Battle of Mackinac Island | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Battle of Mackinac Island

There were two Battles of Mackinac Island during the War of 1812. The first was fought in 1812 and the other, in 1814. Both were British victories over American forces. On 17 July 1812, British soldiers and their First Nations allies captured Fort Mackinac from the Americans. Mackinac was central to the fur trade in the Great Lakes. Britain and the US fought to control the area, and on 4 August 1814, the two sides clashed again on Mackinac Island, resulting in British victory. In 1815, the Treaty of Ghent ended to the war and restored peace to the area.


Mackinac Island is located at the confluence of Lake Huron and Lake Michigan. It became a British outpost in 1780 after the British abandoned Fort Michilimackinac, which occupied a similarly strategic position. Fort Michilimackinac was also at the confluence of the two lakes, but in an exposed position on the northern tip of the Michigan peninsula.

In 1796, in accordance with the Jay Treaty, Mackinac Island was transferred to the US. The British established a new post 50 km to the east on St Joseph's Island, near the mouth of the St Mary's River. (See also Fort St Joseph National Historic Site of Canada.)

The names Mackinac and Michilimackinac are often used interchangeably, though they are actually names of two distinct places.

1812 Battle of Mackinac

Mackinac Island was strategically located to control navigation between Lakes Huron and Michigan and access to the northwest, and in maintaining First Nations alliances. Major-General Isaac Brock, the commander of Upper Canada, declared that he would seize the island if war broke out with the US.

Fighting Begins

When war was declared, Brock sent conflicting messages to Captain Charles Roberts, the commander at Fort St. Joseph, who interpreted them as instructions to attack Fort Mackinac. Taking 46 officers and men of the 10th Royal Veteran Battalion, several gunners of the Royal Artillery, 200 fur traders and 400 First Nations warriors, Roberts left for the American post by bateaux (a flat-bottomed riverboat) and canoe on 16 July 1812.

Roberts' men landed the following day and then marched the 3 km to the fort. The American commander, Lieutenant Porter Hanks, was offered an opportunity to surrender, which he accepted. Hanks and the garrison of 61 men were taken prisoner and sent to Detroit on parole.

Significance of the Battle

The victory allowed the British to cement their alliance with the local First Nations. When Brigadier General William Hull learned of the British victory, he terminated his invasion of Upper Canada and withdrew to Detroit.

The loss of Mackinac and the subsequent capture of Detroit were serious setbacks for the American war effort. Almost immediately, plans were put in place to gain control of Lake Erie, regain Detroit and capture Fort Mackinac. While the first two objectives were achieved in 1813, the third could not be attempted until 1814.

1814 Battle of Mackinac

The loss of Lake Erie cut the British supply line to Fort Mackinac and the northwest. In early 1814, Lieutenant General Sir George Prevost, the commander-in-chief of British North America, ordered the establishment of a new communication route from York to Nottawasaga Bay, the reinforcement of Fort Mackinac and the establishment of a naval base on Georgian Bay. Prevost saw these initiatives as crucial to maintaining the British presence in the northwest and preserving First Nations alliances, and as a prelude to retaking Lake Erie in 1815. The reinforcements arrived at Fort Mackinac before the Americans arrived.

The Americans Attempt to Recapture the Fort

In the spring of 1814, Captain Arthur Sinclair of the US Navy was ordered to seize control of the upper lakes by recapturing Fort Mackinac and destroying the British naval presence on the lakes. Sinclair's force included two sloops (single-masted sailing vessels), two schooners (a sailing ship with two or more masts) and 750 men from three regular army regiments, several artillerymen and 250 Ohio militia. The army contingent was commanded by Lieutenant Colonel George Croghan.

After destroying the abandoned British post at St Joseph's Island, Sinclair's men then raided an outpost on the St Mary's River, near modern Sault Ste Marie. Sinclair arrived off Mackinac Island on 26 July.

The main American landing began at 2:00 pm on 4 August. A marine detachment was also sent to the northwestern side of the island. The British garrison was led by Lieutenant Colonel Robert McDouall and included 136 members of the Royal Newfoundland Fencibles, a dozen men from the 10th Royal Veteran Battalion, 13 artillerists, 37 Michigan Fencibles, 100 militia from St Joseph's Island and 360 First Nations warriors. McDouall had been expecting the Americans and had constructed a new blockhouse and a palisade on a rise to the north of Fort Mackinac, which he named Fort George.

Leaving some of his men in the fort, McDouall marched most of the garrison to a position over a kilometre to the northwest of Fort George. He placed 140 regulars, 50 militia and two field guns on a low ridge that bisected a roadway. Warriors were placed in the wood lines to protect the flanks. Croghan, meanwhile, had advanced up the road and drew his men into line.

The engagement opened around 3:00 pm. The Americans advanced slowly, while the British held their line. Croghan then sent detachments to outflank the British. The group moving on the British left was attacked fiercely by First Nations forces and driven back. A brief exchange of fire followed and Croghan then withdrew and re-embarked on the fleet by 6:00 pm.

Outcomes of the Battle

The Americans lost 19 killed and 45 wounded, while the British had no losses.

Sinclair left two schooners on Lake Huron to intercept British traffic and returned to Detroit. The British captured both vessels in September and the American campaign ended in failure.

The British left Mackinac Island following the peace in 1815, after which the fort was re-occupied by the US.

War of 1812
Death of Isaac Brock, The Battle of Queenston Heights