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Chapter 17

This webpage reproduces a chapter of
The War of 1812

Francis F. Beirne

published by
E. P. Dutton & Co., Inc.
New York, 1949

The text is in the public domain.

This page has been carefully proofread
and I believe it to be free of errors.
If you find a mistake though,
please let me know!


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Chapter 19

Chapter Eighteen

 p213  A Victory in Canada at Last!

Lake Erie being controlled by the Americans as the result of Perry's victory, it was the Army's turn to act. And Harrison was ready. The regulars promised him had not come up to expectations; nevertheless he had two brigades, totaling 2,500 men respectively, under the commands of Brigadier General Duncan McArthur and Brigadier General Lewis Cass. Harrison still had to depend in part upon Kentucky militia and the state responded nobly.

Earlier in the summer Harrison appealed to Governor Isaac Shelby to send him 1,500 men. Not only that but he invited the Governor, a veteran of the Revolution and known affectionately throughout Kentucky as "Old King's Mountain" for the distinguished part he had played in that battle, to join the expedition. "Scipio," he reminded the Governor, "did not disdain to act as the lieutenant of his younger and less experienced brother, Lucius." The classical allusion had the desired effect. Shelby, in spite of his 66 years, responded cordially to the invitation, and his example inspired his countrymen and stimulated recruiting. The Kentuckians flocked to his banner and, in the end, he brought with him, not 1,500, but 4,000 men.

Included in the number was a regiment of mounted rifle­men, 1,000 strong, under the command of Colonel R. M. Johnson, a spirited and competent leader. Colonel Johnson's troop already had been active patrolling the Indian country and proved most success­ful in keeping the savages subdued. The whole Army of the Northwest now was encamped near the shores of Lake Erie between Sandusky Bay and Port Clinton. The ranks were further swelled by a band of 260 friendly Indian warriors. (See Map I, p97)

On September 20 a picked force of 4,500 men, which was to invade  p214 Canada, was embarked on Perry's fleet and other vessels at Put‑in‑Bay to be concentrated on Middle Sister Island, which lay about 12 miles from the Canadian shore. The volunteers who had brought their mounts with them were disappointed when they were told that there would be no room aboard ship for the horses; not even for the general's charger. The animals were penned up on a peninsula behind a corral a mile and a half long and left in care of a guard. Colonel Johnson's troops were an exception. They were ordered to march to Detroit by land and join the main force in Canada.

The movement of the army to Middle Sister Island was successfully accomplished. While the men rested there, Harrison and Perry, who commanded the ships, sailed in the schooner Ariel to reconnoiter the mainland. Satisfied that all was in readiness, Harrison ordered the re‑embarkation of the troops on September 27. Nine armed vessels and 80 miscellaneous ships had been assembled to transport the army; and, as they departed with all sails set, they made a splendid and awe‑inspiring spectacle. Never before in American history had such an armada been brought together for the invasion of a foreign shore.

The crossing proceeded according to plan. At 4 P.M. the first boats touched at Hartley's Point, and as they reached the shallow water the men plunged in and waded to shore where they formed in line of battle on the beach, prepared to meet any opposition the British might raise against them. The precautions, however, were unnecessary for the Americans found the place deserted.

Colonel Proctor, who after his several forays into American territory earlier in the summer had retired to Malden, had there and at Detroit approximately 1,000 regulars and a force of Indians under Tecumseh estimated at about 3,500. Of the Indians he could not be too sure. He had not dared tell them of Barclay's defeat on the lake. During the battle Tecumseh paddled far out from shore in the hope of observing the engagement but he did not get close enough to see the result. After the battle Proctor explained that the British fleet had gone to Put‑in‑Bay for refitting, which was true enough. He neglected to add the Barclay and his men had gone as prisoners.

 p215  When Proctor learned of the host that was preparing to descend upon him he determined to evacuate Malden and Amherstburg, but the great question was how to do it without estranging his Indian allies. He and his men were fearful that the Indians, disillusioned at the turn events had taken, might set upon and massacre them. Tecumseh urged Proctor to make a stand on the beaches; and, when Proctor refused, the Indian chieftain likened him to a whipped cur dog who crawls away with his tail between his legs. Proctor could appease the Indians only by promising to make a stand farther to the rear. His men, watching the Indians suspiciously, proceeded with their packing. On September 24, three days before the landing, Proctor burned all the public buildings at Malden and what stores he could not take with him, and returned to Sandwich opposite Detroit. His object was to reach the line of the Thames River, which ran inland, enabling him to transport his provisions by boat while his troops and the Indians marched by the road which paralleled the river. His progress was greatly impeded by the fact that the warriors were accompanied by their squaws and children.

Thus it was that when Harrison's army reached Malden, Proctor was already many miles away. The only human beings to meet the invaders were a group of weeping women who came forward to beg for mercy. They were greatly relieved when the venerable Governor Shelby, who was with the advance guard, mustered all of his Kentucky chivalry to assure them that not a hair of their heads would be touched.

The Kentuckians had hoped to find mounts in Canada to replace those that had been left behind. But not a horse was to be had. A pony was somehow obtained and assigned to the Governor in deference to his seniority and his consequently uncertain legs. Having invested what remained of Malden the army proceeded toward Sandwich. A British rear guard was surprised in the act of setting fire to the bridge over the Aux Canards River, and the structure was saved. Yet, in spite of this piece of luck, the march of some 13 miles to Sandwich took the better part of two days. The army reached it on September 29, and on the following day Colonel Johnson's mounted regiment arrived in Detroit across the river. The appearance of the Kentucky cavalry­men was hailed with delight by those  p216 Americans who had remained in the town ever since Hull's surrender the preceding year. And, after the festivities were over, a detachment of troops was left to protect and reorganize the settlement.

Yet another day was consumed while Johnson's troopers were crossed over to Sandwich. At last, on October 2, Harrison was ready for the pursuit of Proctor up the Thames. After leaving garrisons at Malden, Amherstburg and Detroit, he still had a force of 3,500 men. By that time Proctor was at Dolson's, 50 miles to the east. Once the trail was taken up it was pursued in earnest. While Perry continued with Harrison as an aide, several of his ships carried supplies for the army up the Thames until the shallowness of the water and the height of the banks, from which Indian sharpshooters could operate, made the undertaking both impractical and dangerous. In his haste to get away, or in the belief that Harrison would not follow, Proctor neglected to burn the bridges or to place obstacles in the road. And, since Johnson's troopers set the pace, the distance between pursuer and pursued rapidly grew less. Soon the Americans began to find smoldering campfires, abandoned supplies and other evidences of Proctor's haste.

On October 4 the Indians attempted a stand at Chatham, three miles east of Dolson's; but, at the first exchange of fire, they fled. It now became apparent to Proctor that, encumbered as he was with the squaws and babies, he had no hope of escaping from the Americans. His choice lay between either deserting the Indians, which he had promised faithfully not to do, or of turning and fighting. He elected the latter course. On October 5, while his baggage and the Indian domestic establishment withdrew to Moravian Town, a missionary settlement, he halted his troops and his Indian warriors and formed a line of battle a mile and a half to the west of the town.

The position selected was far from ideal, since the ground was level at that point and the only protection was a grove of trees and some swampland. Proctor rested his left on the river, his line extending to a large swamp on his extreme right. In the middle of his front was a smaller swamp. His force of regulars had now been reduced to about 400 infantry­men and a few dragoons. These he formed in two lines in open order, as he did not have enough men for closed ranks. On the road which paralleled the river he posted a 6‑pounder  p217 gun. This gave his line a menacing appearance, but that was all. The gun could not be fired because there was no ammunition. The Indians under Tecumseh continued the line to the right, taking station on the edge of the large swamp.

When Harrison learned from his scouts that the British were preparing to make a stand he advanced with Perry, Colonel Johnson and other members of his staff and reconnoitered the position. It was determined that Johnson's troopers should form the first line and that they should be followed by the infantry in three succeeding lines. One brigade at the left flank was to be "refused," that is to say, faced at an angle to the front in order to guard any attempt of the Indians to penetrate the American flank or rear. On the extreme right, between the road and the river, a small body of Americans and friendly Indians was to attempt to slip by the British line, get in on the rear and give the British the impression that they were being attacked by their own allies. When the order was given by Harrison for the engagement to begin Johnson and his troopers were to withdraw to the rear, leave the assault to the infantry, and then come in at the end.

At the last minute the plan underwent a drastic change. Seeing the British in open order Johnson ventured the opinion that his troopers alone could break the line and asked the right to try. This meant that the battle would open with a cavalry charge. Though Harrison said later that he did not know of any military precedent for such a maneuver he nevertheless agreed to it. The troopers accordingly took their places in the front line and awaited the word of command.

When all was ready the charge was ordered and the Kentuckians dashed forward under the leader­ship of Colonel Johnson's brother, James. They were met by a fire from the British line which temporarily threw the horses into confusion. Quickly recovering they made a second try, broke through the first line and continued on to the second, spreading to right and left, cutting down those who resisted and taking prisoners. The British regulars were the remnants of the 41st Regiment, which had behaved so gallantly and suffered so severely in the frontal attack on Fort Stephenson. The 41st also had provided men for Barclay's fleet. After all they had endured it was asking too much of them to stand up and be cut to pieces by a  p218 force several times their size. By now they had lost confidence in their leader and were in a mutinous state. Consequently, finding themselves surrounded by the Kentucky troopers, they surrendered for the most part as soon as opportunity offered. Within a few minutes the fight was over on this part of the field.

Colonel Johnson, however, had made another last-minute change of his own without previously consulting General Harrison. As the regiment formed for the initial charge he discovered that the ground between the little swamp and the river did not afford sufficient room for the maneuvering of all his mounted men. He therefore took it upon himself to detach half of his regiment, 500 men, and lead them around the small swamp to attack the Indians.

Here the situation proved more difficult. The trees and undergrowth were thicker, the ground broken and the larger swamp did not allow solid footing for the horses. The Indians, too, numbered in the neighborhood of 1,000 and Tecumseh was at their head. When Colonel Johnson attacked he was met with a heavy fire from behind trees and underbrush. It immediately became apparent that the fight could not be continued on horseback and the order was given to dismount. Kentuckians and Indians engaged in bitter hand-to‑hand combat. Colonel Johnson was personally assailed by a warrior who was shot down. He himself sustained a painful wound but continued in the fight. The Kentuckians had old scores to settle and raised the cry of "Remember the Raisin" as for a time, the battle swayed back and forth.

Governor Shelby, "Old King's Mountain," had taken post at the angle between the first line of infantry and the brigade turned to the flank. From that vantage point he saw the difficulty Johnson and his troopers were in and ordered up the infantry. How far the infantry got became later a matter of dispute. For at this moment the tide of battle turned. Tecumseh, bravely leading his warriors, was struck down. The Indians, seeing their chieftain fall, lost heart, gave up the battle and fled, being hotly pursued by the Kentuckians. Proctor had taken station on the road at the rear of his regulars and there observed the battle. Seeing how the day was going he leaped into his carriage and deserted. The battlefield and the country behind it now presented a scene of bloody confusion. Some of the Kentucky horsemen, learning of Proctor's flight, followed behind him and the chase  p219 became so hot that Proctor abandoned his carriage and hid in a wood until he was lost to his pursuers. The carriage and his private papers were captured and brought back in triumph by the troopers.

The squaws in Moravian Town, hearing news of the defeat, gave way to panic and many of them threw their babies into the river. On the battlefield the victors came upon the body of an Indian warrior which was identified as that of Tecumseh. True to the American souvenir tradition the Kentuckians cut strips out of skin from the body to be made into razor strops. But there is doubt that they actually wrought this personal vengeance on the man who had given them so much trouble. Indians who survived the battle later testified that the mutilated corpse was not Tecumseh's and that during the night after the conflict the body of the chieftain was recovered and spirited away to be given a decent burial by his own people.

Tecumseh died a noble death as he had wanted to do, facing his enemies and fighting to the last. "Tippecanoe," "Detroit," "The Raisin" — all were associated with his name. It would have consoled him had he known that his activities had caused the United States Government to raise 20,000 troops and spend a fortune conservatively estimated at $5,000,000. That was the price he had made the Americans pay for the lands wrested from his people, not to mention the American blood that had been shed on the frontier.

With Tecumseh's death ended the Indian opposition in the Northwest. After the battle of the Thames, Detroit was again safely in American hands, Lake Erie was under American control, and from Detroit to the western end of Lake Ontario British influence virtually ceased to exist in Upper Canada save for the small post at Mackinac Island. Now at last it appeared that Clay's dream had come true. The Kentuckians of whom he had boasted were all inside Canadian territory, Proctor's army had been destroyed and the way lay open to strike hard at the British flank and rear in cooperation with the American offense on the Niagara front. That, in any other war, would have seemed the obvious move to make in order to reap the full rewards of the victory. But the War of 1812 followed no such rules.

The victory had been cheaply won. The American loss in the engagement was 15 men killed and 30 wounded. Evidence of the  p220 British lack of resistance was their record of 12 killed, 36 wounded and 477 captured. This, apparently, was satisfaction enough for the Kentuckians. The weather was beginning to grow unpleasantly cold. No provision had been made for feeding the army on an extended march through Canada. So, instead of going forward, Harrison retired with his army to Detroit. There he released the Kentuckians and sent them home.

Harrison and the regulars shortly after boarded ships and sailed across Lake Erie to join forces with General McClure's New York militia which were stationed on the Niagara front around Fort George. A campaign to drive the British from that area was contemplated. Meanwhile, however, Secretary of War Armstrong had centered his attention on Wilkinson's campaign down the St. Lawrence against Montreal. Sackett's Harbor was threatened and Harrison and his men were ordered there. Then Armstrong suggested to Harrison that, after his strenuous service in the field, the General might like to return home to visit his family.

This suggestion aroused in Harrison the suspicion that Armstrong was indifferent to his services. Indeed the Secretary of War was of the opinion that Harrison's military skill was greatly overrated. Another star was rising in the West in the person of Andrew Jackson; and, between Harrison and Jackson, Armstrong preferred the latter. The Secretary took occasion to issue orders over Harrison's head and inflicted other similar indignities that led to the General's offer of his resignation. Acceptance would leave a single vacancy among the regular major generals. Acting in the absence of President Madison, Armstrong accepted Harrison's offer and gave his commission to Jackson.

Thus, at the very height of his career and while the laurels of victory were still fresh on his brow, Harrison retired from the military scene, not to return during the rest of the war. He was not to reappear before the public until many years later and then as a candidate for President of the United States.

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