“The defenders resolved, like the heroes of the Alamo in a similar emergency, to rely on their own stalwart arms and unerring aim, rather than on the word of a treacherous enemy, choosing to perish, if death must be their fate, in the noble effort to defend their flag, and not unresistingly under the scalping knife and tomahawk of the savage.”
The War of 1812 didn't produce a bumper crop of heroes on the American side, but young George Croghan was the real deal. His heroics continued throughout his life. During the Mexican War, when a Tennessee regiment shook under a tremendous fire, Croghan, rushed to the front, and taking off his hat, the wind tossing his grey hairs, chanelling Braveheart's Robert the Bruce shouted: "Men of Tennessee, your fathers conquered with Jackson at New Orleans—follow me!"
Taken from, Peterson, Charles Jacobs, "The military heroes of the war of 1812.” (Philadelphia: William A. Leary, 1848). Edited by Gary M. Bohannon.
The first gleam of success in the northwest theater of the War of 1812 was the heroic defense of Fort Sandusky, by Major George Croghan. This affair occurred on the second of August, 1813, and exhilarated the public mind in proportion to its former depression. A more gallant act it has never been the province of the historian to record.
Croghan was born at Locust Grove, Kentucky, on the 15th of November, 1791. In July, 1810, he graduated from the college of William and Mary, and immediately began the study of the law. In the autumn of 1811, however, the discovery of an Indian confederacy under Tecumseh became public, and a large portion of the more spirited of the young men of Kentucky, resolved to offer their services in this emergency to their country. Croghan was one of this number. He first entered as a private for the campaign up the Wabash, but soon attracting the notice of his superiors, was made Aid-de-camp to General Boyd, the second in command. This promotion was a short time preceding the battle of Tippecanoe. For his behavior in that stoutly contested field, he received the thanks of the commanding General, and was presented with the commission of a Captain in the provincial army, directed to be raised in the spring of 1812.
In August of that year, Croghan accompanied the detachment under General Winchester, which marched from Kentucky to the relief of General Hull. As is well known, the premature surrender of Hull rendered the advance of these reinforcements unnecessary, Croghan continued with Winchester, until, in the succeeding winter, that General moved upon the Rapids, when our hero was left in command of the fort just erected at the juncture of the Miami and Au Glaize rivers. He now joined General Benjamin Harrison at the Rapids, and both were besieged in Fort Meigs. On the occasion of a sortie of the 5th of May, Croghan commanded one of the companies under Colonel Miller, and, for his courageous deportment, was again noticed in general orders. In 1813, Croghan was advanced to the rank of Major. The command of Fort Stephenson was now entrusted to him, and the consequence was that brilliant exploit which will enshrine his name to the latest posterity.
A large body of Indian auxiliaries having assembled at Malden in the spring of 1813, British General Henry Proctor, to give them employment, resolved to attack Fort Meigs, and subsequently Fort Stephenson, at Lower Sandusky. His design, in assaulting these places, was two-fold. First, by making a demonstration against Fort Meigs, he hoped to induce the commander, Colonel Clay, to leave his entrenchments, and meet himself and Tecumseh in the open field. Second, by seriously alarming Harrison, then at Lower Sandusky, for the safety of his out-posts and stores on the Miami, to induce that General to hasten to their defense, by which means the British leader thought to capture of Forts Stephenson, Cleveland, and Presque Isle.
Accordingly, these being the plans of his campaign, Proctor, on the 22d of May, advanced against Fort Meigs. But speedily discovering that his designs against that post promised little success, he raised the siege six days after, and dismissing a portion of his force to Maiden, and sending another portion to watch Harrison, he hastened with the residue, twenty-two hundred, British and Indian, to assail Fort Stephenson.
Meanwhile, Croghan, the commander of that place, was in a most perilous condition. Harrison, having determined to retreat, had sent word to him to abandon the fort, and repair to camp; but the young officer taking the order as a discretionary one, resolved to hold the position. The fort, however, presented few inducements to encourage resistance. Injudiciously placed, and badly constructed, neither finished nor furnished—stripped of a part even of its usual armament, and garrisoned by only one hundred and fifty men, it was scarcely worthy the name of a military work, and would have been considered untenable by four out of five ordinary officers. But the Americans who occupied that little post, as well as their heroic commander, were made of no common stuff. Accordingly, when notice was given of the approach of the enemy, there was but one opinion in the fort as to the course to be pursued. "We will repel the foe," was the cry, "or perish in the attempt!"
Harrison instructed Croghan to abandon the fort on the approach of Proctor, provided a retreat should then be practicable. The disposition of the British force, however, rendered a retrograde movement difficult, if not impossible. Proctor's first object had been to surround the place with a cordon of Indians. This movement showed that he considered the retreat of the garrison so certain, as to render some precautions necessary to secure his ground. Having thus, as he thought, provided against the only contingency by which his enterprise could fail of complete success, Proctor dispatched an officer to summon the fort to surrender. The demand was seconded with a threat of indiscriminate slaughter in case of refusal. Croghan's answer was short and heroic: "Go back to your leader," he exclaimed, "and tell him that brave men do not surrender without blows. We will defend the fort to the last extremity." With these words, he turned on the messenger, and regaining his companions, prepared to make good his words by a desperate defense.
Yet, to have seen the scanty means at his disposal, would have made the heart of any man less brave, sink within him. The works were shamefully weak, and but a single cannon constituted the armament. These things, however, had all been known before, and duly considered by that little garrison. Moreover, he knew well the perfidy of Proctor. The very messenger the British General had sent to demand surrender had been a player in the massacre of American prisoners by after the Battle of Frenchtown. The defenders resolved, like the heroes of the Alamo in a similar emergency, to rely on their own stalwart arms and unerring aim, rather than on the word of a treacherous enemy, choosing to perish, if death must be their fate, in the noble effort to defend their flag, and not unresistingly under the scalping knife and tomahawk of the savage. A resolution worthy of freemen, and fortunately crowned with success!
Proctor, though fully expecting a surrender, had not, paused his preparations for a siege, and by the time his messenger returned with a defiance, had landed his artillery, and placed it so as to support his gun-boats. A fire was immediately opened on the fort, and soon the balls began to strike the works, knocking the splinters in every direction. The cannonade lasted throughout the afternoon and into the night. Croghan passed and re-passed among his troops, in order to convince himself that nothing was omitted. Now and then, perhaps, as he or his soldiers looked out on the plain below, and beheld the thick masses of the enemy, revealed every few minutes by the flashes of the cannon, their thoughts might revert to the terrible chances against them on the morrow, and, in fancy, memory would return to the homes they had left, and the lovely faces that made those homes so dear, never, perhaps, to be seen again. Occasionally, between the sound of the explosions, wild noises would come up from the flanks of the enemy, which the soldiers too well knew to be the shouts of the savages.
Morning came slowly and wearily to the besiegers, but with wings of lightning to the besieged. As the grey dawn melted into the rosy hues of sunrise, many a brave man within that fort looked up for the last time, as he thought, to heaven, but still with no unmanly fear; only with that sad feeling which the boldest will experience when he sees himself about to be immolated. Such a feeling perhaps, crossed the heart of Leonidas, when he fastened on his buckler, and waited for the Persian thousands. Croghan was in the front of his men, calm in that hour of extreme peril. But it soon became evident that the enemy did not intend an immediate assault, for he had established a new battery, consisting of six-pounders, within two hundred and fifty yards of the pickets. A respite was thus gained for the defenders. But it was a respite allowing no repose, and only a protraction of their suspense. The fire of this new battery soon began, and the air shook with concussions. The balls hurtled around the fort, or bounded from the ramparts. Thus the morning passed. Noon came, but the roar of the cannonade was undiminished, and even when the hot August sun began to decline in the west, the blaze of artillery still went on, and the suspense of the besieged continued.
At last the fire of the British was seen to be concentrated on the north-west corner of the fort, and now Croghan no longer doubted as to the point where the attack was to be made. He accordingly hastened in person to the threatened spot. Every man that could be spared from other quarters, was put in requisition, and all the bags of flour and sand that could be found, were hurriedly collected, and arranged to strengthen the angle. The solitary cannon, the only hope of the defenders, was charged with grape-shot, and placed so as to enfilade the assailants. Then each soldier took his post.
A profound silence succeeded within the fort. This lasted for perhaps, two minutes, at the end of which the enemy was seen advancing through the smoke, his troops formed in one compact column, and marching with the steady tread of assured victors. When Croghan gave the order to fire, such a rattling volley was poured in by the garrison, that the enemy reeled and fell into disorder. But, at this crisis, Lieutenant-colonel Short, who led the British in the assault, sprang to the head of his soldiers, and waving his sword, called to them to follow, bidding them with oaths, to remember that no quarter was to be given. A savage shout answered this address, and the ranks recovering their order, the head of the column rushed forward, and leaped down into the ditch, which was soon densely crowded.
This was the moment for which Croghan had waited. Another minute, perhaps, would have given the fort to the foe; but that minute many of his best men were destined never to see. The single cannon of the garrison, placed so as to rake the assailants, now bore full on the masses of soldiery in the ditch, and the mask being suddenly removed, the whole fearful contents of the piece swept the solid ranks before it. There was a gush of flame, a stunning explosion, and the hissing sound of grape—then, as the white smoke floated back on the besiegers, the prospect was, for an instant, hidden. But when the veil of battle blew aside, a scene of horror was exhibited, such as those who witnessed it have described as one of the most awful on record. At first a lane, perceptible to every eye, and extending right through the densest portion of the assaulting mass, marked the path traversed by the shot, but as the distance from the gun increased, and the grape scattered, this clearly defined line disappeared, and a prospect of the wildest confusion ensued.
One third of those who had entered the ditch, lay there a shapeless, quivering mass. In many instances, the dead had fallen on the wounded, and as the latter struggled to extricate themselves, the scene resembled that depicted in old paintings of the Final Judgment, where fiends and men wrestle in horrible contortions. Groans, shrieks, and curses more terrible than all, rose from that Golgotha! The few who retained life and strength, after the first second of amazement, rushed from the post of peril, leaped wildly upon the bank, and communicating their terror to the rest of the column, the whole took to flight, and buried itself in the neighboring woods. As this occurred, such a shout went up to heaven from the conquerors as never had been heard on that wild shore before. And well might the Americans exult—for it was against ten times their own number they had achieved a victory.
In recompense for this gallant exploit, Croghan was elevated to the rank of Lieutenant-Colonel. His name was eulogized in Congress, and hailed with applause throughout the country as that of one, who united in himself the prudence of the veteran, and the courage of the hero.