Monday, June 21, 2010

Journal of a Campaign on Horseback

 I was reading Robert B. McAfee's history of the War of 1812 in the Western country (Ohio, Kentucky, Indiana, Michigan, and Ontario mostly) and became curious of who the author was. It turns out he was very prominent in Kentucky politics in the Age of Jackson, and had served during the war as a captain in Colonel R.M. Johnson's Kentucky militia regiment of mounted infantry. This unit was raised from volunteers during the crisis of 1813, after Detroit had fallen to the British and the state of Ohio was being invaded by a roving force of British infantry, Canadian militia, and Native American warriors.

The mounted infantry took part in Maj. General William Henry Harrison's counter-invasion (or counter-counter invasion, if you count William Hull's 1812 campaign) of Ontario in the wake of the Battle of Lake Erie. During the final showdown between Harrison and the British commander Brig. General Henry Procter, Johnson's regiment charged through two lines of British regular infantry (the 41st Foot), causing them to surrender. Johnson himself charged into a group of Native American warriors, and was credited with killing Tecumseh, the famous Shawnee chief.

To have a unit of mounted militiamen charge a regular infantry regiment was highly unusual during this period. They probably would have been wiped out, but the 41st Foot was in open order, and perhaps fired too soon at the fast moving column. Once they had ridden through the opposing battle line, the idea had been for the Kentuckians to dismount and engage the enemy rear, while the main body of American infantry attacked in front. However, the British were so disorganized that they simply surrendered. Even the six-pounder field piece on their left flank was left unfired.

I found a website at where a descendant of McAfee, Jenny Tenlen, has transcribed some of the journals and other writings of this important witness to Old Northwest history. Here's an exerpt from the captain's journal for 1813:

June 27th--Sunday--I was ordered with 100 hundred men under my command to ascend the Rapids three miles above Roche-de-boo which is about 8 miles from the Fort for some flour the boats we brought with us had left. I accordingly with Capt. Sam'l Combs & 85 men started about 2 o'clock with boats canoes and skifts ascended the River with great difficulty and campt on the bank of the N. E. side of the River about 250 yards below a large rock in the middle of the River called Rock-de-book early on
June 28th--We went on up the River passing between the Rock and the right hand shore which is a ledge of Rock about 30 feet high for half a mile, passed over several bad riffles and loaded our canoes & boats from the point of the 1st Island above the rock just below the full rapids where there are several old cabbins and immediately descended the River again, having to get out in the water and drag our perogue over the Rocks. Doct. Hamilton 1st Lieutenant of Capt. Craig's Company and Hawkins Craig managed our Perogue with a Frenchman called Mr. Poll we got back about 11 o'clock with about 150 barrels of flour and received considerable credit for our expedition in bringing in the flour. A great waste takes place in the provisions of the Army 1/3 of the flour is spoilt before it gets to the Fort Meigs by being brought in open boats.
In the evening of this day about 3 o'clock Gen'l Harrison arrived at the fort with his suit which caused great joy and firing of cannons and about 5 o'clock Col. Anderson with between 2 & 3 hundred regulars from Tennessee arrived to the great joy of the fort and campt on the River above us. Warm sultry weather.
June 29th--Col. Rh. M. Johnson and Col. James Johnson went by order of Gen'l Harrison with 150 men to the River Rezin to explore the situation of the enemy. They got to Frenchtown where Gen'l Winchester had his battle about midnight and took ten French prisoners two of whom were real Canadians and at light
June 30th--100 more men started & at 1 o'clock the whole returned bringing in two Prisoners having discovered a trail of Indians coming to Fort Meigs. They say there are fine fields of wheat at Rezin River. They receaved considerable credit for their expedition having marched 72 miles in 25 hours. The account was that a considerable body of Indians were collecting at Browntown and that 19 Indians had started yesterday for Fort Meigs and 100 to Lower Sandusky, to steal horses and kill people.
      This passage  speaks to me in particular for several reasons. Firstly, it details some of the day-to-day operations of a American unit on the front lines in the summer of 1813. Secondly, the stretch of river that McAfee has to take some boats up and back down lies between modern-day Perrysburg and Waterville, Ohio. You can still coast down the river in a kayak and wonder at the perseverance it must have taken to get larger boats and rafts full of flour barrels down the shallow rapids. Finally, the laconic expression of the Indian objective: "to steal horses and kill people", reflects the real hatred that many Kentuckians had for "the savages", whom they had fought intermittently in frontier wars since the 1780s. Interestingly, many of these men had great respect for the leader of the Native Americans, and one Kentucky militia officer even gave his son William Sherman the middle name Tecumseh.

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