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Fort Stephenson

Anniversary Celebrations

| 1839 | 2001 |


Croghan Day

Over the years the date of Croghan’s victory became known as Croghan Day, and is still observed by local residents.  In August of 1885, the Croghan monument was unveiled.  On August 2, 1906, Croghan’s remains were interred at the monument’s base. 



The first formal celebration of the anniversary of Croghan's victory at Fort Stephenson was held there in 1839. This is Croghan's reply to an invitation to attend.


St. Louis,Mo., 26th July, 1839

Gentlemen:-- I have the honor to receive your letter of the 8th inst. inviting me, on the part of the citizens of Lower Sandusky, to be present with them in the coming anniversary of the defense of Fort Stephenson.

It is with regret that I am, on account of official duties, unable to comply with your flattering invitation. In communicating this my reply, I cannot forbear to acknowledge with deep gratitude, the honor you confer. To have been with those gallant men who served with me on the occasion alluded to, permitted by a kind Providence to perform a public duty, which source has been deemed worthy of a special notice by my fellow citizens is a source of high gratification brightened too by the reflection that the scene of conflict is now by the enterprise and industry of your people the home of a thriving and intelligent community. I beg to offer to you, gentlemen, and through you to the citizens of Lower Sandusky, my warmest thanks for the remembrance which you have so flatteringly expressed.

With every feeling of respect and gratitude I am yours

G. Croghan






The following speech was given at the Croghan Day celebration, August 2, 2001, celebrating the 188th anniversary of the defense of Ft. Stephenson.  The event was sponsored by the Colonel George Croghan Chapter of the Daughters of the American Revolution.

The speaker was Gerard Altoff, Chief Ranger & Historian at Perry's Victory & International Peace Memorial.  It is with his kind permission that we reprint the speech below in its entirety.


Croghan Day – August 2nd, 2001


I would like to begin by saying that it is a genuine honor to be chosen as the speaker for this year’s Croghan Day celebration.  I feel this is an extremely important occasion, and I sincerely hope it is does not become one of those ceremonies that people attend simply because they feel obligated to do so.  After all, in many respects this is Fremont’s Memorial Day.  We are here this morning not only to celebrate a great military victory.  We are also here to honor the men who secured that victory.  But this ceremony should not be limited just to the gallant men of Fort Stephenson, because the soldiers who fought here represent all the men and women of this nation who have served their country.  Americans who essentially surrendered part of their lives, in some cases literally gave their lives, in order that we might be allowed to stand here today.  Although large numbers of service men and women did see combat, we can only be thankful that the vast majority, thanks to the sacrifices of others, did not have to be placed in the same dire circumstances as those who fought here.  Regardless of whether a veteran served as a combat infantryman, an aircraft mechanic, a nurse, a bosun’s mate, a cook, or whatever, every man and woman who served their country in any capacity deserves to be remembered in ceremonies such as this.

Just as we remember those who served here, on August 2nd, 1813, 188 years ago today.  On this day, at this time, on this very location, stood about 160 soldiers:  hot…tired…lonely….scared.  They were situated inside a small, rectangular stockade fort that encompassed only one acre…a tiny wooden box that might soon become their coffin.

Surrounding the fort were four artillery pieces and about 1,500 British regulars and Indians.  Another 2,000 or so Indians were situated in the nearby woodlands.  British warships, with additional cannons, lay at anchor in the river less than a mile away.  The fort’s pitifully few defenders were outnumbered by nearly 25 to 1.

Walking around the fort's inside perimeter that morning was the post commander, George Croghan, a 21-year-old major in the 17th U.S. Infantry Regiment--21 years old…hardly old enough or experienced enough to inspire much in the way of confidence among this experienced detachment of regulars and militiamen. 

Complicating the situation, Croghan was telling his men that he had just refused a British offer of surrender--a bold gesture on Croghan’s part, but his defiance could cost every one of those American soldiers their lives.  The British commander had informed the defenders that if the fort did not surrender, he would find it impossible to control Great Britain’s mercurial Indian allies when the fort fell.  Seventy-five years worth of hatred and conflict between whites and Indians on the frontier conjured gruesome images too terrible to comprehend should the British and Indians prevail.  The American response was that if the fort did fall there would be none left alive to massacre.  Brave words by the commander, but for the common soldiers trapped inside that little fort, brave words meant little in the face of a horrifying and agonizing death.  160 American soldiers, each left alone with his thoughts, stoically awaiting their fate.

Who were these soldiers?  What were they doing in the middle of the Ohio wilderness?  And what did they accomplish?  A small band of isolated and frightened United States soldiers facing terrible odds.  Throughout history there are similar instances of small bands of courageous men fighting against hopeless odds:  Thermopylae, the Alamo, Rorke’s Drift, the Little Big Horn, Wake Island, Bastogne,  Pork Chop Hill, and Khe Sanh, to name but a few.  Occasionally they prevailed, but more often than not those small groups of intrepid soldiers were wiped out to the last man. 

The name Fort Stephenson belongs among that hallowed list.  Even though they were fighting an unpopular war, a war that is practically ignored in our history books, a war that most Americans know nothing about, what those men accomplished is critical to the story of this city, this county, this state, and this country.  The men who stood to their weapons that hot August day were resolute, dauntless, and heroic.  If they were standing here today they would be proud to hear such words, and they would probably say:  who is he talking about?

Words like those I just used are frequently applied in retrospect in books, movies, and during speeches at celebrations such as this.  Because I guarantee you, on the morning of August 2nd, 1813, the men waiting inside Fort Stephenson felt anything but heroic.  Their overriding emotion was apprehension, and more than anything they were probably thinking, “Why here…Why now…Why us?

Who were these men trapped in Fort Stephenson?  Why were they here?  And just what did they do?

As to who they were, sadly, in most cases the names of these brave men are unknown.  There is a disturbing lack of detail concerning the garrison of Fort Stephenson.  Nearly 100 years ago Colonel Webb Hayes endeavored to unearth the details, and his research revealed the names of fewer than half of the 160-man garrison.  Even the number 160 is uncertain.  Most were Kentuckians, regulars from the 17th U.S. Infantry Regiment.  Elements from two units of the 17th U.S. were here, men from Captain James Hunter’s Company and Captain James Duncan’s Company.  Of the two combined companies, Hayes listed only 66 names, 36 from Hunter’s company and 30 from Duncan’s.

There was also a detachment of Tennesseans from the 24th U.S. Infantry.  Colonel Hayes was able to find the names of only six soldiers from the 24th U.S., all from the company of Lieutenant Joseph Anthony.  One of Anthony’s men was Private William Gaines, who outlived most of his comrades and was one of the last survivors of the battle.  In 1880 Gaines dictated his reminiscences, and from Gaines’s narrative Colonel Hayes gleaned the names of those six men from the 24th.  However, Gaines also recalled that, in late July of 1813, while his company was at Camp Seneca, a rumor came that Fort Stephenson was to be attacked.  Gaines remembered, “a detail was made from the different companies to relieve Fort Stephenson.”  This was the same method used a month later when men were needed for the Lake Erie fleet; five or six soldiers from several different companies either volunteered or were selected.  So it is likely that men from other companies of the 24th U.S. Infantry were here; indeed, it is entirely possible that men from many different units then at Camp Seneca were sent to Fort Stephenson.

Included among those units at Camp Seneca was Major James Alexander’s Independent Battalion of Volunteers.  Alexander’s battalion was comprised of three militia companies:  the Pittsburgh Blues and the Greensburg Riflemen, both from Pennsylvania, and the Petersburg Volunteers from Virginia.  Most likely there were only a small number of these militiamen in Fort Stephenson.  In his report of the battle to the Secretary of War, General William Henry Harrison related, “A young gentleman private in the Petersburg Volunteers, of the name of (Edmund) Brown, assisted by five or six of that company and of the Pittsburgh Blues, who were accidentally in the fort, managed the six pounder which produced such destruction in the ranks of the enemy.”  Edward Mumford, who was not listed by Colonel Hayes, was another of the Petersburg Volunteers helping to crew Old Betsy; Mumford’s name can now be added to the honor roll of Fort Stephenson heroes.  The man identified as the gun captain for Old Betsy was Abraham Weaver, a sergeant with the Greensburg Riflemen.  Although the number of men from Alexander’s battalion who served in Fort Stephenson may have been small, their role of manning the fort’s lone 6-pounder artillery piece was critical.

There is also mention of a private by the name of James Kirk.  Kirk’s company supposedly worked on strengthening the fort defenses from June 1, 1813 until the British arrival.  Kirk himself had been sent to Camp Seneca with dispatches, but it is not unreasonable to assume that some men from Kirk’s company remained at the fort and fought in the battle.  Although Kirk’s unit is not specified, evidence suggests they were from the Ohio Militia. 

The problem with identifying Fort Stephenson's defenders stems from the fact that this was a provisional garrison; a group of men hastily gathered and sent to a critical location during an emergency situation.  Because most were here for only a week or so, it is doubtful that any muster of the garrison was taken, especially since they were from so many different units.  The battle was fought, the enemy was defeated, and the British and Indians retreated.  Afterward the garrison was dispersed and, for the most part, sent back to their original units.  Most likely their stint at Fort Stephenson was too brief for their absence to be noted on any prior or subsequent muster rolls.  Thousands of documents from the War of 1812 have been misplaced or destroyed over the years, thus the names of many of these men may very well be lost to history.  Then again, there is a possibility that within the dusty storage caverns of the National Archives there are muster rolls with remarks alongside names stating “detached for service at Fort Stephenson.”  In the brief time frame during which I was preparing this address I was unable to discover where Colonel Hayes obtained his information.  Presumably he found those 66 names from the 17th U.S. Infantry on muster rolls in the National Archives.  Could there be more muster rolls out there with more names just waiting to be uncovered?  It will remain a mystery until someone undertakes the tedious and time-consuming chore of thoroughly researching these obscure historical documents.

Altogether about 160 men:  Kentuckians, Tennesseeans, Pennsylvanians, Virginians, and Ohioans.  They were not elite soldiers.  They were not the cream of the crop.  They were not the bravest of the brave.  They were ordinary men who were placed in extraordinary circumstances, forced to cope with a desperate situation.

Why were they here?  And I am not speaking about the larger issues of the War of 1812 or the need to repel a British invasion.  Look at it from the viewpoint of the individual.  Gun captain Abraham Weaver, sweating in that stifling and gloomy blockhouse behind the breech of Old Betsy.   Private Joseph McKee, nervous hands clenching and unclenching the musket that was wedged through a firing port in the palisade.  Ensign Edmund Shipp, sword in hand, pacing back and forth, ready to respond to any emergency--all waiting impatiently for the enemy to attack.   Each was asking himself that age-old question of the soldier in times of adversity or mortal danger:  Why me?

This situation is well illustrated in a movie entitled “Zulu,” a cult movie among military reenactors.  Zulu depicts the story of Rorke’s Drift, a small mission station in South Africa that was surrounded and repeatedly assaulted during a day and a half siege in 1879.  This famous battle of the Zulu War was similar to Fort Stephenson in many ways.  In the case of Rorke’s Drift it was 140 British soldiers in a tiny fortified post attacked by 4,000 Zulu warriors.  One panoramic scene in the movie displays the awesome spectacle of several thousand Zulu warriors arrayed on the hillsides surrounding the station just prior to the attack.  A youthful private, terrified and staring at what he can only perceive to be certain death, asks a sergeant, “Why Us?”  In an even and controlled voice the grizzled sergeant blandly replies, “Because we’re here lad, nobody else, just us?

The men of Fort Stephenson were no different than the men of Rorke’s Drift.  For that matter, they were no different than the men of this color guard standing here today, and no different than anyone else in this gathering who served in the military.  Whether it was World War II, Korea, Vietnam, Desert Storm, or time of peace, veterans had their reasons for serving their country:  patriotism, duty, loyalty, adventure, escape, a regular job, the draft; maybe even a choice of jail or the military.  If you were to ask the men of this color guard, the reasons would be as varied as the individuals.  In my own case, I had always dreamed of going to sea, one of those childhood romanticism's, and that left a choice of either the Navy or the Coast Guard.  In November of 1967 I joined the U.S. Coast Guard.  Of course in 1967 the country was divisively embroiled in the Vietnam War.  Just out of high school I had not given it much thought, but as a member of the Coast Guard I knew my prospects of being sent to Vietnam were virtually nonexistent.  So naturally, as you might expect, I was shipped to Vietnam.  Thankfully I did not have to spend time in a slit trench with an M-16, but in May of 1970, during the invasion of Cambodia, my ship, the Coast Guard Cutter Mellon, cruised 1/2 mile off the Cambodian coastline to provide gunfire support for ground units.  At general quarters my duty station was on the crew of the Mellon’s 5-inch-38 gun.  It was neither a glorious nor a glamorous job.  My weapon was a screwdriver.  All I did was stand there and turn the screw on each fuse from horizontal to vertical, converting 54 pounds of inert material into a 54-pound high explosive projectile.  During one lengthy fire mission the 5-inch was hurling those 54-pound proximity fused shells from the barrel every three seconds.  Piped over the ship’s intercom was the voice of a forward aerial observer who was directing our fire.  The forward observer narrated in graphic detail the effects that those high explosive shells were having on the human beings on the receiving end; all by the simple turn of a screw.  Thirty years later I choose not to dwell on the morality of that war compared to other American conflicts, but at the time I remember asking myself, “Why am I here doing this?”  It’s quite possible that some of you asked yourselves similar questions.

Why were the men of Fort Stephenson here?  How did the men from Petersburg, Virginia end up in northwest Ohio?  Why were those Tennesseans sent north instead of south?  Why them?  Compare their situation to that of an infantry company caught in an artillery barrage--who lives, who dies?  Who gets selected, who doesn't?  The overwhelming frustration of any soldier caught in this situation is that the outcome is simply random, the individual has no control.  In this instance there are certain precautions that can be taken, but if it’s your turn, there’s absolutely nothing the individual can do. 

At some point a nameless, faceless administrator sitting in an office picks up a pen and checks off a name, and the fate of a serviceman's life is sealed.  I didn't volunteer for Vietnam.  I was stationed in Norfolk, Virginia in late 1969 when an announcement was circulated that a gunner's mate was needed for the 14th District.  Throughout the United States not one person volunteered for that slot.  Some officer or yeoman picked up a pen and checked off my name.  Maybe because my name started with an "A" and I was at the head of the list.  Who knows?  Who cares?  When I arrived at Base Honolulu one ship was short a gunner's mate billet, and it just so happened that ship was slated to sail for Vietnam in four weeks 

And once a person is selected, there's nothing left but to perform the job that’s assigned.  It’s not unlike a story related by Lyndon B. Johnson.  In 1968, when asked why he didn't get the country out of Vietnam, LBJ compared it to being caught in a hailstorm on a Texas highway.  Johnson said, “you can’t run, you can’t hide, and you can’t get out of the way.”  Call it being at the wrong place at the wrong time; call it being at the right place at the right time.  Call it fate, karma, kismet, whatever.  For the men of Fort Stephenson, they were here, no one else, just them.

What these men accomplished is more easily established.  Around 5:00 p.m. on the afternoon of August 2nd, after enduring an intermittent artillery bombardment and an agonizing wait lasting nearly 24 hours, the fort's defenders observed approximately 350 regulars from the British 41st Regiment of Foot advancing in two long lines across the open fields to the northwest.  When within range the infantrymen inside the fort opened a galling fire and the British hesitated, but the assault commander, Lieutenant Colonel William Short, valiantly rallied his troops.  The stalwart redcoats of the 41st Foot braved the fire and pushed forward until they reached the ditch that had been dug along the fort’s northwest face.  Major Croghan allowed the British to pile into the ditch before unmasking Old Betsy.  Because the British had concentrated their artillery fire against the northwest angle of the fort, Croghan correctly surmised that here was where the British would focus their attack.  For that reason he placed Old Betsy in the northern blockhouse and angled the old 6-pounder to enfilade the ditch.  It was at the critical moment, with most of the British infantry compacted in the ditch, that Old Betsy spewed a double charge of canister shot.  Canister turned a cannon into a giant shotgun, and that first double charge of canister wreaked unspeakable carnage among the massed British soldiers.  In modern terms it would be like discharging a claymore mine into a narrow alley crammed with men.  A second shot from Old Betsy was all that was needed.  Those redcoats who had not reached the ditch bolted and ran.  Anyone remaining alive in the ditch either surrendered or played dead until the shroud darkness allowed them to crawl off and escape.  A second British column marching toward the south end of the fort was dispersed by accurate musket fire from Captain Hunter’s company of the 17th U.S. Infantry

It was a great victory, but let us not forget the cost, and those brave men in red coats who made that courageous assault absorbed most of that cost.  Altogether the British suffered nearly 100 casualties.  One of the men who died in that ditch was Lieutenant James G. Gordon.  Years later his father, Bishop Bently Gordon, wrote in his autobiography, “The great sorrow of my life was the loss of a son in an unimportant battle in an obscure place in North America called Fort Sandusky [sic].”  For the United States, Fort Stephenson was not an unimportant battle; still, there are distressing comparisons. A little over a century and a half-later tens of thousands of American parents, wives, and children were mourning sons, husbands, and fathers lost in an obscure place called Vietnam. 

For the United States, Fort Stephenson was, for all intents and purposes, the Gettysburg of the War of 1812 in the Old Northwest.  Don’t misunderstand, the Battle of Lake Erie was the true turning point of the war in the Old Northwest.  But this battle was the high tide for the British, their maximum point of penetration into the Ohio country. 

Following that same Civil War analogy, the first Confederate invasion of the north in 1862 ended in stalemate, with the enemy retreating, as did the first British invasion of the Ohio country in 1813.  The second confederate invasion of the north in 1863 culminated in outright defeat at Gettysburg, as did the second British invasion at Fort Stephenson.  From this point forward British efforts ebbed ever northward and eastward.   Never again would the British or Indians threaten Ohio.  Had the British and Indians captured Fort Stephenson the Ohio country was wide open.  Harrison’s army was only eight miles away at Camp Seneca, but it was a woefully undermanned and unprepared force at that point in time.  The importance of the American victory at Fort Stephenson should not be underestimated.  

It is for that reason that the name of Fort Stephenson must be remembered, along with that of George Croghan.  Yet it is not the name of George Croghan that concerns me; few people here do not know that name.  But what about Obadiah Norton, Jacob Downs, Samuel Riggs, Nicholas Bryant, Nathaniel Gill, and the others.   What about the men whose names are not known and may never be known.  What about the lone American soldier that was killed at Fort Stephenson.  Private William Gaines remembered seeing a soldier from his own company of the 24th U.S. Infantry, Private Samuel Thurman, killed by a British cannonball.  Yet five weeks later Private Samuel Thurman of the 24th U.S. Infantry fought on board the U. S. Schooner Porcupine during the Battle of Lake Erie.  Gaines’s account was written in 1880 when he was an old man, and his memory, along with his recollections, were clouded.  So even that lone soldier who gave his life for his country at Fort Stephenson remains nameless.   That soldier, along with 159 other soldiers, changed the course of this country’s history, and we don’t even know who he was, or who many of them were.  It is the responsibility of all of us to remember those men and perpetuate their deeds, because had it not been for what those men accomplished on August 2, 1813, you and I probably would not be standing here today.

I would like to conclude this address with a poem, one written by a Union soldier named John Hendricks.   Hendricks, the last living Civil War veteran of the 89th Indiana Volunteer Infantry Regiment, was concerned about being forgotten by future generations.  The title of his poem is “When The Boys In Blue Are Gone”


When the comrades have departed,
When the veterans are no more
When the bugle call is sounded
On that everlasting shore
When life's weary march is ended,
When campfires slumber long;
Who will tell the world the story
When the boys in blue are gone?

Who will tell about their marching,
From Atlanta to the Sea?
Who will halt, and wait, and listen,
When they hear the reveille?
Who will join to swell the chorus,
Of some old, Grand Army song?
Who will tell the world the story
When the boys in Blue are gone?

Sons and daughters of this nation,
You must tell of triumphs won;
When on earth our work is ended
And the Veteran claims his own,
You must all cherish Old Glory,
And its teachings pass along
You must tell the world the story,
When the boys in Blue are gone.

To that flag, our country's emblem,
You must pledge allegiance, too
To that flag, our country's emblem,
May your hearts be ever true.
That the nation be protected
'Gainst injustice, and all wrong
You must tell the world the story
When the boys in Blue are gone.

You must keep you country's honor,
From each stripe withhold all stain;
You must take the Veterans' places,
And repeat the roll of fame.
You must keep your country's honor,
And your flag above all wrong,
Then we'll trust you with the story
When the boys in Blue are gone.    

The boys of Fort Stephenson are gone.  Who will tell the world their story?  

Thank you


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