Friday, May 6, 2011

Siege of Fort Meigs, 198th Anniversary

Overview of the May 5th engagements by Benson Lossing. There are a few inaccuracies since he was visiting the site in the 1860s, namely the bridge.

This is the second post of a series on the First Siege of Fort Meigs, which took place 198 years ago this week.

198 years ago yesterday (May 5, 1813), a relief column of Kentucky militiamen descended the Maumee River near modern-day Perrysburg, Ohio to reach Major General William Henry Harrison's besieged garrison at Fort Meigs (see previous post. They arrived at the head of the rapids, five miles up river of the Fort, on the evening of May 4th, and tied their boats to the shoreline. Couriers with instructions from the General crept through picket lines of British and Indians to the militia commander, General Green Clay. Alexander Bourne, then in command of the fort's blockhouse six, described what took place:


The next morning, May 5th. Genl. Harrison sent Captain Hamilton & part of his company to meet Genl. Clay, & order him to detach 800 men to storm the British batteries on the north side of the river--spike their guns--cut down their wheels & then immediately retreat towards our fort, where they would be assisted across the river, under the cover of our guns--Captain Hamilton carried the spikes (copper nail-like objects hammered into the vents of cannons to disable them), & gallantly lead on the storming party, & as the morning was foggy, & the main British army being down at the old fort, & only the artillerists & a fatigue party at the batteries, they were completely surprized...
Colonel Dudley's detachment of 800 Kentucky militia (plus Price's Company of the US Light Artillery, fighting as infantry), landed on the British-held side of the river and formed columns for the assault on the siege batteries. As Bourne says, the Kentuckians took the artillerymen by surprise and ran them off. However, the aides who Harrison had sent with spikes for the guns had landed with Clay and 400 of his men on the American side of the river. While this force fought its way inside the defenses, Captain Leslie Combs, the teenage captain of Dudley's skirmishers, got drawn into a firefight with Indians in the woods on the left flank. Here's his account of the fight:

When Col. Dudley attacked the batteries of the enemy, opposite Fort Meigs, on the 5th of May, 1813, he advanced in three columns. The right, led by himself, carried them without the loss of a man. The middle was the reserve. The left, headed by Major Shelby, formed at right angles on the river, to protect from below. This arrangement was scarcely made before the spies under my command (about thirty in number, including seven friendly Indians), who flanked at some hundred yards distance in the woods, were attacked by part of the Indian force of the enemy. Unacquainted with the views of Col. Dudley, they knew nought but that it was their duty to fight. For near fifteen minutes, with the loss of several killed and wounded, they maintained an unequal conflict. In this time, Col. Dudley having effected his object, and fearing their fate, had advanced to their relief with the right column. The enemy retreated. Our troops, impelled more by incautious valour and a desire for military distinguishment than prudence, pursued. He then stood firm for a short time on his right, and gave way on his left, which threw our line with its back towards the river, so that every step we advanced carried us farther from under the protection of our fort. Whenever we halted, so did the Indians, and renewed their fire—we charged on them. They again retreated. In this way, with the loss of from thirty to fifty killed on our side, and a number wounded, was the battle fought for upwards of three hours. How much the enemy suffered during this time, 'twas impossible to ascertain from the circumstance of their bearing off their dead.
Maumee River, north bank, looking downstream towards Fort Meigs. It was near here that Dudley's men landed their boats.

As the Kentuckians advanced further into the woods, they became disorganized, men from different platoons and companies intermixing in the hazy gun smoke. Joseph R. Underwood, a lieutenant in Dudley's Regiment, took command of his company when the captain was shot through the optic nerve, blinding him. He explains what happened to the disorganized militia troops when a counter attack from the British camp arrived at the batteries:
The enemy at this place had gotten in the rear of our line, formed parallel with the river, and were firing upon our troops. Captain J. C. Morrison's company did not long remain in this situation. Having nothing to do, and being without orders, we determined to march our company out and join the combatants. We did so accordingly. I" passing out, we fell on the left of the whole regiment, and were soon engaged in a severe conflict. The Indians endeavored to flank and surround us. We drove them between one and two miles, directly back from the river. They hid behind trees and logs, and poured upon us, as we advanced, a most destructive fire. "e were from time to time ordered to charge. The orders were passed along the lines, our field officers being on foot...
At length orders were passed along the line directing us to fall back and keep up a retreating fire. As soon as this movement was made, the Indians were greatly encouraged, and advanced upon us with the most horrid yells. Once or twice the officers succeeded in producing a temporary halt and a fire on the Indians, but the soldiers of the different companies soon became mixed—confusion ensued— and a general rout took place.
The retreating army made its way towards the batteries, where I supposed we should be able to form and repel the pursuing Indians. They were now so close in the rear as to frequently shoot down those who were before me. About this time I received a ball in my back which yet remains in my body. It struck me with a stunning, deadening force, and I fell on my hands and knees. I rose and threw my waistcoat open to see whether it had passed through me; finding it had not, I ran on, and had not proceeded more than a hundred or two yards before I was made a prisoner. In emerging from the woods into an open piece of ground near the battery we had taken, and before I knew what had happened, a soldier seized my sword and said to me, "Sir, you are my prisoner!" I looked before me and saw, with astonishment, the ground covered with muskets. The soldier, observing my astonishment, said, "Your army has surrendered," and received my sword. He ordered me to go forward and join the prisoners. I did so. The first man I met whom I recognized was Daniel Smith, of our company. With eyes full of tears he exclaimed, "Good Lord, lieutenant, what does all this mean?" I told him we were prisoners of war. . . .

The British 41st Regiment of Foot advanced and recaptured the batteries, picking up hundreds of the exhausted and disorganized militiamen:
Among the most conspicuous for gallantry was Major Chambers, of the 41st, acting deputy quarter-general to the division. Supported by merely four or five followers, this meritorious officer advanced under a shower of bullets from the enemy, and carried one of the batteries, sword in hand. A private of the same regiment being opposed, in an isolated condition, to three Americans, contrived to disarm them and render them his prisoners. On joining his company at the close of the affair, he excited much mirth among his comrades, in consequence of the singular manner in which he appeared, sweating beneath the weight of arms he had secured as trophies of victory, and driving his captives before him with an indifference and carelessness which contrasted admirably with the occasion. Of the whole of the division under Gen. Clay, scarce 200 men effected their escape. Among the fugitives was that officer himself. The sortie made by Gen. Harrison, at the head of the principal part of the garrison, had a different result...
Next: Dudley's Massacre and the sorties from Fort Meigs...