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War of 1812: Battle of the Thames

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War of 1812: Battle of the Thames

Major General William Henry Harrison

Photograph Source: Public Domain

Battle of the Thames - Conflict & Dates:

The Battle of the Thames was fought October 5, 1813, during the War of 1812 (1812-1815).

Armies & Commanders

Americans

British & Native Americans

  • Major General Henry Proctor
  • Tecumseh
  • 1,300 men

Battle of the Thames - Background:

Following the fall of Detroit to Major General Isaac Brock in August 1812, American forces in the Northwest endeavored to recapture the settlement. This was badly hampered due to British naval forces controlling Lake Erie. As a result, Major General William Henry Harrison's Army of the Northwest was forced to remain on the defensive while the US Navy constructed a squadron at Presque Isle, PA. As these efforts progressed, American forces suffered a severe defeat at Frenchtown (River Raisin) as well as endured a siege at Fort Meigs. In August 1813, the American squadron, commanded by Master Commandant Oliver Hazard Perry emerged from Presque Isle.

Outnumbered and out-gunned, Commander Robert H. Barclay withdrew his squadron to the British base at Amherstburg to await the completion of HMS Detroit (19 guns). Taking control Lake Erie, Perry was able to cut off the British supply lines to Amherstburg. With the logistical situation worsening, Barclay sailed out to challenge Perry in September. On September 10, the two clashed at the Battle of Lake Erie. After a bitter fought engagement, Perry captured the entire British squadron and sent a dispatch to Harrison stating, "We have met the enemy and they are ours." With control of the lake firmly in American hands, Harrison embarked the bulk of his infantry aboard Perry's ships and sailed to recapture Detroit. His mounted forces advanced along the lakeshore (Map).

Battle of the Thames - The British Retreat:

At Amherstburg, the British ground commander, Major General Henry Proctor, began planning to withdraw east to Burlington Heights at the western end of Lake Ontario. As part of his preparations, he quickly abandoned Detroit and nearby Fort Malden. Though these moves were opposed by the leader of his Native American forces, the famed Shawnee chief Tecumseh, Proctor proceeded as he was badly outnumbered and his supplies were dwindling. Detested by the Americans as he had allowed the Native Americans to butcher prisoners and wounded after the Battle of Frenchtown, Proctor began retreating up the Thames River on September 27. As the march progressed, the morale of his forces fell and his officers became increasingly dissatisfied with his leadership.

Battle of the Thames - Harrison Pursues:

A veteran of Fallen Timbers and the victor of Tippecanoe, Harrison landed his men and re-occupied Detroit and Sandwich. After leaving garrisons at both locations, Harrison marched out with around 3,700 men on October 2 and began pursuing Proctor. Pushing hard, the Americans began to catch up to the tired British and numerous stragglers were captured along the road. Reaching a location near Moraviantown, a Christian Native American settlement, on October 4, Proctor turned and prepared to meet Harrison's approaching army. Deploying his 1,300 men, he placed his regulars, largely elements of the 41st Regiment of Foot, and one cannon on the left along the Thames while Tecumseh's Native Americans were formed on the right with their flank anchored on a swamp.

Proctor's line was interrupted by a small swamp between his men and Tecumseh's Native Americans. To extend his position, Tecumseh lengthened his line into the large swamp and pushed it forward. This would allow it to strike the flank of any attacking force. Approaching the next day, Harrison's command consisted of elements of the US 27th Infantry Regiment as well as a large corps of Kentucky volunteers led by Major General Isaac Shelby. A veteran of the American Revolution, Shelby had commanded troops at the Battle of King's Mountain in 1780. Shelby's command consisted of five brigades of infantry as well as Colonel Richard Mentor Johnson's 3rd Regiment of Mounted Riflemen (Map).

Battle of the Thames - Proctor Routed:

Nearing the enemy position, Harrison placed Johnson's mounted forces along the river with his infantry inland. Though he initially intended to launch an assault with his infantry, Harrison changed his plan when he saw that the 41st Foot had deployed as skirmishers. Forming his infantry to cover his left flank from Native American attacks, Harrison instructed Johnson to attack the main enemy line. Splitting his regiment into two battalions, Johnson planned to lead one against the Native Americans above the small swamp, while his younger brother, Lieutenant Colonel James Johnson, led the other against the British below. Moving forward, the younger Johnson's men charged down the river road with Colonel George Paull's 27th Infantry in support.

Striking the British line, they quickly overwhelmed the defenders. In less than ten minutes of fighting, the Kentuckians and Paull's regulars drove off the British and captured Proctor's one cannon. Among those who fled was Proctor. To the north, the elder Johnson attacked the Native American line. Led by a forlorn hope of twenty men, the Kentuckians soon became engaged in bitter battle with Tecumseh's warriors. Ordering his men to dismount, Johnson remained in the saddle urging his men forward. In the course of the fighting he was wounded five times. As the fighting raged, Tecumseh was killed. With Johnson's horsemen bogged down, Shelby directed some of his infantry to advance to their aid.

As the infantry came up, the Native American resistance began to collapse as word of Tecumseh's death spread. Fleeing into the woods, the retreating warriors were pursued by cavalry led by Major David Thompson. Seeking to exploit the victory, American forces pressed on and burned Moraviantown despite the fact that its Christian Munsee inhabitants had played no role in the fighting. Having won a clear victory and destroyed Proctor's army, Harrison elected to return to Detroit as the enlistments of many of his men were expiring.

Battle of the Thames - Aftermath:

In the fighting at the Battle of the Thames Harrison's army suffered 10-27 killed, and 17-57 wounded. British losses totaled 12-18 killed, 22-35 wounded, and 566-579 captured, while their Native American allies lost 16-33 killed. Among the Native American dead were Tecumseh and the Wyandot chief Roundhead. The exact circumstances regarding Tecumseh's death are not known though stories quickly circulated that Richard Mentor Johnson killed the Native American leader. Though he never personally claimed credit, he used the myth during later political campaigns. Credit has also been given to Private William Whitley.

The victory at the Battle of the Thames saw American forces effectively take control of the Northwest frontier for the remainder of the war. With Tecumseh's death, much of the Native American threat in the region was eliminated and Harrison was able to conclude truces with many of the tribes. Though a skilled and popular commander, Harrison resigned the following summer after disagreements with Secretary of War John Armstrong.

Selected Sources

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