“These fair prospects have been utterly destroyed by circumstances which no human being could control.”
--William Henry Harrison
Captain Angus Langham and the Burning Expedition
From Thunder in the Wilderness (work in progress),
Daniel Wilkens 2012
|1888 map showing Fort Meigs, Fort Malden, and the Lake Erie Islands.|
From Thunder in the Wilderness (work in progress),
Daniel Wilkens 2012
As February 1813 began the men of the third American army to reach the rapids settled into their winter camp at Fort Meigs on the Maumee River, felling trees and building breastworks along the snow covered knoll. Major General William Henry Harrison, in his marquee, read orders from the Secretary of War in Washington. Doctor William Eustis was out: after the failures of the summer and fall of 1812 he had resigned on December 3. Secretary of State James Monroe took over as interim Secretary of War until John Armstrong, Jr. of New York could officially replace Eustis on January 13, 1813.1 Armstrong was more competent than Eustis had been, but less willing to let his generals oversee their districts without interference. He particularly distrusted Harrison after the loss of Brigadier General James Winchester's detachment and the expensive winter campaign. Harrison was too populist for Armstrong's liking, with stronger ties to Governor Isaac Shelby of Kentucky, Senator Thomas Worthington of Ohio, and other regional leaders than to the Madison administration. Worst of all, he liked to employ massive numbers of volunteer militia soldiers. After a season of failures the War Department regarded the militia as unreliable and expensive. Contrary to prewar plans, the Madison administration now preferred to fight the 1813 campaign with as many regular soldiers, and as few militiamen as possible.
Harrison reported to the Secretary of War that weather on the Great Lakes was unexpectedly turning warm:
For the last twelve or fifteen days however it has been so warm that the roads have become entirely broken up and for a considerable distance in our rear are absolutely impassable for wagons or sleds and can with great difficulty be traversed with single horses. A number of wagons and sleds loaded with ammunition and other munitions of war have been eighteen days coming from Upper Sandusky and are Twenty five miles off...1
With his supply trains trapped along roads that had become seas of mud, the General could not hope to reach Detroit or Malden before his militia brigades' enlistments ran out. His artillery train was arriving at the camp on the rapids where it would remain until mid-summer, when the roads firmed up again. If Lake Erie could be wrested from British control, the guns could be moved by sea. Harrison intended that the new fort would serve a dual purpose. As a depot for ordnance and supplies, the Maumee rapids were a natural jumping-off point for an offensive against the Michigan Territory. It could also protect the string of smaller forts and blockhouses along the Maumee and Auglaize Rivers, and the settlements of Ohio and the Indiana Territory. Word came from the War Department that Harrison's army was to go into winter quarters, and wait for the Navy to build a squadron at Presque Isle, Pennsylvania. This fleet would sail forth sometime in the coming spring or summer, and as the Americans hoped, defeat the British naval forces and gain control of the upper Great Lakes.
|HMS Queen Charlotte. A ship-rigged sloop of war, 15 guns.|
As the Northwest army's ambitions for a counteroffensive in 1813 appeared to rest with the unfinished squadron at Presque Isle, word arrived at Camp Meigs that the British shipyard at Amherstburg was constructing a more powerful warship for the squadron on Lake Erie. He wrote to the new Secretary that a French-Canadian civilian had informed him that “about 3 weeks ago the keel of a vessel of war much larger than the Queen Charlotte was laid at Malden. 30 men work upon her and 300 sailors and workmen are expected from Quebec daily. One of the Frenchmen above mentioned was told by a British officer that the vessel would be completed by the last of June.”1 The new ship would decrease the chances of an American naval victory in the spring. Four days later, Harrison wrote another letter to the War Department with a plan.
|Modern satellite image of Lake Erie ice cover. (NexSat Project/ Naval Research Laboratory)|
During winters on the Great Lakes, the freshwater seas often froze over with ice thick enough to support men, horses, and sleds.2 French Canadian settlers who inhabited the region often used horse drawn sleds to travel and trade across the lakes. The march along the edges of Maumee Bay had proven that the ice was too thin to support artillery. Undeterred, Harrison made a plan for a small force to march across the ice and burn the British flagship, the 16-gun sloop of war Queen Charlotte. The ship, trapped at anchor in the winter ice, would be destroyed by incendiaries tossed on the decks by a picked force of Americans.3 The saboteurs were to take one day and night to cross the lake with sleds and combustibles, and attack the ships before dawn. The general already had enough officers and men volunteering to join the 150 man strike force: “The Detachment is selected and combustible matter preparing...”
Harrison chose a captain in the 19th Infantry named Angus Langham to command the detachment. Langham was a young but promising infantry officer who led the light company of the 19th Infantry. Two specialists would assist him: Charles Madiss, a veteran of the French Navy who held the rank of first lieutenant as a Conductor of Artillery; and 1st Lieutenant Joseph Larwill. Madiss was reputed to have skills related to munitions and explosives and would take charge of the incendiaries. A native speaker of French, he would take charge of a small company of French-Canadian volunteers during the expedition. Larwill, as an artillery officer and professional surveyor, could aid in the problems of movement and navigation that might develop on the lake. He had already demonstrated his resourcefulness bringing the ordnance convoy to the Upper Sandusky road in November. Lewis, Larwill's black servant, accompanied the expedition as well.4
|Captain Langham's detachment right-wheeled into column to hear the General's orders...|
With little ado, the detachment marched off for Lower Sandusky, making six miles the first day. Not everyone thought their chances were good. Captain Wood, the engineer, noted that the ship was tied up just under the guns of Fort Malden. If the raiding party was detected they would have a difficult time escaping British forces, not to mention achieving their objective. He described the detachment as “a forlorn hope (if there ever was one).” Lieutenant Madiss stayed at camp to finish preparing the sleds full of incendiaries. On the two-day march to Sandusky, Langham, Larwill and their men bivouaced in the open. When they reached Lower Sandusky, they had to wait several days before Madiss and the combustibles arrived, driven by civilian teamsters. Madiss now had a small company of 32 French-Canadian volunteers under his command. A small party of Indian scouts rendezvoused with the detachment at Sandusky.
The total number of regulars, volunteers, and Indian scouts embarking on the march was 242—not counting the civilian drivers. Each man carried an extra blanket or greatcoat for shelter, since the force would be bivouacking on the open, windswept Lake Erie islands. There was trouble even before they left Lower Sandusky. The Indians and some of the soldiers had gotten into the liquor and were drunk and disorderly. Lewis, the black servant who had accompanied Larwill, got into an argument with a French-Canadian volunteer at one of the sleds. The volunteer drew his tomahawk and struck Lewis on the side of the head, severely injuring him. Fortunately he survived. Larwill recorded only that the man was “corrected” by Madiss that evening.6
|Langham's detachment carried extra blankets or great coats for shelter. They depended on these and their campfires for warmth.|
Despite the personnel issues, the convoy of men, horses and sleds moved out from Sandusky the next day. Langham halted everyone after marching for half a mile, and revealed their destination: Amherstburg. When they heard where they were heading and what they would be trying to do there, nearly twenty of the volunteers and a half dozen Indians opted to turn back. The rest of the men marched on towards the lake. They crossed the frozen Sandusky Bay and what is now called Marblehead Pennisula, halting for the night near the mouth of the Portage River. The lakeshore was mostly low-lying, marshy land, and the men bivouacked between a pond and a ridge made up of broken sheets of pack ice along the beach.
Larwill the surveyor now had an opportunity to observe the Lake Erie islands for the first time. The campaign would later play out in these shallow, island-speckled seas. Langham's expedition was intended to tip the balance of a later naval battle somewhere in that sea. As it entered the lake, the winding Sandusky River opened up into a wide and shallow muddy bay, inhabited by a few scattered farmsteads of French settlers. These had stood abandoned since the fall of Detroit. To the north the bay was hemmed in by the rocky Sandusky peninsula. During the summer of 1812 a small force of Ohio militiamen had made a hard-fought skirmish with hostile Indians. Sandusky Bay and its peninsula made a distinctive crook-of-the-thumb shape along the northern coast of Ohio. Just a few miles outside the mouth of the Bay lay a large, elliptical island.7 Immediately to the west of it, and north of Langham's bivouac lay the three Bass Islands, smaller islands stacked north-south across the middle of Lake Erie.
|Modern map of the Bass Islands.|
The southernmost of the Bass Islands was South Bass, then also known as Edwards. It was an oddly shaped island, with most of the landmass concentrated into an ellipsis. A the main part of the island was connected to a smaller spur by a thread of rocky land. South was seperated from Middle Bass by a narrow keyhole passage. There was a cove on the northwest corner of South Bass, flanked by a tiny pile of rock which someone had dubbed Gibraltar. The little anchorage was known as Put-In-Bay by the men who sailed small trading schooners over the isolated seas. Lake Erie was the shallowest and longest of all the Great Lakes and storms sweeping over the Western plains and over the seas could whip it into a fury in a matter of hours. Therefore Put-In-Bay was a strategic location, since it stood as a safe harbor near the straits demarcating the western basin of the lake and the approaches to Detroit and the Maumee River.
There were a constellation of smaller islets and shoals dotting the western reaches of Lake Erie, lonely spots with names like Ballast, Mouse, Turtle, and Rattlesnake Island. The three Sister Islands lay in the middle of this basin, specks of land inhabited only by seabirds. West Sister lay near the mouth of Maumee Bay, while the Middle and East Sisters guarded the entrance to the Detroit River. From the Detroit spilled water from the upper lakes and Lake St. Clair into Erie and Ontario. Amherstburg, the British naval base and Fort Malden stood near its mouth. Captain Langham planned to march his men to the Bass Islands, and then northwest over the ice to strike Malden from North Sister Island. He hoped to escape to the Maumee before the British could respond in force.
Langham's men had reached the Portage River on March 2nd, and the captain turned out sentries to guard the men as they rested. Sometime after dark, they were awakened by a musket shot. It turned out that one of the guards' muskets had misfired and gone off half-cocked.8 Accidental or not, Captain Langham considered having the unfortunate man shot for giving a false alarm. “The man pledged his honor it was accidental and being the first offense he was permitted to pass unpunished.”9
|Lake Erie winter ice.|
On the following morning, the men marched across the open lake for the first time. Wind-swept snow made footing treacherous, but the column made the first 18 miles to South Bass Island by one o'clock in the afternoon. Langham sent out scouting parties to check for any inhabitants or lurking watchers. The islands were deserted, but the scouts found a set of tracks leading towards Malden. The officers suspected that these belonged to a pair of French traders who had left Sandusky the day before themselves, setting off (so they claimed) for an American settlement to the east. Now it seemed the American plan might be given away. Worse news came: on the east side of the island the ice ended about a quarter mile off shore. Further than that, there was nothing but grayish-green waves and whitecaps. Larwill and several others hiked around to the north side of the island. Here, the ice crackled ominously underfoot—clearly too thin to bear even a man, not to mention a horse or a heavily laden sled. While walking along the rock cliffs that form the western edge of the island, Larwill heard the evening gun (an 18-pounder) being fired at Fort Meigs. He estimated the distance was more than 50 miles.
The condition of the ice put Captain Langham in an awkward situation. He called a council of war. The guides stated that even if they could make it to one of the Sister Islands opposite Amherstburg, they might get stranded in the thawing lake. The strike force would be left dangling dangerously close to the British in winter camp at Fort Malden, without any boats. Everyone agreed that prudence, if not sanity was the better part of honor. Although the arson mission was over, It remained for the men to get home. They retraced their steps back across the slippery ice to the Portage River, drivers cursing and cracking whips to urge their teams onward, iron and wood runners scraping the rough sea ice.
Soon after landfall they met a courier from Harrison. At the rapids he could tell that the weather was turning against the expedition, and had decided to recall it. Instead of returning by way of Sandusky, though, the general wanted Langham's force to drive straight west along the lake shore, and rendezvous with him at Presque Isle at the mouth of the Maumee. When they met Harrison at the island, he was accompanied by his staff officers and Major John B. Alexander's Battalion of United States Volunteers. This force was composed of three infantry companies: the Pittsburgh Blues, Petersburgh Volunteers, and the Greensburgh Rifles.10
Harrison had intended to march up to Frenchtown and give the American corpses there from the January battle a proper burial. However, when he quizzed his French scouts, they claimed that the bones and bodies had been eaten by hogs, and scattered throughout the woods. The ground nearby was frozen hard, and there was no supply of shovels and pickaxes available to use for breaking it up. Another compelling reason to turning back was the weather. The lake was thawing, and open water could be seen off shore. Harrison ordered everyone to return to camp. In his report to the Secretary of War, he claimed to have lost at least one man through the weakening ice.11
It took all evening and another day for Larwill and the convoy to ascend the river 10 or so miles to Fort Meigs.12 Before they stopped for the night, one of the sleds broke through the river ice and had to be pulled out. The next day, the tired Larwill rode on one of the sleds. He had taken his shoes off, laid his sword by his side, and was resting when the sled broke through. Scrambling out of the water, he spent an hour getting the horses out of the hole. Then, with the help of the driver and the sergeant of another company, Larwill fished out the blankets, his shoes, and some muskets belonging to the Petersburg Volunteers. He noted with annoyance that the infantrymen “took French leave of us” once they had recovered their guns. Finally, the three men were able to drag out the sled. The sword, which Larwill had borrowed from another officer, was lost on the river bottom.
1Harrison to Secretary of War, 20 February 1813 in Messages and Letters 2,
2Harrison to Secretary of War, 24 February 1813 in Messages and Letters 2, 368.
3Ships' crews during the age of sail typically prepared to winter in ice by striking down topsails (the top portions of a segmented mast) and rigging a sort of roof to protect the exposed main deck from snow and ice.
4Both Captain Cushing and Lt. Larwill mention black servants in their diaries. Very little is known about these men, although they were not the only African Americans with the Northwest Army: the Pittsburgh volunteers brought several servants with them who actively participated in the fighting.
7Later in the 19th Century, this island would be named Kelly's after its principle landowner.
8This is not the only example of American muskets firing by accident during the war. The mechanism of a flintlock firearm has two notches: one that allows a user to set it to half-cock for loading and holding; and a higher tension notch to ready the weapon for firing. When the mechanism is worn out or poorly made, the hammer can fall on half-cock.
10Eugene Watkins, “Troops Stationed at Fort Meigs February-August 1813,” n.p.
11Harrison to Armstrong, 12 March 1813 in Eseray, Messages and Letters of William Henry Harrison 2, 383.