Re-enactors in Victorian-era dress promenade on the boardwalk of Fort Mackinac on Mackinac Island.
BATTLE ON MACKINAC ISLAND: How Michigan's Vacation Spot Influenced History
Two hundred years ago this month, the British Army captured Fort Michilimackinac, then located on Mackinac Island.
Their landing spot on a northwest stretch of the island is called "British Landing" to this day and is a favorite stopping place for bicyclists, runners and walkers circling the island.
The original Fort Michilimackinac was founded by the French in 1715 and taken over by the British at the end of the French and Indian War in 1763.
Believing Fort Michilimackinac at what is now Mackinaw City was too vulnerable to American attack, the British moved the fort to Mackinac Island in 1780.
Americans did not take control of the fort or the island in 1796, some 13 years after the Revolution, as the British stayed illegally -- unwilling to give up the valuable fur trade.
The Mackinac Island State Park Commission website comments on this ironic period: "The fort and island became United States territory as a result of the American victory in the Revolution. However, it took thirteen years for American troops to arrive and finally take control of the fort from the British. The latter were reluctant to leave the island, as British merchants continued to dominate fur trading, even in American territory."
In July 1812, the British surreptitiously pulled a six pound cannon through the wilderness, gained the heights above the fort and, with a single warning shot, forced the Americans to surrender or face an inevitably damaging bombardment.
Lt. Porter Hanks and his 61 man U.S. garrison at the fort were helpless when faced with 45 British regulars from Ft. St. Joseph, 180 employees of the North West Company and 410 Indians -- being outnumbered more than 10-1.
Lt. Hanks had another drawback: He had not been informed his country had declared war on Britain and didn't until he was attacked on the morning of 17 July 1812.
Two years later, on 20 July 1814, Colonel George Croghan, U.S. commander at Detroit and his superior, General William Henry Harrison, were determined to regain control of the fort.
On July 26th 1814 the five U.S. ships carrying seven hundred soldiers arrived off Mackinac to assault the fort. The landing force discovered the fort was too high to bring cannon fire to bear, ruling out a direct assault on the walls.
The fort was commanded by Colonel Robert McDouall of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, and now was defended by a blockhouse built on the heights that had enabled the British to capture the fort in 1812.
After two days of shelling that mainly damaged vegetable gardens, the U.S. squadron backed out to sea in a fog which delayed the landing for a week. When the weather cleared the ships resumed bombardment of the western end of the island. Led by Major Andrew Holmes, the Americans landed and worked their way through woods to an open clearing near Dousman's farm.
As the Americans came into the open the British, behind breastworks, had clear shots and killed thirteen including Major Andrew Holmes and two other officers, and wounded fifty-one.
Croghan pulled his men back into the woods and down to the beach. There they climbed into the boats and rowed back to their ships. The next day the Americans sailed away. Mackinac remained firmly in British hands.
The National Society of the U.S. Daughters of 1812 erected a plaque to Holmes and unknown American soldiers who died at the 1814 Battle of Mackinac Island.
Don Burzynski, in his book "The First Leathernecks" noted how a detachment of Marines had been part of the futile invasion of Mackinac Island, one of the first times they faced defeat.
The book tells how the Marines repulsed British troops at the battles of Lake Erie, Baldensburg, Baltimore and New Orleans. It recounts how the Marine Corps was instrumental in combating the slave trade and quashing pirates off the coasts of North Africa.
Anyone familiar with the Marine Corps hymn will recall the Marines assault on the Palace of Chapultepec during the Mexican-American War. That battle is immortalized in the phrase from the hymn, "From the shores of Montezuma . . ."
The Battle of Mackinac Island is one of the little known battles of the war, and of Michigan history, but is recalled now on the 200th anniversary of the War of 1812.
A Canadian writer, J. Mackay Hitsman, author of a book called "The Incredible War of 1812," summarized the importance of the British victory on Mackinac:
"The capture of Mackinac Island transformed the situation in Upper Canada. The British retained control of the area throughout 1813, and were able to make great use of their Indian allies in the fighting to the east.
"The news of the American defeat at Mackinac Island also played a significant part in the British capture of Detroit. At the start of the war an American expedition under Brigadier-General William Hull had crossed over the Detroit River into Canada, but had failed to make any further progress. Hull was already beginning to lose his nerve before news of the British victory on Lake Huron was confirmed on 2 August.
"After considering launching an attack on the British position at Fort Malden, on 8 August he retreated back to Detroit. On 16 August, under pressure from a British attack, he surrendered Detroit and his entire force."
The U.S. ultimately won that war, but not until 1815 when the British army held Plattsburgh, New York, but the U.S. fleet took control of Lake Champlain and made resupply of British land forces untenable. The Brits were forced to withdraw to Canada and the three-year conflict was over.
"In one of the most important battles of the war, American naval forces under the command of Commodore MacDonough defeated a British fleet on Lake Champlain," commented historycentral.com. "The American naval victory forced the British to withdraw, and thus ended the British invasion."
The fort was returned to the United States after the war by the Treaty of Ghent. The park commission notes: "John Jacob Astor established the American Fur Company northern department headquarters on Mackinac Island and by the 1820s the fur trade was flourishing. Furs from the company's winter camps in Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and Minnesota flowed to Mackinac every summer. Here, on Mackinac Island's Market Street, the furs were counted, sorted and baled for shipment to the East Coast and Europe. Millions of dollars worth of furs passed through Mackinac Island in the 1820s."
Commercial fishing replaced fur trading as Mackinac Island's primary industry in the 1830s after the fur-bearing animal stock was depleted in the Midwest.
The fort was manned and remained active until 1895. During these years Mackinac Island was transformed from a center of the fur trade into a major summer resort.
The stone ramparts, the south sally port and the Officer's Stone Quarters are all part of the original fort built over 225 years ago. The other buildings in the fort are of more recent origin, dating from the late 1790s to 1885.
The buildings have been restored to how they looked during the final years of the fort's occupation. A University of South Florida field school under the direction of Dr. Roger Grange, Jr. excavated the fort's old well in 1980 and 1981. Dr. Grange and USF field schools also excavated the Provision Storehouse (1980-1982), the East Blockhouse (1980-81), the blacksmith shops (1995-1996), and under the floor of the Officers' Wood Quarters (1986).
The most recent archaeological project at Fort Mackinac was the testing and excavation associated with the repair of the Fort Mackinac wall. This project, carried out by Great Lakes Research in 2000-2001, included the excavation of a 19th-century drainage system on the parade ground.
Interpreters at the fort depict U. S. Army soldiers from this same period, dressed in distinctive Prussian-inspired uniforms.
Reconstruction of Fort Michilimackinac at Mackinaw City began in the 1930s. In the 1960s the initial work was abandoned and reconstruction based on archaeological evidence was begun. It is operated by the State of Michigan today as Colonial Fort Michilimackinac and is a popular historic attraction.
History Article 7192
Dave Rogers is a former editorial writer for the Bay City Times and a widely read,
respected journalist/writer in and around Bay City.
(Contact Dave Via Email at firstname.lastname@example.org)
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