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Fort Amherstburg in the War of 1812
by Bob Garcia

1804fm.gif (25046 bytes)
Drawing of the 1804 fort. Fort Malden N H S (Parks Canada)

A former Militia Quartmaster Sergeant, today Mr Garcia wears many hats as a staff member at Parks Canada's Fort Malden National Historic Site.  With his Master's in Library Science, Mr Garcia serves as the site's archivist and librarian, interpretative guide, site webmaster, informatics designate, and acts on occasions as collections manager.  In his spare time, Mr Garcia involves himself the local archival and historical community of the greater Windsor area.  You may visit Fort Malden's website from a link at the end of this article.

Founding the fort

     Until 1796 Detroit was the main British post and fur trade centre in the upper Great Lakes. In July of that year, under the terms of the Jay Treaty, the British surrendered Detroit to the United States. The British had prepared for the day that they might lose this important post. In 1788 Gother Mann of the Royal Engineers surveyed a site on the east bank of the Detroit River for a new fort. In his report Mann laid out his reasoning for selecting a site near where the Detroit River emptied into Lake Erie:

...the best situation for a Post, will be on the Main Shore opposite to the North End of the Island Bois Blanc, as such position will command both Channels, every Vessel being obliged to come within Five Hundred yards of it. There is a good and safe anchorage in the channel between the Island and the Main shore; that shore is also well adapted for wharfs and other conveniences for Naval or commercial purposes; and to which a post as above described would afford good protection...

The strategic value of this location could not be denied. With few roads in the region the water ways of the Great Lakes provided the main lines of communications for commerce and the military.

        The British began construction on the new fort in April 1796. Under the direction of Lt. Robert Cooper, Royal Engineers, work on the post advanced rapidly. Carpenters erected temporary structures to house building materials, workers and soldiers during the summer of 1796. By 1804 at least ten structures had been built by the troops including: ordnance blockhouse/barrack, guard house, powder magazine, Indian Department Storehouse, Indian Department Council House, Indian Department Storekeeper’s Residence, privy, fire engine shed, ordnance shed and a kitchen.

1804fort.jpg (53932 bytes)
Sketch of the Military Post at Amherstburg, 1804. The fort is on the left, the navy yard at the centre bottom and the town of Amherstburg on the right. (Library and Archives of Canada, Map Division, c-52252).-CLICK TO ELACRGE IMAGE

       Fortifications for the post took second priority to the establishment of the rest of Fort Amherstburg's infrastructure, but in 1799 the commander of the fort, Hector Maclean, received orders to erect a wooden palisade and build earthen bastions. Once completed the new defensive works consisted of a rectangular palisade of pickets 3 metres high. The perimeter of the fort was approximately 900 metres and at each corner was a diamond shaped earthen bastion containing four cannons. An additional earthwork, called a ravelin, shielded the gate from attack from the river and contained five pieces of artillery. Surrounding the whole structure was a dry ditch three feet deep and six feet wide.

       Fort Amherstburg, as the new post came to be known, had three main functions. In addition to being the military garrison for the British along the Detroit River the fort contained a naval yard and a headquarters for the British Indian Department.

       At Amherstburg the Indian Department was lead by such colourful and resourceful characters as Simon Girty, Matthew Elliott, and Alexander Mckee, all veterans of the American Revolutionary War era. The department cultivated the allegiance of the tribes in the Northwestern Territories (that part of the United States that included the future states of Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois and Wisconsin) and would assist in the co-ordination the Anglo-Native military effort in case of war. Fort Amherstburg became a centre for the gift giving ceremonies that supplied the tribes with all manner goods including food, cloth, tools, weapons and ammunition. While the Indian Agents were quite successful at nurturing Native affiliation to the British cause the Department raised the ire of the Americans who, quite rightly, saw it as meddling with internal American affairs. This interference became, for some Americans, a cause of the War of 1812.

      The fort also housed the King's Navy Yard. Here the Provincial Marine constructed the vessels it used on the Upper Great Lakes. The ship yard was south of the fort between it and the growing town of Amherstburg. The yard’s facilities included a large store house, two blockhouses, a timber yard and saw pit, and a wharf. A privately owned rope-walk just to the east produced ropes and cables for the vessels built there. Directed by Master Builder William Bell, the yard produced vessels ranging from small, open bateaux, to full sized, three masted, ship rigged men-of-war. Between 1796 and 1813 at least four major vessels were launched from the navy yard: the brig General Hunter (1805), the ship Queen Charlotte (1810), the Schooner Lady Prevost (1810) and the ship Detroit (1813).

       Despite the strategic importance of Amherstburg’s sprawling military and naval complex the years leading up to the War of 1812 were often ones of neglect. Garrisons rarely numbered more than a company or two of infantry (approximately 40 - 150 soldiers) with a few attached Royal Artillery gunners and Royal Engineers. Peace-time economies often made it difficult for the local commander to find the money to make basic repairs to the existing facilities. Succeeding commanders of Fort Amherstburg complained of decaying buildings and collapsing picketing surrounding the fort. Only in 1811 when the threat of war became real were resources allocated to put the post into a defensible state. Even so, William K. Beall, an American prisoner of war in Amherstburg during the Summer of 1812 commented that the fort appeared to be very weak with few cannon and the picketing was in such bad condition that one could jump across the ditch surrounding the fort and get inside without difficulty.

War of 1812

       The United States declared war on Britain on June 19, 1812 and word reached Fort Amherstburg several days later. With this information the Commander of the fort, Lieutenant-Colonel St. George, scored one of the first British successes of the war. On July 2, 1812 the American schooner Cuyahoga sailed up the Detroit River loaded with supplies, a military band and numerous sick troops belonging to Brigadier-General William Hull's North-Western Army. The occupants of the vessel were unaware of Washington's declaration of war. As the Cuyahoga passed the fort a mixed force of soldiers, sailors and natives lead by Lieutenant Frederick Rolette of the Provincial Marine rowed out and forced the schooner to heave to. The startled Americans put up little resistance.6 Of vital interest to the British was the discovery of Hull's papers outlining scenarios for a campaign against Fort Amherstburg.7

      To oppose Hull's 2500 strong army St. George had about 300 regulars of the 41st and Royal Newfoundland Regiments stationed at Fort Amherstburg and the support of approximately 850 local militia and 400 Native Allies.8 On paper the Militia was quite numerous, but it was largely untrained, unequipped and unarmed. Essex County supplied most of the militia, though counties farther east, such as Kent, contributed men for the defence of Fort Amherstburg. The best Essex militiamen were grouped into two "flank companies" (approximately 40-60 soldiers in each company) which had some training and arms, and were perhaps better motivated. The Native Allies numbers varied greatly from engagement to engagement, but their skill in guerrilla warfare was to be a great equalizer against the Americans.

      On July 12, 1812 Hull invaded Upper Canada crossing the river between Detroit and Sandwich, about 35 kilometres above Fort Amherstburg. The Essex Militia stationed in Sandwich scattered allowing the Americans to firmly establish themselves on Canadian soil. The opposing forces first clashed south of Sandwich at the bridge over the River Canard on July 16, 1812. Here the Americans threw the British back from the last natural obstacle before Amherstburg. Hull did not fully exploit this victory. He was concerned with his supply situation and the lack of serviceable heavy artillery to batter Fort Amherstburg.9 When Provincial Marine vessels anchored near the mouth of the River Canard further hindering the advance on Amherstburg, Hull let the initiative slip from his grasp.

      The British at this point could not hope to directly force the Americans off Canadian soil. Instead, with great success, their military effort was directed against Hull's supply lines. Groups of British regulars, Canadian Militia and Native Allies sortied from Fort Amherstburg threatening the American lines of communication on the west bank of the Detroit River. At the battles of Brownstown, August 5, 1812 and Monguagon, August 9, 1812, the British attempted to sever Hull's supply route to Ohio. On July 26 Hull learned of the fall of the American fort at Michilimackinac, located in northern Michigan. He now greatly feared British and Native attacks from that direction cutting off his army from its base of operations at Detroit.10 On August 8, 1812 Hull abandoned Sandwich and evacuated his troops back to Detroit.

      The initiative was now firmly with the British. On August 13, 1812 Major General Isaac Brock, acting Lieutenant-Governor of Upper Canada and Commander-in-Chief of forces in Upper Canada docked at Amherstburg with reinforcements of the 41st Regiment and the Canadian Militia. His arrival gave heart to the Essex militia which returned to the colours in increasing numbers. It was at Fort Amherstburg that Brock met the Great Shawnee war chief Tecumseh and it was here that they formed their plan of attack on Detroit. By August 15 the British re-occupied Sandwich and began shelling Detroit. On August 16 the allies crossed the river. The British and Militia formed to the south-west of Detroit and Tecumseh's Native Warriors deployed in woods west and north of the town. The total allied strength was approximately 1500 - 2000, close to the strength of Hull's remaining forces.11 Before a certainly bloody assault could begin the thoroughly demoralized Hull surrendered.

       The capitulation of Hull's army at Detroit was a boon to the British. The numerous cannons, muskets and supplies stored in the town were used to equip and feed the Canadian Militia and the Native Allies. The elimination of a major American army lessened the immediate threat to Fort Amherstburg and south west Upper Canada. It also meant the occupation of Michigan territory by the British and Canadians. Secure on this flank, Brock now shifted forces away from the Detroit River region to the next pressing theatre of operations, the Niagara Peninsula.

       With the departure of Brock command of the troops at Fort Amherstburg devolved upon Colonel Henry Procter, a career officer of the 41st Regiment. Procter's dilemma was this: how does one hold on to Detroit, Michigan territory and southwest Upper Canada with very limited forces? His answer was a defensive strategy coupled with limited offensive actions to disrupt the build up of new American armies.

      Though humbled at Detroit the Americans were not easily discouraged. They formed a second North-Western Army under William Henry Harrison, Governor of Indiana Territory and future President of the United States. He planned a winter campaign to recapture the lost territory and to attack the British installations at Amherstburg. Harrison hoped the frozen Detroit River would immobilize the vessels of the Provincial Marine and that the ice in the river could be a bridge for his army of 4000.12 Harrison's force began its advance late in the year and the first major clash with Procter came early in 1813.

      The Battle of Frenchtown, January 22, 1813, was the first test of Procter's defensive strategy. The leading elements of Harrison's army, approximately 1000 troops under General James Winchester pushed north along the west side of Lake Erie.13 Canadian militia and Natives driven out of Frenchtown by Winchester’s troops sent warning of the American approach and Procter quickly dispatched all available forces for a counter-attack. His troops included about 500 regulars and militia and approximately 400-500 Native Allies under the command of Wyandotte Chief Roundhead.14 The ensuing battle was hard fought with heavy casualties on both sides. Procter's troops prevailed and most of Winchester's men were either killed or captured. The British victory was marred when the following day numerous American wounded and prisoners were killed by Native Warriors.

     The victory at Frenchtown ensured the safety of Fort Amherstburg until the Spring of 1813. By April Harrison had reorganized an army of 2000 at Fort Meigs in northern Ohio.15 Once again Procter set out from Amherstburg to disrupt this concentration. He sailed across the recently thawed Lake Erie with approximately 2000 regulars, militia and Native Allies and began a siege of the American fort.16 From the end of April to early May the bombardment of the Americans continued. However, Fort Meigs could not be taken. A relieving American force, while eventually defeated, disrupted the siege. Some of the Natives left after the defeat of the American relieving force, believing that they had achieved a victory. Also, the Canadian Militia, which contained a large number of farmers, clamoured to return to Essex County for Spring planting.17 Procter, faced with these circumstances reluctantly ended the operation and returned to Amherstburg.

       During the Summer of 1813 Procter made his last efforts to stop the American build-up. Leaving the militia to guard Fort Amherstburg, Procter's regulars and Native Warriors attacked Fort Meigs from July 26-28 and Fort Stephenson, a few miles from Meigs, on August 2. Both attempts were futile resulting in costly losses to the British Regulars. There were no further allied efforts south of Lake Erie.

       A new threat to Fort Amherstburg developed during 1813. Through the winter and spring the Americans constructed a fleet at Presqu'ile, Pennsylvania and by August this fleet was ready for action. Oliver Hazard Perry, the commander of the American squadron, used his vessels to cut the British supply route across Lake Erie. By September the Commissariat at Amherstburg was empty. Starvation threatened the garrison and the numerous Native Allies encamped around the town. In a desperate attempt to break the American blockade Captain Robert H. Barclay, a Royal Navy veteran of the Battle of Trafalgar, lead six vessels out from Amherstburg to engage Perry's nine vessel fleet. On September 10, 1813 the two forces clashed. At first, Barclay’s squadron had the upper hand disabling Perry's flag ship, the brig Lawrence. Perry transferring his flag to the Brig Niagara, recovered the initiative and the Battle of Lake Erie was a complete American victory. All of the British ships were captured.

      The loss of the British Fleet meant Fort Amherstburg was now defenceless against an American amphibious invasion. Procter ordered the destruction of the fort, the naval-yard and all government buildings in Amherstburg rather than have them fall into American hands. By late September the British regulars, and what Native Allies that would follow, began the retreat from Amherstburg. Their goal was to reach other British forces at Burlington Heights, about 400 kilometres to the east. The dilatory nature of Procter's retreat allowed Harrison's army, which landed south of Amherstburg on September 27 to catch the British. The Battle of the Thames, on October 5, 1813 was another decisive American victory. The bulk of Procter's troops, dispirited by the retreat quickly surrendered and the Native leader Tecumseh was killed. The defeat meant Fort Amherstburg and most of South-Western Upper Canada would be occupied by the Americans for the rest of war.

       The Americans entered Amherstburg at the end of September 1813 and slowly set about constructing a new fort on the ruins of Fort Amherstburg. They encountered many of the same problems as the British in attempting to build a fort: shortages of manpower, materials and tools.18 The US troops erected several structures inside the new fort and were able to complete a palisade by the end of 1814. American and British diplomats signed the Treaty of Ghent on 24, December 1814 bringing the war to a close. While fighting continued in some areas until well after the ratification of the treaty Fort Malden, as the Americans now described it, remained a sleepy backwater. The Americans returned control of the partially reconstructed post to the British on July 1, 1815.

       Fort Malden never regained its pre-war importance. The British decided that Amherstburg was too exposed to attack and rebuilt the naval yard at Penetanguishene on Georgian Bay. Changes in British military policy meant that the fort would only be a secondary post and by the mid-1830s Fort Malden was closed. The outbreak of the Upper Canada Rebellion in December 1837 brought a reprieve to the fort. The Royal Engineers reconstructed the earthworks, erected a dozen new structures and whole battalions of infantry regarrisoned Amherstburg. However, as border tensions lessened during the 1840s the number of troops at the fort was decreased. The last British regulars withdrew in 1851 and the post finally closed in 1858.

Notes

1. Extract from Gother Mann's Report to Lord Dorchester, 6 December 1788. in LaJeunesse, Ernest J. The Windsor Border Region. Toronto: Champlain Society, 1960, pp. 209-210.

2. Carter-Edwards, Dennis. Fort Malden: a structural narrative history 1796-1976. Parks Canada Manuscript Report # 401, 1980. p. 64.

3. As a branch of the British Army Quarter-Master General department the Provincial Marine's main tasks were to transport troops and supplies. The Provincial Marine was the British naval presence on the Great Lakes until it was absorbed by the Royal Navy in 1813.

4. Carter-Edwards, pp. 74-95.

5. Beall, William K. Journal of William K. Beall. Louisville(KY): The Filson Club, nd. p.45.

6. Beall, pp. 7-9.

7. Captain Dixon to Lt. Col. R.H. Bruyeres, 8 July 1812. in Cruickshank, E.A., ed. Documents relating to the invasion of Canada and the surrender of Detroit, 1812. Ottawa: Government Printing Office, 1912, pp. 48-49.

8. Ibid.

9. Hull to Secretary of War, July 22, 1812, in Cruickshank, pp. 80-81.

10. Hull to Secretary of War, 4 August 1812, in Cruickshank, pp. 115-116.

11. Brock to Sir George Prevost, August 17, 1812, in Cruickshank, pp. 156-160.

12. Gilpin, Alec. R. The War of 1812 in the old Northwest. East Lansing (MI): Michigan State University Press, 1968, p. 162.

13. Gilpin, p. 165.

14. Couture, Paul Morgan. War and society on the Detroit River frontier, 1791-1815. Parks Canada Manuscript Report, 1986. Chapter 9, Frenchtown & Fort Meigs, n.p.

15. Gilpin, p. 180.

16. Couture, chap. 9, n.p.

17. Ibid

18. Carter-Edwards, p. 107.

Copyright Bob Garcia 1999

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