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Fort Meigs and the War of 1812

Fort Meigs Cannons Photo From: ohio.org

“Our ranks scattered, our brave Colonel slain, and most of the other officers mortally wounded, seems sufficient to have unnerved the bravest hero, but even then many heroic deeds of personal valor were enacted and I still occasionally heard the loud, shrill game cock crowing of one brave spirit who seemed determined to die game and cheer his comrades to the last (1).” This is an excerpt from the address of Thomas Christian who was a volunteer in Colonel Dudley’s Regiment during the Kentucky militia’s attempt to lift the siege of Fort Meigs.

After the American losses in Detroit in August of 1812 and Frenchtown in January of 1813, the frontier in western Ohio was left exposed to attacks by the British and allied Native Americans lead by Tecumseh. To combat this threat, Major General William Henry Harrison ordered Fort Meigs to be constructed on a bluff overlooking the Maumee River in anticipation of an inevitable attack by the enemy (4).

Construction

Initially, Harrison’s intention for the fort was as a potential staging point for a future invasion into Canada that never saw any immediate fruition. Construction began on February 2, 1813 and was completed by late April of that same year. At the time, Fort Meigs was one of the largest forts in the United States, covering 10 acres of land and consisting of 8 blockhouses connected by wooden palisades as walls (6). The fort was originally built as a winter quarters for General Harrison during the early part of the War of 1812. However, the fort was eventually expanded as Harrison intended it to be a supply point for the American forces in the Old Northwest region. Ultimately, Harrison saw the need to expand the fort into a walled defense. The location of Fort Meigs was in a position of tactical advantage as it was constructed on a bluff commanding the view north up the Maumee River. The location of the fort was such that it would be difficult for an enemy approaching from the north to pass it without having to engage in a conflict. Fort Meigs was named in honor of Return J. Meigs, Jr. who was the Governor of Ohio at the time. Return J. Meigs, Jr. played a significant role in supporting General William Harrison along the Old Northwest frontier by providing supplies and militia men. The fort was completed just in time to hinder the advance of 2,000 British regulars and Canadian militia lead by British Brigadier General Henry Proctor, aided by Chief Tecumseh and 1,000 native American warriors (7).

Siege of Fort Meigs

In late March of 1813, General Harrison left Fort Meigs to bring forward some of his reserve troops to reinforce the Fort which he new would play a significant role in the defense of thousands of square miles of territory (3). At the same time Harrison dispatched Captain William Oliver with an order to the Kentucky troops to hastily come and reinforce the fort.

When the ice in Lake Erie broke up, General Proctor moved up the left bank of the Maumee river with all his available forces in order to lay siege to Fort Meigs. According to reports, Proctors force at his initial movement was made up of 500 regulars and Canadian militia and around 1,500 Indians (3). Proctor was accompanied by a train of artillery and two gunboats. The main British camp was setup at Fort Miami further up the river from Fort Meigs.

Learning of Proctor’s arrival, the garrison began building large traverses across the fort, removing the tents and preparing for the siege. The British established three gun batteries and one mortar battery on April 27th on the opposite shore of Fort Meigs.

Proctor began the siege of Fort Meigs on May 1, 1813 by initiating cannon fire into the fort from gun emplacements on the north bank of the river opposite the fort and one emplacement on the south side of the river. Meanwhile, the native American forces loosely formed to the south of the fort and harassed the American troops with irregular small arms fire (2). Despite persistent fire from the British, the fort absorbed the majority of the cannonballs with its earthen walls Harrison ordered built up inside the outer perimeter.

A.M. Lorraine told an interesting story saying that “One of our militia men took his station on the embankment and gratuitously forewarned us of every shot. In this he became so skillful that he could, in almost every case, predict the destination of the ball (3).”

Meanwhile 1,200 Kentucky militia led by Brigadier General Green Clay were heading north to reinforce the fort against the British (5). When General Harrison heard of the reinforcements he dispatched a messenger to Clay on May 2 to detail a plan to drive off the enemy.

Following Harrisons plan, Clay sent 850 of his men on May 5 lead by Colonel William Dudley to land on the north side of the river to disable the British gun batteries (4). Dudley achieved complete surprise on the British and overwhelmed the enemy batteries. The Kentucky militia used their weapon ramrods to spike the guns but only managed to temporarily disable them as they were soon distracted. At this point one of Dudley’s columns commanded by captain Leslie Combs came under attack by a Native American force (5). Instead of withdrawing back across the river to Fort Meigs as intended in Harrison’s plan, Dudley ordered Combs reinforced. This quickly turned to calamity as the militia were drawn into the woods by the withdrawing Native Americans who massed and turned on the disoriented Kentuckians. Thomas Christian relates that “alas! That aid to the enemy was death for us. They formed an ambush, and securely hid from view, had every advantage. Our futile attempts to dislodge them gave that portion of the enemy upon the opposite side of the river ample time to cross over to the rear, completely hemming us in upon every side (1).” Reinforced by the British, the Native Americans destroyed Dudley’s control over his men and the disoriented militias’ withdrawal to the gun positions was quickly turned into a chaotic retreat (4). Combs comments that “The best disciplined troops in the world are sometimes panic struck – then can it be surprising that militia, under these circumstances, and who had seen scarce thirty days service, should become so (2)?” As the Militia retreated back to the gun positions, they were easily overwhelmed by the British and were either killed or forced to surrender. After the ensuing fighting, Dudley was killed and only 150 of his 850 men managed to escape to the safety of Fort Meigs.

Meanwhile however, on the lower part of the river a group of American soldiers was sent out from Fort Meigs to destroy the lower gun emplacements (7). They were successful in their mission and returned to the fort safely.

After Dudley’s defeat, the remaining forces of the Kentucky militia were forced to march off to Fort Maumee a mile and a half down the river near the British encampment (2). Along the way the militia were robbed of their clothing and belongings while the Indians brutalized the exhausted American soldiers. Proctor, along with his guard and other British officers rode up and down the line and looked on and did nothing to stop the beating and scalping that commenced. Captain Leslie Combs relates in his report that “He who did not instantaneously give up his clothes, frequently payed his life for it.” (2) When the prisoners were brought to Fort Maumee, they were kept in harsh conditions and many of them were killed and brutalized by the Native American warriors. In his description of the events that transpired at Fort Maumee, Leslie Combs states that it was not until Chief Tecumseh arrived and chastised Proctor for being too weak to stop the atrocities imposed on the prisoners that the killing stopped (2). Eventually however, later on in the siege, the prisoners were released at the mouth of the Huron River with little food or clothing to keep them from freezing (1). Many of them wandering through the wilderness in hopes of returning south to their homes and safety.

General Proctor continued the bombardment of the fort but soon found himself in a static siege against a strong American force that was not likely to end quickly. With the pressure from his militia to return home and many of the Native American forces dwindling due to lack of interest in an extended siege, Proctor broke of the siege on May 9, 1813.

After Proctor raised the first siege, General Harrison made quick work of repairing the damage to the fort caused by enemy guns (3). On Harrison’s recommendation the plan for his campaign in the region changed. Vessels were being constructed in Erie and Cleveland, and until they were ready Harrison decided to act on the defensive (3).

Second Siege

On July 21, Proctor returned to Fort Meigs with an even larger force aided by Tecumseh. This time the British infantry positioned themselves in the ravine below the fort while the cavalry remained hidden in the adjacent woods (3). The Native American forces were stationed in the forest about a mile southeast from the fort. Under the cover of darkness, the forces conducted a sham battle by firing their weapons and acting as if they were engaged in an attempt to deceive the Americans stationed in Fort Meigs. Proctor’s hope was that was that the Americans would be drawn out thinking their reinforcements were under attack and could thus be flanked by the British cavalry. “It was a cunning stratagem, and, had it not been met with equal cunning, the result of the war in the Northwest would probably have been different (3).” After this failed ruse to draw the Americans out of garrison into an ambush, Proctor abandoned his second siege and withdrew his forces elsewhere (7). After Proctor’s second failure to capture Fort Meigs, Tecumseh had lost all faith in his British allies. Because of this Tecumseh did not work closely with the British for most of the remainder of the War of 1812 which helped turn the tide in the favor of the United States (4).

Fort Meigs Significance

Fort Meigs marked a significant turning point in the War of 1812 for the Americans. The battles at Fort Meigs and others along the Maumee river ultimately countered the British threat of invasion into Ohio and the rest of the Northwestern frontier (4). If it were not for Fort Meigs during the War of 1812, Ohio might have become part of modern day Canada. By defeating Proctor at Fort Meigs Harrison was able to turn the tide of the war and go on the offensive ultimately defeating Proctor and the British at the battle of Thames in Canada. Fort Meigs carries a significant amount of history not only for Ohio but for the rest of the United States. The brave men who fought and died defending Fort Meigs might not have been able to know the results of their actions. However, their bravery helped to win the War of 1812 and defend the nations territory and freedom from the British.

Map of Fort Meigs Siege Photo From: history.ancestry.com

Primary Sources:

1. Christian, Thomas (1870). “Campaign of 1813 on the Ohio Frontier.

2. Dudley, William (1867). “Col. WM. Dudley’s Defeat Opposite Fort Meigs.” New York Public Library.

3. Averill, James P. (1886). “Fort Meigs.” University of Alberta.

Secondary Sources:

4. Hatfield, Egon (2013). “War of 1812 bicentennial: Fort Meigs.” RDECOM History Office.

5. Kennedy, Hickman (2015). “War of 1812: Seige of Fort Meigs.” Thoughtco.

6. Hurley, Michael, and Jason McNaught (2013). “The siege of Fort Meigs: a bloody campaign Ohio.” Esprit de Corps p. 32+.

7. Hafley, T. J. (2003, 04). “Fort meigs: Unsung sentinel in the war of 1812.” Military History p. 20, 26-33.

Further Reading:

Wikipedia Page