Saturday, February 21, 2009

William Hull: dodging a bullet

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Though the case of William Hull is more of a matter of military debacle than political scandal, the man and the incident that defamed him have enough political elements to fall into that category as well.

Born in Derby, Connecticut in 1753, Hull graduated from Yale at the age of 19. He briefly taught school before joining the Eighth Massachusetts Regiment in 1775 as the American Revolution began. Hull served throughout the war, helping to liberate Boston and establish a defense north of New York City. He saw action at White Plains (where he was wounded), Trenton, Princeton, Forts Ticonderoga and Stanwix, Saratoga, Monmouth, and Stony Point. After the last engagement, he was promoted to lieutenant colonel. He declined an invitation to become one of George Washington's aides and remained in the military until his regiment disbanded in 1786, whereupon he settled down in Newton, Massachusetts to practice law.

A Jeffersonian Republican, Hull served as judge in the Massachusetts court of common pleas as well as the state senate. He went on two diplomatic missions to Canada, aiming to secure the evacuation of British troops from western forts they were supposed to have turned over at the end of the war and a treaty to stop Native American attacks in the northwestern portion of the fledgling United States. Neither effort was successful. Hull's military career was far from over. He helped suppress Shay's Rebellion and was major general of the Massachusetts militia from 1798 until 1805.

In 1805, President Thomas Jefferson appointed Hull to be Governor of the Michigan Territory. Boasting only about 5,000 white settlers, the main duty of the post was to secure land from Native Americans there. In 1807, Hull negotiated the Treaty of Detroit with four tribes, acquiring the southeastern portion of modern day Michigan for $10,000 and a $2,400 annuity. Relations between the United States and the Native American tribes did not improve significantly under Hull's governorship, however, and the latter still enjoyed support from the British in Canada in an effort to undermine the new nation.

At the start of the War of 1812, Hull accepted an appointment to command the Army of the Northwest while retaining position of Governor. In the days leading up to the conflict, he initially pushing for a strong naval force on Lake Erie, but later fell behind General Henry Dearborn's strategy of a three-pronged attack on Canada from Detroit, Niagara, and New England. In addition to regular troops, Hull recruited militiamen from Ohio and Kentucky and marched them to Detroit. He felt that the presence of a strong army in Detroit might force the evacuation of British troops from the Canadian territory across the Detroit River.

Unfortunately for Hull, word of the war's declaration was slow to arrive. As the column proceeded to Michigan, Hull sent a schooner of invalid men, supplies, and documents up to Detroit to help speed the march. The vessel was captured at Fort Malden by British troops who had received word of the war before Hull, and the captured documents spoiled any chance for surprise the general may have had. In addition, 200 Ohio militiamen refused to serve outside U.S. territory by crossing the river.

Despite these missteps, Hull's invasion of Canada met with initial success. His forces outnumbered the defenders and a proclamation Hull issued caused significant numbers of the opposing forces to desert. However, Hull appears to have been deathly afraid of the Native American factor of the defense. He worried that his supply lines were vulnerable to attack, and, upon hearing that the U.S. outpost at Mackinac had fallen, feared that it would open the way to Native American attacks. These fears were justified to some degree; a garrison from Fort Dearborn (present day Chicago) was attacked and largely killed by Native Americans after Hull called for its evacuation on the belief that its position was not tenable after the fall of Mackinac.

Hull ordered a retreat to Detroit, a decision so unpopular that his junior officers contemplated removing him from command. Hull considered dropping back to Ohio, but was dissuaded after his officers convinced him that his disgruntled army would disintegrate if he ordered it.

Meanwhile, the British forces were reinforced after Dearborn's attack in the east failed to materialize. General Isaac Brock led these forces, bolstered by Native Americans, on Detroit in August of 1812 and put the fort under siege. Though Hull's forces outnumbered Brock's, the morale of the general and the men was low, and Brock knew it thanks to captured papers. Playing off Hull's fear of the Native Americans, Brock sent a document to the fort suggesting (falsely) that a large contingent of Native Americans was standing by to attack the fort.

Despairing of his ability to protect the fort and its civilians, including his own daughter, Hull swiftly surrendered Detroit. Though Hull would later claim a shortage of supplies as a factor in the capitulation, the British found some 30 cannon, 5,000 pounds of gunpowder, and 2,500 muskets in the fort. Brock allowed the militiamen, about 1,600 in all, to go, while Hull and 582 regulars were sent to Montreal for imprisonment.

Hull was later released as part of an exchange, and promptly arrested and brought before a court-martial board. Dearborn headed the board, and future President Martin Van Buren served as its judge advocate. Hull was accused of treason, cowardice, and neglect of duty. Defenders of Hull say he was deprived of counsel and made a scapegoat for the failings of Dearborn and the government. Others argue that Hull's failing at Detroit opened up the northwest to attack, although Detroit had been recaptured by the time Hull appeared before the board in 1814 and 1815.

Ultimately, the board dismissed the treason charge (based on the capture of the schooner) as "unsupported and insupportable." Hull was found guilty of the other charges against him and sentenced to death by firing squad. This never happened, as the board also recommended that President James Madison grant him a reprieve due to his Revolutionary War service and advanced age. Madison did so, but Hull remains the only U.S. general condemned to death.

Hull retired to Newton after the conviction and took up farming. He published tracts in 1814 and 1824 defending his experience during the War of 1812 and died in 1825.

Sources: The National Park Service, Ohio History Central, Great American Lawyers: An Encyclopedia by John R. Vile, Memoir of Gen. William Hull by Samuel Clarke, Encyclopedia of the War of 1812 by David S. Heidler and Jeanne T. Heidler, The City of Detroit, Michigan, 1701-1922 by Clarence Monroe Burton and William Stocking and Gordon K. Miller, The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict by Donald R. Hickey

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