On two occasions the American and British forces battled on Mackinac Island for control of the Straits of Mackinac during the War of 1812. Following the two land skirmishes, the British and American forces also engaged in a small, but critical naval engagement which ended the American’s hope at recapturing Mackinac Island. In each battle, British strategy, leadership, and tactics proved to be superior, thus allowing the British to hold the island for the duration of the war.
Mackinac Island is located on the straits between Lake Huron and Lake Michigan. The island is home to two forts. Fort Mackinac, built during the American Revolution by the British, and Fort Holmes, built during the War of 1812 by the British. Each are located on the elevated areas of the island looking over the straits. In regards to historical significance, the island has played an important role in the command of the Upper Great Lakes region. Control of Mackinac Island was especially vital in the War of 1812. A letter from Captain Andrew Bulger, a British officer in the Great Lakes region during the War of 1812, states the importance of Mackinac Island to multiple aspects of the war, saying,
“The Island and Fort of Michilimackinac is of the first importance, as tending to promote our Indian connexion and secure them in our interest; its geographical position is admirable; its influence extends and is felt among the Indian Tribes to New Orleans and the Pacific Ocean; vast tracts of country look to it for protection and supplies; and it gives great security to the trading establishments of the North West and Hudson Bay” [1: 446].
Battle of 1812
At the commencement of the War of 1812, the Americans held control of Fort Mackinac and the island. Mid-way through 1812, the first battle for Mackinac Island took place between the Americans and the British. The British sought control of the island in order to be able to control the Great Lakes region as well as increase their alliance with the Native tribes of the region .
War was declared by the United States on June 18, 1812 and less than a month later, the British began their attacks on American soil. Led by Captain Charles Roberts on July 17, “46 officers and men of the 10th Royal Veteran Battalion, several gunners of the Royal Artillery, 200 fur traders and 400 Aboriginals”  landed on Mackinac Island at what is now called British Landing on the Northwest side of the island. The British march towards Fort Mackinac took advantage of the topography of the island to both ease the movement of troops and artillery as well as to create a tactical advantage. A map drawn by a member of the Corps of Engineers in 1817, William Sanford Eveleth, shows the topography of the land as well as locations of forts, roads, hills, terrain, etc. [7: 125]. The figure above portrays the southern portion of Eveleth’s map of the island. The full map can be found on page 125 of reference 7. One key difference to note between the depicted date (1817) and the 1812 state of Mackinac Island is that Fort Holmes is not present at this time on the peak of the island. It will be built in the following year. It can be seen from the full map, or the topographical map of the island shown below, that the northern half of the island has a more gradual change in elevation than the south side. A road can also be seen running from British Landing, cutting through the cleared area labeled as the “Dousman Farm” and continuing to the peak of the island. Given that Fort Mackinac is located on the south side at a lower elevation, the British placed themselves on a ridge overlooking the fort and created an easy tactical advantage of holding the high ground. The road and slight elevation change also created much easier troop and artillery movement, let alone remaining hidden from American sight until reaching the peak.
After reaching the high ground, the British fired a single cannon round down on Fort Mackinac and demanded an American surrender. The British tactical advantage for the initial siege of Fort Mackinac resulted in an easy victory. Superior British manpower of ten to one and the advantage in position forced the American commander, Lieutenant Porter Hanks, to surrender. The capitulation agreement of this event is appropriately named “Heights Above Michilimackinac” due to the role that the elevated ridge above the fort contributed to the British victory. The fort being surrendered to the British, U.S. soldiers being removed from the fort and island, and the possession of merchant vessels and property are discussed in the five clauses of the capitulation that was signed by Lieutenant Hanks and Captain Roberts on July 16, 1812 [2: 110].
The first battle for Mackinac Island can hardly be considered a battle, but it is a critical event in regards to the upcoming few years in the upper Great Lakes region. In a letter to Major General Brock in Montreal, Roberts exclaims, “for be assured that prudential measures of the first necessity demanded the step which has put me in possession of this Island” [2: 108]. This is the first major action by either side in the War of 1812 and it foreshadowed what was to come between the British and Americans. Roberts explained that the capture of Mackinac Island placed the British in an excellent position in the war. On a similar note, although unknown at the time, it helped the British to proactively place a huge setback on the American plans to invade lower Canada .
Battle of 1814
The British remained in control of the fort and island for the next couple years. During this time they constructed what is now called Fort Holmes on the highest point of the island to protect Fort Mackinac below. The image to the right shows the fort’s location relative to Fort Mackinac. In August of 1814 the second battle for Mackinac Island took place as the Americans sought to recapture the island from British control.
The second engagement was a much larger battle that included roughly 600 combatants for each side. British forces were under the control of Lieutenant Colonel Robert McDouall, who had been in command on the island for roughly a year. At this point, the British forces consisted of around 200 regulars and 350 Natives [7: 113]. McDouall’s tactical plan is interesting and not necessarily what would be expected from a commanding officer whose forces are defending the fort. Catching word of the American landing on the island, ironically at the same position the British had landed two years before, McDouall chose to remove the majority of forces from the fort and relocate to intercept the Americans at the edge of the Dousman Farm, located in the Northern central area of the island [7: 125]. “The position I took up was excellent but at an unavoidable and too great a distance from the Forts…there were likewise Roads upon my Flanks” [3: 591-592] Forts are often thought of as defensive positions, so McDouall’s tactical decisions are counterintuitive but prove to be intelligent.
McDouall expected a frontal march and an American flank maneuver to the British left. “The Indians would only prevent the Enemy from gaining the woods upon our Flanks, which would have forced them upon the own ground in our front; a natural Breast work protected my men” [3: 592]. To protect the flank, he ordered the native tribes to occupy the wooded area on the west of the island. To counter the frontal march, he placed his regulars in formation along the natural breastwork of the farm to engage Americans as they emerged from the opposing tree line. As expected, the Americans attempted the precise maneuver McDouall had expected. The awaiting Natives quickly ambushed the Americans and inflicted heavy losses. Likewise, the British regulars were well prepared for the frontal march and quickly began inflicting heavy losses across the open Dousman farm as well [9: 242-245].
During the battle, Major Andrew Holmes, an American commander was killed by the Indians. After the battle, Lieutenant Colonel George Croghan sent a letter to McDouall requesting the remains of Holmes. McDouall’s response shows and interesting dynamic between opposing forces. “I beg to inform you that the wounded of the United States troops, left upon the field yesterday, have been brought into the Garrison, where they have received the required medical assistance, and received every possible attention and comfort which their respective cases required” [4: 1]. Despite being enemies, this quote shows an interesting aspect of British military during this time of taking care of the American wounded after the battle. McDouall could have easily ordered those men killed or left on the battlefield to die, but instead he accepted the British victory and chose to help the wounded.
McDouall’s tactics proved to be very efficient in his defense of Fort Mackinac and the island. The Colonel’s decision to intercept the Americans at a more advantageous location shows forward thinking of placing his forces in the best location to quickly diminish the American attack and earn a decisive victory. The events during the battle exemplify British military strength in leadership and defensive tactics.
British Victory at Sea
The Americans planned one final effort to regain Mackinac by an attempt to starve the British into submission by blockading their supply base in Georgian Bay. The continuation of the struggle for the Mackinac moved to the naval battlefield where the British attacked and captured two American schooners, the USS Tigress and USS Scorpion. This battle was not held directly on or adjacent to Mackinac Island, but Colonel McDouall was the commanding officer of the region who authorized the attack of the Tigress and Scorpion in order to protect the British Stronghold at Mackinac. Following the battle, the captured ships returned to Mackinac flying the British flag [7: 116]. Once again, the British tactics proved to be superior in the fight against the Americans in the upper Great Lakes region. This third and final victory cemented British control of Mackinac Island through the end of the war.
An excellent primary representation of this event is the painting by William Dashwood in 1820 titled, Tigress and Scorpion carried into Mackinac , shown to the right. This image painted for the Colonel McDouall to commemorate his war efforts after he returned to Scotland in the 1820s. It was based a previous 1813 painting, Michillimackinac on Lake Huron, but included many details to praise the British efforts, specifically in regards to the capture of the American schooners in 1815 [7: 116].
Images such as Dashwood’s painting provide excellent means for analysis of British thoughts and morale about the battles for Mackinac, even a decade after the war had ended. A closer look at the image reveals multiple details that McDouall wanted included to commemorate the British effort. The two ships in the bay, the Tigress and Scorpion are each depicted with raised British flags sailing above the American flags as the sailors return from capturing the ships. In the background, Fort Mackinac can also be seen flying the British flag and firing what seems to be a cannon salute to the incoming schooners. In the foreground, many Indians are seen, some wearing British uniforms and some pointing towards the incoming ships. This depiction shows a high level of pride and admiration for the successful British efforts. Given this was painted for McDouall, essentially as a piece of memorabilia, the depicted details give wonderful insight into the level of pride that McDouall felt in his accomplishments as Colonel during the battles for Mackinac Island, regardless of the final outcome of the war.
Although the British were eventually forced to relinquish Mackinac Island to terms in the Americans at the end of the War, due to the Treaty of Ghent, the successful siege and defense of the island for the duration essentially proved the British to be the victors in the upper Great Lakes region. In each conflict over Mackinac Island, superior British leadership and tactics led to decisive victories, control of the Straits of Mackinac, and a strengthened relationship with the native tribes of the Great Lakes.
- Historical Collections. Michigan Pioneer & Historical Society. Vol 23: Bulger Correspondence. Lansing: Darius D. Thorp, 1895.
- Historical Collections. Michigan Pioneer & Historical Society. Vol 15: “Heights Above Michilimackinac,” Roberts Correspondence. Lansing: Darius D. Thorp, 1889.
- Historical Collections. Michigan Pioneer & Historical Society. Vol 25: McDouall Correspondence. Lansing: Darius D. Thorp, 1896.
- Croghan, George. McDouall, Robert. Robert McDouall ALS to George Croghan. 1814. Manuscripts Division, Michigan Collection, University of Michigan. Clements Library.
- Dashwood, William. Tigress and Scorpion carried into Mackinac. 1820. Mackinac State Historic Parks, Mackinac Island. Voyageur Magazine.
- Grodzinski, John R. 2011. “Battle for Mackinac.” War of 1812. The Royal Canadian Geographical Society.
- Dunnigan, Brian. 2008. A Picturesque Situation: Mackinac Before Photography, 1615-1860. Detroit.
- Thwaites, R.G. 1910. An Outline of Mackinac Island. Bulletin of the American Library Association. Vol. 4
- Gilpin, Alec R. 1958. The War of 1812 in the Old Northwest. Lansing: Michigan State University Press.
- Grodzinski, John R. “The Epic Saga of His Majesty’s Schooner Nancyand the Struggle for the Control of the Upper Great Lakes.” The War of 1812 Magazine. September, 2006
For Further Reading
- There are three other MHUGL posts on Fort Mackinac and the battle for the island:
- “Battle of Mackinac Island (1814).” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. 2015.
- “Siege of Fort Mackinac.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. 2015.