Fort Laurens, Ohio
Fort Laurens, Ohio
FORT LAURENS, OHIO. November 1778–August 1779. Located near modern Bolivar and subsequently a state historical site, this was the first U.S. fort established in what became the state of Ohio. Work was started after the twelve-hundred-man expedition under General Lachlan McIntosh reached the spot on 21 November 1778. Their march having taken far longer than expected and with no supplies having yet reached Fort McIntosh, seventy miles to the east, the proposed invasion of Indian territory in the direction of Detroit was abandoned. Instead, McIntosh decided to establish the isolated post of Fort Laurens on the west bank of the Tuscarawas River and hold it with a small garrison through the winter, using it as a jumping-off place for an offensive in the spring of 1779.
Fort Laurens was planned by a regular army engineer—possibly Louis Cambray-Digny—and garrisoned by 150 men of the Thirteenth Virginia under John Gibson. McIntosh's troops withdrew on 9 December, before work was completed, and it was not until late December that Gibson was able to report that his post was tenable, though it was far from secure. Short of provisions, Gibson negotiated with friendly Delawares at Coshocton to buy cattle. A detachment under Samuel Sample, an assistant quartermaster, was attacked on its way to get these cattle, losing one man. At the end of January 1779, Captain John Clark of the Eighth Pennsylvania was returning from Fort Laurens to Fort McIntosh with a sergeant and fourteen men when they were attacked three miles from Fort Laurens by seventeen Mingo Indians led by the renegade Simon Girty; there was a loss of two killed, four wounded, and one man captured. Further attempts to supply the garrison were unsuccessful, and by the middle of February the food situation was critical. On 23 February, nineteen men sent to cut wood were attacked, with two captured and the rest killed within sight of the fort.
Shortly thereafter, the fort was besieged by a force composed primarily of Wyandots and Mingoes. Their numbers were variously reported as being from 180 to almost 300, though Gibson thought he faced more than 800 warriors. After 15 days, with his garrison nearly out of food, the Indians, who also lacked food, proposed to lift the siege in exchange for a barrel of flour and some meat. Assuring the Indians that he had rations to spare, Gibson promptly agreed, and the siege was soon lifted.
On 3 March 1779, General McIntosh received a message from Gibson informing him of the situation. On 19 March a force of some two hundred militia and over three hundred Continentals left Fort McIntosh and covered the seventy miles to Fort Laurens in four days to find the siege lifted. A celebratory volley fired by the garrison stampeded the pack train, causing the loss of some horses and supplies and ending the epic on a note of comic opera. The defenders had been living for almost a week on raw hides and such roots as they could find in the area. A council of war decided against McIntosh's plan for continuing the advance toward the Sandusky region. Major Frederick Vernon was left to hold Fort Laurens with 106 rank and file of the Eighth Pennsylvania and was given less than sixty days' supply of food. On 28 March 1779, soon after the departure of McIntosh's column, Indians reappeared and attacked a forty-man woodcutting party, killing two men. By the middle of May, Vernon had to order most of his garrison to return to the east because of a lack of provisions. By the end of the month, with its twenty-five-man garrison on the verge of starvation, Captain Robert Beall of the Ninth Virginia reached Fort Laurens with supplies. In late June, Lieutenant Colonel John Campbell reinforced the garrison with seventy-five well-supplied men and assumed command.
Colonel Daniel Brodhead succeeded McIntosh as commander of the Western Department in March 1779. He soon realized that Fort Laurens was untenable, and on 16 July he informed Campbell that the post would be abandoned as soon as horses could be sent to evacuate the stores. The fort was vacated early in August 1779, but not before two more Americans had been killed in the immediate vicinity. Planning to return at some point, Campbell did not destroy Fort Laurens, which remained intact until demolished after the war.
Pieper, Thomas I., and James B. Gidney. Fort Laurens, 1778–1779: The Revolutionary War in Ohio. Kent, Ohio: Kent State University Press, 1976.
revised by Michael Bellesiles