Battle of the Thames
The Battle of the Thames, also known as the Battle of Moraviantown, was a decisive American victory in the War of 1812 against Great Britain and its Indian allies in the Tecumseh's Confederacy. It took place on October 5, 1813 in Upper Canada, near present-day Chatham, Ontario. The British lost control of western Ontario as a result of the battle; Tecumseh was killed and his Confederacy largely fell apart.
British troops under Major General Henry Procter had occupied Detroit until the U.S. Navy gained control of Lake Erie, depriving them of their supplies. Procter was forced to retreat north up the Thames River to Moraviantown, where his allies, the tribal confederacy under Shawnee leader Tecumseh and war chief Roundhead, had no choice but to follow. American infantry and cavalry under Major General William Henry Harrison drove off the outnumbered British and then defeated the Native warriors, who were demoralised by the deaths of Tecumseh and Roundhead in action. American control over the Detroit area was re-established, the tribal confederacy collapsed, and Procter would later be court-martialled for his poor leadership.
During the last months of 1812 and for much of 1813, the American Army of the Northwest under William Henry Harrison was attempting to recover Detroit and capture Fort Malden at Amherstburg from the Right Division of the British Army in Upper Canada, which was commanded by Major General Henry Procter.
The British position depended on maintaining command of Lake Erie. The sparsely populated region produced insufficient crops and cattle to feed Procter's troops, the sailors of the British ships on the Lake, and above all the large numbers of Native warriors and their families gathered at Amherstburg under Tecumseh. Supplies could effectively be brought to them only by ships on the lake. Also, if naval command of Lake Erie passed to the Americans, they would be able to land an army on the north shore at any point of their choosing, cutting off Procter from reinforcement from the east.
From the start of the war to the end of July 1813, the British armed vessels had maintained control of the lake. The U.S Navy were constructing their own squadron, commanded by Master Commandant Oliver Hazard Perry, at Presque Isle harbour. During July the British, under Commander Robert Heriot Barclay, kept them pinned down in Presque Isle but had to lift the blockade for two days in order to receive supplies. Perry was able to move his ships across the sandbar at the entrance to the harbour and into the lake. Barclay declined to attack them.
Once it was fully armed and manned, Perry's superior squadron instituted a counter-blockade of Amherstburg, and supplies of food there rapidly ran short. Finally, with supplies almost exhausted, Barclay put out to seek battle with Perry. On September 10, Perry gained a complete victory in the Battle of Lake Erie, after a hard-fought battle. On receiving Perry's hastily written note that "We have met the enemy and they are ours", Harrison knew that Procter would be forced to retreat, and ordered an advance. One thousand mounted troops began advancing along the lake shore to Detroit, and 2,500 foot soldiers were carried there and to Amherstburg by Perry's ships once the damage they had received in the battle had been repaired.
Even before he received news of Barclay's defeat, Procter had made preparations to fall back to the British position at Burlington Heights at the western end of Lake Ontario. Tecumseh knew that this would remove all protection from the tribes in the confederation whose lands lay to the west of Detroit and attempted to dissuade Procter, saying:
Our fleet has gone out, we know they have fought; we have heard the great guns but know nothing of what has happened to our Father with one Arm [Barclay, who had lost an arm in 1809]. Our ships have gone one way, and we are much astonished to see our Father [Procter] tying up everything and preparing to run the other, without letting his red children know what his intentions are ... We must compare our Father's conduct to [that of] a fat animal that carries its tail upon its back; but when affrighted, it drops it between its legs and runs off.
Nevertheless, Procter could not defend Fort Amherstburg. Not only was there no food, but the guns had been removed from the fort to be mounted on Barclay's ships. Procter began to retreat up the Thames River on September 27. Tecumseh had no option but to go with him. Procter apparently agreed to a compromise to retreat only as far as Moraviantown, a settlement of Lenape Indians who had migrated from the United States. As this was the highest point of the river to which batteaux could navigate, it was safe from outflanking moves by water. Also, some supplies could in theory be brought there overland from Burlington Heights, although the roads were very poor. However, Procter made no attempt to fortify this position.
The British retreat was badly managed, and the soldiers had been reduced to half rations. Procter was alleged to have left the main body of his army under his second-in-command, Colonel Augustus Warburton of the 41st Regiment, without orders, while he led the retreat, accompanied by his wife and family, the other women and dependents, and his personal baggage. The British soldiers were becoming increasingly demoralized, and Tecumseh's warriors grew ever more impatient with Procter for his unwillingness to stop and fight, giving Procter reason to fear a mutiny by the warriors.
The Americans left a brigade under Duncan McArthur to garrison Detroit and another under Lewis Cass to garrison Sandwich, Ontario. Harrison led the main body from Sandwich in pursuit of Procter on October 2. As they advanced, Harrison's men captured several abandoned boats and a steady stream of British stragglers. They caught up with the retreating British and Indians late on October 4. Tecumseh skirmished with the Americans near Chatham, Ontario to slow the American advance, but the warriors were quickly overwhelmed. The batteaux carrying Warburton's reserve ammunition and the last of the food went aground and were left behind, to be captured by an American raiding party.
William Henry Harrison's force numbered at least 3,500 infantry and cavalry. He had a small detachment of regulars from the 27th U.S. Infantry and five brigades of Kentucky militia led by Isaac Shelby, the 63-year-old governor of Kentucky and a hero of the American Revolutionary War. He also had 1,000 volunteer cavalry under Colonel Richard Mentor Johnson. Most of Johnson's men were from Kentucky, but some were from the River Raisin area of Michigan, all of them spurred on by the slogan "Remember the River Raisin."
Procter had about 800 soldiers, mainly from the 41st Regiment. The veterans of the regiment's 1st Battalion had been serving in Upper Canada since the start of the war, and had suffered heavy casualties in several engagements in 1813 (including the Battle of Lake Erie, where more than 150 of its men had served aboard Barclay's ships.) They had been reinforced by the young soldiers of the 2nd Battalion. Most of the regiment's officers were dissatisfied with Procter's leadership, but Colonel Warburton, the next in seniority, refused to countenance any move to remove Procter from command. Tecumseh and a skilled war chief, Chief Roundhead of the Wyandot tribe, led about 500 Native American warriors.
Shortly after daybreak on October 5, after ordering his troops to abandon their half-cooked breakfast and retreat a further two miles, Procter formed the British regulars in line of battle with a single 6-pounder cannon. He planned to trap Harrison on the banks of the Thames, driving the Americans off the road with cannon fire. However, he had made no attempt to fortify the position (e.g. by creating abatis or throwing up earthworks), and the ground presented no obstacle to the American horsemen, while scattered trees masked the British fire. Tecumseh's warriors formed a line in a black ash swamp on the British right to flank the Americans. Tecumseh then rode along the British line, shaking hands with each officer, before rejoining warriors.
General Harrison surveyed the battlefield and ordered James Johnson (brother of Richard Mentor Johnson) to make a frontal attack on the British regulars with his mounted riflemen. Despite the Indians' flanking fire, Johnson's Kentuckians broke through, the British cannon not having fired. The exhausted, dispirited and half-starved British regulars fired a single ragged fusillade before retreating. Procter and about 250 of his men fled from the battlefield, while the rest of his soldiers threw down their weapons and surrendered.
Tecumseh and his followers remained and carried on fighting. Richard Johnson charged into the Indian position at the head of about 20 horsemen to draw attention away from the main American force, but Tecumseh and his warriors answered with a volley of musket fire that stopped the cavalry charge. Fifteen of Johnson's men were killed or wounded, and Johnson himself was hit five times. Johnson's main force became bogged down in the swamp mud. Tecumseh is believed to have been killed during this fighting. The main force finally made its way through the swamp, and James Johnson's troops were freed from their attack on the British. With the American reinforcements converging and news of Tecumseh's death spreading quickly, Indian resistance soon dissolved.
Colonel Johnson may have been the one who shot Tecumseh, though the evidence is unclear. William Whitley, a Revolutionary War veteran, is also credited with killing Tecumseh. Whitley, of Crab Orchard, Kentucky, volunteered for the raid on Tecumseh's camp, and was killed during the attack. Before the attack, he had requested that General Harrison have his scalp removed if he died and send it to his wife.
After the battle, American mounted troops moved on and burned Moraviantown (marked today by the Fairfield Museum on Longwoods Road), a settlement of pacifist Christian Munsee of the Moravian Church, who had not participated in the fighting. Because the enlistments of the militia component of Harrison's army were about to expire, the Americans retired to Detroit.
Three currently active regular battalions of the United States Army (1-6 Inf, 2-6 Inf and 4-6 Inf) perpetuate the lineage of the old 27th Infantry Regiment, elements of which were at the Battle of the Thames.
Harrison reported that the British regulars had 72 killed and 22 wounded prisoners. Lieutenant Richard Bullock of the 41st Regiment, however, said that there were 12 killed and 36 wounded prisoners. More than a year after the battle, British Colonel Augustus Warburton and Lieutenant Colonel William Evans both reported that 18 were killed and 25 wounded. Harrison reported 601 British troops captured, a figure that included the prisoners taken during the retreat leading up to the battle and stragglers captured after it.
The Native Americans recorded their own casualties as 16 killed, including Tecumseh and Roundhead, although Harrison claimed that 33 dead warriors were found in the woods after the battle. On Roundhead’s death, General Procter wrote in a letter dated October 23, 1813, "The Indian cause and ours experienced a serious loss in the death of Round Head."
There are conflicting versions of the American loss in the battle. Harrison stated that 7 were killed outright, 5 died of wounds, and 17 more were wounded. Major Isaac Shelby said that 7 or 8 killed outright, 4 died of their wounds and about 20 more were wounded. Participants Robert McAfee gave 10 killed and 35 wounded, while Peter Trisler, Jr. said there were 14 killed and 20 wounded. Historian Samuel R. Brown stated that were 25 killed or fatally injured and 50 wounded in Johnson’s regiment, and 2 killed and 6-7 wounded in the infantry, for a total of 27 killed and 56 or 57 wounded Harrison informed United States Secretary of War John Armstrong, Jr. that the only casualties inflicted on his command by the British regulars at the battle were three men wounded; all of the rest were caused by the Indians.
The American victory led to the re-establishment of American control over the Northwest frontier. Apart from skirmishes (such as the Battle of Longwoods) between raiding parties or other detachments, and an American mounted raid near the end of 1814 which resulted in the Battle of Malcolm's Mills, the Detroit front remained comparatively quiet for the rest of the war. American victory at the Thames failed to translate into recapture of Illinois, Wisconsin and other Midwestern territories, which the British and Indians held until the war's end; efforts to regain control of the Old Northwest and regain control of fur trade routes failed after the British victory at the subsequent Engagements on Lake Huron.
The death of Tecumseh was a crushing blow to the Indian alliance he had created, and it effectively dissolved following the battle. Shortly after the battle, Harrison signed an armistice at Detroit with the chiefs or representatives of several tribes, although others fought on until the end of (and after) the war. He then transferred most of his regulars eastward to the Niagara River and went himself to Washington where he was acclaimed a hero. However, a comparatively petty dispute with President James Madison and John Armstrong resulted in him resigning his commission as Major General. Harrison's popularity grew, and he was eventually elected President of the United States. Richard Mentor Johnson eventually became Vice President to President Martin Van Buren, based partly on the belief that he had personally killed Tecumseh.
Procter later rallied 246 men of the 41st Regiment at the Grand River. Reinforced by some young soldiers of the 2nd battalion who had not been present at the battle, the two battalions were reorganized and merged as the regiment was severely understrength at this point. The experienced survivors of the 1st Battalion were placed in the grenadier and light infantry companies.
The soldiers of the 41st who were taken prisoner at Moraviantown and the Battle of Lake Erie were exchanged or released towards the end of 1814. They had been held in encampments near present-day Sandusky, Ohio, and had suffered severely from sickness during their captivity.
In May 1814, Procter was charged with negligence and improper conduct, though a court martial could not be held until December, when campaigning had ceased for the winter and a suitably senior board of officers could be assembled. They judged that Procter had managed the retreat badly, failing to secure his stores, and also disposed the troops ineffectively at Moraviantown. He was sentenced to be suspended from rank and pay for six months.
- Sugden (1997), pp. 368-72
- Sugden, p. 133
- Gilpin, p. 226
- Sugden, p. 127
- Antal, p. 347
- Sugden, p. 249
- Sugden, p. 250, citing Samuel R. Brown’s, ‘Views of the Campaigns of the North-western Army", W.G. Murphey, Philadelphia, 1815 (first published, 1814), p. 73
- Forester, p.142
- Hitsman, p.339
- Katherine B. Coutts, Thamesville and the Battle of the Thames, in Zaslow, p.116
- Katherine B. Coutts, Thamesville and the Battle of the Thames, in Zaslow, p.117
- Hitsman, p.176
- Elting, p.114
- The 41st Regiment and the War of 1812, by Jim Yaworsky
- Hitsman, p.344 en
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