Monday, October 06, 2014

America’s Worst General: William Hull and the Surrender of Detroit (War of 1812)

On August 13, 1812 Major General Isaac Brock and a British force of 400 regular and militia troops supported by 700 lightly armed Native American auxiliaries arrived before the American stronghold at Detroit.  Brock intended to subdue Detroit, garrisoned by 2,500 men securely situated behind 22-foot ramparts and a palisade of 10-foot hardwood spikes all defended by 33 cannons and an 8-foot moat.  How was he to do this?

Brock attacked the American “center of gravity”, which in this case was the mind of the American commander, Brigadier General William Hull, whom contemporaries described as, “a short, silver-haired, pleasant, old gentleman, who bore the marks of good eating and drinking.”
Having captured some of Hull’s dispatches, Brock knew that American morale was low, and that Hull was discouraged.  Playing on Hull’s almost hysterical fear of Indians, Brock began a campaign of psychological intimidation.  The British played on Hull's fear of the Indians by arranging for a letter to fall into American hands which asked that no more Indians be allowed to proceed as there were already no less than 5,000 at Amherstburg and supplies were running low. Brock sent a demand for surrender to Hull, stating:

“The force at my disposal authorizes me to require of you the immediate surrender of Fort 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 control the moment the contest commences…”

Additionally, to trick the Americans into believing there were more British troops than there actually were, troops marched to take up positions in plain sight of the Americans then quickly ducked behind entrenchments, and marched back out of sight to repeat the same procedure.

Brock’s demand for surrender was rejected.  The British began bombarding Fort Detroit.  The Americans returned fire.  Seven Americans were killed and two British gunners wounded in the exchange.  On the night of August 15, some five hundred Native American warriors paddled across the unguarded river and landed below Detroit.  The British infantry and militia followed at daylight.

Hull, who had led a heroic bayonet charge at the Battle of Stony Point in 1778, was totally out of his depth in overall command and began to crack, seemingly besieged by overwhelming British forces and Indians “numerous beyond example.” At 10:00 A.M. a white flag appeared over the fort.  Despite the vehement protests of his officers and men, William Hull surrendered his command without a fight. The British captured an American army of 2,500, some thirty-three cannon, four hundred rounds of 24-pound shot, one hundred thousand cartridges, 2,500 rifles and bayonets, and a newly built 16-gun brig Adams.

Success leaves clues. So does failure. Some of history’s best known commanders are remembered not for their brilliant victories but for their catastrophic blunders.

Throughout the centuries countless armies have gone down to defeat, succumbing to greater numbers, more advanced technology, or more skilled opponents. A few armies have been defeated because of the blundering incompetence of their own commanders. What are the elements of leadership failure? A recurrent pattern emerges over the last two thousand plus years.

The best reading experience on your Android phone or tablet, iPad, iPhone, Mac, Windows 8 PC or tablet, BlackBerry, or Windows Phone.

No comments: