On August 7th, 1812, General Hull’s orders of the day seemed to indicate he planned to attack the British base at Fort Malden. However, as reports reached him of the surrender of Fort Mackinac and the approach of large groups of Canadian fur trade men and Indians from the upper lakes, he changed his mind and decided to retreat across the river to Detroit, and secure his supply line. This line was seriously threatened, now, by the defection of the Wyandot Indian villages of Brownstown and Maguaga mentioned in my previous post. When Major Thomas Van Horne’s 150 Ohio volunteers were routed by a small Indian ambush at Brownstown on August 5, the road to Captain Brush’s relief column at Frenchtown (modern Monroe, Michigan) seemed to be cut off. Hull ordered his senior regular Army officer, Lt. Colonel James Miller, to force his way through with 60o men drawn from his own 4th United States Infantry as well as recruits from the 1st US Infantry, the Ohio volunteers, and the Michigan Legion. Only 280 men were from the regular troops—the rest were volunteers.
Besides the infantrymen, there was a small number of regular artillerymen from Captain Samuel Dyson’s Company of the First Regiment of Artillery led by Lt. Jonathan Eastman; a company of the Michigan Legion, about 60 men led by a Captain Antoine Dequindre; about 40 mounted spies and Light Dragoons led by Captain James Sloan of the Cincinnati Light Dragoons; and 200 Ohio riflemen under Major Robert Morrison (3rd Ohio Volunteers). The artillerymen and a squad of the 1st Infantry dragged a six-pounder field gun and a 5.5 inch howitzer, the latter commanded by Lieutenant James Dalliba (see earlier post). Captain Thomas Maxwell, Ohio volunteers, led a party of scouts ahead of the route of march.
On the evening of August 8 Colonel Miller paraded his force in the streets of Detroit, and gave them a short, “do or die” speech:
Soldiers, we are going to meet the enemy, and to beat them! The reverses of the 5th must be repaired! The blood of your Brethren spilt by savage hands on that day must be avenged by their chastisement, and by the chastisement of the enemy who employs them, more savage than they! I shall lead you—I trust that no man will disgrace himself or me—Every man who is seen to leave the ranks, to give way or fall back, without orders, shall be instantly put to death. The officers are hereby charged with the execution of this order. My brave Soldiers! You have once faced the enemy in a hard conflict and beaten them, and gained Glory to yourselves and Honor to your country! Let this opportunity be improved to add another Victory to that of Tippacanoe, and new glory to that which you gained on the Wabash. Soldiers, if there are any now in the ranks of this detachment who are afraid to meet the enemy, they are now permitted to fall out and stay behind.
His men, who really needed little prodding to come to grips with an enemy after months of hard marching and labor on the frontier, murmured “I’ll not stay,” and gave three huzzahs. The battalion line wheeled in sections into an open column. The Colonel took his post in front, and “the whole moved off in order and in high spirits,” with each man carrying two days’ rations in his knapsack. The column reached the River Rouge, then six miles south of town, near sunset and slowly moved across on two skiffs (each capable of bearing 50 men at a time). They slept in the open air, "on arms" which meant the men kept their equipment and weapons strapped on. The mess cooks (each mess of 6 or 7 men would choose one to receive their rations of flour and raw meat, and bake or broil over open fires as best as possible) were ordered to make the next day's meals so that everyone would be in condition to march at daybreak.
On August 9 the column moved out from the River Rouge, prepared to fight at any moment. Captain Maxwell, a Revolutionary War veteran, led with his mounted scouts. The infantry were led by a 40 man advance guard under Captain Josiah Snelling of the 4th Regiment. This company marched in a single rank across the road, 200 yards ahead of the main body. They covered the heads of two parallel columns of infantry in single file, 200 yards apart and on either side of the Detroit road. Each column included several companies of regulars in front and some militia behind. Interestingly enough, the two columns were commanded by militia field officers; Major Van Horne seems to have led the American right wing and Major Morrison the left. 30 yards out to either flank of the column, small units of riflemen marched in single file, and another small unit marched 50 yards behind the columns as a rear guard. Captain Sloan’s dragoons and the two artillery pieces moved on the road, in the center of the formation. Colonel Miller led on horseback at the head of the cavalry.
Miller had an ingenious method of maintaining his detachments’ cohesion: he kept a drummer with him to tap three times every 15 minutes or so: drummers at the heads of the two infantry columns answered. As the Americans “tap, tap, tapped” their way through the forested, narrow road that ran along the Detroit River, they allowed Miller to keep his men in hand. If the advance guard encountered an ambush or attack, they were to hold fast while the two columns extended into a line of battle—the regular companies of each column in a first line, the militia companies extending into a second line of reserves.
Near Brownstown, the land was flat and low, near the level of the river. Indian huts and corn fields were scattered through the woods. The corn was 7 or 8 feet high. After about a mile and a half of riding beyond the village through dense woods, the scouts found another clearing. There they collided with a group of mounted Indians. The warriors grabbed cover behind the house of famed chief Walk-in-the-Water and opened fire. As the Americans turned and retreated towards the main body, a civilian volunteer from Detroit was killed and fell from his horse near the house. Captain Snelling’s men charged the house, forcing the Indians to flee—but not before they were able to cut the scalp off of the fallen scout. Captain Dalliba later marveled at the speed with which the scalp was taken—“There appeared not to have been time for the Indian to have reached the spot where the man fell, before the guard arrived upon the same spot…”
Colonel Miller, hearing gunshots, ordered his men into line of battle, but without anyone else to fight, the Americans soon resumed their march in columns. By noon they approached a point in an oak forest, on a low ridgeline. Along the ridge, Tecumseh and his warriors, and a British and Canadian force led by Major Adam Muir, had prepared a deadly surprise for the Americans...