Battle of the Thames 1813
This article relates to my 4th g-grandfather, General David Thomson (1775-1861). He is discussed under the heading of Samuel Thomson (1691-1753), who was born in Scotland and arrived in Virginia in 1717.
In the War of 1812, sometimes called ‘the Second American Revolution’, the U.S. Navy distinguished itself while the U.S. Army, hampered by incredibly bad leadership and state militia units whose discipline often left much to be desired, suffered greatly. The greatest American land victory, the Battle of New Orleans on 8 Jan 1815, was actually fought weeks after a peace treaty had been signed between the United States and Great Britain. And yet there were some earlier, less-famous victories on land that did credit to U.S. arms.
One such success was the Battle of the Thames, called the Battle of Moraviantown by the British and Canadians. Fought on Canadian soil, it secured the strategic Northwestern frontier from further attacks by the British and their Indian allies.
The War of 1812 was officially declared over the right of U.S. sailing ships to be free from search and seizure by the Royal Navy, then at war with Napoleonic France. Other underlying factors, however, were the ongoing British policy of aiding the Indians of the Northwestern frontier against American settlement and the desire by an aggressive-minded congressional faction, known as the Young War Hawks, to invade Canada. It was one of America’s most unpopular wars, bitterly opposed in New England; the militia, in many instances, refused to cross the border into Canada to fight the enemy. The initial strategy of the U.S. Army, officered at the top by aging veterans of the Revolution, was to invade Canada in four separate but uncoordinated offensives. Those plans were made without taking into consideration the Royal Navy’s supremacy on the Great Lakes.
In the Western theater, the Americans encountered another problem. When 61-year-old Brig. Gen. William Hull led 2,200 men out of Detroit to invade Canada, his flanks came under a series of harassing attacks by Shawnee, Wyandot, Chippewa and Lakota warriors, all led by the charismatic Shawnee Chief Tecumseh. An eloquent orator and able diplomat, Tecumseh also proved to be a canny tactician, and his harrying raids convinced Hull to double back to Detroit. Later, joined by a British force under Maj. Gen. Isaac Brock, Tecumseh convinced the British commander–against the advice of his own officers–to attack Detroit without delay. Marching his 600 braves three times through a clearing in view of the fort so that Hull would exaggerate their numbers, Tecumseh helped convince the elderly general to surrender Detroit to Brock on August 16–the only capitulation of a city in the United States to a foreign invader.
American forces failed not only in the Northwest but also on other fronts. On 13 Oct 1812, an American invasion across the Niagara River, led by Maj. Gen. Stephen van Rensselaer, was driven back in the Battle of Queenston Heights. Unfortunately for the British, however, Sir Isaac Brock–who had been knighted after his success at Detroit–was among those killed. His replacement in the West, Colonel Henry Proctor, would not match his leadership qualities.
In 1813, the prime objective of President James Madison’s Department of War was to recover Detroit and to invade Upper Canada (now Ontario province). For that task, the War Department picked the governor of the Indiana Territory, 40-year-old William Henry Harrison, the Virginia-born son of a signer of the Declaration of Independence.
As a 19-year-old subaltern, Harrison had served as an aide to Maj. Gen. ‘Mad Anthony’ Wayne at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, in which Wayne’s American Legion defeated the Indians near the present-day site of Toledo, Ohio, on 20 Aug, 1794. Also a participant in that battle was the Shawnee brave Tecumseh, who was to face Harrison again at the Battle of the Thames.
Harrison quit the service and went into politics not long after the engagement at Fallen Timbers. Returning to active duty in 1811, he defeated Tecumseh’s brother, Tenskwatawa, called ‘The Prophet,’ at Tippecanoe Creek in Indiana on 7 Nov 1811.
A year later, Harrison was promoted to major general and assigned to command the Army of the Northwest. His deputy was the controversial Brig. Gen. James Winchester, who was defeated by the British and their Indian allies at the Battle of Frenchtown, near Monroe, Michigan, on 22 Jan 1813, resulting in the surrender of 550 troops. The battle was fought along the Raisin River and was thenceforth known as the ‘River Raisin Massacre’ by the Americans because, despite a promise of protection from the British commander, Colonel Proctor, wounded American prisoners were butchered by the Indians, some being burned to death in huts.
Proctor–known to the bitter Americans thereafter as ‘the Butcher’–and the River Raisin Massacre were to remain vivid in the memories of the Americans who survived and either escaped or were paroled. Many of them were Kentuckians who would confront Proctor and his Indian allies again at Moraviantown.
Arriving at the scene of the massacre about a week later, Harrison built a new stronghold, Fort Meigs, along the Maumee River. On 1 May 1813, the new fort came under siege by Proctor and Tecumseh. On 5 May, the Americans tried to rush and take British batteries on the north and south banks of the river, but British and Indian forces counterattacked, killing or capturing about 600 of the Americans.
At that point, an incident occurred that gives some insight into Proctor’s responsibility for the River Raisin Massacre. Again, the Indians began attacking the prisoners, taking 20 scalps before Tecumseh arrived and stopped the slaughter of the helpless prisoners, shaming the warriors by shouting, ‘Are there no men here?’ Finding Proctor nearby, Tecumseh asked why he had not stopped them earlier. ‘Your Indians cannot be controlled, cannot be commanded,’ replied the British general.
‘You are not fit to command,’ said Tecumseh contemptuously. ‘Go put on your petticoats!’
On 9 May, Proctor proved Tecumseh’s point again–he abandoned the siege.
On 20 July 1813, Tecumseh and his warriors tried to lure Fort Meigs’ defenders out again, but the garrison’s commander, Colonel Greene Clay, would not fall for the ruse. In that same month, Proctor retired to Fort Malden, virtually handing the initiative to Harrison. Tecumseh responded to Proctor’s timidity with a pointed speech, comparing Proctor’s conduct to ‘a fat animal that carries its tall, bushy tail upon its back; but when affrighted, it drops it between its legs and runs off.’ Still, even after 800 of his braves had deserted him, Tecumseh told one of his 1,200 remaining warriors, ‘We are now going to follow the British, and I feel certain that we shall never return.’
On 10 Sep, 1813, U.S. Navy Master Commandant Oliver Hazard Perry defeated a squadron of British ships on Lake Erie in the bloodiest naval battle of the war. This was the first time in the history of the Royal Navy that an entire squadron was forced to surrender. After defeating British Captain Robert Barclay – a veteran of Lord Horatio Nelson’s famous victory at the Battle of Trafalgar in 1805 – the young American hero sent a message to Harrison: ‘We have met the enemy and they are ours – two ships, two brigs, one schooner and one sloop.’
The way was open at last for Harrison to invade Upper Canada and to recapture Detroit. Shortly after Perry’s victory had secured Lake Erie, Harrison moved out with some 4,500 men–a handful of regulars, the rest mostly volunteers from Kentucky. Meanwhile, the British abandoned Detroit on 18 September and nearby Fort Malden on the 24th and withdrew north along the Thames – much to the unconcealed disgust of their Shawnee ally, Tecumseh.
At age 48, Proctor was now a brigadier general in command of the Right Division of the Army of Upper Canada. His forces consisted of Tecumseh’s Indian tribes and his old regiment, the 41st Foot, whose members were known as ‘the Invalids’ because they had originally been hospital troops.
After considerable haggling over the precise place along the Thames to stand and fight the invading Yankees, on 4 October Proctor chose a spot not far from an Indian Christian settlement called Moraviantown.
That night, Tecumseh told those Indian leaders who had gathered: ‘Brother warriors, we are about to enter into an engagement from which I shall never return. My body will remain on the field of battle.’ He then gave a sword the British had given him to another Indian and said, ‘When my son becomes a noted warrior, give him this.’ When the great warrior went into battle the next day, he wore buckskin, ostrich feathers on his head and a medal around his neck.
The site of the battle, near the present-day town of Thamesville, Ontario, is described thus in the Pictorial Field-book of The War of 1812: ‘The ground chosen–was well selected. On his [Proctor’s] left was the River Thames, with a high and precipitous bank, and on his right, a marsh running almost parallel with the river for about two miles. Between these, and two and three hundred yards from the river, was a small swamp, quite narrow, with a strip of solid ground between it and the large marsh. The ground over which the road [to Detroit] lay, indeed the whole space between the river and the great swamp, was covered with beech, sugar-maple, and oak trees with very little undergrowth.’
Moraviantown, to the east of the battle site, had been established in 1792 by the Delaware Indians who had been converted to the Christian faith by Moravian missionaries. A year after the initial settlement, the provincial government gave the Indians 50,000 acres of land upon which they built their village. By October 1813, the village had some 100 homes, a meetinghouse, a schoolhouse and a common garden.
On 5 Oct 1813, the day of the battle, Proctor placed his single battalion of the 41st on his left, across the road, between the river and the smaller swamp. The Indians were on his right and on the road was a single brass 6-pound field gun, Proctor’s only artillery.
The Redcoats were commanded by Lt. Col. Augustus Warburton, who had served as a captain with the elite 60th Foot, known as the Royal American Regiment prior to the Revolution. There were also some 20 Canadian light dragoons under the command of Captain Thomas Coleman who served as couriers, a dozen men of the 10th Foot, and some provincial dragoons.
The Indians were under command of Tecumseh and his deputy, Oshawahnah, chief of the Chippewa. On hand for this battle were braves from the Shawnee, Ottawa, Delaware and Wyandot, as well as the Sac, Fox, Kickapoo, Winnebag, Potawatomi and Creek tribes–some 500 in all.
The total forces under Proctor’s command numbered between 950 and 1,000; the American forces facing him outnumbered his men 3-to-1.
Harrison had about 120 regulars of the newly raised 27th U.S. Infantry Regiment, 260 Indians, and a corps of Kentucky volunteers–foot soldiers and mounted men–under the command of the governor of Kentucky, 66-year-old Maj. Gen. Isaac Shelby. Shelby was nicknamed ‘Old Kings Mountain’ for his role in the Revolutionary War Battle of Kings Mountain, where he commanded a regiment of ‘over-mountain’ men from what is now Sullivan County, Tennessee.
Shelby’s forces included five brigades of buckskin-clad infantrymen and the 3rd Regiment of Mounted Riflemen, commanded by a former ‘War Hawk’ congressman from Kentucky, Colonel Richard Mentor Johnson. The Johnsons were well represented in that battle. On hand also were Colonel Johnson’s brother, Lt. Col. James Johnson, and James Johnson’s two sons, 17-year-old Edward and 15-year-old William. All survived the battle. Another luminary among the Kentuckians was Brig. Gen. Simon Kenton. A renowned frontiersman, scout and, like Harrison, a veteran of Wayne’s Legion, Kenton had fought against Tecumseh in 1792 and 1793. On this occasion, however, the old soldier would arrive on the scene too late to fight his old adversary.
One of the most colorful Kentuckians at the battle was William Whitley, builder of the first brick house in Kentucky. He had enlisted as a private at age 64 to fight in this war. Whitley was to die in action and, like Tecumseh, had a premonition of death. Years later, his kin would claim that it was Whitley who killed Tecumseh in the battle.
One of Shelby’s major generals was Joseph Desha, who later served as governor of Kentucky and who, like Harrison and Kenton, had served with Wayne. Like Colonel Johnson, General Desha had served in Congress. Also on hand on the American side was Brig. Gen. Lewis Cass, first colonel of the 27th Infantry, who, when he learned of Hull’s surrender of Detroit, angrily broke his sword. The 27th’s commander was Ohio-born Colonel George Paull. Also present was Master Commandant Perry, the hero of Lake Erie.
Harrison placed his cavalry on his right; on his left he placed Shelby’s infantry brigades. Harrison and his staff remained on the far right, along the road. Shelby’s divisions were commanded by Maj. Gen. William Henry and General Desha. His brigades were commanded by Brig. Gens. John E. King, David Chiles, James Allen, Samuel Caldwell and Colonel George Trotter. At first, Harrison planned an infantry attack, but changed his mind when he found out that the 41st had deployed as skirmishers. As he reported later, ‘I determined to refuse my left to the Indians, and to break the British lines at once by a charge of the mounted infantry.’ Harrison had full confidence in his Kentucky troopers. As he wrote later, ‘The American backwoodsmen ride better in the woods than any other people….’
The Redcoats of the 41st’s 1st Battalion were in two ranks to the Americans’ right. They were tired, they distrusted their commander, they had received no provisions for two days, and they were desperately short of ammunition. But they were regulars, and they were ready to fight.
Colonel Richard M. Johnson formed his regiment into two battalions. The 1st, under his command, would engage Tecumseh’s tribes on the Americans’ left. He ordered his brother James to lead the 2nd Battalion in a charge against the Redcoats on the right.
The battle got underway at midafternoon on 5 October with a charge by James Johnson’s battalion against the Redcoats. Bugles sounded the charge, and the troopers urged their horses on, shouting the battle cry, ‘Remember the Raisin!’ In front of them rode Major James Sugget, the chaplain, at the head of his corps of scouts, called ‘spies.’
The Redcoats got only two volleys off from their ‘Brown Bess’ smoothbore flintlocks before they were overrun by the Kentuckians, riding hard at the full gallop. The scene was described by one of the British subalterns in an official report to his superiors. ‘I heard a heavy firing of musketry and shortly after saw our dragoons retreating together with the limber of the six-pounder, placed on the left of the first line,’ wrote Lieutenant Richard Bullock, commander of the Grenadier Company. ‘About a minute afterward, I observed that line retreating in confusion, followed closely by the enemy’s cavalry, who were galloping down the road. That portion of the first line which had escaped the enemy’s cavalry retreated behind the second line which stood fast and fired an irregular volley obliquing to the right and left, which appeared to check the enemy.’
Meanwhile, General Proctor was riding among his men, urging them to stand and fight. But the Kentuckians remembered the Raisin Massacre and were not at all ‘checked’ by the muskets of the 41st. The charge by the Kentuckians was one of only two such cavalry charges in the War of 1812. The other took place in March 1814, when General John Coffee’s mounted Tennesseans destroyed a Creek Indian village at Horseshoe Bend, Alabama.
The fight on the Americans’ right flank was all over in less than 10 minutes. While Johnson’s troopers were going after the men of the 41st, Colonel Paull’s regulars had seized the 6-pounder, which had never fired a shot. Only 50 of the Redcoats managed to escape, led by Lieutenant Bullock of the Grenadiers. The rest, 477 in all, surrendered. Proctor also got away, fleeing toward Moraviantown, where he had left his family. Later, he was to face a court-martial and disgrace. He bitterly blamed his men for the loss to the Americans on the Thames River, but that did not save him from being suspended from rank and pay for six months.
The action on the American left, against the Indians, took longer and was more hazardous than the fight against the Redcoats, as Richard Johnson had expected it would be. Johnson’s men rode into battle with each man carrying a rifle, a hatchet and a knife. And each man rode with another soldier mounted behind him.
In front of that 500-man battalion rode William Whitley and some 20 volunteers, forming a ‘forlorn hope’–an advance party designed to draw enemy fire. Their function was much like that of the pointman in an infantry squad, the most dangerous job in an army. Of the 20 men in that party, 15 fell on the field of battle, among them Whitley, who was buried where he fell, wrapped in his blanket.
As the fighting grew fiercer and fire from the braves in the bush began to fell the Americans, Johnson ordered his troopers to dismount and fight on foot. But the gallant colonel himself remained in the saddle, mounted astride a white pony, an easy target for Indian marksmen. Johnson suffered five wounds but managed to trot back to the rear for assistance from hospital surgeon A.J. Mitchell.
Wrapped in a blanket and lying on the cold ground, Johnson told his military secretary, Major W. T. Barry: ‘Barry, I will not die. I am mightily cut to pieces, but I think my vitals have escaped.’ Indeed, Johnson would live for many more years and become vice president of the United States.
By the time Johnson made his way to the rear, the dismounted troopers were fighting the Indians hand to hand, knife to knife. Old Isaac Shelby saw what was happening and rushed forward with his sword raised, shouting to British Major John Richardson, ‘Surrender! Surrender! It’s no use resisting.’ Richardson surrendered.
Shelby then decided to commit his infantry to assist Richard Johnson’s men. He ordered the regiment commanded by Lt. Col. John Donaldson to come forward and directed General King to follow with his brigade. By that time, Tecumseh had been killed, and the Indians were retreating, pursued by Major David Thompson of Johnson’s battalion. Therefore, only a few of the infantrymen from Donaldson’s regiment actually took part in the fighting.
To this day, details of Tecumseh’s death remain unknown. Legend has it that Richard Johnson killed Tecumseh, and the colonel-congressman was to get credit for a deed he himself never claimed credit for. Johnson shot and killed an Indian who came at him with a tomahawk, but no one could say for certain that the Indian was the great Shawnee chief. Nevertheless, the following jingle became part of Johnson’s later political campaigns: ‘Rumpsey dumpsey, rumpsey dumpsey, Colonel Johnson killed Tecumseh.’
Another of the grisly legends that grew out of that battle was the skinning of Tecumseh. For years afterward, Kentucky veterans of the battle would show their friends strips of leather they claimed were made from the hide sliced from the recumbent form of Tecumseh himself. Some of Tecumseh’s braves later told a different story. His face stained with blood from a head wound, Tecumseh shouted encouragement to his warriors until he was mortally wounded by a bullet in his left breast. A few followers then carried him from the field and secretly buried him. His body was never recovered, at least not by white men.
Another bit of folklore from the Thames concerned a claim by some witnesses that Perry rode with James Johnson’s troopers in the charge against the British. If so, it must have been a first for a U.S. Navy officer.
As bitter as the Battle of the Thames was – the fighting against the Indians consumed an hour – the losses were not heavy. Fifteen Americans, all members of Richard Johnson’s ‘suicide squad,’ were killed and 30 others wounded. Eighteen British soldiers were killed and 22 wounded. The Indians lost the most – 33 braves were killed.
The massacre at the River Raisin had been avenged. Moreover, the American victory broke the British hold on the Northwestern frontier, leaving Fort Michilimackinac the only British-held stronghold in Michigan Territory. The battle might have been even more decisive had it not been squandered by the U.S. War Department. Secretary of War John Armstrong, who disliked Harrison, subsequently transferred the general’s regular troops to the Niagara sector. Later, after his militia units were disbanded as well, a disgusted Harrison resigned his commission in May 1814 and returned to civilian life.
As it was, the Battle of the Thames neutralized the Anglo-Indian threat from the frontier for the duration of the war. But its most decisive consequence would be felt by the Indian nations of the midwestern and southern regions of North America long afterward. Respected by friend and foe alike, Tecumseh proved to be an irreplaceable loss. No comparable leader would emerge to oppose the ultimate white settlement of the lands east of the Mississippi River.
This article was written by William Francis Freehoff and originally appeared in the October 1996 issue of Military History magazine.