|Siege of Prairie du Chien|
|Part of the War of 1812|
|Commanders and leaders|
|William McKay||Joseph Perkins|
|about 650||about 100|
|Casualties and losses|
7 wounded prisoners|
The Siege of Prairie du Chien was a British victory in the far western theater of the War of 1812. During the war, Prairie du Chien was a small frontier settlement with residents loyal to both American and British causes. By 1814, both nations were anxious to control the site because of its importance to the fur trade and its strategic location at the intersection of the Mississippi River and the Fox-Wisconsin Waterway, a transportation route linking the Mississippi with the Great Lakes.
Although Prairie du Chien became a part of the United States following the Treaty of Paris in 1783, the Americans made little effort to maintain a presence in the far western settlement. Thus, it remained largely under British influence into the 19th Century. In the spring of 1814, American forces decided to secure the location, realizing that if it fell to the British, there would be no obstacle to a British attack on St. Louis. William Clark, the governor of Missouri Territory, organized a force in St. Louis that included 61 regulars from the Seventh Infantry under Brevet Major Zachary Taylor, as well as 140 volunteers who agreed to join the force for sixty days under the command of Frederick Yeizer and John Sullivan. Shortly after the force was assembled, Taylor left for personal reasons. In his place, Lieutenant Joseph Perkins of the 24th Infantry took command of the regulars. On May 1, Governor Clark and the combined forces under Perkins, Yeizer, and Sullivan, began up the Mississippi River en route to Prairie du Chien.
Word of the American advance reached the British force at Fort Mackinac on Mackinac Island, Michigan. British commander Robert McDouall did not want the Americans to gain a foothold in the northwest, fearing that it would disrupt the British fur trade as well as Britain's numerous alliances with the region's American Indian tribes. To respond to the American threat, the British at Mackinac organized a militia captained by Joseph Rolette, Thomas G. Anderson, and Pierre Grignon. The militia was sent along with one British regular, a detachment of the Michigan Fencibles, and several hundred Winnebago, and Fox warriors to meet the Americans at Prairie du Chien. Lieutenant Colonel William McKay was put in command of the force, which was estimated at 650.
In the meantime, the American force led by Governor Clark and Joseph Perkins had arrived in Prairie du Chien. They reached the village on June 2, and a few days later, on June 6, they began building a fort on a large mound north of the main village. The fort was named Fort Shelby in honor of Governor Isaac Shelby of Kentucky. Seeing that construction of the small wooden fort was underway, Governor Clark left to return to St. Louis on June 7. The Americans made steady progress on the fort, and although the defenses were unfinished, the barracks were occupied by June 19. Around the time that the fort was being occupied, the sixty day terms of service for the volunteers led by Yeizer and Sullivan expired. Most of these men went home with Sullivan, although Yeizer and some men in his company agreed to stay aboard the American river gunboat Governor Clark, a thirty-two oar, fourteen gun wooden vessel anchored in the Mississippi River beside Fort Shelby.
On July 17, the British force arrived at Prairie du Chien. Late in the morning, Thomas Anderson approached Fort Shelby to deliver Perkins a note demanding the Americans' unconditional surrender. Perkins refused and prepared to defend the fort. The battle began early in the afternoon when the British opened fire on the Americans using their brass field cannon. Keeping their initial fire focused on the Governor Clark, the British force was able to damage the gunboat and compel it to retreat downriver. The boat carried the Americans' cannon and a substantial supply of goods and ammunition, as well as the volunteers still under the command of Frederick Yeizer.
With the gunboat gone, the British concentrated their fire on Fort Shelby, but the British cannon proved less effective. The Americans and the British maintained a steady exchange of gunfire throughout the next day, but to no avail for either side. However, by the third day of battle the Americans inside Fort Shelby were beginning to run short of ammunition and other supplies. More pressing, the well inside the fort had run dry, and an attempt to deepen it led to its total collapse. Meanwhile, upset at the lack of progress, Colonel McKay began making plans to break the stalemate by sending red hot cannonballs into the fort to set it ablaze. Lieutenant Perkins offered to surrender if the British would guarantee his men's safety. McKay agreed but asked that Perkins delay formal surrender until the next day so that he could ensure that the Indian forces accompanying the British would not threaten the Americans.
On July 20, the Americans officially surrendered and vacated the fort. Under the terms of the surrender, the British were given control of the fort and the American's arms, ammunition, and provisions, while the American troops were allowed to return to St. Louis. 60 Americans of the 7th U.S. Regiment of Infantry were captured, 7 of them wounded, whilst the British force had 3 Native Americans wounded.
Following the American surrender, the British force took possession of Fort Shelby, which was renamed Fort McKay after the British commander. Meanwhile, the Americans had returned to St. Louis by August 6. In September, the United States sent a second force upriver towards Prairie du Chien with the intent of recapturing the fort, but it was turned back at the Battle of Credit Island. The British maintained a presence at Fort McKay until word of the Treaty of Ghent reached Prairie du Chien in the spring of 1815. The treaty returned Prairie du Chien to the United States, so the British force abandoned the fort on May 25, burning it in their retreat. In the following year, the United States constructed Fort Crawford over the site of the battle in order to gain tighter control over the region.
Two active infantry battalions of the Regular Army (1-1 Inf and 2-1 Inf) perpetuate the lineages of detachments of the old 7th Infantry that were at the Siege of Prairie du Chien.
- Gilpin, p. 249
- Eaton, p. 20, which reports the killed and wounded from the official U.S. casualty return. Gilpin and other sources give only 5 American wounded for the engagement
- Eaton, Joseph H. (2000). Returns of Killed and Wounded in Battles or Engagements with Indians and British and Mexican Troops, 1790-1848, Compiled by Lt. Col J. H. Eaton (Eaton’s Compilation). Washington, D.C.: National Archives and Records Administration Microfilm Publications.
- Gilpin, Alec R. (1958 (1968 reprint edition)). The War of 1812 in the Old Northwest. East Lansing, MI: The Michigan State University Press.
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