Friday, October 11, 2013

The Battle of the Thames Bicentennial

It's been a while since I've posted on the blog, though I've been pretty active on my Tumblr pages. This season of 1813 bicentennial events wrapped up in the western area with the Battle of the Thames from October 4-6. The battle itself is important because it saw the final American victory against the British forces of General Henry Procter, and those of the Indian Confederation under Tecumseh. Tecumseh met his end at the battle, though his brother, the Prophet, continued to fight with his followers along the Niagara frontier. 

The battle fell out like this: after the American victory in the Battle of Lake Erie, which eliminated British naval forces on the lake, Major General Henry Procter found himself cut off from supplies and with only a day or so of rations to feed his men with. His problems were added to by the host of several thousand northwest Indians who had come to fight under Tecumseh's leadership, and whose families had followed them to the British headquarters of Amherstburg. Procter's overtaxed storehouses had to feed these people as well. Faced with an impossible situation, Procter decided to burn his posts at Amherstburg, Detroit and Sandwich (modern Windsor) and retreat up the poor roads towards London. The warehouses and construction yards were still smouldering when Major General William Henry Harrison's army landed near the mouth of the Detroit River and marched into town. 

Harrison left Brigadier General Lewis Cass' brigade of regular infantry to guard Amherstburg, while he sent General Duncan McArthur's regulars to reoccupy Detroit and subdue the Indians who still surrounded the town. Cass volunteered to join Harrison's retinue as a volunteer aide-de-camp. The rest of Harrison's horde consisted of about two thousand volunteer mounted militia from Kentucky, who had been forced to leave their horses on the other side of the lake for lack of transport. They were led by the Kentucky governor himself, Isaac Shelby, who was nicknamed "Old King's Mountain" for his role in that Revolutionary War victory. The army was reenforced by a 2-battalion regiment of mounted riflemen under Colonel RM Johnson, about a thousand men who had ridden from Fort Meigs to Detroit, and crossed the river there. Commandant Perry and three of his schooners followed in support of the land column. When the schooners were forced to halt for fear of being ambushed along the high-banked Thames River, Perry joined Harrison as another volunteer aide.

Along the retreat, the British tried to delay their American pursuers by dismantling bridges, but several such work parties were overrun and captured. Eventually, on October 5, Procter was forced to halt and form his exhausted men up to fight a rear-guard action. There was not much hope for a victory against the overwhelming odds. Tecumseh, who had been arguing for some days that Procter should stand and fight, was more hopeful for another victory over the poorly disciplined Americans. 

The battlefield consisted of a wide meadow along the north bank of the Thames River. The steep-banked river protected the British left flank, which was further strengthened with a single six-pounder placed to sweep the road. The rest of Procter's men were strung out in open order (each file of men separated by several paces from one another) so that his single battalion could fill the meadow between the river and a dense swamp that blocked off his right flank. There was a small patch of swamp in the middle of the British line, and Procter posted another line of troops as a reserve. 

Tecumseh's Indians (no one knows how many still followed him, but most estimates state about 500 warriors) took up a flanking position in the swamp, perpendicular to the British line. This created an inverted L shape. Tecumseh stood several yards in front of the junction of the Indian and British lines, in order to inspire and encourage both forces. 

On paper, it was an excellent strategy. If Harrison's forces rushed headlong towards Procter's main line, as Kentuckians had done in several other battles, the hanging Indian line could sweep down and envelop him. Procter's open order line could fall back and create disorder in the advancing American columns. His reserves could advance to wherever they were needed, or serve as a falling back position. It is very reminiscent of the American formation at the Battle of Cowpens. Had Harrison been less cautious, it could have been a disaster for his troops.

In reality, Procter's men were exhausted from days of marching and were half-starving. Several times already they had prepared for a last ditch defense, and some men were complaining bitterly about the indecision. They declared they would fight for their knapsacks, but could not bear the endless retreat. Worse still, Procter failed to coordinate his tactical plan with his subordinates. Many of his officers had lost confidence in him. The demoralized troops of the 1/41st Regiment could not be expected to mount a spirited resistance to the Americans.

Harrison's vanguard caught up with the British line a couple of hours later. He deployed his principle forces, the two small divisions of Kentucky volunteers, at right angles, with BG Henry's division facing the British line to the east and BG Desha's division facing north against the Indians. The handful of regular infantry (the Ohio-raised 27th US Infantry under Colonel Paull)  and allied Indian warriors took up position on the right flank, next to the river bank. Their task was to overrun and capture the British six-pounder. 

When Harrison saw the British line in extended order, he realized that they could be vulnerable to a mounted attack. He ordered Col. Johnson to send his first battalion against the British, charge through and dismount to catch them between two fires. Johnson's second battalion was to disperse the Indians defending the swamp. Johnson himself took charge of the second battalion and led a small party of horsemen who charged in front of the battalion as a "forlorn hope". The first battalion was preceeded by a "forlorn hope" as well, about twenty horsemen who would draw the first fire of the British and force a wedge through their formation.

Within minutes of the charge against the British regulars, the battle on the right was over. Most of the regulars fired a ragged volley, then threw down their arms as the horsemen charged past. The six-pounder was abandoned, its slow match still smoking. Major Wood, Major Langham and some other mounted staff officers pursued General Procter, who abandoned his carriage on the road. Procter managed to escape, but without his papers and his watch fob seal and chain (which now reside at Fort Meigs State Historic Site in Ohio).
This past week's reenactment was blessed with warm weather, and we had a dry afternoon on Saturday for the battle itself.

Me, dressed up as a militiaman in a frock coat and top (or round-) hat.

Our company. We decided to make up "fatigue frocks", a type of overall coat issued to regular soldiers, because as regulars we would have all been issued them and in a pinch they double for state militia uniforms.

The British infantry rehearse an open-order formation. Usually these formations were used to cover more ground during a retreat or to screen in front of denser lines or columns. They were not meant to hold ground in a sustained defensive battle.

A company of Kentucky militia in line next to us. They wear rifle frocks, which are the same pattern as fatigue frocks but with capes and fringe.

The event organizers even had cavalry, a rarity at an 1812 event! In the distance are the Canadian Cowgirls, a dressage troop. They were portraying Col. RM Johnson's 2-battalion mounted rifle volunteer regiment. Some of the girls even had fake mustaches and whiskers for effect.

The British march out towards defeat. I'm usually not able to take many photos during a reenactment, as I'm normally carrying a musket and trying to look authentic. Maybe someday I'll sew up an Engineer officer's kit, and wander around with an Ipad disquised as a leather folio or ledgerbook.
We spent most of the balance of our day in camp. The organizers issued an authentic campaign ration of raw beef and vegetables, which we stewed over a fire.
Overall, it was a great bicentennial event, which attracted hordes of reenactors and thousands of public from the Ontario region. It's one of those one-time events, as opposed to an annual living history weekend at Longwoods Conservation Area or Fanshaw Village near London, ON. It takes a great deal of planning to stage a regular event, let alone an anniversary reenactment which has only one chance of coming off.