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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.