IT’S THE BOMB!: A Venerable Relic of the Siege of Fort Meigs

The May 1813 siege of Fort Meigs in what is now northwest Ohio basically came down to a weeklong artillery duel between the British and Americans across the Maumee River near Toledo. Fort Meigs was situated on a high bluff on the south side of the river and the British batteries were erected on the opposite shore in what is now downtown Maumee. It is estimated that between May 1st and 5th the British fired around 2,000 artillery rounds against the American side who while being a little more judicious with their return fire were able to give just about as good as it got. Cannon fire was clearly heard forty miles upriver at Camp Winchester at Defiance, Ohio and it was reported by Lewis Cass that the bombardment was audible more than sixty miles distant at Upper Sandusky. It must have been an ungodly loud affair to be caught in the middle of it. Among the British armaments were solid cannon round shot of various weights between 6 and 24 pounds that were sometimes heated until glowing red and fired into the fort as hot shots in hopes of touching off any munitions stock piles they happened to encounter. They also sent quantities of smaller diameter canister or grape shot, small exploding grenades and arcane devices known as carcasses or hollow spheres of some sort of friable material and filled with an incendiary concoction of potassium and antimony compounds, sulfur, rosin, tallow and turpentine that was said to be nearly impossible to quickly extinguish, not unlike modern napalm or the mysterious Greek Fire of the late Iron Age. These were equipped with burning fuses and designed to burst on impact to spread fire anywhere they landed. While there are numerous accounts of soldiers being killed or having limbs amputated by cannon shot, perhaps the single most lethal munitions present were exploding aerial bombs. These were thick walled hollow iron spheres of relatively large diameters filled with gunpowder and sometimes shrapnel-like objects. They were shot from a mortar or short-barreled howitzer on a high arcing trajectory and meant to explode in the air over their intended target and rain down heavy iron fragments at a high speed on anyone or anything that happened to be under them. Bomb detonation was controlled by the artillerist who calculated the shell’s range and trajectory and timed the explosion with a length of fuse that burned at a known rate. The bomb would be placed in the mortar, the bomb fuse lit, and the mortar fired. Its what the phrase Bombs Bursting in Air in The Star Spangled Banner is all about. Such mostly anti-personnel devices were widely used throughout the 18th and 19th centuries by European-styled armies until the advent of modern artillery after the American Civil War. It should be noted that during the siege of Fort Meigs both the Americans and British had similar weapons although the British were better supplied and more heavily armed. Also Fort Meigs presented a target to the British 200 yards wide and a hundred yards deep. It didnt take tremendous artillery skills to inflict some sort of damage in a target area that large. On the other hand the Americans were forced to direct their aim at the relatively small British gun batteries several hundred yards distant on the opposite bank of the Maumee River. When the siege of Fort Meigs began, Colonel Alexander Bourne was put in command of Blockhouse #6 that was equipped with a single 6 pound iron cannon. Blockhouse #6 was located along the back or southern line of the fort and sat at a somewhat lower elevation that prevented the cannons effective use in returning fire against the British batteries. Instead the gun was positioned in the blockhouse in such a manner, as Bourne noted, “…to rake the ditch with fatal effect if the enemy should storm the place on that line and consequently I was well supplied with canister shot This aside, artillery ammunition was in relatively short supply at Fort Meigs overall. To bolster their arsenal the Americans set up a bounty system whereby any recovered British cannon shot in serviceable condition could be turned over to the artillerist in exchange for a measure of whiskey. It was said that as a result the commissary went through a considerable amount of whiskey that week and apparently some soldiers were willing to go to great lengths to secure their rewards. Concerning this Colonel Bourne relates the following: Another of my men from Ohio whose name was Bolenstein , a native of Germany and a soldier of the Revolutionary War, about 60 years of age. Seeing a 10 inch bombshell fall just outside of the blockhouse and striking a sloping stump, did not go into the ground but bounded and then rolled swiftly on it. Bolenstein jumped out through the embrasure and run after it. I told him it would burst in a moment and blow him to pieces. He kept on and said he would pull out the fuse. I knew he could not for the British screw in their fuses. The sentinels on the walls, cocking and aiming their guns at him, hailed him to return or they would shoot for they had orders to shoot every man outside without a written permission. He told them to fire away, he would have the shell anyhow and fortunately for him the fuse had not taken fire. He brought the shell in weighing nearly 100 pounds for besides the powder there were 96 musket balls in it. Bournes experience with errant artillery bombs is but one of a number of interesting accounts of action at Ft. Meigs in 1813. The following equally descriptive account comes from the writings of Pvt. Alfred M. Lorrain of the Petersburg Va. Volunteers. In his early life Lorrain served both as a sailor and soldier and later went on to become a highly respected man of the cloth as his published lifes work titled The Helm, the Sword and the Cross; A Life Narrative might suggest. It seems that when the siege of Fort Meigs began the Americans were storing their gunpowder in wagons positioned within the maze of the high earthen walls or traverses inside the fort. This protected them sufficiently from low trajectory hot shots but afforded little protection from aerial bombs exploding overhead or falling into the fort unexploded but still lit if the artillerists calculations were off (it wasnt exactly a precise science). It was decided to remove the powder to a magazine or bomb-proof built within the traverses, basically a small log structure set into the ground and covered with dirt. An officer approached Lorrain and some of his compatriots and asked their help in covering the magazine. Of this Lorrain writes: Fool-like away several of us went. As soon as we reached the spot there came a ball and took off one mans head. The spades and dirt flew faster than any of us had before witnessed. In the midst of our job, a bomb-shell fell on the roof and lodging in one of the braces it spun around for a moment. Every soldier fell prostrate on his face and with breathless horror awaited the vast explosion which we expected would crown all our earthly sufferings. Only one of all the gang presumed to reason on the case. He silently argued that as the shell had not bursted as quickly as usual there may be something wrong in its arrangement. If it bursted where it was and the magazine exploded there could be no escape it was death anyhow; so he sprung to his feet, seized a boat hook and pulling the hissing missile to the ground and, jerking the smoking match from its socket, discovered the shell was filled with inflammable matter, which, if once ignited, would have wrapped the whole building in a sheet of flame. The circumstance added wings to our shovels and we were right glad when the officer said that will do, go to your lines. When retired to our cool subterranean lodge (actually dug into the side of one of the traverses) I called a meeting of the whole cabinet of Mansoul in which, after considerable discussion, the following preamble and resolution were unanimously adopted: Whereas: Volunteering is a mere work of super-erogation and commonly founded on animal passions and, moreover, brings no revenue of respect to our judgment;  Therefore Resolved: That this shall be the last volunteer service with us, come what will. bomb What a way to make a living! Attached is an image of an artillery bomb, refit from several fragments recovered at Fort Meigs during the 2001-2002 renovations. It is approximately 8 inches in diameter and found near what is now the southeastern corner of the visitor center and was probably fired from the battery located in what is now Fort Meigs Union Cemetery. It was found about 4 feet below the surface and apparently had become deeply buried in the wet mucky soils on the south side of the fort before exploding. Although several individual bomb fragments were recovered during the project, they were scattered and unlikely to be related to each other. This was the only group of bomb fragments recovered as a group and whose parts refit so completely. It may in fact be a unique discovery on American battlefields of that period and earlier. The reassembled bomb is now on display at the Fort Meigs visitor center outside Perrysburg, Ohio. Its easy to see how getting hit by a chunk of one of these traveling at about 200 miles an hour could ruin someones day. Bill Pickard

Posted September 10, 2014
Topics: Archaeology

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