Wednesday, December 24, 2014

Daniel Dobbins and the Escape from Detroit, 1812.

A schooner like Dobbins' in the Battle of Lake Erie, 1813.


This is an excerpt from the chapter of the book I'm currently working on, which made me turn back the clock somewhat on my research in order to understand better the events going on in naval war on the Great Lakes in 1812-15. Sailing Master Daniel Dobbins doesn't get a lot of attention from historians and popular culture, but he was a true American hero, in the adventurous way that many heros were made 200 years ago:
On July 17, 1812 when the British and Indians launched their surprise attack on Fort Mackinac, Captain Dobbins and his schooner were tied up at the wharf on the island. News of the declaration of war, already a month old, had not reached the far-flung settlements. With the nearby British outpost of St. Joseph's having cut off communications with the island, though, the locals feared hostilities had already commenced. The townspeople sent a experienced local man in a boat over to the British side to find out. On his way there he ran into the British strike force, several hundred soldiers, volunteers and Indians led by Captain Charles Roberts of the 10th Royal Veterans Battalion, and wound up having to act as a guide for the enemy.
As the British surrounded the little hilltop stockade of Fort Mackinac, they sent word to the civilian population in the town below to assemble for their own protection. Not trusting the Indians and hoping to offer his services to the American forces at Detroit, Dobbins decided to try to escape. He cast off his lines and, becalmed, began to kedge the Salina out from the island. This laborious operation involved rowing a kedge anchor out several hundred yards from the ship, then hauling it in to move the vessel forward, and repeating. No sooner had Dobbin and his crew began inching towards freedom than they saw “the painted savages crawling along round the bank, to avoid the guns of the fort.”
With his crew ready to “cut and run with the vessel as soon as a breeze sprang up,” Dobbins waited anxiously for wind. It came, but so did the armed brig Caledonia, flying British colors. The enemy ship stood between the Salina and the open lake, and Dobbins had no choice but to strike his colors and surrender. Back at the fort, which by now had surrendered to Captain Roberts, the British commander tried to get Dobbins and his men to sign a pledge not to take up arms against British forces. As a civilian, though, under the terms of the surrender Dobbins was free to go. Not a man to be intimidated, he announced his intentions to join the American military as soon as he reached their lines.
The captain and a few civilian families who had refused to take the oath were ordered to leave on the Salina to be repatriated at the port of Cleveland. They set out in company with the schooner Mary, itself loaded with the paroled soldiers from the American garrison. A few days later, they were stopped by shots fired across their bows by the American batteries at Detroit. General Hull's army still occupied both sides of the Detroit River, and the two ships fell once again into American hands. Captain Dobbins offered his services on land as a guide, and accompanied Lt. Colonel James Miller's force at the Battle of Magaguan on August 9. He soon joined a Detroit volunteer militia company under Captain Solomon Sibley, and volunteered to help place a battery of heavy guns at the village of Spring Wells south of town, in an effort to prevent the British from crossing the river. General Hull refused, and whatever the result of this undertaking would have been for the campaign, he surrendered on August 16 to the British forces surrounding Detroit. The schooners Salina and Mary were once again captured, as well as Dobbins and the other citizens of Mackinac.
The British forces thought that Dobbins had broken a parole by taking up arms at Detroit, and he had to hide under the overturned hull of an old wreck on the waterfront to avoid Indians who were hoping to collect a reward by capturing or killing him. The Quartermaster General of the British forces, Lt. Colonel Robert Nichol of the 2nd Norfolk militia regiment, wrote out a pass guaranteeing Dobbins' safety, apparently because he was a brother Freemason. The captain then managed to secure a berth as a pilot on one of the open boats carrying paroled wounded prisoners to Cleveland. The boats reached the village safely, but the officer in charge was honor bound to scuttle them as part of the terms of parole. Dobbins had to scrounge up another small craft in town, and set out eastward to warn the other settlements along the American side of Lake Erie. The little boat, with its one sail, was enough to panic the residents of Ashtabula and Conneaut as it passed, as they mistook it for  a British cruiser. Finally, Dobbins reached the port of Erie on August 24. The militia commander there, Major General David Mead, had him take a dispatch as well as his own eyewitness report on horseback to Washington.
Dobbins bypassed Colonel Lewis Cass, who was on the same errand after having been paroled, and was the first eyewitness of the fall of Detroit to reach Washington and get a personal audience with President Madison and the members of the cabinet. It became clear to the President and his advisers that naval control of the lakes was necessary to achieve American objectives in the northwest, particularly the liberation of Detroit. For his troubles, and recognizing Dobbin's knowledge of the region, the President gave him a Navy commission as Sailing Master, and sent him back up to Lake Erie with orders to begin building a new flotilla to challenge the British fleet.