Thursday, August 14, 2014

The Battle of Fort Stephenson-Part One

Here's an excerpt from my book project, a narrative of the Batle of Fort Stephenson which took place at modern-day Fremont 201 years ago this August:

Throughout the siege of Fort Meigs General Harrison had waited, impatiently, with the balance of his army at Lower Sandusky: he had no more than 300 regulars with him, of whom more than 150 were posted forward at the lower ford of the Sandusky River in a stockade called Fort Stephenson. He made a new headquarters at a friendly Indian village called Seneca Town, a few miles to the south along the river. He was waiting for Governor Meigs' Ohio volunteers to arrive, as well as the two Ohio 12-months regular regiments under Generals Duncan McArthur and Lewis Cass.

            Fort Stephenson was a square timber stockade with two blockhouses and a gatehouse that stood on a low bluff overlooking the lowest ford of the Sandusky River, about 20 miles upriver from Sandusky Bay. A government post before the war, it had been fortified by the Ohio brigade of General Simon Perkins late in 1812. Sometime later it had been expanded with the simple expedient of adding a second square enclosure to the first, making the fort into a rectangle with room for a small warehouse and some huts for soldiers and teamsters. It stood as a waypoint along Harrison's military road, a crossroads with trails leading west to Fort Meigs, north to Lake Erie, and east to Cleveland and Erie. A rotating series of militia and regular soldiers formed the garrison.

            General Harrison thought that Fort Meigs being too strong to fall to such forces as General Procter could bring against it, the British commander might try his luck against the Lower Sandusky. With his staff, including Captain Eleazar D Wood of the engineers and Major George Croghan of the 17th Infantry, the general inspected Fort Stephenson. It became apparent that the opposite bank of the river was actually higher ground than that occupied by the stockade. The fort would have to be razed and rebuilt on the opposite bluff if it was to be expected to survive a siege or bombardment.

            When word arrived that Procter and Tecumseh were out in force, Harrison decided there was no time to make Fort Stephenson defensible. He took a handful of infantry, about 140 infantrymen and retreated upriver to the fortified Camp Seneca. Major Croghan was left to hold Fort Stephenson with Captain James Hunter's Company of the 17th Infantry Regiment, Lieutenant Benjamin Johnson commanding Captain Duncan's Company of the 17th, and scraps and volunteers from other units including the 7th and 24th Infantry Regiments and a half dozen men from the Petersburgh Volunteers and Pittsburgh Blues. These men totaled about 160 muskets. There was also an old iron six-pounder which the men believed to date back to the French and Indian Wars, with a prominent dent in the breech made, perhaps, by an enemy shot. The garrison affectionately nicknamed the piece “old bess” and Croghan placed it in the charge of a sergeant and men from the Volunteers, who had some experience with artillery.

            Harrison's orders to Croghan were to defend the stockade if a force made up solely of Indians approached, since with small arms alone they would have no way of reducing the fort. However, if British forces accompanied by artillery arrived up the Sandusky, the general instructions were to burn the post and its contents and retreat south to Fort Seneca. Fort Stephenson, after all, only held 200 barrels of flour and perhaps a hundred stacks of arms-nothing worth sacrificing two companies of infantry for. These orders were to lead to a misunderstanding between Harrison and his young protege, and would eventually become a source of controversy for decades after the war.

            Shortly after posting Croghan at Lower Sandusky, and sending scouts to watch the Lake Erie shoreline for signs of the British squadron, General Harrison received large reinforcements in the form of Colonel James V Ball's squadron of Light Dragoons, nearly 200 strong, as well as Colonel George Paull's newly-recruited 27th Infantry Regiment to make about 600 effectives at Fort Seneca.

            On July 29, Harrison's scouts reported sightings of Indians in the vicinity of Fort Stephenson and Fort Seneca. When word arrived that the siege of Fort Meigs had been lifted, Harrison believed that General Procter would probably try to attack a weaker post such as Fort Stephenson at Lower Sandusky or Fort Huntington at Cleveland. The general called upon William Conner, a volunteer Indian scout who in civilian life was a trader in the Indiana Territory. Conner had grown up with his Moravian parents among the Delaware tribe of Ohio, and had known the Lower Sandusky area as a youth. He was given a written message to give to Major Croghan which read:

Sir. Immediately on receiving this letter, you will abandon Fort Stephenson, set fire to it, and repair with your command this night to headquarters. Cross the river and come up on the opposite side. If you should deem and find it impractical to make good your march to this place, take the road to Huron and pursue it with the utmost circumspection and dispatch.[1]

            However, William Conner did not remember the wilderness trails along the Sandusky River as well as he had thought, or perhaps in the darkness and with hostile Indians to evade the going was much slower than he had anticipated. Either way, he did not reach Fort Stephenson with the orders until noon the following day. By then, Major Croghan had observed significant numbers of Indians in the brush surrounding the stockade and its outbuildings. Retreat would invite a massacre, and besides, hadn't Harrison ordered him to stay put in case of an investment by Indians alone? He scribbled a short note for Conner to take back in reply to Harrison:

Sir, I have just received yours of yesterday, 10 o'clock PM ordering me to destroy this place and make good my retreat, which was received too late to be carried into execution. We have determined to defend this place, and by heavens we can.[2]

            When Harrison read this he was outraged. The young Croghan had apparently defied a direct order and thus placed his detachment in peril—and Harrison himself in danger of having his own name attached to a third military disaster not wholly of his own making. He lost no time in dispatching Colonel Ball with his entire squadron to relieve Croghan of his command, and to leave Colonel Samuel Wells of the 17th Infantry in command of the fort. Croghan would be placed under arrest and court-martialled. There was a card left in George Croghan's hand yet: long a friend of the general's, he had served as aide-de-camp to Harrison during the Tippecanoe campaign. When Colonel John Boyd of the 4th Infantry Regiment charged Harrison with neglecting to fortify the American camp, Croghan defended his commander. Once face to face with the general, he might be able to make an explanation for his insubordination.

            Meantime, Colonel Ball did not reach Lower Sandusky unmolested. As his dragoons trotted along the river road, handsomely attired in blue coats with silver buttons and leather helmets with long white plumes, the outriders of the advance guard were fired upon by Indians lurking in sparse woodlands on the west side of the road. One of the scouts was wounded, but Ball ordered the main body of his squadron to charge. Mounted on a better horse than his enlisted troopers,  Ball soon outpaced them. Overtaking two Indians, he rode between them and hacked down the one on the right with his saber. The other one swung at him with a tomahawk which narrowly missed his back, and buried itself in his saddle. A corporal following on the colonel's heels shot the other Indian down.

            Lieutenant James Hedges was riding down another warrior when his stirrup broke, spilling him on top of the Indian. Both men tumbled to the ground, and then sprang to their feet. Dodging a tomahawk blow, “Hedges struck the Indian across the head, and as he was falling buried his sword up to its hilt in his body.[3]” Captain Samuel Hopkins of the 2nd US Light Dragoons had a similar close call when an Indian he was pursuing swiped at him with a tomahawk, making his horse swerve and nearly dismounting him. The warrior fought off another trooper who came up to Hopkin's assistance, but was finally killed by a third trooper.    There turned out to be only twenty warriors in this party watching the road, and all or nearly all of them were cut down in this unequal contest. As Private William B. Northcutt of Gerrard's Company of Volunteer Light Dragoons (the Bourbon Blues) recalled:

The first thing the Indians knew of the squadron they were right under our broadswords and we made their heads rattle like old gourds. They caught their guns in both hands and gabbered something I suppose about quarters, but we were Kentuckians and did not understand one word about the Indian language, and we gobbled them up right on the spot.[4]

            Here there was a reversal of roles as the troopers, most of whom came from Kentucky as volunteers or regulars, looted the bodies and took trophies. One of Private Northcutt's messmates asked if he should cut the scalp from an Indian he had killed, but Northcutt talked him out of it. Later, on the return trip to Fort Seneca Northcutt picked up a blanket bundle and medicine bag belonging to one of the dead Indians. He later gave the medicine bag to one of Harrison's Indian allies, whom the Kentuckians referred to as “Harrison's pets.” These allied scouts later went back and buried their enemies, and reported that one of them had limped away, wounded, according to the signs they had read on the battleground.

            The squadron arrived at Lower Sandusky without further incident, and Croghan was replaced with Colonel Wells and escorted back to headquarters. When he arrived, Croghan explained that he felt the Indians had surrounded him in force, making it dangerous to retreat from the post. Colonel Ball's brief skirmish could attest to that much. The blustering and confidednt tone of the note had been meant to deceive any British officer who might intercept it—as had occurred in three separate incidents already in the war.[5] Harrison accepted this explanation at face value, and sent Croghan back to Fort Stephenson with another heavy escort.

[1]McAffee, 322.
[2]McAfee, 323.
[3]“The Croghan Celebration,” in Ohio Archeological and Historical Quarterly 16, no. 1 (January 1907), 47.
[4]William B. Northcutt, “War of 1812 Diary of William B. Northcutt,” ed. G. Glenn Clift, in Register of the Kentucky State Historical Society 56 no. 3 (July 1958), 332-333.
[5]Most famously, General Isaac Brock intercepted and read General William Hull's papers when the schooner Cayuga was captured on June 30, 1812. Then, another mail pouch fell into Brock's hands after the skirmish at Brownstown on August 4. Finally, the mail pouch to Fort Meigs was captured during the siege in May 1813. Each of these incidents provided valuable intelligence for British commanders.