ROBERTS, CHARLES, army officer; b. c. 1772 in England; d. 4 May 1816 in London, England.
Little is known about Charles Roberts apart from his career in North America. He was commissioned as an ensign in the British army in 1795 and was immediately afterwards sent to the West Indies, where he saw some ten years of service, chiefly in Trinidad, with the 57th and the 37th Foot. He succeeded to a captaincy by purchase in 1801 but suffered repeated attacks of fever, and by 1806, being no longer capable of regular service, he was forced at the age of 34 to “seek for ease in a Veteran Battalion.” Roberts joined the 10th Royal Veteran Battalion, which was then being formed in England for garrison duty in the Canadas, and arrived at Quebec in the fall of 1807. Expecting rather easier duties in the veteran battalions, he was somewhat surprised to find himself soon on detached service at Fort St Johns (Saint-Jean-sur-Richelieu), Lower Canada, a state of affairs caused by a shortage of regular troops to meet the threat of war then posed by the United States [see Sir George Cranfield Berkeley]. Moreover, in 1811 Roberts was specifically selected for a more rigorous command, that of Fort St Joseph (St Joseph Island, Ont. ), a remote post on Lake Huron established after the abandonment of Michilimackinac (Mackinac Island, Mich.) in 1796 and important to both the fur trade and the maintenance of good relations with the Indians.
On 8 July 1812 Roberts learned that war had been declared by the United States on 18 June, and he determined to take immediate action against the American garrison at Michilimackinac. Operating largely on his own initiative and moving with energy and decision despite a much impaired constitution, he assembled a force consisting of his small garrison of 46 veterans, some 180 Canadian voyageurs and fur traders, and 400 Indians under Robert Dickson* and John Askin Jr and led them against the American post. Michilimackinac’s garrison of 61 men was unaware of the commencement of hostilities and surrendered on 17 July soon after the British force appeared.
The implications of this bloodless conquest went far beyond Michilimackinac’s immediate value. Roberts’s action threw previously doubtful Indian support over to the British, not only ensuring control of the area west of Lake Michigan but also bringing decided pressure on American brigadier-general William Hull at Detroit (Mich.). Hull himself cited the loss of Michilimackinac and the subsequent arousal of the Indian tribes of the northwest as a prime factor in his decision to surrender his forces to Brock on 16 Aug. 1812. Hull’s capitulation was instrumental in securing the British position in western Upper Canada for another year and enabled British resources to be concentrated on the Niagara River to meet the next expected American thrust. Roberts’s success was publicly praised, and his superiors, including Prevost, wrote highly of his efforts.
But the strain in capturing Michilimackinac and subsequently in handling the problems of its defence soon broke Roberts’s already poor health. In addition, his garrison of veterans was reported as “debilitated and worn down by unconquerable drunkenness,” while the Indians’ constant demands for food and presents sorely aggravated the problems of isolation at the end of lengthy lines of communication. Working solely on his own initiative, Roberts embodied a company of Canadians (the Michigan Fencibles) in 1813 to bolster his garrison. By May of the same year, however, he was forced to request leave and, suffering from a “great debility of the Stomach and Bowels,” he was finally replaced in September. After an exhausting journey he went to Montreal and there reported on conditions at Michilimackinac. But his protracted illness was now “too deeply rooted for him even to indulge the hope of being entirely restored,” and he requested retirement on full pay. This request and further solicitations for promotion and various appointments failed and Roberts returned to England in 1815, ostensibly on six months’ leave. His health ruined, he was finally retired on full pay, but he died a year after his return. However slight Roberts’s rewards for faithful service had been, his “spirited” behaviour had at least won the respect and approval of both the Indians and his superiors, and the capture of Michilimackinac must stand as a decisive stroke in the successful defence of Upper Canada in the War of 1812.
PAC, MG 24, A9: 203, 221–25, 233–34 (typescripts); RG 8, I (C ser.), 2; 231: 123; 232: 75–78; 256: 187–88; 676: 183–86, 201–2, 232–33, 236–38; 677–79; 681; 688a-c; 689: 87; 789: 79, 97–99, 109, 123–28; 790: 18–20, 22–23; 1168; 1171: 279–82, 304; 1203 1/2K: 174; 1218: 439–40; 1221; 1227. John Askin papers (Quaife). G. B., WO, Army list, 1794–1818. C. T. Atkinson and D. S. Daniell, Regimental history: the Royal Hampshire Regiment . . . (3v., Glasgow, 1950–55), 1: 151–56, 226. A. R. Gilpin, The War of 1812 in the old northwest (Toronto and East Lansing, Mich., 1958), 89–91, 106–7, 128, 241. Walter Havighurst, Three flags at the straits: the forts of Mackinac (Englewood Cliffs, N.J., 1966), 113–23. Hitsman, Incredible War of 1812, 67–69. Reginald Horsman, “The role of the Indian in the war,” After Tippecanoe: some aspects of the War of 1812, ed. P. P. Mason (East Lansing and Toronto, 1963), 60–77. C. L. Kingsford, The story of the Duke of Cambridge’s Own (Middlesex Regiment) (London and New York, 1916), 57–60. G. F. G. Stanley, “The Indians in the War of 1812,” CHR, 31 (1950): 145–65.