Military History

Painting by Peter Rindlisbacher

Bombardment of Fort Detroit, 1812, by Peter Rindlisbacher.

Painting by Peter Rindlisbacher

Bombardment of Fort Detroit, 1812, by Peter Rindlisbacher.

General William Hullís Trials ~ Was This Early-PTSD? One Possible Explanation for the Unprecedented Surrender of Detroit, 1812

by Joseph Miller

Joseph Miller, a former U.S. Army infantry officer, served in various capacities and completed three deployments to Iraq in support of national elections, and as an Iraqi Army advisor during the 2007 troop surge. He was injured by an IED during his second rotation, but remained in full capacity for two years until leaving active duty for health reasons. His awards include the Bronze Star medal, the Combat Infantryman’s Badge, the Iraqi Campaign medal (three service stars), the Senior Parachutist Badge, and the Ranger Tab. He is currently completing postgraduate studies in Canadian/American History at the University of Maine, with plans to defend his MA Thesis this fall.

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William Hull was the obvious choice to command the Northwest Army’s invasion of Upper Canada at the outset of the War of 1812, due to his heroic service during the American Revolution. His daughter Maria Campbell’s biography of his service in the Revolutionary War is filled with praise from fellow veterans. George Washington even took notice of Hull’s excellent service, and requested that he change regiments in order to be promoted more expediently. He rose from the rank of captain to full colonel because he consistently held his position with ill-trained Continentals and militiamen against larger formations of British regulars. But his command during the early portions of the invasion of Upper Canada in 1812 would not be laudable.

Hull’s leadership may have been seriously questionable at Detroit, but the character of William Hull and his selection to command was obvious. The proceedings from his subsequent trial are exhaustive. Hull faced charges of treason, cowardice, neglect of duty, and un-officer-like conduct, but was only acquitted of treason.1 A month after the trial, President James Madison spared his execution with one simple sentence. “The sentence of the court is approved, and the execution of it is remitted.”2 Even with compelling and objective evidence, it was difficult to apply the full weight of the law. It appeared to be, on one hand, as impossible to execute Hull as it was to believe that his actions were anything but cowardice. Without the benefit of contemporary psychological methods, it would be impossible to truly rationalize the fall of Detroit unless President Madison recognized Hull’s condition on a subconscious level.

First, it is important to explore the idea of a subconscious knowledge of Posttraumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). The absence of a specific dialogue in the historical record may seem disheartening, but it would be impossible to assume that veterans of the fighting wars in the Early Modern Period were not subject to such a condition. Hull’s life was a chilling, telling, and extremely public example of one veteran’s story. The trial confirmed his poor performance at Detroit as being unmistakable, and yet, the memory of his previous service was completely absent from its dialogue. His daughter’s book was the one solitary positive biography of Hull’s life, and it only described his service in the Revolutionary War. It would be impossible for observers to remember this soldier’s valour and his negative impact in one single narrative. The two must remain separate in collective memory. Hull even displayed a complete inability to rationalize his own poor performance with his exceptionally well-articulated defence, and with the argument championed in his memoirs.

Surrender of Hull, by Augustus Robin.

Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1997-56-1

Surrender of Hull, by Augustus Robin.

Recent Terminology, Old Condition?

It is often viewed that PTSD is a 20th Century paradigm. Esteemed British psychiatrist and historian Simon Wessely described the historical development of theories for the causes, diagnosis, and treatment of the condition now known as PTSD in his article, Twentieth-Century Theories on Combat Motivation and Breakdown. ‘Shell Shock’ was seen as a condition synonymous with trench warfare during the First World War.3 It was supposedly caused by a lack of moral fortitude and physical ability, but innovations in selection criteria for Second World War soldiers did nothing to slow the onset of Combat Fatigue/Shell Shock.4 Wessely concluded: “Selecting the 'right stuff' at induction did not prevent psychiatric casualties, but did create a serious manpower shortage.”5 His article recognized the incorrect categorization of Shell Shock cases from their first recognition during the First World War until the present day, but he does not offer a definitive conclusion or a simple cause. If Shell Shock was so misidentified and poorly understood at its inception, why is the First World War still viewed to represent the origin of PTSD? In fact, little work has been done to identify cases of PTSD that precede the 20th Century, and it is most likely that psychiatric cases relating to combat stress would have had more effect on the unaware.  

Professor of History at Indiana University Lynn A. Struve published a recent article in the Journal of History and Memory entitled, “Confucian PTSD: Reading Trauma in a Chinese Youngster’s Memoir of 1653.” She described a boy’s struggles in feudal society and the resulting psychological trauma. The work illustrated an intellectual period similar to modernity. This allowed the author of the Yusheng Lu to break from common Confucian thought and express his own family’s loss. She concluded, “… what reads in the bleak central sections of the memoir as a repeated cry of failure re-reads, in view of the unfolding of Maozi’s self-therapeutic scenario, as a rhythmic evocation.”6 This described both the trauma and the cathartic process of retelling the events in an appropriate manner. The memoir was unique, “…in its blatancy of self-revelation about direct experience and willingness to give absurdity full rein in certain sections.”7 Struve avoided issues of ‘periodization,’ and tried to view this period following the Great War in its own temporal sense, urging scholars to look at similar instances to challenge “…[our] assumptions about the recentness of certain phenomena, such as traumatic memory and PTSD, in human history.”8

Psychologists and psychiatrists may incorporate simple cowardice in their definition of severe anxiety disorders, and some may maintain that anything less is illogical in the presence of great danger, but this view would generally be considered intolerable for and to a military officer. Regardless, the commander of the Northwest Army was no coward. William Hull fought through “the times that tried men’s souls” at Trenton and Princeton, and his leadership was instrumental to the Continental Army’s victory at Saratoga.9 

Revolutionary Services and Civil Life of William Hull was the collection of Hull’s writing, as edited and completed by his daughter Maria Campbell. In his youth, he was sent to labour on his grandfather’s farm, and his daughter casts a glimpse into the sorrow that would temper his latter endeavors.

Residing on a farm, he worked daily in the fields, and here he acquired that taste for agricultural pursuits, which was his solace, when the dark and heavy clouds of adversity gathered thickly around the gray hairs of declining years.10

Hull’s love of labour at such an old age points to two specific symptoms of PTSD. The first was simple avoidance behavior. Farming and working the land had no resemblance to combat, and it most likely would only trigger memories of his contented youth prior to any emotional trauma. Second, the Diagnostics and Statistical Manual Version Five (DSM-V used by psychologists to diagnose mental disorders) describes one symptomatic response of PTSD as “… pervasive negative emotional state. For example: fear, horror, anger, guilt, or shame.”11 This may appear to be disconnected without a closer look at negative emotions, but ceaseless energy or jitteriness is often the only visible characteristic of this pervasive negative emotional state. Maria Campbell’s understanding of the solace her father needed in his elder years represented a family member’s anguish, and his use of vigorous labour, despite his old age, appears to be the need to manage such a pervasive affliction of negative emotions. This solace and resulting restlessness visible by ceaseless effort despite “his gray hair” were most likely caused by his presence on the bloodiest battlefields of America’s inception.

Two researchers, Dr. Emily Ozer and Dr. Daniel Weiss, published an extremely brief article entitled, “Who Develops Post Traumatic stress Disorder?” for the Association for Psychological Research. Their three-page summary provides the biological factors that contribute to PTSD, the leading theories, and a short compilation of the most consistent traumatic experiences suffered. Symptoms of PTSD arrive when the hypothalamic-pituitary-adrenal axis becomes overly sensitive.12 This is a clinical way to say that the brain loses its ability to manage the hormones that regulate fear, or, more specifically, adrenaline. Theories relating to the severity of the experience, the lack of support among victims’ immediate family/peers, and the duration/regularity of traumatic experience or experiences are obvious factors, but they are overshadowed by one major factor. Ozer posited: “The strongest predictor was peritraumatic dissociation. This refers to unusual experiences during and immediately after the traumatic event, such as a sense that things are not real, the experience of time stretching out, and an altered sense of self.”13

William Hull by James Sharples Senior, from life, c. 1795-1801.

Independence National Historical Park

William Hull by James Sharples Senior, from life, c. 1795-1801.

Emotional events like this are seemingly impossible to qualify, but there was consistent awkward inclusion of one event surrounding Hull’s performance during the Revolutionary War. This points to one possible dissociative reliving in Hull’s memory; the duty of securing prisoners, removing dead bodies, and attending to the wounded behind Benedict Arnold’s final assault at Saratoga. Less than a month prior, Hull had led a charge at Freeman’s Farm. This action placed his men on top of the bodies of British soldiers killed by his own orders. It would be more difficult to believe that such service would fail to cause a peritraumatic dissociative event than it would be to assume that it would do so. Could a human being’s subconscious withstand the direction of such a charge, and, less than a month later, preside over the bodies of another battlefield?

Maria Campbell’s work is most commonly published with James Freeman Clarke’s account of Hull’s failure during the War of 1812. Their appendix is filled with letters written by men who could not logically rationalize Hull’s Revolutionary War performance with his absolute failure at Detroit. One such letter created a pregnant pause to describe Hull’s demeanor on a battlefield littered with dead bodies. Seth Bannister, an eventual colonel and a Revolutionary War colleague of Hull writes:

It is sufficient for my purpose on this occasion, to notice particularly the capture of Burgoyne (Saratoga), and the well known battle of Monmouth. In these two memorable events, where the ground was covered with the dead bodies of the slain, and the air resounded with the groans of the dying, Hull was unshaken. He bravely fought, and a grateful country acknowledged his bravery… Havingassociated with him in times so interesting, and in no other character than that of a brave man, I shall be unhappy to learn that he has terminated his patriotic career by meanly acting the coward.14

Bannister recognized the abject horror of the aftermath of the Revolutionary War era battlefields. To some, Saratoga and Monmouth were only important if they inspired a Declaration of Independence or an alliance with France, but for men like Hull and Bannister, these were traumatic images burned into their psyche permanently. And they would, in all probability, have produced lasting impacts.

Hull’s Revolutionary War experiences may clearly indicate events that would cause anyone a life of nightmares and constant anguish, but that fails to illustrate problems that would have led to his capitulation of a superior force at Detroit. The first reference is an obscure Michigan Territory Supreme Court request to President James Madison for the impeachment of then-Governor William Hull. Disagreements regarding a fine levied upon an official named John Whitfield encouraged Governor Hull to usurp the Constitution and to remit the fine by executive orders.15 A fine of fifty dollars was, no doubt, significant during the early-19th Century, but it was certainly a fee absorbable for a public figure. During this disagreement, Hull publically called Supreme Court Judge Augustus Woodward “a damm’d rascal,” and completely exceeded his own powers in a clearly personal battle between him and the Michigan Supreme Court.16 Hull’s anger with the court’s actions was obvious, but his insistence that a minor fine be remitted at great risk to his own position appears to have demonstrated two symptoms of PTSD. One is simple irritability, and the other is “reckless or self-destructive behavior.” Both exist in the DSM-V in the E section, categorized as, “… alterations in arousal and reactivity that are associated with the traumatic event(s).”17 This court action, coupled with Maria Campbell’s description of her father’s ceaseless gardening, could be construed as evidence of symptomatic responses to PTSD. His actions during the invasion of Upper Canada would be the most extreme, and their severity will illustrate his condition when his civil life fails to provide examples.

Robert Lucas, an eventual governor, was known for his resourcefulness and calm, and he served as a general under Hull during the War of 1812. Lucas’s journal, which played largely in the court martial proceedings drawn up against Hull, was a good example of  the Northwest Army’s distain for William Hull, and he unknowingly revealed the best example of Hull’s psychological breaks from reality. It is clear that Lucas himself disdained the actions of Hull, specifically because his wariness cost the life of Lucas’s dear friend Captain William McCollock, but he was also privileged to witness some clearly-irrational orders from Hull. When describing the period directly following McCollock’s death, Lucas cites the following guidance from the general.

During the above periods Gnl Hull requested of me and Capt Knaggs to attempt to take Tecumseh the Indian chef he recommended us to disguise ourselves and to go among the Indians at Maldon. I was willing to do anything I was ordered but not to act foolishly, had we made the attempt agreeable to his plan we would been both take, instead of taking Tecumseh, perhaps that was his wish—(sic)18

General Hull had previously been the Chief of Indian Affairs and the governor of a frontier state. The years that he spent interacting personally with tribal chiefs would brand the idea of a European ‘painted red’ as being absolutely absurd, and it would be hard to assume that this order was anything but a break from reality on Hull’s part.

Portrait of (Tecumtha)Tecumseh (c. 1808), by John Benson Lossing.

Courtesy of Toronto Public Library

Portrait of (Tecumtha)Tecumseh (c. 1808), by John Benson Lossing.

Upon the surrender of Detroit, Hull sent a letter to William Eustis, the American Secretary of War for the first six months of the War of 1812, that described British superiority, and this became evidence to his contemporaries that Hull’s actions were a product of treason. Eventual governor and senator for Michigan Brigadier General Lewis Cass’s letter to William Eustis on 10 September 1812, as well as the testimony of every one of Hull’s subordinates at his trial, completely refuted every one of the general’s inferences and rationalizations of British superiority. Hull was simply wrong, and he could not mentally grasp the presence of anything but a superior enemy force. The DSM-V outlines “Negative alterations in cognitions and mood that are associated with the traumatic event(s) (that began or worsened after the traumatic event(s)).”19 It specifically states: “… [that] ‘the world is completely dangerous”’ as an example of “Persistent and exaggerated negative expectations about one’s self, others, or the world.”20 The brain’s inability to regulate adrenaline creates a state of constant, pervasive fear, thus leading an individual to envisage villains to justify such an emotional outlook. The younger Hull clearly managed to face down even superior enemy forces, but the older man held exaggerated beliefs with respect to his opponents, which were in complete opposition to the logic of all his subordinates.

Hull’s fears of Natives were much greater than those of his subordinates, but they  fail to connect to the commonality of such exaggerated fears with PTSD sufferers. Hull’s view of Natives was such that they were clearly villainous. His portrayal of the Native tribes around him was that they completely surrounded him, and that all his lines of communications were cut off. Hull believed that the capture of Fort Malden severely weakened his position at Detroit, and not the simple fact that the British were landing small incursions in his rear to harass his supply lines, and that, on most occasions, his opponents were defeated. In fact, Hull inadequately manned a movement south that resulted in a defeat at Brownstown, and he subsequently used the incident to justify his unprecedented surrender. After the Fourth Infantry’s victory at Maguaga, Hull cited mass sickness when only the unit’s commander, Lieutenant Colonel James Miller, was incapacitated by sickness.21 He further defended his claim that “… the surrender of [the fort at] Michilimackinac opened the Northern hive of Indians, and they were swarming down in every direction.”22 Further, that his decision to surrender was influenced by the fact that:

… the bands of savages which had joined the British force were numerous and beyond any former example. Their numbers have since increased, and the history of the Barbarions of North Europe does not furnish examples of more greedy violence than these savages exhibited (sic).23

Hull’s literal belief was that the North American Tribesmen were both as powerful and as ruthless as the Vikings of Northern Europe. Hull was either a true villain or a victim of a condition that caused “… persistent and exaggerated negative expectations about one’s self, others, or the world.”24 Had he been such a villain, it is likely he would have been convicted of treason, or even executed. And yet, this still would not explain his previously exemplary performance in the Revolution. Letters defending Hull were utterly divided between his heroic performance in the Revolutionary War, and his shameful leadership of the Northwest Army.

The Meeting of Brock and Tecumseh (Lorne K. Smith Collection).

Library and Archives Canada, Acc. No. 1997-229-1

The Meeting of Brock and Tecumseh (Lorne K. Smith Collection).

In a sense, Hull was both a skilled military leader and a coward; a coward not in a pejorative sense, but simply because his experiences in the Revolution probably made it physiologically impossible for his brain to manage the chemicals that regulate fear. James Freeman Clarke, Hull’s son-in-law, also described Hull’s ceaseless energy despite his old age, as this “… white-haired old man, living in the midst of children and grandchildren; employing in the peaceful pursuit of agriculture the last years of his life.” He further described the duality of Hull’s experience:

All outward disgrace seemed to have fallen upon his head, yet all were borne with cheerful equanimity. A soldier, he had been branded as a coward; a patriot, he was esteemed a traitor; loving the approbation of his fellow-men, he was an object of universal censure; naturally fond of public life, and ambitious of public usefulness, he was under a sentence of irrevocable ostracism.25

Clarke’s words illustrate the dual life of the veteran suffering from PTSD.

The letters are a small account of Hull’s service, and how different his experiences in 1812. Most letters fail to reconcile Hull’s more contemporary failure in the light of his heroic Revolutionary experience. His commander, General William Heath, does nothing but praise Hull’s performance, even including a letter in his possession from General George Washington requesting Hull’s transfer so that he could more expediently be promoted to major.26 He received similar letters from Salmon Hubbell, Francis Tufts, J. Brooks, and Joseph McCaken, all validating Hull’s personal courage with complete doubt that he could serve in any manner but brave and courageous.27 It was only Seth Bannister who appeared to be able to recognize both Hull’s courage and his cowardice. But this must have been the reasoning of his conviction.

James Madison by Catherine A. Drinker, after Gilbert Stuart, 1875.

Independence National Historical Park

James Madison by Catherine A. Drinker, after Gilbert Stuart, 1875.

President Madison could neither commute the sentences by which Hull was convicted, nor allow them to be executed. For it was the inability to rationalize the man who even drew the acclaim of George Washington, yet later, in much less perilous circumstances, presided over one of the most ill-led campaigns in the War of 1812. It was a campaign during which his subordinates called for his court martial, and believed his actions to be so derelict that they were likely treasonous. This could not be explained because the men involved did not intellectually grasp what was happening to Hull. To them, he could only be one or the other, a coward or a hero. There was no recognition or acknowledgement that heroic service in combat was both commendable and emotionally damaging to the psyche of its heroes. Hull’s family saw only their vigorous “white-haired old man” toiling away in the field and playing with children, and they could not possibly reconcile that he had lead an invasion into Canada that utterly failed, perhaps because of his own inability to manage fear. It may be truly impossible to determine whether PTSD was the cause for Hull’s failure, but it provides one possible explanation for Hull’s completely changed temperament from the American Revolution to the War of 1812, and it certainly adds greater depth to an analysis of the Battle of Detroit. Regardless, the soldiers of the Northwest Army hated him; veterans of the Revolution loved him. Some things were simply undeterminable to the minds of early-19th Century Americans, including the friction caused by indeterminable chance and its effect upon the Invasion of Canada; friction that, in this case, should not exist today. However, there still remains friction for veterans who have undergone the arduous physical and mental process to culturally be accepted as soldiers, only to one day find their bodies physically incapable of managing fear.

Major-General Sir Isaac Brock, KB (President and Administrator of Upper Canada, 1811-12), by George Theodore Berthon.

Government of Ontario Art Collection, Archives of Ontario

Major-General Sir Isaac Brock, KB (President and Administrator of Upper Canada, 1811-12), by George Theodore Berthon.


  1. William Hull and United States Army. Trial of Brig. Gen. Hull: For Treason Cowardice, Neglect of Duty and Unofficer-Like Conduct: With Sentence of Court, and the Remission Thereof By the President of the United Sates of America (Boston: Russel and Company, 1814).

  2. Ibid, p. 27.

  3. Simon Wessely,  “Twentieth-Century Theories on Combat Motivation and Breakdown, ” in TheJournal of Contemporary History, Vol. 41, No. 2 (2006), p. 272.

  4. Ibid, p. 273.

  5. Ibid, p. 274.

  6. Lynn A. Struve, “Confucian PTSD: Reading Trauma in a Chinese Youngster’s Memoir of 1653,” in History and Memory, Vol. 16, No. 2 (2004): p. 26.

  7. Ibid, p. 27.

  8. Ibid.

  9. Thomas Payne, The Crisis.(1776), at . Accessed 30 April 2011.

  10. Maria Campbell, Revolutionary Services and CivilLlife of General William Hull,  p. 2.0

  11. American Psychiatric Association. 2010. G 05. Posttraumatic Stress Disorder, at Accessed 3 May 2011.

  12. Emily J.Ozzer and  Daniel S. Weiss, “Who Develops Posttraumatic Stress Disorder?” in Current Directions in Psychological Science, Vol.13, No.4 (2004), p. 170.

  13. Ibid.

  14.   A letter from Seth Bannister to General Wade Hampton, 17 February 1813. in Campbell, Bannister Appendix, p. 426.

  15. Michigan Supreme Court, Territory of Michigan, Ss. Supreme Court September Term, 1809 (Detroit: Miller, Broadside, 1809).

  16. Ibid.

  17. American Psychiatric Association. 2010. G 05. Accessed 17 September 2011.

  18. Robert Lucas and John Carl Parish. The Robert Lucas Journal of the War of 1812 during the Campaign under General William Hull(Iowa City, Iowa: The State Historical Society of Iowa,  1906), pp. 45-46.

  19. American Psychiatric Association. 2010. G 05. Acessed 17 September 2011.

  20. Ibid.

  21. Miller’s life is also interesting because he would later become the American Hero of Lundy’s Lane. Afterwards he performed very poorly as the Governor of Arkansas, and refused a position in the United States Senate. Ultimately, he chose a life of obscurity in the Salem Massachusetts Customs House.

  22. Hull to Eustis, 26 August 1812, in Documents Relating to Detroit and Vicinity, p. 462.

  23. Ibid, p. 467.

  24. American Psychiatric Association. 2010. G 05. Accessed 17 September 2011.

  25. Campbell, p. 297.

  26. Letter from William Heath to the Board of Officers presiding over the court martial of William Hull, 20 December 1813, in Campbell, p. 426.

  27. Letter from Salmon Hubbell to the Board of Officers presiding over the court martial of William Hull, 20 January 1814, letter from Francis Tufts to the Board of Officers presiding over the court martial of William Hull, 3 February 1814, letter from Governor J. Brooks to the Board of Officers presiding over the court martial of William Hull, 4 February 1814, in Campbell, pp. 429-432.