This year marks the bicentennial of the War of 1812, which began in June of that year. The British refusal to honor the neutral rights of American ships on the high seas led to a declaration of war by Congress and until the peace treaty was signed in late 1814, a series of battles on land and sea marked the struggle between Britain and the United States.
Land victories against the British in the East were few and far between, but in the West the force of American arms did much better after some initial setbacks. The situation was so bad in the East that malcontents in New England actually set about to secede from the Union.
In the then northwestern part of the United States in the early 1790s, Britain had failed to honor the 1783 Treaty of Peace ending the Revolutionary War. It had continued to occupy a portion of what is now Michigan as well as sending agents into other areas to stir up the Indians against American rule. In 1796 the British finally withdrew but continued to foment trouble on the frontier by furnishing military supplies to Indian tribes.
The British interference in the Old Northwest continued to rankle territorial governments and in 1811 matters boiled over when Indiana Territorial Governor William Henry Harrison marched against the growing menace of the Indian confederation led by Tecumseh. The Battle of Tippecanoe in late 1811 was a prelude to the open warfare that erupted in the summer of 1812. (Tecumseh was not at the battle, as he was elsewhere raising men for his cause. His brother, The Prophet, was left in charge and proved a disaster as a leader.)
Harrison’s bold thrust against the Indian confederation, however, effectively destroyed the Indian power base and for the rest of the War of 1812 the rebellious Indian tribes played only a marginal role though many of the braves joined the British army as irregulars.
One of Harrison’s officers at Tippecanoe was George Croghan, born near Louisville in 1791. A precocious student, he graduated at the age of 18 from William and Mary College in Virginia. Croghan then returned to Louisville, not long before Harrison called for volunteers in the planned raid against the Indian confederation. Croghan was so pleased with his military experience at Tippecanoe that he enlisted in the regular army early in 1812, obtaining a captain’s commission because of his earlier experience.
At the beginning of the war the force of American arms in the West was feeble at best. Not long after the conflict began British troops crossed into the Michigan Territory and easily captured Detroit. The city was supposedly well defended with plenty of supplies but inexplicably surrendered with little or no resistance. It was a black eye for the American army and matters soon got worse.
With the winter of 1812-1813 out of the way, British Brigadier General Henry Proctor mounted an offensive towards Ohio, with the intention of splitting the United States in the West. He first attacked Fort Meigs (near present-day Toledo, Ohio) but stiff resistance by the defenders disrupted Proctor’s plans. Leaving several hundred troops, including some of his Indian allies, to lay siege to Fort Meigs, Proctor pushed on to defeat any elements of the American army that might oppose him.
By this time the government in Washington realized that strong leadership was required in the West and William Henry Harrison was given a key role in defending this area. He arranged for a fort, named Stephenson, to be built a few miles north of modern Upper Sandusky, Ohio. It was small and cramped, having room for barely 200 officers and men. It had only one small artillery piece and was designed primarily as a defense against marauding Indian tribes.
Facing an attack by Proctor, whose force consisted of British regulars and disaffected Indians, Harrison held a council of war at Fort Stephenson. It was decided to build a new fort, with better defenses, a short distance from Fort Stephenson. George Croghan, who by now had been promoted to colonel, was placed in charge.
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By late July 1813 Colonel Croghan was well under way in his efforts to build a new fort when alarming news reached Gen. Harrison. The British were making better time than expected and Proctor had pulled his troops from the siege at Fort Meigs to increase the strength of his army; it took time for the soldiers to be collected at one point, however, which gave Harrison limited breathing room.
With this new and larger enemy army aiming towards the small American force, Harrison convened another council of war to determine the best way to proceed. It was decided that Fort Stephenson, and any improvements put into place by Col. Croghan, should be abandoned at once. The fort was to be torched so that it could not be used by the British.
Harrison quickly wrote a dispatch to Croghan ordering him to retreat. The courier left on the evening of July 29 but got lost in the woods and did not find the proper route for several hours. As a result the orders did not reach Col. Croghan until late in the morning on July 30.
The new orders put Croghan in a very difficult position. His scouts had found the British columns to be moving rapidly towards him. Croghan could have ordered a retreat but it was likely that only his mounted troops could have moved quickly enough to escape capture. The bulk of his force was on foot and easy prey for the Indians accompanying Proctor.
It was also known to Croghan that Proctor had been unable to control his Indian allies at an earlier battle at Raisin River, when a considerable number of American prisoners had been tortured and murdered by the Indians. Given the likelihood that the Raisin River massacre would be repeated at Fort Stephenson, Croghan reluctantly replied to Harrison in the following words: “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.”
Technically the answer bordered on insubordination and Harrison acted accordingly when he received Croghan’s answer. The colonel was promptly relieved of his command and the responsibility given to another officer, Col. Ball. The new commander set out at once for Fort Stephenson, accompanied by mounted dragoons, but was ambushed near the fort. The dragoons, however, proved more than a match for the Indian braves and Ball arrived safely at Fort Stephenson.
Colonel Croghan now left the fort to report to Harrison. Once the situation had been fully explained Harrison reinstated Croghan in his command. The colonel promptly returned to Fort Stephenson, whose defenses were being strengthened in lieu of building the other fort nearby. Upon his arrival at the fort he was informed by scouts that the British were very close. Within a matter of hours Gen. Proctor had arrived in force and retreat was now impossible even for mounted troops.
The arrival of the enemy proved to be worse than expected by Croghan. Proctor had been able to bring in several pieces of artillery by using gunboats on the Sandusky River, which came close to Fort Stephenson. Croghan had exactly one piece of artillery, a six-pounder that was moved around the perimeter of the fort to give the impression of several such guns.
On Aug. 1 both sides prepared for battle, Croghan having refused to surrender under the flag of truce requested by Proctor. The latter had 1,300 troops under his command, including 800 Indians. He also had another 2,000 Indians stationed to the west to prevent the soldiers from Fort Meigs coming to the aid of Croghan. The Americans, on the other hand, had barely 200 men and the one field piece.
The opening attack on Aug. 2 saw Proctor bombarding the fort with his cannons but he also used one of his gunboats to add to the firepower. For his part Croghan ordered that a hidden gun port be constructed along the line of the expected infantry attack and good supply of nails and grape shot made ready.
The enemy guns did little damage to Croghan’s defenses and Proctor ordered an all-out assault. The first waves were a feint against the south side of the fort but in short order came the real thrust at the northwest corner, where Croghan had his hidden gun port. As the troops approached Croghan opened fire with deadly accuracy, killing and wounding more than 150; the Americans had one man killed and seven wounded.
General Proctor now received the unwelcome information from his scouts that Harrison was preparing to march against the British rear. The siege was abruptly broken off and Proctor hurriedly retreated, leaving large quantities of military stores behind. The battle was over and the British never again seriously threatened the Old Northwest.
Colonel Croghan served with distinction during the rest of the war and remained in the army until he resigned his commission in 1817. He later changed his mind and rejoined in 1824, serving until his death at New Orleans in January 1849.
During and after the war Congress approved several gold medals for actions on both land and sea. None for Col. Croghan was considered at the time, however. In a belated recognition of his bravery the legislators did approve a gold medal for the defense of Fort Stephenson in February 1835, the last War of 1812 medal to be awarded.
Within a matter of weeks the War Department asked Lt. Washington Hood to prepare a proper design for the reverse of the medal. (The obverse was to carry Croghan’s portrait.) The Hood sketch varied considerably from the other army medals in that it had a Latin phrase, PARS MAGNA FUIT (“His Share was Great”) above the scene of the battle.
The use of a Latin motto is curious as none of the other army medals had carried such mottoes. The naval medals did and perhaps the army was indicating that they understood classical allusions as well as the navy.
Hood’s design was forwarded to the War Department in early May 1835, where it was soon approved but President Andrew Jackson was also consulted and he viewed the sketch with favor. On May 24 the drawing was sent to Mint Director Samuel Moore at Philadelphia; Moore was instructed to have the dies made and the medal struck as soon as possible. Unfortunately, the matter was overlooked during a change in directorship in early July 1835. Moore resigned and was replaced by Dr. Robert M. Patterson.
Secretary of War Lewis Cass grew impatient when he had heard nothing for several weeks and wrote Patterson on Aug. 24 asking what had been done. The War Department had indicated that Moritz Furst, who had done nearly all of the earlier War of 1812 dies, was to prepare Croghan’s as well and Cass also wanted to know if Furst had been located.
Director Patterson soon replied, apologizing for the delay and noting that he had been unable to locate Furst. On Sept. 4 Patterson again wrote Cass, admitting that he had yet to locate the artist. On the following day the Mint director wrote Col. Croghan letting him know what was transpiring and indicating that Furst, when found, would want to draw Croghan from life before cutting the obverse die.
In due course Patterson discovered that Furst was in New York and was able to contact him. The artist arrived at the Mint on Sept. 24 for a personal interview with the director. The price agreed upon for the pair of dies was $1,800. Furst examined the Hood drawing and said that it could be followed with the exception of the ornamental border. Patterson agreed with Furst and notified the War Department of the proposed arrangement; it was soon accepted and on Oct. 9 Furst was given the go-ahead.
The agreement required the artist to finish the dies by February 1836 but without the responsibility for hardening the dies. That would be done by Chief Coiner Adam Eckfeldt and, if there was a failure, Furst was to replace the reverse die for $600. If it was the obverse die, there would be no charge. (The latter stipulation seems to indicate that Furst intended to make a hub of the portrait.)
Furst began his work with the reverse die in late October 1836 because he had not yet made arrangements with Col. Croghan for a personal sitting. The arrangement did not work out exactly as planned, however, as it proved impossible for Croghan to visit New York. Instead the colonel instructed his brother in Pittsburgh to send a profile miniature to Furst. The artist agreed to the proposal by Croghan as the best that could be done under the circumstances.
The artist received the miniature in mid February 1836 and work went rapidly after that. By late March both dies had been received at the Mint and Furst was paid the $1,800 due him.
As early as September 1835 Chief Coiner Eckfeldt had estimated that it would cost about $250 to strike the gold medal, which would include the cost of the gold, the case and labor. The actual invoice has not been found for the Croghan medal, however.
Although the dies were on hand by April 1836 nothing was done for some months. In January 1837 the Secretary of War wrote to Director Patterson asking why the medal had not been finished, given the amount of time involved. The director in turn asked Chief Coiner Eckfeldt about the status of this matter and was informed that the medal would be ready in about two weeks. The War Department accepted this and so informed the President and other key officials.
At this point nothing again happened and on March 13 an irritated secretary of War pointedly asked Patterson how much longer the wait would be. On the 16th Patterson replied that the delay was due to an “excess of caution” on Eckfeldt’s part. However, the director was able to report that the medal had just been struck and was being prepared for shipment to Washington.
Within a short time Col. Croghan had indeed received the honor which was so long overdue. In addition several of the officers and men who had distinguished themselves in the battle received specially engraved swords.
Beginning in 1861 the Mint struck copper-bronzed copies of the medal from the original dies. The medal continued to be struck after 1901 for collectors but in the so-called Late Bronze finish. The Croghan medals, however, have not been struck at the Mint for some years and at present can be obtained only on the secondary market.