In 2015, the Ohio History Connection Manuscripts/Audiovisual Department received a donation in the mail. At first glance, it appeared to be an unassuming 19th century Ohio account ledger, typical of the sort that the archives library has collected for many years; ledger books that document the everyday life of a farmer or merchant. This particular ledger seemed at first to fit the type, dedicated mostly to account keeping, dated c. 1815-1831. However, closer examination proved that this ledger wasn’t quite so “ordinary,” as the outlines of a story revealed itself among the pages that connected this plain ledger to an epic tale from the earliest days of Ohio, at a time when the fledgling state found itself on the front lines during the War of 1812.
The ledger belonged to a John Fisher from Manchester, Adams County. We don’t know much about Fisher, but we do know that he was born in Pennsylvania in 1787. In May of 1812 he enlisted as an orderly sergeant in Captain Jones’ company of the Ohio militia, from nearby Highland County.
The company joined the ranks of the 1,200 militia men called up by Ohio governor Return J. Meigs in March of that year. Meigs called up the militia to fill the ranks of the new “Army of the Northwest,” created by the federal government to counter the threat by the British in Canada to the Northwest Territory, the area comprised of Ohio and the territories of Illinois, Indiana and Michigan. In 1812, Ohio was still very much the frontier. With American and British interests already clashing in the territory, a declaration of war would almost certainly make the Northwest Territory a battleground.
Because the United States did not maintain a large standing professional army, the Army of the Northwest would depend on the ill-trained, ill-equipped and notoriously averse to discipline riflemen of the Ohio militia. The army would be led by William Hull, the territorial governor of Michigan, freshly awarded the rank of brigadier-general. Hull’s orders called for him to march north through Ohio –which would require the building of a road north of the Greenville Treaty Line and blazing a trail through the Great Black Swamp – to the settlement of Detroit, with the goal of safeguarding the sparsely-populated Michigan territory. Once there, Hull was to take command of Fort Detroit and use it as a base to counter British influence among local American Indian communities, gain control of Lake Erie and support future campaigns.
The militia men gathered near Dayton, then a small town with a population of maybe 400. On May 25th, Hull, along with Governor Meigs, arrived in Dayton from Cincinnati to merge his small command with the waiting militia.
Fisher’s company becomes the 2nd Company of the 2nd Battalion of the newly organized 1st Regiment of Ohio Volunteers, commanded by Colonel Duncan McArthur. Along with the 2nd and 3rd regiments, this would make up the balance of the Army of the Northwest.
On June 1st, the army left Dayton for Urbana, where they would rendezvous with the 4th Regiment of the regular army, coming from Vincennes, Indiana.
While in camp in Urbana, Fisher makes his first two entries into the ledger. The first one, dated June 10th, is an inventory of supplies drawn by the company, including muskets, bayonets, blankets and tents as well as cooking utensils, paper and quills. Included are two “blank” books: perhaps the ledger in question is one of them?
In the back of the ledger, Fisher writes out the full roster of the company. Under the “Remarks” column, Fisher added notes, including punishments, reductions in rank and deaths for some of the men, reflecting the harshness and hardships in store for the army in the coming months. Other notes indicate that some enlistees never reported for duty, reflecting the lack of training, discipline and preparation typical of the militia unit
During the course of the next few months, Fisher would add six “entries” into his ledger. Most of Fisher’s entries consist of simply copying out orders by commanding officers. While it remains unclear as to why Fisher copied these orders down, his entries provide glimpses into the travails of the Army of the Northwest during their ill-fated campaign*.
Fisher is by now serving as quartermaster sergeant for the 1st regiment on the staff of Colonel McArthur.
On June 15th, he makes his first entry during the army’s slow march north from Urbana, the column winding behind advance units blazing the trail ahead through the wilderness and building small forts or blockhouses along the way. Fisher copies into his ledger McArthur’s orders to address the issue of discipline among the regiment while at just such a blockhouse, Fort McArthur, built near present-day Kenton in Harding County. The orders are an attempt to curb the excessive intake and sales of alcohol and crack down on rampant gambling:
It's extremely unfortunate and much to be regretted that this intemperance and misconduct of a few individuals should cause the officers to abridge the privileges of those who conform to the rules and regulations established by law. From the improper and excessive use of spirituous liquors, the Colonel (consistent) with his duty, is constrained to limit a quantity and he does this the move willingly because the rations which each non-commissioned officers and soldiers is entitled by law to receive is sufficient for a temperate man and those who are intemperate would not be satisfied with any quantity. It is therefore strictly enjoined on all those who retails spirituous liquors within or without camp, that they neither sell nor cause to be sold or given to any non-commissioned officer or soldier spirituous liquors of any kind without a written order or license from the commandants of their respective companies. Any non-commissioned officer or soldier or any person retailing spirituous liquors as aforesaid who shall violate the above order shall be severely punished. Gambling of every description is hereby expressly forbidden and any commissioned officer, staff officer, non-commissioned officer or soldier who shall gamble or play at cards or any other games of hazard or chance shall be punished according to the sentence of a court martial. No person is permitted to fire a gun or pistol within a quarter of a mile of the camp or line without the permission of one of the field officers.
On June 18th, war was officially declared between the United States and Britain. This important news would not reach Hull until midnight on July 2nd, after the army had crossed the Miami (now Maumee) River into the Michigan Territory.
The army arrived at Detroit on July 5th. In 1812, Detroit was a small settlement along the Detroit River, population around 800, with a dilapidated fort positioned above the town.
The British forces across the river in Upper Canada, under the command of Major General Sir Isaac Brock, were based in Fort Mauldin at Amherstburgh with a small detachment located in the town of Sandwich (modern-day Windsor), which they soon abandoned.
The lack of discipline among the army persisted. On or about July 13th, Fisher copies into his ledger General Hull’s order -very similar to McArthur’s of June 15th - regarding the continuing gambling and unrepentant drinking among the troops:
There is a standing General order against any Officer or soldier playing at cards in or about the encampment or quarters of the Army of the U.S. This order will be strictly enforced; the practice in future will be considered as a disobedience of Orders and punished with severity. All cards now in camp will be destroyed and none will be brought in for the future. No sutler or follower of the Army will sell or deliver to any non-commissioned officer, music, artificer, or private of the Army any distilled liquors, wine, cider, ports, ale or beer, unless the N.C. officer, music, artificer or private applying to purchase the same has a written permission from the commanding officer of the regiment or company to which he belong[s].
This order was issued by Hull while much of the army is encamped on Canadian soil near Sandwich. The troops crossed the Detroit River on July 12th, and on the 13th, a reconnaissance force sent from the Sandwich camp towards British-held Fort Malden reported back on the presence of American Indians nearby, and in response, the camp is fortified with breastworks. The report probably leads to Hull issuing an order restricting troops to the camp, which Fisher again copies into his ledger.
Commanding officers of regiment or company will not leave the encampment without permission from the General, and all other officers of regiment will consider themselves restricted to their regiment unless they have permission from the commanding officers of regiment or confir(m) to be absent. Adjutants who obtain permission to be absent will previously to leaving camp make report of the same in writing to the Brigade Major with the names of the officers left to perform their duties.
Discipline wasn’t the only problem plaguing Hull’s army. The inexperience of the Ohio militiamen became more apparent under the pressure of combat. On July 24th, under orders of Colonel McArthur, Major Denny led a detachment out of the Sandwich camp to locate and attempt to ambush a group of British-allied American Indians reported near the Canard River. The ambush fails, however, when the militiamen themselves are surprised by the enemy. Believing themselves under attack from a larger force, most of the soldiers fled in panic, ignoring Denny’s commands to make a stand. Denny is thus forced to pull his remaining troops back and engage in a running fight while retreating. Following the battle, Denny demands a court-martial to absolve himself of blame for the debacle. On July 30th, Denny is cleared by a court of inquiry presided over by Colonel Findley. Hull issues a general order acknowledging this:
The court of inquiry of which Colonel Findley is Pres., having reported to the General the testimony which was had before them, respecting the conduct of Major James Denny of Col. McArthur's Regiment of Ohio volunteers, as commanding officer of a detachment of about one hundred and fourteen men, which advanced near the Aux Canard the morning of the 25th was attacked by the enemy and compelled to retreat. The General after having carefully examined the testimony with all the circumstances attending the expedition is of the opinion that Major Denny commanded like a prudent and brave officer and that no imputation rests upon him in consequence of the retreat of the detachment. The court of enquiry of which Col. Findley is President is dissolved.
Hull had returned to Detroit on July 21st to consider plans to assault Fort Malden. However, on the 28th, he learned that the British had taken Fort Michilimackinac by surprise on July 17th. The fort was a key American position located on Mackinac Island in Lake Huron. The loss of Fort Michilimackinac shifted the balance of power in the region, and seemingly unnerved Hull; he soon abandoned plans to capture Fort Malden. On August 5th, the Battle of Brownstown on the Michigan side of the Detroit River took place with heavy losses for the Ohio troops. With supply lines almost cut and the prospect of reinforcements slim, Hull withdrew most of the army from Sandwich, leaving a garrison of 150 men at so-called “Fort Hope” under the command of Major Denny. It would seem that John Fisher was among them, as once again, he transcribes Denny’s orders on August 10th. Denny included an attempt to raise the spirits of his command by reminding them of the heroic stand of the ancient Spartans in 480 BC:
The commandants of companies will parade with their men at the first beat of the Reveille in front of their part of the works they are to defend. Capt. Cook will defend the storehouse and what had been the stable; Capt. Walker the southeast side of the stockades; Capt. Jones the southeast; Capt. Robinson that part from the gate to the angle occupied by the artillerists; Capt. Sheets the upper part of the store and the stockades between that was the warehouse; a detail of one corporal and six men to take charge of the boats and have them in order at all hours. The commanding officer expects that every commissioned officer will be particularly careful to cultivate harmony amongst the troops and confidence in one another in (which) the safety of this post depends; we are the remaining hope of our country; remember the little band of Thermopylae.
On August 9th, in an effort to open the supply route, the army attempted to break through on the “River Road” leading along the Michigan shoreline of the Detroit River. The resulting fight, known as the Battle of Monguagon, was hard fought but ultimately unsuccessful and resulted again in casualties.
Following the battle, Hull withdrew his forces into Fort Detroit to wait for hoped for reinforcements. The withdrawal included the troops at Fort Hope in Upper Canada, which was abandoned on August 14th. The British moved quickly to reoccupy Sandwich and placed artillery in position along the shore to shell Detroit. Shelling from the guns and boats in the river began around noon on the 15th of August.
On August 16th, the British and their allied American Indians crossed the Detroit River and were in position to advance on Detroit. Citing fears for the civilians under his protection and unable or unwilling to mount much of a defense or offense, Hull surrendered the fort and Detroit to the British, a controversial and bitter loss for the Americans.
Following the surrender, the Ohio militiamen were paroled and placed in boats and taken across Lake Erie to the then village of Cleveland, where they were released and allowed to make their way home. According to notes made in his ledger, Fisher was put on board the Salina for transport to Cleveland. The Salina was a salt schooner owned by Daniel Dobbins. Dobbins and his boat were at Mackinac Island when the British took Fort Michilimackinac. The British had Dobbins and the Salina transport captured and paroled American troops to Detroit. The British considered Dobbins a prisoner of war, despite the fact that he was a civilian. When Detroit surrendered, Dobbins found himself threatened by the British for violating the supposed terms of his release back on Mackinac Island. He managed to escape and make his way to his home in Erie, Pennsylvania. He brought the first news to the nation of the fall of Detroit and of Fort Michilimackinac. He continued to Washington, DC and convinced President Madison to build ships for the defense of Lake Erie. Dobbins was appointed Sailing Master of the US Navy and directed back to Erie to build the ships that became “The Fleet of the Wilderness” used by Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry to defeat the British in the Battle of Lake Erie on September 10th, 1813.
We know that Fisher was among the militiamen transported to Cleveland on the Salina because he penned two short entries while on board. On the inside cover, he writes “Total rations brought on board the Salina from Malden or gave unto me by Capt. Lockhart, August 18th.” There’s nothing further on the page, but elsewhere in the ledger, scrawled beneath the last stanzas of a long poem, is a list of rations used by the men on board the Salina for August 19th to the 23rd on their journey to Cleveland.
According to notes Fisher made in the roster, two of the men in his company died on September 1st while in Cleveland, before the militiamen began making the long trek back through Ohio. We don’t know anything about Fisher’s journey from Cleveland to his home in Adams County. We only know that he arrived back in Manchester, then continued to use his militia ledger to enter customer purchases, orders and payments until at least 1831. And it would seem that he continued serving in Captain Jones’ militia company at least through 1813, as he kept adding notes to the company roster.
It’s fascinating to me that Fisher kept this ledger book, carrying it with him through the hardships of the army marching through the wilderness and swamp to Detroit, the terror and confusion of battle, the humiliation of surrender, and then a difficult journey home through an Ohio uncertain of its future in the aftermath of the defeat at Detroit. And then when he returned home, he didn’t set the ledger aside as a memento or record of his service, but continued to use it to record the transactions of his day-to-day work. Today, we see this ledger as a piece of history, adding to our knowledge of the War of 1812. But perhaps John Fisher saw it as merely a tool: he had a mostly-empty ledger, why not put it to good use? It would be a waste not to! So, he filled the pages, sometimes writing on or over the pages from 1812, turning the ledger from an artifact of war into a record of business. Whatever his train of thought back in 1815, John Fisher surely did not envision his ledger in the hands of a curator in the 21st century, 200 years later, a curator pondering the meaning while thumbing the pages of this worn plain ledger, searching for the story hidden within.
*The story of the Army of the Northwest’s march to Detroit and the events that followed is a complex saga, much too complex for this blog to cover completely. Hopefully, the much-condensed version here provides enough context. For those seeking a fuller picture, I recommend the following:
The War of 1812 in The Old Northwest by Alec R. Gilpin, Michigan State University Press, 1958.
The War of 1812: a forgotten conflict by Donald R. Hickey, University of Illinois Press, 2012 (Bicentennial edition).
Siege of Detroit
Indigenous Peoples Stories
Hull’s Trail – historical marker page