Siege of Fort Mackinac

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Coordinates: 45°51′11″N 4°37′03″W / 45.853056°N 4.6175°W / 45.853056; -4.6175

Siege of Fort Mackinac
Part of the War of 1812
BtlMackinac.jpeg
Fort Mackinac, Michigan
Date 17 July 1812
Location Mackinac Island, Michigan
Result British victory
Belligerents
 United Kingdom
Native Americans
 United States
Commanders and leaders
Charles Roberts Porter Hanks
Strength
About 600 regulars, fur traders, voyageurs and natives 61
Casualties and losses
None 61 surrendered

The Siege of Fort of Mackinac was one of the first engagements of the War of 1812. A British and Native American force captured the island soon after the outbreak of war between Britain and the United States. Encouraged by the easy British victory, more Native Americans rallied to their support. Their cooperation was an important factor in several British victories during the remainder of the war.

Background

Mackinac Island was a U.S. fur trading post in the Straits of Mackinac between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron. Since the mid-seventeenth century, it had been important for its influence and control over the Native tribes in the area. British and Canadian traders had resented it being ceded to the United States at the end of the American Revolutionary War.[1] The United States Army maintained a small fort, named Fort Mackinac, on the island. About 40 miles (64 km) away was the British military post on St. Joseph Island and the (Canadian) North West Company's trading post at Sault Sainte Marie.

The British commander in Upper Canada, Major General Isaac Brock, had kept the commander of the post at St. Joseph Island, Captain Charles Roberts, informed of events as war appeared increasingly likely from the start of 1812. As soon as he learned of the outbreak of war, Brock sent a canoe party led by the noted trader William McKay to Roberts with the vital news, and orders to capture Mackinac.

McKay reached St. Joseph Island on 8 July. With the assistance of the North West Company, Roberts immediately began to collect a force consisting of three men of the Royal Artillery, 47 British soldiers of the 10th Royal Veteran Battalion (which Roberts later described as being "debilitated and worn down by unconquerable drunkenness"[2]), 150 Canadian or métis (part-Indian) fur traders and voyageurs, 300 Ojibwa (Chippewa) or Ottawas who were at the island to trade skins, and 110 Sioux, Menominee and Winnebago who had been recruited from present-day Wisconsin by Indian agent Robert Dickson.[3]

As preparations for the expedition proceeded, Roberts received successive orders from Brock to cancel, and then to reinstate, the attack on Mackinac. Colonel Edward Baynes, the Adjutant General for all British forces in Canada, also sent orders for Roberts to concentrate on defending St. Joseph Island.[3] However, on 15 July, Roberts received further orders from Brock which allowed him to use his own discretion. Fearing that the Native contingents would drift away if they were not allowed to attack, Roberts immediately set out.[4] His force was embarked in the armed schooner Caledonia belonging to the North West Company, seventy war canoes and ten bateaux.

Capture of Mackinac

Fort Mackinac was sited on a limestone ridge which overlooked the harbour at the south-eastern end of the island. The American garrison consisted of 61 artillerymen under Lieutenant Porter Hanks with seven guns, although only one of these, a 9-pounder, could reach the harbour.[3] There were other weaknesses; the garrison relied for fresh water on a spring outside the fort, and the position was overlooked by a higher ridge less than a mile away.

The United States Secretary of War William Eustis, who was apparently preoccupied with financial economies, had sent no communications to Hanks for several months. He sent word of the declaration of war on 18 June to the commanders in the northwest by ordinary rate post. The Postmaster at Cleveland, Ohio realised the importance of the news and hired an express rider to take it to Brigadier General William Hull, who was advancing on Detroit, but it was too late to save both Hull and Hanks from being taken by surprise by the outbreak of hostilities.[5]

Though he was unaware of events elsewhere, Hanks had heard rumours of unusual activity at St. Joseph Island. He sent a fur trader named Michael Dousman, who held a commission as an officer in the militia, to investigate. Dousman's boat was captured by the advancing British force, and Dousman apparently quickly changed sides.[1]

Having learned from Dousman that the Americans at Mackinac were unaware of the outbreak of war, Robert's force landed at a settlement later named British Landing on the north end of the island, 2 miles (3.2 km) away from the fort, early on the morning of 17 July. They quietly removed the village's inhabitants from their homes, dragged a 6-pounder cannon through the woods to a ridge above the fort and fired a single round before sending a message under a flag of truce, demanding the surrender of the fort.[4]

Hanks's force was surprised and was already at a tactical disadvantage. The flag of truce had been accompanied by three of the villagers, who greatly exaggerated the number of Natives in Roberts's force.[6] Fearing a massacre by the Natives, Hanks capitulated without a fight. The garrison of the fort was taken prisoner but was released on giving their parole not to fight for the remainder of the war.

Native American Strategy During the Siege of Mackinac

Native Americans played an important role during the siege of Mackinac Island, and the subsequent battle. The size of the Native American force as well as their intimidation of the Americans made them a formidable foe. There were Native Americans from the Sioux, Winnebagoes, Menomonie, Chippewas, and Ottawa tribes.[7] While Native Americans aligned with both British and American forces, the British had more Indian support during the siege of Mackinac. After the American Revolutionary War, the British continued to trade in American territory and maintained strong alliances with the tribesmen there, adding to their incentive to join British forces.[8]

The British had about 300 Indian warriors under their command when taking the Island.[9] Mackinac Island held importance for Native Americans as a prominent trading post.[10] While Britain’s Native American allies contributed numbers to the siege, they also hastened the attack, as they were anxious to attack Mackinac with or without the British. Native Americans were under British command, but the Native Americans did give input on how to execute the attack. The British believed that if the Native Americans were not reined in that there would have been much more bloodshed.". Rather, the sheer size of the Native American and British forces dissuaded the Americans from engaging.[11]

Aftermath

The island's inhabitants were made to swear an oath of allegiance to the United Kingdom or leave within a month. Most took the oath. Roberts arrested three deserters from the British Army and twenty alleged British citizens. There was no looting, although Roberts expropriated the goods in the United States storehouses and a government trading post[4] and purchased several bullocks to feed the Natives. The British abandoned their own fort at St. Joseph Island and concentrated their forces at Mackinac Island.

Of the Natives present, the Ottawa contingent had apparently remained aloof from the others.[2] They and most of the Chippewas later dispersed. At least some of the "Western Indians" (those recruited from Wisconsin and other territories to the west) proceeded south to join the warriors with Tecumseh at Fort Amherstburg. The mere threat of their arrival prompted the American Brigadier General Hull to abandon his invasion of Canadian territory and retreat to Detroit on 3 August.[12] The news of the loss of Mackinac also prompted several Native communities such as the Wyandots near Detroit, who had been friendly to the Americans or neutral, to rally to the British cause.[13] Their hostility influenced the U.S. surrender at the Siege of Detroit shortly afterwards. Lieutenant Hanks was killed by a cannon shot at Detroit shortly before the surrender, while awaiting a court martial for cowardice.

British control of Fort Mackinac and northern Michigan was not seriously challenged until 1814 when a large American force was dispatched to retake control of the area, but was defeated in the Battle of Mackinac Island and the Engagements on Lake Huron.

Notes

  1. ^ a b Elting, p.29
  2. ^ a b Hitsman, p.74
  3. ^ a b c Hitsman, p.72
  4. ^ a b c Hitsman, p.73
  5. ^ Elting, p.27
  6. ^ Elting, p.30
  7. ^ Wood, Edwin (1918). Historic Mackinac; the historical, picturesque and legendary features of the Mackinac country; illustrated from sketches, drawings, maps and photographs, with an original map of Mackinac Island, made especially for this work. p. 285.
  8. ^ McCoy, Raymond. The massacre of old Fort Mackinac (Michilimackinac) a tragedy of the American frontier, with the early history of St. Ignace, Mackinaw city and Mackinac island ..1946. 55
  9. ^ Dunnigan, Brian Leigh. A picturesque situation Mackinac before photography, 1615-1860. Wayne State University Press, 2008.
  10. ^ McCoy, Raymond. The massacre of old Fort Mackinac (Michilimackinac) a tragedy of the American frontier, with the early history of St. Ignace, Mackinaw city and Mackinac island ..1946. 55
  11. ^ Wood, Edwin O. Historic Mackinac; the historical, picturesque and legendary features of the Mackinac country; illustrated from sketches, drawings, maps and photographs, with an original map of Mackinac Island, made especially for this work, 1918:  285  
  12. ^ Zaslow, p.17
  13. ^ Hitsman, p.75

Sources

  • Elting, John R. (1995). Amateurs to Arms. New York: Da Capo Press. ISBN 0-306-80653-3. 
  • Hitsman, J. Mackay; Graves, Donald E. (1999). The Incredible War of 1812. Toronto: Robin Brass Studio. ISBN 1-896941-13-3. 
  • Zaslow, Morris (1964). The Defended Border. Toronto: Macmillan of Canada. ISBN 0-7705-1242-9. 
  • Wood, Edwin (1918). Historic Mackinac; the historical, picturesque and legendary features of the Mackinac country; illustrated from sketches, drawings, maps and photographs, with an original map of Mackinac Island, made especially for this work.
  • McCoy, Raymond. The massacre of old Fort Mackinac (Michilimackinac) a tragedy of the American frontier, with the early history of St. Ignace, Mackinaw city and Mackinac island ..1946.
  • Dunnigan, Brian Leigh. A picturesque situation Mackinac before photography, 1615-1860. Wayne State University Press, 2008.
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