Fort Meigs

Fort Meigs

Fort Meigs, American fortification on the Maumee River, near Perrysburg, N central Ohio; est. Feb., 1813, by Gen. William Henry Harrison across the river from British Fort Miami (see Maumee, Ohio). Through the spring and summer of 1813, the Americans there held off British attacks.
Meigs, Fort: see Fort Meigs.

The Siege of Fort Meigs took place during the War of 1812 in northwestern Ohio. Despite heavy losses from a sortie to take the British cannons, the Siege was considered an important American victory in the wake of recent defeats at the battles of Detroit and Frenchtown. The lifting of the siege marked a turning point in the war on the Northwest frontier in favor of the Americans.

Background

Major-General William Henry Harrison was placed in command of the Army of the Northwest, replacing Brigadier-General William Hull after his surrender at Detroit. Harrison's first objective was the recapture of Detroit, but after the defeat of American forces at the Battle of Frenchtown, Harrison took up a defensive position. He gave orders for the construction of a series of forts—in particular, Fort Meigs (named for Ohio governor, Return J. Meigs, Jr.) along the Maumee or Miami du Lac River and Fort Stephenson along the Sandusky River, both in Ohio.

In the spring of 1813, Harrison left in search of reinforcements. The fort was located across the river from the ruins of the old British Fort Miami and the site of the Battle of Fallen Timbers, where Harrison and Tecumseh had both fought in 1794. Surrounding the eight-acre fort was supposed to be a fifteen-foot picket fence and eight blockhouses, but the commander left in charge, Joel B. Leftwich, had left with all his men because the term of the militia units assigned to the task had been expired. Furthermore, the captain of the engineers had all the work stopped on the stockades and filling in the gaps from the picket-line. Within a short instance, Captain Eleazer D. Wood volunteered to finish the project and began to finish building what would become the largest wooden fortress in North America up to that point.

Protected by the rain and thickness of the night, a young captain named William Oliver was ordered to deliver an account of Harrison's disposition to Brigadier-General Green Clay, who would be destined to play a large role in the upcoming fighting. Some of the officers Harrison's camp were badly trained adding to his frustration, however most of the Virginia militia were born on the vast frontier farms and were able to made quick work of Captain Wood's orders. Harrison on the other hand, makes light to the fact that the British are mere mercenaries as well as the Canadians having no claim to patriotism, and to boost morale, he reflects past triumphs over the Indians pointing directly across to where General "Mad Anthony" Wayne conquered Fallen Timbers.

As the British gun emplacements were being built on a ridge directly across from the fort, a second battery was hastily being built across the river, who were in no doubt covered by the large body of Indians surrounding the fort. Harrison and Wood quickly devised a plan to criss-cross the area with huge embankments of earth and caves dug out from under the base to shield the troops so that they could eat and sleep. Rain fall began to slow down the numerous water wells and defence works however, but the exposed line of tents were left to mask the work being done. The heavy rains also delayed Harrison's first encounter with British cannon fire.

Siege Begins

Construction was barely completed when the British under Brigadier General Henry Procter arrived and fired sporadic artillery fire into the fort, beginning on April 28, 1813. Procter commanded a division comprising 423 men of the British 41st Regiment: 63 men of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment: 31 men of the Royal Artillery: 16 men from other units, and 462 Canadian militia. He also had the support of roughly 1,250 American Indian warriors led by Chief Tecumseh of the Shawnee.

When the siege began, Harrison's garrison consisted of about 1,200 American regulars and militia, though half of them were untrained and he was low on ammunition. Overstepping his authority, the major-general managed to convince the Governor of Kentucky, Isaac Shelby, to send 1,500 soldiers to help lift the siege. As the recruits from Kentucky marched down the Maumee River, Harrison made tremendous use of the $20,000 awarded each month by the government and succeeded in bribing some of the men to hang on to Fort Meigs for an extra seven dollars a month. About two-hundred Pennsylvanians agree to stay an extra fifteen days, but the men from Kentucky, knowing they will be fighting the men who massacred their comrades at Frenchtown, stayed without any extra incentives.

Before the first shot of Procter's artillery barrage is fired, he is nailed with a frustrating spectacle. It is May 1, 1813, and in short order the American work tents are dismantled concluding to the British gunners that in two short days, the workers have created a formidable defensive system: an immense shield of earth 300 feet long, 15 feet high, and 20 feet thick at the base. The British shoot 24-pound solid pig iron balls into the fort, accentuated by fused bombs timed to explode over the heads of the Americans and smaller 12-pound artillery. For the next twelve hours, 250 of these missiles will be fired at the fort killing one man and wounding a handfull.

Inside the fort, Harrison has only 360 shots for his 18-pound cannon and likewise for his 12-pounders. Fortunately for the Americans, the British artillery could be reused and Harrison compels the men to return the unexploded shells for a gill of whiskey. Thanks to chief engineers' defensive works and rain fall, most of the British cannonballs were absorbed harmlessly by the muddy ground within the fort and over 1,000 gills of whiskey were issued out to the men. Had the balls hit harder ground they would have bounced and had another chance to hit members of the garrison or the magazines stored within the blockhouses. They would also have thrown up stones and shrapnel that would have caused greater American casualties. By the end of the siege, 1,000 shots were collected and reused and one militia man is bravely killed after warning his comrades of the incoming trajectory from the British cannon fire.

Breathing Space

As the red-hot cannonballs boil the mud near the workers digging entrenchments, their commander Lieutenant Alexander Bourne informs Chief Engineer Eleazer D. Wood that he can't keep his men working in such conditions. The captain reluctantly allows Bourne to issue the commission to an unlimited amount of whiskey as to get the men drunk enough to become indifferent to fear, but not so much that they can't complete the job. Thus with liquid bravery, the men reel about, drunkenly curse the British and shovel their way until the task is completed.

On the third day of the siege, frustrated by the lack of progress done by his four batteries, Procter sends a force across the river to establish another battery. Being only 250 yards from the fort, complete with cannon, mortars, and the incessant crack of musket fire, the threat of the new battery induces Captain Wood to counter with right angle traverses. To protect themselves from the bombshells, the troops build planks and cover them with earth to provide themselves with sleeping quarters as well.

By May 4, the British gunners begin to slacken and the Americans give three cheers for every lost potential—countered by an echoing yell from Tecumseh's followers. Under a parley, Procter sent a threat of an Indian massacre, but Harrison made it clear that he was willing to fight to the last man. Harrison has little reluctancy for Procter, the man who abandoned Kentucky troops to the Potawatomi at the River Raisin, however, if his ammunition is gone, they'll be sitting ducks for a better trained and more experienced army.

Relief Force

Through the invisible, foggy, and moonless night, an emissary named Captain William Oliver returns to the American lines with heartening news: General Clay and his men are only two hours away. Harrison knows that the bulk of the British force is two miles down river at old-Fort Miami, and that Tecumseh's warriors are holding steadfast on the right side of the river bank opposite to the British—making the big guns across the river only lightly manned.

Harrison will strike two simultaneous blows on both sides of the river with a part of Clay's advancing force spiking the British battery, while the rest attacks the divided Indians on the opposite bank. Once the battle is commenced in full effect, the soldiers inside the fort will attack the British battery and Indians on the American-held side of the fort. Knowing the plan depends on discipline and surprise, Harrison reluctantly sends his aide, Captain Hamilton, to carry his orders to General Clay and his green Kentuckians.

As the seventeen American flatboats each carrying 100 Kentucky troops heads down the Maumee, Lieutenant Joseph Underwood can still hear the words of his general and his butchered brothers back at the River Raisin. The devil Procter is up ahead: the moment for revenge has arrived at last.

Harrison's emissaries have been ordered to wave in the lead boat to pick them up. Lietenant-Colonel William Dudley dispatches a canoe to pick them up and sends them back to Boat Number Thirteen. The message is for the fifty-five year old wealthy land speculator, General Green Clay:

General Clay directs Lieutenant-Colonel William Dudley to land the first twelve craft on the left bank to attack the cannon, while Clay leads the rest of the six flatboats to the right bank on the American-held side to attack the Indians surrounding the fort. The plan seemed to have potential except for one fatal flaw: the 'citizen commanders' fail to instruct their force to Harrison's main objective: to spike the British cannon.

Wooded Labyrinth

Accompanied by the 'charming' whistle of gunfire, and before the marauding Indians flee into the woods to warn the British, one of the American captains is shot in the head. Despite the slow start, the American force quickly divides into three columns. The left column is to get behind the rear of the British guns, while Dudley attacks the cannon on the extreme right coming from the river side. The center column, commanded by Captain Morrison, will come up in reserve. Captain Leslie Combs will vanguard his thirty rifleman to protect the American's flank.

The Kentuckians creep forward and manage to flush out a group of Indians before storming the battery. As the British gunners flee, Dudley refuses to wait for Harrison's cannon spikes and uses the ramrods from their muskets to render the guns useless.

Whilst the fighting was raging on the north bank of the Miami du Lac, Harrison decided on a sortie to distract the British and it seemed to him as though Clay's Kentuckians—despite being only recruits—have completed their very first objective without a hitch. In the general's eyes, it is time to retire: Procter's reinforcements have missed their call and the Indians haven't swum the river in time to protect the battery.

However, Dudley's men do not know this. They loiter about, confused and disorganized, cheering themselves before Harrison tries to signal them to head back to the fort. The troops figure that Harrison is cheering them on as well, and proceed to cheer back. As the minutes tick by, more and more of Tecumseh's warriors peer out through the dense bush bordering on the open plain. Indians! Stories of about the days of Daniel Boone fighting the redskins on the old frontier, folk tales, and ancestral memories cannot compete with caution. The Kentuckians charge towards the painted enemy, who are slowly withdrawing towards the dense thicket, away from the plain—away from the advantage of the American cannon fire. Oblivious to the entreaties of Dudley, the troops tread forward trying in vain to form a neat line-formation. Harrison offers one thousand dollars to any volunteer who will cross the river to warn Dudley. It is too late.

Colonel John Miller led 350 men out of the enduring fort. Miller stormed the British South Battery and captured it, along with 41 British soldiers. The Americans were starting to spike the guns when Captain Richard Bullock arrived with two companies of the 41st Regiment, one of Canadian militia and a number of Indians. The British advanced in line, firing volleys, and Miller's men responded. Despite the determined fight put up by the Americans, who included regular troops from the 1st Regiment of Light Dragoons and the 17th and 19th Regiments of Infantry {later both regiments became part of the 3rd United States Infantry Regiment}, the British gradually drove them back to the fort. In this and two earlier, more minor sorties on the South Bank, the garrison suffered 68 killed and 170 wounded.

In the meantime, Tecumseh had swum the river and was preparing to absorb his men into combat. After feinting an attack on the right flank which was alongside the river, Tecumseh and his followers managed to quarry the American left flank into a wooded maze. Mauled by elusive sharshooters, the Kentuckians quickly became surrounded, and with the Americans caught in between two forces, the advancing British and Indians render Captain Morrison's reserve column too late.

The retreat becomes a rout. Underwood tries to reach the plain where he thinks a parade-ground manoeuvre can be applied, but his men are dropping all around him. Suddenly, he too is hit and is thrown onto his hands and knees. At last, after emerging from the woods onto the open plain, his sword is seized. The war for Underwood is over.

Out of Dudley's force of 800, fewer than 150 have escaped. The rest, including Lieutenant-Colonel Dudley himself, are either dead, wounded, or captured. The engagement on May 5, 1813, was called the Battle of the Miami by the British. The total American loss on both sides of the River was 218 killed, 170 wounded, 150 wounded prisoners and 397 other prisoners.

General Massacre

Inside the ruined walls of Fort Miami, Underwood braces himself for the upcoming terror: a gigantic brave, face and body painted jet black, climbs on a hill and begins to harass the Kentucky crowd. The Indian raises his rifle, shoots a man at the foot of the hill, reloads, and shoots another dead. It dawns on Underwood that a massacre could ensue and he eventually counts four dead bodies before a tall Indian in fringed deerskin rides into the fort. As the crowd grew silent, the newcomer makes his way to the heart of the embankment to directly point to the murderer, and delivers what is clearly a dressing-down. The Potawatomi—who only seconds ago was mad with rage—shakes his head, turns around on his heel, and leaves. It is later that the Kentucky prisoners realize that their deliverer was the intrepid Tecumseh.

Lifting the siege

Procter's artillery — though only one battery was disabled by the Americans on 5 May — hardly fired a shot after that date. Procter had by now realized that he was not inflicting enough damage on the Fort or its garrison for the Siege to succeed.

The British casualty return for 5 May 1813 gives 14 killed, 47 wounded and 41 taken prisoner. However, it is known that one of the wounded who is included, Captain Laurent Bondy of the Canadian Militia, received his wound on 3 May from the American artillery. This would suggest that the return covers all British casualties substained up to the fifth of May. It is unlikely that there were any casualties after this date. The Indians are recorded as having had 19 warriors killed or wounded at the Battle of the Miami. This brings the reported British and Indian losses the Siege to 121 killed, wounded and captured. However, it should be noted that the Indians only counted severely wounded men as real casualties, and never mentioned slighter injuries.

On 9 May, the British began moving out. As the Fort walls crowded with Americans watching the British depart, Procter decided to give them a "partying salute" before mounting his guns. In the ensuing bombardment, 12 of the garrison were killed and 25 were wounded. The entire casualties inflicted by the bombardment from 28 April to 5 May had been only 12 killed and 20 wounded.

The final bombardment therefore brought the American casualties for Siege (as opposed to the battle of 5 May) to 24 killed and 45 wounded. Together with the casualties at the Battle of the Miami, the American losses were 242 killed, 215 wounded, 150 wounded prisoners and 397 surrendered - a total of 1,004.

Once the British had left, Harrison took much of the garrison to use as a mobile army. He left General Clay in command of the fort with some 100 militia. Tecumseh felt the whole siege had been half-hearted on the Procter's behalf and urged him to return again in July. Once again Procter's army approached the Fort. Tecumseh's warriors staged a mock battle in the woods to make it appear as if they were attacking a column of American reinforcements in attempts to lure Clay out of the fort to come to the aid of his supposed reinforcements and be ambushed by Procter's whole force. Clay saw through the plan because he knew that no reinforcements were coming. This second attempt on Fort Meigs amounted to virtually nothing, and Procter left Fort Meigs and turned his attention towards nearby Fort Stephenson.

Results

Despite their disaster at the Battle of the Miami, the Siege of Fort Meigs had been an important victory for the Americans since they had prevented the British and Indians from pursuing their invasion of Ohio and Indiana and taking the Fort, which was to provide Harrison with a launching point for any further offensives he might make. However, the British had kept Harrison from making an attack on Detroit. After failing to take both Fort Meigs and Fort Stephenson, Procter retreated back to Detroit, and the fighting on the Northwest frontier became a stalemate.

Among the killed was Major Amos Stoddard, the first commandant of Upper Louisiana, for the United States.

Every year on the Memorial Day weekend, Fort Meigs hosts a historical re-enactment of the siege including Dudley's Massacre and a "patrol" where public members are acquainted with the sights and sounds that would have encountered by American foraging parties who were attacked by the British.

Notes

References

  • Antal, Sandy, "A Wampum Denied: Proctor's War of 1812" (Carleton University Press, Canada, 1997. ISBN 0-87013-443-4)
  • Latimer, Jon, "1812: War with America", (Harvard University Press, 2007, ISBN 0-67402-584-9)
  • Berton, Pierre, "Flames Across the Border", (Anchor Canada, 2001, ISBN 978-0385658386)

External links

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