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Americans in the Battle of Mackinac Island

Battle of Mackinac Island Monument

The Battle of Mackinac Island was a battle that took place during the War of 1812 between the British and the Americans.  The battle overall was insignificant due to the outcome of The War of 1812, but Mackinac Island was in a strategic location to manage the fur trade as well as Indian alliances in the Upper Great Lakes Region.

Mackinac Island is located between the Lower and Upper Peninsulas of Michigan between Lake Michigan and Lake Huron.  Due to its location, it was a contested location between the Americans and the British during the War of 1812.  Mackinac Island allowed control of much of the fur trade with the Indians, and it allowed whoever controlled the island to be more favorable and influential on these Indians (Dimick).  If no alliances could be formed with the Indians, negotiations could at least take place to allow for either neutrality or a common interest (Widder).

Pre-Battle Conflicts

Due to the strategic location of Mackinac Island, after learning of the war in early July, British Captain Charles Robert attacked an unaware American force on Mackinac Island in the Siege of Mackinac Island on July 17, 1812 (Dunnigan).  Due to the size of Mackinac Island and its varying elevations, Robert was able to get into a strategic position at a high point overlooking Fort Mackinac, taking advantage of its weakness.  Due to the unpreparedness of the Amer

ican force under Lieutenant Porter Hanks, and the fact that many Americans stationed at the fort were currently sick or unfit to serve, Hanks surrendered as, “to save the effusion of blood, which must of necessity follow the attack of such Troops as I have under my Command.” (Letters).  This attack came as a surprise to Porter as he never received word that war was declared, and with his meager force of about sixty-one men, he spared bloodshed and instead opted for unconditional surrender (Dunnigan).  This Siege of Fort Mackinac set up some context behind the Battle of Mackinac Island due to the outcome of the Siege of Fort Mackinac.  Specifically, due to the British now controlling Mackinac Island, they were able to establish alliances with Indians in the area in order to prevent the Americans from returning and keeping more favorable terms with the Indians located around Mackinac Island.  Following the siege, the Indians who helped take the island for the British went back to their homes, or moved closer to Detroit, assisting the British in their war efforts.

Soldier Conditions at Fort Mackinac

American and British soldier conditions played a crucial role in the Battle of Mackinac Island.  Mackinac Island was located far from other cities which may provide provisions for the winter, reinforcements, or other much needed supplies proved to be one of the biggest hardships of the soldiers stationed at Fort Mackinac.  Being located further north, the winters were very cold and the inhabitants would experience a lot of snowfall.  Seeing as it is important to keep the fire burning to keep the soldiers warm, firewood was a necessity, and chopping firewood in very low temperatures in the winter was a dangerous task for a soldier’s health (Dunnigan).  Basic necessities needed to be taken care of, and they were often taken care of at the expense of harsh climates and hard labor.  Because of this, many soldiers not only got sick, but less time was spent drilling and more time was spent taking care of the bare necessities needed for Fort Mackinac to function, such as building roads, cutting firewood, and constructing buildings.  Because of these laborious tasks and harsh climates, obtaining food was a large factor in maintaining the health and numbers needed to man and defend Fort Mackinac (Dunnigan).  This is also one of the reasons Porter was so unprepared for the attack by the British.  Along with the harsh climates, a shortage of food caused much concern amongst the soldiers who inhabited Fort Mackinac.  Rations of meat for the Americans were reduced during harsh winters, which impacted their productivity.  Because of the lack of nutrition given to these soldiers, it was harder for them to perform their duties as well as stay in good health (Army).  Because of the bad conditions the British and American soldiers experienced at Fort Mackinac, it became hard for each side to defend the fort as well as keep their soldiers healthy.

The Battle of Mackinac Island

In 1813, the tide shifted in the American’s favor in the Upper Great Lakes region.  With the victories of the Battle of Lake Erie and the Battle of Thames, Americans could begin to look to Mackinac Island and plan an attack (Grodzinski).  The attack was planned to be in late 1813, but it was delayed until August 1814 due to winter and organizing troops.  Because of the delay between the desired attack date and the actual attack date, the British defense was able to organize themselves better for the oncoming attack.

Each side in the upcoming attack had their respective commanders.  The British commander at the time, McDouall, foresaw this attack and requested more troops from the British side in order to defend the strategic location of the island.  On the American side, the two people put in charge of the retaking of the island were Colonel George Croghan and Arthur Sinclair.  Sinclair was in charge of the brigs Niagara and Lawrence and the schooners Caledonia, Tigress, and Scorpion (Lossing).  The American force numbered around 750 men, while the defending force numbered around 500 men including 350 Indian warriors of various nations in the surrounding area (Letters).  Due to the extra time McDouall had, he was able to patch up some of the weaknesses which allowed the British to be successful in the Siege of Fort Mackinac.  McDouall garrisoned the high-point overlooking Fort Mackinac in order to prevent an attack from north of the fort from higher ground.  McDouall also rallied Indians to help his cause (Dimick).

On July 26, 1814 Croghan and Sinclair moved into position to do some reconnaissance on Mackinac Island.  McDouall noticed their arrival, and planned for the oncoming attack (Dimick).  The original plan was for Sinclair to attack the island with his ships, using the thirty-two pound cannons located on the Lawrence and Niagara, but the cannons could not be raised high enough to target Fort Mackinac (Letters).  As seen in the painting by Seth Eastman on the bottom left, Fort Mackinac itself is elevated off of the beach height.  This elevation was just enough not to allow Sinclair to utilize the best weapons the Americans had against the British in retaking the island.  Instead of attacking Fort Mackinac with the navy, Croghan decided on a land approach instead.  Again by examining the painting by Seth Eastman, it is shown that Fort Mackinac is up on a hill

Fort Mackinac by Seth Eastman (from
Fort Mackinac by Seth Eastman (from

(Eastman).  If Croghan attacked head-on, he would have endangered himself as well as his troops because the group which holds the higher ground usually has an advantage.  That eliminated Croghan’s possible idea of attacking head on, so he decided on approaching from the island from the north, and marching south to the back of Fort Mackinac (Dimick).  In dealing with the Indians, Croghan believed that if they could force the British in a head-to-head battle, the Indians would scatter.  Croghan claimed this by saying, “[they] would be very unwilling to remain in my neighborhood after a permanent footing had been taken.” (Pierce).

Battle of Mackinac Island
The Battle of Mackinac Island Battle Movements (from Source 6 Dunnigan’s The British Army at Mackinac)

On August 4th, Croghan landed on the north shore of Mackinac Island.  He advanced south through the Mackinac forest in order to reach the fort.  When the American forces reached a clearing, they unexpectedly met McDouall’s forces in the field.  The Americans quickly set up their artillery and retreated back into the woods in order to regroup and plan their next attack (Pierce).  The American and British exchanged attacks, but neither side gave way.  Croghan decided to try to flank the British left flank by sending in one of his majors.  Major Holmes began to take up the British left flank, when he unexpectedly met the Indians.  Due to the Indian’s ambush, much of Holmes’ group was killed.  This is where the most casualties occurred in the battle.  Because many higher ranked soldiers and commanders were killed in this ambush, Croghan recognized the impending defeat and retreated back to his ships (Dunnigan).  Overall, the total American casualties added up to 68 men which only 38 of them were privates.  The British losses were negligible (Dunnigan).  Because the British successfully held back the Americans in this battle, they maintained control over the fur trade in the Upper Great Lakes region for a while longer.  Looking at the picture on the right illustrates the actual battle movements.

After Effects and the End of the War

Overall, the effects on the Battle of Mackinac Island were not long lasting.  Following the battle, the Americans decided to blockade Mackinac Island in order to possibly seize it in the future.  By leaving the Tigress and Scorpion at nearby islands, the task of blockading the lesser British ships at Mackinac Island should have been easy, but shortly after the battle the two American ships were captured by the British, stopping any possible attacks on Mackinac Island in the near future (Dunnigan).  The Americans didn’t have time to even consider an attack before the war ended in 1814.

On December 24, 1814 the Treaty of Ghent was signed, ending the War of 1812.  Part of the agreement between the Americans and British was that the British would forfeit certain holdings in America.  One of these holdings included Mackinac Island (Grodzinski).  The Siege of Fort Mackinac and the Battle of Mackinac Island were deemed practically useless at this point in time due to the conclusion of the war and the Treaty of Ghent.  Fighting and the exchanging of the key location between the Americans then to the British was negated with this treaty, making all previous fighting irrelevant.  In March 1815, the British stationed at Mackinac Island were notified of the Treaty of Ghent and that they needed to withdraw from the island.  On July 15, 1815 the British formally withdrew from Mackinac Island with no resistance.  They moved northeast to another island, Drummond Island.

Mackinac Island was a strategic location for a number of reasons during the War of 1812.  Due to its strategic location for maintaining the fur trade and establishing alliances with Indians in the area, it was a highly contested point for the Americans following its loss to the British in the Siege of Fort Mackinac.  Also because of its location, it incurred health problems with soldiers due to the harsh winters and lack of supplies in the winter.  Because of these aspects contributing Mackinac Island, it was both a hard place to hold as well as important during this time period.  Although there were battles to contest the holding of Mackinac Island, in the end it didn’t matter what happened due to the Treaty of Ghent.

Primary Sources

  1. United States National Archives.  Army and Air Force Military Records from 1810-1880.  Washington, D.C., 1880. Cited in [10].
  2. Eastman, Seth. Fort Mackinac.  Mackinac Island: State Park Commission, 1820.
  3. Bulger, Andrew. Michigan Pioneer and Historical Collections.  Vol. 15.  Lansing: Michigan Historical Commission, 1877-1929. Cited in [6].
  4. Pierce, Benjamin K. Benjamin K. Pierce Papers, 1818-1820. Detroit: Burton Historical Collection, 1850.  Cited in [6].

Secondary Sources

  1. Dimick, William H. “History of Fort Mackinac,” The Wisconsin Magazine of History  3, No. 4 pp. 471-473. 1920.
  2. Dunnigan, Brian. The British Army at Mackinac.  Mackinac Island: State Park Commission, 1980.
  3. Grodzinski, John R.  “Battle of Mackinac”  
  4. 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 Issue 4: September 2006.
  5. Lossing, Benson J. “Pictorial Field-Book of the War of 1812.” 1869.
  6. Widder, Keith R. Reveille Till Taps. Mackinac Island: Mackinac Island State Park Commission, 1972.

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