Gateway to the Classics: Historical Tales, Vol I: American by Charles Morris
Historical Tales, Vol I: American by  Charles Morris

A Gallant Defence

The relations between the Indians and the European colonists of America were, during nearly the whole colonial and much of the subsequent period, what we now suggestively entitle "strained." There were incessant aggressions of the colonists, incessant reprisals by the aborigines, while the warring whites of America never hesitated to use these savage auxiliaries in their struggles for territory and power. The history of this country is filled with details of Indian assaults on forts and settlements, ambushes, massacres, torturings, and acts of duplicity and ferocity innumerable. Yet every instance of Indian hostility has ended in the triumph of the whites, the advance of the army of colonization a step further, and the gradual subjugation of American savagery, animate and inanimate, to the beneficent influences of civilization.

These Indian doings are frequently sickening in their details. The story of America cannot be told without them. Yet they are of one family, and largely of one species, and an example or two will serve for the whole. In our next tale the story of an Indian assault on the Daniel Boone stronghold in Kentucky will be told. We purpose now to give the interesting details of an attack on Fort Henry, a small frontier work near where Wheeling now stands.

This attack was the work of Simon Girty, one of the most detestable characters that the drama of American history ever brought upon the stage. He was the offspring of crime, his parents being irredeemably besotted and vicious. Of their four sons, two, who were taken prisoner by the Indian at Braddock's defeat, developed into monsters of wickedness. James was adopted by the Delawares, and became the fiercest savage of the tribe. Simon grew into a great hunter among the Senecas,—unfortunately a hunter of helpless human beings as much as of game,—and for twenty years his name was a terror in every white household of the Ohio country. He is spoken of as honest. It was his one virtue, the sole redeeming leaven in a life of vice, savagery, and cruelty.


Indian Attack and Gallant Defence.

In the summer of 1777 this evil product of frontier life collected a force of four hundred Indians for an assault on the white. His place of rendezvous was Sandusky; his ostensible purpose to cross the Ohio and attack the Kentucky frontier settlements. On reaching the river, however, he suddenly turned up its course, and made all haste towards Fort Henry, then garrisoned by Colonel Sheppard, with about forty men.

The movements of Girty were known, and alarm as to their purpose was widely felt. Sheppard had his scouts out, but the shrewd renegade managed to deceive them, and to appear before Fort Henry almost unannounced. Happily, the coming of this storm of savagery was discovered in time enough to permit the inhabitants of Wheeling, then composed of some twenty-five log huts, to fly for refuge to the fort.

A reconnoitring party had been sent out under Captain Mason. These were ambushed by the cunning leader of the Indians, and more than half of them fell victims to the rifle and the tomahawk. Their perilous position being perceived, a party of twelve more, under Captain Ogle, sallied to their rescue. They found themselves overwhelmingly outnumbered, and eight of the twelve fell. These untoward events frightfully reduced the garrison. Of the original forty only twelve remained, some of them little more than boys. Within the fort were this little garrison and the women and children of the settlement. Outside raged four hundred savage warriors, under a skilful commander. It seemed absolute madness to attempt a defence. Yet Colonel Sheppard was not one of the men who lightly surrender. Death by the rifle was, in his view, better than death at the stake. With him were two men, Ebenezer and Silas Zane, of his own calibre, while the whole garrison was made up of hearts of oak.

As for the women in the fort, though they were of little use in the fight, they could lend their aid in casting bullets, making cartridges, and loading rifles. Among them was one, Elizabeth Zane, sister of the two men named, who was to perform a far more important service. She had just returned from school in Philadelphia, knew little of the horrors of border warfare, but had in her the same indomitable spirit that distinguished her brothers. A woman she was of heroic mould, as the events will prove.

It was in the early morning of September 26 that Girty appeared before the fort. A brief period sufficed, in the manner related, to reduce the garrison to a mere handful. Sure now of success, Girty advanced towards the palisades with a white flag, and demanded an unconditional surrender.

Colonel Sheppard was ready with his answer. He had already felt the pulse of his men, and found that it beat with the same high spirit as his own. He mounted upon the ramparts, stern and inflexible, and hurled back his reply,—

"This fort shall never be surrendered to you, nor to any other man, while there is an American left to defend it."

"Are you mad, man?" cried Girty. "Do you know our force? Do you know your own? Resistance is folly."

"I know you, Simon Girty. That is enough to know. You have my answer."

In a rage, Girty hurled back a volley of dark threats, then turned away, and ordered an instant attack. Unluckily for the garrison, some of the deserted log-huts were sufficiently near to shelter the Indians, and enable them to assault the fort under cover. They swarmed into these houses, and for six hours kept up an incessant fire on the works, wasting their bullets, as it proved, for none of them did harm to fort or man. As for the defenders, they had no ammunition to waste. But most of them were sharp-shooters, and they took good care that every bullet should tell. Nearly every report from behind the walls told a story of wound or death. As good fortune willed, the savages had no artillery, and were little disposed to hazard their dusky skins in an assault in force on the well-defended walls.

At midday the attack temporarily ceased. The Indians withdrew to the base of Wheeling Hill, and the uproar of yells and musketry was replaced by a short season of quiet. It was a fortunate reprieve for the whites. Their powder was almost exhausted. Had the assault continued for an hour longer their rifles must have ceased to reply.

What was to be done? The Indians had withdrawn only for rest and food. They would soon be at their threatening work again. Answer to them could not long be continued. When the fire from the fort ceased all would be over. The exultant savages would swarm over the undefended walls, and torture and outrage be the lot of all who were not fortunate enough to die in the assault.

Ebenezer Zane looked wistfully at his house, sixty yards away.

"There is a keg of powder within those walls," he said. "If we only had it here it might mean the difference between safety and death."

"A keg of powder!" cried Colonel Sheppard. "We must have it, whatever the danger!" He looked out. The Indians were within easy gunshot. Whoever went for the powder ran the most imminent risk of death. The appearance of a man outside the gates would be the signal for a fierce fusillade. "But we must have it," he repeated. "And we can spare but one man for the task. Who shall it be? I cannot order  any one to such a duty. What man is ready to volunteer?"

Every man, apparently; they all thronged forward, each eager for the perilous effort. They struggled, indeed, so long for the honor that there was danger of the Indians returning to the assault before the powder was obtained.

At this interval a woman stepped forward. It was Elizabeth Zane. The fire of a noble purpose shone on her earnest face.

"But one man can be spared to go, you say, Colonel Sheppard," she remarked. "In my opinion no man can be spared to go. Let me go for the powder. My life is of much less importance to the garrison than that of a man."

Colonel Sheppard looked at her with eyes of admiration, and then peremptorily refused her request. This was work for men, he said, not for women. She should not sacrifice herself.

It was every one's duty to do their share, she replied. All were alike in danger. The walls were not half manned. If she fell, the gap would be small; if a man fell, it would be large.

So earnest were her solicitations, and so potent her arguments, that Colonel Sheppard finally yielded a reluctant consent. It was given none too soon. There was little time to spare. The gate was opened and the brave woman walked fearlessly out.

She had not gone a step beyond the shelter of the fort before the Indians perceived her. Yet the suddenness of her appearance seemed to paralyze them. They stood and watched her movements, as she walked swiftly but steadily over the space leading to her brothers' house, but not a gun was lifted nor a voice was raised. So far the expedient of sending a woman had proved unexpectedly successful. The savages gazed at her in blank amazement, wondering at her purpose.

She entered the house. An anxious minute or two passed. The Indians still had not stirred. The eyes of the garrison were fixed with feverish anxiety on the door of that small hut. Then they were relieved by the reappearance of the devoted girl, now clasping the precious keg of powder in her arms.

It was no time now to walk. As rapidly as she could run, with the weight in her arms, she sped over the open space. Speed was needed. The Indians had suddenly come to a realizing sense of the woman's purpose, and a volley of bullets swept the space over which she fled.

Not one touched her. In a minute she had reached the fort. A shout of enthusiastic welcome went up. As the gate closed behind her, and she let fall the valuable prize from her unnerved arms, every hand was stretched to grasp hers, and a chorus of praise and congratulation filled the air.

"We have a heroine among us; we will all be heroes, and conquer or die," was the universal thought.

It was a true one; Elizabeth Zane's was one of those rare souls which seem sent on earth to make man proud of his race.

At half-past two the assailants returned to the attack, availing themselves, as before, of the cover of the huts. After a period spent in musketry, they made an assault in force on the gate of the fort. They were met by the concentrated fire of the garrison. Six of them fell. The others fled back to their shelter.

Until dark the fusillade continued. After darkness had fallen the assailants tried a new device. Lacking artillery, they attempted to convert a hollow maple log into a cannon. They bound this as firmly as possible with chains, then, with a ludicrous ignorance of what they were about, they loaded it to its muzzle with stones, pieces of iron, and other missiles. This done, they conveyed the impromptu cannon to a point within sixty yards of the fort, and attempted to discharge it against the gates.

The result was what might have been anticipated. The log burst into a thousand pieces, and sent splinters and projectiles hurtling among the curious crowd of dusky warriors. Several of them were killed, others were wounded, but the gates remained unharmed. This was more than the savages had counted on, and they ceased the assault for the night, no little discouraged by their lack of success.

Meanwhile tidings of what Girty and his horde were about had spread through the settlements, and relief parties were hastily formed. At four o'clock in the morning fourteen men arrived, under command of Colonel Swearingen, and fought their way into the fort without losing a man. At dawn a party of forty mounted men made their appearance, Major McCullough at their head. The men managed to enter the fort in safety, but the gallant major, being unluckily separated from his band, was left alone outside.

His was a terribly critical situation. Fortunately, the Indians knew him for one of their most daring and skillful enemies, and hated him intensely. Fortunately, we say, for to that he owed his life. They could easily have killed him, but not a man of them would fire. Such a foeman must not die so easily; he must end his life in flame and torture. Such was their unspoken argument, and they dashed after him with yells of exultation, satisfied that they had one of their chief foes safely in their hands.

It seemed so, indeed. The major was well mounted, but the swift Indian runners managed to surround him on three sides, and force him towards the river bluffs, from which escape seemed impossible.

With redoubled shouts they closed in upon him. The major, somewhat ignorant of the situation, pushed onward till he suddenly found himself on the brow of a precipice which descended at an almost vertical inclination for a hundred and fifty feet. Here was a frightful dilemma. To right and left the Indian runners could be seen, their lines extending to the verge of the cliff. What was to be done? surrender to the Indians, attempt to dash through their line, or leap the cliff? Each way promised death. But death by fall was preferable to death by torture. And a forlorn hope of life remained. The horse was a powerful one, and might make the descent in safety. Gathering his reins tightly in his right hand, while his left grasped his rifle, McCullough spurred the noble animal forward, and in an instant was over the brow of the cliff, and falling rather than dashing down its steep declivity.

By unlooked-for good fortune the foot of the bluff was reached in safety. Into the creek dashed horse and man, and in a minute or two the daring fugitive was across and safe from his savage pursuers.

The Indians returned disappointed to the vicinity of the fort. Here they found that their leader had decided on abandoning the assault. The reinforcements received, and the probability that others were on the way, discouraged the renegade, and Girty led his horde of savages away, first doing all the harm in his power by burning the houses of the settlement, and killing about three hundred cattle belonging to the settlers.

The defence of Fort Henry was one of the most striking for the courage displayed, and the success of the defenders, of the many gallant contests with the Indian foe of that age of stirring deeds. Aside from those killed in ambush, not a man of the garrison had lost his life. Of the assailants, from sixty to one hundred fell. Simon Girty and his Indians had received a lesson they would not soon forget.

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