THIS WEEK in the War of 1812 (Sept. 2-Sept. 8) UPDATE
(Updates with more information about Fort Harrison and Fort Wayne and additional illustrations)
A violent week is beginning in what is known as the Old Northwest, the sparsely settled frontier territories that will become the states of Indiana and Illinois.
Pigeon Roost Massacre
Beginning on September 3, a war party of British-allied Native Americans – believed to be mostly Shawnee but also Delawares and Potawatomis – launch a surprise attack on the village of Pigeon Roost in southern Indiana just north of the Ohio River and Kentucky. At about the same time, attacks are launched on the Army outposts of Fort Harrison (near what is now Terre Haute, Indiana) and Fort Wayne (near the present day city of Fort Wayne, Indiana)
At Pigeon Roost, 24 settlers – including 15 children – are killed. Two more children are kidnapped. Indiana militia units pursue the attackers who manage to get away. About four Indians are killed.
Siege of Fort Madison
Meanwhile, Fort Madison in southeast Iowa – just across the Mississippi River from Illinois Territory — is attacked by Sauk (or Sac), Fox, Winnebago and Potawatomi Indians on Sept. 5. Built in 1808 to control the fur trade in an area on the edge of the Louisiana Purchase territory, the fort and its garrison are attacked off and on since 1809 by Indians resentful of U.S. interference with existing trade with the British in Canada.
The leader of the attacking Indians is Black Hawk, a Sauk warrior, who will lead another conflict with American settlers in Illinois – the Black Hawk War of 1832. Two future presidents – Abraham Lincoln and Zachary Taylor – serve in that later campaign against Black Hawk.
Hundreds of attackers set fire to several parts of the fort but they are held at bay by musket and canon-fire from the fort’s 50 defenders. The siege lasts until Sept. 8 when the Indians withdraw.
Siege of Fort Harrison
Fort Harrison on the Indiana-Illinois border comes under siege by a force numbering between 400 and 600 Potawatomi, Wea, Winnebago, Kickapoo and Shawnee Indians on the night of Sept. 4-5. Captain Zachary Taylor is in command of the small fort where more than half of the garrison of 50 is down with fever.
The Indians set fire to a corner of the fort. It spreads to an area where whiskey is stored, touching off an inferno (must’ve been some high octane liquor) that destroys a 20-foot wide section of the wooden palisade. During the initial attack, Taylor oversees the battle against the flames while leading the defense that repulses the fort’s attackers. The fire illuminates the attacking Indians, giving the 15 soldiers and five civilians manning the walls clear targets in the dark.
Sick soldiers who can walk are armed while the able-bodied construct a five-foot-high breastwork to plug the gap in the palisade by daybreak on Sept. 5. Most of the fort’s food and supplies are destroyed by the fire and the besieging warriors butcher the remaining area farm animals within sight of the fort.
While the embattled defenders make do with just a few bushels of corn, a relief column of over 1,000 regular Army troops and militia is dispatched from Vincennes more than 60 miles away.
Siege of Fort Wayne
The longest siege of the Western frontier forts begins on the morning of Sept. 5 when Miami and Potawatomi warriors attack two soldiers returning to Fort Wayne in northeast Indiana at the confluence of the Maumee, St. Marys and St. Joseph Rivers.
But war clouds have been on the horizon for more than a week after a survivor of the Fort Dearborn massacre makes his way to Fort Wayne on Aug. 26. A few days later, when a local trader is killed near the fort, the commander, Capt. James Rhea, orders the evacuation of women and children East to Ohio under the guidance of a Shawnee scout known as Captain Logan.
Soon a large number of Miamis and Potawatomis under chiefs Winamac and Five Medals start showing up around the fort. Unable to cope with the tension, Rhea starts drinking heavily and is under the influence when he meets with the two chiefs on Sept. 4. They tell him that other frontier posts have fallen and Fort Wayne is next.
The next day Native Americans assault the fort from the east side but the attack is repulsed. They then burn settlers’ cabins in a nearby village. The Indians construct two wooden cannons and are able to trick the garrison into thinking they had artillery besieging the fort as well.
Still drinking, Rhea retires to his quarters, pleading illness. That leaves a government Indian agent and two Army lieutenants to lead the defense of the fort, which has fallen into disrepair over the years since its founding in the 1790s. Fighting continues on and off for several days.
Meanwhile, Kentucky Gov. Charles Scott dispatches Major Gen. William Henry Harrison – the hero of Tippecanoe and another future U.S. president – to lead a column of over 2,000 militiamen to relieve Fort Wayne. As he heads north, Harrison receives word that Tecumseh, the Shawnee leader, is heading to join the attack on Fort Wayne with 500 Native American and British troops.
Harrison reaches the Maumee River on Sept. 8 where he is joined by 800 Ohio militia men. When Winamac hears about the relief column, the chief decides to launch one final push against the beleaguered fort.
To see a video re-enactment of the siege, click here.
Entry filed under: Counter Insurgency, National Security and Defense, THIS WEEK in the War of 1812, Traditions. Tags: Army, Fort Harrison, Fort Madison, Fort Wayne, War of 1812 Bicentennial, War of 1812 on the frontier, William Henry Harrison, Zachary Taylor.