Sunday, September 18, 2011

War of 1812 Book: Chapter One Preview

[Here's a sample of the draft I've been working on. This is the first section of the introduction chapter for my yet-to-be titled book on the War of 1812 in the Northwest. I decided to start with a narrative in italics, rather than a more detached approach since this project is intended to be more immersive than a traditional scholarly book. All of the narrative comes from primary accounts.] 

I. Tippecanoe
In the darkness hours before dawn on November 7, 1811, Private William Bingham found himself alone, posted on sentry duty in front of an American army. His commander, William Henry Harrison, expected an attack from a nearby hostile force of Indians sometime during the night. Individual sentinels were ordered to take forward posts outside of the encampment in order to provide early warning of the assault. The weather had turned rainy and overcast, and visibility was so low that Bingham couldn’t see any further than his immediate surroundings. Rain drops rattling on the forest leaves concealed any other noise. His neighboring sentinel, invisible in the bushes several yards away, called out to him. He dared not answer, at first. The sentinel called several more times, giving away his position, and finally Bingham hailed him back. “Look sharp” the other responded—the signal for caution between sentinels.
Bingham was exhausted from days of marching in the Indiana wilderness. Most evenings the soldiers had been ordered to build breastworks of brush and logs around their tents. Since yesterday’s encampment was on a ridge protected by ravines on three sides, Harrison decided to order only the fourth side of camp fortified. Every night, several privates were selected for sentry duty outside the perimeter. Tonight was Bingham’s shift, from 10 to midnight and again from 2am to reveille at 4. Sleeping on sentry duty was dealt with harshly by military justice: a sentinel found dozing could be court martialled and shot. For the American sentries the cold rainy November night and the proximity of a hostile Indian force somewhere in the dark woods made sleep less likely.
The man they called the Prophet stood on a low, wooded hill. Shrouded in darkness, it stood about a mile away from the American camp. He had promised his followers that the Great Spirit would protect them from the bullets and bayonets of the long knives. 600 or 700 of his men were now creeping toward the hill where the Americans slept, encamped in a rough triangle without their normal protective breastworks. 100 of the warriors had been instructed to steal into the American tents and seek out Harrison, the American commander and arch-foe of the pan Indian confederation. Guided and protected by the Master of Life, these picked men would single out and slay the leader of the long knives. Then the rest of the Americans would crumble. The Prophet began to chant prayers and work his medicine among the foes.
In a few minutes, the drummers in the American camp would beat three times, summoning the men from their tents to assemble under arms for morning parade.  Private Bingham earnestly hoped the drums would beat soon. Instead, he heard footfalls. Someone was stumbling through the brush, towards him. He fumbled with his long flintlock musket, its bright metal barrel lengthened by a two foot bayonet attached to the muzzle. Instead of the normal .65 caliber lead ball and three buckshot, Bingham and the rest of the Americans had been issued buckshot cartridges, even more powerful at close range. Cocking the hammer back, he peered into the darkness to see a target. Before he could squeeze the trigger, the approaching figure spoke. “Bingham, let us fire and run in! You may depend on it there are Indians in the bushes!” It turned out to be his neighbor, Private William Brown, looking panicked. Both men heard an arrow-like missile land in the brush next to where they were standing. Without firing, they scrambled up the hillside and into camp.
Behind the fleeing sentinels, like a horde of vengeful ghosts, a wave of dark silhouettes dressed in animal skins burst through the tree line. Only one of the sentries managed to fire his musket. Its muzzle flash and priming would have flared orange briefly in the darkness, illuminating both shooter and target. The duty of a sentinel was to fire a shot and run for his life, and presumably this one did. In camp, the men were either in their tents of huddled around campfires. A parley had been exchanged with the Indians the previous day, and no one knew for sure if an attack would come before dawn. Orders had come down to sleep on their arms, and the men slept with cartridge boxes and loaded muskets within arm’s length.
Sergeant Montgomery Orr, of Captain Barton’s company of the 4th Infantry, had overheard sentries talking twenty minutes before the battle. The sound of rain rattling against the canvas tent he shared with Corporal David Thomas prevented him from making out what was said. He laid back on his bedroll and drifted off, only to be woken again when someone running through camp struck the corner of the wedge-shaped tent. Nudging Thomas awake, Orr asked “did you not hear somebody run by the tent?” The corporal replied “No—I’ve been asleep.” The sergeant prepared to lay down again when something else struck the ridgepole at the top of the tent. Thomas got up, grabbing his musket. Abruptly, three or four shots were fired, “at the very door of the tent.” There was a keening yell, and the corporal fell backwards on top of Orr. Surprised, he urged “Corporal Thomas, for God’s sake don’t give back!” before realizing his tent mate was dead.
Clambering out of his tent, Sergeant Orr emerged into a chaotic brawl. Men stood and fought in clumps, some firing to the rear of the position. The Indians were already among them. Captain Barton called out to his men to form line, but the action was too confused and individual soldiers kept loading and firing in no particular formation. The neighboring militia company of Captain Geiger, wearing hunting frocks and carrying rifles, were hard to distinguish from the Indians. These two companies bought time for the rest of the army to form up, and held their ground. Orr received a mortal wound and retired to safety. The infantrymen and riflemen held their ground, and the attackers fell back. Besides Orr, twelve other men from his company lay dead or wounded.
New assaults probed around the right flank of the triangular encampment, but the militia companies repelled them, for the most part. On the left of the line, Lieutenant Hawkin’s company of the Regiment of Rifles, from which private Bingham had been detached, stood fast against a group of Indians shooting from concealment in a copse of trees. Armed with muskets, they found themselves outmatched by the sharpshooters. When the militia company on their left fell back in disorder, they became isolated. The exposed company lost 11 killed and wounded before reinforcements arrived. The dragoons (light horsemen) of the army had been ordered to take up their pistols and swords and stand, dismounted, as a reserve. Major Joseph Daviess and a handful of his dismounted dragoons charged forward in an attempt to clear the sharpshooters who were tormenting Hawkins’s men. The Major, dressed in a white blanket coat, was shot several times and mortally wounded. His men retreated. A company of the 4th Infantry under Captain Snelling then formed line and made a bayonet charge. Advancing at a walk, with leveled bayonets, the regulars’ steady advance forced the Indians to fall back. Snelling lost only a single man killed, reportedly tomahawked by a wounded Indian.
As daylight grew near and the lines stabilized, the Prophets men tried several more times to break the American lines, without success. Harrison, eager to turn the tables on his attackers, ordered dragoons and mounted riflemen to trot out into the forest and try to encircle the Indians. The terrain was too rough, and the surviving Indians retreated into a marsh where the horsemen could not follow. The Americans were glad to have survived the night. Dawn revealed that the attack had seriously thinned their ranks, and some of the army’s best officers had been killed or wounded. A mounted detachment was formed, and advanced to Prophetstown. It found a deserted village and a few fresh graves from the previous nights’ action. A single elderly woman too sickly to travel had been left behind. The Americans burned the town and its winter food stores. Loading the wounded into the army’s wagons, Harrison’s column turned and marched back to Vincennes.