Kuron: Battles on the bluffWritten by Frank Kuron | | email@example.com
I’ve always enjoyed camping. A few days with loved ones in the solitude of the deep woods just soothes the soul. However, there is a phenomenon known as “summer camp” that contradicts all peaceful connotations attributed to camping. This weeklong adventure forces hormonally-challenged children to transform a calm chunk of woodland into a den of adrenalin-ridden, attitude-spewing creatures!
The men who camped together in Fort Meigs certainly weren’t there to hear the leaves rustle or the river ripple. They too had plenty of attitude and adrenalin, but it was funneled into achieving their purpose of protecting the frontier. Over the eight-month existence of the fort, they faced persistent battles with Mother Nature — and human nature.
It began with the bitter-cold month of February 1813 when a few hundred men began building this fortress on the high, exposed bluff overlooking the Maumee River. What trees stood to block the winter winds were soon chopped down and transformed into walls and blockhouses. Frequent deep snowfalls added to the discomfort of men who were lucky if they had a blanket or coat for warmth. Even tents were weeks late in arriving.
Initially, the spring thaw was welcomed, but weeks of soaking rains on heavily trodden ground created mud — in spots knee-deep — and fostered breeding grounds for disease. At one point half of the camp was suffering, some dying, from measles, mumps and fevers.
Late in April, General William Henry Harrison observed the British forces arrive and set up their artillery across the river — right there where the First Presbyterian Church now sits, and in what is now the Maumee neighborhood south of St. Joseph Church. Harrison ordered his men to dig long trenches with mounds of dirt lining their enemies’ side. The largest, called the Grand Traverse, was 12 feet high, 20 feet wide and 300 yards long. The enemy’s view of this action was blocked by the men’s tents, purposely pitched in front of the rising traverses. When the first enemy cannonballs flew, the tents were quickly dismantled, exposing the large dunes of dirt. Harmlessly they caught or deflected the incoming balls. Off-duty men could recuperate safely behind these mounds. It was a brilliant idea and so frustrated Tecumseh that he once exclaimed, “It is impossible to fight an enemy who lives like groundhogs!”
After the first siege in May, reasonable weather prevailed. A vegetable garden was planted and men foraged for plums, hazelnuts and dandelion leaves. To further supplement the standard issue of pork and flour, fishing was allowed, and it was abundant. One man thrust his spear into the water and pulled out three keepers! Random hunting provided the occasional venison, pigeon or squirrel dinner.
Late in July, the enemy returned and again failed, finally chased off by a horrendous thunderstorm.
Most men followed simple rules of hygiene which included shaving regularly and washing clothes every Saturday. Anyone caught using an area other than the extensive waste troughs to relieve themselves was severely punished by doing duty of tending to the pits.
As to be expected under such stressful conditions, tempers occasionally flared and crimes were committed. A court handled any offenses. Officers were cursed, food was stolen and some dipped into the whiskey barrels while guarding them. More seriously, one man boasted of his plans to blow up the ammunition depot before deserting to the enemy. He was ordered to suffer numerous discomforts including having one eyebrow and one side of his head shaved, a ball and chain locked onto his ankle for a month and finally being drummed out of camp.
Serious injuries, many of them amputations, were inadequately treated due to scarce medical supplies. Only whiskey could ease the pain and sterilize the procedures. Every time a man passed on, a solemn rifle-shot cracked the air. Belongings of the deceased were often auctioned off and the monies sent home to his family. Most bodies were placed in unmarked graves around the fort.
In spite of all the hardships, the survivors of Fort Meigs were a proud, patriotic bunch. Perhaps these “groundhogs” even sang, “I’m all right. Don’t nobody worry ‘bout me!” Well, at least they should have after outliving two major assaults which changed the course of the War of 1812 to our favor.
Frank Kuron is author of the War of 1812 book, “Thus Fell Tecumseh.” Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org
Bugle Call: Upcoming Events
- On May 3, 4 and 5, a celebration of the 200th anniversary of the first siege of Fort Meigs will be held at the fort. Visitors can experience period military camps, musket and cannon demonstrations, battle re-enactments, hands-on activities, lectures, fife and drum concerts and more. Visit fortmeigs.com for more details.