Archive for the ‘War of 1812’ Category

The Burning of Washington, 1814

The Burning of Washington, 1814

Today marks the 197th anniversary of the Battle of Bladensburg. The day began with President James Madison confident that the U.S. capital was safe from the threat of British attack. It ended with the public buildings of Washington a smoking ruin. It is one of the ironies of history that the battle that is sometimes called “the greatest disgrace ever dealt to American arms” led to the genesis of the modern U.S. Army.

From the colonial period forward, Americans had had a deep mistrust of standing armies. Colonials who fought alongside British troops in the French and Indian War had a low opinion of British troops, finding that the redcoats were generally coarse, profane drunkards from the lower ranks of British society. Further aggravating colonists’ hostility towards the British Army was the massive debt incurred during the conflict, which led the British Parliament to tax the colonies more heavily. The Quartering Act, which required colonists to provide housing and provisions for troops in their own homes, was another thorn in the colonists’ side. For many, the British Army began to seem like merely an expensive way to enforce King George’s tyranny.

The Boston Massacre, March 1770

The Boston Massacre, March 1770

With the Boston Massacre in March 1770, Americans’ dislike of British soldiers turned into a rebellious rage. The death of five civilians at the hands of British troops crystallized American attitudes about standing armies for generations. The final draft of the Declaration of Independence railed against King George’s abuse of the army’s power. Citing his insistence that the British army was independent of American civilian authority, his quartering the troops among the people, and his use of mercenary soldiers, the Declaration accused King George of using the army to “compleat the works of death, desolation, and tyranny.”

After independence, James Madison was one of the founding fathers who most strongly opposed creating a standing army on the American continent. Despite Madison’s support for a strong central government, he felt that a regular professional army could not be “a safe companion to liberty.” Madison told the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, “The means of defense against foreign danger have been always the instruments of tyranny at home. Among the Romans it was a standing maxim to excite a war whenever a revolt was apprehended. Throughout all Europe, the armies kept up under the pretext of defending have enslaved the people.”

Most Americans shared Madison’s view. By the early 19th century, hatred of a standing army had become a powerful and near-universal attitude among the American people. The Continental Army was quickly disbanded after the Revolution, and irregular state militias were generally relied upon for local defense, with the exception of regular troops posted on the western frontier and at the arsenal at West Point. The Legion of the United States, created in 1792 to counteract the British/Indian threat on the western frontier, was disbanded after its victory at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, the signing of the Treaty of Greenville, and the surrender of British forts in 1796.

James Madison

James Madison

During the Jefferson years, the regular U.S. Army was kept small, weak, and deeply politicized. Jefferson tolerated the dubious loyalties of commanding General James Wilkinson in exchange for his commitment to keep the army firmly under civilian control. The officer corps was full of incompetent dinosaurs from the Revolution, appointed mostly for political purposes, and the army relied heavily on the participation of citizen-soldiers – the mainstay of the Revolution – which all too often were poorly trained and ill-equipped for battle. It was this army that Madison inherited, and saw in action at Bladensburg, in August 1814.

The British Army, newly energized by the defeat and exile of Napoleon in the spring of 1814, had turned its attentions to the American theater. A brigade of British troops under Major General Robert Ross, consisting entirely of veterans from the army of the Duke of Wellington,  arrived in the Chesapeake Bay to “effect a diversion on the coasts of the United States of America in favor of the army employed in the defence of Upper and Lower Canada.”

U.S. Secretary of War John Armstrong was not concerned about an attack on Washington, believing the British were more likely to attack the more strategic city of Baltimore. Commanding the troops defending Washington was Brigadier General William H. Winder, a lawyer by trade and a veteran of the Battle of Stoney Creek. Although Winder theoretically had 15,000 militia at his disposal, his “boots on the ground” troop strength was actually about 120 Dragoons, 300 Regular troops, and 1500 poorly trained militia.

General William H. Winder

General William H. Winder

After a brief clash with Ross’s leading troops on August 22, Winder fell back and began to set up a line of defense at Bladensburg. Bladensburg commanded the roads to Baltimore, Annapolis, and one the two roads available for an advance on Washington. Unfortunately, Winder had placed Brigadier General Tobias Stansbury in command at Bladensburg. When Stansbury received a message from Winder that he had withdrawn across the Eastern Branch of the Potomac and intended to fire the lower bridge, Stansbury panicked, abandoned his strong position, and threw away the American tactical advantage.

The action the next day was a disaster for the Americans. The defending U.S. troops were poorly placed and their fire was largely ineffectual. When it became clear the British were about to overwhelm their position, the poorly-trained militia broke and ran, fleeing through the streets of Washington. A group of 400 navy men and marines desperately tried to hold the field, but were heavily outnumbered, badly cut up, and forced to retire.

The road to Washington was wide open, and the British marched in. That night, they burned the Capitol, the White House, and most of Washington’s other public buildings to the ground. Madison, who along with the rest of the cabinet had been present at the battle, was forced to flee for his life and liberty. The cabinet’s hasty flight was later satirized in an 1816 poem, “The Bladensburg Races:”

So like an arrow swift he flew,

Shot from an archer’s bow;

So did he fly—so after him

As swift did fly MONROE.

Six gentlemen upon the road

Beheld our GENERAL ride—

MONROE behind—the chapeau gone;

The broadsword by his side.

As for Madison, what he had seen on the battlefield caused him to reexamine his long-held prejudice against a standing army. Just before the White House went up in flames, he exclaimed, “I could never have believed that so great a difference existed between regular troops and a militia force, if I had not witnessed the scenes of this day.” Madison’s eyewitness view of the debacle at Bladensburg, along with the superb performance of well-trained American troops under General Winfield Scott at the Battle of Lundy’s Lane earlier in the summer, convinced him that a well-trained, well-equipped standing army was not a danger to liberty, but a vital part of national defense.

The Battle of Lundy's Lane, July 1814

The Battle of Lundy's Lane, July 1814

This sea-change in Madison’s attitude led to a wholesale reorganization of the U.S. Army. Within the next year, four-fifths of the Old Army’s officer corps was dismissed, with the new criteria for an officer’s appointment being competence to serve rather than political affiliation. Under new Secretary of War William Crawford, funding was provided for a military general staff, an expanded military academy at West Point, and improved conditions and uniform drill for new recruits. Much of their training was to be implemented by Winfield Scott, the hero of Lundy’s Lane. Out of disgrace and defeat at Bladensburg, the modern U.S. army was born.


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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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Thomas Jefferson

Thomas Jefferson by Rembrandt Peale

Today we think of Thomas Jefferson as the man who wrote the Declaration of Independence, faced down the Barbary pirates, purchased the Louisiana territory, and sent Lewis and Clark to explore it. But if you had told the average American at the close of his presidency that Jefferson would one day be carved in stone on Mount Rushmore, you would’ve been greeted with howls of derision. By the time he left office, Jefferson was about as popular as a rattlesnake. The reason: he had almost singlehandedly crippled the American economy, while depriving Americans of their civil liberties in a far worse way than John Adams ever dreamed of.

The downfall of Jefferson’s second term began in the spring of 1807, when the British warship Leopard fired on the U.S.S. Chesapeake, killing three Americans, wounding 18, and impressing four sailors alleged to have deserted from the British navy. Outraged, Jefferson promptly ordered all British warships out of American waters, but he knew as well as anyone that the nascent United States could ill afford another war with Great Britain. When England announced its intention to search American ships for deserters even more aggressively, Jefferson decided to act. He rammed through Congress a policy he called “peaceable coercion:” a series of five Embargo Acts, effectively banning American trade with all European powers.

The HMS Leopard, 1807

The HMS Leopard, 1807

Jefferson saw the embargo as a kind of social experiment. He believed that embargo would put the squeeze on both Britain and France by denying them American produce, raw materials, and the American market for their manufactured goods. He also believed that without imported luxuries, the American economy would, of necessity, become more self-sufficient. What he didn’t envision was the catastrophic cost.

Tobacco planters in Jefferson’s native Virginia were among the first to feel the pinch. With sales to European markets outlawed, tobacco glutted the domestic market and rotted in the warehouses. Tobacco prices collapsed, along with the planters’ credit. It was the same story with cotton in the southern states. New England also felt the pain. With imports turned away, ports closed, merchants closed their shops, and tens of thousands of fishermen, sailors, and dockworkers lost their jobs.

Defiance of the embargo acts quickly became widespread. The wealthy defiantly bought imported fineries on the black market, while ships sailing between American ports mysteriously found themselves “blown off course” to Canada, or even all the way across the Atlantic. Several government agents charged with stopping irate American citizens from smuggling goods into Canada resigned in fear of their lives. Even in the highly Democratic-Republican Congress, calls for a repeal of the Embargo Acts rose to a furor.

Smugglers defying the "O Grab Me"In March 1808, with rabid opposition to the embargo swelling all over the country, Jefferson was stricken with an incapacitating stress headache that left him feeble, disabled, and insensible for several weeks. By April, however, he had recovered both his strength and a new resolve. In the words of Alan Pell Crawford, author of Twilight at Monticello, “Jefferson began to enforce the embargo with a zeal that struck even his longtime allies as excessive.” Crawford explains, “What began as a ban on trade with Great Britain and France had escalated into a prohibition against all shipping along the Atlantic coast, including routine commerce between American ports. The movement of vessels on lakes, rivers, and bays without approval was also prohibited … Gunboats could stop at will any boat or ship suspected of unlawful commerce; such vessels would then be held until the president personally authorized their release.”

Twilight at Monticello by Alan Pell Crawford

Twilight at Monticello by Alan Pell Crawford

Jefferson ordered military authorities to treat smuggling on Lake Champlain as an insurrection. He ordered the Navy into service to blockade American ports and seize suspicious outbound cargoes, and urged that anyone who defied the embargo—or even disagreed with it—be prosecuted for treason, punishable by imprisonment or death. As the economic downturn turned into a depression and protests raged up and down the Atlantic coast, Jefferson expressed disappointment in the uncooperativeness of American citizens. He wrote that he hoped “the most guilty may be marked as examples, and the less so suffer long imprisonment.”

If the embargo was disastrous to the American economy, it was barely felt in England and France. Historian Forrest McDonald likened the embargo to “a flea trying to break up a dogfight by threatening suicide.” Along with the economic consequences, the biggest casualty was Jefferson’s popularity. Despite the election of James Madison as his successor in November 1808, the Democratic-Republicans took a shellacking in the congressional elections. The Federalist party captured 70% of congressional seats in northern states, as well as control of all of the state legislatures in New England.

1807 Embargo cartoon

The hated embargo is finally slain, 1809

In January 1809, the new Congress passed a bill quietly lifting the embargo. The sponsor was the congressman from Jefferson’s own district in Albemarle County, Virginia. A few weeks later, Mr. Jefferson’s presidency—along with his “social experiment” and the greatest disaster of his public career—was over. But impressment of American sailors by British warships went on—and erupted into war three years later.

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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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William Henry Harrison at age 27, by Charles St. Memin

Sorry it’s been longer than usual since my last post! It’s been a busy month. Whew!

When last we checked in with William Henry Harrison, the witty, dramatic young officer was poised to go far in the early Army. But just as suddenly, Harrison’s fate changed. His mentor, General Mad Anthony Wayne, died suddenly under what some believe to be suspicious circumstances. In any case, without Wayne, Harrison found himself stuck in in an unfulfilling command in Cincinnati, with his main challenges trying to feed and equip his men in a rapidly downsizing peacetime army. With little possibility of promotion, Harrison decided it was time to seek greener pastures and resign his commission.

He also needed to make some money, for he was now a married man. While still serving in the Army, Harrison had met Nancy Symmes, by all accounts a delightful and sweet young woman who was noted as a fearless rider who liked to gallop through the still-virgin forests around her home near Cincinnati. Nancy was the daughter of Judge John Cleves Symmes, one of the most successful land speculators in the Ohio country.

Harrison, the scion of Berkeley and the son of a signer of the Declaration of Independence, must have been flabbergasted when Judge Symmes turned him down flat as a suitor for Nancy’s hand in marriage. But from Symmes’ point of view, Harrison was nothing but a penniless junior officer. After all, as a younger son, William Henry wasn’t inheriting any of that fancy real estate back in Virginia. When Harrison pledged his “sword and his strong right arm” to the marriage, Symmes showed him the door with the words: “You cannot plead, bleed, or preach!”

Nancy Symmes Harrison as an older woman

But while Daddy may have been holding out for a lawyer, doctor, or minister, Nancy wasn’t. The couple simply waited for Judge Symmes to leave town and then eloped with the help of a sympathetic local justice of the peace.

Though still young by any measure, Harrison had already laid the groundwork for what would be a spectacular rise to power. From Anthony Wayne, he had learned how to to organize a military campaign, and how to use threats, bribes, spies, and presents to negotiate Indian treaties. And he had met many of the men, both white and Indian, who would play crucial roles in his future career.

For the rest of his life, Harrison would shift gears between the military and politics, but one goal remained constant. Quite simply, Harrison took care of Harrison. But his ambition extended far beyond mere financial wealth. He aspired to the property and social standing he had left behind in Virginia, but his personal code would not allow him to sully his hands by grubbing in a trade. He embraced the fiction that he was a cultivated gentleman farmer, but in reality he would spend his entire life as a public servant.

He had no doubt whatsoever his own ability and right to lead — nor of his right to blend his personal interests with his taxpayer-supported jobs. In this attitude, Harrison’s thinking was in accordance with our buddies Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, who also used, or attempted to use, their public offices to do themselves a little good. Indeed, none other than George Washington, the ultimate Virginia gentleman, was notorious for doing well at the public expense. As early as his 20s, Harrison had already begun to live beyond his means, and the rest of his life would be a scramble to keep up with his own expensive tastes.

Mr. Jefferson's Hammer, by Robert A. Owens (2007)

Harrison was not out of a job for long. He was appointed secretary of the Northwest Territory by President Adams, a post similar to that of lieutenant governor, and in 1799, he was elected the first congressman from the territory. The following year, Adams appointed Harrison governor 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 still only 27 years old. By that time, he and Nancy had three children; eventually they would have ten.

Harrison’s role as governor of the territory has been reassessed recently in a new biography by Robert A. Owens, Mr. Jefferson’s Hammer. As the intriguing title suggests, Harrison quickly shifted gears after Thomas Jefferson became president in 1801. With Jefferson’s wholehearted endorsement, Harrison embarked on an aggressive and ruthlessly pragmatic Indian policy that would put the Indiana Territory in the vanguard for the century to come. In short, Harrison would break the cycle of tribal warfare, push the Indians into dependence on American handouts, and continually pare away their lands.

Even Harrison’s detractors couldn’t argue with the results he achieved when he brought the Indians to the bargaining table. The 1809 Fort Wayne Treaty with the Potawatomis, Delawares, and Miamis provides a case in point. Harrison coerced tribal chiefs into attending the meeting by threatening to withhold their annual annuities, upon which the tribes had become dependent. Once the conference began, Harrison masterfully used “divide and conquer” tactics of both bribery and exploitation of jealousies and resentments among the Indians to strip the Indians of almost 2.9 million acres of land in this single treaty.

In August 1810, a confrontation between William Henry Harrison and Tecumseh came dangerously close to violence.

As Harrison himself put it, some men may have performed greater service to their country, but none could match his “zeal and fidelity.” By any measure, Harrison was extraordinarily successful in fulfilling the objectives of the presidents he served, acquiring an astonishing 50 million acres of western land at a cost of under two cents per acre. For comparison’s sake, tthe Louisiana Purchase explored by Lewis and Clark was ten times larger, but came at a cost of four cents an acre. It could also be argued that Harrison’s territory proved the more valuable of the two to the eventual rise of the United States as a world power.

Panther in the Sky, by James Alexander Thom (1991)

But Harrison’s success came so rapidly, and at such a cost to the Indians, that it served to drive them back into the arms of the British and led to the rise of the brilliant Tecumseh and his brother, the Shawnee Prophet, events brilliantly chronicled by James Alexander Thom in his historical novel, Panther in the Sky. Harrison could not help but admire the ability of Tecumseh and his potential to unite his people, calling him an “uncommon genius.” For that reason, when Harrison got word that Tecumseh had traveled south in an attempt to recruit more tribes into his Indian confederacy, he decided to round up the militia and a flock of volunteers to smash Tecumseh’s home base at Prophet’s Town (near present-day Lafayette, Indiana).

On October 28, 1811, Harrison, dressed for frontier command in a fringed calico shirt and a beaver hat complete with flamboyant ostrich feather, moved out at the head of 1000 men from a fort near present-day Terre Haute. About a week’s march brough the troops deep into the heart of Indian Territory, to a hill near Prophetstown. It was situated at the confluence of the Wabash River and a smaller tributary, the Tippecanoe.

The Battle of Tippecanoe, by Alonzo Chappel

It was the Indians who struck first. Sometime in the early morning hours of November 7, Harrison’s sentries began to fire at something moving in the gloom. Within a couple of minutes, the entire camp was aroused and involved in a hand-to-hand melee. The Indians were remarkably disciplined for once, and almost total darkness, the combat was fierce and terrifying. Finally at daybreak, Harrison was able to rally his mounted troops into a savage charge that broke the Indian line. Anxious to avoid needless loss of life, the Indians fled into the marshes, and the Americans turned to counting their dead.

Quite simply, the battle of Tippecanoe was a fiasco. American losses totaled 62 dead and 125 wounded. 36 Indian corpses were counted (and scalped). After burning Prophet’s Town, Harrison and his men retreated to the territorial capital in Vincennes, Indiana, where Harrison immediately found himself under outraged questioning from the families of the dead. Worse yet, Indian raiding on the frontier skyrocketed to its worst level in two decades; several families of pioneers were massacred, and farms and cabins burned in revenge for the sack of Prophet’s Town. Tecumseh and his brother were stronger than ever.

However, Tippecanoe served its purpose, for Harrison and for other western politicians who believed war was inevitable. Now it really was. Of such unlikely victories are presidents made.

Next time: A long road to the White House

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When we first started researching early American exploration, we learned that Zebulon Pike, of Pike’s Peak fame, was a contemporary of Lewis & Clark. Pike conducted his expedition to the Southwest at about the same time as Lewis & Clark were blazing the trail to the Pacific. He has a small “cameo” appearance in our forthcoming book, The Fairest Portion of the Globe. Although his career intersected with Lewis & Clark, Pike was anything but an equal. To tell the truth, he was a bit of a putz.

Zebulon Pike

Zebulon Pike

The National Park Service has an excellent website that compares and contrasts Pike’s expedition with that of Lewis & Clark. The essential point is that Meriwether Lewis and William Clark were highly trained military officers who possessed expertise in diplomacy, field science, navigation, and cartography, not to mention leadership. To assist them, they were allowed to recruit a corps of the best soldiers the frontier army had to offer. They were sent west under a presidential commission to understand the Louisiana Territory, find a practical route across the continent, and establish relations with the Indians along the way. At this they succeeded to a remarkable degree.

By contrast, Captain Pike was sent out west with virtually none of the education or abilities that Lewis & Clark had. Though considered a crack shot and an efficient officer (if a bit of a martinet), he was an ordinary, mediocre man who seemed destined to live and die without making much of a mark. That is, until he became the protégé of none other than James Wilkinson. And thereby hangs a tale.

James Wilkinson

James Wilkinson, traitor extraordinaire

It never ceases to amaze me how far Wilkinson’s reach extended and how many people became his pawns. Certainly his machinations in our book The Fairest Portion of the Globe and his attempted “seduction” of Lewis in To the Ends of the Earth are entirely realistic. At any rate, Pike became a lackey for Wilkinson, then the commanding general of the United States Army and the first Governor of the Upper Louisiana Territory (Meriwether Lewis was the second). Wilkinson also happened to be a traitor, and one of the worst scoundrels in American history.

In 1805, Wilkinson dispatched Pike to explore the upper Mississippi River. Pike was to find the headwaters of the Mississippi, stop the illicit fur trade, persuade the Indians to come meet with Wilkinson, and produce useful maps. At all this Pike failed utterly. He and his hastily assembled ragtag crew set off with no medical training, no interpreter, and no scientific instruments. The expedition was a disaster, with the men saved from freezing to death only by the kindness of British traders, still our enemies at this time.

Nonetheless, Wilkinson sent Pike on an even more difficult mission the following year. Supposedly, Pike was to head west to explore the Arkansas and Red Rivers to their sources. But the exploration was only a cover story. Pike’s real job would be to spy on the Spanish, determine their strength and the location of their forts, and report on how hard it might be to invade the southwest.

The story takes an astonishing turn when you learn that, at the same time, Wilkinson (who was a double agent) tipped off the Spanish that Pike was going to be traveling illegally into their territory! Though it is known that Wilkinson had earlier betrayed the route of Lewis & Clark to the Spanish (who failed to catch up with them), this time he betrayed his own man! Some historians believe that Wilkinson’s plan from the beginning was to have Pike captured so he could get an inside look into Spanish territory.

It is difficult to say whether Pike knew what was going to happen. At times he certainly behaved like a man who wanted to be found, rather than a man protecting the interests of his supposed mission and the welfare of his men. He and his men bumbled their way west with no warm clothing, no scientific instruments, and insufficient horses. They made it to Colorado, starving and desperately cold, where they found the mountains that include Pike’s Peak. Pike never successfully reached the summit of the famous peak that bears his name; his rations ran low and he turned back after two days of slogging through waist-deep snow.

Pike's Peak in Colorado

Pike's Peak in Colorado

In February, 1807, Pike’s party was arrested by Spanish authorities and escorted to Santa Fe. Here Pike was able to take notes on the Spanish forts and settlements, the real purpose of his expedition all along. The Spanish escorted Pike across Texas and expelled him back across the border into Louisiana. The incident led Spain to break off diplomatic relations with the United States. Eight of Pike’s men were held by the Spanish for two years before finally being released.

After this adventure, Pike returned to more routine duty in the Army. A better officer than he was an explorer, he won a series of promotions and wrote a book about his adventures, which, though poorly written and inaccurate, provided Americans with the first accounts of the Spanish southwest.

Pike's death

The death of General Pike at the battle of York, April 1813

Pike was promoted to brigadier general during the War of 1812. He died at the Battle of York (now Toronto) in April 1813, ironically after leading his men in a successful attack. As the town’s surrender negotiations were going on, the retreating British garrison blew up its ammunition without warning, and Pike was killed by flying rocks and other debris. His body was brought by ship back to Sackets Harbor, where his remains are buried.

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