Ohio History Connection

History Comes to Life at Fort Meigs–Ohio’s War of 1812 Battlefield

When it comes to battlegrounds, sites such as Gettysburg, Monmouth and Saratoga often top the list as memorable United States battlefields worth visiting (and they are). But planting a flag, so to speak, in Northwest Ohio’s Fort Meigs, should be on every history and culture buff’s bucket list.

By Jason Brill

Fort Meigs, Ohio History Connection

Fort Meigs served as a crucial site in the War of 1812, a conflict often overshadowed by the Revolutionary War and Civil War, but one that resulted in the establishment of Canada, the cementing of America’s independence and beginning of its westward expansion, and the forced removal of numerous American Indian Tribes.

"Fort Meigs is important because it's where we are standing up on the global stage for the first time and entering global politics, global warfare,” says John Thompson, manager of historic programming and head of interpretation at Fort Meigs. “And we’re sort of being tested.”

Fort Meigs, which served as headquarters for the war in the Great Lakes and housed its largest concentration of troops, represented a critical point to stop an invasion from a stronghold in Detroit by the British and the Tribes that chose to align their interests with them, led by Tecumseh, a Shawnee. And critical it was, as it repelled two sieges in the spring and summer of 1813, stopping a potential invasion of Ohio and points farther east.

As the war transitioned to the Battle of Lake Erie and the Battle of Thames, Fort Meigs was disassembled in favor of a smaller encampment.

“They used the best building materials and some of the original fort to construct a second, much smaller fort, about one-tenth the size of the original,” says Thompson.

Walking the perimeter, Megan Leigh Barnard

Although a monument was constructed in 1908 to memorialize the battles fought and lives lost at the site, it wasn’t until the 1970s and the approaching bicentennial of the U.S. in 1976 that the fort was reconstructed to exact details using historic maps, diaries of the men who served at Fort Meigs and more.

“We have a lot of literature that was left by the officers that served here,” Thompson says. “A lot of men drew maps of the fort in their diaries and their official papers. Some officers actually measured the distance between the buildings and the gates and the artillery batteries. The reconstruction that people see today is exact to 1813.”

As a result, entering the encampment feels like stepping into 1813, thanks to Fort Meigs interpretive staff, who can be seen in period-specific attire doing demonstrations such as firing a cannon, starting a fire and more things that would have happened regularly at the fort in 1813.

“You smell the past,” Fort Meig’s Manager of Historic Programming John Thompson says. “You are smelling firewood burning, you are smelling gunpowder burning. You are hearing the music from the time period. You are hearing the orders and the commands that the officers would be giving. You get that very sensual sense of what it was like to be there.”

Digging Through Time

Part of Fort Meigs’ 70 acres is a visitor center and museum, and walking through it builds on what you’ll find in the fort. The exhibits explain the story of Ohio, which was less than 10 years old and essentially the frontier at the start of the War of 1812, which was home to multiple American Indian Tribes who lived and hunted on the lands that became Ohio for thousands, of years, and was coveted by the British and U.S. governments.

“In 1812, most of the settlers lived on the Ohio River and the rest of Ohio was a vast forest,” John Thompson, manager of historic programming at Fort Meigs, says. As a result of the War of 1812, who lived in Ohio changed forever, as American Indians were forcibly removed from their land.

The final two sections of the museum deal with the idea that history is more than what’s written down and explain the legacy of some of the soldiers who served at Fort Meigs, who would go on to great things. William Henry Harrison, who was a general during the war, would go on to become president, and Richard M. Johnson, a colonel in the Kentucky Militia, would go on to serve as vice president under Martin Van Buren.

“[The last exhibit is about] the legacy of the troops that served here and asks, ‘What became of the men that fought here?’” Thompson says.

Fort Meigs reenactor demonstration, Ohio History Connection 

Telling the Whole Story

One thing that’s apparent throughout Fort Meigs is the gravity of the two sieges that took place there. In May of 1813, the British and Tribal Nations that chose to ally with them engaged in their first attempt at attacking Fort Meigs soon after its construction was complete.

“The strategy was to essentially surround Fort Meigs, cut it off, lay it under siege, bombard it with artillery and basically force the Americans to surrender and remove this threat,” Thompson says.

But after nine days of vicious fighting, including some brutal hand-to-hand combat, the Americans make a stand to fend off the siege.

“Britain will decide that they can’t take this place, and they’re going to pack up the show and sail [to Canada],” Thompson says. “What’s significant about the first siege is that this is really the first true victory that the United States sees in the war here in the West. Ohio is really the last place left in the Great Lakes that’s still in U.S. hands.”

A second siege in July 1813 was smaller and waged while the alliance between the British and Tecumseh’s forces began to fracture. Staring defeat in the face again, Gen. Proctor decides to go after a smaller target, Fort Stephenson, which is three miles south of Fort Meigs.

But after trying an unsuccessful frontal assault there, many of the Native American fighters left, dissatisfied with the British strategy.

“The significance of the second siege is the United States really stops Britain’s last endeavor offensively, and it wrecks the alliance between Britain and the Tribal Nations that allied with them,” Thompson says.

History was forever changed as a result. Soon after, the U.S. won the Battle of Lake Erie, then the Battle of the Thames, during which Tecumseh was killed, resulting in the war soon drawing to a close.

As all of that history unfolds in front of you at Fort Meigs, it’s hard not to think about the sacrifices made here from all sides.

“Every story has different sides to it,” Thompson says. “And each one adds a new color to the image that you’re holding in your mind. We need to honor the men that fought here — not just the American soldiers, but we have British soldiers, we have Canadian soldiers, we have American Indian soldiers here.”

Once you’ve engaged with the staff, browsed the artifacts and stood on storied ground, you’ll leave with a new perspective on Northwest Ohio’s historic role.

Fort Meigs Museum, Ohio History Connection