Friday, August 15, 2014

The Battle of Fort Stephenson-Part Two

Continuing the narrative of the siege and battle of Fort Stephenson on August 1-2 1813

No sooner did the young major arrive back at his little command, than word came back from General Harrison's lookouts that a large flotilla had been spotted sailing up Sandusky Bay on the evening of July 31. By noon on August 1 they had made it back as far as Fort Stephenson, where they informed Major Croghan before hurrying south to tell General Harrison. Only a few hours later, the first large group of Indians appeared on the river bluff opposite the fort. Croghan ordered the volunteers manning “old betsy” to open fire, which drove the Indians away. Only a half hour later, several gunboats flying British colors appeared in the river. The Indians reappeared in every direction round the stockade. Retreat was now certainly out of the question.

            British regulars from the 41st Regiment disembarked from their boats about a mile downstream from the fort. A 5 ½ inch howitzer was manhandled up the opposite shore. Soon, a white flag of truce appeared from the treeline outside the stockade. It was borne by two men in the uniforms of British officers, who turned out to be Major Robert Dickson of the Indian Department and Major Peter Chambers of the 41st. Major Dickson was an imposing presence, a burly Scot named “Red Head” by the western Indians for his bright red hair and beard. He had orchestrated the successful attack on Fort Mackinac the previous year, and had gathered thousands of fierce western tribesmen for the attack at Fort Meigs and now Fort Stephenson. To meet them, Croghan sent out his youngest officer, Ensign Edmund Shipp.

            Major Chambers made the usual demand in such circumstances for the Americans to surrender “to spare the effusion of blood.” Shipp replied that Croghan and his garrison were determined to defend the fort to the last extremity—or to bury themselves in its ruins. Dickson replied that it was a pity that so fine a young man should fall into the hands of the “savages”-- “Sir, for God's sake surrender, and prevent the dreadful massacre that will be caused by your resistance.” Shipp answered, “When the fort is taken there will be none left to massacre. It will not be given up while a man is able to resist.”

            At that, their conference was interrupted when an Indian leaped out from the cover of a nearby ravine, ran to the American and tried to grab his sword. Major Dickson stepped up to defend Ensign Shipp, and anxiously ushered him back towards the safety of the stockade. The parley was over.

A close up of the layout of the fort. B blockhouse at top center was where "old Betsy" was hidden. Note the extra curtain wall where the fort was expanded into a rectangle. The plateau where the fort was constructed is now the location of the Fremont Public Library.

Major George Croghan in the uniform of Major, 17th Infantry.

            The British opened fire immediately after their envoys returned to their lines. 6- and 12- pounders from their gunboats thundered, while the single 5 ½ howitzer occupied  the heights which had worried Harrison and his staff so much. The shelling continued into the evening, but without much effect. The British simply did not have heavy guns enough to threaten the stockade. They did cause some damage, particularly to Croghan's warehouse, which was demolished by the howizter shells. At dawn the following day, the garrison discovered three 6-pounders in the brink of a ravine only 250 yards north of their walls. The British began to fire these guns, letting the recoil roll them back into the ravine where the gunners could load under cover. The 6-pound shot made little impact of the logs of the stockade. Croghan's only casualty, however, occurred when an over-eager infantryman, perhaps a private from the 24th Regiment, climbed to the top of a blockhouse for a potshot at the artillerists. A well-aimed cannonball took his head off.

            Croghan had a limited supply of shot on hand for his only 6-pounder, and ordered the crew to husband it carefully. By 4pm he realized that most of the British fire was concentrated against the northwest corner of the fort. Gathering as many hands as he could spare from the wall, he ordered his men to stack sacks of flour, sand and other debris against the stockade there to reinforce it. It seemed the British were planning on throwing an assault against this section of the fort. Croghan's garrison was well prepared. Most of them were experienced infantrymen, armed with the .69 caliber Springfield pattern muskets ubiquitous among American soldiers. Several companies of Pennsylvania militia had left their muskets behind at the fort as they mustered out, and with these Croghan was able to give each man one or two extra loaded muskets. The extra bayonets had been nailed pointing downwards from the top of the wall, and traps were set with logs and other deadfalls at likely points.

            The ace up Major Croghan's sleeve was his cannon. The gun crew was ordered to stop firing when a well-placed shot passed through its original location in a blockhouse, as if the British had dismounted and silenced it. Then the volunteers hauled “old betsy” into a different blockhouse on the northwest corner, behind a hidden gunport, which covered the ditch on that side of the stockade. They charged it with a double load of canister, essentially making it into a giant shotgun. Led by Sergeant Brown of the Volunteers, the crew silently waited their turn to reply to the British cannonade.

            In the heat of the August afternoon the smoke of the bombardment collected and settled like a fog bank. As they listened to the bombardment 10 miles away at Fort Seneca, Private Northcutt and his comrades chafed at being kept out of the fight, thinking it “an extreme hard case that Croghan should be cooped up with a handful of men to be massacred by the British while Harrison was lying in hearing of him with fifteen hundred men, and would not go and help him.”[1] Instead, the general, whose army had been considerably strengthened with the arrival of General Duncan McArthur's 28th Infantry and other elements, set fatigue parties to digging trenches and other fortifications. His pickets were constantly harassed by Indians, though. “Every time during the day that I not out on duty the guard would fire and run in. One fellow swore that he saw two Indians and was so close to them as to see their blankets rolled up and hopperesed on their backs.”[2]

            After the battle, and indeed long after the war Harrison would be blamed for not marching to the relief of Fort Stephenson. However, he believed that while the British surrounded Croghan, Tecumseh and thousands of well-seasoned warriors lurked in the swamps and forests between them. Marching out with his mostly green regulars would have been an invitation to a third massive defeat at their hands. Perhaps the general also realized that the reports from downstream were not from heavy guns, 18- and 24-pounders that were capable of knocking down the little fort. With only light guns threatening their walls, Croghan's detachment was just as snug as it would have been with Harrison's army present.

[1]Northcutt, 334.