Sunday, March 17, 2013

Life at Fort Meigs in the Spring of 1813


It's mid-March, a dreary time of year from any Ohioan's point of view, and I haven't spent as much time as I'd like keeping up with events on the Northwest frontier 200 years ago. However, the bicentennial of the siege of Fort Meigs is only a couple months away, in late April-early May and I thought I'd post an extract from my book which details the sufferings of American troops in the months leading up to the siege:

Harrison appealed to the patriotism of the remaining Virginia and Pennsylvania militiamen to voluntarily stay in the field. The Virginians of Leftwich's Brigade, having endured the hardship of a winter campaign without winter uniforms or pay, declined to stay. On the last day of their enlistments, the Pennsylvanians were drawn up on the parade ground. Those who wished to remain for fifteen more days or “voluntarily not to exceed two months” were asked to shoulder arms and take several paces forward. Captain John Barrickman and nearly all his company, including First Sergeant Greenbury Keene and Private John B Peters, found themselves among the 250 or so who stepped forward. Private Peters had enlisted as a substitute for another militia draftee. It isn't known whether he received payment from the man he substituted for, but after volunteering to remain he was promoted to the informal rank of Captain (formally given the title Conductor of Artillery) and placed in charge of a group of French-American scouts.

While American troop levels fluctuated on the Maumee, work continued on the stockade and other field works at Fort Meigs. The picketing had been completed by the end of March, and the army stores were secured in the seven two-story blockhouses around the perimeter.1 Construction did not go smoothly, however. After Harrison left at the beginning of the month, according to Captain Wood, little progress was made on the fort. General Leftwich, a “phlegmatic, stupid old granny” according to the engineer, had allowed his troops to burn timber that had been earmarked for pickets.2 When the captain returned from Lower Sandusky on March 18, where he had been supervising the construction of Fort Stephenson, he discovered “several of the men actually pulling the pickets out of the ground, and conveying them off for fuel.”3 Leftwich departed with his brigade in March, leaving Major Stoddard in command of the fort, and Captain Wood in charge of the construction. Less than 800 men were left to complete and defend a fort that had been designed for 5,000.

As the weather got warmer, conditions at Fort Meigs grew worse for those who remained. By March 3, the camp was covered in mud eight inches deep. The 2nd Lieutenant Alexander Meek of Cushing's artillery company left on furlough early that month “pleased as a child with a rattle.”4 A few weeks later, First Lieutenant Larwill tried to follow on his own much-delayed furlough. He left camp on March 15, but came back the next day, “defeated by the water that covers the whole face of the earth after leaving this camp one mile."5 It eventually took Larwill three attempts in order to get through the swamp and return home.

The thawing swamps weren't only affecting the comfort and movement of the army. Although microbiology was unknown at the time, it was common knowledge that low-lying and waterlogged areas were prone to diseases in warm weather. People also took it for granted that military camps, where hundreds or thousands of men slept under closely spaced canvas tents, were sickly places. A military science, castrametation, encompassed the schemes for making an orderly and healthy camp. Manuals suggested avoiding swamps, moist places, and woods or places where woods had recently been cut down, since all of these situations accumulated the miasma that caused sickness. The ground of Fort Meigs, by those standards, was as unhealthy as it could possibly be. The vast areas of standing water in and around camp would soon breed clouds of mosquitoes, which the Black Swamp was known for. Water- and mosquito-borne illnesses would follow close behind.

There was very little that the men of the Northwest Army could do to improve their situation. They already occupied the highest and driest ground available. The clay in the soil of the Black Swamp means that it takes a long time to absorb water. The result is vast puddles or sucking pits of brown mud that can steal a shoe or a boot. In 1813, there was no grass on the recently deforested plateau. Captain Cushing observed that “our camp is overwhelmed with mud and water... not a markee or tent in the whole encampment but what has more or less mud and water in it...Not less than two or three men die every day, and I expect the deaths to increase unless the weather changes very soon.”6 Sanitary conditions were likewise very poor. All food was cooked outdoors, and the same flies that swarmed over the open-pit privies and sinks filled with animal carcasses must have swarmed around the food.7 Clean water had to be hauled from the river; likewise men had to go down to the river to do any washing. Sickness soon influenced the Army's organization and operations. The chief engineer, Captain Gratiot, fell ill and Captain Wood had to take his place.

From March onwards, small war parties of Indians, aided by British officers of the army and Indian Department stalked the woods around the fort, ambushing any individuals or small groups of soldiers who dared leave the safety of the stockade. One of their first victims was a lieutenant from the Pennsylvania brigade, who had gone out duck hunting with a small group of men. Separated from his companions, he was found shot, tomahawked, and scalped. The corpse had been shoved under the river ice. Another man had a close call with the Indians, reaching safety only to find a rifle ball lodged in the Psalm book that he kept in a tailcoat pocket. “No party could be sent out after fuel, timber, or anything else without being fired upon, and frequently one or two persons killed, and as many more taken prisoners.”8

The garrison continued to build improvements onto the fortifications as news came that the British would soon try to attack the position. With each passing day, as the ice broke up and the waters gradually receded, the Americans were more aware that the British were only a day's sail away, at Fort Malden. Word came from Detroit civilians that a force of 600 regulars, 700 militia, and 500 Indians was ready to embark on boats at Malden as soon as the Lake was open for navigation.9 Intermittent skirmishing around the fort became more pronounced as the Indian presence increased.

1“Picture of a Soldier's Life”.

2Wood, Eleazar Derby, Journal of the Northwestern Campaign of 1812-1813, 13.

3Ibid. This account is also referenced in McAfee, History, 255.

4Cushing, 103-104.

5Ibid., 105.

6Cushing, 106.

7James Mills, A Regimental Book for the 1st Regiment 3rd Detachment Ohio Militia.., 22.

8Wood, 14.

9 Cushing, 110.