Facts, information and articles about the War Of 1812, an event of Westward Expansion from American History
War Of 1812 Facts
June 18, 1812 – February 18, 1815
Eastern and Central North America, Atlantic and Pacific
William Henry Harrison
Roger Hale Sheaffe
Charles de Salabery Tecumseh
United States: 35,000
British Empire: 48,000
United States: 2,200 battle deaths. 15,000 total casualties
British Empire: 1,600 battle deaths, 5,000 total casualties
No definitive victory
This was the last time British Empire allowed privateering.
End of Tecumseh’s Indian Confederacy
The end of British Empire’s policy of impressing American sailors into the Royal Navy
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War Of 1812 summary: The War of 1812 was an armed conflict between the United States and the British Empire. The British restricted the American trade since they feared it was harmful for their war with France and they also wanted to set up an Indian state in the Midwest in order to maintain their influence in the region. That’s why 10,000 Native Americans fought on the side of the British in this war. Since Canada was a British colony back then, Canadians were also British allies. The Americans objected to the British Empire restricting their trade and snatching their sailors to serve on British ships. They were also eager to prove their independence from the British Empire once and for all.
Major Events of The War of 1812
During the war, both sides suffered many losses and even the White House was burned down in 1814. The British were quite defensive in the beginning, since they concentrated their military efforts on Napoleonic Wars but after their victory over France in 1814, they started to fight Americans more aggressively. American national pride was boosted by the victories in the Battle of Baltimore in 1814 and the Battle of New Orleans in 1815. Thanks to those victories the Americans started to call this war “a second war for independence”.
The Negotiated End Of the War Of 1812
The Treaty of Ghent was finally signed on December 24, 1814 and it established the status quo ante bellum, which means that nobody lost any territory in the war. The war officially ended on February 17, 1815 when US Congress ratified the treaty.
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War of 1812: ‘Swarms of Privateers’
In four straggling columns the annual Jamaican convoy of 126 ships followed the Gulf Stream in early May 1813, plodding northward at the speed of its slowest, most overloaded and under-sparred vessel. Their ships laden with sugar, coffee and rum, merchant captains depended on the Royal Navy for aid and protection. Led by a worn two-decker, two sloops of war and a small frigate chivvied the flanks and rear of the columns spread across 5 square miles of the Atlantic, providing assistance and urging the merchantmen to “make more sail.” Meanwhile, sharp eyes in the crosstrees of those escorts scanned the horizon for strange topmasts. Only 160-odd miles off the dreaded shoals of Cape Hatteras, the Royal Navy captains had to be alert.
‘Most privateers felt they had defeated the vaunted Royal Navy, driving Britain to its knees by hamstringing its merchant marine’
Though the British Admiralty officially ordered a blockade of key ports along the American coast within months of the June 1812 outbreak of hostilities with the United States, the ongoing war with the French Republic and Napoléon Bonaparte’s French Empire devoured ships, men and gold at a prodigious rate. Few reinforcements found their way to Britain’s North American Station (based in Halifax, Nova Scotia, with safe harbors eventually stretching from Newfoundland to Bermuda to Jamaica and Antigua in the West Indies).
At the start of the war the United States had only 16 warships more or less ready for sea, and half of those were, at best, rated sloops of war. Not a single ship larger than a fifth-rate frigate graced the American list. On the surface President James Madison’s declaration of war against the nation with the largest navy in the world (the Royal Navy boasted more than 100 ships of the line and a similar number of frigates among its 555 active warships in June 1812) seemed ludicrous, thus deserving little material response from the Admiralty.
Yet in February 1813 British Admiral Sir John Borlase Warren, commander of the North American Station, had only 28 ships on hand to blockade major ports, protect the British trade and patrol the lengthy Eastern Seaboard of the United States. Of those no more than six warships actively blockaded key ports holding American naval vessels. Three early and unexpected victories by American frigates and a plague of merchant losses forced the Admiralty to scrape the bottom of the barrel for additional forces for Warren, more than doubling his strength on station. Rather than commit these warships to a blockade, Warren concentrated them for a raid into the Chesapeake Bay during the late spring and summer of 1813. As that Jamaican convoy slowly cruised up the Carolina coast, no more than 11 ships invested American ports outside the Chesapeake region. Even then the blockaders primarily guarded against the escape of American merchantmen and the warships of the U.S. Navy.
But other, more numerous enemies lurked within American ports.
As the sun dipped to leeward, the easterly wind continued to blow across a rapidly darkening sea. In another day or so it would veer to blow from the west and allow the convoy to wear for England. For now, wind, the dying sun and the falling moonless night boded ill for the convoy. Eighteen miles to windward, topmast crosstrees barely visible above the horizon, a predator bided its time in the gloom, marking potential prizes silhouetted by the setting sun. That Baltimore clipper’s two sharp-raked masts and large crew marked it as a privateer even more than the starred and striped ensign flying above it. As lanterns flickered on distant taffrails and ships shortened sail across the length of that herd of merchantmen (none dared sail in convoy at night without such lights to alert the ships around them), an American officer briefly flashed a hooded lantern astern where the crews of another schooner and a brig impatiently waited to risk life, limb and spars for a share in plundered riches.
In the 1600s European nations issued “letters of marque and reprisal” to private citizens (and, by the late 1700s, to captains sailing ships provided by syndicates of private citizens). This document allowed a vessel to function as a de facto warship, preying on enemy commerce and selling the captures in prize courts, with the proceeds divided into shares split among owners, investors, officers and crews as specified by contract. These letters of marque also limited the actions of privateers, lest the line between privateer and pirate wear thin.
Privateering was a risky business, and privateers were loved by few who did not benefit directly from their success. In the 17th and early 18th centuries many raiders turned to piracy once their certificates had expired upon a war’s end. Though letters of marque made things legal, by 1812 plundering defenseless merchantmen for private gain still seemed little better than theft to the many civilians caught up in the waves of reform and religious revivalism then sweeping the Protestant world.
Oddly enough, both the Royal Navy and the U.S. Navy despised their own privateers. Usually, complaints had a patriotic ring—we serve for duty; they serve for profit! Other times the public navies vented their spleen at the competition to employee seamen. After all, who would exchange the easy discipline, lack of risk and better pay offered by a privateer for the harsh life aboard a warship? In truth, the real thorn of competition was prize money. Both public and private navies shared this bonus plan, but duty (escorting merchantmen, blockading and such) meant the public navies could not pursue enemy merchantmen with the directness of the privateer. And every ship taken by a privateer meant one less prize for the deserving officers and crews of the public navy. Little wonder that Lieutenant Henry E. Napier of the British frigate HMS Nymphe wrote in his journal in 1814, as his ship cruised off Boston, “Shannon, [English] privateer, again out. Must drive her off, as she spoils our cruising ground.…Boarded and impressed five seamen from the Rolla, English privateer.…Impressed two men from the Lively, English privateer.” It did not help that engaging an enemy privateer offered little in the way of prize money or glory—the public expected a naval vessel to win such an encounter with ease, so few medals or promotions resulted from even hard-fought battles.
With the last glimmer of reflected sunlight but a memory, the American privateers began their steady approach to the straggling convoy. Loaded cannon, boarding parties and a prize crew rested by the bulwarks while captains and mates carefully tracked the lights of the convoy, especially those of the single frigate guarding its windward flank. Though it would take several hours to close with their prey, the men of Baltimore, New York and Wilmington did not overly fear the Royal Navy’s escort—not with the cloak of darkness wrapped tight about them.
During the War of 1812 the American government issued more than 500 letters of marque to captains eager to wield a sword (as long as they could edge it with looted gilt) against the British maritime fleet. More than 250 merchant ships of all types sailed from American harbors on one or more voyages through war’s end in early 1815, frequently with a cargo to deliver to foreign ports (usually in France or among French allies) but more than willing to snatch a prize if it appeared. Thus a bewildering array of hulls, rigs and armaments initially bedeviled the Royal Navy. Many raiders carried only one cannon (shots to the hull tended to reduce the value of a capture; damage to the rigging made it difficult for the prize to avoid recapture) and small arms. Combined with an extremely large crew (so that men could be spared as prize crews), few merchantmen, which were minimally crewed to reduce costs, risked resistance once “chaced” into gun range.
By the end of 1812 privateers had stung more than 300 British merchantmen, most sailing off the North American coast or in the West Indies. Americans burned about 10 percent of their captures (when of little value, too easily recaptured or lacking prize crews). Another 10 percent sailed for English ports carrying British seamen being exchanged for American prisoners held in Britain. The remainder turned their bows to American ports, though some ran afoul of British warships—perhaps as much as 20 percent—while others disappeared in bad weather or wrecked on ironbound coasts. Still, the remaining merchantmen and their cargos poured wealth into coastal towns. American district courts condemned ships, fittings and goods, to be sold at auction, the proceeds shared per contract. Sailors, captured specie weighing their pockets, rollicked through ports, happily trickling their hard-earned wealth into other hands and their war stories into other ears. But the big windfall went to investors and ship owners, who held their money close or invested it in new privateering enterprises. In Baltimore and other towns, artisans, journeymen and small merchants (the common man and woman) joined wealthier individuals in investing in the next wave of privateers.
Warren, commander of the North American Station since late September 1812, wrote his superiors on December 29, begging for ships to blockade every American harbor and to chase “the Swarms of Privateers and Letters of Marque.” Without more ships, Warren noted, “trade must inevitably suffer, if not be utterly ruined and destroyed.” With Napoléon on the ropes and an end to more than two decades of war with France perhaps in sight, the Admiralty spared Warren few additional resources against the tiny U.S. Navy (completely ignoring the American private navy). Both British merchantmen and the Royal Navy would pay a heavy price for Admiralty’s shortsightedness.
By the end of 1813, as profits in privateering became obvious, custom-built privateers began sliding down the ways in American shipyards. Most followed the model of the Baltimore clipper, built for speed and ability to sail closer to the wind than square-rigged British warships. Others had the lines of sloops of war or small frigates, balancing reinforced scantlings and broadside armament against speed, and obviously intended to stand against the smaller British patrollers and escorts. Both new and old vessels, manned by veteran captains and crews, sailed for new hunting grounds in waters stretching around the world.
In 1813 American privateers operated off the coast of Ireland and in the English Channel, burning prizes or letting them run for French-controlled ports. When British warships appeared in numbers, the Americans simply moved to other hunting grounds. Two vessels—the brigs Rattlesnake, of Philadelphia, and Scourge, of New York—terrorized British vessels in the Baltic. During the spring and summer of 1813 the two privateers sent more than 30 prizes worth more than $1 million into neutral Norway. Other privateers worked the Azores and Cape Verde islands, disrupting communications by intercepting British government packet vessels as well as merchantmen. Notably, Anaconda seized $80,000 in specie from one packet alone. Lion successfully cruised the Bay of Biscay; in a single month the warship seized some 20 vessels ranging from merchantmen to horse transports. The Duke of Wellington, then campaigning against the French in Spain, found his logistical lines to England frequently cut. He shared his displeasure with the Admiralty: “Surely the British Navy cannot be so hard run as not to be able to keep up the communication with Lisbon for this army!” Wellington’s worries were legitimate. Almost all of his army’s gear, food, pay and reinforcements arrived by sea. He was serious when he wrote, “If they only take the ship with our shoes, we must halt for six weeks!”
One of the most successful privateers of 1813, certainly the one that added the most insult to its successes, was Yankee of Bristol, R.I. Its crew occupied an Irish island for six days, then sailed into a small Scottish harbor to burn seven anchored merchantmen. It added another seven prizes to its accomplishments before returning home. The successes of this and other raiders roused the British press, especially as maritime insurance rates rose. By year’s end the Admiralty covered its own mistakes by sacking Warren and replacing him with Sir Alexander Cochrane and enough vessels to adequately blockade the American coast. Their action was too late for the more than 400 British merchantmen already captured by American privateers.
By 10 p.m. the three privateers had slipped past the stern of the British frigate to windward of the convoy. They were close enough to hear as each ship of the convoy rang four bells of the evening watch. Each American captain picked his target, quietly ordering the tiny shifts of helm that would allow his ship to come alongside a prize. Then the men at the bulwarks flinched as rockets burst overhead! Sharp eyes on the guardian frigate had at last spotted one of the raiders. Signal guns blasted lines of fire into the night and blue fusees appeared at the mainmast of the British frigate as sleepy men tumbled from their hammocks below to meet the threat. Too late! One by one, grapnels flew from the privateers, and screaming Americans crossed to merchant decks.
Napoléon’s 1814 abdication freed Wellington’s veterans for service in America. Cochrane had the ships and the opportunity to institute a tight blockade of the American coast. Not only would this have stifled trade and naval raiders, it would have closed local ports to returning prizes and demoralized the occupants of those towns. But Cochrane, hating Americans ever since the death of a brother in the late Revolution, concentrated his forces against Chesapeake Bay (a failed strategy tried by his predecessor in 1813) in an effort to crush American resistance. Meanwhile, Lt. Gen. Sir George Prévost, the governor in chief of British North America, led an invasion force along the same path Maj. Gen. John Burgoyne had tried in 1777 (a failure that had resulted in the loss of Burgoyne’s army at Saratoga during the Revolution). Though an American victory in the subsequent September 1814 Battle of Lake Champlain stymied the northern assault, Cochrane’s forces overwhelmed American defenses in the lower Chesapeake. An American army fled from the battlefield at Bladensburg, allowing the British to burn the public buildings in Washington. A British squadron pushed up the Potomac to Alexandria, overwhelming Fort Washington and seizing ships and tobacco before returning to the bay. As Cochrane sailed into the upper Chesapeake, raiders ravaged local settlements along the coast. Then, at Baltimore, resistance gelled: American militia defeated the veteran British troops, Fort McHenry resisted the mighty British fleet, and Francis Scott Key penned the words of a powerful national anthem. Cochrane withdrew his forces from the bay and prepared for operations in the Gulf of Mexico.
Meanwhile, American privateers (many having switched their base from the Chesapeake to such Southern ports as Wilmington, Charleston or Savannah the previous year) ranged the waters of the world, frequently working together to attack British convoys. Leo of Baltimore created an international incident when it captured a prize bearing a statue of the late Queen Louise commissioned by the Prussian government. Rambler, of Boston, harassed the British China trade, selling British prizes in Asian markets. American privateers boldly snatched prizes in the Thames Estuary, then sold them to laughing former allies of the British. On Sept. 30, 1814, Lloyd’s of London reported that two American warships and several privateers had captured 108 British prizes that month. Maritime insurance rates stood at triple and quadruple the rates of 1811—if insurance could be found at all. Hard pressed by merchants, ship owners and a people tired of years of war, the British government joined the Americans at the treaty table in Ghent, Belgium, in late 1814, a year in which losses to American privateers neared 400 vessels.
Pistol shots and threats sent the deck watches of the British merchantmen scrambling below or falling, bloody, to their knees. Panic gripped the remainder of the convoy when a nearby ship fired its signal gun. Civilian captains ordered their helms hard over in an attempt to escape the raiders. Fleeing downwind in the impenetrable dark, they became a danger to other ships and themselves. Within half an hour the convoy spread across 10 square miles of ocean, heading for destruction on the harsh Carolina coast if the convoy commander could not get them stopped and reorganized. Meanwhile, the raiders had locked their prisoners below, cut grapnels, shaken out reefs and doused all lights. They fled among the panicked herd, slowly working their way to a course for Wilmington or Charleston.
One by one, prizes and prize-takers dribbled into Wilmington until only the brig remained absent. Prisoners paroled or incarcerated, the crews of the privateers waited for their compatriot. The auctions came; shares of prize money were awarded and spent or invested. In an uncertain time the crews did not yet mourn their missing friends. Instead, they put their ships in order and sailed for the Atlantic and more prize money.
Of course, not every American privateer experienced success. Dozens fell to British ships, and many simply disappeared, victims of an unforgiving sea or an uncharted rock or simply lost records of their capture. For those taken by the British, harsh conditions in prison hulks or at Dartmoor Prison waited. The lucky ones were exchanged or paroled, but few among the crews of privateers experienced that luck. Far more died from malnutrition or disease.
By February 1815 news of the Treaty of Ghent and Andrew Jackson’s victory at New Orleans had spread throughout the Atlantic basin. Only in June did the last of the privateers return home to discover that American raiders had added more than 250 captures to their tally before discovering the War of 1812 had ended. Most privateers felt they had defeated the vaunted Royal Navy, driving Britain to its knees by hamstringing its merchant marine. Most also felt the men of the private navy had served the cause as much as any man who donned a uniform and took the President’s dollar (no King’s shilling in the United States).
Perhaps those men of 1812 were correct in their assumptions. In 1856 European leaders, led by the British, united to outlaw privateering during times of war. Great Britain had no desire to again face those American Patriots of the private navy, no matter that they did gild their cutlasses with prize money.
For further reading Wade Dudley recommends his Splintering the Wooden Wall: The British Blockade of the United States, 1812–1815, as well as George Coggeshall’s A History of the American Privateers: The United States and the War of 1812 at Sea.
War of 1812: Turning Point at Fort Meigs
On the evening of January 22, 1813, Major General William Henry Harrison found himself in the last position any commander wants — in retreat. Circumstances had seemed so opportune that morning, but by dusk the calm winter air above the Maumee River in northwest Ohio was broken by the weary sound of axes, picks and shovels, as 900 men of the Ohio and Pennsylvania militias prepared a defensive camp. From a hill on the south bank of the river Harrison looked northward, expecting to see the British and Indians he had spent the afternoon fleeing.
Just two days earlier, Harrison, commander of the U.S. Army of the Northwest, had galloped from post to post between his headquarters at Upper Sandusky, Ohio, and the Maumee, gathering every man available to march for Frenchtown on the Raisin River in Michigan. The village, just 18 miles from the British base at Fort Malden, Upper Canada (present-day Ontario), was then being held by Harrison’s most experienced subordinate, Maj. Gen. James Winchester. The latter had 960 men, including several companies of the 17th and 19th U.S. Infantry regiments, which had driven more than 600 Indians and Canadian militia from the region on January 18. By reinforcing Winchester, Harrison felt that he could gain a foothold on Michigan soil and eventually retake Detroit, which Brig. Gen. William Hull had ignominiously surrendered to the British on August 16, 1812. By the night of January 21, however, Winchester had become overconfident and had neglected to post sufficient sentinels around Frenchtown. Consequently, the Americans were awakened early the next morning by British cannon fire, followed immediately by an assault by Regulars from the 41st Regiment of Foot’s light infantry company, the 10th Veteran Battalion and the Royal Newfoundland Regiment, as well as a large Indian force. Within hours, more than 300 Americans were killed and 500, including Winchester, taken prisoner. Twenty-seven wounded troops, mostly Regulars, were taken to cabins in Frenchtown.
Only 33 soldiers managed to escape and eventually met Harrison’s relief force a few miles below the village. In their shock, the survivors exaggerated the size of the British force and warned that it was marching south to engage any other Americans in the region. With no other intelligence to rely on, Harrison was compelled to abandon Winchester and save his own force. For the rest of that day, his troops marched back through 30 miles of frozen Michigan wilderness to the Ohio border and the Maumee, where he awaited reinforcements.
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While Harrison withdrew, the British, under Colonel Henry Proctor, pulled back to Fort Malden, leaving hundreds of their Indian allies to guard Frenchtown and the wounded prisoners. During the evening of January 22, several warriors left a victory celebration and murdered all 27 prisoners. When word of the massacre reached Harrison’s camp, his troops became enraged. Holding Proctor responsible for leaving the wounded prisoners in the Indians’ hands, they labeled him a murderer, and soon took up the vindictive battle cry ‘Remember the Raisin!’
The U.S. Army’s sense of outrage was matched by its humiliation, however. Three months after the United States’ declaration of war on Britain on June 18, 1812, Harrison had been appointed to command the Army of the Northwest and given full freedom to carry out his general orders as he saw fit. Those orders were to retake Detroit and invade Upper Canada, to pinch the British between himself and Maj. Gen. Henry Dearborn on the Niagara front to the east. The Raisin River disaster, however, left the British and their Indian allies in possession of Michigan Territory. Harrison’s new objective was to try to stop the enemy from advancing into Ohio.
The first weeks of February 1813 saw Harrison’s troops still encamped on the high ground above the Maumee, although a British invasion was unlikely to come before spring. Holding to that probability, on February 2 the general ordered fortifications erected around the Maumee camp, which was to serve as his army’s main base. Work began immediately, while more soldiers came from Kentucky and Virginia, bringing the garrison rolls up to 1,800 Regulars and militia by the end of the month.
Harrison’s senior engineering officer, Captain Charles Gratiot, was gravely ill, so he placed Captain Eleazar Wood, a graduate of the young U.S. Military Academy at West Point, N.Y., in charge of construction. The Americans used the earth and timber readily at hand to build stockade walls enclosing a compound of nearly 10 acres. Seven two-level blockhouses were built to provide security at the critical angles of the wall. Three main batteries behind steep, earthen parapets facing the river were ready for anything going up or down the Maumee. The fort would not be fully completed for several more months, but with its basic configuration established, Harrison named it in honor of Ohio Governor Return Jonathan Meigs.
At Fort Malden, Proctor spent most of February 1813 assembling troops and warriors. Just before the end of the month, however, Harrison learned that part of the British fleet in Lake Erie, just below Fort Malden, was trapped by ice, which the general saw as an opportunity to lessen the odds against U.S. Navy Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry’s fleet, then still under construction at the east end of Lake Erie. On March 2, Harrison led a 170-man force, traveling on sleighs, out to the edge of Maumee Bay, 12 miles northeast of Fort Meigs. The raiders wore dark clothing and thick moccasins to muffle their footsteps on the ice, and each man carried one or two firebombs to be hurled or placed under a British ship. Leaving their sleighs at Middle Bass Island, the raiders, led by Captain Augustus L. Langham, marched northward — only to return a few hours later and report that the recent spell of unusually mild weather had broken up the lake ice and freed the British ships. Harrison took this latest venture as another personal failure in a campaign riddled with blunders and unkept promises. In September, the federal government and several states had agreed to provide 10,000 men for the Army of the Northwest. By the winter of 1813, however, Harrison had yet to see more than 60 percent of the forces promised him at any one time. Most of the men he had were thinly spread along a 200-mile line from Fort Meigs to western outposts in Indiana Territory. Supplies and ammunition were never sufficient, nor was discipline among the many state and territorial militias under his command.
Soon after returning to Fort Meigs, Harrison received word that several of his children were gravely ill in Cincinnati. He departed on March 5 for a combined visit to his family and an inspection of posts. Captain Wood left that same day to superintend the building of fortifications at Lower Sandusky. Brigadier General Joel Leftwich of the Virginia militia was left to continue fortifying Harrison’s base. When Wood returned to Fort Meigs on March 18, however, he reported that Leftwich had allowed the men to use the timber intended for building the blockhouses for fuel. Furthermore, ‘this phlegmatic stupid old granny, so soon as General Harrison left camp, stopped the progress of the work entirely, assigning as a reason that he couldn’t make the militia do anything.’ Moreover, Leftwich had no intention of remaining at Fort Meigs once his brigade’s enlistment term expired on April 1. Many Pennsylvania enlistments were also due to end that month.
Harrison’s trip was only in its 10th day when he received news of the coming crisis. He immediately set out for Fort Meigs, at the same time urging governors and assemblies of the regional states to hasten troops to the Maumee. He arrived at the fort on April 12, to learn that Leftwich’s Virginians and many of the Pennsylvanians had marched away on the 2nd, leaving Major Amos Stoddard of the 2nd Regiment of Artillery to maintain command. The garrison was reduced to only 500 Regulars and militia — a vulnerable number if the British had invaded at that point.
Moving with the same alacrity with which he had tried to reinforce Winchester at Frenchtown, Harrison called up troops from the many forts along his thin defense line across Ohio and Indiana. In little more than a week, Fort Meigs’ rolls were up to more than 1,100 soldiers. Governor Isaac Shelby of Kentucky was also sending 3,000 militia under Brig. Gen. Green Clay, a cousin of Representative Henry Clay, to reinforce Fort Meigs and the other depleted forts of the north.
Meanwhile, at Fort Malden, Brig. Gen. Proctor — who had been promoted after his victory at Frenchtown — had gathered as many troops and Shawnee, Wyandot, Chippewa and Lakota warriors as possible. At that point, Shawnee leader Tecumseh urged Proctor to attack Fort Meigs quickly or risk losing his Indians’ help. Proctor agreed to’smoke out’ the Americans from their ‘hive’ at the end of April. By the 25th, every available ship and boat at Fort Malden was loaded with 413 troops of the 41st Foot, 468 Canadian militiamen, artillery and supplies, then set out along the western end of Lake Erie, while about 1,200 Indians traveled overland. Proctor entered Maumee Bay the next day, landing his troops on the north shore, 12 miles northeast of Fort Meigs. It took another full day to unload the supplies and artillery. On April 28, most of the infantry was sent ahead to bivouac around the ruins of old Fort Miami, a British stockade abandoned after the American Revolution, located just two miles from Fort Meigs, and await the guns.
Increased Indian activity in the area had already aroused Harrison’s suspicions. When scouts reported British troops camping at Fort Miami, he immediately sent messengers to General Clay, requesting reinforcements. At the same time, he ordered Captain Wood to prepare an adequate defense against the British artillery, and Wood set his men to digging. The weather was rainy and cool, but no shovel or plank was idle as the troops piled dirt upon mud hour after hour. To conceal the work from the enemy, Wood kept a solid row of troop tents between the workers and British observers on the opposite hills.
The British, too, found the weather a problem. Dampness and mud slowed the movement of artillery through the forest above the river, and it was difficult getting even the lighter cannons to the top of the hill across from Fort Meigs. The largest guns, two 24-pounders, required hundreds of men and oxen to pull them a single mile in six hours.
Most of the British artillery was in position by the night of April 29, but no shots were fired then or the next day. Crossing to the American side of the Maumee, Tecumseh led hundreds of warriors and a detachment of Royal Engineers to set up a battery against the east angle of the fort. The Americans responded by placing several guns at that point, to harass the British with solid shot, and the Indians with grapeshot and canister.
On the night of April 30, a British gunboat fired 30 rounds into Fort Meigs with little effect, then withdrew. The rain-drenched dawn on May 1 found all quiet on both sides of the Maumee, save for an occasional exchange of musket fire between American sentries and Indians.
The standoff ended at 11 a.m., when the rumble of Proctor’s artillery filled the air. Before the smoke from the first British salvo rolled away, however, the row of tents was pulled down to reveal what Harrison called a ‘grand traverse,’ a 12-foot-high earthen embankment rising from a 20-foot base running 300 yards across the length of the compound and parallel to the British batteries to shield American troops, horses, mules and supplies. It was a frustrating sight to Proctor, who had hoped that Harrison would surrender after a few hours of heavy bombardment. The next few British salvos only served to satisfy Harrison that his grand traverse would absorb the cannonballs and shrapnel, while allowing men and supplies to move anywhere within the walls, with cover near at hand. In a rare display of pride, Harrison called to his quartermaster, Colonel William Christy, and told him, ‘Sir, go and nail a flag on every battery where they shall wave as long as an enemy is in view.’
For 12 hours, the British hurled about 250 heavy and light rounds at the wall embankments and traverses, while mortars lobbed fused bombs to explode over the defenders’ heads. Soon the rain-softened quagmire of the compound was filled with craters from spent cannon shot. When the guns fell silent a little before midnight, only two Americans were dead, but the four wounded included Major Stoddard, who died of his injuries 10 days later.
Shortly after dawn on May 2, Proctor reopened the bombardment, and during that day and the next more than 1,000 rounds were fired at Fort Meigs. Huddling behind their muddy traverse walls, the defenders became more concerned about their water supply, since the fort’s well had not been completed. With the Indians lurking so close at hand, getting water from the Maumee, as the garrison had done up to that time, became impossible, and several Americans were captured trying. Most of them had no recourse but to drink brackish rainwater skimmed from puddles.
From the beginning, Fort Meigs’ gunners returned fire sparingly, taking precise bearings before firing each piece, since they had relatively little ammunition — 360 rounds for the fort’s five 18-pounder guns, 360 for its six 12-pounders, and little more than that for six 6-pounders and three howitzers. Noting that most of the British guns were 6-pounders, Harrison offered a reward of a gill of whiskey for each salvageable enemy cannonball of that size turned over to the fort magazine and delegated Captain Wood to oversee the collection. With puddle water the only other available beverage, that incentive inspired hundreds of troops to brave enemy fire and recover more than 1,000 British rounds for reuse.
On May 3, British artillery observers got the range of Fort Meigs’ magazine. Noting the increase in enemy fire being directed there, Wood called for volunteers to heap dirt all over the magazine. Again, whiskey was passed around, this time to fortify the volunteers’ courage. After several hours of labor and many pulls on the keg, the Americans were defying the British with clenched fists to try and strike them down; but they also completed the task of shielding the magazine just as Proctor’s gunners began to fire glowing, heated balls in a belated, ultimately vain attempt to ignite the gunpowder. Proctor’s gunners fired 516 rounds into the fort on May 3. On the American side of the Maumee, the British had emplaced a light cannon and a mortar 300 yards from the east end of Fort Meigs, subjecting the garrison to cross-fire. The greatest danger, however, still came from the heavier batteries across the river.
On May 4, British fire slackened to periodic salvos. Although nothing of importance had been destroyed, the entire American ‘hive’ seemed to smolder from the three days of punishment it had endured. Yet each time the British guns ceased firing, the Americans cheered and whistled as if they had won the entire war. During one of the quiet intervals, Proctor sent a major under a white flag with a surrender demand. With visions of the Raisin River massacre still fresh in his memory, Harrison replied, ‘Tell General Proctor that if he shall take the fort it will be under circumstances that will do him more honor than a thousand surrenders.’ The siege resumed.
Late that night, Harrison’s messengers returned with good news — they had found General Clay at Fort Defiance, 45 miles to the west along the Maumee, and reinforcements were on the way. Upon learning of Fort Meigs’ situation, Clay ordered 18 large flatboats fitted with raised sides for protection against Indian musket fire from the shore. Loading them with 1,200 militia, including Colonel William Dudley’s brigade and a rifle company under Captain Leslie Combs, Clay set out immediately. Harrison’s couriers accompanied them to within 20 miles of Fort Meigs, then sped ahead to deliver the news. Knowing what Clay’s position would be before dawn on May 5, Harrison devised a plan to attack the main British batteries. Again, he dispatched a messenger to pass through the Indians by canoe. The courier carried a brief note on paper verifying his trustworthy character, but the attack plan was held in memory alone. Slipping past the Indians, he reached Clay at the river rapids and explained the plan, which called for 800 of Clay’s men to land on the British side, a mile west of their batteries on the heights. From there, the force was to get behind, as well as flank, the battery positions. Once they had taken the positions, the Americans were to spike the guns and withdraw back across the Maumee. The garrison would then attack the smaller batteries on their own side in force.
Clay agreed to the plan, and Dudley led the assault force from the rapids, with Combs’ company attached as rangers. In all, 846 troops in 12 boats veered toward the north bank, while Clay led his remaining Kentuckians to land on the south side and engage the Indians on his way to Fort Meigs.
Dudley’s boats swiftly reached the north bank, and his men sprang into the lower forest, driving the Indians back as they swarmed up the heights. Forming three hasty columns with Major James Shelby leading the leftmost, Captain John C. Morrison leading the center as a reserve, and himself at the head of the right column, Dudley led them toward the batteries, which they charged from the west, yelling and howling. After a brief struggle the outnumbered British gunners surrendered, except for a few who escaped into the forest to the east. Half of Dudley’s men pursued them through the trees and pushed several bands of Indians down the east slope, while others tore the Union Jack flying over the batteries from its mast. Meanwhile, Captain Combs’ 30 riflemen and several friendly Indians advanced north of the captured batteries to prevent a rear attack.
Unwilling to wait for the spikes being sent from Fort Meigs, Dudley’s men used broken musket ramrods and anything else at hand to plug the firing holes of the cannons. When their work was completed, they wandered carelessly around the battery sites, awaiting the rest of the regiment’s return. By then, however, the Kentuckians chasing the British gunners had scattered themselves widely throughout the woods. Dudley ordered them to retire to the high ground of the batteries, but few heard or obeyed. Several militiamen pursued the gunners and Indians to within sight of the main British camp.
As the alarm reached Proctor’s camp, Tecumseh rallied hundreds of Indians in the wooded ravines between his soldiers and the batteries. Other Indians maneuvered to face Combs to the north and attacked his riflemen. Combs was expected to fall back if he came under heavy attack, but he had not been given the complete plan. Therefore, the rifle company tried to hold its ground and was soon in desperate need of help.
Hearing the struggle, Dudley gathered as many troops as he could and charged into the woods to rescue Combs, but he was pressed back toward the batteries by growing numbers of Indians. Dudley was wounded and quickly overwhelmed by a rush of warriors as his and Combs’ men tried to get down to the river. He was killed and scalped. The other Kentucky troops on the east slope were also in retreat as more Indians gathered, and three companies of the 41st Foot and some Canadian militia advanced toward the batteries in skirmishing order.
By the time the Kentuckians reached the battery clearings, the Indians had them surrounded. Some managed to escape down the south slope to the river, but with Colonel Dudley dead most of the Americans were caught in the confusion of war whoops and musket fire, unable to muster a defense.
Another massacre was prevented only by the presence of British troops, who later took the prisoners to their camp. There, Combs later testified that the enraged Indians forced the prisoners to run the gantlet through two lines of braves who struck at them with tomahawks, clubs and pistol butts. More than 20 scouts were killed and scalped, and all the Americans might have been slaughtered had Tecumseh not intervened, shouting angrily, ‘Are there no men here?’
Finding Proctor in the vicinity, Tecumseh asked why he had allowed the warriors such free rein, to which the British general replied, ‘Your Indians cannot be controlled, cannot be commanded.’ ‘You are not fit to command,’ said Tecumseh contemptuously. ‘Go put on petticoats!’ For the prisoners’ safety, the British placed them inside the old stockade at Fort Miami.
Of the 846 men that Colonel Dudley started out with, less than 170 escaped across the Maumee to Fort Meigs. Harrison, who had been so cautious after the Frenchtown debacle, watched in horror from the fort’s Grand Battery as his plan collapsed only a mile away. By then, General Clay had reached Fort Meigs with 50 men. The rest of his troops had been separated during the landing, but Colonel William E. Boswell took command and formed skirmish lines. Suffering few casualties considering the circumstances, Boswell reached the fort with more than 250 men. He was met, amid cheers from the walls, by another force of 250 troops, led by Major John B. Alexander of the Pennsylvania Volunteers, coming out of the gates. They were to join and attack the Indians from whom Boswell had just escaped.
With fixed bayonets, the Americans plunged back into the woods and underbrush, driving the Indians back several hundred yards. The attack was halted, however, by a messenger who bore news that more Indians had been moving swiftly around to the south, trying to cut them off from the fort. The troops fell back just before the Indians could assemble in sufficient strength to oppose their withdrawal.
Boswell’s and Alexander’s forces were reinforced shortly after by 350 soldiers detached from the 17th and 19th U.S. regiments, as well as Captain Uriel Sebree’s company of Kentucky militia, with orders to destroy the British batteries harassing Fort Meigs from the east. The troops passed through the wooded ravine under the fort’s southeast walls and emerged on a narrow plain. Before them, the grenadier and light companies of the 41st Foot and two companies of Canadian militia formed a defensive line in front of the batteries.
As the Americans assembled, the 41st Foot fired a volley but inflicted few casualties. Colonel John Miller, leading the 17th and 19th U.S. Infantry detachments, ordered his men forward from 200 to 50 yards, then had them close ranks and charge. The Redcoats stood fast as the Americans rushed across the open field, but they began scattering as the attackers crashed through their line and clambered into the gun emplacements. At that point, some of the 500 Indians that Tecumseh had brought up to support the British attacked the American flanks, allowing most of the Redcoats to fall back and form again. Sebree’s company became locked in desperate hand-to-hand combat, but disaster was averted when a fresh company of 19th Infantry, dispatched by Harrison, came to their rescue. Harrison’s troops then pressed the British line until it broke, sending Redcoats and Indians fleeing to the east except for a few warriors who sniped at the Americans as they retired to the fort. About 30 Americans were killed and 90 wounded, but they succeeded in spiking the enemy guns and brought back 42 British prisoners to Fort Meigs.
By then, the siege had all but run its course. With the batteries on the south shore destroyed, Proctor had to rely solely on the larger guns on the north bank. The improvised spikes Dudley’s men had driven into them had proved to be ineffective, and the British had them operational by evening. The Indians, however, had suffered many more casualties than Proctor’s troops, and most of them, disillusioned with British military prowess, wandered off. Although Tecumseh remained with Proctor, he was bitterly disappointed with the general’s performance.
The British continued bombarding the fort through May 8, but with diminishing fury. With a nod from Harrison, Fort Meigs’ north batteries hurled a thunderous reply across the river that day, hastening Proctor’s withdrawal. After the British abandoned the siege, the fort was strengthened against future invasions.
On July 21, Proctor — who had been promoted to major general — and Tecumseh returned, leading an army of British troops, Canadian militia and Indians even larger than the first to the Maumee. After an unsuccessful ruse to draw Fort Meigs’ garrison out of the fort and into an ambush, however, Proctor abandoned the second siege on July 28. Instead, he divided his forces and advanced to the Sandusky River, more than 30 miles to the east. On August 1, Proctor laid siege to Fort Stephenson, defended by 160 troops under the command of 21-year-old Major George Croghan of the 17th U.S. Infantry, and by one 6-pounder cannon. After a fierce but ineffective cannonade on the first day, on August 2, 400 troops of the 41st Foot advanced to within 50 yards of the fort, only to suffer almost 100 casualties in two assaults, compared to one fatality and seven slightly wounded among Croghan’s command. After that, the British limped back to Fort Malden.
The battles at Fort Meigs and along the Maumee marked a turning point in the war on the Northwestern frontier. On September 10, Commodore Perry eliminated the British fleet on Lake Erie. Taking the offensive, Harrison ordered Fort Meigs dismantled, leaving only a small, square stockade with 100 soldiers to serve as a supply base while he advanced into Upper Canada. On October 5, Harrison ended British supremacy in the region for the duration of the war when he caught the Redcoats on the Thames River near Moraviantown. Tecumseh was killed in the battle, and Proctor fled — even as his troops struggled to put up a meager defense.
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After some calamitous first months, Harrison’s Army of the Northwest gave the United States its first major land successes of the War of 1812 and ended the British invasion threat to Ohio and the Northwestern frontier. Re-created as it was during the pivotal siege of May 1813, Fort Meigs and its seven blockhouses can now be visited off State Route 65, near Perrysburg, Ohio.
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