Monday, October 31, 2011

The Spies of 1812

I was looking through the letters of one William Johnson, a private in Captain John D. Thomas' Company, Major Fletcher's Battalion (this suggests they were using French organizations), Colonel Boswell's Regiment of Brig. General Green Clay's Brigade of Kentucky militia yesterday, and Johnson's account of the Battle of the Rapids (the May 5th attack and sortie during the 1813 British siege of Fort Meigs) reminded me of something I left out of my essay on 1812 infantry tactics. Namely, those units belonging to the Northwest Army called Spies.




William Johnson was a man from Delaware County, Ohio whose indignation at the American defeat at Frenchtown in January 1813 led him to join Captain Thomas' Co., Kentucky militia as a common soldier for six months. It was a fateful decision. At some point, he was selected or volunteered to join another company in Boswell's Regiment, the Company of Spies led by one Gilbraith or Gilbreath. Since this company was formed on the march, it doesn't appear in the records of the Kentucky State Adjutant General's Report of Kentucky soldiers in the war (William Johnson's name does... even though he was an Ohioan. People researching their War of 1812 ancestors should be advised that just because someone fought in a militia unit, it wasn't always from their home state. Also: state records are very incomplete, and tend to host misspellings and miss units. The state records after all were only as good as the unit's records, and many militia units failed to submit paperwork--to the consternation of the War Department!). Not only was this unit ad hoc or provisional, but it's commanding officer seems to have been another private of Thomas' company, a man named Galbreath.



As a military unit, spies were a Western term for scouts. Note that Boswell's Regiment was designated a "Volunteer Light Infantry" unit, implying some degree of training in open order tactics. Their combat record suggests that they actually fought as light infantry: Boswell's Regiment landed on the South side of the Maumee River on May 5th and fought its way into Fort Meigs, in "open order" (Lossing 487). Each of the Kentucky regiments of Green's Brigade seems to have included an organic company of spies, which we might consider the "light company of the light infantry". Their responsiblity was to act as flankers, moving in a spread-out formation in front of the marching column, and fanning out ahead of a line in combat. Gilbraith's Company didn't accompany Boswell's Regiment into battle on May 5th, 1813: because of a mix-up, the Spies and Thomas' Company were both deposited on the North side of the river, where Colonel William Dudley's command (consisting of his regiment and several other companies, including a company of Regular Army Light Artillerymen fighting as infantry) had landed and advanced in several columns towards the British seige batteries.

Johnson survived the ensuing battle and massacre, perhaps as a Prisoner of War (Kentucky Ancestors 40:3 pg 160): he wrote his letter on May 11, 1813. There was at least one other Company of Spies with Clay's Brigade that day: a detachment under the command of Leslie Combs, a young man of 18 (Lossing 480), who led 13 men drawn from the riflemen of Dudley's Regiment. Combs' men, accompanied by freindly Indians, took the lead and screened Dudley's advance as flankers. However, their inexperience as light infantrymen led the Spies to make a critical mistake. After the Kentuckians captured the British siege batteries (whereupon some of the men tried in vain to hammer ramrods into the cannon vents: the copper spikes for sabotaging artillery pieces had been left in the boats; other men milled around in confusion), hostile Indians started peppering Dudley's men with rifle fire, drawing them away from the river and the protective guns of the American fort. Comb's men, outnumbered, held their ground instead of withdrawing as flankers were supposed to do. Instead of drawing the Indians into a fight with a formed, organized Kentucky regiment, parts of Dudley's Regiment reinforced Combs and pursued the Indians into the forest. As they did so they became hopelessly disorganized.

Dudley was unable to control his men, and at some point during the battle was cornered and killed by enemy Indians, his heart torn out and eaten as was traditional with conquered adversaries. His men were surrounded by British regular reinforcements, and cut off from Fort Meigs. What happened thereafter I'll leave to other histories: most of the Kentucky POWs were transported aboard the British fleet on Lake Erie, and paroled at the Huron River a couple of days later. William Johnson was probably paroled and back on American soil by the time he wrote his letter.

There were other companies of spies as well. Within the besieged fort, Captain Oliver's company made runs through the siege lines to deliver messages and get intelligence on the opposing forces. Officially, William Oliver was a Regular Army captain, commissioned as a commissary on Harrison's staff (Gardner 844) and although like Johnson he was an Ohioan, he doesn't appear in the Ohio rosters of soldiers of the War of 1812. After the war, Major Oliver became a prominent man in the Northwest Ohio area. It's a safe bet that he was able to build the famous Oliver House hotel (now home to the Maumee Bay Brewing Company bar and grill) in the 1850s thanks to his start in real estate and the fact that much of the land he owned in 1817 later became the City of Toledo.

A map from Lossing's Pictorial Fieldbook that illustrates the American order of battle at the Thames. Mounted Spies formed a skirmish line ahead of the charging columns of RM Johnson's Mounted Rifles.

Other units of Mounted Spies played important roles in the later campaigns in the Northwest. The Kentuckians fielded a battalion of mounted spies that was present at the Battle of the Thames River in October 1813. When attached to regular or line units, the mounted spies seem to have acted as skirmishers, much like their infantry counterparts. This practice of using skirmishers with cavalry units had a European precedent: French cavalry regiments typically had a company of flankers or sharpshooters to screen their main line. On the 1812 Campaign in Russia, each of their cuirassier divisions incorporated a small regiment of lancers to act as scouts and flankers.

Spies were an important part of the American western armies during the War of 1812. Interestingly, the image of frontier sharpshooters (which is essentially what the Spies were) has percolated over the years into the public image of the Kentucky militia as a whole. However, they made up a small portion of the vast numbers of militia and regular forces which Kentucky contributed to the war effort. Despite the fame of these "hunters of Kentucky", some units like Gilbreath's have been forgotten, and with them the services of men like Private William Johnson.