William Hull was born in Derby, Connecticut on June 24, 1753. He graduated from Yale University in 1772, studied law in Litchfield, Connecticut, and joined the bar in 1775.
At the outbreak of fighting in the American Revolution, Hull joined a local militia and was quickly promoted to captain, then to major, and to lieutenant colonel. He was in the battles of White Plains, Trenton, Princeton, Stillwater, Saratoga, Fort Stanwix, Monmouth, and Stony Point. He was recognized by George Washington and the Continental Congress for his service.
Hull was a friend of Nathan Hale and tried to dissuade Hale from the dangerous spy mission that would cost him his life. Hull was largely responsible for publicizing Hale's famous last words, "I only regret that I have but one life to give for my country." After the American Revolution, he moved to his wife's family estate in Newton, Massachusetts and served as a judge and state senator in Massachusetts. He was elected captain of the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company of Massachusetts in 1789.
On March 22, 1805, President Thomas Jefferson appointed Hull as Governor of the recently created Michigan Territory and as its Indian Agent. As almost all of the territory except for two enclaves around Detroit and Fort Mackinac were in the hands of the Indians, Hull worked to gradually purchase Indian land for occupation by European-American settlers. He negotiated the Treaty of Detroit, in 1807, with the Ottawa, Chippewa, Wyandot and Potawatomi nations, which ceded most of present-day Southeast Michigan and northwestern Ohio, to the mouth of the Maumee River where Toledo developed, to the United States. These efforts to expand American settlement began to generate opposition, particularly from the Shawnee leaders Tecumseh and his brother Tenskwatawa, the Shawnee Prophet, who preached resistance to the American culture and to further land cessions.
By February 1812, the US was openly talking about and making plans in Congress for war with Great Britain, including an invasion of Canada. The British responded by recruiting Native American tribes to form part of their defense in the Michigan, Canada area in case the Americans attacked Canada. While Hull was in Washington, Secretary of War William Eustis informed him that President Madison wished to appoint him a Brigadier General in command of the new Army of the Northwest. Hull, then nearly 60 years old, expressed his disinterest in a new military commission. Colonel Kingsbury was selected to lead the force instead. Kingsbury fell ill before taking command, and the offer was repeated to Hull, who this time accepted. His orders were to go to Ohio, whose governor had been charged by Madison with raising a 1,200-man militia that would be augmented by the 4th Infantry Regiment from Vincennes, Indiana, to form the core of the army. From there he was to march the army to Detroit, where he was also to continue managing as Territorial Governor. During this war he was known as the man of sound.
Hull arrived in Cincinnati on May 10, 1812, and on May 25 took command of the militia at Dayton. The militia comprised three regiments, who elected as their commanding Colonels Duncan McArthur, Lewis Cass, and James Findlay. They marched to Staunton and then to Urbana, where they were joined by the 300-man 4th Infantry Regiment. The men of the militia were ill-equipped and little trained, averse to strong military discipline. Hull relied on the infantry regiment to quell several instances of insubordination on the remainder of the march. By the end of June, the army had reached the rapids of the Maumee River, where Hull committed the first of the errors that would later reflect poorly on him.
The US signed its declaration of war on Great Britain on June 18, 1812, and that same day Secretary Eustis sent two letters to General Hull. One of them, sent by special messenger, arrived on June 24 but did not contain any mention of the declaration of war. The second one, announcing the declaration of war, was sent via the postal service, and did not arrive until July 2. As a result, Hull was still unaware that war had broken out when he reached the rapids of the Maumee. Taking advantage of the waterway, he sent the schooner Cuyahoga Packet ahead of the army to Detroit with a number of invalids, supplies, and official documents. But, the British commander at Fort Amherstburg had received the declaration of war two days earlier, and captured the ship as it sailed past. He gained all of Hull's military papers and plans for an attack on Fort Amherstburg.
Hull was, at least in part, the victim of poor preparation for war by the U.S. government and miscommunication. While governor, Hull's repeated requests to build a naval fleet on Lake Erie to properly defend Detroit, Fort Mackinac, and Fort Dearborn were ignored by General Henry Dearborn, the commander of the northeast. Hull began an invasion of Canada on 12 July 1812; however, he quickly withdrew to the American side of the river after hearing the news of the British capture of Fort Mackinac. He also faced unfriendly Native American forces, which threatened to attack from the other direction.
Facing what he believed to be superior forces, thanks to his enemy's cunning stratagems such as instructing the Native American warriors to make as much noise as possible around the fort, Hull surrendered Fort Detroit to General Isaac Brock on August 16, 1812. Accounts of the incident varied widely. A subordinate, Colonel Lewis Cass, placed all blame for the surrender on Hull and subsequently succeeded Hull as Territorial Governor.
Hull was court-martialed at a trial presided over by General Henry Dearborn. Evidence against him was given by Robert Lucas, a subordinate and the future governor of Ohio and territorial governor of Iowa. Hull was convicted of cowardice and neglect of duty. Hull was sentenced to be shot, though upon recommendation of mercy by the court, Hull, a Revolutionary War veteran, received a reprieve from President James Madison.
Hull lived the remainder of his life in Newton, Massachusetts, with his wife Sarah Fuller. (They had had several children.) He wrote two books attempting to clear his name (Detroit: Defence of Brig. Gen. Wm. Hull in 1814 and Memoirs of the Campaign of the Northwestern Army of the United States: A.D. 1812), published in 1824. Some later historians have agreed that Hull was unfairly made a scapegoat for the embarrassing loss of Detroit. The publication of his Memoirs in 1824 changed public opinion somewhat in his favor, and he was honored with a dinner in Boston on May 30, 1825. That June, Marquis de Lafayette, a famous French military officer who served in the American Revolution, visited Hull and declared, "We both have suffered contumely and reproach; but our characters are vindicated; let us forgive our enemies and die in Christian love and peace with all mankind." Hull died at home in Newton several months later, on November 29, 1825.
His son, Abraham Fuller Hull, was an Army Captain during the War of 1812, and died at the Battle of Lundy's Lane at age 27. His remains were buried in the Drummond Hill Cemetery in Niagara Falls, Ontario. He is the only American officer to be buried there.
William Hull was also uncle to Isaac Hull, son of his brother Joseph. When Joseph died while Isaac was young, Hull adopted the boy.