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The Battle of the Thames, also known as the Battle of Moraviantown, was a decisive Americanmarker victory in the War of 1812. It took place on October 5, 1813, near present-day Chatham, Ontariomarker in Upper Canada. It resulted in the death of the Shawnee chief Tecumseh, and the destruction of the Native American coalition that he led.

Background

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 Detroitmarker and capture Fort Amherstburgmarker at Amherstburg from the Right Division of the British Army in Upper Canada, under 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 Indian warriors and their families gathered at Amherstburg under Tecumseh, and supplies could effectively be brought to them only by the lake. Further, if naval command of Lake Erie ever 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, the British ships (under Commander Robert Heriot Barclay since May 5) had maintained control of the lake, and kept the American squadron under Master Commandant Oliver Hazard Perry confined to Presque Islemarker harbour. Barclay had then lifted the blockade for two days, allowing Perry to get his ships across the sandbar at the entrance to the harbour.

Once 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 13, 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.

Procter's retreat

Even before he received news of Barclay's defeat, Procter had made preparations to fall back on the British position at Burlington Heightsmarker at the western end of Lake Ontariomarker. 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, Fort Amherstburg could not be defended. 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 by retreating as far as Moraviantown. This was the highest point of the river to which batteaux could navigate, so 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. He is alleged to have left the main body of his army under his second-in-command, Colonel Augustus Warburton of the 41st Regiment, four miles downstream without orders, while proceeding ahead himself with his wife and family and the other women and dependents and his personal baggage.

The British retreat was badly managed, and the soldiers had been reduced to half rations. The British soldiers were becoming increasingly demoralized, and Tecumseh's warriors grew even more impatient with Procter for his unwillingness to stop and fight, giving Procter reason to fear a mutiny by the warriors.

The Americans had left Sandwich in pursuit 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 Chathammarker 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.

Forces

William Henry Harrison's force totaled at least 3,500 infantry and cavalry. He had two small regular infantry brigades under generals Duncan McArthur and Lewis Cass and five brigades of Kentucky militia led by Isaac Shelby, the sixty-three 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 were from Kentucky but some of them were from the River Raisinmarker area spurred on by the slogan "Remember the Raisin".

Procter had about 800 soldiers, mainly from the 41st Regiment. During 1813, the veterans of the 1st Battalion of the regiment, who had been serving in Upper Canada since the start of the war, and had suffered heavy casualties in several engagements during 1813 (including the Battle of Lake Erie, in which more than 150 men of the regiment had been serving aboard Barclay's ships), had been reinforced by the young soldiers of the 2nd Battalion. Most of the regiment's officers were dissatisfied with the leadership of Major General Procter, but the next in command, Colonel Warburton, refused to countenance any move to deprive Procter of command. Tecumseh led about 500 Native warriors.

Battle

General William Henry Harrison
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 taken no steps towards fortifying the position (e.g. by creating abatis or throwing up earthworks) so the ground presented no obstacle to the American mounted troops, while scattered trees masked the British fire. Tecumseh's warriors took up positions in a black ash swamp on the British right to flank the Americans. Tecumseh himself rode along the British line, shaking hands with each officer, before joining his warriors.

General Harrison surveyed the battlefield and ordered James Johnson (brother of Richard Mentor Johnson) to make a frontal attack against the British regulars with his mounted Kentucky riflemen. Despite the Indians' flanking fire, Johnson broke through, the British cannon having failed to fire. The exhausted, dispirited and half-starved British troops fired only one ragged fusillade before giving way. Immediately Procter and about 250 of his men fled from the field. The rest 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 was himself hit five times. Johnson's main force became bogged down in the mud of the swamp. Tecumseh is believed to have been killed in 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 the death of Tecumseh spreading quickly, Indian resistance quickly dissolved.

The British had 12 killed, 35 wounded, and 442 others taken prisoner. The Indians left the bodies of 33 warriors on the field, although they removed several others (including that of Tecumseh). Colonel Johnson may have been the soldier who shot Tecumseh, though the evidence is unclear. William Whitley, a Revolutionary War veteran, is another credited with the killing of Tecumseh. Whitley, of Crab Orchard, Kentuckymarker, volunteered for the raid on Tecumseh's camp. He requested that General Harrison have his scalp removed when his body was found and sent to his wife.

After the battle, American mounted troops moved on and burned Moraviantown, a peaceful settlement of Christian Munsee Indians who had no involvement in the conflict. Because the enlistments of the militia component of Harrison's army were about to expire, the Americans then retired to Detroit.

Results

Replica of a cabin at Morviantown
The American victory led to the re-establishment of American control over the Northwest frontier. Apart from skirmishes (such as the Battle of Longwoodsmarker) between raiding parties or other detachments, the Detroit front remained comparatively quiet for the rest of the war.

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. 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 Secretary of War John Armstrong, Jr., resulted in his 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 based partly on the belief that he had killed Tecumseh.

Procter later rallied 246 men of the 41st regiment at the Grand Rivermarker. They were merged into a new 41st regiment which included soldiers from the 2nd battalion who had not been present at the battle. The experienced survivors of the 1st Battalion were drafted into the flank (grenadier and light) companies. Most of them were killed by a magazine explosion at the Siege of Fort Eriemarker.

The soldiers of the 41st who were taken prisoner at Moraviantown or the Battle of Lake Erie were exchanged or released towards the end of 1814. They had been held in encampments near present-day Sandusky, Ohiomarker, and had suffered severely from sickness during their captivity.

Procter's court-martial

Historical marker at the site of the battle
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 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.

Historians have been somewhat kinder to Procter, noting that with the Americans in control of Lake Erie, the Detroit frontier was no longer tenable with the limited men and supplies available to Procter (although this was not disputed by the court).

Notes

  1. Forester, p.142
  2. Hitsman, p.339
  3. Katherine B. Coutts, Thamesville and the Battle of the Thames, in Zaslow, p.116
  4. Katherine B. Coutts, Thamesville and the Battle of the Thames, in Zaslow, p.117
  5. Hitsman, p.176
  6. Elting, p.114
  7. The 41st Regiment and the War of 1812, by Jim Yaworsky
  8. Hitsman, p.344 en


References

  • Carter-Edwards, Dennis. "The War of 1812 Along the Detroit Frontier: A Canadian Perspective," in The Michigan Historical Review, 13:2 (Fall 1987), pp. 25–50.
  • Cleaves, Freeman. Old Tippecanoe: William Henry Harrison and His Time. New York: Scribner, 1939. ISBN 0-945707-01-0 (1990 reissue).
  • Edmunds, R. David. "Forgotten Allies: The Loyal Shawnees and the War of 1812" in David Curtis Skaggs and Larry L. Nelson, eds., The Sixty Years' War for the Great Lakes, 1754-1814, pp. 337–51. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2001. ISBN 0-87013-569-4.
  • Elting, John R. Amateurs, To Arms! A Military History of the War of 1812. Chapel Hill, NC: Algonquin, 1991. ISBN 0-945575-08-4 (hardcover); ISBN 0-306-80653-3 (1995 Da Capo Press paperback).
  • Forester, C.S. The Age of Fighting Sail, New English Library, ISBN 0-939218-06-2
  • Hitsman, J. Mackay and Graves, Donald. The Incredible War of 1812, Robin Brass Studios, Toronto, 1999. ISBN 1-896941-13-3
  • Latimer, Jon. 1812: War with America. Cambridge, Massachusetts, Harvard University Press, 2007. ISBN 0-67402-584-9
  • Sugden, John. Tecumseh's Last Stand. Norman, Oklahoma: University of Oklahoma Press, 1985. ISBN 0-8061-1944-6.
  • Sugden, John. Tecumseh: A Life. New York: Holt, 1997. ISBN 0-8050-4138-9 (hardcover); ISBN 0-8050-6121-5 (1999 paperback).
  • Zaslow, Morris (ed) The Defended Border, Macmillan of Canada, 1964, ISBN 0-7705-1242-9


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