Friday, May 13, 2011

The Siege of Fort Meigs (part three)

This blog entry may be a bit rambling, but I wanted to finish off my series on the First Siege of Fort Meigs...
The monument at Fort Meigs, erected 1908 by the Grand Army of the Republic (the veterans association of the Union army).

Graffiti, c. 2007 or '8.
May 17, 1813. Lt. Colonel George McFeely reported in his diary that both Fort George (held by the British) and Fort Niagara fired salutes to commemorate the siege and battle of Fort Meigs. Both Americans and British felt that they had won victories at the rapids. However, since then, historians' opinion of the battle has ranged from being a tactical defeat for William Henry Harrison to a decisive victory for Henry Procter.

The Grand Battery at Fort Meigs, mounting 18-pounders and overlooking the fords of the river. This battery carried on a duel with the siege guns across the Maumee.

In fact, the battle was no one's victory. The siege was lifted a few days later, on May 9. Harrison, anxious to fend off his true nemesis, Secretary of War John Armstrong, painted his actions in a rose-tinted light and passed most of the blame for the fiasco on the north bank of the Maumee onto Colonel Dudley and his troops. Some of them were lying dead in the forest. Dudley himself was cornered by Indians who tore out his heart and ate it. The rest were paroled and dropped off at the Huron River in northern Ohio. But the British cause in the West had been dealt a moral defeat, as John Richardson, an ensign with the 41st later recalled:
The victory obtained at the Miami was such as to reflect credit on every branch of the service; but the satisfaction arising from the conviction was deeply embittered by an act of cruelty, which, as the writer of an impartial memoir, it becomes my painful duty to record. In the heat of the action, a strong corps of the enemy, which had thrown down their arms and surrendered prisoners of war, were immediately despatched under an escort of 50 men, for the purpose of being embarked in the gun-boats, where it was presumed they would be safe from the attacks of the Indians. This measure, although dictated by the purest humanity, and apparently offering the most probable means of security, proved of fatal import to several of the prisoners.
On reaching our encampment, then entirely deserted by the troops, they were met by a band of cowardly and treacherous Indians, who had borne no share in the action, yet who now, guided by the savage instinct of their nature, approached the column, and selecting their victims commenced the work of blood. In vain did the harassed and indignant escort endeavor to save them from the fury of their destroyers. The frenzy of these wretches knew no bounds, and an old and excellent soldier named Russell, of the 41st, was shot through the heart, while endeavoring to wrest a victim from the grasp of his murderer. Forty of these unhappy men had already fallen beneath the steel of the infuriated party, when Tecumseh, apprised of what was doing, rode up at full speed, and raising his tomahawk, threatened to destroy the first man who refused to desist. Even on those lawless people, to whom the language of coercion had hitherto been unknown, the threats and tone of the exasperated chieftain produced an instantaneous effect, and they retired at once humiliated and confounded.
The captives were forced to run the gauntlet, and many of them estimated as many as half the casualties came after their surrender. Once inside the enclosure of Old Fort Miami, the youngest were dragged from the milling crowd to be kidnapped/adopted by the Indians. Underwood recalled that "The young men, learning their danger, endeavored to avoid it by crowding into the centre, where they could not be so readily reached. I was told that a quizzical youth, of diminutive size, near the outside, seeing what was going on, threw himself upon his hands and knees, and rushed through the legs of his comrades, exclaiming, "Boot, little hog, or die!"""''

 Once Tecumseh and Colonel Elliot had calmed their men (though just who was responsible for whom in the Indian Confederacy is debatable: many different tribal groups contributed warriors to the siege, some of them probably strangers to the hard core followers of Tecumseh), the prisoners were rowed out to the British squadron lying in Maumee Bay. A few Indians paddled canoes out to the fleet in order to taunt the closely packed survivors. On the prows, they fastened Kentuckian scalps on poles. Other Kentucky troops had themselves been responsible for murdering prisoners and taking scalps for trophies, most notably at Missinnewa in December 1812. However, when the news reached home, it inflamed public opinion and no doubt greatly enlarged the army of volunteers who would march north to the Battle of the Thames in September.

Fords, or foot of the rapids of the Maumee River. In spring you can see fisherman wading across after walleye. Only a half-mile or so downriver, shallow-drafted British gunboats patrolled.

Why hadn't Harrison done more than try to send staff officers (one of whom, at least, died) to try and recall the disordered Kentuckians? We must rewind a bit. On the morning of May 5, Dudley's two regiments landed, somewhat disordered but unmolested, on the north bank of the Maumee River, and took the British batteries without encountering serious resistance. While they milled around the captured guns, Clay and his remaining regiment landed on the south bank. They immediately ran into musketry from the Indians guarding the west side of the fort. Harrison sent out Ball's company of dragoons and Alexander's battalion of volunteer infantry to cover their entrance into the fort. Hoping to capitalize on the confusion of Dudley's attack across the river, he ordered a detachment of regulars, Alexander's volunteers, and Captain Sebree's company of Kentucky militia to make a sortie under the command of Lt. Colonel John Miller, and spike the guns of a small enfilading battery 250 yards or so out from the southeast bastion of the fort.

Miller formed his detachment in the cover of the ravine that ran along the southeast side of the fort. The ravine is still there today. From its shape and direction we can guess that Miller formed his men in a column of companies or divisions for the assault, perhaps meaning to deploy into line once they'd left the cover of the ravine. Thus far, no detailed account has surfaced of how Miller's charge was fought. The best accounts suggest that the men formed in the ravine, muskets loaded and bayonets fixed (which was standard infantry drill, anyway, except that some foolhardy commanders of the era liked to order their men to remove the flints so that they would close with bayonets and not doddle in shooting matches). They climbed up onto a plain about 200 yards away from the battery, with their muskets at trail arms.

A 5.5 inch howitzer overlooking the fords. The battery that Miller charged mounted one of these, as well at least one 6-pounder.

The battery on the American side of the river was defended by the elites of the British 41st regiment, the right (Grenadier; no, they did not use grenades) and left (the light infantry, skirmishers or somewhat misleadingly, "sharpshooters") flank companies of the regiment. Apparently, Captain Bullock, the officer in charge of the detachment, had gone off to see about helping the situation across the river. His subordinates seem to have been unable to keep ahead of the new situation that presently developed: their volleys were ineffective. The Indians, using the cover of the woods, began to drop the Americans quite rapidly as they advanced across the open meadow. Miller halted, and dressed his lines before charging and overrunning the battery. The 41st flank companies retreated with little loss.

Harrison, overseeing this phase of the battle from an exposed position on Wood's battery, ordered a small reserve of regular infantry under Major George Tod to swoop in and cut off the British escape. They managed to net two lieutenants and 43 men, apparently from the light company. Meanwhile, Sebree's Company on the right flank had gotten itself surrounded by Indians, and were in danger of being overrun. Fighting in close order and maintaining their cohesion, they avoided Dudley's fate and held until Miller could organize a counter attack to rescue them. Having lost nearly as many in killed and wounded as had been lost during the week long siege, what was left of Miller's 350 man detachment retreated within the pickets.

They had fulfilled their mission; or at least, nothing else was heard of the south bank battery for the rest of the siege. In any case, it may have been irrelevant to begin with. When the British erected a flanking battery on the south bank, they hoped to bowl roundshot and shell unimpeded along the length of the camp. Harrison had his men throw up earthworks at right angles to the protective traverses already deflecting 24-pound shot coming from the main battery. What's more, Sergeant John Henderson (an Irishman who had served in the Royal Navy before emigrating to Virginia) of the Petersburg, VA volunteers, took charge of the big 18-pounders on Wood's battery. His shooting was good enough to make the encroaching British gunners scuttle back to the cover of a more distant ravine, where their sunken emplacements can still be seen today. This action earned him a Second Lieutenant's commission in the regular 2nd Regiment of Artillery.

The ground-level emplacements must have hurt the British gunners' aim, since for the rest of the siege they overshot the fort (this was before the age of forward artillery observers). In any case, Harrison's reports following the siege emphasized the bravery and discipline of Miller's officers and men. They did run off or capture the cream of the British regular forces, and had possession at least temporarily of three field pieces (this was an age in which victories were measured in captured standards and guns). Close-order tactics prevailed against Indian sniping, but at a heavy cost. One newspaper reported that Angus Langham's Company of the 19th US Infantry (a light infantry outfit) had been reduced to little more than a dozen men.

At the end of the siege, Harrison had his supply base intact, his own siege guns at hand for an assault on Detroit or Fort Malden, and a counterpoint to the disgrace of Hull's Surrender. Even given Dudley's fiasco, which he ordered despite knowing the poor discipline of green militiamen, Harrison had also shown more ability to handle troops than any other Major General in the service that year. Somewhat sneekily, he put up a white flag to parlay with General Procter following the battles on the evening of May 5. While exchanging troops and caring for wounded the next day, he made sure to empty Clay's boats of their critical supplies. Procter's Indian allies saw the white flag and assumed the fort had surrendered. When they received no share in the spoils, for which they had done most of the fighting; and worse, it turned out that Harrison hadn't surrendered, they walked off in droves, disgusted. Tecumseh for his part was disgusted with Procter's inability to protect his prisoners, and a wedge of doubt was driven between the allies. In the meantime, the Canadian militia asked to return home for the harvest. Upper Canada would starve if they were not permitted to quit the siege.

His hands tied, without hope besides of lobbing a lucky hot shot into one of Fort Meigs' powder magazines, Procter quit the siege too, very adroitly withdrawing his heavy guns and equipment and leaving with a parting salvo from his gunboats that killed or wounded dozens of (presumably jeering) Americans. It could be called a tactical victory, but was definitely a moral loss.