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 subsequently rallied to their support. Their cooperation was an important factor in several British victories during the remainder of the war.
Mackinac Island was an 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 Indian 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. 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"), 150 Canadian or métis (part-Indian) fur traders and voyageurs, 300 Ojibwa (Chippawa) or Ottawas who were at the island to trade skins, and 110 Sioux, Menominee and Winnebago who had been recruited by Indian agent Robert Dickson from present-day Wisconsin.
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. However, on 15 July, Roberts received further orders from Brock which allowed him to use his own discretion. Fearing that the Indians would drift away if they were not allowed to attack, Roberts immediately set out. 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. 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.
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.
Having learned from Dousman that the U.S. forces were unaware of the outbreak of war, Robert's force landed at a settlement subsequently 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 U.S. forces surrender.
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 Indians in Roberts's force. Fearing a massacre by the Indians, Hanks capitulated without a fight. The United States garrison was taken prisoner but was released on giving their parole not to fight for the remainder of the war.
The island's inhabitants were made to swear an oath of allegiance as subjects of the United Kingdom or leave within a month. Most took the oath. Roberts arrested three deserters from the British Army and twenty alleged British subjects. There was no looting, although Roberts expropriated the goods in the United States storehouses and a government trading post and purchased several bullocks to feed the Indians. The British subsequently abandoned their own fort at St. Joseph Island and concentrated their forces at Mackinac Island.
Of the Indians present, the Ottawa contingent had apparently remained aloof from the others. They and most of the Chippawas subsequently dispersed. At least some of the Western Indians proceeded south to join the tribes 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.
The news of the loss of Mackinac prompted several Indian tribes (such as the Wyandots near Detroit) who formerly were friendly to the Americans or neutral, to rally to the British cause. 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.
- Elting, p.29
- Hitsman, p.74
- Hitsman, p.72
- Hitsman, p.73
- Elting, p.27
- Elting, p.30
- Zaslow, p.17
- Hitsman, p.75
- 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.
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