The year 1812 drew to a close on a bleak American scene illuminated only by the victories at sea. Detroit had fallen, the British center at Niagara had not been pierced and on the right flank Dearborn had wasted useful time without seriously engaging his army. New England continued to stand aloof, her political leaders more sympathetic toward the enemy than toward their fellow citizens of the Republic.
As though all the fates were against her, the United States' only possible ally in Europe was in serious trouble. For a decade victory had crowned the arms of the French Empire and Napoleon had been the undisputed master of the Continent. Now reports of an alarming nature reached the United States. Napoleon set out in the spring to conquer Russia. The summer passed with a succession of the customary triumphs and the Emperor entered and occupied Moscow. But he failed to catch and crush the Russian Army. Through the early autumn Napoleon lingered in Moscow, for the first time in his career uncertain of what course to pursue. To advisers who warned him of the approach of a Russian winter with all its dangers he showed indifference, even suggesting that he found the climate not unlike that of France.
When at last the truth dawned upon him and Napoleon reluctantly gave the order to retreat, it was too late. Winter and the Cossacks fell upon him and within a few weeks the Grande Armée became a mob of freezing, starving men. This greatest of military disasters marked the decline of Napoleon's star. Now, at last, the War Hawks were brought to a realization of the significance of John Randolph's words when he protested against being "dragged at the wheels of the car of a Bonaparte." No longer could Napoleon p139be counted upon to create a diversion in Europe that would keep Britain's thoughts and attention from her war in America.
Though the American war was six months old the West had not brought to bear the power of which Henry Clay had boasted. Yet Ohio and Kentucky seethed with a desire to wipe out the shame of Detroit. And they believed that they had in William Henry Harrison, the hero of Tippecanoe, the leader who could turn the trick.
The son of Governor Benjamin Harrison of Virginia, William Henry while little more than a boy had accompanied "Mad Anthony" Wayne on his campaign against the Indians in the Northwest. He closed that episode as the general's aide. At the comparatively early age of 24 he had been appointed Secretary of the Northwest Territory; and when, in 1801, the Territory of Indiana was created, he was named as its first governor. A man of distinguished bearing and proven courage he was popular with the frontiersmen and feared by the Indians. The battle of Tippecanoe, costly as it had been, had enhanced his reputation as a soldier. All important from the Virginian point of view he was a Harrison and, as such, could wear his hat in the presence of Lees, Carters, and Randolphs.
When the fall of Detroit was imminent Harrison had been the most active man in the West in the organization of a force to go to Hull's rescue. After news of the disaster had removed all chance of assistance he exerted all his energy in building blockhouses, ordering reinforcements to threatened points and otherwise protecting the frontier from an Indian invasion. Kentucky wanted him to lead its militia, but a state law reserved that distinction for a native son and Harrison was not a Kentuckian. The stout Kentuckians, however, were not to be put off by a legal technicality. In fact they had an instrument known as a "caucus" to meet just such an emergency. The caucus in this case consisted of Henry Clay; Charles Scott, governor of the state; and Isaac Shelby, the governor-elect. These three distinguished gentlemen met together on August 25, constituted themselves a body to speak and act for all the people of the state and assumed the responsibility of naming Harrison major general of the Kentucky militia. Three days earlier in Washington Secretary of War Eustis had bestirred himself and commissioned Harrison as brigadier general in the United States Army and ordered him to take command of all the forces in Indiana and Illinois.
p140 There was, however, one other impediment that stood in the way of Harrison's military career in the West. The impetuous Dr. Eustis had, it seems, already given command in the Northwest to Brigadier General James Winchester, of the regular army. For a moment it looked as though there would be two suns on the Western horizon. Winchester, a veteran of the Revolution, was 61 years old; Harrison, now at the age of 39, was in the prime of life. Winchester was a man of wealth and, some said, of much too aristocratic a bearing; Harrison was a popular hero. When the rough-and‑ready soldiers of the frontier learned that their idol, Harrison, might be snatched away from them they began to whisper mutiny. Their fears, however, proved groundless. Between two such unequal adversaries there could be but one decision. When Eustis heard of the Kentucky caucus he relieved Winchester of the command of the Northwest, turned it over to Harrison and placed Winchester under him. To Harrison he gave as full authority as a commander in the field could wish for. "Exercise your own discretion," Eustis wrote him, "and act in all cases according to your own judgment."
Dr. Eustis might instruct Harrison to act according to his judgment, but that was more discretion than it was in his power to give. Far more powerful than that of the Secretary of War and of the commander in the field was the judgment of the people of the West. Harrison knew that only too well and he was soon to be brought to regret it. In fact it might be questioned as to which had been the victor, Winchester who was relieved of command or Harrison who accepted not the command alone but the responsibility of doing what the people wanted. What they wanted was clear enough. It was swift and immediate action to clear Indians and other interlopers away from the frontier and the recapture of Detroit both as a safeguard and as a means of wiping out the stains of the late defeat.
Winter was now coming on. Harrison was familiar enough with the country and with military strategy to realize the rigors and uncertainties of a winter campaign, waged with a line of communications •200 miles long through a bleak and desolate wilderness inhabited by unfriendly Indians and containing the well-nigh impassable swamp with which old Hull had contended six months before. Harrison could not plead lack of support in Washington. The government overwhelmed him with a promise of 10,000 men p141and gave him a free hand to collect supplies and equipment. Harrison's judgment cautioned him to use discretion; the voice of the people clamored for boldness and so did that of the Commander-in‑Chief. Mr. Madison's administration was greatly in need of a ringing victory to silence the many critics of the war. There is a note of pathos in Harrison's letter of October 13 to Secretary Eustis. "I am fully sensible," he wrote, "of the responsibility invested in me. I accepted it with full confidence of being able to effect the wishes of the President, or to show unequivocally their impracticability."
". . . or to show unequivocally their impracticability." The alternative Harrison had left himself was unpleasant to contemplate. He was supposed to have in his command 10,000 men including regulars and militia and volunteers from Kentucky, Ohio, Western Pennsylvania and Western Virginia. Actually his force was about 6,500 men. Yet this was two or three times as large as the British and Indian army gathered together at Amherstburg under Colonel Henry Proctor and guarding the approach to Detroit. Harrison was imbued with the idea of guarding the whole of the frontier and so, at the very outset, he sacrificed his numerical superiority by making a division of his army the key to his plan of campaign. The advance upon Detroit was a small-scale reproduction of the strategy that was to have conquered Canada. Three columns were to be set in motion. The first was to be directed toward Sandusky, the second to the rapids of the Maumee River above the present city of Toledo and the third to Fort Defiance. The distance from Sandusky to the rapids was •60 miles; from the rapids to Fort Defiance higher up the river was •some 30 miles, and the country between them was exceedingly difficult for the transportation of arms and supplies. Connecting roads were few and far between and of inferior quality made worse by heavy rains which turned them into quagmires, impeding the march and holding up the columns while the men put their shoulders to the wheels of supply wagons that were up to their axles in mud. Finally, to add to Harrison's embarrassment, the British held command of Lake Erie. (See Map I, p97)
In a letter written to the Secretary of War on October 22, Harrison indicated the difficulties into which he had run. "I am not able," he said, "to fix any period for the advance of the troops to Detroit. It is pretty evident that it cannot be done upon proper principles p142until the frost shall become so severe as to enable us to use the rivers and the margin of the lake for transportation of the baggage and artillery upon the ice."
Shortly thereafter Eustis resigned and returned to his drugs while, temporarily, James Monroe took over the War Office. To Monroe Harrison restated his problem, suggesting that unless it was deemed absolutely expedient to take Detroit at once, the attempt might with profit be postponed until spring and the money the government was now pouring into supplies, transportation and equipment be better expended on the construction of a fleet to take possession of Lake Erie. This was the proposal Hull had made six months before, but it had met with no cordial response from Washington. Harrison was more fortunate. Monroe, who had had a bit of practical military experience in the Revolution, quickly fell in with the suggestion. However, like Eustis, he enjoined Harrison to do as he thought best which left the decision to the commander in the field and still subject to popular opinion. Only a few weeks before Harrison had lamented to his friend ex‑Governor Shelby, "I wish to God the public mind were informed of our difficulties, and gradually prepared for the course [abandonment of a winter campaign]. In my opinion, we should in this quarter disband all but those sufficient for a strong frontier guard, convoys, etc., and prepare for the next season." But the public mind was not informed. It was confident that its idol and its hero was not to be deprived of new laurels by such minor matters as mud, rain, ice, sleet and snow and a bitter wind blowing off the lake.
Early in December General Simon Perkins, with an Ohio brigade, battled through physical obstacles more terrifying than redcoats and redskins and reached his objective at Lower Sandusky. He was joined shortly by the Pennsylvanians and Virginians. General Edward W. Tupper, with more Ohio militia, plowed his way over Hull's old road to the rapids of the Maumee where he had a brush with the Indians and retreated. Winchester, who was at Fort Defiance with the Kentuckians, was suffering most of all. His line of communications was little more than a slender thread. His supplies were exhausted, his men suffering intensely from starvation and cold. As though this were not enough, an epidemic of typhus fever broke out in camp. The only comfort his men could claim were rude p143huts which they had painfully erected to serve as winter quarters.
In spite of his own misgivings Harrison still toyed with the idea of attacking Detroit at once. Pursuant to that plan he ordered Winchester to advance from Fort Defiance to the rapids and there build huts as though he were going to remain for the winter. It was a stern order for Winchester to fulfill when his men were in such wretched condition but, like a good soldier, he obeyed it promptly and ten days after New Year's had his whole command at the designated spot. On January 13, before his men had had time to settle in their new camp, alarming news reached him from the village of Frenchtown •30 miles to the north. A messenger from the 33 white families dwelling there reported that they were in imminent peril of an attack by the Indians and begged Winchester to come to their aid as quickly as possible.
Frenchtown was •18 miles from the British stronghold at Malden. Consequently response to the appeal meant that Winchester would place himself within a day's march of the main body of the enemy. Harrison was •60 miles away at Upper Sandusky. By the time a message could be got to him and Harrison could reply, Frenchtown might already have been captured and its people murdered. So Winchester decided not to take the matter to Harrison, but to act upon his own initiative. A council of officers was called and, after due consideration of the urgency of the appeal and the dangers involved, it was unanimously agreed to respond to the appeal. Winchester directed Colonel William Lewis to march at once with 550 men and Colonel John Allen to follow with 110 men.
There was some delay in getting the expedition ready and the wretched condition of the road made marching difficult and slow. In addition, precautions had to be taken to avoid ambush since it was suspected that many hostile Indians were in the country through which the expedition had to pass. It was not until January 18 that Lewis reached the outskirts of the town. He then discovered that the enemy had arrived ahead of him and were already in possession. Informants put the number at 200 Canadians and 400 Indians. Lewis assumed that his 550 men and the 110 men under Allen were enough to justify an attack, so after he had seen that his force was supplied with ammunition and properly disposed, he gave the order for the assault. The Americans moved forward with a shout. The p144Canadians and their allies were taken by surprise and offered little resistance before beating a hasty retreat. In a very few minutes Lewis was in complete control of the town. His position was precarious and he felt considerable relief when, three days later, Winchester himself arrived with 300 reinforcements bringing the aggregate to 960 men.
Winchester now assumed command, making his headquarters in a house on the south bank of the river opposite the village and •a good half mile from the lines. His arrival lulled the Americans into a false sense of security. There was every reason to believe that, at any time, Proctor would advance from Malden with a stronger force and attempt to drive them out. Yet they failed to take the simplest precautions against attack. No one was sent out to reconnoiter, no provision was made for strengthening the lines and no ammunition was distributed. Rumors began to spread that the British were on the way. Winchester ignored them. He was satisfied to accept the word of a resident of the town, who later proved to be a British agent, that the rumors were false.
On the evening of January 21 the Americans retired early and proceeded to get a good night's rest, little realizing that for many of them it was to be their last night on earth. Promptly at 4 A.M. reveille sounded and the soldiers, still half asleep, began to turn out. "Night," says one chronicler, "had not yet yielded its gloomy sceptre to Day." Suddenly and without previous warning a crash of artillery and the rattle of small arms turned the silence of the village into an unearthly, terrifying din. The Americans leaped for their rifles, while officers shouted confused orders. Nobody knew what had happened or what to do. In the darkness it was impossible to assemble companies or to distinguish friend from foe. Men fired blindly and were themselves shot down. Mingled with the sound of cannon and rifle were the blood-curdling war whoops of Indians.
What had happened was that Colonel Proctor, leading a force of 500 whites and 600 Indians, had approached within a short distance of the town without his presence being suspected. Selecting his own time he had fallen upon the settlement with terrible effect. What followed was hardly deserving the name of battle. Rather it was a massacre. As the sun came up its light revealed a scene of horror. Where the American lines had been dead men lay strewn p145about on the cold ground, while here and there the cries of the wounded added to picture of desolation. General Winchester himself was taken prisoner. His army, without having a chance to defend itself or to strike a telling blow, was completely overwhelmed. When the firing had ceased, it was found that the Americans had lost 397 men killed, 27 wounded and over 500 taken prisoner. Of the 960 who answered the roll the day before only 33 men escaped. They fled the town to report the disaster they had witnessed and in which they had had a part.
Proctor was quite satisfied with what he had achieved. A caution that was to prove characteristic of him led him to abandon the town and retreat in haste toward Malden for fear of being attacked in turn by a larger American force. Perhaps some secret messenger had warned him that Harrison was on the way. A similar caution, however, did not restrain the Indians from returning to Frenchtown. There the American wounded had been left without protection. Giving Proctor no inkling of what they were about to do the Indians, on the night of the battle, slipped into the town, celebrated the victory with a drunken debauch and, as a fitting climax, murdered and tomahawked the American wounded as they lay in their beds.
Before Winchester left the rapids he notified Harrison of his plans. Harrison immediately recognized the danger of Winchester's position and set out posthaste for the rapids where he arrived January 20. He succeeded in getting together 900 men to add to the force at Frenchtown. Before they reached the scene the blow had fallen. Upon receiving the news of the tragedy Harrison supposed that Proctor would take advantage of his victory and advance to destroy all American forces that lay within his reach. To save them he ordered the relieving party to retreat. And so, while Proctor hurried northwest, the Americans retreated as fast as they could to the south, each army fearful that it was in immediate danger of being destroyed. Only a few hours after the engagement they were miles apart.
Harrison had been as good as his promise. He had endeavored to effect the wishes of the President by undertaking a winter campaign. The frozen American corpses in the lines at Frenchtown showed "unequivocally its impracticability." Whatever might be said Harrison had justified the frontiersmen in their belief that he was a man p146of action. But the massacre of Frenchtown was a high price to pay for the demonstration. At least it provided a brand‑new battle cry. After the bloodshed at Frenchtown the fall of Detroit was almost forgotten. The earlier defeat was swallowed up by another even more tragic. From then on not "Detroit" but the "Massacre at Frenchtown" was the American watchword.
Though Harrison abandoned for the time being an attack on Detroit he kept within striking distance at the rapids of the Maumee. In February his force at that point consisted of 1,800 Virginians and Pennsylvanians and these he set to work constructing a fort which he named Fort Meigs in honor of the Governor of Ohio. His most immediate problem resulted from the prevailing system of short enlistments. There was no such thing in those days as enlistment in the militia for the duration of the war, so that at the most inconvenient time a general might find his command melting away. The enlistment of the troops at the rapids was due to expire in April, just when Harrison should be putting the last touches on them in preparation for the spring campaign. General John Armstrong, former minister to France, who had now relieved Monroe as Secretary of War, directed Harrison to dispense with militia and employ only the regiments of regulars in the vicinity. But Harrison maintained that there were not sufficient regulars to guard the half million dollars' worth of property at the rapids and in other exposed positions, which were in constant danger from Proctor. He disregarded Armstrong's order and appealed to the governors of Kentucky and Ohio to send him more men.
Once during the month Harrison halted work on the fort long enough to undertake a bold expedition against the British fleet which was frozen in the ice of Lake Erie. The winter, it so happened, was unusually mild, and the lake was not entirely frozen. On the way the expedition ran into open water before it reached the fleet and was forced to return with nothing accomplished. Harrison now granted himself a furlough to visit his family in Cincinnati. The officer he left in charge was incompetent, the man took advantage of Harrison's absence to halt construction of the fort and, even worse, used the pickets for firewood. Their period of service was almost at an end and they were indifferent to what might happen to the fort after they were gone. At last the day came for them p147to depart and, for a time, the garrison at Meigs was reduced to 500 men.
Fortunately Proctor, who was lacking in initiative, did not take the opportunity to strike. He was working hard throughout the winter attracting the Indians to his cause. By April 1 he had assembled at Malden 1,500 of them under the capable leadership of Tecumseh and his brother, the Prophet. In addition to the Indians, before the end of the month he had under him 522 British regulars and 461 Canadian militia. During the same time Harrison's appeal for recruits brought results. He succeeded in increasing his force at Meigs to 1,100 effectives, while at Fort Defiance, within supporting distance, General Green Clay appeared with 1,200 newly recruited Kentuckians.
Proctor now felt that he was strong enough to strike a blow in United States territory. Collecting boats and scows he embarked his little army, crossed the lake and on April 26 appeared at the mouth of the Maumee, •12 miles below Fort Meigs. On the 28th he approached a few miles nearer. Harrison had received warning of Proctor's presence and at once dispatched a messenger to General Clay ordering him to drop down the river and join his forces with those at Meigs. This Clay proceeded to do, distributing his men in boats for the •30‑mile journey down the river.
Fort Meigs was on the south side of the river. Harrison did not have to wait long for Proctor who soon appeared on the north bank opposite the fort and placed two batteries in position to shell it. On May 1 the siege commenced with a bombardment of the fort, while a detachment of white troops accompanied by Indians under the personal command of Tecumseh crossed the river to attack the fort from the rear. Harrison, however, had foreseen this possibility and constructed a traverse behind the fort to protect it from that quarter. Consequently when, on the following day, a British battery that had crossed the river opened fire the American garrison was under cover and little damage was inflicted. Having virtually surrounded the fort Proctor ceased fire, requested a parley and demanded the fort's surrender. The demand was refused and the bombardment resumed.
On May 4 a messenger slipped through the British lines. He came from Clay and brought word that the force from Fort Defiance was p148on the way down the river, would arrive shortly and that Clay was awaiting further orders. No news could have been more welcome to Harrison. He sent the messenger back directing Clay, when he arrived •a mile and a half above the fort, to detach 800 of his men, land them on the north bank of the river and attack the British batteries that were shelling the fort in front. Clay received the order and detailed Colonel William Dudley to carry out the mission. Dudley started out well. He landed his force in a concealed spot and pressed forward eagerly. The British, who had not expected an attack from that direction, were unprepared to meet it. In short order Dudley stormed and captured the battery and spiked the guns while the enemy retreated in confusion. Harrison witnessed the assault from the other side of the river and, when the batteries had been taken, he signaled to Dudley to recross the river and join him in the fort.
Dudley and his men, however, had tasted victory, their blood was up, and they were in no mood to retire. Like a pack of hounds in full cry, and indifferent to Harrison's order, they dashed off in pursuit of the British, losing all sense of discipline and organization, and throwing caution to the winds. Their enthusiasm was fatal. Hidden in the woods and underbrush was a large force of Indians. As Dudley's men struggled toward the camp the Indians leaped out with savage yells. In an instant the Indians were everywhere, in the front, on the flanks and in the rear, some brandishing their tomahawks, others pouring in a deadly rifle fire. The Americans now tried to extricate themselves, but the slaughter was terrible. Of the 800 who entered the engagement, 170 managed to cut their way out and flee back to the battery and across the river to the fort. The rest, 630 of them, were either killed or captured.
While this painful scene was being enacted, Clay arrived at the fort with 50 men. Encouraged by this reinforcement the garrison boldly sallied forth, captured the British batteries in the rear of the fort and routed the Indians. More fortunate than Dudley's expedition and more intelligently led, they contented themselves with this success and retired safely to the entrenchment. This bold stroke was all that was needed to raise the siege. The faint-hearted Proctor concluded that he had had enough. Breaking camp he retreated hastily to Amherstburg on Canadian soil. Successful invasion p149apparently was as difficult of achievement for the British as for the Americans. On the way home he was careless and permitted 20 of his prisoners to be tomahawked and scalped by the Indians. Even more of them would have been murdered if Tecumseh had not ridden up and peremptorily put an end to the sport. The Americans, naturally, had objected strenuously to the British use of Indians, but now even the opposition newspapers in Great Britain took up the cry. Such practice, they declared, was "injurious to the British character." But that did not stop it. The commanders in the field defended themselves on the ground of stern necessity. The Americans, too, at times employed Indians.
Gratified by the relief of Fort Meigs Harrison left General Clay in command and rode to Lower Sandusky where he arrived on May 12. There he was met by Governor Meigs with a large body of Ohio militia who had come to share the dangers and glories of the campaign. So confident was Harrison that he had dealt effectively with Proctor and was in no danger of immediate attack that he called the Ohioans together, formally thanked them for their fine spirit and then dismissed them to their homes.
In this Harrison was mistaken. Proctor, ordinarily, was not greatly to be feared but he was the recipient of a new and unexpected inspiration. Upon his arrival at Malden he found encamped there a host of Indians which had descended from all parts of the Northwest. They were in sufficient numbers to increase his command to a total of 5,000 men. Even then Proctor might have hesitated, but what he lacked in decision was more than balanced by the audacity of Tecumseh. In fact in this strange partnership, which lasted for more than a year, it was the King's officer who held back and the Shawnee warrior who counseled action. It was Tecumseh now who urged Proctor to use this fresh force for a second attack on Fort Meigs before the Americans should have had time to recover from the first.
Tecumseh also proposed a snare for Clay. According to his plan, when Proctor's fortune had arrived within sound of Fort Meigs the British and Indians were to engage in a noisy sham battle. Clay, Tecumseh contended, upon hearing the noise of the battle would assume that another American force was being attacked and would venture out of the fort to go to the rescue. The rest would be a mere p150matter of counting the Americans killed, wounded and captured. The proposal had sufficient originality to appeal to Proctor, who accepted it.
Harrison's forces guarding the frontier were now disposed in three areas. Clay was at Fort Meigs. At Fort Stephenson, situated at Lower Sandusky, was a garrison of 160 regulars under the command of a youth of 22, Major George Croghan of the United States Army. At Seneca Town, •nine miles up the Sandusky River from Fort Stephenson, Harrison made his headquarters in order to be within supporting distance of both Fort Meigs and Fort Stephenson, whichever might be attacked. By the middle of July he had 1,000 men under his command.
On July 20, pursuant to Tecumseh's plan, Proctor once more appeared at the mouth of the Maumee. Again his presence was reported to the Americans. Clay received the first warning and immediately communicated with Harrison. He then awaited eventualities. When Proctor's force had arrived near Fort Meigs whites and Indians proceeded to engage in a sham battle that had all the earmarks of realism when heard from a distance. Cannons roared, the rattle of small arms grew in intensity, and during occasional lulls in the fire, the Indians made the air hideous with their cries. As Tecumseh had designed, all of this was heard by the garrison at Fort Meigs; and, as he had hoped, a good many of the Americans were completely fooled. In fact some of Clay's officers came to him and urged him to go out and join the fight. But something aroused Clay's suspicions. As impressive as the noise was, it did not quite resemble that of the battles he had been in. So, in spite of the entreaties of his officers, Clay persisted in staying inside the fort with the gates shut tight, compromising with his subordinates by firing a few desultory shots in the direction from which the uproar was coming. After this performance had gone on for some time and Clay showed no indication of moving, Proctor and Tecumseh were forced to admit that the plan had failed.
As Proctor did not mean to risk another assault on Meigs, Fort Stephenson was selected as the next objective. In addition to infantry, Proctor had with him one five-and‑a‑half-pound howitzer and five 6‑pounders on a gunboat. He re‑embarked his expedition and p151sailed from the Maumee to the mouth of the Sandusky. Believing that Fort Stephenson was too weak to resist artillery fire, Harrison directed Croghan to abandon the fort if the British brought artillery with them. He now learned of Proctor's guns and sent word to Croghan to obey his previous instructions. But by this time the Indian warriors of Proctor's force were showing up in large numbers on all sides of the fort and Croghan concluded that an attempt to escape would be even more desperate than an effort to hold the fort. With the impetuosity of youth he sent word back to Harrison, "We have determined to maintain this place; and, by heavens! we can."
Old campaigner that he was, Harrison was not the man to accept quietly such arrant disobedience from a callow lad of 22. As quickly as he could put pen to paper he wrote out an order relieving Croghan of command, designating another officer in his place and commanding Croghan to report himself in person at once to Seneca Town to answer for his conduct. But when Croghan put in an appearance he so impressed his commanding officer with his earnestness and the justification for the decision he had made that Harrison yielded and not only forgave him for the tenor of his letter but returned him to his post.
Having made his boast it was now Croghan's task to live up to it. The only artillery the young man had in the fort was a single 6‑pounder. Croghan studied the situation to determine how it might best be used. A careful inspection convinced him that the fort's weakest point was an angle and that consequently this was the point that was most likely to be singled out for an attack. Behind this angle he placed the 6‑pounder, carefully masked.
On July 31 Proctor arrived by water in front of the fort. According to the plan he had mapped out, the assault was to be made by 400 British regulars and several hundred Indians, while Tecumseh with 2,000 more Indians was to guard all approaches and cut off any reinforcements that might endeavor to reach Croghan. When these dispositions had been made, Proctor dispatched a messenger to Croghan demanding the surrender of the stronghold. He called attention to his overwhelming force of Indian warriors, pictured in the most impressive way the hideous treatment the Indians were accustomed to inflict upon their prisoners and admitted that, once p152they had had a taste of blood, it would be completely beyond his power to restrain them. It was the same familiar war of nerves that had proved so effective against Hull.
Croghan, however, was made of sterner stuff. In spite of the tremendous odds against him he disdained the offer, replying that he would hold out or die in the attempt. On the afternoon of August 1 Proctor's artillery opened on the fort and continued the bombardment for several hours. Having put Croghan's little group of defenders through this softening‑up process, Proctor at 5 P.M. ordered Lieutenant Colonel Short to lead an assault party into the ditch that protected the fort. Short responded eagerly and, with a cry of "Cut away the pickets, my brave boys, and show the damned Yankees no quarter!" he urged his men forward.
As Croghan had anticipated, Proctor selected the weakest point in the fortifications, just opposite the masked 6‑pounder, for the attack. Croghan waited until the redcoats arrived within easy range. His single cannon had previously been charged with grape. Suddenly he unmasked it and delivered a fire that ripped a hole in the scarlet line, which wavered and yielded ground. But the retreat was only momentary. Short rallied his men, the gaps were closed, and again the line advanced. Once more the crash of the 6‑pounder rent the air, the gunshot scattered and embedded itself in human flesh. When the smoke cleared the anxious watchers on the repairs of the fort were able to judge the deadliness of their aim. On the slope below them lay more than 100 men, some of them convincingly still, some writhing in their last death struggles, and others less seriously wounded crying out in pain. The officers shouted encouragement to those who were alive and urged them forward, but the single 6‑pounder frowned ominously upon them, ready to deliver another devastating charge. All the fight had gone out of the redcoats. Nobody was in the humor to brave the gun again. The attackers, sullen and cowed, drew off while the Americans raised a cheer.
Proctor now determined to make use of his more than 2,000 Indians. Tecumseh's warriors could hold their own against rifle fire, but artillery struck terror into the Indian heart. It was a weapon with which they were not familiar. In spite of the entreaties of Proctor and Tecumseh the Indian warriors skulked in the rear. Neither p153threats nor entreaties could induce them to cross that stretch of bloody ground that lay between them and the fort.
In contrast to the severe losses among the attackers, Croghan had protected his men so well that the fierce bombardment of the fort had left them practically unscathed. When the young commander checked his garrison he found to his satisfaction that, in the course of the whole engagement, only one man had been killed and seven wounded. Night had now fallen and Croghan lost no time in taking the necessary precautions to meet an attack in the darkness. The preparations, however, proved unnecessary. Disheartened by the failure of the assault and the cowardly behavior of his Indian allies, Proctor admitted defeat, recalled his men to the boats and during the night set sail for Malden. Croghan and his little garrison were left in complete command of the situation and reaped the reward of public acclaim that their heroic conduct so richly deserved.
The attack on Fort Stephenson was Proctor's last attempt at an invasion of American soil. Thereafter it became his policy to sit at Malden and wait for the Americans to find him. Some eight months had elapsed since Harrison, at the behest of the Westerners, had undertaken his punitive expedition. In the course of it he had had at his disposal over 10,000 men. Thousands of dollars had been expended on their supplies and equipment. Contractors had waxed fat on the needs of the Army. But Harrison had not put foot on Canadian soil. He had been lucky in that the British did not stay on his own. Nevertheless the General continued to hold the affection and confidence of the people of Ohio and Kentucky. Even they seemed to realize at last, and too late, the impossibility of the task they had set him.
One thing now had been made clear to everybody — though it had been quite apparent to Hull more than a year before. There was no chance of making a successful attack on Detroit or of invading Upper Canada until the American Navy gained undisputed control of Lake Erie.
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