Fire? Fire!

Here’s a curious-sounding item. On September 4 of 1812, the siege of Fort Harrison began when the place was set on fire. Normally you’d think the fort being set on fire would be the end of the siege.

Not this time. Fort Harrison was held by a tiny American garrison, 15 soldiers and five or so able-bodied civilians along with about three dozen sick soldiers, all commanded by Captain (later President) Zachary Taylor. A very large Indian war band approached, asked for a truce and parley on September 3, and then during the night one of them set the fort on fire and the others attacked.

Unsuccessfully. Things looked pretty grim, with the fire out of control partly because the whiskey went up (there was often strange stuff in frontier whiskey including kerosene and gunpowder – “firewater” wasn’t just an expression). A couple of defenders with working legs made use of them to flee. But Taylor shouted “Taylor never surrenders” and got his men organized to fight the fire.

Did I say men? I should say people. A certain Julia Lambert even got herself lowered into the well to fill buckets faster. And the flames even helped illuminate the attackers as targets.

Well, the long and short of it is that the fort held out successfully for 11 days before being relieved, after somehow patching a 20-foot fire-burned gap in the outer wall and despite having most of their food as well as their hooch consumed in the flames and two attempted relief expeditions ambushed and destroyed.

There is much to be said about the clashes between aboriginals and Europeans in the Americas, and a lot of it is to the discredit of the Europeans. But as I have repeatedly mentioned including in this series, the whole situation cannot be understood without grasping the enormous differences in culture and technology, and indeed the appalling vulnerability of the original Americans to diseases that were carried over the Atlantic from Europe’s farms and cities.

Among these is the degree of organization that let 20 able-bodied Europeans hold off 600 determined aboriginal warriors for a week and a half. And the fact that the attackers asked for a truce then struck during it hoping for the advantage of surprise. Such conduct was neither to their credit nor isolated, and if Europeans said natives’ promises were not to be relied on it wasn’t entirely an invention.

Call it a cultural clash or a misunderstanding if you like. But don’t pretend such things never happened.

It happened todayJohn Robson