War of 1812: The Battle of Fort Stephenson, August 2, 1813

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Battle depicted in 1912 history book

General Henry Proctor and his British army, assisted by Chief Tecumseh’s warriors, made several attempts to capture Fort Meigs but failed each time. Frustrated by their lack of progress, on July 28, 1813, they moved southeast towards Fort Stephenson, or Fort Sandusky, located near the mouth of the Sandusky River.

Fort Stephenson was a small, fortified trading post that consisted of a few blockhouses connected by a 12-foot palisade. General William Henry Harrison had attempted to strengthen the defenses against infantry attack by having the soldiers dig a large ditch around the walls. Unfortunately, he could do nothing about the surrounding higher ground, where cannon could be placed to fire down into the fort.

General Harrison Orders a Withdrawal from Fort Stephenson

Major George Croghan, a 21-year-old officer who had distinguished himself during the siege of Fort Meigs, was in command of Fort Stephenson. A rising star in General Harrison’s army, he was a brash and fearless young officer. His small garrison consisted of 160 soldiers and an ancient 6-pounder affectionately named “Old Betsy”.

General William Henry Harrison was headquartered at Fort Seneca, nine miles south of Fort Stephenson. Fearing a repeat of the costly defeat at the Battle of Frenchtown, Harrison sent Major Croghan an order to burn Fort Stephenson and withdraw to Fort Seneca. The messenger got lost on the way, however, and did not arrive until it was too late for Major Croghan and his men to carry out the order.

General Proctor arrived by naval troop transport on July 31. With him were 500 British regulars, 800 of Chief Tecumseh’s tribal warriors, a light howitzer, and gunboats. The great Tecumseh himself was nearby with 2,000 more warriors blocking the American supply route from Fort Meigs.

General Proctor Demands the Fort Surrender

On August 1, General Proctor approached Fort Stephenson under a flag of truce to demand they surrender. A young ensign named Edmund Shipp met him on the plain outside the fort. Just as the British had done at Fort Detroit, Fort Michilimackinac, Frenchtown, and Fort Meigs, General Proctor warned Shipp that if they did not surrender, Tecumseh’s bloodthirsty forces would kill everyone in the fort. Similar massacres had already occurred at Fort Dearborn and near the Raisin River.

Speaking on behalf of Major Croghan, Ensign Shipp refused to surrender. He replied bravely, “When the fort shall be taken there will be none to massacre. It will not be given up while a man is able to resist.”

When Ensign Shipp returned to the fort, Major Croghan met him at the gate and said, “Come in Shipp, and we will blow them all to Hell.”

The Attack on Fort Stephenson

The British began a cannonade with their field howitzer and several 6-pounders on the naval gunboats. They concentrated their fire on the northwestern corner of the fort, hoping to breach the wooden walls. Major Croghan returned fire with Old Betsy, moving his single cannon after each shot in an attempt to fool the British into thinking he had more than one gun. The one-sided gun duel continued for the rest of the day and resumed the next morning.

Late in the afternoon of August 2, the British 41st Regiment attacked Fort Stephenson in two columns. Lieutenant Colonel Short advanced the main column to the ditch near the northwest corner of the fort while Croghan’s men poured musket fire into their ranks. The second column, which was a feint, also received heavy musket fire. Old Betsy was silent, and the British believed that it had been put out of action. Instead, the Americans had loaded the ancient cannon with musket balls and awaited the right opportunity.

When the British reached the ditch and climbed down to assault the walls, Major Croghan’s men opened a blockhouse loophole and fired Old Betsy down the length of the ditch. The fire was devastating. After enduring three shots at close range, the routed British troops retreated to a nearby wood.

Results of the Battle of Fort Stephenson

General Proctor withdrew his forces on August 3. In all, the British army lost 150 of 500 British regulars. The American casualties were one 14-year-old drummer boy killed and seven soldiers slightly wounded. A few months later, on October 3, 1813, the last War of 1812 battle in the western theater occurred when General William Henry Harrison’s army decisively defeated the combined forces of General Proctor and Chief Tecumseh at the Battle of the Thames.

Major Croghan was a national hero. President Madison gave him a brevet promotion to Lieutenant Colonel, and he was awarded a gold Congressional medal.