Thursday, August 21, 2014

The Battle of Fort Stephenson-Part Three

[The third part of my series on the Battle of Fort Stephenson, which was fought at modern-day Fremont Ohio on August 3rd, 1813.]

The famous cannon today.
The old dent on the breech which allowed Thomas L. Hawkins to identify the French and Indian War-era gun after the war.
...At about 5pm the time of decision arrived. Croghans men on the walls glimpsed scarlet coats through the gunsmoke, but not until they were only 20 paces from the stockade did the Americans spot a massive, close-packed column of 350 Englishmen. The column was headed by light infantry company of the regiment. Croghan's men were ready for them. Their loopholes erupted with musketry and the sudden rain of small arms fire staggered the column for a moment. Lt. Colonel William Short, who was heading up the column, quickly rallied his men and urged them to follow him forward into the ditch. Lacking scaling ladders and faced with the bayonets on the intact wooden stockade, Short and his men tried to hack the timber down with axes, even as the defenders continued to shoot down into their crowded ditch at point-blank range.
            At this moment, the port-hole that no one had been able to see from the British lines creaked open, and a black muzzle rolled out. There must have been a flash of light and flame, and the searing streaks of hundreds of iron slugs, but most of the Englishmen in the ditch had no time to see or hear it. A six-pounder cannon could be reloaded just as fast as a musket, and within tens of seconds a second blast swept the ditch. Within minutes, every man who had entered the ravine was either wounded or dead. The survivors of the column fled to safety.         Colonel Short was dead, as was Lieutenant J. G. Gordon who was badly wounded by a large caliber ball from a wall piece, and was hacking at the pickets with his sword when the same gun blew his brains out.[1] Major Adam Muir, who had led many of the British operations over the past year, was badly wounded but dragged from the scene by Indians. On the opposite side of the fort, another infantry column led by Lt. Colonel Wharburton advanced, but raked with rapid musket fire and realizing the main attack had failed, these men too retreated back towards safety. Within 30 minutes, the battle for Fort Stephenson was over. The Americans had lost a total of seven men slightly wounded, in addition to their earlier fatality.

A Missed Opportunity?
            The remaining British forces embarked and sailed from Lower Sandusky after dusk. A couple of British deserters made it into the stockade at 3am to inform Major Croghan of their retreat. General Procter's small western forces lost, according to his account, a total of 26 dead, 41 wounded, and 29 captured soldiers in the attack.[2] He blamed the Indians and the officers of the Indian Department for forcing him to attack. “Impossibilities being attempted, failed,” he later reported, and added that Croghans men had put up “the severest fire I ever saw” on the attacking columns. The Indians, who had been expected to support the assault, faded away as they saw it fail.[3]
            Many of the attackers were trapped in the ditch, either too wounded to escape or pinned down by the American fire. While the battle was still ongoing, the garrison cut gaps in the picketing to aid the mass of wounded men lying only a few feet from the walls. As August 3 dawned, the Americans collected 70 muskets and several sets of pistols from around the fort, as well as a boat laden with clothing and military stores, left behind by the British in their hasty retreat. Croghan set his surgeon to assisting the wounded as best he could.
            General Procter had left the neighborhood of Fort Stephenson so fast that some of his men, who had lost their way after the failed assault were picked up later near Lake Erie by General Harrison’s Indian scouts.[4] Procter had good reason to move quickly. Many Americans in Harrison's army saw an opportunity to counterattack and trap the British force even as they were attacking Fort Stephenson. The phlegmatic Virginian ordered his men to stand fast, to their chagrin. He awaited the arrival of 250 mounted volunteers from the Ohio settlements. Moreover, there was every evidence that his nemesis Tecumseh remained perched in the Black Swamp, waiting for Harrison and his untrained recruits to bungle through.
            As soon as he had word on August 3 that the British were gone, Harrison now changed his mind and rode out at the head of Colonel Ball's dragoons, anxious to catch them before they escaped to the lake. Generals McArthur and Cass followed with their infantry regiments. It soon became apparent that the main force had already returned to Malden, and ever fearful of an Indian ambush, the general ordered most of his forces back into camp at Fort Seneca.
            There remained for the Americans the problem of the wounded. On visiting Fort Stephenson the day after the attack, General Harrison set his hospital surgeon to treating them, including many British soldiers whose condition was quite serious. General Procter sent Lt. John Le Breton of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment with a surgeon to the fort under a flag of truce.[5] When they arrived on August 10, Major Croghan forwarded Procter's letter appealing to General Harrison to allow his men medical attention to Fort Seneca. Procter also asked that his non-wounded prisoners be released on parole.
            Harrison, who may have been piqued that Procter was implying the Americans would not treat wounded British prisoners with humanity, replied curtly that the British soldiers were being treated by his own surgeon “according to those principles which are held sacred in the American army.”[6] The Americans had seen their wounded abandoned and massacred by their opponents. One of Harrison's own surgeons had been imprisoned by Procter himself in a similar situation, after his guide had been murdered by one of Procter's allies. The unwritten rebuke in Harrison's cordial note, sent back with Lt. Le Breton and the surgeon, must have been unmistakable.
            As the drama on the Sandusky concluded, word arrived for the Americans in camp at “Sink-a-Town” (Seneca Town) that Master Commandant Oliver Hazard Perry's squadron had  sortied from its shipyards and refuge behind Presque Isle at Erie, Pennsylvania. Perry's two 18-gun brigs had tipped the balance of power on Lake Erie solidly towards the Americans, and the British fleet had fled for safety in its own refuge on the Detroit River. The stage was set for the battle that would decide the campaign. It would be fought not in swamp or forest, but on the inland seas.

[1]Letter of W. B. T Webb, reprinted in Sandusky County Historical Society, History Leaflet No. 4 (September 1963) ( accessed 6/2/14.)
[2]Alec R. Gilpin, The War of 1812 in the Old Northwest (East Lansing, Michigan: The Michigan State University Press, 1958), 207.
[3]MPHC 15, 347-48.
[4]Esarey, 523.
[5]Ibid., 518.
[6]Esarey, 521.