Sunday, March 2, 2014

The Mail Horses Reached Us By Swimming-- Captain Joseph Wheatons Letter to the President


Last month, trolling through the Madison Papers digitized at loc.gov, I found an interesting and lengthy series of letters from Captain Joseph Wheaton, quartermaster to General William Henry Harrison's Northwest Army in 1812 and 1813, to President James Madison. Wheaton apparently had some ties to the administration, or else wanted, Frank Underwood -like, to increase his political clout. Wheaton sought to establish himself as nothing less than a back channel conduit for detailed information about the leadership of Harrison, an ambitious and politically connected operator who had all but maneuvered himself into command of the northwest frontier. Or... Was Wheaton a spy planted by Madison, to keep an eye on the most expensive land campaign in the history of the young United States? The truth remains unclear, but these letters and Wheaton's later appeal to Congress are a valuable, if not exactly unbiased, account of the American war effort in Ohio. Wheaton would later be singled out by Harrison for blame when his operations went tens of thousands of dollars over budget.

This particular letter is valuable because it offers an eyewitness account of the building of Fort Meigs and the tough climate and geography that the soldiers had to contend with.
Camp Miami Rapids
March 12. 1813
Excellent Sir. Wheaton, Jos.
It being a severe snowstorm after a remarkable rain which continued all night no fatigue party being ordered out my calls and duties are lessened by the inclimency of the weather and having a more leisure (illg.) I am disposed to devote that hour to you with such observations on as (illg.) in a hasty moment.
Our garrison is situated at the foot of the rapids on this river 13 miles from the entrance at the lake, about two and a half miles above the fort built by the British in 1794 or 5 when Governor Simcoe had the administration of Upper Canada, on an elevated bank of the river with a natural ravine by a creek at the N by last angle of the work and a considerable deep hollow on its East by S point. The W.S.W end is a continuance of the natural bank of the river. The ground is well chosen and easy of defense, when the works are completed. The opposite bank is of an equal height and at the distance of about ¾ of a mile. South East of us and distinct from the works is a vast large flat country not a hill or valley to Carrying [Portage] River not less than 15 miles and the ground though heavily timbered is at this season of the year a continuous swamp to that river, and with little difference to the Sandusky Rapids which is I believe to be thirty two miles. Lower Sandusky fort is four miles down that river after we reach its banks. The Sandusky is a rocky rapid stream, boats may go down it about 40 miles when the waters are high but cannot return. The road to upper Sandusky is of much the same description of land to Portage or Carrying river. Continued and with little hilly or rolling land to the Tomarta river (?), and to Sandusky prairies, which are very large plains and excellent for early pastorage (grazing land?). The deer are plenty. All this land which I here mention between the road which led to Lower and upper Sandusky and to Carrying River is denominated the Black Swamp and is now about or quite impassible. Yet the mail horses reached us twice, on Monday last and yesterday, by swimming.
The ice in this river is now breaking up, and will soon unfold all its beauties, which are considerable, and will be very interesting when it permits us to partake of the excellent fish which are said to be in great abundance. The weakened situation of the ice and the probability of our not being (encountered?) induced Genl. Harrison to permit his Indian and white guides and spies to return home.
The idle curiosity of our young troops, the state of insubordination and the impossibility to induce them to profit by advice. Some of these men trooped over the river notwithstanding the difficulty on rotten ice scattered shooting along the bank and in the skirt of the woods when the Indians sprung on a Lieut of the Pen. Militia, Robert Walker, shot scalped, and put him under the ice. A party went out the next morning (trailed?), by the blood raised him and brought his body into the camp and buried him. Several Indians fresh tracks have been seen about 300 yards of our picquets, followed to the ice about one mile below our works, where they were tracked crossing the river. We may expect when the snow is gone to have enough of them hovering around us between this and both the Sanduskies unless were are enabled to advance upon the enemy—which I ardently hope we may be enabled to do. Genl. Harrison left us as I mentioned in my last, to hasten on I presume reinforcements or reliefs for the Virginia and Pa Brigades, and to have forage sent down the river by water from the country above us when the ice is gone.
Although as I stated there is abundance at Upper Sandusky of forage yet as there is a young man at that fort Wm. Eubank, of no military experience and little foresight & deputy quarter master too. I could not prevail on him to send forward the forage after the 13 day of February when I left him. Although I presented to him in the sharpest colors the immediate necessity to secure a sufficiency, and to send on the remainder of the 12 prs and sixes with the carriage guns, and the ammunition while the teams were coming on from Franklinton daily and while Carrying River was fast bound in ice, and the roads firm. Yet this young man has not sent forward any except a few bushels, and we are now out. I have just signed the last of the forage returns, which ends all our forage. Nor any of the guns, except one eighteen pounder and a howitzer and that not until a positive order was sent from Genl. Harrison.
Our garrison is not yet fully picketed, not a gate made, and none of our block or store houses finished I know not how I shall manage for want of teams. General Harrison is a very active man, a good deal of mind and the best experienced soldier I know of, and wants for nothing but an opportunity of regular service in a well organized body of troops to make him one of our best Generals. His indefatigable industry, his labors and zeal instill him to every (performance?), and sure I am that he will not disapoint the government or people if he can have troops that will obey, and as sure I am had it not been for the unfortunate haste of Genl. Winchester to pluck the laurels from the brow which is yet I hope destined to wear them, the government and people would have this (illg.) realized all they wish for in Upper Canada.
When ever I write you Sir it gives me much pain because I know I am not the proper officer from whom you should receive all communications, yet in hopes I may sometimes, throw a ray of light which might escape others I cannot restrain my pen.
With the homage of my heart,
I am faithfully
Excellent Sir
Your Obedient Servant
Joseph Wheaton