News From Terre Haute, Indiana

August 12, 2012

Historical perspective: Aug, 12, 2012: The Siege at Fort Harrison in 1812 (Part II)

Mike McCormick
Special to the Tribune-Star


Part II

Inside Fort Harrison on the evening of Sept. 4, 1812, Capt. Zachary Taylor was uneasy.

An alien fever had infested the stockade, weakening many of its occupants. Only 15 soldiers were well enough to assume their posts. Taylor, himself, was ill, forcing him to bedrest and thought.

Events of the day demanded his attention. On Sept. 3, Taylor received the alarming news that hostile Indians from Prophet’s Town were planning to attack Fort Harrison. Weas had been recruited to participate; some Wea chiefs agreed to do so.

At sunset that day, four shots rang out about 400 yards southeast of the fort where the two Doyle brothers were cutting hay. The men did not return to the fort. Fearful of their fate, Taylor refused to permit anyone to leave the premises that night.

The next morning a scouting party found the Doyles shot, scalped, stripped and mutilated. Their bodies were brought back to the post by ox cart.

Taylor presumed that the gathering of Native Americans on the fort grounds was a ruse. When a Shawnee who spoke good English informed Taylor that “old chief Lennar” wanted to speak with him, it aroused suspicion.

Certain that danger was imminent, the commandant examined each soldier’s arms and provided each with 16 rounds of ammunition. He also ordered a corporal and 10 privates to man the southwest blockhouse and assigned a non-commissioned officer to patrol the fort’s interior all night. He rested his eyes but did not sleep soundly.

Seventy yards from the southwest blockhouse, Pakoisheecan heard a voice originating from inside the fortress wall. He stopped, knelt to the ground and extended his wiry body forward. Taking a deep breath, he stretched his left arm forward and plunged the knife he held deep into the sod.

He used the knives as anchors to pull his body toward the fort: first the left arm; the the right. Occasionally, he would stop and listen. The night was still but, about 30 yards from the fort, the Kickapoo could hear the footsteps of a sentry inside the fort. When the guard approached, he lay still. When he walked way, Pakoisheecan advanced.

Reaching the southwest blockhouse took Pakoisheecan at least 30 minutes. He heard the sentinels’ whispers above him. He held his breath and remained motionless until he was certain they could not see him. He felt the cracks in the outside wall created by cattle seeking salt leeched to the interior. It was as Namahtoha had described.

From his blanket sack, Pakoisheecan removed grass, woodchips and bear grease. Quietly, he made a mixture, coating the bark with fat and stuffing accessible cracks with combustibles. Then, with a knife, he removed soil from underneath the foundation and placed his remaining cache in the hole.

Inside Fort Harrison, the sentry marched within a few feet of the Indian. Though the night was cool, beads of perspiration accumulated on the Kickapoo’s brow.

When the guard reached the far end of the fort’s interior, Pakoisheecan created a spark with flint and tinder, covered the ignition with his blanket and thrust the smoking grass into wall crevices. Protecting the smoking hay with the blanket until a fire was fully ignited, he waited patiently.

When he was certain the fire was enduring, Pakoisheecan abandoned his tools and scrambled quickly to the edge of the clearing. From a distance, he watched flames crawl up the side of the blockhouse wall. He smiled, breathed a sigh of relief and screamed at the top of his lungs.

At the signal, more than 500 Indians converged on Fort Harrison from the north and northeast. The battle had begun.

Capt. Taylor was aroused at 11 o’clock by musket fire. His fever was forgotten. The southwest blockhouse of Fort Harrison — filled with the fort contractor’s salt, grain and whiskey — was ablaze.

“Old Rough and Ready,” as his peers eventually called Capt. Taylor, immediately shouted instructions, ordering soldiers to fill buckets with well water to splash on the fire. Others were directed to smash open the blockhouse door and remove the combustible whiskey and supplies.

By the time the ailing soldiers responded to instructions, flames had ignited the whiskey, causing explosions and engulfing the roof adjoining the barracks. The fort was doomed. Howls of the invaders and cries from women and children added to the chaos.

The Cowen brothers, two of the healthiest soldiers, bolted from the fort in panic but into Indians’ hands. William Cowen was brutally dismembered about 120 yards from the fort. Josey Cowen escaped only after his arm was broken “in a shocking manner.”

The well was so dry the ailing soldiers could not produce sufficient water to douse the flames. Petite Julia Lafferty Lambert, wife of the fort contractor, who was in Vincennes securing supplies, was lowered into the well to fill gourds with water. One by one, the contents were poured on the flames.

Dr. William A. Clark, the post surgeon, and three healthy soldiers, under a shower of arrows and musket fire, removed the smoldering roof to prevent the fire from spreading to the barracks. The feat was accomplished with only one death.

Other soldiers dismantled the command headquarters, using the timber to build a 6-foot temporary wall in front of the 20-foot gap which would be created by the fire.

Agnes Dickson and Matilda Anderson corralled 10-year-old Hazel McKee and 6-year-old Mary Briggs into a barracks’ hut to mold lead rifle bullets. Jonathan Graham’s wife helped. When time was available, they also reloaded rifles.

With Drummer Davis, who had joined Taylor’s army after deserting the British at Fort Detroit, pounding relentlessly on his drum and the air filled with flak, the temporary blockade was completed before dawn.

“With Zack Taylor doin’ the fightin’ and Davis doin’ the drummin’, we could whip all creation,” the survivors later boasted.

Continued next week