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Profile - William Henry Harrison

Until 1988 the oldest man ever elected president, William Henry Harrison (1773-1841) has two other distinctions among the nation’s chief executives: he was the first to die in office, and he served the shortest term ever, just 30 days.

The Harrisons were a very distinguished Virginia family. The president’s great-great-great-grandfather, Benjamin Harrison, made the family fortune, arriving in Virginia in the early 1600s. By the time he died, around 1645 or so, Benjamin was a wealthy planter and respected member of the House of Burgesses. His son, the president’s great-great-grandfather, Benjamin II, managed the family estates and also served several terms in the House of Burgesses. His son, the President’s great-grandfather, Benjamin III, served as a colonel in the Virginia militia, but died young, at 27, in 1710, two years before his father. Benjamin III’s son, the president’s grandfather, Benjamin IV, was likewise a wealthy planter and colonial political leader. His son, Benjamin V, the president’s father, was elected to the Continental Congress in 1774 and was a signer of the Declaration of Independence. In 1777, Benjamin V left Congress, to serve as a lieutenant in the Virginia militia to the end of the Revolutionary War, and was later elected governor of the state. 

While still in his teens, William Henry Harrison entered medical school. He dropped out in 1791, however, when he was 19, to accept a commission as an ensign – second lieutenant – in the 1st Infantry Regiment (today's 3rd Infantry). At that time the Indians of the Ohio Valley had united under the leadership of the great war chief Little Turtle, and had inflicted two successive devastating defeats on the Army. As a result, President Washington appointed Maj. Gen. Anthony Wayne to reorganize the Army. 

Wayne, who had acquired the nickname “Mad Anthony” during the Revolutionary War for his battlefield daring, appointed Harrison an aide-de-camp. Every general had several such aides. These were young officers who had the duty of riding all over the battlefield, to carry the general’s orders or to bring him information. It was a dangerous assignment, but also one that could bring an ambitious young man considerable notice. Meanwhile, internal politics among the Ohio tribes caused Little Turtle to be replaced as the Indian war leader. As a result, the Indians lost the critical Battle of Fallen Timbers (August 20, 1794), in which Harrison played an important role. In his official report to President Washington, General Wayne wrote that Harrison had “rendered the most essential service by communicating my orders in every direction, and by [his] conduct and bravery in exciting the troops to press for victory.” In June of 1798 Harrison, by then a captain, resigned from the service and settled in the Northwest, where he became involved in local politics.

In 1800 President John Adams appointed Harrison governor of the Indiana Territory, which included what are now the states of Indiana, Illinois, and Michigan. He served in this post for 12 years. As governor, Harrison oversaw the development of the territory, which underwent rapid growth. In 1811 the Shawnee warrior Tecumseh, inspired by the religious visions of his brother Tenskwatawa, put together a coalition of tribes and began raiding local settlements. Harrison took personal command of 300 regulars and about 650 militia, and led an expedition against the Indians. While camped near Tippecanoe Creek on November 7, 1811, Harrison’s troops were attacked by a large force under Tecumseh himself. Although the attack came as a complete surprise, Harrison managed to rally his troops. After a desperate two hour battle, with troops and Indians often engaged in hand-to-hand fighting, Harrison’s men succeeded in repulsing the assault. Losses were heavy on both sides. Harrison’s forces suffered nearly 200 killed and wounded, over 20-percent of their number; while Indian losses were never determined, they were also heavy. As a result of the battle, Tecumseh’s coalition fell to pieces.

On the outbreak of the War of 1812, Harrison was commissioned a major general in the Kentucky militia, and began organizing the state’s military forces. Meanwhile the war on the northwestern frontier went badly for the U.S. In July and August of 1812 the British and their Indian allies swept up isolated American outposts at Mackinac, Dearborn (Chicago), and Detroit, largely because American commanders were either too surprised or too inept to do anything more than surrender. That autumn, with the British threatening further advances, Harrison was commissioned a brigadier general in the regular army and given command of the northwestern frontier. Promoted to major general in early 1813, Harrison soon concentrated some 7,000 regulars and militiamen in Ohio. By the summer he had halted the British advance. The next step was to drive them back into Canada. To accomplish that task he needed control of Lake Erie. This occurred when Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry won his spectacular victory over the British at Put-in-Bay on Lake Erie (September 10, 1813 – “We have met the enemy, and they are ours.”). This permitted Harrison to resume the offensive. 

With Perry's squadron in support, Harrison recaptured Detroit on September 29th. He then pressed on into Canada. His army consisted of about 2,200 volunteers and militiamen, plus about 200 Indians. On October 15, 1813, Harrison won the Battle of the Thames River, crushing a force of about 1,700 British troops, Canadian militiamen, and Indians. Many of the enemy were killed, including the great Tecumseh himself, and more than 600 were taken prisoner. This victory secured the northwestern frontier. With British forces virtually non-existent in the region, the stage was set for Harrison to overrun significant portions of Ontario in 1814. However, over the winter of 1813-1814 Secretary of War John Armstrong ordered Harrison to disperse his militiamen and send his regulars to support operations along the Niagara River. Harrison protested, and then resigned from the army and returned to Ohio. 

At the next election, the people of Ohio sent the popular war hero Harrison to the House of Representatives and later the Senate. After serving for a time as minister to Colombia, in 1836 he ran for president, but was defeated by Martin Van Buren, who had the endorsement of Andrew Jackson. Four years later Harrison defeated the incumbent Van Buren 

Called by one historian “. . . a dynamic, energetic officer,” Harrison never had a chance to prove that he could be as effective a president as he had been a general. On March 4, 1841, he delivered the longest inaugural address on record, over 8,000 words, speaking for an hour and forty-five minutes, standing bareheaded in a light wet snow fall. Then he rode on horseback to the White House as the snow turned to rain. Within a few days he came down with a cold, which persisted and turned into pneumonia. President Harrison died on April 4, 1841, after only 30 days in office.  

The president’s son Benjamin served as a volunteer physician during the Texas Revolution (1835-1836). Two grandsons were West Point graduates; James F. Harrison (Class of 1841), served as a lieutenant in the Mexican War and rose to colonel of Ohio volunteers during the Civil War, while Montgomery Pike Harrison (Class of 1847), was killed in action by hostile Indians in Texas a few months after his graduation. Two other grandsons also served in the Civil War; Benjamin Harrison, the future president, rose to colonel and brevet brigadier general, while Archibald Harrison rose to lieutenant colonel. A great-grandson, Lytle Harrison, was a paymaster in the U.S. Navy, and served in the Spanish-American War.  

 


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