Monday, October 29, 2012

The Forgotten Tavern Battle-- December 1813

An early 19th century frame house, not unlike the one where Americans were surprised by an early morning Canadian attack on December 15 1813. Although McCrea's was a tavern, most frontier taverns of the period were simply one room farmhouses, with no special facilities like this one on the National Road.

One forgotten aspect of the (mostly) forgotten War of 1812 is the American occupation of Western Canada during the last part of the war, from October 1813 to early 1815. While for the most part the Americans didn't venture very far out from Detroit, there were continual skirmishes in the wilderness around London (in modern-day Ontario). This document from the 1823 court deposition of John Starkey, now held in the collection of the Burton Historical Collection of the Detroit Public Library, describes one such skirmish that ended very badly for the Americans in December 1813.

State of Ohio, Muskingham County.
The deposition of John Starkey, late a private in the 27th  Regt. of United States Infantry to be read in cause or trial now pending in the Court of common pleas of Wayne County Ohio, wherein Joseph H Larwill is plaintiff and Benjamin Bertley and Joseph Clingan are defendants. taken by and before me Samuel Thompson a Justice of the Peace in and for the County of Muskingum aforesaid on the 29th day of March 1823 at the office of the Clerk of the Court of common pleas in the town of Zanesville for the county of Muskingum Ohio, between the hours of Six O clock in the morning and then oclock in the afternoon, of said day, and agreeable to the written notice from the Plaintiff to the defendant hearing date the 24th of March 1823. The said John Starkey being of Lawful age and by me duly cautioned and sworn doth on his solemn oath depose and say that he was..
 The context of this deposition is that it was taken during a political campaign in former Lt. Joseph H Larwill in  Wooster, OH in 1823. The defendants had spread rumors about Larwill's involvement in a small disaster for the Americans during the war...
...one of the detachment that marched under the command of Lt. Joseph H Larwill of the United States Artillery from Detroit to the River Thames-- that they crossed the Detroit River on the 6th or 7th day of December 1813 and marched up the River Thames to the house of -- McCrea Esq. where they encamped for 2 or 3 days-- on the morning of the 15th day of Decm afd (December aforementioned) the detachment under the command of said Liut Joseph H Larwill was captured by a party of British consisting of Dragoons about 12 or 13 in number, besides men on horse not uniformed, Infantry Volunteers about 31 in number, militia and peasantry from the neighborhood about 30 in number making in the total of the enemy about Seventy five, the Dragoons were well equipped, the Infantry volunteers were also armed with muskets bayonets etc. The militia with fuzees, United States Rifles and etc...
 The official British dispatch claimed that only 7 dragoons, 13 volunteers, and 9 militiamen captured the American force. Here's a Canadian report of the same action from the Michigan Pioneer and Historical Collections (MPHC) volume 15:

 ...On the night of the Capture I was one of the guard that stood on post, and had been releaved by the guard previous to the one then on post, and should have been the relieve (relief) guard to the one then on post at the time of the capture. There were three sentinals on post at a time. The time that we were captured was about 5 oclock in the morning or two hours before daybreak. The corporal of the guard George Collins was just in the act of returning from releaving the sentinals on post--and as he was about two or three steps from the door of the house where the soldiers lay he cried out, to arms, the British and Indians are coming at the time he jumped against the door and in the act of shutting it he received a ball from the enemy which caused him to fall upon the floor of the house.
 At this point, the Canadians (for there were no British regulars involved in this operation) fired through the door and windows at the drowsy American soldiers.
At that time I was within a few feet of him, a fire being in the house which gave considerable light gave the enemy an advantage, the enemy kept up a brisk fire and wounded six or seven of our men one of which died shortly after. Not being able to discover the enemy's force or position we surrendered to them immediately thereafter we were ordered out of the house in which the soldiers lay and our arms taken from us. We were then put back into the room and the wounded attended to, and about the break of day we were marched off up the River some distance where we halted to take some refreshment.
At this point, Stark stated that Larwill attempted to convince his men to  try to overpower their captors. Perhaps because his group is made up of men from three or four different regiments--and thus unfamiliar with one another, they refuse.
Lt Joseph H Larwill then used exertions with the soldiers to venture themselves which he stated might be accomplished with some loss. I agreed to the same but many objected to making the attempt being thought too dangerous for their risk.

I this deponent further state that on the evening preceding our capture Lt Larwill had us paraded  in front of his quarters our arms were then by him inspected furnished with ammunition and ordered to lay that night upon our arms, in the evening after being paraded as aforesaid some music and noise being in the soldiers quarters Lt Larwill  came in and stated there must not be so much noise. That after hours of tattoo they must be silent. He then gave orders to the sergeant to have the men on parade very early in the morning and retired.
The situation of the place where we were encamped at McRea's as aforesaid was on the banks of the River Thames about fifty-five miles above Detroit. The soldiers' quarters was a frame house near the river immediately in front and about 45 feet distant was the house set apart for the guard adjoining the last house and distant from the soldiers quarters about 61 feet was where the officers Lieuts Larwill and Fisk and ensign Davis lay. The guards were posted outside of their quarters, some distance above and below

While on the Lake shore below Malden above hundred miles, I with two others made my escape from the enemy and arrived at Detroit on the 25th of December 1813 and reported to Genl (Brigadier General Lewis) Cass that on that or the next day Genl Cass left Detroit to attend the trial of Genl (Brigadier General William) Hull and left the post under the command of Colonel (Lieutenant Colonel Anthony) Butler...
Lieutenant Larwill, one of his officers, and one of his men escaped across the St. Lawrence River before the prisoners reached Montreal. Larwill was court martialled in 1814, but apparently exonerated. There are more questions in this deposition, which include a reference to a Canadian citizen who had been held prisoner at the time of the attack--and was presumably released by the Volunteer Militia. These will have to wait for another day, though. The key point of interest about this skirmish is that it was a Canadian force, not a British one, that captured the Americans.