Tuesday, January 28, 2014

William Gaines: Eyewitness to History

Sgt. William Gaines

In 1813, there were no cameras, videos, or smartphones to record the historic events of the Battle of Fort Stephenson – only the words of those who lived it 200 years ago. One of those was 13-year-old Drummer Boy William Gaines, who had marched north from Kentucky a year earlier with the 24th U.S. Infantry, caring for his uncle’s horse. The two had volunteered with General William Henry Harrison’s Army to defeat the Native Americans at the Battle of Tippecanoe. It was there that Gaines’ uncle was killed. Undeterred, Gaines re-enlisted in the 24th the following July and again marched north – this time to Fort Meigs. There he helped defend the Ohio Frontier from the British and their Native American allies.

Decades later, Col. Webb C. Hayes interviewed Gaines about his experiences serving with Harrison’s Army during the War of 1812. Although an elderly veteran, Gaines remembered the events of the Battle of Fort Stephenson with great clarity. He recalled that while camped at Fort Seneca, rumors spread that the British attack on Fort Stephenson was imminent. As Gaines told it, he then “exchanged his drum for a musket” and was one of six from the 24th U.S. Infantry dispatched to Fort Stephenson along with troops from other companies.

Shortly after arriving at the fort, the “British hove in sight and began landing their troops and cannon.” Colonel William Shortt demanded surrender of the fort or no quarter would be given. When 21-year-old Major George Croghan refused and shut the gates, he spoke to his men, telling them to “prepare themselves as no quarter was to be given.”

Major George Croghan

The bombardment began. Lt. Joseph Anthony, Gaines’ commanding officer, panicked and quickly hid until after the battle. Ordered by Croghan to hold their fire, the defenders waited anxiously as they endured the British shot and shell. Gaines’ comrade, Samuel Thurman, climbed atop the blockhouse, “determined to shoot a redcoat.” Shortly, a British cannonball “took his head off.” Toward evening, the British charged and Croghan, at last, gave the order to commence firing! They “shot through loop holes in the pickets and port holes in the blockhouses.” Gaines vividly recalled the wounded Colonel Shortt of the 41st Foot, “holding up a white handkerchief for quarter.”

With Thurman dead and Anthony under arrest, the young teen returned to Fort Seneca with his remaining 24th comrades. After Perry’s Victory on Lake Erie, Gaines marched to the lake and boarded one of Perry’s ships. They were now on the offense and bound for Canada. When they landed, Harrison found that the British had already evacuated. Colonel Richard M. Johnson’s mounted forces followed the enemy at a rapid pace. One thing and one thing only was on their minds - revenge for the River Raisin slaughter of their fellow Kentuckians. Perry and his men aided the Kentucky volunteers and Harrison’s regulars. His ships carried their baggage and military supplies to the mouth of the River Thames.

Gaines declared, “We made short work of the British. They knew we were coming and General Proctor and an aide fled before we were within a mile of them. They were the only two to escape capture.” Native American resistance faded away after the loss of Tecumseh.

Ordered by the Secretary of War, Gaines and the rest of Harrison’s troops, once more boarded Perry’s ships. They set sail for Buffalo and then Sackett’s Harbor. Gaines had the good fortune to sail with Harrison, Perry, and the captured British officers. One can only imagine the victory celebration that took place aboard that ship. From Tippecanoe to the Thames, William Gaines, just 13 years old, had been there – a participant in the victories that brought pride and unity to a young nation.

On Aug. 2, 1879, President Rutherford B.Hayes and his son Webb visited the Soldiers’ Home in Washington, D.C., to interview William Gaines. Gaines was 80 years old and was the last living veteran of the Battle of Fort Stephenson. The entire interview was published in the August 22, 1879 issue of the "Fremont Journal."  Gaines continued to serve in the U.S. Army for most of his adult life. The photograph of Gaines is part of the Colonel Webb C. Hayes Collection. It was taken in 1879 at the Bell Studio in Washington D. C., located not far from the White House.    

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