War of 1812: General William Henry Harrison

William Henry Harrison during the War of 1812
General William Henry Harrison. Photograph Source: Public Domain

Early Life & Career:

Born at Berkeley Plantation, VA on February 9, 1773, William Henry Harrison was the son of Benjamin Harrison V and Elizabeth Bassett and the last US president to be born before the American Revolution. A delegate to the Continental Congress and signer of the Declaration of Independence, the elder Harrison later served as governor of Virginia (1781-1784) and used his political connections to ensure that his son received a proper education. After being tutored at home for several years, William Henry was sent to Hampden-Sydney College at age fourteen where his studied history and the classics. At his father's insistence, he enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania in 1790, to study medicine under Dr. Benjamin Rush. Living with noted financier Robert Morris, Harris he did not find the medical profession to his liking.

When his father died in 1791, William Henry Harrison was left without money for schooling. Learning of his situation Governor Henry "Light-Horse Harry" Lee III of Virginian encouraged the young man to join the army. Seizing upon this, he was immediately commissioned as an ensign in the 1st US Infantry and sent to Cincinnati for service in the Northwest Indian War. Proving himself an able officer, he was promoted to lieutenant the following June and became an aide-de-camp to Major General Anthony Wayne. Learning command skills from the gifted Pennsylvanian, Harrison took part in Wayne's 1794 triumph over the Western Confederacy at the Battle of Fallen Timbers. The victory effectively brought the war to a close and Harrison was among those who signed the 1795 Treaty of Greenville.

Frontier Leader:

Also in 1795, Harrison met Anna Tuthill Symmes, the daughter of Judge John Cleves Symmes. A former militia colonel and delegate to the Continental Congress from New Jersey, Symmes had become a prominent figure in the Northwest Territory. When Judge Symmes refused Harrison's request to marry Anna, the couple elected to elope and were wed on November 25. They would ultimately have ten children, one of whom, John Scott Harrison, would be the father of future President Benjamin Harrison. Remaining in the Northwest Territory, Harrison resigned his commission on June 1, 1798 and campaigned for a post in the territorial government.  These efforts proved successful and he was appointed Secretary of the Northwest Territory on June 28, 1798 by President John Adams. During his tenure, Harrison frequently served as acting governor when Governor Arthur St. Clair was absent.

In this position less than a year, he was soon named as the territory's delegate to Congress the following March. Though unable to vote, Harrison served on several Congressional committees and played a key role in opening the territory to new settlers. With the formation of the Indiana Territory in 1800, Harrison left Congress to accept an appointment as the region's governor. Moving to Vincennes, IN in January 1801, he built a mansion named Grouseland and worked to obtain title to Native American lands. Two years later, President Thomas Jefferson authorized Harrison to conclude treaties with the Native Americans. During his tenure, Harrison concluded thirteen treaties which saw the transfer of over 60,000,000 acres of land. Also in 1803, Harrison began lobbying for a suspension of Article 6 of the Northwest Ordinance so that slavery would be permitted. Claiming this was necessary to increase settlement, Harrison's requests were denied by Washington.

Tippecanoe Campaign:

In 1809, tensions with the Native American began to increase following the Treaty of Fort Wayne which saw the Miami sell land that inhabited by the Shawnee. The following year, the Shawnee brothers Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa (The Prophet) came to Grouseland to demand that the treaty be terminated. Refused, the brothers began working to form a confederation to block white expansion. To oppose this, Harrison was authorized by Secretary of War William Eustis to raise an army as a show of force. Assembling over a thousand men, Harrison marched against the Shawnee while Tecumseh was away rallying the tribes.

Encamping near the tribes' base, Harrison's army occupied a strong position bordered by Burnett Creek on the west and a steep bluff to the east. Due to the strength of the terrain, Harrison elected not to fortify the camp. This position was attacked on the morning of November 7, 1811. The ensuing Battle of Tippecanoe saw his men turn back repeated assaults before driving off the Native Americans with determined musket fire and a charge by the army's dragoons. In the wake of his victory Harrison became a national hero though he also entered into a dispute with the War Department over why the camp had not been fortified. With the outbreak of the War of 1812 the following June, Tecumseh's War became subsumed into the larger conflict as the Native Americans sided with the British.

War of 1812:

The war on the frontier began disastrously for the Americans with the loss of Detroit in August 1812. After this defeat, the American command in the Northwest was reorganized and after several squabbles over rank, Harrison was made commander of the Army of the Northwest on September 17, 1812. Promoted to major general, Harrison worked diligently to transform his army from an untrained mob into a disciplined fighting force. Unable to go on the offensive while British ships controlled Lake Erie, Harrison worked to defend American settlements and ordered the construction of Fort Meigs along the Maumee River in northwest Ohio. In late April, he defended the fort during an attempted siege by British forces led by Major General Henry Proctor.

In late September 1813, after the American victory at the Battle of Lake Erie, Harrison moved to the attack. Ferried to Detroit by Master Commandant Oliver H. Perry's victorious squadron, Harrison reclaimed the settlement before commencing a pursuit of British and Native American forces under Proctor and Tecumseh. Catching them on October 5, Harrison won a key victory at the Battle of the Thames which saw Tecumseh killed and the war on the Lake Erie front effectively ended. Though a skilled and popular commander, Harrison resigned the following summer after disagreements with Secretary of War John Armstrong.

Moves to Politics:

In the years following the war, Harrison aided in concluding treaties with the Native Americans, served a term in Congress (1816-1819), and spent time in the Ohio state senate (1819-1821). Elected to the US Senate in 1824, he cut his term short to accept an appointment as ambassador to Colombia. While there, Harrison lectured Simon Bolivar on the merits of democracy. Recalled in September 1829, by new President Andrew Jackson, he retired to his farm in North Bend, OH. In 1836, Harrison was approached by the Whig Party to run for president.

Believing they would be unable to defeat the popular Democrat Martin Van Buren, the Whigs ran multiple candidates hoping to force the election to be settled in the House of Representatives. Though Harrison led the Whig ticket in most states, the plan failed and Van Buren was elected. Four years later, Harrison returned to presidential politics and led a unified Whig ticket. Campaigning with John Tyler under the slogan "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too," Harrison emphasized his military record while blaming the depressed economy on Van Buren. Promoted as a simple frontiersman, despite his aristocratic Virginia roots, Harrison was able to easily defeat the more elitist Van Buren 234 to 60 in the Electoral College.

Arriving in Washington, Harrison took the oath of office on March 4, 1841. A cold and wet day, he wore neither a hat nor coat as he read his two-hour long inaugural address. Taking office, he battled with Whig leader Henry Clay before falling ill with a cold on March 26. While popular myth blames this illness on his prolonged inaugural speech, there is little evidence to support this theory. The cold quickly turned into pneumonia and pleurisy, and despite the best efforts of his doctors, led to his death on April 4, 1841. At age 68, Harrison was oldest president to be sworn in prior to Ronald Reagan and served the shortest term (1 month). His grandson, Benjamin Harrison was elected president in 1888.

Selected Sources