Monday, September 19, 2016

The Endless Winter: The Short Life of Fort Laurens, Ohio's Only Revolutionary War Fort

In the 1770s, Ohio was not yet the agricultural, political hub in our nation's heartland as we have come to know it. Ohio was not even a part of the United States because this union did not yet exist. Colonists who longed to govern themselves in a country of their own had turned a decades long dispute with the British monarchy into a physical battle for independence only 3 years earlier. Ohio in the 1770s was a frontier which was populated by many complex groups of people with diverse intentions. Many of the Native Americans in the Ohio Country, such as the Wyandot tribe, aligned themselves with the British and their military stronghold to the Northwest, Fort Detroit. Christian missionaries from Moravia had come to Ohio in the early 1770s and established the first permanent settlement, Schoennbrunn, where converted Delaware natives lived alongside their Moravian brethren and teachers. Schoennbrunn and other subsequent Moravian settlements in the Ohio Country were neutral in the conflict due to their religious beliefs. Fort Laurens came to be because American commanders saw a potential to utilize these natives and their unique relationships with Westerners to make the Ohio Country play a dramatic part in the war. However, Fort Laurens would end up being considered a failed venture.

Fort Laurens was named after the current president of the Continental Congress, Henry Laurens. Laurens was a close friend of the man who would lead the campaign in the Ohio Country, Lachlan McIntosh, who was commander of the Western Department of the Continental Army. McIntosh had successfully defended the Pennsylvania frontier at Fort Pitt, and he believed he could do the same at Fort Laurens. By December of 1778, construction on the fort was complete. Americans hoped Fort Laurens would be able to provide safety for settlers and friendly natives who lived in the Ohio County and Pennsylvania, who were subject to frequent raids by natives who were allied with the British. It was also hoped that a strong American victory might rally neutral natives and settlers to take up arms in the name of patriotism. McIntosh and the Continental Army also hoped the fort would provide a force capable of destroying Fort Detroit and any British presence in the Ohio Country, restoring order, safety, and freedom to everyone who lived there. 

However, from the very beginning, Fort Laurens faced numerous challenges. Completing construction on the fort and deciding to attempt to make it livable in the middle of the winter was a foolish idea. McIntosh also decided to wait until spring to launch any attacks against the British, a decision that would come back to haunt him. The Continental soldiers who were coming to serve at this fort rose up against the crude and unforgiving environment created by an Ohio winter. McIntosh had to take most of his men back to Fort Pitt just to keep them from starting a mutiny against him. McIntosh started East towards Fort Pitt with the majority of his men, leaving a little over 100 men under the command of Colonel John Gibson with little supplies or hope. A mutiny was nearly risen against Gibson, because of harsh conditions and lack of supplies. The winter continued to get worse when a British liaison to the natives in the area, Simon Girty, led a band of natives in a reconnaissance mission to Fort Laurens. Girty's men came across a group of soldiers from Fort Laurens as they were hunting. Two of the Continental soldiers were killed, and another was taken captive by Girty. This captive revealed to the British that the men at Fort Laurens were starving, desperate, and had no definitive plans to attack the British until the spring. The British would use this information to their full advantage. 

Knowing the men at Fort Laurens were weak in body and spirit, British Captain Henry Bird devised a plan. The fort was surrounded by British soldiers and their native allies. and no one was permitted to leave or enter the fort. Reinforcements from Fort Pitt arrived after the fort had already been surrounded, and these soldiers turned around and went back to Fort Pitt out of fear for their lives. The men in the fort began to starve, eating their own clothing at times. Even the British forces surrounding the fort were also starving because they were quite far from Fort Detroit, and it was the middle of winter.

On Match 20th, 1779, British forces gave in and allowed a relief force to make its way to Fort Laurens. Over the winter, 30 men had died as a result of violent altercations, disease, or starvation. General Washington was informed of the fort's general inadequacy, and he gave orders for soldiers to retreat, and the fort was abandoned. The last of the soldiers left in August of 1779, less than a year after the fort had been built. In reality, the fort was too far from Fort Detroit to attack it with any strength, and waiting an entire season to launch an attack would never have worked to the Continental Army's advantage, anyway. Ohio settlements in Schoennbrunn and Gnadenhutten were too far from the fort to be protected by it, as well. Essentially, Fort Laurens was doomed from the beginning. Building a fort far way from the targets it intended to attack or protect set it up for failure. Starvation and lack of morale were the final nails in Fort Laurens' coffin, and there would never be another attempt to use the Ohio Country as a major playing field in the war. Local militia took the task of protecting citizens unto itself, and any plans to attack Fort Detroit were forgotten. 

Eventually, Fort Laurens was dismantled by local farmers looking for sturdy timber. The site was reclaimed by dense Ohio woodlands, and a section of the land that the fort had once sat on became part of the Ohio and Erie Canal. Today, none of the original fort remains above the ground. Archaeological digs have revealed where the fort stood, and an outline is marked in the ground so you can walk the outline of the original fort. Historical markers along the path tell you more about the fort, and point out where various structures in the fort were located. A small museum is also on-site, and holds some artifacts recovered from the site that help paint a picture of what life was like at the fort. 21 of the men who lost their lives at Fort Laurens are entombed in a temperature controlled, above ground crypt, which is located in the museum:

The bodies are stored in this manner to keep the bones preserved. Scientists or historians may need to study the bones, and this gives them the opportuity to do so. Some of the bodies found on the grounds could not be identified. The Tomb of the Unknown Patriot of the American Revolution honors these men who rest without a name: 

Here is more information about Fort Laurens: