after all, been Canadian militiamen. When Brock returned to York on 27 August, he received a hero’s welcome and from this time, the idolisation of Brock as the saviour of Canada began. With some cause: in the space of nineteen days he had settled matters in the Assembly, travelled 300 miles, repulsed an invading force twice the size of his own available army, taken the whole lot prisoner without the loss of a single life and added the entire the Michigan territory to the British dominions. An account of the arrival of Hull and his men at Montreal dated 12 September 1812, where he was met by Prevost, was both scornful and triumphant:

That General Hull should have entered into our city so soon, at the head of his troops, rather exceeded our expectations. We were, however, very happy to see him, and received him with all the honours due to his high rank and importance as a public character. . . .

It was the fall of Detroit that convinced the people of Upper Canada that they could preserve their way of life and that surrender to the Americans was not inevitable. This must be held as a massively important factor in sustaining Canadian belief in victory through the difficult times that followed in 1813 and 1814.

The effect was just as dramatic – more so perhaps – on the aboriginal people. In the immediate aftermath, the Indians celebrated and there was a fair amount of drinking and looting – but no atrocities. The native warriors did not, of course, share in the same cultural values as the British and the notion of chivalry to a vanquished enemy was highly puzzling to them. If your enemy had surrendered, in the Indian view, he accepted whatever fate his conquerors decided. That Tecumseh’s moral force was strong enough to prevent scalping and murder, or at least the taking of slaves, speaks volumes.

In London there was jubilation. Brock received a large number of congratulatory letters, most of which did not arrive for several months. No less a person than the Commander-in-Chief, the Duke of York, wrote to Prevost that:

An occurrence which so gloriously terminates a Campaign, commenced under the declared Confidence of Success on the part of an arrogant Enemy, cannot fail of being most acceptable to the Prince Regent and gratifying to the Country in general . . . His Royal Highness. . . highly approves the judicious and prompt arrangements which you adopted throughout the Province generally, for repelling the Progress of the Invasion: and Major General Brock’s exertions in The Country which was the more immediate object of the Enemy’s attack . . .

But there was also relief as well as jubilation; Lord Bathurst, the Secretary of War, wrote to Wellington, who had just secured the victory of Salamanca, that: “After the strong representations which I had received of the inadequacy of the force in those American settlements I know not how I should have withstood the attacks against me for having sent reinforcements to Spain instead of sending them to the defence of British possessions.”

When the Prince Regent heard the news, and received the Colours of the U.S. 4th Infantry Regiment, he ordered John Glegg to be promoted to major and immediately bestowed on Brock a knighthood – a knighthood which Brock never knew he had received for he was killed at Queenston Heights on 13 October 1812, before the news had had time to cross the Atlantic and make its way up the waterway. He was indeed, and remains, a hero in Canada. How he would have fared against the much-strengthened US Army with a revitalised and rejuvenated leadership, that took the field in 1813, must remain one of history’s unanswered questions.


Article on Isaac Brock © Jonathon Riley


© Jonathon Riley 2011. This text is drawn from the book A Matter of Honour and was given as a lecture in 2011. It subsequently appeared as an article in Canadian Military, vol 18 Issue 9, Sept 2011