During the War of 1812, as well as in previous wars, waterways have always been a location of strategic importance to winning a war. This is the reasoning behind the construction of Fort Gratiot and the Fort Gratiot Lighthouse. The protected waterway is the confluence of Lake Huron and the St. Clair River, the Americans at Fort Gratiot ensured this important waterway would not fall into the hands of the British.
Before Fort Gratiot
The year is 1812, the British have invaded Fort Michilimackinac, which was currently being defended by a single garrison comprised of sixty-two men and their commander. The Americans are severely outnumbered, “I ascertained the strength of the enemy to be from nine hundred to one thousand strong.” (1) The Americans, due to a numbers disadvantage, lose their foothold at Michilimackinac, and the British end up claiming the fort and taking the garrison on guard as prisoners of war. Lieutenant Porter Hanks, the commander of the garrison, surrenders to the British and informs General William Hull of the surrender, “to acquaint Your Excellency of the surrender of the garrison of Michilimackinac, under my command to his Britannic Majesty’s forces.” (1) Upon their capture, terms were set by the British so that the Americans were “allowed to march out with the honors of war, and then deliver their arms.” (1) Also, among the conditions set by the captures were the fort be immediately surrendered, merchant vessels and their cargo belonged to the British, however private property rights were upheld. (2) Under the command of Lieutenant Hanks, sixty-two men were captured that day by the British and among them were 2nd Lieutenant Archibald Darrah, Dr. Sylvester Day, as well as a drummer boy. The garrison was unaware of where the British would take them or do to them, so they followed and carried out orders as efficiently and quickly as possible. During the month duration of their prisoner of war sentence, the American troops were placed on a boat and shipped down to St. Joseph, which was located near Detroit, per British orders. The British thought this would be a proper place to send the garrison to be exchanged back to the Americans, due to “it was thought proper to dispatch a confidential person to St. Joseph to watch the motions of the Indians.” (1)
August 1812, Lt. Hanks and the garrison arrived near St. Joseph, after their release from capture on June 30th, 1812. At the same time Governor General Count Frontenac was formulating a plan to sever the British efforts in connecting the Hudson Bay to New York. With British forces having to load and sail supplies along the eastern side of Michigan to New York, Governor General Count Frontenac located a narrowing in the sailing pathway that would cause this expansion to halt in the United States’ favor. This narrowing was found where the St. Clair River and Lake Huron deposited into one another, thus this was the location that Frontenac chose for the construction of the fort.
After plans for Frontenac’s fort to stop the British connecting the Hudson Bay and New York were approved, construction began. To take control in the construction, engineer, Captain Charles Gratiot Jr. was sent to Detroit. Captain Charles Gratiot Jr. was appointed as a United States Military Academy cadet in 1804 by President Thomas Jefferson to attend West Point. Upon his graduation in 1806 he became a part of the Corps of Engineers, which assisted in the construction of fortifications around the United States. During the war of 1812, Captain Gratiot was appointed as General William Henry Harrison’s Chief Engineer, in which he assisted in building Fort Meigs and Fort St. Joseph, which was later renamed to Fort Gratiot in his honor.
Captain Gratiot, after taking the blueprints from Frontenac, was able to construct Fort Gratiot within a duration of five months at a cost of $3066.57, during the year of 1814, which is equivalent to $53700.18 in present day. In comparison to other forts built at the time Fort Gratiot was on the lower end of the spectrum due to less buildings being needed. The fort was smaller in size, and could only house around 200 American troops at a time in its barracks. Also on site was a “officer’s quarters, a hospital, a guardhouse, a powder magazine, and a storehouse.” (3) Besides the new structures, Fort Gratiot also had a significant amount of artillery for its small size. This weaponry consisted of “two 18-pounders, two 12 pounders, four 6-pounders, and one howitzer.” (3) Due to Fort Gratiot’s smaller size, this meant that not as many men were needed to keep guard of the waterway of Lake Huron and the St. Clair River. Fort Gratiot was built strong, and had ample munitions, but soldiers were needed to defend it. For Lieutenant Hanks, upon his release from being a prisoner of war from the British in 1812, Fort Gratiot and Captain Gratiot were looking for strong and patriotic men to guard the waterway. Lt. Hanks and his men took on the guarding of the important waterway from the British, however Lt. Hanks did not realize that this would be his final post. On August 16th, 1814 while Lt. Hanks was still on parole for the surrender of Fort Michilimackinac, a shot was fired from across the waterway. The shot from the Canadian side made its way into the lobby where Lt. Hanks was standing during a discussion of the remainder of his probation. (4) After the death of their commander, the garrison, previously commanded by Lt. Hanks, realized what a significant role they were playing in keeping the British out of America. If the British were close enough to fire a cannon ball into one of the forts building, then they were close enough to engage in a waterfront attack.
Fort Gratiot was not only used as a guard for the waterway, it is speculated that it was used as a stopping point for the recapturing of Fort Michilimackinac. The Americans would not allow Fort Michilimackinac to remain in the hands of the British, and thus launched an attack to regain the fort that had been taken in 1812. The counter attack was known as the Battle of Michilimackinac Island, which occurred in the year of 1814. Colonel George Croghan, who had taken charge after the death of Lt. Hanks, states on August 9th, 1814, “Sir – We left Fort Gratiot (head of the straits St. Clair) on the 12th.” (5) Due to the date the letter was sent it can be assumed that the 12th being discussed is July 12th, 1814, which corresponds to the date of the attack on Fort Michilimackinac, which occurred on July 26th, 1814. Colonel Croghan sailing off from Fort Gratiot would be considered a wise tactical move, due to Detroit being down the Fort Gratiot trail, which was used to bring building supplies to Fort Gratiot during its construction in 1814. Also, with Detroit being a more densely populated area during the 1800’s due to the waterway, Colonel Croghan and Major Holmes could easily call upon extra equipment and supplies, which could be shipped through the waterway being guarded by Fort Gratiot, to the Michilimackinac attack location. Even though the outcome of the attack resulted in the British maintaining Fort Michilimackinac, and Major Holmes’ death, Fort Gratiot allowed an accessible port for the Americans to return to and configure a new plan.
After the Treaty of Ghent, the Americans regained Fort Michilimackinac, which was later renamed Fort Holmes in Major Holmes’ honor, and supplied it using the crossroads of Fort Gratiot. Also, several of the men stationed at Fort Gratiot were shipped up to Fort Holmes to assist in its rebuilding it in an American fashion. One of these men was Captain Charles Gratiot Jr., the man who had first built Fort Gratiot back in the year of 1814. The United States Army staff register contains a list that shows Charles Gratiot, at the time, a Major Engineer, arrived at Fort Holmes in the year 1816. None of the men that were in the capture of Fort Michilimackinac by the British in 1812, in Lt. Hanks garrison, ever returned to the fort, however, they remained at Fort Gratiot until the end of their service.
Fort Gratiot Lighthouse
After learning how close the British were to Fort Gratiot after Lt. Hanks’ death, as well as knowing that the connection of Lake Huron and the St. Clair River was becoming very narrow at a rapid pace and conscious of the rapids, blueprints began to be drawn up to address the issue. These blueprints, once approved by Congress in 1823 would lead to the construction of Fort Gratiot Lighthouse which included a coast guard station as well. Upon its completion in the year of 1825 Fort Gratiot Lighthouse “was 32 feet high above ground level, 18 feet in diameter at the base, and tapered to 9 feet across at the top.” (6) The final height of the lighthouse was approximately 65 feet. The lighthouse alerted ships of the narrowing of the approaching waterway for approximately three years, before it disintegrated into the St. Clair River in November of 1828. The cause of the disintegration, upon analyzation was the weather conditions on the shore, as well as the base of the lighthouse being improperly built. Due to the continuous need of warning ships of the passage, Fort Gratiot Lighthouse was rebuilt, this time by Lucius Lyon. Lyon worked on reconstructing the lighthouse during the period of 1825-1829. The blueprints this time had the requirements of 65 feet tall tower which would be assembled out of stone or brick. The diameter of the base was widened to 25 feet and the upper diameter was widened an extra 3 feet to 12 feet. (6) The added diameter allowed the structure of the lighthouse to better withstand the weather that comes about while sitting near Lake Huron and the St. Clair River. Also, the location of the lighthouse was changed, as the lighthouse was moved north several miles which would allow ships significantly more time to alter their path. The five acres of land in this location was also more stable and allowed the foundation of the lighthouse to be better equipped for harsh weather conditions. Lucius Lyon was signed to the contract to rebuild Fort Gratiot Lighthouse at a “contracted price was $4445, with an extra $55 budgeted for adding the old Argon lamp.” (6) Using an inflation calculator $4445 in 1829 is now equivalent to approximately $112,942.19 today in 2017. In comparison the Cape Cod Lighthouse built in the same time frame in 1796 when contracted at a budget of $8000.00, which is $142.010.92 presently. (7)
After the significant need for the Fort Gratiot Lighthouse had passed, and Fort Gratiot was no longer an area where war was a worry, modifications to the lighthouse were conducted to make it more appealing to tourists, and to draw in money for the surrounding and growing township. The first modification was to increase the overall height of the lighthouse by ten feet to make the new height 75 feet. However, in the 1860s the lighthouse height was once again modified to “its present height of 82 feet.” (8) Today the Fort Gratiot Lighthouse is the oldest lighthouse in the Great Lakes region, and is a frequent tourist location, due to its history, and its proximity to the Canadian border.
Fort Gratiot remained a military fortification for the United States up until the year of its decommission in 1895. During the eighty one years the fort was in service, the British were never able to connect the Hudson Bay and New York, which prohibited supplies from being able to reinforce for the British at Fort Michilimackinac. By keeping supplies from the British the Americans were able to reclaim Fort Michilimackinac and Fort Gratiot also assisted in keeping the British from waging war from the nearby Canadian border. Today, Fort Gratiot no longer stands and the land the fort once stood on was sold in 1870 due to lack of use by the military, even though its decommission didn’t occur for fifteen more years. (9) Presently, a monument stands in Fort Gratiot’s exact location as well as a couple other buildings that were apart of Fort Gratiot that are currently being preserved and renovated. Fort Gratiot Lighthouse to this day still stands and shines to inform incoming ships of the significant waterway of Lake Huron and the St. Clair River, which was guarded so heavily to ensure an overall victory in the War of 1812.
(1) Hanks, P. (1895). Official Report to Gen. Hull [Letter written August 12, 1812 to General William Hull]. In Mackinac, Formerly Michilimackinac (pp. 156-157). Lansing, MI: Darius D. Thorpe.
(2) Roberts, C., & Hanks, P. (n.d.). Capulation [Letter written July 17, 1812]. In Annals of Fort Mackinac (pp. 209-210). Mackinac Island, MI: John W. Davis.
(4) Kelton, D. H. (1885). Annals of Fort Mackinac. Page 211, lines 5-7
(5) Groghan, G. (1895). Report of Col. George Croghan [Letter written August 9, 1814 to J. Armstrong]. In Annals of Fort Mackinac (p. 215). Mackinac Island, MI.
(3) Fort Gratiot. (n.d.). Retrieved November 04, 2017, from http://www.fortwiki.com/Fort_Gratiot Lines 8-11
(6) Fort Gratiot Light Station County Park. (n.d.). Retrieved November 10, 2017, from http://fortgratiotlight.org/who-we-are/light-station-history.html
(7) Cape Cod (Highland) Lighthouse. (n.d.). Retrieved December 01, 2017, from http://www.lighthousefriends.com/light.asp?ID=491
(8) The Fort Gratiot Light Station & Lighthouse in Port Huron. (2014, May). Retrieved November 10, 2017, from http://www.lakeshoreguardian.com/site/news/116/The-Fort-Gratiot-Light-Station–Lighthouse-in-Port-Huron
(9) Andreas, A. T. (n.d.). History Of St. Clair County Michigan. Retrieved November 10, 2017, from http://www.rootsweb.ancestry.com/~mistcla2/Andreas_Fort_Gratiot.htmhttp://http://michiganhistory.leadr.msu.edu/fort-gratiot/