The War Nerd’s Twelve Days of 1812, Day Nine: Invading Canada, The Hull Horrible Truth
(Previously: Day Eight: Lake Fight!)
Invading Canada is one of those projects that always sounds easy til you try it, like losing weight or being nicer to your family. And just like those dumb-ass fantasies, it’s not only harder than it looks but not worth it, either.
We made a serious try at taking Quebec at the very start of the nation in 1775. Some fine officers, including the much-maligned Benedict Arnold (Sorry, I just wanted to use “much-maligned” like a sportswriter) and we even managed to take Montreal before going a town too far with a pitiful attempt to grab Quebec. The lessons of that campaign were pretty easy to learn, if anybody ever actually learned this kind of lesson, which they don’t: (a) Canada is bigger and colder than a Prussian chorus girl; (b) the Canadians, not just the Anglo crowd but the grumbling Frenchies, don’t actually want to be liberated by us. In fact, they’ve always been happy to be loyal Queen-cheering patsies—I mean to somebody else, the bastards, instead of our patsies like they should be. I know this is hard for us to take--normally we bomb the shit out of people who won’t wear our little friendship rings and go to the prom with us--but Canada’s just too big and English-speaking to napalm, so just be brave, deal with the rejection and move on.
If I sound a little bitter, it’s because the American attempts to invade Canada from 1812-1814 were so lame that they actually gave these Empire-sucking toadies the chance to gloat over us. That’s unforgivable. I don’t mind seeing our guys lose once in a while, but not to Canada. That’s like getting beaten by your kid sister at arm wrestling.
The biggest reason for our total defeat in the Great White North might surprise some folks: The French Canadians, our natural allies, preferred the Brits to the Yankee bigots. Which is pretty amazing, because the French Canadians hate the Anglos, never got over losing New France to them in 1759. And the Anglo Canucks return the favor. I’ve seen Canadians, the kind who love to lecture the rest of the world on living in peace, turn into rabid weasels the moment somebody says “Uh, what about Quebec?”
As Mister Wizard used to say, you can see for yourself by trying this simple experiment: strap a Canadian into a dentist’s chair—he won’t mind, he’s a Canadian. Then, if he’s an Anglo from Ontario, just say the magic word “Quebec” and stand back as his shirt bursts and a giant Union-Jack rash comes out on his chest while he screams, “Fucking French Bastards!” If he’s a French Canadian, just use a different magic word, whisper “our dear Queen” in his ear and stand back out of froth-range.
I once had a Quebecois nurse prep me for dental surgery. She was proud of being Quebecois, said right off that she was from “Quebec, not Canada,” so I chatted about Montcalm and the Plains of Abraham to her—you know, small talk. Well, that was it; she was off on a ten minute rant about how the French had actually won that battle and it was nuthin’ but Anglo treachery that put that filthy Queen on Canada’s coins.
The funny thing was that the dental surgeon, who came in halfway through her screech, was from East Germany, making him a real victim of war in his own lifetime, but he listened to her and said, “I cannot understand why you people worry so much about ancient history.” Miss Quebec was miffed and didn’t talk for the rest of the operation; as for me, I had tubes and novocaine in my mouth, so talking was out, but since these people were about to deploy a full set of Marathon-Man torture devices in my favorite mouth, I tried to agree with both of them—sort of sneakily nod to the dentist on my left and give a little squeechy dip of the head in sympathy with his France-Uber-Alles assistant. And they ended up botching the operation anyway, as bad as we messed up on the invasion of Canada in 1812.
Nice segue, huh? I confess, I’ve been putting off the depressing job of talking about our Three Stooges invasion of Canada, led by possibly the worst officer in our history, William Hull. It’s a crowded field, I grant you; just take the Confederate brain trust at Fort Donelson, Generals Pillow and Floyd. Hard to top incompetence and cowardice like that, but Hull rates at least a dishonorable mention. Hull was a chipmunk-cheeked old Revolutionary vet and politician who never should have tried a comeback. They gave him command of the invasion because of connections, seniority, and most of all, the feeling that no one, even an old fool like Hull could mess up a walkover like occupying Canada.
Canada looks big on the map, but in 1812 it didn’t matter nearly as much to Britain as the little tiny specks in the West Indies. Those properties were producers, with sweet cash-crop profits. Canada was a frozen waste with a hunted-out fur trade and a tiny, unstable population: a very, very few Brits sitting uneasily on top of a very rough bunch of French, natives and Metis (half-French, half-native) who hated the Empire’s guts. How hard could it be to go up there and declare the whole godforsaken mess the property of these United States? Jefferson predicted that taking Canada would be “a matter of marching,” basically a “come and collect your prize” thing.
Hull managed to get his troops marching, at least. He took command of the Canadian invasion force (1500 men in Cincinnati, later growing to 2500) in May, 1812, and marched north. No small accomplishment, since most of them were militia. Now “militia” can mean a lot of different things; you could say that the Athenian forces at Marathon were a “militia,” since they were last-minute call-ups, guys with regular jobs. Sometimes these forces do a great job—The Battle of New Orleans, a few years after Hull’s disastrous invasion, for example. But that was exactly the kind of battle where “citizen-soldiers” can shine: static defense in a strong, fortified position. That’s how you use militia. What you don’t do with them is invasions.
Hull made everything worse with some of the lamest military public relations on record. Instead of courting the French settlers who had good reason to hate their British conquerors, Hull did what dumb invaders always do—what the Germans, for instance, did to the Ukrainians who welcomed them as liberators in 1940: insulted and frightened the Hell out of them. Hull issued a declaration demanding that everybody north of the border surrender, or else “the horrors…of war will stalk before you.” He made another promise: to hang any British soldiers who fought alongside natives. Since alliance with the natives was basic British policy in this war, particularly in the Northwest, that meant that any redcoat could be hanged.
None of them were; it was all just big talk by a weak old fool. But it did a great job of pissing off everybody north of the border, making sure the Canadians stayed with the British devil they knew instead of this new Yankee devil who seemed to be off his star-spangled rocker.
But Hull’s woofing doesn’t explain the strangest thing about Canada in the War of 1812: the fact that the French Canadians stayed loyal to the British Empire and made no moves whatsoever to embrace the Yankee invaders. What sealed that deal was a different kind of propaganda that had been coming out of the United States ever since the Pilgrims came ashore: an insane hate for Papists (Catholics).
The French Canadians were serious Catholics, and they’d been hearing about all the Catholic churches and nunneries burned in New England, the Papist-bashing speeches by Founding Fathers like John Jay, who said Papists should be legally forced to quit their religion before they could be citizens, and the non-stop screeching about “Rome, the whore of Babylon” by the Scots-Irish settlers along the frontier. American Evangelical stuff came straight out of 17th century Ulster, where the most noble deed you could perform was hanging a Papist on a meathook, and the militia who marched north into Canada with Hull was full of backwoods Baptist crazies looking forward to burning some Papist churches.
The British were more grown-up about the whole Papist problem. The way they saw it, the Papist Frogs in Quebec were a fact, like it or not; they weren’t going to give up the Whore of Babylon religion or stop speaking their silly Frenchy language—and they weren’t as easy to wipe out as troublesome native tribes, thanks to an amazingly high birthrate. Until the late 20th century, French Canada had one of the highest birth rates ever recorded, and priests would go around asking flat-bellied housewives, “Why ain’t you pregnant?”
The Catholic Church and the British officials, the two gangs with power over Quebec, pretended to be hardcore opponents, but they had a lot in common. They both wanted the French-speaking Quebecois to keep quiet and keep producing cheap labor. So, despite a lot of woofing from both sides, Church and Empire had knocked out a rough truce in the fifty years that the Brits had occupied Quebec. Most of the Brits who made up the Imperial officer corps in 1812 were Anglican (Episcopalian, we call’em) second sons from good families who took their religion very lightly. That made them much, much easier for the Priests in Quebec to deal with than the insane Ulster-Protestant Yankee settlers, who took (and still take) their religion way too serious and hated Catholics like poison.
So the Americans’ one real hope for taking Canada, a French uprising, was kaput before the war even started, just because a bunch of Free Republic bigots couldn’t keep their mouths shut long enough to sweet-talk a potential ally. Just switch “Muslim” for “Catholic” and you could write the same thing about us now. We’ve never had the discipline the Brits had. You never saw them dissing a potential ally until they were through with them. And then, of course, it was, “Do I know you?”
So before General Hull’s little army even started marching, our famous charm and warmth had managed to totally piss off every single ally we could’ve had in Canada—not only the French, but the Natives, who’d rather deal with British officials than land-hungry, bloodthirsty Yankee settlers any day, and the unaligned Canuck civilians, who were scared off by Hull’s loudmouth proclamations. We were in a classic Hollywood comeuppance position: the big bully who doesn’t have the stones to back it up.
Comeuppance didn’t keep Hull waiting long. As he moved north to be in position for the advance into Canada, Hull was waiting to hear that war had been officially declared. (They were quaint in them days; they actually waited for the starting gun.) As far as Hull knew, stuck like he was in the buggy, muggy brush of northern Ohio, the starting gun hadn’t gone off yet, and he was free to deploy his forces without fear of any rudeness from His Majesty’s Forces. So he sent a schooner, the Cuyahoga, scuttling down the Maumee River to Lake Erie, bound for Detroit, with all his military plans and the men who were too sick or hurt to march through the brush.
So the Cuyahoga pulls up to the dock in Amherstburg, a Canadian town across from Detroit, and instead of the McKenzie brothers with a few bottles of Elsinore Beer, they meet a squad of squaddies with guns pointed right between the visitors’ eyes. Next thing you know, the British commander in the Northwest, General Isaac Brock, is having a nice read of Hull’s plans for the invasion.
Brock was a damn good commander, like I’ve mentioned before. One of the things he learned from Hull’s whiny letters was that Hull was afraid his chickenshit militiamen would flee at the first sign they were facing Injun warriors. A typical thickheaded officer might not have made much use of that, just had a good chuckle over his glass of port; but Brock was smart enough to see that making war is about deception and terror as much as muskets and cannon.
Meanwhile, our guy, Hull—to get a good image of Hull, just imagine Mister Magoo blundering around in a blue hat like a bell curve, with a feather boa stitched to it—Hull had finally crashed through the brush to Detroit, which was supposed to be the jump-off for the big bad invasion.
There were two interesting bits of news waiting for Hull/Magoo in Motor City: first, war had officially been declared; second, the redcoats across the river had seized the Cuyahoga with all his paperwork. Like the idiot he was, Hull crossed the river into Canada anyway, along with most of his men. I say “most,” because a few hundred of his militia, the classic jailhouse-lawyer type you get in these overrated citizen-soldier armies, pointed to the fine print and said they were only supposed to fight in Ohio.
Hull kept marching into Ontario, waiting for the oppressed Canadian masses to rise up against the British scourge. Didn’t happen, of course. Here’s a little tip for you future cannon fodder: if your commander’s plan ever includes the line, “…and then the people will rise up and join us,” you get out of there any way you can, because you’re going to be slaughtered.
Hull finally realized that the locals didn’t like him, and then heard that his outposts were being smothered by Tecumseh’s irregular native infantry. That started the Injun-o-phobia going strong among the men, and Hull finally fell back on Fort Detroit.
In itself that wasn’t a bad move. In fact, a really good commander, in that situation, might’ve retreated even farther. But Hull was weak in retreat as well as advance, so he stayed put in the Fort.
He was, technically, in a very strong position, occupying a solid fortification with 2500 men, against about 1300 in the British/Native force that Brock was bringing to besiege him. But Brock knew, from intel and especially from his reading of Hull’s letters, that Hull’s troops were cowards and their commander was a weak old fool. He knew he had the upper hand, even attacking a fortified position held by double his own numbers. According to standard conventional rules, the attacking force should outnumber the defenders by 3:1; here, the defenders outnumbered the attackers 2:1. But the rules don’t account for intel, morale, and theatrics. Brock used them all to crush Hull’s bigger force.
Brock knew that Hull’s hicks were scared to death of Tecumseh’s native warriors. Which is kind of odd, in a way, because native forces didn’t perform all that well in this war—not even as well as Yankee militia. In fact, Yankee militia generally beat native forces when they met on anything like equal terms in the War of 1812, like for example in the Battle of Horseshoe Bend, where Yankee militia crushed a bigger force of Creek warriors. (Although you have to remember that militia was commanded by a dude named Andrew Jackson; comparing Jackson to Hull is like comparing a Shih Tzu to a Dogo Argentino.)
Brock was smart enough to realize he didn’t need to use Tecumseh’s warriors in battle; he could use them in terrorem, as the old military manuals say. Brock arranged his forces out of range but well within sight of Hull’s troops inside the fort, and then sprung the move that I called “the oldest trick in the military book” in my article on “Tecumseh’s Fall”: he had Tecumseh send his warriors in a loop, a continuous loop, single file, out of the forest, into the open, and then back into the forest—over and over again. Tecumseh only had about 400 warriors, but the militia inside Fort Detroit was convinced there was a vast horde of bloodthirsty natives just waiting to scalp them out there.
A decent body of professional soldiers would’ve laughed, or used the parade for rangefinding, but Hull’s spooked hicks fell for it completely. Brock, who was a master of psyops before the word even existed, let the fear build up among the trapped rats in the fort, then, in mid-August, 1812, made his move. Brock sent Hull a formal letter saying that unless the Yankees surrendered right now, he couldn’t hold back those scary native allies of his any longer.
It was the perfect parody version of Hull’s announcement that any British soldier caught fighting with natives would be hung. By making that idiot proclamation, Hull had already made this a no-prisoners, all-out campaign, and he was in no position now to talk law of war and human rights and all that crap. The only difference was that Hull had just been woofing; Brock, as far as Hull knew, had the guns, or rather the tomahawks, to back up the threat.
Hull spent the night of August 15 dreaming of whoopin’ Injuns giving him the meathead cut, which is where you go a little deeper than the plain skinhead look. His men had the same dream. The British gave them the night to think about it, and then, on August 16, lobbed in a few shells to remind the defenders they had a decision to make. One of those shells blasted the officers’ dining room, which shocked Hull so much that he screamed like a bitch and ordered immediate surrender without even talking to his officers. A few of the lower commissioned ranks supposedly talked about killing the old fool on the spot and holding out, but they were outvoted by the cowards, and under a white flag, 2500 American citizen-soldiers marched out chanting their battle-cry, “Not the hair! Not the hair!”
You have to wonder if any of these backwoods rubes could count; if they could, they might have noticed that they were surrendering to a force about half their size. If that bothered anybody, they were mature enough to keep quiet about it. They dealt with it in the way officers and gentlemen always do: once they were safe back home at their desks, a bunch of Hull’s subordinates wrote memoirs proving that Hull was drunk, or crazy, or a traitor, or whatever, but that yours truly, the officer writing the memoir, was a true hero despite peeing his pants at the sight of a handful of Shawnee outside Fort Detroit. Not our finest hour, all in all.
And the shame just kept on comin’. Most of Hull’s militiamen were paroled—I mean, Brock was too smart to think troops like these could ever be a threat to anybody, so why feed them? Hull and a few of his men were taken as celebrity POWs, where one of the redcoats detailed as their keepers wrote the epitaph for the whole campaign by saying that he found his prisoners “the most miserable body of men I have ever encountered.”