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War of 1812: General William Henry Harrison

By Kennedy Hickman, Guide

War of 1812: General William Henry Harrison

President William Henry Harrison

Photograph Courtesy of the National Archives & Records Administration

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William Henry Harrison - Early Life & Career:

Born at Berkeley Plantation, VA on February 9, 1773, William Henry Harrison was the son of Benjamin Harrison V and Elizabeth Bassett. A signer of the Declaration of Independence, Harrison was politically well-connected and ensured that his son received a proper education. At age fourteen, William Henry was sent to Hampden-Sydney College where his studied history and the classics. At his father's insistence, he enrolled at the University of Pennsylvania in 1790, to study medicine though he did not find the profession to his liking.

When his father died in 1791, William Henry Harrison was left without money for schooling. Learning of his situation Governor Henry Lee III of Virginian encouraged the young man to join the army. Seizing upon this, he was commissioned as an ensign and sent to Cincinnati for service in the Northwest Indian War. Proving himself an able officer, he was promoted to lieutenant the following June and became an aide-de-camp to Major General Anthony Wayne. Learning command skills from the gifted Pennsylvanian, Harrison took part in Wayne's 1794 triumph over the Western Confederacy at the Battle of Fallen Timbers.

William Henry Harrison - Frontier Leader:

The victory effectively brought the war to a close and Harrison was among those who signed the 1795 Treaty of Greenville. Remaining in the Northwest Territory, Harrison resigned his commission to become Secretary of the Northwest Territory on June 28, 1798. In this position less than a year, he was soon named as the territory's delegate to Congress the following March. Though unable to vote, Harrison served on several Congressional committees and played a key role in opening the territory to new settlers.

With the formation of the Indiana Territory in 1800, Harrison left Congress to accept an appointment as the region's governor. Moving to Vincennes, IN in January 1801, he built a mansion named Grouseland and worked to obtain title to Native American lands. Two years later, President Thomas Jefferson authorized Harrison to conclude treaties with the Native Americans. During his tenure, Harrison concluded thirteen treaties which saw the transfer of over 60,000,000 acres of land. Also in 1803, Harrison began lobbying for a suspension of Article 6 of the Northwest Ordinance so that slavery would be permitted.

Claiming this was necessary to increase settlement, Harrison's requests were denied by Washington. In 1809, tensions with the Native American began to increase following the Treaty of Fort Wayne which saw the Miami sell land that inhabited by the Shawnee. The following year, the Shawnee brothers Tecumseh and Tenskwatawa (The Prophet) came to Grouseland to demand that the treaty be terminated. Refused, the brothers began working to form a confederation to block white expansion. To oppose this, Harrison was authorized by Secretary of War William Eustis to raise an army as a show of force.

Assembling over a thousand men, Harrison marched against the Shawnee while Tecumseh was away rallying the tribes. Encamping near the tribes' base, Harrison's army was attacked on the morning of November 7, 1811. The ensuing Battle of Tippecanoe saw his men defeat the assaults and drive off the Native Americans. In the wake of his victory Harrison became a national hero. With the outbreak of the War of 1812 the following June, Tecumseh's War became subsumed into the larger conflict as the Native Americans sided with the British.

William Henry Harrison - War of 1812:

The war on the frontier began disastrously for the Americans with the loss of Detroit in August 1812. After this defeat, the American command in the Northwest was reorganized and after several squabbles over rank, Harrison was made commander of the Army of the Northwest on September 17, 1812. Promoted to major general, Harrison worked diligently to transform his army from an untrained mob into a disciplined fighting force. Unable to go on the offensive while British ships controlled Lake Erie, Harrison worked to defend American settlements.

In late September 1813, after the American victory at the Battle of Lake Erie, Harrison moved to the attack. Ferried to Detroit by Master Commandant Oliver H. Perry's victorious squadron, Harrison set off in pursuit British and Native American forces under Major General Henry Proctor and Tecumseh. Catching them on October 5, Harrison won a key victory at the Battle of the Thames which saw Tecumseh killed and the war on the Lake Erie front effectively ended. Though a skilled and popular commander, Harrison resigned the following summer after disagreements with Secretary of War John Armstrong.

William Henry Harrison - Moves to Politics:

In the years following the war, Harrison aided in concluding treaties with the Native Americans, served a term in Congress (1816-1819), and spent time in the Ohio state senate (1819-1821). Elected to the US Senate in 1824, he cut his term short to accept an appointment as ambassador to Colombia. While there, Harrison lectured Simon Bolivar on the merits of democracy. Recalled in September 1829, by new President Andrew Jackson, he retired to his farm in North Bend, OH with his wife Anna (married November 25, 1795). In 1836, Harrison was approached by the Whig Party to run for president.

Believing they would be unable to defeat the popular Democrat Martin Van Buren, the Whigs ran multiple candidates hoping to force the election to be settled in the House of Representatives. Though Harrison led the Whig ticket in most states, the plan failed and Van Buren was elected. Four years later, Harrison returned to presidential politics and led a unified Whig ticket. Campaigning with John Tyler under the slogan "Tippecanoe and Tyler Too," Harrison emphasized his military record while blaming the depressed economy on Van Buren. Promoted as a simple frontiersman, despite his aristocratic Virginia roots, Harrison was able to easily defeat the more elitist Van Buren 234 to 60 in the Electoral College.

Arriving in Washington, Harrison took the oath of office on March 4, 1841. A cold and wet day, he wore neither a hat nor coat as he read his two-hour long inaugural address. Taking office, he battled with Whig leader Henry Clay before falling ill with a cold on March 26. While popular myth blames this illness on his prolonged inaugural speech, there is little evidence to support this theory. The cold quickly turned into pneumonia and pleurisy, and despite the best efforts of his doctors, led to his death on April 4, 1841. At age 68, Harrison was oldest president to be sworn in prior to Ronald Reagan and served the shortest term (1 month). His grandson, Benjamin Harrison was elected president in 1888.

Selected Sources

War of 1812

American Generals

American Naval Leaders

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