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General William Hull Court-Martial: 1814

General William Hull
Court-Martial: 1814

Defendant: William Hull
Crimes Charged: Treason, cowardice, neglect of duty, unofficer-like conduct
Chief Defense Lawyers: William Hull. (representing himself) assisted by Robert Tillotson, Cadwallader D. Colden
Chief Prosecutors: Martin Van Buren, Philip S. Parker
Judges: Henry Dearborn, Joseph Bloomfield, Peter Little, William N. Irvine, James House, William Scott, William Stewart, J. R. Fenwick, Robert Bogardus, Richard Dennis, Samuel S. Conner, S. B. Davis, John W. Livingston, James G. Forbes (Forbes was a Supernumerary Member of the Court and, as such, did not participate in the court's reaching its verdict)
Place: Albany, New York

Date of Trial: January 3-March 28, 1814
Verdict: Court had no jurisdiction to hear the treason charge; guilty of all other charges

Sentence: Death (President James Madison later remitted the sentence); also, Hull was dishonorably discharged and his name was stricken from the rolls of the army

SIGNIFICANCE: Although his sentence was later remitted, General William Hull is the only U.S. general to be sentenced to death by an American court-martial.

When the United States declared war on Great Britain on June 19, 1812, largely arrogant and politically ambitious men who had little or no military experience commanded its small and unequipped army. In addition, there was no carefully prepared strategy or plan for prosecuting the war. Disaster was waiting to strike and it did on August 16, 1812, when General William Hull surrendered Detroit to the British without a fight. When news of the capitulation reached the rest of the country, Hull's superiors, as well as the public, did not take time to consider the many factors that were beyond the general's control. Instead, he was immediately branded as a coward and a traitor. A year and a half later, Hull became the only American general in history to be sentenced to death by a court-martial of the U.S. Army.

An Army of State Militiamen and Inexperienced Officers

When the War of 1812 began, the army consisted of only 6,750 officers and men. There were between 500,000 and 700,000 state militiamen who could be called into federal service, but most of them were untrained, unorganized, and unarmed and many refused to fight beyond their own state's borders. Furthermore, most officers in both the regular army and the militias had little training or experience and owed their jobs to political influence rather than to any skill or merit.

One of the army's politician-officers was William Hull. Revolutionary War hero, lawyer, Massachusetts legislator, state judge, and a major general in the Bay State's militia, he was appointed governor of the Michigan Territory in 1805. (In 1810, Michigan had a population, not counting the Indians, of only 4,762, about 800 of whom resided in the village near Fort Detroit. The military garrison at the fort, the largest in the territory, had 94 men.) As war clouds loomed, Hull sought a military command even though he was 58 years old and had not seen combat in more than 25 years. Still, he had more experience than most of the men who would be his superior officers. In April 1812, he was commissioned a brigadier general and was placed in command of what was called the North Western Army.

In anticipation of hostilities, Hull's orders were to muster his army at Urbana, Ohio, move north to Detroit, and then await further instructions. His force consisted of 1,200 Ohio militiamen and 800 regular soldiers from the Fourth U.S. Infantry. Immediately, there was bickering between the regular soldiers and the militiamen, a mutiny by some Ohioans who refused to leave Urbana until they got paid, and a lack of cooperation (if not downright insubordination) from the three Ohio militia colonels.

Hull Ordered to Invade Canada

To expedite the trip to Detroit, Hull chartered a schooner, the Cayauga, and sent it ahead loaded with his instructions from the War Department and other military papers as well as his army's muster rolls, medical supplies, tools, and uniforms. He reached Detroit on July 5. In the meantime, war was declared, but because no one in Washington, D.C., was in any hurry to tell him, Hull did not hear the news until July 2. In contrast, the British at Fort Malden (a few miles from Detroit) received word days earlier and had captured Hull's schooner with its valuable cargo.

On July 9, Hull received orders to invade Canada if he believed his army "equal to the enterprise." Three days later, he led his men across the Detroit River and occupied the town of Sandwich. Despite this initial success, Hull did not attempt to seize either Fort Malden or the British naval base at nearby Amherstburg because he was convinced that he did not have the strength to capture those installations.

While in Canada, Hull's communication lines were cut by Britain's Indian allies, thereby severing his supply and intelligence links with the United States, and the two detachments he sent to reopen them were thrown back. There were also reports of approaching British reinforcements. Then, on August 3, Hull learned about the surrender of the American fort on Mackinac Island (located in the strait between Lake Huron and Lake Michigan). Fearing that the latest news meant that an onslaught of hostile Indians from Michigan's interior would soon be upon him, he retreated back to Detroit on August 8.

To make matters worse, on August 9, contrary to repeated orders to attack the British forces along the Niagara River (near Buffalo, New York) and in Kingston (across the St. Lawrence River from upstate New York where the river meets Lake Ontario), the American commander for those areas, Major General Henry Dearborn, entered into a truce with his British counterparts. The truce was to extend to Hull's theater of operations if Hull concurred, but Dearborn sent word to Hull only by regular mail. The cessation of hostilities in the east allowed the British to send to Fort Malden the troops that would have otherwise fought Dearborn. Those troops arrived at Fort Malden on August 13.

On August 15, the British crossed the border three miles south of Detroit and demanded Hull's surrender. Even though Hull's fort could have repulsed an initial assault, his garrison would not have survived a long siege. In addition, the British commander stated that once an attack began, the conduct of his Indian allies would be beyond his control. Hull had a number of noncombatants inside his fort, including women and children. He also knew firsthand the savagery of Indian warfare and the disregard the Natives had for the lives of civilians and prisoners of war. Believing his cause to be hopeless and not wanting to needlessly shed blood, Hull surrendered Detroit on August 16 without firing a shot. Ironically, his nephew, Captain Isaac Hull of the U.S. Navy, defeated the H.M.S. Guerrieri three days laterthe first American naval victory of the warwhile in command of the U.S.S. Constitution.

Hull Viewed as a Coward

News of Hull's surrender hit the United States like a shock wave. Everyone wanted his head and even former president Thomas Jefferson demanded that Hull be hanged or shot. Almost immediately, there were hints that the government would make Hull the scapegoat for the fall of Detroit.

Hull and almost 600 of his men were taken to Canada as prisoners while the rest of his command were left to find their way back to Ohio. A few months later, Hull was paroled (a common practice of the time whereby a prisoner of war is released upon his promise not to fight again). Returning to the United States, the disgraced general requested an investigation into his conduct and a courtmartial was scheduled for early 1813, but President James Madison cancelled it. A second court-martial was convened on January 3, 1814.

Hull faced three charges of treason, four counts of cowardice, and seven counts of neglect of duty and unofficer-like conduct. The entire proceeding was stacked against him. The presiding officer on the 13-member court was General Dearborn, the very person whose truce with the British allowed the enemy to send reinforcements to Fort Malden. The prosecution included the young New York state senator (and future U.S. President) Martin Van Buren. While Hull was allowed to consult with lawyers (including Colonel Cadwallader Colden, the former district attorney of New York City), he had to conduct his own defense because his lawyers were not allowed to examine or cross-examine any witnesses or to address the court.

Documents that Hull needed to defend himself were denied to him. His own copies of his orders, military correspondence, and other records had either been captured with the Cayauga or were taken by the British when they seized Fort Detroit. Permission for Hull to examine the files of the War Department to locate and copy what he needed was refused. While the government would allow its clerks to make copies of whatever Hull wished, many of the documents the general requested were nowhere to be found. (Years later, Hull was permitted to examine the government's files, and he found what had earlier been "missing.")

In addition, possibly as a reward for the statements they were to give in court, all of the officers who served under Hull and who were now going to testify against him had been promoted. For example, Lewis Cass and Duncan McArthur, two of the Ohio militia colonels who gave Hull so much trouble, were now brigadier generals. Hull said: "My expedition was more prolific of promotion than any other unsuccessful military enterprise I ever heard of."

Despite Hull's objections, witnesses were permitted to give their statements in court in each other's presence. (To insure that they do not change their stories to match what others might say, witnesses are usually not allowed to hear one another's testimony.) Statements about charges not covered in the allegations were allowed into evidence without any warning to Hull that the testimony was going to be offered. Finally, opinions, as opposed to statements of fact about what had occurred at Detroit, were permitted to be heard.

The court met 38 times over the span of nearly three months. Sometimes, adjournments of up to two weeks would occur. Then, on March 25, 1814, the judges announced their verdict. As to the charge of treason, the court ruled that it did not have any jurisdiction to try Hull for that crime, but from the evidence submitted the judges did not believe that he was guilty. However, the general was found guilty of all the other charges. The following day, with two-thirds of the court concurring, Hull was sentenced to be shot. In recognition of his Revolutionary War service and his age, the judges recommended to the president that Hull be shown mercy. The decision of the court was finalized on March 28. One month later, on April 25, President Madison signed a one-line document which stated that "the sentence of the court is approved and the execution of it remitted." That same day, Hull was dishonorably discharged from the army.

Hull's life was spared, but he lived the rest of his life in disgrace. Continually trying to clear his name, Hull succeeded in part with the publication of his memoirs in 1824. He died the following year.

Mark Thorburn

Suggestions for Further Reading

Elting, John R. Amateurs, to Arms!. A Military History of the 1Var of 1812. Chapel Hill, N.C.: Algonquin Books of Chapel Hill, 1991.

Forbes, James G. Report of the Tial of Brig. General IVilliam Hall;, Commanding the. Vorth IlVestern Army of the United States by a Court Martial New York: Eastburn, Kirk, and Company, 1814.

Hull, William. Memoirs of the Campaign of the North Western Arm! of the United States in the Year 1812: Addressed to the People of the United States. Boston: True and Greene, 1824.

Quaife, M. M. "General William Hull and His Critics." Ohio State Archaeological and Historical Quarterly, 47 (April 1948): 168-82.

Scott, Leonard H. "The Surrender of Detroit." American History Illustrated (June 1977): 28-36.

Van Deusen, John G. "Court Martial of General William Hull." Michigan History Magazine (Autumn 1928): 668-94.

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