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Fort Mackinac and The War of 1812

Fort Mackinac
Aerial View of Fort Mackinac

Fort Mackinac is a important fort that controlled the Straits of Mackinac, an important area that controlled access to Lake Michigan from Lake Huron. Travelling by boat was much faster than travelling across land so controlling this strait gave you faster troop movements around Michigan and made supply trains easier to move as well.

Fort Mackinac was built in 1780 by the British on Mackinac Island. Before 1780 the French used a Fort Michilimackinac, which was located on the mainland. The French fort was built out of wood and the British considered this much to difficult to defend. In 1780 Lieutenant Governor Patrick Sinclair had a new fort constructed out of limestone, on the 150 foot limestone bluffs overlooking the Straits of Mackinac.

The fort was used to over look the Straits of Mackinac. American Captain Daniel Robertson commanded a garrison of soldiers from 1782 to his death in 1787. The fort was than commanded by Lieutenant Porter Hanks and approximately sixty soldiers. In June 1812, the start of the War of 1812, British General Issac Brock had to send a canoe party 1,200 miles to find out if the war had started and what he was to do.  The party returned with the orders to attack Fort Mackinac. British Captain Charles Roberts was given the order to attack and take Fort Mackinac. He controlled about two hundred regular soldiers and a few hundred Native Americans from the various tribes in the area.

British Capture Fort Mackinac (1812)

On July 8, 1812, Captain Charles Roberts, began to gather a force to attack Fort Mackinac. He collected three men from the Royal Artillery, 47 British Soldiers of the 10th Royal Veteran Battalion, 150 Canadian fur traders and voyageurs, 300 Ojibwa (Chippewa) or Ottawas and 110 Sioux, Menominee, and Winnebago to attack the fort. While recruiting these men he received orders from Major General Isaac Brock, the British commander in Upper Canada, that told him to cancel the attack. The Major General then continued to send more correspondence to reinstate the attack, to concentrate on defending St. Joseph Island and finally on July 15th Roberts was giving his last order to act based on his best discretion. Roberts made the decision to attack Fort Mackinac because he feared that the Indians would decide to move on and stop helping the British if they were not allowed to attack soon. The force set out in an armed schooner, Caledonia, seventy war canoes, and ten bateaux. Captain Roberts knew that he would not be able to attack the fort front ally and did not have the artillery capabilities, aboard his ship, that would damage to the fort, either. He had to land his troops and attack from one of the flanks or the rear of the fort.

Map of St. Joseph Island

Fort Mackinac was not a well equiped or laid out fort. Lieutenant Porter Hanks and his 61 artillerymen had only seven guns and only one of these was a 9-pounder, the only cannon that could shoot far enough to reach the harbor. The only source of fresh water was from a spring outside of the fort. The last and most important part of the forts weaknesses if that the position of the fort was overlooked by a higher ridge that was less than a mile away. Hanks was at a disadvantage if the enemy did not attack from the harbor. The attacking force could cut off the water supply and have the high ground overlooking the fort. Lieutenant Hanks’ disadvantages did not stop with only the design of the fort but he was never informed that the war had started until the British attacked. This breakdown in communication was because the United States Secretary of War William Eustis had not communicated with Hanks for several months. On June 18th, the news of the declaration of war was send to all of the commanders in the northwest area. This important message was sent via ordinary rate post and did not reach Hanks before he was surprise attacked. General Hull was also not informed and surprised attacked. “Altho Lieutenant Hanks did not know that his country was at war, he was by no means asleep. He had heard, from a friendly Indian that hostile Indian were collecting In the region of St. Joseph Island for a movement against Mackinac Island. and enlisted the services of a Mackinac , Michael Dousman, to act as a spy for him.” (Surprise at Fork Mackinac, 1:5). Dousman on his way to spy on the British was captured and he is said to have switched sides and joined the British.

Captain Roberts landed secretly at 3:00 am in the morning and ordered Dousman to inform the people that they needed to evacuate to the west side of the Island. They were told that they would be protected by the British against any attacks by the “savages” (Indians). Dousman bound by his word to not alert anyone in the fort carried out his orders to the dot. He informed Dr. Sylvester Day, who was the surgeon for the fort but lived in the village below the fort. The doctor ran to the fort to inform Lieutenant Hanks of the invading British. Hanks quickly organized his troops to best defend the fort but the British did not seemed rushed to attack the fort. Roberts had brought with him two 6-pounder cannons that after landing, at what is called British Landing, had his Soldiers march to the high point overlooking Fort Mackinac. They set up for attack, but were quite enough so that none of the sentries were alerted to the British position. The British were stationed about a quarter of a mile away from the fort. By the time Hanks was notified of the British presence they were fully set up and had spread some of the Indian companions in the wooded area around them and the fort to make sure the Americans did not try to flank them. Sometime before noon Captain Roberts sent a messenger under the flag of truce to the fort with the demand for immediate surrender. Lieutenant Hanks was prepared to fight and defend the fort but his troops and some town’s people convinced him to surrender and not waste their lives. Captain Roberts managed to take Fort Mackinac without taking or losing a single life. After he took the fort he let the American troops go free after he made them swear to never take up arms again against the British.

The loss of Fort Mackinac had an effect on the rest of the war by causing a chain reaction of events that did not bode well for the United States. Some of the Western Indians proceeded south to join some of the other tribes in battle. They ended up joining the Tecumseh at Fort Amherstburg. The Indians showing up to Fort Amherstburg created enough threat that American Brigadier General Hull abandoned his invasion of the Canadian territory and retreated back to Detroit on August 3, 1812. The loss at Fort Mackinac also rallied Indians that were either allied or neutral to the American to join the British. This influx of Indian forces near Detroit played a role in the loss of Fort Detroit to the British shortly after the loss of Fort Mackinac. During the siege of Detroit, Lieutenant Hanks was awaiting a court martial in Fort Detroit when he was hit with a cannon shot and killed instantly. He was being court martialed for cowardice, for surrendering Fort Mackinac.

The United States wanted Fort Mackinac back because it was part of a plan to hurt the relations of the British and the Natives in the northwestern states and hurt the fur trade in the northwestern area. In 1814 the American attempted a retake of the Fort.

Americans Attempt to Retake Fort Mackinac (1814)

The attack on the fort was initially supported by the United States Secretary of the Navy, William Jones, who wanted to use the vessels that were on Lake Erie. On July 3, 1814, five American brigs and gunboats sailed from Detroit under the command of Arthur Sinclair. The ships carried a landing force of 700 soldiers that were under the command of Lieutenant Colonel George Croghan. The Americans first looked for a base that was supposed to be supplying Fort Mackinac. After a week spent looking for this base they could not find it and moved on to press forward towards St. Joseph Island. They found the post abandoned and decided to burn it all to the ground. They also burned the North West Company trading post at Sault Sainte Marie.

Lieutenant Colonel Robert McDouall was now in charge of the British troops at Fort Mackinac and because of the time it took for the Americans to arrive at St. Joseph he had a lot of time to reinforce the fort with the troops that were stationed at St. Joseph and Sault Sainte Marie. After the British took Fort Mackinac they decided to reinforce the ridge with a stockade and blockhouse and named it Fort George. McDouall had regulars, militia, and Native Americans stationed with him at the fort.

When the American ships reached the island they started by bombarding the fort for two days. This was a fruitless attack because most of the rounds landed harmlessly in the gardens surrounding the fort. The new Fort George stood too high for the guns to reach. After these two days a dense fog caused the ships to sail away from the island for a week. On August 4, 1814, Croghan decided to land on the north side of the island. This landing site was close to where the British had landed in 1812 and was chosen to have his troops move through the woods in order to attack the blockhouse. The American force was led by 250 Ohio volunteers and a detachment from the Corps of Artillery. A group of marines covered the rear of the attack and was on standby as a reserve force. The American force marched through the woods heading towards Dousman’s farm. This farm was the only clearing on the way to Fort George. The area surrounding the Farm was heavy with woods and underbrush with plays an important role in the upcoming battle. The farms clearing was about 500 yards square.

McDouall did not wait inside of Fort Mackinac or Fort George. He left around 50 men each inside of the forts and moved his troops to attack the Americans at the farm. He set up at the southern end of the farm and cutting down trees to set up cover he prepared for the Americans. His initial plan was to fire a volley at the American soldiers and then have his troops bayonet charge the American line. He positioned Native Americans on both of his flanks to make sure the Americans could not flank him. Once the American force reached the north end of the farm they came under fire from the British cannon. The force then stopped the frontal assault, that would lead them into cannon fire, and tried to flank the British. A warning that Americans had landed behind the British troops startled and caused McDouall to take some of his troops and check to see if there was a second landing. This helped the Americans to roll up the British flanks, but they ended up being ambushed by Native Americans. One of these American flanking forces was led by Major Holmes. (After the war ended, Fort George was renamed to Fort Holmes in honor of Major Holmes.)

The surprise attacks caused the American troops to become confused and retreat back to their main position near the south end of the farm. Regrouping they tried to flank once again through the dense wood but the Native Americans and the return of McDouall and his infantry scared the American troops into a full retreat. The troops retreated back to the ships and sailed away. This left the fort in British hands until the end of the war.

During the retreat back to Detroit the Americans found the post that had been supplying the British Soldiers and captured it. They then left the USS Tigress and the USS Scorpion to blockade Mackinac. The blockade did not succeed in starving out the fort and the U.S. ended up losing both of these ships before the end of the war. Upon losing the Tigress and the Scorpion the Americans lost any control of the region. Under the treaty of Ghent at the end of the war, Fort Mackinac was returned to the United States.


Primary Sources:

  1. NOBLE, W. (1935, Oct 06). A new analysis of an old conflict–the war of 1812. Chicago Daily Tribune (1923-1963).
  2. Kelton, Dwight H. Annals of Fort Mackinac. N.p.: Detroit Free Comapny, 1891. Google Books, 3 Oct. 2014.
  3. White, Samuel. History of the American Troops, During the Late War, Under the Command of Colonels Fenton and Campbell. Baltimore: White, Samuel, 1830.
  4. NA. “Surprise at Ft. Mackinac (February 15, 1942).” Chicago Tribune. Chicago Sunday Tribune, February 15, 1942.

Secondary Sources:

  1. Burzynski, D. (2005, Dec 05). Effort to re-take fort in war of 1812 failed. Marine Corps Times.
  2. Dimick, William H. “History of Fort Mackinac.” Wisconsin Historical Society, June 1920.
  3. Dunnigan, Brian Leigh. “Annals of Fort Mackinac.”  Central Michigan University.
  4. Grodzinski, John R. “War of 1812.” Historica Dominion.

For Further Reading