Bored Officers, An Afternoon of Whisky and a Deserter on the Loose in Detroit. What Could Go Wrong?
By Tom Fournier
This incident has fascinated me for some time. It happened in 1805 in Detroit involving Officers of the British Army (41st Regiment) and the U.S. Army.
By way of some background, Officers from the British and American armies stationed in remote outposts with limited society, were there to observe each other, but they would often end up taking advantage of their common background and experiences to develop friendships and a culture of visiting.
The British had a policy of rounding up and returning American deserters to the U.S. Army. They asked for reciprocal actions or support from the Americans. For the Americans, this proved more difficult in or near American communities as their citizens were protective of British deserters seeking liberty and a new life in the United States.
This incident comes to light in a series of letters from a Detroit citizen. On its own, it is interesting. But what I also find fascinating is that many of the individuals involved are on a future collision course in the coming history of the War of 1812.
Captain Adam Muir of the 41st Regiment will have command of the occupied city and fort of Detroit in 1813 and will often have to deal with a belligerent Judge Woodward, the highest-ranking member of the U.S. government remaining in Detroit.
Governor William Hull will have command of the U.S. Army of the Northwest in 1812, invade Upper Canada, retreat back to the Michigan Territory and ultimately surrender Detroit to the British in August of 1812.
Abraham Hull, son of William Hull, a Captain in the U.S. Army was a prisoner after the surrender of Detroit, went on parole[i], was exchanged in 1813 and died fighting the British at the Battle of Lundy’s Lane.
The very unfortunate Porter Hanks of the U.S. Artillery, had command of Fort Mackinac during the summer of 1812. He was forced to surrender in one of the first actions of the War of 1812. Granted parole, he made his way to Detroit where he died in the opening British artillery barrage on Fort Detroit.
Judge Woodward was a controversial figure in the history of Detroit. This story is preserved as the trial resulting from this incident and the resulting sentences (which had to be reversed) were cited as an example of Woodward’s incompetence by a resident of Detroit in a series of letters. The story also comes up as part of the precedents for a failed piece of legislation by Woodward around the restoration of slaves and deserters.
We can thank the Historiographer for the City of Detroit, Silas Farmer for capturing these letters which I transcribe and provide annotations.
From: The History of Detroit and Michigan or The Metropolis Illustrated. Silas Farmer. 1889
The origin and progress of these remarkable trials is humorously told in a series of letters written by John Gentle[ii] to the Pittsburgh Commonwealth, and confirmed in almost all particulars by a letter addressed to Stanley Griswold[iii], acting governor, signed by James Abbott and Wm. Mc.D. Scott, justices of the peace, published in the Philadelphia Aurora of November 10, 1806. Mr. Gentle says:
Soon after the departure of General Hull[iv] and Judge Woodward[v] for Washington City (in November, 1805) a disagreeable affair happened between the military officers and the citizens. The officers of Fort Detroit, and the officers of Fort Malden, on the British side, some years ago, entered into mutual agreement to aid and assist one another in the prevention and detection of deserters. The British officers, on their part, have taken and delivered up several deserters to the American garrison, the officers of which have often attempted to return the compliment, but the people considered such proceedings a violation of the civil laws of the United States, and contrary to the Constitution, and have always succeeded in rescuing the poor devils out of their hands. On Saturday evening a British soldier by the name of Morrison[vi] deserted from Fort Malden, and came over to Detroit for protection. Two British officers came over next day, in the forenoon, in search of him, and remained incognito in the fort all the afternoon, in company with the officers of the fort. After dusk, in the evening, a troop of waiters under the command of Captain Tuttle[vii], was sent from the fort to reconnoiter the town for this Morrison. The captain, being a vigilant officer, soon discovered the enemy, and returned to the fort with intelligence of his position, leaving an advance guard to prevent the enemy’s retreat. The British officer, led by the American heroes, sallied out of the fort, double charged with good Monongahela[viii]. Lieutenant Brevoort[ix] commanded the right wing, Ensign Lundi[x] the left, and Captain Muir[xi] the center division. Lieutenant Hanks[xii], Adjutant Hull[xiii], and Captain Tuttle retreated under the guns of Mrs. Betty McByrd’s[xiv] battery, while a furious attack was made on the enemy’s outworks.
The besieged was under the command of Lieutenant Seek[xv], an inexperienced officer, who, having no weapon of defense than his bodkin and Sheffield needles, did not hold out long against the impetuosity of such experienced veterans. A breach was soon effected, where the invincible heroes of both nations entered, sword in hand. Lundi presented a loaded pistol to Seek’s head, while Muir and Breevort seized and dragged the vanquished Morrison into the street. “Murder! Fire! Indians[xvi]!” was loudly vociferated from the throats of all the men, women and children that were in the house at the time; the same sounds were reverberated by the people of the neighborhood; a general terror prevailed, and no wonder. The same day, in the forenoon, news was circulated in town that seven hundred Indians were lying in ambush, fifteen miles back in the woods, ready to massacre all in this town and settlements. The people rushed from their houses, armed with swords, guns, and shovels, others, carrying buckets and barrels of water, shouted “Where are the Indians? Where is the fire?”[xvii] Meantime the report of a pistol was heard, and in a few minutes, another; which sounded in the terrified people’s ears like great guns, and directed them to the scene of the action. John Harvey[xviii], a baker, and next door neighbor to Seek, was at his own door when the affray began. Seeing three or four men dragging one by the shoulders, and without knowing the cause of the custody, he ran, laid hold of Morrison’s limbs, and detained him by main strength, in defiance of their threats to run him through and to blow out his brains. The old story was half realized of “Pull baker, pull devil.[xix]” “Fire and be d ---- d you ruffians!” was all the baker said till poor Morrison’s clothes were all torn to atoms. Meanwhile Seek had been about the neighborhood spreading the alarm, and returned amongst the first, and laid hold of Lundi. A struggle ensued, but Lundi finding Seek had the command of his pistol arm, and perceiving an opening, fired it off towards the ground; and not with an intention to kill Seek, as was erroneously stated in former publications. Captain Muir, seeing the people assembling, presented his pistol to Morrison’s naked breast, swearing that since he could not take him alive, he would leave him dead. Morrison, perceiving his intention, struck the pistol to one side, and instead of killing Morrison, the ball went through the calf of his own leg.[xx] The citizens by this time assembled in great numbers, and relieved Harvey from a very dangerous situation; surrounded the officers, and carried them in civic triumph to Smyth’s Tavern[xxi], to get the wound dressed. Lieutenant Hanks and Adjutant Hull, seeing the people more moderate than usual in such cases, now ventured from their lurking places, and finding the flower of their army thus wounded and maimed, began brandishing their broadswords[xxii] and swore many bloody oaths that if the citizens would not immediately disperse they would turn the guns of the fort upon them and blow them to hell. They were all taken into custody, and came under recognizance[xxiii] to stand trial at the next September term.[xxiv]
The twentieth day of September, 1806, the trials of Muir, Lundi, and Brevoort came on. A respectable jury was impaneled, and sworn in one by one; the witnesses were brought forward, and underwent scrutinous examinations. The case appeared so clear that the attorneys waived their pleadings, the jury retired, and returned with their verdict, Guilty. The judgment of the court was delayed some days, when one of the attorneys prayed the court to pass judgment on the officers. The judges retired into a private room a few minutes, then returned and took their seats. All was silence; the scene was awful. Judge Woodward opened the judgments by a lengthy preamble, setting forth the delicacy of his situation, and his diffidence in the performance of the duties he was called upon by his country to do, the enormity of their crimes; as such irregularity of conduct might involve countries, now at peace, in all the horrors of destructive war. He then said, “It is the opinion of the court that Captain Muir’s crime is much more heinous than Ensign Lundi’s, he actually discharged the pistol with intention to kill Morrison (although at the same time it passed through the calf of his own leg). Therefore the judgment of the court is, that Captain Adam Muir be fined in ten Pounds Sterling[xxv], and seventeen days imprisonment, and to remain in custody of the marshal until the same shall be paid. It is also the judgment of the court that Ensign John Stow Lundi be fined in two thousand Pounds Sterling[xxvi], that is to say $8,888, and six months imprisonment, and to remain in custody of the marshal until the same shall be paid. It is the judgment of the court that Lieutenant Henry B. Brevoort be fined in one hundred Pounds, lawful money of New York[xxvii], and seventy-five days imprisonment, and to remain in custody of the marshal until the same shall be paid.” Ensign Lundi hung down his head, and looked as any other man would do when condemned to perpetual imprisonment. The audience stared with wild amaze at each other, rose from their seats, and retired. Those who were formerly the most violent against the officers were now the most violent in their execrations against the inequality and injustice of these cruel judgments. The court, finding they had missed their aim in this unjustifiable fetch for popularity, now set their wits at work to remedy their error.[xxviii] Meantime Judge Griffin[xxix] arrived, and took his seat on the bench. A few days afterwards, the judgments were opened anew, when wonderful to relate, the court then, and not till then, considered that the officers were tried by the common law of England[xxx], and judgments rendered accordingly, when at the same time, the laws of the Indiana Territory were still in force in Michigan Territory, which limited fines for assault and battery to not exceeding one hundred dollars. The former judgments underwent a thorough investigation, and the decisions of the court, agreeable to the laws of Indiana Territory, were: That the terms of imprisonment of the three officers, Muir, Lundi, Brevoort, be reduced by striking them out, and their fines reduced to sixteen cents. Lieutenant Hanks was also tried at the same court, for an assault on the body of Dr. Joseph Wilkinson[xxxi]. He pleaded guilty and was fined in fifty dollars. The judgment in his case was also cancelled, and the fine reduced to one cent.
It is impossible to describe the feeling of the insulted citizens of Detroit on this occasion. Our peaceful dwellings, violated by a banditti of insolent foreigners; and wives and children terrified into fits; ourselves assailed and threatened with fire and sword; and a few cents is presented to us, to redress the barbarous insults, presenting the lowest dregs of humiliation to a people formerly cheerful, generous, and brave, although now debased to the meanest extreme by the juggling pranks and legerdemain tricks of these unprincipled judges that fill out judgment seats.
[i] Parole was a common practice in 1812. A prisoner was released on the promise that they would not actively fight against the forces that granted them parole until they have been part of a prisoner exchange.
[ii] John Gentle, a resident of Detroit, was a vocal and active critic of Governor Hull and the Justices, particularly Justice Woodward.
[iii] Griswold was the first Territorial Secretary of the Michigan Territory from 1805 to 1808. He was acting Governor of the Michigan Territory in 1806.
[iv] William Hull was a hero of the American Revolutionary War and was subsequently named as Governor for the Michigan Territory. He is most widely remembered, however, as the general in the War of 1812 who surrendered Fort Detroit to the British on August 16, 1812 following the Siege of Detroit. After the battle, he was court-martialed, convicted, and sentenced to death, but he received a pardon from President James Madison and his reputation somewhat recovered.
[v] Elias Brevoort Woodward, also known as Augustus Brevoort Woodward, was the first Chief Justice of the Michigan Territory. He was a contemporary of Thomas Jefferson. Woodward remained in Detroit after its capture by the British maintaining his judicial status and advocating for the people of Detroit. The British viewed him as highly problematic and eventually expelled him.
[vi] A possibility, the only Morrison that I have record of with the 41st Regiment is John Morrison. His home was listed as Donegall in Ireland. He was at the capture of Detroit and was awarded prize money which was never claimed. He was wounded at the Battle of the River Raisin and was captured at the Battle of the Thames. He was described as age 34 with a dark complexion and stood 5' 6. He had a neck injury. He was listed as in hospital in Ancaster on 25 November 1814 with an intermittent fever. He died on February 2, 1815. His death would account for his not claiming his prize money awarded in 1818/1819.
[vii] Trueman Tuttle, Surgeon’s Mate in the U.S. Army. Resigned in 1808 and became the town doctor for Kaskaskia, Illinois.
[viii] Monongahela: a form of rye whiskey from the Monongahela River valley in Pennsylvania
[ix] Henry B. Brevoort of New York was commissioned second lieutenant in the United States Army in 1801, first lieutenant in 1805, and captain in 1811; he served during the War of 1812 and fought in the Battle of Lake Erie on September 10, 1813.
[x] John Stow Lundie: Ensign 41st Regiment 28.7.1803, Lieutenant 41st 11.4.1806, Resigned 19.5.1808
[xi] Adam Charles Muir. In Ranks 41st, Sergeant Major 41st, Ensign 41st 3.9.1794, Lieutenant 41st 12.10,1794, Adjutant 41st 30.9.1793 – 9.2.1804, Captain 41st 9.2.1804, Brevet Major 4.6.1814, Retired in 1819, Died before 1842.
Actions: Detroit campaign, Brownstown (commanding officer), Maguaga (commanding officer, slightly wounded), Detroit capture; Fort Meigs 1 and 2; Fort Stephenson (wounded); Moraviantown (prisoner of war).
Muir, with the Brevet rank of Major, commanded a wing at the capture of Fort Detroit. Muir had command of Detroit when it was abandoned during the withdrawal of the British from the Detroit River area in the fall of 1813.
[xii] Lieutenant Porter Hanks of the 2nd U.S. Artillery. It was Porter Hanks who surrendered Fort Mackinac in July 1812, one of the first actions of the War of 1812. Hanks, on parole, died when struck by a cannon ball at Fort Detroit just prior to its surrender.
[xiii] Abraham Fuller Hull was the son of General and Governor William Hull. By 1812, Abraham was a Captain in the 13th U.S. Infantry and was the aide de camp to his father at the surrender of Fort Detroit. He was granted parole and exchanged in January 1813 when he was appointed Captain in the 9th U.S. Infantry. He died at the Battle of Lundy’s Lane leading a bayonet charge on the British Batteries.
[xiv] Perhaps Elizabeth McBride? This may refer to one of the riverside batteries outside of the fort as seen on the attached map.
[xv] Conrad Seek described as a tailor and a former prisoner of the “Indians”. He served as a collector for the Board of Trustees of the Incorporated Town of Detroit in 1802. He was elected a Constable in 1804 perhaps earning him the title “Lieutenant”? He could also have a militia officer. It was in Seek’s home that Morrison was sheltering.
[xvi] While the term “Indian” is considered derogatory in this day and age, it was in common use during the time period in which the incident took place and the letters written.
[xvii] In June of 1805, Detroit was leveled by the “Great Fire of 1805”. One can well imagine the concerns over shouts of “Fire”!
[xviii] The “Great Fire of 1805” was rumoured to have started in the stables of John Harvey, a baker.
[xix] It usually refers to a closely fought see-sawing contest between two individuals or groups that almost resembles a tug-of-war. The source is an old fable, a moral tale warning against the perils of greed, featuring a crooked baker and his struggle with the devil.
[xx] This is not clear, Muir shot himself, it was his calf pierced.
[xxi] In Transactions of the Supreme Court of the Territory of Michigan 1805 – 1814, Edited by William Wirt Blume, Volume 2, Published by The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1935, Page 87; in a letter to Acting Governor Griswold by the magistrates, it is described as Smyth’s home.
[xxii] Broadswords seem an exaggeration compared to the lighter swords that Officers of this time period carried.
[xxiii] They likely made a formal promise to appear in court upon the date of the trial and respond to criminal charges.
[xxiv] It seems quite a wait until September 1806 for an affair that occurred in November 1805.
[xxv] An astronomical sum! At this time, the annual pay for a Captain in the British Army was approx. 15 Shillings. The fine represented over 13 years pay. Muir was known to be the father of a very large family and was also known to be quite poor (he had risen to an Officer’s role from the ranks and had no family money behind him). In 1812 he was teased for wearing an older pattern uniform coat as he could not afford the new fashion.
[xxvi] The annual pay for an Ensign was approx. 8 Shillings. This absurd fine represented 5,000 years pay!
[xxvii] Until 1793, New York had its own currency which was the “Pound”
[xxviii] Fun in telling, but there may be a little more to the pressure felt than the outrage of local citizens. According to Transactions of the Supreme Court of the Territory of Michigan 1805 – 1814, Edited by William Wirt Blume, Volume 1, Published by The University of Michigan Press, Ann Arbor, Michigan, 1935; between pressure by the British Commanding Officer at Fort Malden, Michigan Territory Governor Hull (whose son participated on the side of the Officers) and a debate as to what laws should actually be followed and acted upon which would in turn influence the severity of the sentence and amounts of the fines. It was determined that the laws of the Indiana Territory where in force in the Michigan Territory and ultimately applied.
[xxix] Judge John Griffin, one of the original justices for the Supreme Court of the Territory of Michigan
[xxx] English Common Law was the foundation for the laws associated with State and Territory law in the United States. It had evolved and diverged state by state.
[xxxi] Dr. Joseph Wilkinson was the Chairman of the Board of Trustees for the Incorporated Town of Detroit. In 1806 after the great fire of 1805, Judge Woodward dissolved the original incorporation and created a new government structure that saw Solomon Sibley as the first mayor of Detroit. Joseph Wilkinson was also a Collector of Customs for the United States in the District of Detroit.
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These articles are written and compiled by members of the 41st Regiment Living History Group.