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.
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.
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
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