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 …
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.
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.”
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