Battle of Fort Harrison - Conflict & Dates:
The Battle of Fort Harrison was fought September 4-15, 1812, during the War of 1812.
Armies & Commanders:
- Captain Zachary Taylor
- Colonel William Russell
- 20 rising to over 1,000
- Joseph Lenar
- Stone Eater
- approx. 600 warriors
Battle of Fort Harrison - Background:
Built during the Tippecanoe campaign in 1811, Fort Harrison was located on the high ground of Terra Haute, overlooking the Wabash River. A strategic location, it was upstream from the capital of the Indiana Territory at Vincennes and named in honor of General William Henry Harrison. With the outbreak of the War of 1812 in June 1812, Captain Zachary Taylor was ordered to move north from Vincennes to take command of the outpost. Possessing a garrison of fifty men, Taylor was tasked with defending the fort and protecting settlers in the area.
Angered by their defeat at Tippecanoe the previous year and backed by the British, the Native Americans in the region increased their attacks with the beginning of the larger war. Encouraged by early British successes, such as the capture of Fort Detroit in August, a mixed force of various tribes was assembled to strike at Fort Harrison. On September 3, Taylor was warned by a group of Miami that he would be attacked shortly. Taylor's position was worsened by the fact that sickness had stricken all but fifteen of his garrison. These remaining soldiers were augmented by five settlers who were willing to fight.
Battle of Fort Harrison - Holding the Fort:
During the night, the men at the fort heard shots in the distance. Lacking the manpower to investigate, Taylor waited until morning before dispatching a group. Moving out from the fort, they found the bodies of two dead settlers. Quickly burying them, the soldiers returned to the fort. Throughout September 4, preparations were made to repel an assault on the fort's stockade. While the Americans worked, a force of 600 Patawatomi, Wea, Winnebago, Kickapoo, and Shawnee warriors moved towards the fort
Later in the day, Kickapoo Chief Namahtoha approached the fort with forty warriors and requested a meeting with Taylor the next morning. Taylor agreed and the Native Americans withdrew for the night. After midnight, a single warrior crept towards the fort and succeeded in setting the blockhouse on fire. As the defenders fired upon the warrior, the entire Native American force launched an attacked against the fort's western wall. As the fire raged, it ignited the fort's supply of whiskey worsening the blaze.
Organizing a bucket brigade, Taylor worked to control the fire while also beating back the attackers. Maintaining a vigorous defense, the soldiers, using the light from the fire, were able to repel each assault. Though finally extinguished, the fire left a twenty-foot gap in the fort's wall. Throwing up a breastwork in the gap, Taylor was able to hold the line through the night. Arming many of his invalids, he gathered the able-bodied men and they worked to repair the walls. This was accomplished around dawn. As morning approached, the Native Americans withdrew and began a siege of the fort.
Battle of Fort Harrison - Holding Out:
Short on food, Taylor and his men watched as the enemy slaughtered livestock outside of the fort's walls. To the south at Vincennes, Colonel William Russell, who was en route to Illinois with two companies, learned of the siege and gathered troops to relieve Taylor. To his command Russell added local militia and elements of the 7th Infantry. Moving up the Wabash with over 1,000 men, Russell reached the fort on September 12. Outnumbered, the Native Americans withdrew.
While the fort had been relieved, the situation remained perilous as two supply convoys were ambushed at an area known as the Narrows on September 13 and 15 by a group of Potawatomi. Departing the area after plundering the wagons, the Potawatomi moved on and killed the Hudson family on September 16 in the Lamotte Prairie Massacre.
Aftermath of the Battle of Fort Harrison:
Taylor's losses in the Battle of Fort Harrison numbered three killed and three wounded, while eighteen were killed and two wounded in the two ambushes against the supply train. Native American losses are not known with any certainty. The Battle of Fort Harrison was the US Army's first victory of the War of 1812 after a series of reverses. Coupled with Harrison's relief of Fort Wayne, the victory at Fort Harrison effectively ended the Native American threat to Indiana for the duration of the war as the fighting shifted north to the Great Lakes. A gifted commander, Taylor would go on to become one of the US Army's most successful commanders during the Mexican-American War.