William Hull, soldier, governor of Michigan Territory (b at Derby, Conn 24 Jun 1753; d at Newton, Mass 29 Nov 1825). William Hull is most famous for his surrender to the British at Fort Detroit at the outset of the War of 1812, and barely missing the hangman’s noose for his actions in 1814. It was a sad end to an otherwise successful career as a soldier citizen in the newly created United States.
Hull graduated from Yale in 1772, made the bar, and began to practice law on the eve of the American War of Independence. He joined the militia and rapidly rose through the ranks to lieutenant-colonel, which he held 1783-1784. He served and survived in many of the war’s battles, including White Plains, Trenton, Stillwater, Saratoga, Fort Stanwix, Monmouth and Stony Point. His service and conduct were noted by General George Washington.
After the war, Hull began a political life that took him to the eve of the War of 1812. He served as a judge and senator before becoming Governor of Michigan Territory in 1805. As war loomed in 1811, Hull pondered whether to take a senior military command or stay in politics. Assured by his government that he could retain his political position and serve in the army, he accepted the rank of Brigadier-General.
When war broke out, Hull took command of a combined force of the 4th infantry and the Ohio militia, with the goal of invading the western part of Upper Canada. He advanced through the harsh Michigan woods, arriving in Detroit on 5 July but soon became very cautious about his next move. The US government had not been rigorous in informing Hull when war had actually been declared. To make matters worse, an American vessel containing Hull’s personal papers, outlining in detail his force’s strengths and weaknesses, and Hull’s own terror at having to face Britain’s First Nations allies, fell into the hands of the enemy. As Hull prepared for his final advance, he would find the British well prepared for him.
On 12 July, Hull and his men crossed into Canada, where he did nothing more than release proclamations on the horror of war that would befall any British, Aboriginal or Canadian troops who faced them. The proclamations had the opposite impact on the populace and troops, no doubt bolstered by Hull’s quick withdrawal to the safety of Fort Detroit.
Hull’s Surrender of Detroit
From here, matters got even worse. First Nation allies cut Hull’s lines of communication, keeping his forces isolated. Two attempts were made to clear the way. Both failed, and Hull’s nerve for battle began to wither. Not so his opponent, the young, aggressive British Major General Isaac Brock. With a much smaller force than the Americans, Brock crossed the Detroit River and started a game of deception that would win victory and ruin Hull’s career. With First Nations soldiers hiding out of sight, and a few rounds of artillery fire to rattle the fort, Brock issued a demand for surrender. And, to his astonishment, he got it! On 16 August, Fort Detroit fell to the British. Hull claimed that he surrendered in order to prevent a slaughter of the civilian and military persons under his command by the First Nations soldiers. This did nothing to appease his subordinates, who, disgusted at his giving up without a fight, vilified him as a coward. The real reason may never be known, but some historians claim he likely suffered a mental collapse from the stress of command.
Hull’s Court Martial
The surrender of Fort Detroit shocked the government in Washington, and made it clear that the war could not be taken lightly. After the prisoners of Fort Detroit were exchanged in 1814, Hull returned to the US to face a court martial for his failures. The charges were dire: treason, cowardice, neglect of duty and bad conduct. He was charged with neglect of duty and bad conduct, and sentenced to execution. President James Madison, however, intervened. Noting Hull’s war record during the revolution, the sentence was stayed. Hull’s remaining years were spent in a vain attempt to clear his name and recover his reputation.
Clearly incompetent at higher command, Hull’s failings, which were many, were compounded by a government that had not adequately prepared or steeled itself for war in the New World.
Author: Jason Ridler