Wednesday, April 10, 2013

A Battle on Canoes in the Maumee River

A large birch bark canoe used in the western fur trade.

200 years ago this week, an interesting little skirmish occurred on the Maumee River near Fort Meigs. On April 8, a fatigue party from Captain Cushing's artillery company was suprised by Indians, who were then pursued in turn by several American companies.

Sergeant Kelly and six enlisted men went out with a couple teams of draft animals to cut wood a half mile from camp. Although each man was armed with a musket, all but three of them put down their arms to unload equipment. Before they were aware of an ambush, several Indians had crept up between the teams. As soon as shots rang out, the men bolted for camp. They left behind a driver who was shot dead, and two other men captured. 
Two parties were sent after the Indians. One, a company under Lt. Gwynn of the 19th Infantry, pursued on foot while Captain Peters and his company of French-American scouts launched boats to cut off the Indians if they tried to escape by the river again. Gwynn lost a portion of his own group in the woods, went on for five miles, and turned back empty-handed. The Frenchmen on the river caught up with the war party as they tried to escape.

Peters and twelve other men were in the first boat to arrive on the scene. Seeing a small island in the river, they tried to steer behind it and take the Indians by surprise. Another group of ten warriors sprinted down the bank towards several canoes, and set out in pursue of Peters' boat. Neither side dared to fire until the boats were within 15 to 20 yards of each other.
 As the two groups drew closer, Peters spotted a warrior taking aim with his rifle, and killed him. Both parties started shooting, and the canoes and boat were soon riddled with rifle balls. Eight of the Indians were hit, and the other two rowed back to shore. Peters had gotten the best of the skirmish and rowed after them. 
When he got closer more shots came from the top of the river bank, forcing him to row back out of range. There were various claims of killed and wounded among the Indians, who made good their escape. Seven of Peters' men were wounded, two mortally. Captain Langham's light infantry from the 19th US soon arrived, and later found fourteen canoes and four or five dead horses abandoned by the war party. The two canoes involved in the firefight “were peppered full of holes with balls, and a large quantity of blood.”1 The Maumee River had become a battleground.

On the next day, a squadron of 220 dragoons under Major James Ball arrived and bivouacked on the low ground between the Fort and the river. These men included a company of the 2nd US Light Dragoons and several companies of volunteer light dragoons. The horsemen were armed with the traditional weapons of dragoons:pistols, muskets (carbines were rare in US armories at the time2) and long, curved swords capable of dissecting an unwary foot soldier. 
On April 12, General Harrison arrived with 220 more men, from Nearing's Company of the 19th Infantry and another company of militia. 20 Shawnee warriors accompanied the general as scouts. These men were ambassadors of a sort for the majority of Shawnee people who had decided against joining Tecumseh and who remained with the pro-American chief Black Hoof. The mood at Fort Meigs was greatly improved: Captain Barrickman of the Pennsylvania militia wrote that “This was the most cheerful day we saw for some time.”3 As the general rode in, he was honored by a booming salvo that echoed from ten six-pounder and five eighteen-pounder guns.4

1Cushing, 112.

2Renee Chartrand, Uniforms and Equipment of the United States Army in the War of 1812, 92.

3Barrickman, 23.

4Cushing, 113.