Detroit: An Outstanding Example of Psychological Warfare

The Canadian government today decided to honour several Canadian Army regiments whose ancestors had participated in the capture of Detroit in 1812. The battle honour “DETROIT” has been granted to 56 Field Artillery Regiment (RCA), The Essex and Kent Scottish, The Lincoln and Welland Regiment, The Queen’s York Rangers (ironically surnamed the 1st American Regiment!), The Royal Canadian Regiment, and The Royal Hamilton Light Infantry, as well as the Royal Newfoundland Regiment.

A battle honour means that a ribbon-like patch with the name of the battle will be sewn onto the regiment’s “colours” (the regiment’s “flag,” basically) and displayed as a record of the regiment’s accomplishments. That said, some of these regiments (like the Royal Canadian Regiment) have so many battle honours that it’s simply impossible to “emblazon” them all on the colours, so some are selected over others. (56 Field’s inclusion is interesting here too. Not to mention that artillery regiments traditionally don’t display battle honours at all, since their “colours” are actually the guns themselves, and the artillery’s motto “Ubique” — meaning “everywhere” – takes the place of all battle honours). No idea where Detroit will fall in each regiment’s case, but for most of these regiments it would be the earliest honour they possess.

As historically significant as the battle was, it’s interesting that the actual engagement itself was as far from a pitched, bloody battle as you can get. The British commander Sir Isaac Brock basically hoodwinked the American commander, William Hull, into surrendering his much larger and more powerful force. From Wikipedia:

The British had already played on Hull’s fear of the Indians by arranging for a letter, which asked that no more Indians be allowed to proceed from Fort Mackinac as there were already no less than 5,000 at Amherstburg and supplies were running short, to fall into American hands. Brock sent a demand for surrender to Hull, stating:

The force at my disposal authorizes me to require of you the immediate surrender of Fort Detroit. It is far from my intention to join in a war of extermination, but you must be aware, that the numerous body of Indians who have attached themselves to my troops, will be beyond control the moment the contest commences…

To deceive the Americans into believing there were more British troops than there actually were, Brock’s force carried out several bluffs. At the suggestion of Major Thomas Evans, the Brigade Major at Fort George, Brock gave his militia the cast-off uniforms of the 41st Regiment to make Hull believe most of the British force were regulars. The troops were told to light individual fires instead of one fire per unit, thereby creating the illusion of a much larger army. They marched to take up positions in plain sight of the Americans then quickly ducked behind entrenchments, and marched back out of sight to repeat the manoeuvre. The same trick was carried out during meals, where the line would dump their beans into a hidden pot, then return out of view to rejoin the end of the queue….

Tecumseh’s warriors meanwhile paraded several times past a gap in the forests where the Americans could see them, while making loud war cries. One account claims that Tecumseh was behind the idea of displaying trumped-up troop levels. A Canadian officer (militia cavalry leader William Hamilton Merritt) noted that “Tecumseh extended his men, and marched them three times through an opening in the woods at the rear of the fort in full view of the garrison, which induced them to believe there were at least two or three thousand Indians.”

The result of Brock’s deception was astonishing, as Hull basically surrendered without much of a fight (some artillery was lobbed over the river each way). Brock’s 300 or so regulars, 400 Canadian militia, and 600 native warriors captured Detroit and its 2500 or so defenders with only 2 wounded of their own, and the loss of only 7 American lives.

As Sun-Tzu once said, “To subdue the enemy without fighting is the acme of skill.” Brock would have been flattered, I think. Anyway, it’s arguable whether the battle itself rates such an honour, but it is interesting!

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