Editor’s note: The following is a guest post by Jace Gabbard. Jace contacted me yesterday and offered up this well-researched piece marking the 200th anniversary of the Battle of the Thames in which Kentucky Mounted Riflemen routed a force of British regulars in minutes, defeated their Indian allies in an hour and killed the great Shawnee resistance leader Tecumseh. Jace is the descendant of the first Kentucky pioneers, and this piece serves as a tribute to his Frontier Partisan forebears. This is an extraordinary piece of work; it’s lengthy, but well worth the time. I’m honored to post it here.
— Jim Cornelius
By Michael Jace Gabbard
When the War of 1812 began, Kentucky had answered the call to arms enthusiastically, with men enlisting by the thousands, and Gov. Isaac Shelby soon had double or even more than triple the number of men of the quota asked for by President Madison. So, Kentuckians were heavily engaged in the War almost from the start. From 1812 to January of 1815, Kentuckians would fight and die on battlefields that were more than four hundred miles to the north of their home state, and over 740 miles to the south.
And many of these men who gave their lives in order to ensure American independence, as well as to end the threat of Indian raids on our frontiers, remain in unmarked graves hundreds of miles from home, even to this day.
The people of Kentucky were the most intensely patriotic and Nationalist, of any state in the Union, before, during and after the War of 1812, which accounts, in part, for the unsurpassed response to the call to arms, and for the mammoth War Effort put forth by the entire Commonwealth. But two events, the massacre of hundreds of unarmed and/or wounded Kentucky prisoners of war, seemed to have enraged all of Kentucky, and Gov. Isaac Shelby began to mobilize all of the resources that the Commonwealth possessed, for use in the War Effort (Horses, mules and wagons for supply trains, gunpowder production at both Mammoth Cave and Great Saltpeter Cave in Rockcastle Co., but above all-MEN for within six months, more than 14,000 Kentuckians were in the US Army. Most importantly, he began to mobilize, re-organize, train, and equip his KY Militia. For number totals, see below.)
The unprecedented response that followed would eclipse by far, any effort ever put forth by any state during any of America’s wars. (Higher # of men, greater % of any National War Effort to have been borne by single state, Higher casualties compared to rest of US, etc.) Five out of six men of military age enlisted in the Kentucky Militia, and more than 25,000 officers and men served in 41 regiments, two battalions, and 12 independent companies.1
At least three Regiments of U.S. Army Regulars were also raised in Kentucky, including Col. William Russell’s 17th U.S. Infantry, composed entirely of Kentuckians, and is recognized as the first U.S. Army Ranger Regiment, the grandfather of today’s Army Rangers. Before it had ended with Jackson’s victory at New Orleans, more than fifty percent of all U.S. combat troops in the War of 1812 were Kentuckians, as were roughly 64% of all Americans killed, and perhaps as much as seventy percent of all total American casualties.
The efforts of no other state in any of our nation’s wars have ever equaled, much less surpassed Kentucky’s role in the War of 1812 (kynghistory.ky.gov). Two major reasons for the massive turnout to the calls to arms in 1813, the war’s second year, are related below.
Two massacres of Kentucky prisoners seemed to have set the hearts of every man in the state on fire with a desire for vengeance. First, at the River Raisin, more than 900 Kentuckians had been lost, with over 397 killed, including more than 100 unarmed prisoners who had been massacred.
The worst part of this atrocity occurred when the Indians set the buildings on fire which held the most severely wounded Kentuckians, and each time a man tried to escape the burning buildings, they were tomahawked, or killed in some other brutal fashion, as their killers laughed out loud at the screams coming from the men inside being burned alive. First of all, the Kentuckians had been betrayed by their near-senile, incompetent commander, Gen. James Winchester, who had been captured early in the fighting. Though Winchester and the others had surrendered and their commander had already been killed, the 1st Kentucky Rifle Regiment, now under Maj. George Madison, was still fighting, and held their lines in the town. When ordered to surrender by Winchester, Madison refused, saying that he and his men would “rather die on the field” than be massacred afterward.
Madison’s Kentuckians continued fighting for another three hours, fighting off three waves of British assaults and inflicting at least 185 casualties on the British and an unknown number on the Indians. Only when they ran out of ammunition did Madison finally surrender, and even then it was only after guarantees of prisoner safety had been made by Gen. Proctor that he agreed to it. With this, the unarmed Kentucky prisoners were set up for slaughter. Proctor’s use, when trying to compel an American unit or fort to surrender, of direct and indirect threats of an Indian Massacre that would follow if he didn’t get his way, blew up in the British Army’s face at the Battle of the Thames.
Expecting to be tortured and butchered if they were defeated, the Kentuckians were highly motivated by it, and stood prepared and willing to launch even suicidal assaults, if necessary to ensure victory. To avoid capture, torture, and slaughter, or possibly being burned at the stake, each man, it seems, was ready to fight to the death.
Preferring death to capture, their determination made them brave beyond belief in battle, showing suicidal courage in a charge, as with the “Forlorn Hope” on the left against the Tecumseh’s Natives, led from the front by Col. Johnson, who was shot several times.
After the Massacre at the Raisin, an enraged Kentucky began to mobilize larger militia forces for the revenge that justice demanded. By late spring, the British had begun to lay siege to Harrison’s Army at Fort Meigs, and the urgent call went out for reinforcements. The first of these were a brigade of 1,200 Kentucky Militia in four regiments, under Brig. Gen. Green Clay. The fort was surrounded by no less than 1,800 British and Canadians, and 3,500 Warriors under Tecumseh, the largest gathering of Indian Warriors in American history.
British batteries had been set up just across the Maumee River from Fort Meigs, and Harrison developed a plan to silence them. 400 of Clay’s troops would push on to the fort and join a detachment from the fort to take out the British batteries on the near side of the river, spiking the guns, then returning to the fort. 800 others, Col. William Dudley’s 13th Kentucky Militia Regiment, would disembark on the other side and spike the guns before returning to the boats and crossing over to join the others in the fort.
All went well, Dudley’s troops fought off and scattered the British artillerymen and their infantry support, and spiked the guns, but when Indians were sighted in the woods, the men couldn’t be restrained from attacking, chasing the Indians deeper into the woods and out of the sight of the fort. Harrison watched in horror, knowing that Tecumseh was luring them into an ambush, exclaiming, “They are lost! Why can I not get men to obey my orders?” Harrison would later say, “It rarely occurs that a General has to complain of the excessive ardor of his men yet such appears always to be the case whenever the Kentucky Militia are engaged. It is indeed a source of all their misfortunes.”
Soon Dudley’s 800 were surrounded by a force of 1,400-1,600 Indians and British. And just as at the Raisin, the event which had drove these men to chase the Indians into the woods, looking for revenge, a massacre of unarmed prisoners soon began. Dudley himself was among the butchered, with his body “mutilated in the most shocking manner”. In all, another 650 Kentuckians had been lost with at least another 220 killed, not including the murdered prisoners. Thus, in just two incidents, several hundred Kentucky troops had been killed (many as unarmed prisoners), and over 1,600 total casualties.
This last unconscionable slaughtering of our troops while being held by the British as unarmed prisoners of war brought out more volunteers than ever before, but urgent calls were also being sent out from Harrison in northern Ohio, begging for more reinforcements. His Army of the Northwest (already consisting mostly of Kentucky troops), had dwindled by the end of July to no more than two thousand effectives, and to be certain of even holding what territory he retained, much less any offensive actions, many more soldiers had to be sent to strengthen his command. Ohio’s militia had more than it could handle just to guard it’s frontier, so deliverance could, and would, come only from Kentucky.
A personal appeal was made Harrison to Gov. Isaac Shelby, the hero of the Battle of King’s Mountain during the Revolutionary War, to raise what militia his state was capable of sending, and to personally take to the field against the British once more, at the head of an Army of Kentuckians. Notices went out to all the counties, “to avenge the blood of their butchered friends”, and Shelby ordered all to assemble for a “general rendezvous” at Newport on August 31,1813.
In all, Shelby crossed the Ohio with 3,500 Mounted Kentucky Militia on September 1st, and by way of Dayton, Springfield, and Urbana, this force reached Upper Sandusky, and soon encamped with Harrison at Portage. Well ahead of Shelby’s force, the best-trained, most effective unit in the entire theater, Col. Richard M. Johnson’s 3rd Kentucky Mounted Rifle Regiment, roughly 1,000 men armed with rifles, tomahawks, and long knives, were already patrolling in northern Ohio, just waiting to be turned loose.
Before crossing Lake Erie, the main body of 3,500 under Shelby would be dismounted, to serve as regular rifle or infantry regiments, while Col. Johnson’s Regiment would operate as the force’s mounted arm. Even before Shelby’s arrival, word had come that Oliver Hazard Perry’s small fleet had inflicted a total defeat on the British on September 10th, and so, with uncontested American control of Lake Erie, as soon as munitions and supplies for the expedition were procured, the invasion of Upper Canada and the pursuit of Proctor and Tecumseh could begin.
With Perry’s victory over the British fleet on Lake Erie, the way was cleared to retake Detroit, drive the British Army off of American soil forever, pursue them into Upper Canada where a force 4,500 Kentuckians, with over 1,000 mounted, would hunt them down and destroy them. Almost before the naval battle on Lake Erie had ended, Proctor had begun preparations for his army to flee. Once news had been confirmed that Barclay had been defeated by Perry, Proctor’s spies had also returned from the American camp at Portage, and having seen both Johnson’s and Shelby’s troops, they reported American strength at an exaggerated ten to fifteen thousand men- almost triple Harrison’s true strength.
Almost immediately, Proctor ordered Fort Malden burned after taking what supplies and munitions his limited transportation could handle. Though the loss of Barclay’s fleet made his position at Detroit and Fort Malden untenable, the speed of his precipitate flight showed the true character of Henry Proctor, who had stood by on more than one occasion, gleefully watching as his Indian allies butchered unarmed, defenseless Kentucky POWs, most notably after Dudley’s Defeat, where he was rebuked by Tecumseh.
Now the friends and kinsmen of the men murdered while under his “guaranteed protection”, were now coming, for his Indian allies, for his army, and, without question, they were also coming for him. Certainly this thought in his mind, along with the exaggerated claims of the size of Harrison’s force, combined to add to the speed of his withdrawal.
On September 26th, Proctor gave the order to Lt. Col. Augustus Warburton to set fire to all public property and buildings in the area and destroy Fort Malden, in part by blowing the magazine. With this, the retreat into Upper Canada had begun, first up the Detroit, then the Thames River. By this time, his own men had begun to despise and distrust him, believing him, correctly or not, to be a coward. Another cause for their dislike of Proctor was their love for the commander he’d replaced, Gen. Isaac Brock, an officer who was Henry Proctor’s opposite in almost every way.
Courageous, dynamic, and imaginative, it was Brock who had taken Detroit and Chicago so easily, as well as practically all of the Michigan Territory and even part of Ohio. A warrior who led his men from the front rather ordering them on from the rear, Brock was also beloved by the Indians, whom he knew how to use to full effect, and during his partnership with Tecumseh, the two had become like brothers.
Knowing that any show of weakness would cause his Indian allies to desert (except for Tecumseh), but that any victory would bring them flocking to his standard, Brock had moved quickly and decisively, and as a result, tribes as far away as the Sioux sent warriors to fight with Tecumseh at his side. But in the fall of 1812, he’d been temporarily transferred to head off an American invasion on the Niagara Frontier, and at Queenston Heights he was killed in action, during a battle that his forces had won. Proctor had inherited Brock’s British and Indian forces, but he was ill-equipped to deal with them, and had no conception of how to use them properly. Furthermore, what success he’d had against the Americans, just at the River Raisin and Dudley’s Defeat, had been chiefly due to Tecumseh and his Warriors, so their loss would end any hope even of resistance, much less any kind of victory. But after his half-hearted attempts on Fort Meigs, they had become disgusted with him, and only through loyalty to Tecumseh (and, it must be said, extreme hatred of the Americans) did ANY of the Indians remain.
When, just five months earlier, his army had invested Fort Meigs, conducting an aborted siege from May 1st to May 9th, Tecumseh’s Indians numbered more than 3,500 warriors, representing at least thirteen tribes, from the Sioux in the west, the Ottawa from the north, and the Creek from the South. But with his continued inaction and timidity, the Indians left him droves.
As the British Army withdrew, Tecumseh’s force had dwindled to between twelve and fifteen hundred warriors-still formidable, but not nearly enough for what lay ahead. By the time he’d begun his withdrawal, deeper into Upper Canada, instead of fighting the Americans, the Indians whose lands were in the process of being lost were even starting to leave, yet the others, tribes whose homes were much farther away, determined to stay, and fight when Proctor eventually did make a stand. And though he knew all was lost, while these Indians stayed, Tecumseh would stay with Proctor as well. But his bitterness and contempt for Proctor grew with each passing day (Tecumseh allegedly told Proctor to his face that “your conduct reminds me of a fat dog who walks with it’s tail on it’s back, but when frightened, tucks it between it’s legs and runs away!”), until finally, at long last, after demands and even threats from Tecumseh, Proctor decided to halt and make a stand along the Thames, near Moraviantown.
Lt. Col. Warburton had burned Fort Malden on September 26th, and by 3 p.m. of the following day, the Americans had landed and were encamped near the ruins of the fort. As the Americans approached Detroit, there were no British anywhere to be found. The only enemies still in the vicinity were small bands of Indians hovering along the river, but these were soon dispersed when the guns of Perry’s fleet came within range and opened fire. A brigade of troops under Gen. Duncan McArthur took possession of Detroit without opposition, and Johnson’s Regiment was sent out patrolling, scattering, killing, and capturing what Indians could be found.
This is why, on the day of battle, his force had traveled over eighty miles in less than three days, just to reach the battlefield. Meanwhile, the British-Indian retreat continued, with the vengeful Kentuckians gaining more ground on them every day, with Johnson in the lead, picking up stragglers and deserters along the way, which proved an excellent source of intelligence (especially from the French-Canadians, who had come to despise their English overlord) on the size, location, as well as the morale of the enemy.
As well as bleeding deserters in his wake, Proctor was also bleeding much-needed supplies, munitions, and even weaponry, in an attempt to gain speed, and thus distance, on his pursuers. Just before the Americans had fully caught up with the enemy’s main force, Johnson’s lead element found a large distillery and a ship in flames, which contained a large amount of ordnance and naval stores, and though most of this could not be salvaged, nearby they found the two large, 24-pounder cannon which the enemy had used during their Siege of Fort Meigs (and had killed more than eighty of Gen. Harrison’s men), along with a quantity of both solid shot and shells. While we lacked transportation to carry it along for use against the British in this engagement, our fledgling War Department was happy to receive them for future use.
On the night of October 4th, Gov./Gen. Shelby had felt uneasy, had strengthened the guard, and walked every inch of the picket lines around his camp to be certain, as McAfee put it, that “proper vigilance was preserved”. It was later discovered that Tecumseh and Proctor had come down in the night for a reconnaissance of the camp, in hopes of finding a weak point or lapse that might have enabled them to launch a surprise attack. But finding it much too strong, and thanks to Isaac Shelby, much too alert to make an attempt, the idea of making an attack was cast aside, just as the 24-pounders had been.
Harrison and Shelby knew that the enemy was close, so before dawn they had their army on the move. Styled as the “Army of the Northwest”, by Gen. Harrison, who had been Governor of the Northwest Territory, it was in truth, the “Army of Kentucky”. Just 120 Regulars of the 27th U.S. Infantry under Col. George Paull (of Ohio) were the only troops on the field who were not Kentuckians. Prior to leaving the camp in northern Ohio, at least one Pennsylvania Militia Regiment, which had been with Harrison, decides that it “violates their Constitutional scruples” to pursue the enemy off of American soil (where they would actually have to fight a battle, not just wear uniforms and parade around playing as soldiers), since the Constitution states that militias are for defense of states, not a war on enemy soil. With no time to argue with this logic of legal cowardice, Harrison shouts at the Pennsylvania colonel, “Thank God I have Kentuckians enough to go without you!”
On this day, with the culmination of 14 months’ work before him, Harrison and his staff rode with the Army’s vanguard, Johnson’s 1,000 Mounted Riflemen, and 63 year-old Gov. Isaac Shelby (a hero of the Revolution, when he’d led a force of frontier riflemen to annihilate a larger force of British Tories) rode immediately to their rear at the head of his 2,500 Kentucky Infantry and Riflemen (despite claims made in some “histories”, prior to the battle, detachments had been left behind as temporary garrisons, camped at the ruins of Fort Malden, and to guard the river crossings at key points, which reduced Shelby’s infantry by around one thousand men, which would put Gen. Harrison’s total infantry force at approximately 2,700, including Paull’s Regulars and the friendly Miami Warriors).
In order to catch up to the enemy and force him to give battle, these men had endured a grueling forced march of over eighty miles in just the past three days-impressive for a disciplined, well-trained regular army, much less militia troops who had been in service less than six weeks. But it was this too, their performance, as well as the number of Kentuckians that turned out, which was a testament to their great patriotism, and an overwhelming desire for revenge against both the natives who had committed the massacres of unarmed, wounded prisoners from their state, as well as the British, under whose sworn and guaranteed “protection” they had been under at the time that they had been slaughtered.
The wrath kindled by these actions (and inaction), had yet to find a release, as no counter-strike, no retribution had been inflicted to this point. But here was a great opportunity for just that.
Gen. Henry Proctor had, for once, made a militarily sound decision in the deployment of his army, along a stretch of the road leading away from Detroit which was paralleled by a large swamp for nearly two miles. For days now both armies had been marching down the Detroit Road along the Thames River, which runs east to west, and the road leading from Detroit follows along the left or northern bank of the river.
At this point along the road, the open ground (relatively open, though trees remained thick enough here to hinder artillery fire) to the left narrows, bordered by a large, heavily wooded swamp, and where the enemy battle lines were drawn up, there was section of open ground for roughly 250-300 yards, stretching from the road across to a swampy area clustered with oak and beech trees, which was about another 250 to 300 yards wide, and running parallel to the river for perhaps 1,000-1,200 yards.
Farther to the left of this small swamp was area of solid, fairly open ground, with clusters of trees through it that was around two hundred yards wide. It was near toward the rear of this smaller swamp that Proctor placed his force of approximately 800 British Regulars and Canadian militia in an open order line of battle, in two ranks astride the rode, with a brass, six-pounder cannon on the road to their left, and the wooded swamp on their right.
The narrow swamp on the British Army’s right split Proctor and Tecumseh’s forces, but the wet, partially submerged ground and the density of the woods would make it difficult, if not impossible for an American force to work it’s way into that area to flank either the Indians from the left or the British from the right. Tecumseh’s force now numbered probably no more than twelve hundred warriors, under his direct command, with Oshawanah of the Ottawa and Roundhead of the Wyandot, but warriors from at least twelve tribes were represented in this force.
Tecumseh took the greater part of his force and formed a line beginning at the edge of the smaller swamp on his left, spanning the solid ground across to the thick woods and the huge swamp on his right. The rest of his force he placed in a long, thin, but well concealed line in the thick woods along the edge of the swamp for at least four or five hundred yards in advance of his main line. This would enable his Indians to open a flanking fire on their attackers once the main engagement had commenced.
Once Harrison had learned from his scouts, “spies” as they were then called, that the British line of battle was in open order, he decided to use Col. Richard M. Johnson’s 3rd Kentucky Mounted Rifle Regiment to charge on and break the enemy infantry’s lines. Col. Johnson had developed a new tactical method which would prove extremely effective here at the Thames, and decades later Gen. Nathan Bedford Forrest would employ a similar system. Johnson’s Kentuckians were, first and foremost, expert riflemen, and it was this skill even more than their great ability as horsemen that would be used to full effect. When his forces made contact, the lead element would dismount and engage the enemy with rifle fire, effectively “fixing” them, while the rest of the unit, depending on circumstances, would either envelope the enemy force on horseback, dismount and fire as they advanced, “closing the ring” in modern military jargon.
Or, as the 1st Battalion did at the Thames, they could use the shock effect of a mounted charge to break through an enemy’s line, split off to the right and left once in the enemy’s rear and open up with aimed rifle fire on them from behind once they got there, with dismounted support troops still pressing the enemy from the front. These tactics, developed by Johnson and his unit in the five months prior to the Battle of the Thames that they had operated against the Indians in the Northwest, were well ahead of their time, and they made Johnson’s 3rd Kentucky Mounted Rifle Regiment the ultimate mobile strike force of the War of 1812, as Tarleton’s Legion had been during the Revolutionary War.
It should be noted here that the men of this unit, unlike most mounted regiments, did not carry sabers, but instead were armed with Kentucky rifles, “horse” pistols, tomahawks, and long-bladed knives. During our first conflict against the British, the Redcoats had, at first, held the poor, “dirty-shirt” Kentuckians, and other frontier riflemen such as Daniel Morgan’s Virginian Riflemen, in the utmost contempt. But, in time, their lethality at the Battles of Saratoga, the Cowpens, and above all, at King’s Mountain, forced the British first to respect, and later to fear an American frontiersman armed with the Kentucky Rifle, as the “greatest widow-maker in North America”. The Patriot militia which annihilated a larger force of Tories at the ironically named King’s Mountain, was led by none other than 63 year-old Kentucky Gov. Isaac Shelby, second-in-command under Gen. Harrison at the Battle of the Thames. And this fight would take place exactly two days short of the 33rd anniversary of Shelby’s famous victory, which made him a hero and allowed him to become Kentucky’s first governor.
When the U.S. Government officially complained of the British use of Indians, or “savages”, against both American soldiers and civilians, they replied that so long as we continued to use “savage” Kentuckians, who “carried both the tomahawk and scalping knife along with their long rifles, and were adept at using both”, then President Madison had no right to complain of their use of Indians. Though it may sound to us like a slander, it would actually prove to be a great asset.
For our ancestors’ reputation as fighters, the enemy’s fear of the prowess of the Kentucky frontiersmen was used to full effect, and certainly factored into the Gen. Proctor’s precipitate flight from Fort Malden, leading up to the Battle of the Thames. After so many months of our forces being grievously wounded in spirit by the loss of so many friends in such an atrocious manner, after so many insults to our Nation’s Honor, and so much slaughter, of both innocent civilians along the frontier, as well as the hundreds (likely more than one thousand) of defenseless wounded men and unarmed prisoners of war, the guilty were now within reach, and the day of revenge, and for some, the Day of Judgment had arrived.
Initially, Gen. Harrison intended to send Johnson’s unit against the Indians on the left, in order to try to turn Tecumseh’s right flank, while Shelby’s infantry and rifle regiments were to form on the right, to form up for a frontal assault against the British on the enemy’s left. However, when Harrison was informed by the scouts under Capt. Leslie Combs, and his superior, a Major Wood, that the British were in an open order formation, he immediately determined to send shatter that part of the enemy’s lines with a mounted assault by Col. Johnson’s command. Shelby’s forces were then to come up in support as well as sending the brigades of (Kentucky’s future Governor) Gen. Joseph Desha’s Division against the Indians in the woods and swamp on the left. But it did not work out that way, for no battle that I know of in all military history has ever gone exactly according to the plans formed before contact with the enemy.
When Johnson formed up on the right for the assault, he saw that there was not enough room to maneuver his entire regiment across that narrow piece of ground. And so, Johnson devised and executed a very bold, risky plan of attack, sending his 1st Battalion, under his brother, Lt. Col. James Johnson (whose sons, 17 year-old Edward and 15 year-old William, fought alongside their father on horseback), to break through the British lines in a mounted assault, across the open ground along the road, to turn the enemy’s left. At the same time, the Colonel would lead his 2nd Battalion, with most of his 450 men dismounted, against the most formidable enemy force on the field: Tecumseh’s Warriors, who were lying in wait in the woods and swamp on the enemy right.
Col. Johnson seems to have had little concern for the assault of his 1st Battalion, correctly deducing that his mounted Kentucky Riflemen would have no trouble in breaking the open order British lines, though they would be outnumbered by around 800-845 British and Canadian infantry to Lt. Col. James Johnson’s 500 mounted troops, until infantry support could come up from the rear. He was also experienced enough to know that the worst, hardest fighting by far, as well as the most casualties that would be incurred, would come on the left, where Tecumseh, perhaps the greatest leader ever produced by any tribe, stood waiting, determined to fight to the death.
Though there is some discrepancy as to the exact time of day, it seems that the lines had been formed, and everything prepared by 2 or 3 p.m., and the assault soon began. Lt. Col. James Johnson had his five hundred mounted Kentucky Riflemen, all clad in buckskins died dark blue, in formation with there right along the road, and the left of their lines near the edge of the small, swampy, wooded depression which would split both the British lines from the Indians, as well as the 1st Battalion from the 2nd, who were preparing to assault the enemy force under Tecumseh on the left.
In order for the 1st Battalion to only have to deal with the British Infantry, Col. George Paull would lead his 120 U.S. Army Regulars and a group of forty friendly Indians (mostly Miami), to creep along the river bank as the mounted Kentuckians charged in a frontal assault. With the enemy’s attention focused there, Paull’s detachment would burst from the cover of the steep bank, kill or capture the British gunners, and take the enemy’s lone cannon before they could inflict serious damage on the other American troops. As Paull’s Regulars took the cannon, his forty braves were to fire on the British from behind, screaming, in order to “give the fearful impression that their own savage allies had turned upon them.”
After drawing up in line several hundred feet from the British lines, in “four columns of double files”, with the scouts in the lead under Maj. James Suggett, Lt. Col. James Johnson roared out the command, “Forward….Charge!” This command was almost immediately answered by many of the officers and men of the 1st Battalion shouting “Remember the Raisin!”, which likely helped to unnerve the waiting British infantry along with the Kentuckians’ reputation and thirst for revenge(not to mention their armaments of a Kentucky Rifle, tomahawks, and scalping knives!).
Lt. Col. Augustus Warburton and his second, Maj. John Richardson, tried to get their shaky troops to hold their fire until their enemy came within effective range, but their nerves got the better of them. The first volley was fired from a rather harmless distance, which only momentarily upset the horses, slowing the charge for just an instant. But within seconds the Kentuckians had their mounts firmly under control, and on they came. The British fired only one more ineffectual volley, which Gen. Harrison later claimed wounded only three men.
Before James Johnson’s mounted troops had even reached the British lines, they had started to break, with some attempting to flee and other so terrified that they just stood there, frozen in place, which made them easy to capture, once the fighting had ended. The 1st Battalion crashed through the thin, open-order British lines, scarcely even slowing their pace until they were in the enemy’s rear. It was here that the months spent by Richard and James Johnson in training and disciplining their troops would pay off.
Once they had cut their way into the enemy’s rear, the attacking column began peeling off to the left and right by companies (three to the left, three to the right) in a very professional and tactically sound manner, and, having the ordered the men beforehand to “Fire at Will” once they were in position, the Kentucky Riflemen opened a lethal fire on the British ranks from the rear. Rather than volley fire at a mass of enemy troops which was breaking apart, each man chose his own target and fired only when he had a clear shot. Such well-aimed rifle fire soon took it’s toll, and in the roughly five minutes before the complete British surrender, no less than fifty-four British Infantry had fallen, either killed, wounded, or mortally wounded.
And in a letter written afterwards, Lt. Col. Warburton, the British commander, noted that a “most of the dead had been shot through the head, and a great many of the mortally and grievously wounded had been shot in the upper body, a number of them stricken in the neck, center of the chest, and several others with head wounds where the balls had grazed, or spent, struck but did not enter.”
Such was the marksmanship of the Kentucky Riflemen. And the maneuver which the 1st Battalion conducted, under enemy fire after breaking through the British lines (splitting off by companies when reaching the enemy’s rear), was executed and conducted in a manner which would have done credit to the most professional armies in existence at the time, but even more so to an American militia unit, which, until now, the British had nothing but contempt for, as an “undisciplined rabble.”
As Lt. Col. James Johnson’s troops formed up and prepared to charge, Col. Paull, with his U.S. Regulars and Indians, had approached beneath the crest of the riverbank unseen by the enemy, and as the British Infantry were being shattered, his detachment burst from cover and captured the enemy’s only artillery piece, a brass cannon, firing six pound balls and grape. Had that gun been properly serviced and permitted to fire grapeshot into the charging 1st Battalion, the casualties likely would have been severe. Instead it was quickly taken out of action.
A small force of some British and Canadian Dragoons, Gen. Proctor’s only mounted troops, fled even before James Johnson’s Kentuckians began to close in on them, salvaging only the cannon’s caisson. With the almost immediate surrender of Proctor’s British Infantry, at least 477 enemy troops were captured immediately, with more to follow, both before and during the pursuit which was about to commence, and most would soon be in American hands. Prior to the battle Proctor had sent a detachment of around 150 men on the a foraging expedition up the Valley of the Thames, and it was these troops, Proctor with a small escort (who fled as soon as the firing started), and no more than fifty or fifty-five men who had been in line under Lt. Col. Warburton, that had been able to avoid capture. In all, the British lost 18 killed, 36 wounded, and at least 601 captured. With this action on the right at an end, Major Devall Payne was ordered to take 200 men from the 1st Battalion and pursue the fleeing enemy, intending to capture Proctor and all the fleeing Redcoats which could be found. As for the infantry support, they played no part, as the 1st Battalion of the 3rd Kentucky Mounted Rifle Regiment had already won the battle on this end of the field before the rifle and infantry regiment had time to come up in support.
On the left, a brutal tactic, suicidal for the troops engaged, was used by Col. Richard M. Johnson in order to ensure the Kentuckians’ victory on the left, as his elder brother and subordinate, Lt. Col. James Johnson was winning on the right. Reading of his ordering such a suicidal tactic cold, from two hundred years beyond, it sounds as though Col. Johnson had no concern for his men, but this not true, as you shall see. Prior to leaving Kentucky for the front, Richard M. Johnson hired blacksmiths, gunsmiths, and more importantly, he hired the best doctors in the state to take care of his wounded men- ALL at his own personal expense.
He called for twenty volunteers to take part in a “Forlorn Hope” as it was called. These men would charge ahead on horseback well ahead of the main body of the 2nd Battalion, in order to draw the fire of Tecumseh’s Warriors at the start. Calling for volunteers, the gallant Colonel himself was the first, saying that “I will not order my men to go, where I myself shall not lead them.” Despite the fact that taking part in this “mad rush” in advance of the main body would more than likely end in death, there seemed to be little or no hesitation among the men who stepped forward (as confirmed by the men who witnessed this event).
All knew that this terrible tactic was necessary to ensure victory, which was all that mattered to these American Patriots. The first man to volunteer after Col. Johnson made that remark was none other than William Whitley, the “Guardian of the Wilderness Road”, who was now sixty-four years of age. Whitley had earned that title because he was credited with saving the lives more than one hundred men, women, and children, pioneer families who had been attacked by Indians along the Wilderness Road as they traveled north toward the Bluegrass country in search of good farmland and a place for a home to raise their children in. Though overshadowed by men like Daniel Boone and Simon Kenton, William Whitley was their equal, a great frontiersman and a remarkable man who deserves to be remembered as much as any of Kentucky’s founders.
*See notes or a list of the men known to have taken part in the “Forlorn Hope.”2
The great moment of destiny for Col. Richard Mentor Johnson was now at hand. Split off to the left, away from where his 1st Battalion was defeating the British, with the small swamp separating them, Johnson formed his “Forlorn Hope” detachment up ahead of the main body of his 2nd Battalion, which would follow close behind. The time had come, and with the Colonel at their head, and old William Whitley at his side, the lead element let out what may be described as an “Indian War Whoop”, or pre-cursor to the ‘Rebel Yell’, and charged toward Tecumseh’s lines in the wooded swamp.
Tecumseh was without question, both a better tactician and strategist than his British counterpart, Gen. Henry Proctor. He ordered his Warriors to hold their fire until the last possible moment, to ensure a more effective fire which would inflict far more casualties on their advancing enemy. Tecumseh’s rifle shot was the signal, and the rifle of several hundred natives went off at once, with as much fire discipline as any professional army could have mustered. The effective on Johnson’s lead element was predictably bloody, with nineteen of those first twenty saddles quickly emptied. Fifteen were killed or mortally wounded, four were wounded, and through miracle or luck one man, Garrett Wall, escaped without injury. Col. Johnson was hit no fewer than four times, and William Whitley was shot off his horse, though he continued to fight for a short time before succumbing to his wounds.
However, though that lead element was virtually annihilated, before the enemy could reload the main body of the 2nd Battalion came screaming and firing at a run and was almost on top of the enemy in the woods immediately. Johnson saw at once that his troops would be far more effective on foot, and so ordered them to dismount, though he remained in the saddle to lead them. Bleeding profusely from the four wounds he had already received, Johnson refused to leave the field and continued to lead his men into the fighting on the edge of the woods.
Then, on foot, the Kentuckians began firing, not in volleys like the British or U.S. Regulars, but Indian-style, as it was called, moving from tree to tree for cover and only firing when they had a specific target in their sights. Tecumseh’s voice rang out in an eerie, high-pitched sound, and un-intelligible to the Kentuckians, it was obviously commands to keep fighting, and fight they did. Shelby’s infantry started to come up, but only part of Col. John Donaldson’s 2nd Kentucky Infantry Regiment would be engaged before the battle ended.
This was almost exclusively a fight between Johnson’s 3rd Kentucky Mounted Rifle Regiment and Tecumseh’s natives on the left, just as it had been with that regiment’s 1st Battalion against the British on the right. This brutal, close-in fighting was described by Capt. Robert B. McAfee, who was a participant, as “fierce conflict”, with a “fire that was close, warm, and destructive.”
In times past, when American troops were compelled to fight their native enemy in hand-to-hand combat, they nearly always got the worst of it. But these men were Kentuckians, not U.S Army Regulars recruited in the East, and after decades on the frontier, and now experienced in just this type of fighting, they more than held their own. Tecumseh, Chief Oshawanah of the Ottawa, and Roundhead of the Wyandot, were all among the slain. Roundhead had been among the chief perpetrators of the River Raisin Massacre (which Tecumseh would never have allowed had he been present).
Both Col. Johnson and William Whitley are known to have killed an Indian chief on this part of the field, and with both Roundhead and Tecumseh among the slain, no one can be sure just who killed who. At some point in this terrible fight, no one knows exactly when it happened, but as the battle raged, the voice of the great Tecumseh went quiet, stilled forever. (As the question and controversy of whether it was Whitley before his death or Col. Johnson who killed Tecumseh is, to my mind, meaningless, and is solely and completely based upon conjecture, I will not address it here.)
A short time later, just after Tecumseh’s voice was cut off, Johnson was dragged from the battlefield unconscious, after being shot a fifth time, and it was discovered that at least twenty balls had struck his clothing, horse, and other gear as he’d led his men into the fight. With Johnson down, command of the 2nd Battalion passed to Maj. David Thompson, and wisely leading his men on foot, he continued the advance, now backed up by Col. Donaldson’s infantry.
But with Tecumseh’s death, the Indians no longer had heart to continue the fight, especially after learning that their British allies had surrendered en masse, to the natives’ mind betrayed once again, so they dispersed, quickly scattering across the swamp and into the woods after recovering as many bodies as they could carry, including the body of Tecumseh, who had predicted his own death the night before. He was, in both the Indian sense and the white sense, the greatest leader ever produced by any Native North American tribe, and there would never be another.
Unlike his brethren, he never once took part in torture and immediately halted the killing of prisoners when he was present, (allegedly even striking a warrior with a war club, who disobeyed him on this point, near Fort Meigs), and was as well known for his humanity as for his ferocity and effectiveness in combat. And now, after taking out their most capable enemy, the Kentuckians kept pushing, keeping up the pursuit a short distance into the woods and swamp as far as they could. For after eighty miles in three days just to reach this battlefield, all were exhausted.
Besides their fatigue, they had already learned what generations of American troops would have to learn and re-learn, from the Shawnee and Seminole to the Sioux and Apache later in the Nineteenth Century: If Indians do not want to be found, they very likely won’t be. You may surprise a village with relative ease, but American Armies very rarely even made contact with, let alone captured, Indian war parties, unless they wanted to be found (i.e., laying in ambush, or prepared battlefield where they chose to fight you, like St. Clair’s Defeat or the Little Big Horn).
With the retreat and scattering of the Warriors following the deaths of Roundhead and Tecumseh, the Battle of the Thames had come to an end.
The pursuit, on the other hand, was another matter, for with Tecumseh dead, there was one man above all others whom the Kentuckians were frantic to lay hands on: Gen. Henry Proctor. This was the enemy officer who’d given his solemn oath that all prisoners would be decently treated and protected, twice, only to stand by, as at Dudley’s Defeat, with a smile on his face, as the prisoners under his care were tomahawked and butchered.
Gen. Harrison and his commanders also wished to round up any British troops that could be found so that they would not have to fight them again in the near future, which might have given them some trouble if consolidated with other forces farther to the east, if perhaps they were led by a less inept commander than Proctor. Soon after the mass surrender of Proctor’s forces, and the scattering of Tecumseh’s force following his death, Lt. Col. James Johnson’s second-in-command, Maj. Devall Payne, set out with two hundred mounted troops of the 1st Battalion in pursuit of Proctor and the remains of his shattered command, as stated above.
After galloping more than fifteen miles, Payne’s detachment found and tool possession of Proctor’s carriage and baggage, and had encountered and killed twelve more of the Warriors who had fought alongside Tecumseh until his death. Not having found the main object of their search, Maj. Payne, accompanied by just a handful of officers and men, rode on, angry at the fact that Proctor was known for moving at a snail’s pace, yet now whipped, he moved like lightning. Having fled in a carriage (which perfectly suited both his nature and character), the enemy commander threw off all that impeded his progress, ditching his carriage for a light horse, and even left his sword behind, which were discovered and taken by Major Wood, an officer with Payne. But Gen. Henry A. Proctor had made his escape from the battlefield, and would not suffer the justified wrath of the Kentuckians.
Rightly fearing for his life, the enemy commander was moving rapidly away from the field, accompanied by a small escort of Canadian Light Dragoons under Capt. Thomas Coleman.
In addition to the more than six hundred British prisoners and the sword and baggage of Gen. Proctor, Maj. Payne’s detachment also captured six brass cannon, about six miles beyond Moraviantown. Capt. Robert B. McAfee, a company commander in Col. Johnson’s 3rd Kentucky Mounted Rifle Regiment, would later report that they also found the caissons for each gun nearby, along with a quantity of shot and shells for them.
Knowing that it takes time to emplace and displace cannon, Proctor must have believed that he would be defeated, and did not want these guns to slow his retreat. Even if, as some British and Canadians would later claim, Proctor had little or no ammunitions for these guns, had he positioned only half of these guns along his line, even empty, their appearance would have stiffened the spine of his own troops, as well as given the Kentuckians a bit more pause before they attacked. The end result may well have been the same, but cowardice alone can account for Henry Proctor not at least attempting to use this battery, even for show if they were low on shot.
At any rate, these six cannon were left behind, unused, and the Kentucky troops now had possession of them. Upon further inspection, it was found that at least three of these brass cannon had been taken from the British Army that was captured at Saratoga in 1777, and the others were taken from Cornwallis at Yorktown, with his surrender in October of 1781. Through the senility and incompetence of Gen. William Hull, the guns had been taken along with Detroit, on August 16, 1812. Hull is court-martialed and charged with treason and cowardice, but the treason charge would be dropped and Hull is found guilty of cowardice and sentenced to be shot. But President Madison commuted the sentence in view of Hull’s service in the Revolutionary War, but he remains the only American Army commander to be so charged and sentenced.
However, the Kentuckians victory at the Battle of the Thames had accomplished something far more important than any material gains, or even the complete destruction or capture of an entire British Army. The true significance of the Kentuckians’ victory was that it guaranteed that not only Kentucky would be a safe and peaceful home, but also for the American settlers throughout nearly all of the present states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, and most of Michigan. Their victory also meant that the thousands, hundred thousands, and later millions of Americans in the generations to come, who would fill those broad, open lands, could do so without fear of slaughter or torture, and made it among the most populous, economically strong, and productive regions in the entire nation-to-be, and was a gift of epic proportions to the future prosperity of the United States, down to the present day.
From the start of it’s initial settlement in 1775, up until Gen. Anthony Wayne’s victory at the Fallen Timbers in 1794, the people of Kentucky (the generation which settled it) had endured through almost twenty years of nearly continuous warfare with the Northern Indians. In that time, thousands of American civilians had been slaughtered in their homes, on their farms, and on flatboats coming down the Ohio. In fact, from 1781 to 1794, more Americans were killed by the Northern Tribes in Kentucky and along the Ohio, “than in all the major battles of the Revolutionary War combined”3.
Even after Wayne’s victory, intermittent raids into the northern and western part of the Bluegrass, and small towns along the Ohio, conducted by small war parties, would continue to harass Kentuckians for several years afterward (*The last, I believe, took place in Grant County, in 1805 or 1806). However, with the emergence of Tecumseh’s Confederacy (consisting of tribes to the North, West, and South of Kentucky), just prior to the War of 1812, all those old fears of full-scale raids against defenseless civilian settlements, came rushing back.
Aside from sheer Patriotism, it was this issue more than any other that spurred the Kentuckians’ enthusiastic rally to the call to arms, and helps to account for the disproportionate losses they suffered, compared with other states. The men from the Bluegrass and the hills enlisted in their thousands because they saw this conflict as their best chance to end forever any further threat of Indian Raids against their homes and families. To do this, Tecumseh would have to die, his Confederacy destroyed, and the British Army that armed and supplied them would have to be crushed alongside them.
No matter who it was that killed Tecumseh, his death guaranteed that his Native Confederacy, an alliance of tribes as far west as the Sioux, as far south as the Seminole in Florida, and north to the Ottawa, Huron, and other tribes in Canada, was to be immediately and irrevocably shattered. No other leader could form and hold such a factious, widely-separated group of tribes together, and so, the enormous threat that they posed as a force, died on the field with Tecumseh.
The same British Army and Indian Department that had paid for American scalps for decades, including those of women and children(See attachment), was thoroughly beaten with all but around fifty-five men of Proctor’s Army killed, wounded, or captured. This meant that both the Michigan Territory and the Ohio frontier would no longer be open to invasion for the duration of the War. While it is true that a small minority came into the War of 1812 hoping to annex Canada, they were just that- a small minority, politicians for the most part. THE principal objective of Gen. Harrison’s Army of Kentuckians was to expel the enemy’s army (both British and Native) from American soil, to shatter Tecumseh’s Confederacy, and defeat the same British Army that had taken Detroit in 1812 and invaded northern Ohio in the spring and summer of 1813. Once this was accomplished, Harrison left a strong garrison behind to protect Detroit, under the Ohio Gen. McArthur, and sent his Kentuckians home to their families.
Little more than a year after their victory in Canada, some of these same Kentuckians answered their country’s call once more, when Gen. Andrew Jackson asked for help in defending the South from yet another British Invasion. This was by far, the strongest, most formidable Enemy effort of the War, with over 11,000 veteran troops on-board the warships and transports of the Royal Navy, bound for the mouth of the Mississippi (this was the same Fleet and same Admiral Cochrane who just weeks before had burned the Nation’s Capitol with an expeditionary force less than half the size of this one, after first humiliating a larger force of Eastern State militia at Bladensburg.)
Dark and ominous as this situation undoubtedly was, Andrew Jackson was about to achieve the impossible: Just past dawn on January 8,1815, a force of 4,500 mostly Tennessee and Kentucky Riflemen obliterated the assault formations of some 8,800 veteran Redcoats in roughly twenty minutes! (Though skirmishing and firefights along the river continued for two hours, the main effort had been annihilated in just twenty minutes.) This was undoubtedly the most lopsided victory in modern military history, with over 2,400 British casualties, with 1,907 killed and wounded (with the British Commander, Packenham, and two other generals among the slain, along with 20 other senior officers) all inflicted at a cost of just 13 Americans killed and 39 wounded.
(Unfortunately, too many writers today claim that this victory meant nothing since it was fought after the Treaty of Ghent had been signed, ending the War. This is naive in the extreme to say the least. Please see Note #4, to learn why such thinking is ridiculous.)
Having been posted in the center of ‘Line Jackson’, alongside the Tennesseans, which the main assault had been aimed at, these men had earned the thanks of their countrymen, and the right to once more return home. For the Thames veterans among them, by the time they reached home, they had logged more than 2,400 miles during this conflict, and had won two crucial victories over the enemy, on battlefields that were roughly 1,200 miles apart. For their courage and determination, the peace that their efforts and sacrifice made possible, and the fact that the Canadian border does NOT run along the Ohio River, these brave Kentuckians must be honored and remembered with gratitude, not just by their descendants in Ohio and Kentucky, but by the United States as a whole, the nation these men had so faithfully served. Anything less is a disgrace.
*Though the Kentuckians had a large force within striking distance, roughly 2,000 men had been engaged on both sides, and practically the entire battle had been fought, and won, by Johnson’s 3rd Kentucky Mounted Riflemen. Gen. Shelby ordered Col. John Donaldson’s Regiment to support Johnson toward the end of the fight, and this was the only infantry engaged.
**Casualties- British: 18 killed, 36 wounded, and 601 captured.
Indians: 45 killed, unknown wounded. (12 killed in pursuit)
U.S. : 27 killed, 57 wounded.
*In all, 700 ENEMY losses vs. 84 American casualties.
#1. There were other states that enrolled larger numbers of men into their militia, but virtually all of these were “sedentary” militia who never left their home state. But it was Kentucky alone that sent her entire militia force out of state, and later out of the U.S., to actively engage the enemy. The few exceptions to this were a small unit from Virginia, several thousand “detached” Tennessee militia under Jackson, and a relative handful from Ohio. All others basically stayed home, only to fight if/when the British invaded their particular state. Kentucky possessed no sedentary militia, using all their available manpower for offensive purposes, or to rush to the defense of other states attacked by the enemy (Michigan Terr., Northern Ohio, and New Orleans.
#2. Not listed, but obviously at the head of the “Forlorn Hope”, was Col. Richard M. Johnson himself. The other men known to have taken part in this assault were: Col. William Whitley (serving a a volunteer private), Benjamin S. Chambers, Garrett Wall (the Forage Master from Scott Co., and the only man in this detachment who made it through unscathed), Eli Short, Joseph Taylor, Robert Payne, William S. Webb, John L. Masfield, Samuel Theobold, Samuel Logan, Richard Spurr, and John McGunnigle. (Young, Battle of the Thames, Page #81).
#3. American Heritage Book of the Revolution, Page #312. This statement is backed up by the fact that no less a figure than President George Washington cited a War Department report during a DEC 1789 speech before Congress, that between AUG 1782 and DEC 1789, no fewer than 1,500 settlers had been killed and 20,000 horses stolen along the Ohio River, and from the Kentucky settlements. (Eckert, Dark and Bloody River, Page #507).
#4. The British Attack on New Orleans: I do not see how anyone familiar with British policies and actions on this continent in the 18th and 19th Centuries could actually believe that the Treaty of Ghent would have been adhered to if their attempt on New Orleans had been successful. Under the terms of the treaty, territorial possessions were returned to the status quo, and there is no way that the Crown would have returned such a prize if they’d taken it. Knowing this, how can one argue that the American victory was meaningless?
The defeat of Packenham’s force was of the utmost importance for the following reasons: With the Royal Navy already masters of the sea, by holding the mouth of the Mississippi, the British would’ve been capable of A) Choking off all commerce and export trade (mainly tobacco, grain, and the fur trade) which left the New Orleans docks, or levy ruinous taxes and duties on whatever came through-thus financially gutting Kentucky, Ohio, Tennessee, and all of what would become the Midwest, the nation’s productive future bread basket.
B)They could hold the New Orleans hostage in order to force concessions elsewhere, perhaps including their dreamed-of Indian Buffer State north of the Ohio.
C) If they chose to continue the conflict, on whatever pretext, New Orleans could’ve been used as an excellent base to permanently seal off all further U.S. expansion at the Mississippi, conducting a freshwater blockade with shallow-draft transports and gun ships. Had they been victorious, another option open to the British Army was to use our river systems as highways of invasion into the American Heartland, moving north along the banks of the great river, and then east into the Ohio Valley, possibly even penetrating deep into Kentucky and Tennessee via the Cumberland and Tennessee Rivers (as the Union Army would do fifty years later).
It was only the prohibitive economic cost of continuing the War that led the British to sign the Treaty of Ghent, not due to military failure, and the capture of New Orleans’ assets, it’s ports, and trade to be taxed or confiscated would defray much of the cost of continuing the conflict. Militarily, the British were in a far better position, and they knew it, for with Napoleon now defeated, they could pour in all of the reinforcements that they might need, in Royal Navy transports, either north to bolster their forces in Canada, for yet another expedition from there, or to the Southern Theater where, with New Orleans in their hands, after a build up there, they could have mounted a major expedition to the north and east, and flooded the South with redcoats.
In fact, they were capable, after Napoleon’s fall, of launching major invasions in both theaters at once, with little to deter them. For in truth, Perry’s victory on Lake Erie, the Battle of the Thames, and what was to come at New Orleans, were the only battlefield defeats suffered by the British. Aside from Harrison’s Kentuckians and Jackson’s Tennessee and Kentucky troops, almost every other American had either been crushed or stalemated at best. In almost every engagement, troops from the Eastern states (and just as importantly, led by Eastern commanders) especially in New York and Maryland, had performed so badly in combat under their inept leaders, that the British had nothing but contempt for them. Only the Kentuckians and Tennesseans remained strong, defiant, and unbeaten in the field.
Our Nation’s Capitol had been burned, and even as the Kentuckians moved South, the New England states were openly speaking of secession and making a separate peace with Britain, and their leaders were assembling even now for the Hartford Convention, where these actions were to be seriously considered (New England, with Vermont and Massachusetts worst of all, had continued to trade with England throughout the War, despite the laws against it, with more than two-thirds of all beef consumed by the British Army in Canada having been purchased from Yankee merchants(Berton, Invasion, p.23))! All of this as American troops in the field suffered from a lack of provisions).
And so, by December of 1814, it looked as though the American Union was about to tear apart at the seams, and the loss of New Orleans at that time may well have been the final straw, with New England making good on it’s threats, forcing the other dispirited states to sue for peace at any price, on bended knee before the Crown.
Instead, Jackson’s annihilation of Packenham’s assault prevented all of this, and it confirmed American Independence as emphatically as anyone could have dared to hope for. Above all, this short, but devastating repulse, this slaughter of the elite troops of what was widely acknowledged as the greatest Army on Earth, had guaranteed that European interference in American expansion was ended forever.
The nation rejoiced at this unexpected, astonishing victory, with even New England changing it’s tune (their view of secession had been drastically altered, as they helped push the nation into war when the South actually followed through on what they had advocated as a legal constitutional right, less than fifty years before.). The Republic had been saved, and an “Era of Good Feelings” was ushered in, and nationalism and patriotism soared across the land. Yet the sectional bitterness engendered by New England near-treason during the War of 1812 would continue to smolder, until the explosion came in 1861. Far from meaningless, for the reasons stated above, the Battle of New Orleans was, in fact, among the most crucially decisive, and important battlefield victories that American Armies won in the 19th Century. Just as the Battle of the Thames had been the decisive, crushing defeat of our Native enemies with the death of the great Tecumseh, so New Orleans was the killing blow which forever ended any further thought of invasion by the British Army, as well as ending any hope of returning any of their “Lost Colonies” to the Crown.
For their determination and fortitude, both in battle and during the perilous journey to and from New Orleans, which was nearly 1,500 miles for the Kentucky troops(Thames veterans had campaigned for more than 2,200 miles by the spring of 1815, causing them more suffering from fatigue, illness, and disease than the battle had), and for their unbelievably effective and heroic combat performance along “Line Jackson” on January 8th, these men must be honored and remembered with gratitude by all Americans today who live in safety and comfort due to these men, and those like them in other generations, who have never failed to answer their country’s call. To allow them to be forgotten, or to allow others to denigrate their achievements without challenge, is absolutely shameful to say the least. Unless one makes the absurd assertion, that the Crown would’ve returned New Orleans once it was taken, because of the terms of the Treaty of Ghent, it is utter nonsense to claim that our ancestors’ victory at New Orleans was pointless or unimportant.
And as the descendants of American heroes, it falls to us to make certain that their story is told to each generation, and that their legacy is never allowed to die.
• McAfee,Robert Breckinridge, History of the Late War in the Western Country, Worsley and Smith; Lexington, KY- 1816. 534 pages.
• Hammack, James Wallace, Kentucky and the second American revolution, the War of 1812, UK Press, Lexington,KY-1976. 115 pgs.
• American Heritage, Editors of, American Heritage Book of the Revolution, American Heritage Publishing; New York, New York-1971.
• Eckert, Allan W., That Dark and Bloody River, IU Press; Bloomin