War of 1812: The Siege of Fort Meigs, May 1, 1813

0
1214

After Major General William Henry Harrison built Fort Meigs in Ohio, the British surrounded the fort but could not defeat its strong defenses.

During the disastrous Battle of Frenchtown and the ensuing River Raisin Massacre, General James Winchester had lost a substantial portion of the Army of the Northwest. British forces and their tribal allies had killed or captured almost 1,000 American troops. As a result, Major General William Henry Harrison temporarily abandoned his plan to recapture Fort Detroit. He withdrew the remainder of his army to a strong defensive position south of the Maumee River (now Perrysburg, Ohio) and built a fort.

The Construction of Fort Meigs

Construction began on February 2, 1813. Eventually, the massive structure included eight blockhouses and four elevated gun platforms connected by tall palisades. Soldiers dug trenches to use as bomb shelters and piled the dirt outside the palisades to protect against cannon fire. They cleared trees from the area around the fort and then constructed abatis (felled trees with sharpened branches) to slow infantry attacks.

They also began two fresh water wells inside the fort in anticipation of siege. Towards April, the formidable defensive works that Harrison named Fort Meigs after the governor of Ohio was garrisoned by 1,200 – 1,300 troops armed with five 18-pounder cannon, six 12-pounders, six 6-pounders, and three howitzers.

The British Begin the Siege of Fort Meigs

On April 7, 1813, General Henry Proctor began gathering an army of British regulars, Canadian militia, and Tecumseh’s warriors near Detroit for the purpose of capturing Fort Meigs. He planned to surround the fort with tribal forces and then pound the Americans into submission with gun batteries firing from the north side of the Maumee River.

The British forces, approximately 800 militia, 500 regulars, and 1,500 warriors led personally by Chief Tecumseh, arrived opposite Fort Meigs on April 28. The British immediately began building gun batteries on the north shore while Tecumseh’s men surrounded the fort. Warriors climbed the trees closest to the fort, on the east side, and began harassing the garrison with long-range musket fire.

General Harrison Strengthens the Fort Meigs Defenses

General Harrison observed where the British were building their gun batteries and put his men to work countering the threat. They built additional entrenchments that gave more protection from the new batteries. All of the soldiers’ tents were on the north side of the fort, closest to the British and vulnerable to cannon fire. These would have to be moved to the south side, but first his engineers designed and built the Grand Traverse, a huge barrier of dirt that bisected Fort Miegs from east to west. When finished, the Grand Traverse was 12 feet high, 20 feet wide, and 300 yards long.

Nearing 11 o’clock on the morning of May 1, as the completed British batteries prepared to open fire on the vulnerable tents, the garrison moved their entire camp, including 200 horses and other livestock, to the south side of the fort, behind the Grand Traverse. With the tents suddenly gone, the disappointed British gunners saw for the first time their enemy’s stratagem.

The British Artillery Bombardment

At 11 o’clock the British guns opened fire; however, most of the cannonballs struck the earthen mounds and bounced harmlessly over the fort or embedded themselves into the mud.

Frustrated with their inability to do any significant damage to Fort Meigs, the British hauled three or four cannon across the river during the night of May 2-3. They hoped to enfilade the traverse by firing from a ridge to the east of the fort. The plan worked briefly, but then the American soldiers hastily built two additional earthen barriers perpendicular to the Grand Traverse that blocked shots fired from the east.

At this time, General Proctor attempted to frighten General Harrison into surrendering, just as the British had successfully persuaded General Hull into surrendering Fort Detroit and General Winchester to give up at Frenchtown. He warned that Tecumseh’s warriors would massacre the garrison if they did not capitulate. Although surrounded, General Harrison had faith in his strong fort and his men. He refused to surrender.

On May 4, the British bombardment diminished because they realized the futility of continuing to fire at the impregnable barriers.

The American Counterattack

During the night of May 4 – May 5, General Harrison learned that General Green Clay was eight miles away with 1,200 Kentucky militia. He ordered them to attack the British gun emplacements across the river, spike the guns so they could not be fired, and destroy the powder magazine. When these goals were accomplished, they were to withdraw immediately to Fort Meigs before the British or Tecumseh’s warriors could regroup.

A detachment of 800 soldiers led by Colonel William Dudley attacked on May 5. The operation was initially a success. They easily chased away the gunners and began spiking the cannon; however, some of the Kentucky militia, elated with their easy victory, pursued the enemy into the woods, where they ran into Tecumseh’s warriors. Distracted by the combat to their front, the militia were unexpectedly attacked by a column of British regulars to their rear. Colonel Dudley used his remaining men in an attempt to rescue the units. The action became a debacle.

Of the 800 Kentucky militia who attacked the British gunners, 60-70 were killed, approximately 600 were captured, and only 80-100 soldiers escaped to the safety of Fort Meigs. The Kentucky militia had spiked a few cannons, but the powder magazine was not destroyed. Later, just as he did at the River Raisin, General Proctor did not prevent Tecumseh’s warriors from shooting, tomahawking, scalping, and mutilating about 40 of the defenseless prisoners.

The Siege of Fort Meigs Ends

General Clay’s remaining militia, with the help of infantry from Fort Meigs, fought through the surrounding warriors and relieved the fort. At the same time, the gun battery on the ridge west of the fort was attacked and dismantled by a detachment of troops from Fort Meigs.

On May 9, General Proctor abandoned the siege of Fort Miegs and returned to Canada. After a few more vain attempts to capture Fort Meigs, his British and Canadian army advanced on lightly-defended Fort Stephenson.