The Crawford Campaign, 1782: Battle on the Sandusky

(part three of five)

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The Battle Monument.  “Battle Island” is likely on a slight rise through the pines.  (Author Photo)

The expedition continued through thick forest until June 4, when it finally came upon a Wyandot town on the upper Sandusky after noon.    It was abandoned to the surprise of Crawford’s guides.[i]  (The Wyandot shifted from “Upper Sandusky,” which became known as “old town” and was above the modern town of Upper Sandusky to a new town of “Upper Sandusky,” which became known as Half-King’s town and was below the modern town of Upper Sandusky.)  At this point, several men expressed their desire to return to the Ohio, complaining they were down to five days provisions.[ii]  Crawford sent a reconnaissance party of about 40 men under Major Rose to the north, where the woods opened up into a gentle plain.  Dr. Knight recalled, “there are a great many extensive plains in that country; The woods in general grow very thin, and free from brush and underwood; so that light horsemen may advance a considerable distance before an army without being much exposed to the enemy.”[iii]  Indeed, northwestern Ohio was a gently rolling plain flattened by glaciers over a million years ago and covered in 1782 with knee- to waist-high grass, interrupted by an occasional groves of trees.  The terrain rolls with small, gentle gulleys and hills rising in quick succession.  The combination limited one’s ability to see great distances.  It was perfect for the mounted force Crawford led, theoretically capable of moving quickly.  But, the slow pace of the advance, the difficulty of terrain, poor availability of forage in the woods, and quality of the horses had worn the mounts out.[iv]

While the reconnaissance party did its work, Crawford again compared notes with his officers and took the pulse of his men, some of whom were ready to turn back, perhaps spooked by the abandoned town.  Crawford’s council settled on continuing to advance the rest of the day and then turning back on the morrow.[v]    It was just at that point when an express rider returned from the reconnaissance, sounding the alarm that Rose’s party of light horse had encountered a large body of Indians advancing quickly toward the expedition.

The advance guard had indeed encountered trouble.  Initially, Rose’s party made good time over the plain.  Spying a small knoll covered with a grove of trees, Rose’s men aimed for it, paused, and dropped some of their excess gear.[vi]  The copse, about a mile west of the Sandusky River and rising from the rolling fields, struck some as an island of trees in a sea of grass.[vii]  Crossing a field after a brief respite in the grove, around two o’clock Major Rose’s party came upon an Indian village about two miles from their stop, just on the other side of a wood.  Captain Caldwell, his rangers, and about two hundred Indians marched out to meet him.[viii]  The rangers had been waiting for just such an opportunity and were reasonably well-rested.  Before the battle, John Leeth, an Indian captive who had wrangled his way into acting as a trading agent for the British, had encountered both Captain Elliott and the bulk of Butler’s rangers headed south while he removed his stocks northward, away from Crawford’s oncoming militia.  He noted that they took sixteen head of cattle from him, but otherwise left his stores intact.[ix]  With little warning, Indian defenders rose from the grass and a depression, or ditch, to confront Rose while simultaneously moving quickly to occupy the woods in Rose’s path and sliding through the woods to Rose’s right while a larger party tried to get to the advance guard’s rear.[x]  Rose opted for a brief fight to delay the Indians, dispatching the riders who broke up Crawford’s council back at the main body.[xi]   He dispersed his men on a series of low hills and across the fields, slowly pulling back toward the earlier copse of trees where his men had stopped.  The action delayed the Indians but did not stop them and they continued to move toward the grove on parallel paths attempting to get behind Rose.[xii]

Crawford, however, had wasted no time upon receiving Rose’s warning.  He quickly formed the main body and moved forward toward the firing.  When the main body encountered the grove behind Rose, Crawford dismounted his men, who ran into the woods and forced the Indians out, reuniting the main body with Rose’s advance guard.[xiii]  By four o’clock, general firing broke out all along the line, taking place mostly in wooded areas.  Knight remembered it: “The firing continued very warm on both sides from four o’clock until the dusk of evening, each party maintaining their ground.”[xiv]  Rose described the firing as “hot” all afternoon, a sentiment shared by British Lieutenant John Turney.[xv]

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The slight elevation marking the horizon is a likely candidate for “Battle Island.”  The trees would have been more dense, enough to provide cover for over 400 militiamen.  The monument is to the right rear of the viewer.  Over two centuries of farming have changed the topography significantly, but local historian Tom Hill has done excellent detective work that suggests this location as the battlefield.  (Author photo)

Crawford, it seemed, was everywhere, attending to everything personally.  It may have demonstrated his personal courage, but in Rose’s opinion the inclination to micromanage actions limited his ability to lead his unit.[xvi]  Enemy fire shattered Crawford’s own powder horn.  One Pennsylvania militia captain, William James Munn, had been felled in the grass and lay still with a broken leg and injured face as Indians started creeping up on him.  William Brady rushed up to him on horseback, hoisted him aboard, and rode hard to reach the force’s surgeon.[xvii]  In Ohio’s rolling seas of grass, the elevated copse of woods became known as Battle Island.

The lines were not entirely static.  Rose’s left had been relatively protected by marshy ground.  However, even with the main body in the fight, the Indians continued using modest wooded areas and tall grass on the right to maneuver against the expedition’s rear.  A 19th century historian concluded these were Delaware Indians led by Hopocan.[xviii]  Worse for the militia, the Indians’ numbers continued to grow and the British commitment became more apparent.  Captain Matthew Elliott, for example, was already on the scene with orders from Major De Peyster to lead the Indians and, as the day progressed, the rangers became more visible.[xix]  Later American accounts would credit Elliott with leading the Native Americans, but Hopocan and Dunquat needed no outsiders to direct their tactics.  Caldwell had commanded the British initially and Lieutenant Turney took over after Caldwell was wounded in both legs early in the fight.[xx]   While the Americans defended their copse of trees and looked to maintain a secure line of retreat, Indian warriors would creep close in the tall grass, pop up to fire, then duck out of sight to reload and pick their targets.  Seeking to offset the tactic, some Americans took to the trees where they could fire down upon advancing Indians.[xxi]  James Paul remembered, “Daniel Canon and two other men of our company, filled with curiosity and the novelty of the situation, climbed up into scrubby bushy-topped trees and shot and killed, or wounded, several Indians secreted among the long grass, for whenever an Indian raised his head a little to see if he could get a shot at one of our men, some of these sharpshooters would pop away at him from his hiding place in the tree-top.”[xxii]  Canon himself proclaimed, “I do not know how many Indians I killed, but I never saw the same head again above the grass after I short at it!”[xxiii]

Around sunset, Crawford pushed men into the woods on his right, attempting to sever communications between the Indians to his front and those to his rear, simultaneously pulling in the forces on his left, which had become too widely dispersed.[xxiv]  From the American perspective, the maneuvers succeeded.  Firing petered out with the sun while Crawford and his officers met to determine their best course.

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19th Century Painting of the Battle of Sandusky.  The hill is exaggerated, but the painting captures the high grass surrounding the grove.  (Wikimedia Commons)

Crawford’s first order of business was to take an estimate of his situation.  The day’s action had taken place in a relatively dry area amidst the summer heat, reducing the expedition to water from a puddle by a turned-up tree.[xxv]  As a result of the first day’s fighting, Rose reported two men killed outright, three died of wounds overnight, and nineteen wounded, including three mortally.[xxvi]  One man of the expedition had been scalped in the woods and he heard that the militia had taken two Indian scalps.  (Knight counted four dead and twenty-three wounded, including seven seriously, but his figure is a total through the end of July 5.)[xxvii]  The militia’s position was far from ideal.  Although the woods provided a reasonable defense, they also limited the mobility of Crawford’s horsemen and Crawford had little idea what force the Native Americans had assembled, although he was well aware that hostile Indian tribes along the Sandusky could quickly concentrate.  Men had already complained about dwindling provisions and expressed their desire to turn back.  Across the lines, the Indians and rangers retreated to their camps to rest and recuperate from the day’s fighting.  They left a light screen of scouts behind to keep watch on the Americans and maintain their positions around the militia.

Dawn on June 5 signaled the resumption of hostilities, with desultory firing all around the American position.  Crawford held another council of war, which briefly considered remounting nearly half of his force and sending it at the Wyandot left while fifty militia confronted it from the front.  But, the council dismissed that idea, noting that many of the best horsemen had already been ordered to dismount and fight from behind trees and that thirst and exhaustion from the prior day were beginning to affect the militia.[xxviii]  Instead, they would attack at night.  To modern ears, the rationale sounds like an excuse, but it clearly indicates that Crawford exercised weak command over his force.  It should have been a straightforward matter to assemble a mounted force to flank the Indians, while dismounted militia pressed their front.  It also may have been beyond the organizational capacity of Pennsylvania’s frontier militia, which tended to operate in smaller groups, and the state of the horses.   At the same time, Crawford and his officers had every reason to expect the water state of their men to only worse as the day progressed.  Such would not happen to the Indians, who had access to creeks behind their lines, and who also could expect to be reinforced.

The fighting was not as intense as the day before and involved militia and Indians taking shots at one another from cover.  Rose noted small groups of Indians maneuvering on the fringes, attempting to prompt the Americans to waste ammunition by firing at long range.[xxix]  One militiaman remembered three members of his company again climbing trees to snipe at Indians in the tall grass.[xxx]  While the day’s fighting brought no decisive tactical results, as Irvine might have hoped, it marked a distinctive decline in the militia’s fortunes.  Shawnee tribes had moved up behind the Americans from their camps to the south, while Wyandot, Delaware, and some Moravian Indians seeking revenge assembled to Crawford’s front and flank.[xxxi]  The avenue of retreat narrowed to about a quarter mile.[xxxii]  With their arrival, the rangers become more visible and Rose noted a growing number of horsemen among their enemy.[xxxiii]

The Indians knew they held a superior position.  Simon Girty, an American-born loyalist who had served with the militia early in the war before going over to the British along with Captain Elliott and Alexander McKee in 1778, approached the lines asking to parlay.[xxxiv]  Waving a white flag, he called on the Americans to surrender.  Girty knew many of the militia well, including Crawford and Williamson.  Crawford and Williamson tentatively stepped out to meet him half-way, each party taking a few steps toward the other.  But, Americans reported Crawford was promptly fired upon, raising suspicions that Girty’s approach had been a ruse to draw the Colonel out.  In fact, the Native Americans were under the impression that Williamson commanded the force and may have even been unaware of Crawford’s presence.[xxxv]  The source for the episode is Williamson’s daughter, interviewed late in life, who likely shared in a political culture that demonized Girty personally.  Rose and Knight did not mention such a dramatic event.

As they day progressed, the Indians and rangers were content to engage the Americans at long range and take greater personal risks.  Some Americans thought them drunk.  Rose wrote, “Connoisseurs agreed, they exposed themselves more than usual in this action, & pronounced the, to be drunk.”[xxxvi]  And why not?  Time was on their side.  At noon, the Shawnee McKee had worked to mobilize in the Miami valley arrived from the south, narrowing the potential avenues of retreat.[xxxvii]  Rose times their arrival later with that of mounted British rangers, but British reports indicate the rangers had been on the field the day before.  By day’s end, the militia were in dire circumstances.  The Native Americans knew it and celebrated dusk with a long roll of celebratory firing, a “Feu de joie.”[xxxviii]

The battle subsided with dusk.  A militiaman later reminisced, the militia “after battling the Indians for near two days, and gaining nothing, but losing a great many valuable lives, and fearing that if they occupied their ground until next day it might prove disastrous, as our ammunition and provisions were nearly exhausted,” decided to withdraw in the night, doing their best to sneak away.[xxxix]  Despite quietly bringing in the militia observation posts and leaving campfires burning, Indian scouts quickly detected the commotion on Battle Island as Crawford’s force prepared to steal away.  Forward scouts fired warning guns, which led some militiamen to panic and flea.  The expedition’s order quickly fell apart in the dark, abandoning those not yet prepared, the wounded, and, eventually, Colonel Crawford.[xl]  Men made their way singly, or in small groups, away from the battlefield, largely lacking any formation or fighting capabilities.  Chaos, or something close to it, was the order of the night.

[i]           Dr. Knight’s Narrative, p. 5; Rose, Journal of a Volunteer, p. 147; Butterfield, An Historical Account of the Expedition against Sandusky under Col. William Crawford in 1782, 152-153.

[ii]           Dr. Knight’s Narrative, 5.

[iii]          Dr. Knight’s Narrative, 5-6; Rose held that the expedition came upon the abandoned town on the night of the 3rd, camped, and decided to proceed into it on the morning of the 4th, rather than advance in confusion at night.  Rose, Journal of a Volunteer, 147-149.

[iv]          “Lieut. Rose to Irvine, June 13th, 1782,” in Washington-Irvine Correspondence, 367.

[v]           Dr. Knight’s Narrative, pp. 5-6; Butterfield, An Historical Account of the Expedition against Sandusky under Col. William Crawford in 1782, 203-204.

[vi]          Brown, “The Battle of Sandusky: June 4-6, 1782,” 137; Butterfield, An Historical Account of the Expedition against Sandusky under Col. William Crawford in 1782, 204.

[vii]         Butterfield, An Historical Account of the Expedition against Sandusky under Col. William Crawford in 1782, 204.

[viii]         “John Turney to Major A. S. De Peyster, Commanding at Detroit, June 7, 1782,” in Washington-Irvine Correspondence, 368.

[ix]          C.W. Butterfield, A Short Biography of John Leith, (Cincinnati: Robert Clarke & Co., 1883, reprint), 47.

[x]           Brown, “The Battle of Sandusky: June 4-6, 1782,” 137.  Brown relies on early 19th century accounts indicating the Indians rose from a ditch.  Rose himself did not mention a ditch.  The terrain in this part of Ohio rolls gently, from depression to hill and back again in a short distance, limiting visibility.  While there are ditches in the area that would make excellent ambush sites among the rolling terrain, it is also possible that the Indians rose from a depression that the waist-high grass concealed, appearing as a ditch to aging memories.  On a recent visit to the area of the battlefield, local historian Tom Hill gave an excellent tour in which he identified two candidate ditches in the area, but archeological work may be necessary to definitively identify a ditch.

[xi]          Rose, Journal of a Volunteer, 148-149; Dr. Knight’s Narrative, 6; Butterfield, An Historical Account of the Expedition against Sandusky under Col. William Crawford in 1782, 207.

[xii]         Rose, Journal of a Volunteer, 150.

[xiii]         Rose, Journal of a Volunteer, 150; Dr. Knight’s Narrative, 6.

[xiv]         Dr. Knight’s Narrative, 6.

[xv]         Rose, Journal of a Volunteer, 150; “John Turney to Major A. S. De Peyster, Commanding at Detroit, June 7, 1782,” in Washington-Irvine Correspondence, 368.

[xvi]         Rose, Journal of a Volunteer, 293.

[xvii]        Brown, “The Battle of Sandusky: June 4-6, 1782,” 138.

[xviii]       Butterfield, An Historical Account of the Expedition against Sandusky under Col. William Crawford in 1782, 207.

[xix]         Butterfield, An Historical Account of the Expedition against Sandusky under Col. William Crawford in 1782, 207-208.

[xx]         “John Turney to Major A. S. De Peyster, Commanding at Detroit, June 7, 1782,” in Washington-Irvine Correspondence, 368.

[xxi]         Robert H. Sherrard, A Narrative of the Wonderful Escape and Dreadful Sufferings of Colonel James Paul, (Cincinnati; Spiller & Gates, Printers, 1869), 10, Hereafter, Sherrard, Paul Narrative; Brown, “The Battle of Sandusky: June 4-6, 1782,” 138.

[xxii]        Sherrard, Paul Narrative, 10.

[xxiii]       Quoted in Butterfield, An Historical Account of the Expedition against Sandusky under Col. William Crawford in 1782, 210.

[xxiv]       Rose, Journal of a Volunteer, 150.

[xxv]        Sherrard, Paul Narrative, 10; Rose, Journal of a Volunteer, 150.

[xxvi]       Rose, Journal of a Volunteer, 150-151.

[xxvii]       Dr. Knight’s Narrative, 6.

[xxviii]      Rose, Journal of a Volunteer, p. 151; Butterfield, An Historical Account of the Expedition against Sandusky under Col. William Crawford in 1782, 214-215.

[xxix]       Rose, Journal of a Volunteer, p. 151.

[xxx]        Sherrard, Paul Narrative, 10.

[xxxi]       Butterfield, An Historical Account of the Expedition against Sandusky under Col. William Crawford in 1782, 210.

[xxxii]       Rose, Journal of a Volunteer, p. 151.

[xxxiii]      Rose, Journal of a Volunteer, p. 151.

[xxxiv]      Brown, “The Battle of Sandusky: June 4-6, 1782,” 140.

[xxxv]       Brown, “The Battle of Sandusky: June 4-6, 1782,” 140, note. 69.

[xxxvi]      Brown, “The Battle of Sandusky: June 4-6, 1782,” 140; Rose, Journal of a Volunteer, 305.

[xxxvii]     “John Turney to Major A. S. De Peyster, Commanding at Detroit, June 7, 1782,” in Washington-Irvine Correspondence, 368.

[xxxviii]     Rose, Journal of a Volunteer, 151-152.

[xxxix]      Sherrard, Paul Narrative, 10.

[xl]          Dr. Knight’s Narrative, p. 7; Sherrard, Paul Narrative, 11.

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