George Croghan: Irish-American 'Boy Major,' Hero of War of 1812

Where dear Sandusky’s waters glide
From storied falls, through meadows wide,
By verdant hills on either side
To seek Lake Eiries’s famous tide:
On proud Fort Stephenson

 --- From the poem “Fort Stephenson,”
by Captain Andrew Kemper

Among the very large number of Irish and Irish-American military heroes of U.S. history whose exploits have become lost to most Americans in modern times, we now add the name of War of 1812 hero, George Croghan.

(Left: "Repulse of the British at Fort Stephenson" from the frontispiece of "Historical Collections of Ohio," by Henry Howe, 1848.)

It’s not surprising that George choose a military career. His father, William, who was born in Dublin in 1752, and was brought to the U.S by his uncle, Pennsylvania Indian Agent George Croghan, had also served. William was a major in the 8th Virginia Regiment during the American Revolution. He fought at the battles of Brandywine, Monmouth and Germantown, lived through the horror of Valley Forge while serving on the staff of Baron von Steuben and took part in the crossing of the Delaware and the victory at Trenton. He was captured at Charleston, SC and later paroled, and was present at the surrender at Yorktown. And on George’s mother’s side his famous uncles were Captain William Clark, of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, and Revolutionary War hero, General George Rogers Clark.

George was born at Locust Grove farm in Louisville, KY on November 15, 1791 and no doubt grew up there hearing the stories of soldiers in his family. Shortly after he graduated from William & Mary College in 1810 George gave up his law studies and enlisted in the army. He didn’t have to wait long to experience combat. In November 1811 he fought against the Indian forces of Tecumseh with William Henry Harrison’s army at the Battle of Tippecanoe. Though he served there as a private on Harrison's staff, he managed to so impress Harrison with his bravery that he was promoted to captain.

(Right: Lt. Col. George Croghan, painted in 1816, by John Wesley Jarvis.)

When the War of 1812 began the following summer, Croghan was in position to help defend what was then the American northwest in Ohio. In May 1813 Croghan was part of the US Army forces in Fort Meigs near present-day Perrysburg, Ohio when it was under siege from the British under General Henry Proctor and their Native American allies under Tecumseh. Once again George’s bravery in combat was on display, as he led a raiding party out of the fort against a British battery. He was rewarded with yet another promotion to major.

Croghan was just 21 years old, and yet in early July Harrison placed him in the command of a crucial position, Fort Stephenson on the Lower Sandusky near present day Fremont. The fort guarded Harrison’s headquarters and supplies at Fort Seneca and the water route from Pittsburgh to Detroit. Croghan had just 160 men and one artillery piece to defend the position. When the British under Proctor (left) began to advance on the fort, Harrison, believing Proctor's force to be larger than it was, ordered Croghan to destroy the fort and retreat.

Incredibly, the young major sent this message back to the hero of Tippacanoe:

Sir, I have just received yours of yesterday, 10 o’clock P.M., ordering me to destroy this place and make good my retreat, which was received too late to be carried into execution. We have determined to maintain this place and by heavens we can.

The future president was not amused by this sort of insolence, especially from a 21 year old, and had Croghan arrested and returned to Fort Seneca. Astonishingly, the young Irish-American officer was able to talk his way out of the trouble. His first claim was that his defiant wording was done because he thought the enemy might intercept the message. That may have been his ancestry calling up a bit of blarney, but after explaining the improvements he’d made to the defenses of the fort, including a dry moat, and exhibiting his youthful confidence that he could succeed, he convinced Harrison to restore to command and give his permission to attempt to hold the fort. It’s likely that Harrison thought his odds were still slim, however. And well he might have, with over 1000 British regulars and Native Americans bearing down on Croghan and his tiny force, which had one lone six-pound artillery piece, nicknamed “Ol’ Betsy” (some believe Davy Crockett later named his musket in honor of this famous gun).

Shortly before the battle, Croghan, realizing it might be his last chance to ever speak to him, wrote to his father:

"I will defend this post till the last extremity. I have just sent away the women the children and the sick of garrison, that I may be able to act without encumbrance. Be satisfied. I shall, I hope do my duty. The example set me by my Revolutionary kindred is before me. Let me die rather than prove unworthy of their name."

(Right: Lt. Colonel William Shortt of the British 41st Regiment of Foot.)

On August 1st General Proctor arrived and surrounded the tiny fort with approximately 500 British regulars and 700 Indians. He was sure the tiny garrison did not intend to fight, and sent a white flag forward demanding surrender. Croghan had no intention of surrendering, and there had already been several incidents in the region of the British being unable to stop their Indian allies from slaughtering a number of prisoners. Thus Crogan’s answer to Proctor mirrored his message to his friend. There would be no surrender. They would hold the fort, or they would die in the attempt. "When this fort is taken there will be none to massacre,” said the youthful major, in a reply that was at once both defiant and an indictment of the fate of previous American prisoners.

Very soon after this Proctor’s gun boats on the Sandusky and his field artillery opened fire at the fort, but with little effect. Croghan, meanwhile, occasionally returned fire with “Ol’ Betsy,” moving its position around to make the British believe he had several pieces. The British barrage had little effect on the fort, partly because Croghan noticed they concentrated on the northwest corner of the fort and reinforced those walls with bags of sand and sacks of flour. He also took the calculated gamble that the main assault would come there the following day. He positioned “Ol’ Betsy” in the corner blockhouse there, where it could cover the dry moat, and loaded it with grapeshot, musket balls, and various pieces of pottery and metal to cause maximum damage to infantry.

In the late afternoon of August 2nd the British barrage lifted and the assault began. While another British force feign an attack toward the western section of the fort, the main assault was made by the 41st Regiment of Foot (in which Confederate General Patrick Cleburne would later serve) under their commander, Lt. Colonel William Shortt.

(Left: A diagram of Fort Stephens and the attack. Click on it for a larger view.)

With the British cannon roaring, and the smoke from them obscuring the vision of the defenders, the attacking force was not seen until they were 15 or 20 feet from the walls. But it was coming on the northwest corner, exactly where Major Croghan had anticipated and put his strongest defense.

As the British reached the dry moat, Shortt led them into it yelling, "Come on my brave fellows, we will give the damned Yankee rascals no quarter.” But the “Yankee rascals” would have no need to ask for quarter. Croghan had held his fire until they were close, now he unleashed the muskets of his infantry, which included a number of Kentucky sharpshooters, and let loose down the moat with “Ol’ Betsy.’ The effects of this combination were devastating. The British forces were riddled. Shortt fell mortally wounded and dozens of others screamed in pain all around the survivors.

It was all over in about 30 minutes, with very few of the soldiers of the main assault who had gotten into the moat managing to retreat. There were about 25 dead and a similar number of seriously wounded lying there. Croghan later claimed the British had suffered not less than 150 in dead, wounded and taken prisoner. He also said that 70 “stand of arms” were captured, so the British casualties were certainly far heavier than the 1 killed and 7 wounded, and none of them seriously, suffered by the Americans. The lone American KIA was a 14 year old boy who had his arm torn off by a cannon ball. Though the British had threatened a possible Indian massacre that they would be "unable" to stop while demanding the Americans surrender, Major Croghan took pity on the suffering British wounded who were crying out at the base of the fort. He had buckets of water lowered down to them in hopes of relieving their suffering and even dug a trench to pull some of them into the fort.

The British forced were so shattered by this bloody repulse that any thought of renewing the assault was rejected. That night Proctor pulled out so hastily that one ship load of supplies was left behind. He eventually retreated all the way back to Fort Detroit. It was one of the most lopsided victories in US military history and one of the first land battles of consequence that the Americans had won, raising the morale of the country. Croghan was hailed as the “Hero of Fort Stephenson” and earned yet another battlefield promotion to Lt. Colonel. Congratulations and praise of the young warrior came from all over the land. Back in Louisville his famous uncle, George Rogers Clark declared, “The little game cock, he shall have my sword.” Croghan himself modestly wrote to his father, "I am not worthy of so high a command, but since my government have honored me . . . I stand pledged to use my utmost endeavors to become worthy of it."

On learning of the victory, the soon to be politician, Gen. Harrison, giving himself a bit of praise at the same time as he praised Croghan, said:

"It will not be among the least of Gen. Proctor’s mortifications to find that he has been baffled by a youth who has just passed his twenty-first year. He is, however, a hero worthy of his gallant uncle, Gen. George R. Clark. And I bless my good fortune in having first introduced this promising shoot of a distinguished family to the notice of the government.”

Croghan later commanded the failed attempt to recapture Mackinac Island from the British, and then was sent south. He was with yet another future president, General Andrew Jackson, at the Battle of New Orleans and they became friends. He would make New Orleans his home the rest of his life, leaving the army and becoming postmaster there for a time. In 1816 he married Serena Livingston of New York, niece of Revolutionary War General Richard Montgomery and daughter of the man who had administered the 1st oath of office to George Washington, and bought a plantation near New Orleans. In 1825 he rejoined the army and Jackson appointed him inspector general in 1829, a post he’d hold for 20 years, and he was promoted to full colonel. In 1835 the Congress issued a gold coin (above, right) commemorating Croghan’s victory at Fort Stephenson.

His post war life, however, was not a happy one. He and Serena had four children die in infancy. He was said to have drinking problems later in life, perhaps rooted in those tragedies. They had martial problems which may have been caused by those drinking problems and eventually they separated. When it was suggested to President Jackson that Croghan be brought up on charges for his drinking, it was said that he slammed his fist on his desk and declared, “George Croghan shall get drunk every day of his life if he wants to, and by the Eternal, the United States shall pay for the whiskey.”

(Left: Croghan, Fort Stephenson and "Ol' Betsy" from a 19th century bank ad.)

Croghan’s last service to his country would come in the War with Mexico, on the staff of General Zachary Taylor (Croghan's 3rd future president commanding officer). The Taylor and Croghan families had been acquainted in Louisville. Whatever personal flaws George may have had, when his country called, he did not hesitate to defend it. Now in his 50s, Croghan was no less heroic than he’d been at 21. At the Battle of Monterey, with past glories perhaps dancing through his head, he rode in front of a Tennessee regiment, and led them into the fight, waving his hat and telling them, “men of Tennessee, your fathers conquered with Jackson at New Orleans, follow me!” He suffered from dysentery while in Mexico, however, and returned to New Orleans in a weakened state.

On January 8, 1849 Croghan died in New Orleans during the same cholera epidemic that took the life of former president James K. Polk. He was buried in the family plot at Locust Grove in Louisville, but his story doesn’t quite end there. In 1851 the mayor of Fremont arranged for the famous six-pounder, “Ol’ Betsy” to be returned from a government armory and be placed at the site where the fort had once been. Then on August 2, 1885, which has been celebrated as “Croghan Day” in Fremont since 1839, a monument was dedicated at the site of Fort Stephens. And finally, on August 2, 1906, Croghan’s remains were brought from Louisville and interred at the monument’s base.

(Below: The monument at the former site of Fort Sephenson with "Ol' Betsy" to the right.)

Though in the larger scheme of things Croghan's victory at Fort Stephenson may now seem minor, in that one shining moment in 1813 he faced a challenge in overall command of an important position defending our country that very few 21 year old soldiers have ever faced before or since, and he was more than equal to the task. And so, fittingly, George Croghan rests today in the place he famously defended, with “Ol’ Betsy” forever standing guard over the body of her old commanding officer, who in this one spot remains forever young.

Where Crogan his laurel chaplet earned
and Freedom’s foes a lesson learned
A shaft memorial is deserned,
The soldier’s benison.

--- From the poem “Fort Stephenson,”
by Captain Andrew Kemper

Epilogue: The military tradition of the Croghan family would carry on to another generation. George's son, George St. John Croghan, fought in the Civil War as a colonel in the Confederate army. He was fatally wounded in December 1861 at McCoy's Mills, West Virginia, during Floyd's retreat from Cotton Hill. It was claimed by Union General Benham that before his death he admitted that he had fought on the wrong side, but one has to wonder about the validity of that claim, given the propaganda value of the son of a hero from an earlier war making such a dying declaration. He also invented a packsaddle for mules to help move wounded men over the mountain-passes of western Virginia.


War of 1812

PBS - War of 1812

War of 1812 in Ohio

Touring Ohio War of 1812 sites

Fort Meigs, Ohio

Sandusky County Scrapbook - Fort Stephenson

Battle of Fort Stephenson - Birchard Public Library

Views: 2191

Tags: Andrew Jackson, Diaspora History, Fort Stephenson, George Croghan,, Mexican War, Military History, United States, War of 1812, William Henry Harrison

Heritage Partner
Comment by That's Just How It Was on November 25, 2015 at 10:12am

A joy as always Joe , to read your articles 

Comment by michael dunne on November 29, 2015 at 10:53am

What tho myriads be against us

What tho myriads be the foe

Victory shall be more honoured

With the myriads overthrow

Comment by michael dunne on December 2, 2015 at 10:26am

Go raibh maith agat A Seosaimh agus Nollaig Shona Dhuit

Comment by Joe Gannon on December 2, 2015 at 10:41am

Tá fáilte romhat, Micheál agus a Nollag go maith duit.


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