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Archive for the ‘Ohio’ Category

Fort Washington, 1791, by Major Jonathan Hart. The city of Cincinnati grew up around the fort, which was active from 1789-1808. It is a major setting for our novel The Fairest Portion of the Globe.

As detailed in our novel The Fairest Portion of the Globe, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark met and had their first experiences as leaders of men while serving in the U.S. Army on the Ohio frontier. Their world was essentially defined by log forts, which stood as bastions of American military power amidst a vast wilderness dominated by Indians. The more I’ve learned about the frontier forts of the Wayne’s Legion period, the more I’ve been impressed by just how much Lewis & Clark were influenced by Anthony Wayne and his “by the book” approach to surviving on an Indian frontier.

The forts of the Ohio frontier varied in size, but were all built along the same general model, as log stockades that rose at least 12 feet high with four- and six-pound cannons protruding from the bastions, ready to blast grapeshot at any Indians attempting to scale the walls. Inside the fort’s walls lay the barracks and storerooms of the garrison. The roof sloped inwards so that the fort could capture rainwater in the event of a siege. When peaceful conditions prevailed, the men (and often their wives) planted vegetables and raised livestock outside the forts.

The first forts erected in the Ohio territory, such as Fort Harmar in 1785, allowed the army to establish a presence to repel the advance of settlers into the Ohio territory. Thanks to the efforts of George Rogers Clark, Ohio was part of the United States under the treaty that ended the American Revolution. However, the territory was considered indefensible with the small army of the fledgling republic. But nothing, not the Army and not even repeated massacres, seemed to deter the pioneers from venturing into Ohio’s cold, rough, rich terrain.

St. Clair's Defeat. From Stories of Ohio, by William Dean Howells, 1897.

Eventually, the conflict developed into a brutal quagmire, with British-backed Indians essentially carrying on the war of the British against American independence by other means. In 1791, President Washington decided to do something about it, sending out virtually the entire United States Army — some 1400 men — under the leadership of Arthur St. Clair to punish and defeat the Indians. The result, as we detailed in a previous post, was complete disaster for the United States.

The Battle of Fallen Timbers, Part 1

Over 600 of St. Clair’s men were killed by the forces of Little Turtle and Blue Jacket, and another 258 wounded—an astounding 62% casualty rate. (For comparison, about 200 died at Custer’s Last Stand in 1876 out of 2400 assigned to the campaign.) In essence, the United States Army was wiped out, a defeat comparable in magnitude to the Navy’s losses at Pearl Harbor in 1941.

Anthony Wayne, a retired hero of the American Revolution, was called in to rebuild the Army (which he designated the Legion of the United States) practically from scratch. It was at this time that 22-year-old William Clark joined up and was commissioned an infantry lieutenant as Wayne worked to rebuild his officer corps.

Clark had a ringside seat as Wayne methodically trained his army, then moved them to Fort Washington at present-day Cincinnati to prepare for his mission, which was to avenge St. Clair’s Defeat and make Ohio safe for Americans once and for all. Clark kept a journal which is now one of the most important primary sources on the campaign. (It also exposes young Clark’s naive infatuation with none other than our old friend General James Wilkinson, whose machinations against Clark’s brother George Roger Clark helped lead to his final ruin, and who much later may have played a role in the death of Meriwether Lewis).

“William Clark’s Journal of General Wayne’s Campaign” was published in 1915 by the Mississippi Valley Historical Review and can be read on Google Books. One thing the journal documents is that Clark really didn’t like Anthony Wayne very much. Unbeknownst to Clark or anyone else in the officer corps, Wayne had sweeping authorization to wage total war against the Indians, even if it meant reigniting war with the British, who had built Fort Miamis in American territory near present-day Toledo in clear violation of the Treaty of Paris.

View of Fort Greeneville, active 1793-1814

With that kind of responsibility under his belt, and with an understanding of his opponent (namely, Little Turtle, one of the greatest military geniuses the American continent ever produced), Wayne proceeded with extreme deliberation. A primary reason for St. Clair’s defeat was poor preparation, and Wayne built a new fort, Greeneville (present-day Greenville, Ohio). Wayne promptly took the Legion into winter camp here and spent the cold months of 1793-94 drilling his army.

Provisioning the fort (as well as others built by previous generals) was always a challenge on the frontier. Though still young, William Clark was an experienced leader, woodsman, and river man, and was tasked with a great deal of responsibility during this period, leading large groups of troops and traders on long missions to and from centers of civilization like Louisville and Vincennes. With his usual flair for bluntness and creative spelling, Clark described his duties as “corn halling,” but it was dangerous work by any standard. In March 1794, Clark was in command of a pack train of 700 horses, 70 soldiers and 20 dragoons when it was attacked by Indians. Clark’s quick thinking and self-possession saved the day and the Indians were driven away after a battle lasting just 15 minutes.

According to his journal, Clark didn’t get the attaboys he expected from General Wayne after this incident, leading him to believe the general was playing favorites. “Kissing goes by favor,” he noted bitterly. In fact, Wayne was paying more attention than Clark realized, and within weeks he had named Clark as quartermaster for the entire Fourth Sublegion, in charge of seeing to the supply needs of some 500 men.

Coming soon: Wayne’s forts of the Fallen Timbers campaign

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Have you seen me? This portrait of young William Clark has been missing since the mid-1950s, when it was known to be in the possession of Mrs. William Bryce, who purchased it from the estate of Clark's granddaughter Eleanor Voorhis. If you know anything of its whereabouts, contact Carolyn Gilman, the special projects director at the Missouri History Society.

Our novel The Fairest Portion of the Globe is about how Lewis and Clark became such good friends. They met as young officers under the command of “Mad” Anthony Wayne during 1795-96, a time in which the army was occupying the Ohio territory and guarding against the many intrigues, foreign and domestic, that imperiled the western United States.

Before he met Lewis, Clark was involved in one of the most significant and underrated military campaigns in American history. Following the American Revolution, the British never withdrew their troops from the western territory of the United States. Instead, they formed an alliance with the Indian tribes of the region–Chippewa, Ottawa, Pottawatomi, Shawnee, Delaware, Mingo, and Wyandot–and waged unrelenting warfare against the civilian populace in the West (mostly settled in Kentucky). This war became a brutal “eye-for-an-eye” quagmire with seemingly no possible end.

The early campaigns to strike back against the Indians were led by militia leaders (including Daniel Boone and George Rogers Clark). Any success these campaigns had never lasted; the Indians, armed by British might, would regroup and launch more attacks. Finally, after the present Federal government was formed, the United States took on the responsibility for combating the Indian-British menace.

In 1790, General Josiah Harmar’s punitive expedition against the Wabash and Miami Indians was beaten badly by the forces of Little Turtle, the Miami chief whom historians consider one of the great military geniuses ever produced on the North American continent. Stung by the humiliating defeat, President Washington authorized a huge force under General Arthur St. Clair. St. Clair moved out of Cincinnati in the fall of 1791 at the head of 1400 men–virtually the entire United States Army as it existed at that time.

The result was utter disaster. Indian forces under Little Turtle and Blue Jacket ambushed St. Clair’s army and inflicted a defeat so overwhelming that it far eclipses Custer’s Last Stand in scope. Over 600 of St. Clair’s men were killed and another 258 wounded–an astounding 62% casualty rate. (About 200 died at Custer’s Last Stand in 1876 out of 2400 assigned to the campaign).

In essence, the United States Army was wiped out, a defeat comparable in magnitude to the Navy’s losses at Pearl Harbor. In the aftermath, international observers predicted that it was only a matter of time before the United States lost the west to Britain; the credibility of George Washington’s government was in a shambles.

The Fallen Timbers monument near Toledo, Ohio depicts Mad Anthony Wayne along with a Kentucky militiaman and an Indian combatant.

Enter Anthony Wayne, known since the Revolution as “Mad Anthony.” Wayne was named commanding general of the newly-formed Legion of the United States and given carte blanche to recruit, train, and outfit a force. While the Washington Administration tried and failed to negotiate a settlement with the Indians, Wayne meticulously prepared a campaign to seize the Ohio territory, defeat the Indians, and lay the groundwork for a lasting peace based on military might.

William Clark, who had previously served in the Kentucky militia and was lucky to have escaped getting mixed up in St. Clair’s Defeat, joined Wayne’s Legion as a lieutenant in March 1792, at the age of 21. It is interesting to note that Clark didn’t like Wayne very much. The army waited at Cincinnati and prepared for war until the summer of 1794. Young, eager for glory, and under the influence of Wayne’s arch-rival James Wilkinson, Clark was an enormously frustrated young man who complained constantly that Wayne was a sick, timid old granny who was unwilling to fight.

How do we know? Because Clark kept a journal at this time, now one of the only contemporary records of Wayne’s campaign. In the journal, William Clark at ages 23-24 comes off very differently than the thoughtful, loyal, and fun person that we know and love from the Lewis & Clark journals, written when he was 32-36 years old. Quite simply, Clark was immature. Like many a young person before and after, Clark was immensely critical of his elders, bitterly sarcastic, and in the thrall of a manipulative mentor (Wilkinson). Take this passage in which Clark alleges that Wayne has allowed the Indians to escape:

The head of the long talked of Hydra might have been so easily severed from his body, one of his heads at least, which must have greatly wekened him & perhaps saved the effusion of much blood, but this is no consideration with some Folks. I am now lead to a reflection which if indulged, would perhaps give me two great a disgust to a Military life, and embiter my present situation — Were subalterns of this army, in general, to forego such oppertunities of rendering theire Country a service & absolutely so far neglect their duty, as do some officers of higher rank, what merit would they find. Non.

On August 20, 1794, Clark and the Legion met the Indians in the forest near present-day Toledo, Ohio. After a short, pitched battle, the Indians realized they were up against a superior force and ran. Though not a spectacular fight, the Battle of Fallen Timbers would go down as one of the turning points in American history. What Clark hadn’t realized in his inexperience is that Wayne and the Legion had seized and fortified every significant portage point and river junction in the territory during their slow march north. Realizing this, the British declined to help the Indians, casting them back on their own devices. In the meantime, Wayne’s troops destroyed the Indians’ fall harvest and prevented them from regrouping in the villages over the winter.

The tribes had been outsmarted and had no choice but to come to the bargaining table. In the summer of 1795, Wayne and the Indian leaders negotiated the Treaty of Greeneville, which secured America’s hold on the Ohio territory. In terms of historical consequence, it was one of the great victories in American history.

This mural in Cincinnati's Union Terminal shows the town's beginnings as a military outpost. Fort Washington, where Lewis and Clark met and lived, is in the background.

And what did Clark and his new friend Meriwether Lewis think about all this as it unfolded? You’ll just have to read The Fairest Portion of the Globe to find out. Why not “Buy Now” at the top of this page? You know you want to.

More reading:

The Battle of Fallen Timbers, Part I
The Battle of Fallen Timbers, Part II
Three Diaries of William Clark

Mad Anthony Wayne at Fallen Timbers
Signing of the Treaty of Greeneville (includes the epic painting that hangs in the Ohio State House that depicts Lewis and Clark among the crowd — scroll down for the key)

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As we recounted in Part 1 of this post last week, young George Croghan, the 21-year-old nephew of William Clark, had just hurled defiance in the face of 20-1 odds as the British commander Henry Proctor demanded that he surrender Fort Stephenson on the Sandusky River, August 1, 1813 …

The Battle of Fort Stephenson

In accordance with the etiquette of war, as soon Lieutenant Shipp was back within the walls of the fort, Proctor opened fire with three cannons and two howitzers. He concentrated his fire on the northwest corner of the fort, and Croghan guessed correctly that the assault would come there at dawn. He loaded up Old Betsy with grapeshot, slugs, and broken pottery, put his Kentucky sharpshooters in place, and waited.

Sure enough, Croghan was right. Proctor hurled his men against the little fort without waiting for scaling ladders to throw against the sixteen-foot pickets or even giving the men a chance to sharpen their axes. The dry moat was soon filled with struggling redcoats. The Indians, seeing the folly, retreated to the nearby woods and watched as disgusted spectators as Croghan rained terrible fire down upon the British troops. About 50 British soldiers were dead within minutes; on the American side, one man died, a drunkard who foolishly climbed to the top of the palisade. The attack failed and the British were forced to pull back.

After a fair amount of local skulduggery, Old Betsy was liberated from a government arsenal and returned to Fremont, Ohio, site of the battle of Fort Stephenson, in 1852.

General Harrison was stunned and amazed and the nation electrified by the news of Croghan’s audacious repulse of the huge British force. The War of 1812 was woefully short of good news on the American side, and the youth was hailed as a national hero and promoted to lieutenant colonel. At war’s end, he had been transferred to the southern front where he fought alongside Andrew Jackson at the astonishing Battle of New Orleans, and made a lifelong friend of the irascible master politician.

Back in Louisville, where Croghan had grown up, his family celebrated with joy and astonishment the advent of another national hero in their midst. Old General George Rogers Clark, by then severely disabled and living with Croghan’s mother Lucy at Locust Grove, is said to have muttered proudly, “The little game cock, he shall have my sword.” And for a time it appeared that Croghan’s fame and responsibility might equal that shouldered by his famous uncles. He married Serena Livingston of the famous New York family  and accepted a lucrative postmaster job in New Orleans.

Unfortunately, by the time he was 30, Croghan was well on his way to ending up more like wild Uncle George than steady Uncle William. He had terrible financial problems, Serena apparently grew to dislike him heartily and refused to live with him, and he feuded publicly and constantly with Harrison about their roles in the war (it seems that Harrison never forgave Croghan after the ladies of Chillicothe, Ohio, commemorated the Battle of Fort Stephenson by presenting Croghan with a sword and sending Harrison a petticoat).

When Jackson became president, he appointed Croghan to the post of inspector general of the army, a post he held from 1829 until his death 20 years later. Croghan spent most of his time traveling to various army forts in the West, and his work was often brilliant. He never lost the respect of his fellow military officers or the common soldiers he helped with his reports. But his personal life was increasingly tragic. He drank very, very heavily, and his wife obtained a legal separation from him, apparently to prevent him from selling or pawning her possessions. But Jackson, at least, never wavered in his allegiance to Croghan. When it was suggested that Croghan be court-martialed for drunkenness, Jackson said, “George Croghan shall get drunk every day of his life if he wants to, and by the Eternal, the United States shall pay for the whiskey.”

The 1885 Soldier's Monument in Fremont pays tribute to the men of Croghan's command

In 1846, at the age of 54, Croghan was called to Mexico to join the staff of General Zachary Taylor, who in spite of his “rough and ready” reputation had actually grown up in a fashionable home next door to Croghan’s boyhood home of Locust Grove. While in Mexico, Croghan, like many American soldiers, contracted dysentery; his weight dropped from about 168 pounds to 148. He fought in the Battle of Monterey, where a Tennessee regiment recalled him riding ahead, his gray hair tossing in the wind, and reminding them, “Men of Tennessee, your fathers conquered with Jackson at New Orleans – follow me!” He was never able to shake the illness, and he died in New Orleans in January 8, 1849, the 35th anniversary of the Battle of New Orleans.

There is a touching footnote to Croghan’s final resting place. Croghan was buried at Locust Grove in the family cemetery, but in 1906 he was reinterred at Fort Stephenson with “Old Betsy” standing guard over his grave. The story of Croghan’s feats would have been well-known to several generations of schoolboys, and some believe that Davy Crockett’s famous rifle was named for the Fort Stephenson gun.

More great reading: Forgotten Giant: William Henry Harrison, Part 3

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George Croghan. Courtesy of Birchard Public Library of Sandusky County.

One nice thing about Lewis & Clark from the point of view of the historical fiction author is that together they provide two of the most popular types of heroes. For those who like lonesome cowboys, Meriwether Lewis is your man. And for those who prefer multi-generational family sagas, you’ve got William Clark, who cannot be understood separately from his sprawling, heroic, and often tragic family.

The year was 1813. Throughout the spring, the British had besieged commander William Henry Harrison at Fort Meigs (near modern-day Perrysburg), a critical outpost for the American hopes of recapturing Detroit and ending the war. The failure of the siege left the British commander Henry Proctor, known to history as an inept and “by the book” commander, looking for a way to save his spring campaign. He set his sights on Fort Stephenson on the Sandusky River, just 30 miles from Fort Meigs (near modern-day Fremont).

Fort Stephenson might have been small but its mission was critical: it guarded the transfer point between the Sandusky River and Lake Erie; the water route was the only real highway from Pittsburgh to Detroit. The garrison of just 160 U.S. regulars was under the command of Major George Croghan, a debonair 21-year-old with the brooding good looks of young Marlon Brando. Croghan (pronounced Crawn) was the son of Lucy Clark Croghan of Locust Grove and her husband William, himself a distinguished veteran of the American Revolution, and the nephew of William Clark and George Rogers Clark. Before the war, Croghan had studied law at William & Mary, but he enlisted at the beginning of the trouble in 1811, just in time to take part in the Battle of Tippecanoe. Since then the young man had become a seasoned veteran of several campaigns.

Fort Stephenson

When he learned that Proctor was on the march, Croghan swore to “defend this post to the last extremity.” Imagine his surprise then, when he received a message from General Harrison ordering him to blow up the fort and evacuate his command. Harrison had learned that Proctor had taken to the river with 500 British regulars and 700 Indians, while the legendary Shawnee commander Tecumseh was heading Croghan’s way overland with 2000 additional warriors. To Harrison’s shock, Croghan responded to his message not by showing at Fort Seneca as ordered, but by writing back:

Sir, I have just received yours of yesterday, 10 o’clock P.M., ordering me to destroy this place and make good my retreat, which was received too late to be carried into execution. We have determined to maintain this place and by heavens we can.

Harrison had Croghan arrested and brought to Seneca to account for himself, where Croghan proved himself the equal of his fighting uncles, somehow persuading the general that he could take on the British with his one piece of artillery (a Revolutionary-era cannon named “Old Betsy,”), along with modifications to the fort which included a moat, new blockhouses, and a log booby trap. Not quite believing the fort could be held, Harrison agreed to let Croghan try.

Henry Proctor. Tecumseh, never one to be shy with his opinions, called him "a fat animal which slinks away, its tail between its legs."

Meanwhile, Proctor had managed to back himself into a corner, not an easy feat while sporting a 20-1 advantage. His dithering at Fort Meigs had alienated the Indians, who preferred not to waste their time on campaigns that ended in failure. Proctor felt pressured to attack the fort without delay in order to prevent a mass desertion by his Indian allies. On August 1, 1813, as soon as he arrived at the fort, Proctor sent an aide to demand Croghan’s surrender. The war had been characterized by several terrible massacres of American soldiers by Indian troops, and some Indians roughed up Croghan’s representative in full view of the fort to make their point about what would happen if surrender was not immediately forthcoming. Croghan called to his man to return: “Shipp, come in and we will blow them all to hell.”

Coming Monday: The battle and its tragic aftermath

More great reading:

The Clark Brothers as Prisoners of War

Lewis & Clark road trip: Locust Grove

Forgotten Giant: William Henry Harrison, Part 2

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William Henry Harrison, the poor man's friend

Somewhat unjustly, William Henry Harrison is remembered by history for two things: that he died only one month after being sworn in as president, and that he ran the first modern campaign for that office, complete with the mindless slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler Too.”

Most military heroes who ride their exploits into higher office do so not long after the war that made them famous. After all, people have short memories and new idols come along every day. Yet Harrison had to wait a whopping thirty years after Tippecanoe before his successful campaign and doomed presidency. What happened? What took so long?

William Hull at Fort Detroit, by David Geister

As we saw in the last post, Harrison’s “victory” at Tippecanoe in 1811 propelled him to fame and popularity in the western United States, which was thirsting for a war with Great Britain that would extinguish the British and Indian threat to westward expansion. So when war did arrive the following year, Harrison was appointed commander-in-chief for the Army of the Northwest. His first task was to round up enough troops to rush to the aid of Detroit, a small but critical garrison on the Great Lakes that had been surrendered to British forces in August without a shot (the fort’s commander, William Hull, was court-martialed and sentenced to death for his failure, a sentence that was later commuted).

Now age 40, Harrison was no Hull. He was aggressive, decisive, and extremely popular with his men. As one Kentuckian wrote, “Harrison, with a look, can awe and convince.” Although short of food, clothing, equipment, weapons, and ammunition, he left Cincinnati in September 1812 with 3000 men and immediately began to lay waste to the countryside, burning Indian villages, destroying crops, and desecrating graveyards. Harrison’s troops made no distinction between tribes at war with the United States and those who had attempted to remain neutral.

But these early successes were fleeting. With short rations and a long supply line, morale began to break down in spite of Harrison’s actorly abilities. And as the troops reached Michigan, they found themselves mired in frigid winter rains. By the time he reached a planned base at the Upper Sandusky, Harrison had lost a thousand horses (worth over $6 million in today’s dollars) and tons of abandoned supplies. Forced to act as beasts of burden in place of the horses, men were suffering from exhaustion and frostbite.

The Battle of Frenchtown, better known as the River Raisin Massacre

In January 1813 came one of the worst disasters in the history of the United States military, and Harrison, though only 65 miles away, was powerless to prevent it. Harrison’s second-in-command, a kindly and sedentary Revolutionary War veteran named James Winchester, had suffered bruised feelings over being placed in a subordinate position to the younger political general. Now he saw an opportunity to redeem his reputation by attacking the British and Indians at Frenchtown south of Detroit. Harrison immediately recognized the folly of Winchester’s idea and personally attempted to ride to stop him; when his horse fell through the ice in a frozen swamp, he forged on on foot through the night.

But it was too late. After initial success in chasing British forces across the River Raisin, Winchester’s forces found themselves trapped in a nightmarish counterattack. The Battle of the River Raisin was one of the worst defeats ever suffered by the United States Army. Seven hundred men were taken prisoner. Two hundred men were killed or wounded, with the wounded men then tomahawked or set on fire by the Indian victors, who warned the civilian survivors that anyone who touched the “Harrison men” would meet the same fate. Only 33 escaped to tell the tale. The sight of the frozen corpses scattered around Frenchtown was searing and unforgettable, and any hopes of an early, easy victory in the West were doomed.

The Siege of Fort Meigs

Harrison was sick about what happened at the River Raisin, and for the rest of the war, it made him a cautious commander. That spring, Harrison and 1200 men settled in for a long British siege at Fort Meigs (present-day Perrysburg, Ohio). The truth was that Harrison could not afford another disastrous adventure with the Indians. A defeat at Fort Meigs would not only open the Ohio country for an Indian war such as hadn’t been seen since Fallen Timbers, it would destroy the frantic American effort to build a naval force on Lake Erie to defeat the British and seize control of the Great Lakes.

Harrison constructed a set of earthworks at the fort that enabled the men to spend most of their time underground, to the great frustration of his long-time nemesis, Tecumseh, who wanted the general to come out and fight like a man. Though Harrison held the line (resulting in the great victory by Commodore Oliver Perry in September 1813 that led to the recovery of Detroit), the campaign was marked by another massacre of impetuous Kentucky troops who recklessly engaged the Indians against Harrison’s orders.

The Battle of the Thames

Harrison’s last hurrah in the war came shortly after Perry’s great victory. Like Fallen Timbers, the Battle of the Thames is a much-neglected turning point in American history. Once Harrison received word of Perry’s victory (“We have met the enemy and he is ours”) he marched on Detroit. Disgusted with his British allies and alarmed at the realization that the Indians were about to be abandoned to the Americans, Tecumseh did everything he could to slow the British retreat into Canada and force a showdown.

It came near Moraviantown in Ontario. Spurred on by cries of “Remember the River Raisin,” Harrison’s 3500 troops fell upon the enemy (about 800 British and 500 Indian). The demoralized British folded quickly, but hand-to-hand combat with the Indians was fierce. In the end, though, the outcome was decisive. Detroit was recaptured and the Americans reestablished control over the entire Northwest frontier. Tecumseh was killed, and with him the last spark of Indian resistance in the territory was crushed. Harrison is said to have been sickened by the desecration of Tecumseh’s corpse.

Surprisingly enough — probably most surprising of all to Harrison — the victory did not lead to the White House or anything like it, for a long, long time. In fact, within months, Harrison was forced to resign as major-general, the result of a falling-out with Secretary of War John Armstrong, who hated Harrison, nit-picked his decisions relentlessly, and encouraged outrageous and false rumors that Harrison had not behaved courageously during the battle. As his biographer Robert Owens writes, Harrison was extremely bitter about the resignation: “His was the burning rage of the aristocrat whose honor had been repeatedly and wantonly slighted. It was probably best for Armstrong that the general did not believe in dueling.”

William Henry Harrison, by James Reid Lambdin

He did, however, believe in self-preservation, thus avoiding the stunning fall from grace that afflicted George Rogers Clark and engulfed Meriwether Lewis at the end of his life. However, being out of the limelight allowed others to step in — most notably, Andrew Jackson, whose smashing victory at the Battle of New Orleans filled Americans with wild pride at the close of the war.

Readjustment to ordinary political life could not have been easy for Harrison. Between 1816-1828 — years that coincided with the rise and domination of Andrew Jackson in national politics — he ran for and held various offices, while running his estate in North Bend, Ohio, near Cincinnati. He served in the U.S. House and the Ohio state senate, ran unsuccessfully for governor of Ohio, and in 1824 was elected to the United States Senate. In 1828, President John Quincy Adams appointed him United States minister to Columbia, a post that required an arduous journey of many weeks to Bogota, then one of the most remote capitols in the world.

Harrison had been in Bogota about six months when he received shocking news. He was being recalled by the new president, who was none other than Andrew Jackson. Historians note that the recall was protested not only by numerous allies of Harrison’s, but by Secretary of State Martin Van Buren. But Jackson was adamant that no appointee of the hated Adams was going to represent him in South America — much less a military man and potential rival. Postmaster general William T. Barry recalled telling Jackson that if he had seen Harrison at the Battle of the Thames, he would leave him where he was. Jackson replied with satisfaction, “I reckon you may be right, but thank God I didn’t see him there.”

Jackson refused to send a naval vessel to bring Harrison back to the United States, and the general spent a good nine months making his way back home. By now 56 years old, he returned home to Cincinnati and, it seemed, permanent retirement. After all, he was obviously persona non grata to the Jackson administration. But Harrison had a few more tricks up his sleeve.

Harrison as a simple farmer in a campaign broadside

In 1836, Jackson was leaving office, and the Whig party turned to Harrison as a leading candidate to replace him. The complicated politics of the campaign are too tedious to relate here, but suffice to say that the thin, wiry 63-year-old rose to the challenge like an old boxer to the bell. Departing entirely from the convention of the day, Harrison barnstormed the country, speaking everywhere, even hosting an enormous party of the grounds of the Tippecanoe battlefield itself. He literally pioneered modern campaigning, blanketing battleground states with newspaper advertisements calling himself “The People’s Candidate” and “Farmer Harrison.”

It was a little too late before the Whigs realized what they had in Harrison. They split up their support among the regions of the country, and delivered the election to Jackson’s hand-picked successor, Van Buren. But Harrison carried Ohio, Indiana, Kentucky, Vermont, New Jersey, Delaware, and Maryland. He was clearly the front-runner for 1840, especially after the economic collapse of 1837 more or less strangled Van Buren’s presidency in the cradle.

Harrison and Tyler banner from 1840

John Quincy Adams would later call the campaign of 1840 “the Harrison whirlwind.” American life, especially in the west where Harrison had spent his entire adult life, was still a hard and often bitter existence, especially in this time of economic hardship. Harrison, that Reagan-esque actorly figure, had prepared his whole life for what the people needed. They needed glee clubs. They needed brass bands. They needed parades and buttons and badges and lanterns and shouting and banners and barbeques. They needed TIPPECANOE AND TYLER TOO.

With so much at stake, the campaign of 1840 was one of the most bitterly partisan in American history. The Democrats made a tremendous blunder (one not atypical for the party even today), when they attacked Harrison by staying that if he were given a pension and a jug of hard cider, he would be content to stay home in North Bend in his log cabin. Since most people in the country either lived in a log cabin or had grown up in one, the Harrison forces gleefully pounced on the error, blanketing the countryside with images of a humble log cabin with a coonskin nailed to the wall and a barrel of hard cider being served up by old General Harrison hisself.

Harrison — scion of Berkeley, son of a signer of the Declaration of Independence — was now a man of the people, assailing Van Buren (son of a tavern keeper and the only president to speak English as a second language) as an extravagant wastrel who spent the people’s hard-earned shekels on French china, fancy curtains, and fresh roses delivered daily to the White House. Or as one number from the campaign song book had it, “Van-Van-Van, Van is a used up man!”

1840 Harrison ribbon

The country had never seen anything like it. At the battlefield at Tippecanoe, some 60,000 people gathered. Routinely around the country, Harrison rallies drew 10,000 to 12,000 attendees, whether the general could attend or not. At Dayton, Harrison addressed an estimated “ten acres” of spectators. On a procession from Cincinnati to old Fort Meigs, he addressed 35,000 people. These numbers are the more astounding considering the population of the United States was then only 17 million (as opposed to 308 million today).

Harrison won by a landslide. Everyone knows what happened next. By the time he made it to his inauguration, Harrison was completely worn out. He spoke that day bareheaded in the snow. His feet got wet. Now 68  years old, he caught a cold. His doctors swung into action, bleeding him, blistering him, feeding him calomel and laudanum, ipacac, castor oil, even “seneca” (pure Pennsylvania petroleum). They rubbed him with mercury. It is little wonder that after a month of such treatment, the old man expired on April 4, 1841.

With his death, Harrison passed into history as a punchline, his achievements destined to be forgotten by the country he served for 50 years. We really enjoyed learning about Harrison for The Fairest Portion of the Globe. This amazing character is truly one of the forgotten giants of American history.

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Tomb of William Henry Harrison in North Bend, Ohio, near Cincinnati. Courtesy Ohio Historical Society.

I am drunk this evening in 1961,
In a jag for my countryman,
Who died of crab meat on the way back from Alaska,
Everyone knows that joke. 

James Wright’s great work, “Two Poems About President Harding,” perfectly captures our relationship with some of our deceased presidents. A tremendous outpouring of grief turns to embarrassment:

His grave, a huge absurdity,
Embarrassed cops and visitors,
Hoover and Coolidge crept away
By night, and women closed their doors.

Once the man bestrode the political scene like a colossus. Now obscurity overtakes him. Finally he is forgotten:

America goes on, goes on
Laughing, and Harding was a fool.
Even his big pretentious stone
Lays him bare to ridicule.
I know it. But don’t look at me.
By God, I didn’t start this mess.
Whatever moon and rain may be,
The hearts of men are merciless.

William Henry Harrison, by Rembrandt Peale

Perhaps of all our presidents who died in office, William Henry Harrison had the most absurd death, expiring from a cold he contracted at his own inauguration after just a month in office. (Zachary Taylor, who died from medical malpractice after falling ill from eating a bad bowl of cherries, comes in a close second.) He is also the most unjustly forgotten. In this series of posts, we’ll take a look at the life and legacy of the ill-fated ninth president of the United States.

For while Harrison may have been a punchline as a president, he was a giant of his day who led a fascinating life. An exact contemporary of Lewis and Clark’s, he served with both men in the army and in government, and in his own way, was equally instrumental in adding vast amounts of western land to the United States. Harrison is also a major character in our new novel The Fairest Portion of the Globe, and he was really fun to write about!

George W. Bush’s detractors sometimes wrote sarcastically that the former president was “born to royalty, chosen by God.” The same might be said of William Henry Harrison. His parents, Benjamin Harrison V and Elizabeth Bassett, were ultimate examples of the “First Families of Virginia,” that elite class also known as FFVs. The senior Harrison, a passionate patriot and intimate friend of both George Washington and Benjamin Franklin, was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. A rollicking man of Falstaffian girth, Harrison served as one of Virginia’s revolutionary governors from 1781-1784.

William Henry was the youngest of Benjamin and Elizabeth’s seven children. Born in 1773, he grew up the little lord of Berkeley, the family’s manor house in Virginia’s Tidewater country. Needless to say, the Revolutionary War was the biggest influence on young Harrison’s life. At one point, Berkeley was sacked by British troops under Benedict Arnold, who dragged out the family’s paintings and other treasures and burned them in the yard. And in later years Harrison would vividly recall how at age 9, he witnessed his father leaving the house in sword and uniform to go fight at Yorktown.

Berkeley Plantation in Charles County, Virginia. The home of the Harrisons for generations, it was occupied by Union troops during the Civil War. The bugle call known as Taps was composed on the grounds.

Harrison was old enough to know what this meant, and he grew up to think of war as a  natural part of life. He dreamed of being a soldier, but perhaps unsurprisingly, his father had other plans for him. Berkeley was rapidly declining, a victim of the war, soil depletion, and the senior Harrison’s own high living. Besides, as a younger son, William Henry would have to make his own way in the world. His father was determined that the slightly built and intellectual boy would instead study to become a doctor.

William Henry began his education at Hampden-Sydney College in the Blue Ridge mountains, at that time the most fashionable college in the state. There he developed a lifelong love affair with Shakespeare, military history, and classical literature. In many other ways, he was a typical college-age male. Only 5’8” and well short of 150 pounds, the dark-haired, dark-eyed boy enraged his father by joining a Quaker abolitionist society, probably to impress a young lady. His father shipped him off to medical school in Philadelphia. A few months later, the 18-year-old received word that his father had died.

With his name and connections, he was welcome anywhere in the city. Naturally the young man sought advice from an old friend of his father’s. George Washington just happened to be president of the United States. He was only too glad to arrange an Army commission for the promising and gung-ho William Henry.

Monument to the fallen from St. Clair's Defeat in Fort Recovery, Ohio

God knew that the Army needed officers — for in essence, the United States Army was about to be wiped out. A terrible Indian war was raging in the Ohio country. General Arthur St. Clair had taken 1400 men–virtually the entire Army–into the wilderness to defeat the Indian confederacy under Little Turtle and Blue Jacket. Instead he met with utter disaster. Over 600 of St. Clair’s men were killed and another 258 wounded—an astounding 62% casualty rate. (For comparison, about 200 died at Custer’s Last Stand in 1876 out of 2400 assigned to the campaign.)

The United States would not suffer another military defeat of such magnitude until Pearl Harbor in 1941. Just three weeks after St. Clair’s defeat, on November 21, 1791, young Ensign Harrison arrived at Fort Washington (today’s Cincinnati). The humiliation, grief, and disgrace he found there was his real introduction to Army life, and he never forgot it. The survivors of the massacre thronged the fort, many of them next-to-naked after having thrown away their coats and all their equipment in their mad flight from death. The fort itself was in utter disarray, with remaining supplies deteriorating rapidly in the harsh Ohio weather. And there was more. As Harrison wrote, “I certainly saw more drunken men in the forty-eight hours succeeding my arrival than I had in all my previous life.”  

Harrison was assigned to establish a new fort, Fort St. Clair, at present-day Eaton, Ohio. For the son of privilege, the three-week project was a stern introduction to the hardships of the wilderness and the realities of Army life. The slender, beardless, Shakespeare-quoting aristocrat was received derisively by his fellow officers as a political appointee who had, in Harrison’s own words, “come in through the cabin window.” But he won respect and made connections.

Even at this young age, Harrison seems to have had many of the personality traits that would eventually propel him to fame as a general and politician. Though slight and not particularly handsome, Harrison had a vigor and confidence that stemmed both from upbringing and intelligence. Despite his aristocratic roots, he had a methodical, practical mind, not unlike that of William Clark, whom he was soon serving beside as a fellow officer. Both Clark and Harrison could churn out large amounts of routine work — always a plus with superior officers — and pitch in beside their men even on manual labor when the occasion called for it.

And despite presenting a somewhat grim appearance in portraits (contemporaries compared his gaunt features to those of an Renaissance priest), the real-life Harrison had a charm and wit reminiscent of Ronald Reagan. A master of witty one-liners, he could also regale his listeners with dramatic stories, a friend recalled, “more entertaining than the most stirring romance.”

Mad Anthony Wayne triumphs in politically incorrect fashion as depicted in this 1930s post office mural in Wayne, Pennsylvania

In short, Harrison was well-connected, intelligent, hard-working, and fun to be around. So it shouldn’t be surprising that by age 19 he was aide-de-camp to the new commander of the U.S. Army, General “Mad Anthony” Wayne. Mad Anthony (also a major character in The Fairest Portion of the Globe) was a Patton-esque retired general who had been brought in by George Washington to rebuild the Army after St. Clair’s Defeat, and then do what St. Clair couldn’t: defeat the Indians and make the Ohio country safe for settlement.

In July 1794, Harrison was with the Army as it finally moved out for the long awaited offensive. And on August 20, 1794, at Fallen Timbers–the most significant American battle you’ve probably never heard of–Lieutenant Harrison led one of the charges and was everywhere on the field, carrying the general’s orders. Harrison was singled out for mention as having done the most dangerous riding. While he loved the accolades, the battle was also a sobering experience for the youth. A close friend and fellow officer died after lingering in agony for hours. Harrison was haunted by guilt about the death and his own inability to recover his friend’s body until well after the battle.

Harrison remained Wayne’s chief aide all during the historic treaty negotiations at Fort Greenville, which delivered the Ohio country into the hands of the United States for good–or so it seemed. Some two decades later, when the issue was again in doubt, it would be William Henry Harrison who would take up the sword again against the native forces, at a place called Tippecanoe.

Stay tuned for Part 2, in which William Henry Harrison takes command of the newly-created Indiana Territory, with sweeping civil and military power over a country that included the future states of Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin, and Minnesota. He was 27 years old.

More great reading:
The Battle of Fallen Timbers, Part 1
The Battle of Fallen Timbers, Part 2

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On Monday, March 26, 1804, William Clark made a remarkable journal entry:

a verry Smokey day    I had Corn parched to make parched meal, workmen all at work prepareing the Boat, I visit the Indian Camps, In one Camp found 3 Squars & 3 young ones, another 1 girl & a boy    in a 3rd Simon Girtey & two other familey—    Girtey has the Rhumertism verry bad    those Indians visit me in their turn, & as usial ask for Something    I give them flour &c.

Clark’s attitude about encountering Simon Girty is remarkably nonchalant. A 21st century equivalent would be: “You’ll never guess who I saw at Starbucks. Osama bin Laden! He was reading the paper and drinking a vanilla latte.” For in the early 19th century, Simon Girty was one of the most vilified, feared, and hated men in America.

Simon Girty

Simon Girty

Born in 1741 in Lancaster, Pennsylvania, Girty personified the era of frontier violence. His father, an Irish drover and trader, was killed during a drunken frolic by an Indian named The Fish, who was in turn killed by a man named John Turner, who later married Simon’s mother. During the French and Indian War in 1756, the family was captured at Fort Granville by a band of Delaware, Shawnee and Seneca Indians.  They burned the stockade and marched the captives away to a nearby Indian village. Girty’s stepfather was tortured, scalped, and burned at the stake, while his wife and her five sons watched in horror. Simon was adopted by the Seneca Indians and readily learned their language, though he could neither read nor write English.

Released as part of a peace agreement in 1759, Girty found work as an interpreter and scout. He was involved in translating the famous speech of Logan, chief of the Mingoes, during the conflict known as Lord Dunmore’s War. At one point, Lord Dunmore asked Girty and his brother to dance in the Indian fashion, which they did, to the astonishment of an observer: “They interspersed the performance with Indian songs and yells that made the welkin ring.”

When the revolution broke out, Girty wavered in his loyalties. He joined the American army, but in the spring of 1778, he deserted Fort Pitt and struck out for Indian country, determined to help the British and Indians fight the Americans. Hired as an interpreter by the “Hair-Buyer” General Henry Hamilton at Detroit, Girty took up the hatchet and participated enthusiastically in marauding and raiding parties against settlers on the Kentucky frontier.

As the Revolution dragged on in the west, Girty returned to live with the Wyandot Indians. He participated in raids and supported the Wyandot chief, known as the Half-King, in his efforts to harass, persecute, and drive out Moravian missionaries in the area who were trying to Christianize the Indians. In May 1782, a force of about 500 mounted men under Colonel William Crawford marched against the Wyandots.  With the help of British agents, the Indians along the Sandusky River quickly mobilized and defeated the Americans on June 5, 1782. Colonel Crawford ended up a prisoner. When Crawford learned that Girty was at the Half-King’s town, he asked to be taken there, somehow hoping that Girty would persuade the Indians to spare his life.

Colonel William Crawford

Colonel William Crawford

Crawford’s fate was related later by the only surviving witness, Dr. John Knight, who did more than anyone to seal the reputation of Simon Girty in the American mind. According to Knight’s account, when he and Colonel Crawford reached the Half-King’s town on the Upper Sandusky, they were stripped naked and forced to sit on the ground, while a crowd of sixty or seventy Indians beat them with sticks and fists. Crawford was tied by his wrists to a post. The Indians took up their guns and shot powder into his naked body. The mob then cut off his ears. They built a fire six or seven yards from the post to which he was tied, and the men took turns picking up burning hickory poles and touching them to Crawford’s body, surrounding him. They also threw hot coals at him, so soon he had nothing to walk on but burning coals and ashes. In the midst of this torture, Crawford called to Girty and begged him to shoot him. Girty replied, laughing, that he had no gun.

Crawford lasted about two hours before he gave out and lay down on his stomach, at which point the Indians fell upon him and scalped him. They threw the scalp in Knight’s face. As Knight was dragged away from the dreadful scene to be taken to the Shawnees, Crawford was roasting alive in the slow fire. After he died, it was said the Indians heaped sticks upon his body and danced around his charred remains for hours. According to Knight, Girty made no effort at all to end Crawford’s suffering.

When the Revolution ended, Girty returned to Detroit, still in the pay of the British. He played a prominent role in agitating among the frontier Indians for the next ten years. Girty led a force of 300 warriors against the Ohio River settlement of Dunlap’s Station in January 1791. Girty’s party killed several soldiers outside the fort, captured another, and fiercely but unsuccessfully laid siege to the fort. The captured prisoner was tortured within earshot of the fort, so the soldiers within could hear his agonized screams as flaming brands were “applied to his naked bowels” and the Indians kindled a fire on his belly.

After Anthony Wayne defeated the Indians in the Battle of Fallen Timbers in August 1794, Girty tried to dissuade as many chiefs as possible from going to the treaty negotiations at Greenville, but most of the chiefs were tired of fighting and wanted to bury the hatchet. In November 1794, John Jay negotiated a treaty with Britain, which stipulated that the Western posts should be vacated by British soldiers.

Simon Girty Memorial

Simon Girty memorial stone, Detroit Riverfront, Malden, Ontario

When the Americans arrived to take possession of the fort at Detroit, they found that “the wells had been filled with stones, the windows broken, the gates locked, and the keys deposited with an aged Negro, in whose possession they were afterward found.” There were no British officers on hand to transfer possession of the fort, but Simon Girty was in the town, drunk and raving, declaring that he would not stir one inch unless driven out. However, at the sight of American troop boats coming up river, Girty became so alarmed that he plunged his horse into the stream without waiting for the ferry-boat, and, at the risk of drowning, made for the Canada shore.

The last known sighting of Girty in America—besides the March 1804 account of William Clark—occurred during the War of 1812, when Detroit was temporarily recaptured by the British. As the redcoats took possession of the town, Girty crossed the river, exclaiming, “Here’s old Simon Girty again on American soil!” He visited the town frequently over the next few  months.

After Commodore Perry’s victory over the British fleet in September 1813, Girty’s friends persuaded him to leave before American troops invaded Canada. Old, nearly blind, and crippled with rheumatism, Girty sought refuge with a band of Mohawks on the Grand River. He returned to his home in Canada in 1816, blind and depressed. In February 1818, he died in the presence of his wife and family, having asked forgiveness for his sins. He was buried on his farm, and British soldiers fired a salute over his grave.

Simon Girty memorial marker

The British see it differently than we do.

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