Along the Heritage Trail

Siege of 1812

Drunken commander almost lost the fort

By Tom Castaldi
Only once did the American forts come under attack at what became the Fort Wayne we know today. For nearly a quarter of a century, the forts here guarded United States interests in the midst of Indian territory, but the attack endured at the outbreak of the War of 1812 was nearly disastrous for Fort Wayne because of the drunkenness of its commander. In 1811, the Battle of Tippecanoe unleashed renewed hostilities between the Indian tribes and the Americans throughout the Midwestern frontier.  Pioneer homesteads and Indian villages alike endured raids and murders.

The Americans suffered an early defeat in 1812 when William Wells’ expedition to relieve the garrison of Fort Dearborn on the Chicago River was destroyed by the Potawatomi. General William Hull then meekly surrendered the U.S. forces to the British at Fort Detroit and gave the signal to Indian forces throughout the frontier to rise up against the other American forts.

Fort Wayne was one of the first forts the Indians determined to take, and late that summer about five hundred Potawatomi and Ottawa warriors began to gather in the forests around the fort. Metea, a friendly Potawatomi chief, warned the French trader Antoine Bondie of the plans for attack, and Bondie with another French trader, Charles Peltier, took this information to the Indian Agent in the fort, Benjamin Stickney, and the post commandant, Captain James Rhea. At first the two leaders of the fort did not believe the French traders, thinking them to be unreliable and prone to lying. But Stickney soon became suspicious and sent messages to General William Henry Harrison in Cincinnati. Captain Rhea, too, worried about the large number of Indians gathering near the fort. It was then that Rhea began to drink to excess.

Stephen Johnston, the Piqua Indian Agent’s son, tried to escape the fort and get to his wife in Ohio. Johnston’s scalped and tomahawked body was delivered the next day to the front gates. The fort garrison made ready for a siege.

The Indians burned the cabins, outbuildings and crops surrounding the fort. Attempts by Lieutenants Curtis and Ostrander to attack the Indians were rebuked by their drunken superior who clearly feared the fight. Then one morning a large party of warriors approached the fort under a white flag asking to speak with Indian Agent Stickney and Captain Rhea. Stickney suspected a trick and only admitted a few of the Indians in the party. Captain Rhea was too drunk to attend. In the midst of the meeting Chief Winamac attempted to use his knife hidden in this robe, but quick action and the instant appearance of several soldiers ended the plot against Stickney.

Several days later, the Indians again used the flag of truce to get into the fort, this time to meet alone with Captain Rhea. The commandant shared his liquor with the chiefs and promised his support if the chiefs would save him. Five Indians who had come into the fort and had hidden behind one of the buildings shot two soldiers dead. After this unfortunate event, Captain Rhea lost control of the garrison, and Lieutenant Ostrander and Lieutenant Curtis took command of the fort.

In the meantime, the constant exchange of gunfire rattled the garrison every day, and the commanding officer continued to drink and talk of surrender.  Finally, General Harrison with twenty-five hundred men marched on Fort Wayne. The Indians tried to attack Harrison’s troops in the swamps to the east along the Wayne Trace, setting fires in the woods hoping to draw the garrison out, but to no avail.

On September 12, the siege was at last lifted when Harrison’s men arrived at the gates of Fort Wayne. Captain Rhea was relieved of his command, and Lieutenant Ostrander was placed in command of the fort. Harrison’s force left Fort Wayne a week later to pursue the British and the Indians to Detroit and eventually to the climatic battle in Ontario at the River Thames in 1813.

Tom Castaldi

Allen County Historian Tom Castaldi, a retired Essex vice president, hosts "On the Heritage Trail," which is broadcast at 6:35 a.m. and 8:35 a.m. Mondays on WBOI, 89.1 FM, and "Historia Nostra" heard on WLYV-1450 AM.

Posted: Thu, 08/30/2012 - 10:31 am
Last updated: Mon, 10/29/2012 - 1:45 pm