This is the second part of my article describing the Battle of Maguaga, which took place on August 9 1812 during General William Hull's campaign on the Detroit River.
Major Adam Muir and Tecumseh had crossed over from Fort Malden on August 7 on the orders of Colonel Henry Procter, commander of the British forces, in the hopes of intercepting another mail pouch bound for Detroit (Procter knew that the usual mail arrived on the 8th of the month). They had several days to select and prepare an ambush. Tecumseh, the veteran guerilla leader, probably selected the position they took, about five miles further north than the Brownstown ambush site. Here they built a breastwork just behind the crest of a wooded ridge that intersected the Detroit road. Muir had 150 men with him, a company of the 41st and several companies of Canadian militia. Some of the militia seem to have been affliated with the British Indian Department, and were dressed and equipped as Indians. There were also several hundred Indians—exactly how many is unknown—from Tecumseh’s followers, the local Wyandot tribesmen led by Walk in the Water, and some Pottawatomi led by Marpot (also known as Main Poc).
Muir and his regulars took up a position behind the breastworks in the center, barring the road. His left flank was held by Tecumseh and his followers; chief Walk in the Water and Marpot, together with some of the Indian Department militia, held the right wing closer to the river. They built breastworks, along the flanks as well, at a slight angle to the road. Procter’s report suggests that in fact the ambush was set up to catch the mail rider heading to Detroit in the opposite direction—in any case as the Americans approached, no doubt noisily tramping through the woods, with canteens and tin cups jangling and the drummers tapping—the British soldiers and their Indian allies crouched behind the breastworks made of brush and fallen logs and awaited the word to open fire.
At 3:30 in the afternoon, most of the American column was marching in open order through the dense woods with no idea what lay ahead of them. Suddenly, several gunshots echoed out through the thickets. Captain Josiah Snelling’s advance guard was heard to fire a volley, before the forest exploded with an answering volley “instantly returned from a greater number of pieces.” The two columns halted, as Lieutenant Colonel James Miller galloped up to the center of the action, reigned in his horse, and ordered his men to form the line of battle. At the double the American infantry deployed from their Indian files into company lines, the regulars of the 4th Infantry in front, the militia in reserve behind. Snelling’s handful of skirmishers stood firm and covered the movement. Captain Snelling himself stood within a pistol shot of Muir’s breastworks under a shower of musket balls, but avoided being hit.
The British regulars started an Indian yell, which the warriors on the flanks repeated. Colonel Miller’s front line companies began to take fire not only from the breastworks to their front, but from the forests to either flank as well. Seeing the danger, Miller ordered his second line troops to form on either flank and extend his line to engage the Indians. The musketry on either side became a continuous roar. Soon Lieutenant Jonathan Eastman’s six pounder gun was brought up and started firing grapeshot into the British breastworks. The sound of the cannon was so abrupt that it startled the colonel’s horse, throwing him to the ground. Both sides thought Colonel Miller had been shot down; a group of nearby Indians leapt over their breastwork to capture his body and take his scalp, only to be forced back by his own men. Miller hadn’t been hurt though, and with some help was soon remounted.
Riding along his line, the colonel realized that the Indian marksmen were taking a heavy toll of the Americans. Some of his men were getting out of line to take cover behind trees. Desperate to keep the initiative, Miller ordered a general charge. The men “brought down their pieces and struck up a huzzah!, and changed it to a yell more savage, if possible, than that of the enemy and march directly into the breastworks.” This was not a melee or a sprint but a measured, walking advance in line, the Americans keeping shoulder to shoulder, bayonets levelled in front of them—an irresistible force, provided they kept their nerve.
The British, outnumbered, ducking from the thunder and whizz of grapeshot skipping and ricocheting through their ranks, saw the bayonets and broke for the rear. On their right flank, the Indians and militiamen fled as Captain De Cant’s horsemen and Ohio riflemen got around the end of their line. Only Tecumseh, on the left of the line, stood firm. On his section of the battlefield, Tecumseh led his warriors over the breastworks to meet the American charge head-on. When they were driven back by the massed bayonets, he tried to outflank the militiamen. Their commander, Major Van Horne, was eager to prove his mettle, and the flank was supported by Captain Daniel Baker’s 1st Infantry regulars and the American left wing held fast. Baker was shot in the thigh but continued to lead his men. Tecumseh retreated, only to set up a series of small ambushes and counterattacks as Van Horne’s men pursued.
Major Muir tried to rally his men after they had retreated about a mile from the point of contact, but the outnumbered redcoats were forced to flee and the major was wounded. They had hidden their boats near the Detroit River shoreline nearby, and retreated towards these. The main American force, Miller’s center and left wings would have probably trapped the British, but as the colonel received word that Major Van Horne was being drawn further and further in the opposite direction as he drove Tecumseh, he realized that he might soon have a disaster on his hands. If Miller did not support Van Horne’s Ohioans soon, the tables would be turned on the isolated troops. Reluctantly, Colonel Miller ordered his force to return to the battlefield and form line. Meantime, the British and Canadian militiamen reached their boats and pulled to safety on the opposite shore. Two and a half hours had passed since the first shots were fired.
The British had lost 3 dead, 13 wounded, and 2 missing from the 41st Regiment, with Major Muir slightly and Lieutenant Sutherland seriously wounded. Colonel Procter later reported that only 1 militiaman was killed and 2 wounded, while the Indians lost 2 killed and 6 wounded. However, he admitted not being able to know how many Indians had joined his forces during the battle. The Americans claimed to have found 40 dead Indians on the battlefield and signs that more killed and wounded had been dragged from the field. However, the American forces suffered more casualties: 10 enlisted men killed and 45 wounded from the 4th Infantry, and 6 officers were wounded, while the Ohio and Michigan volunteers lost 8 killed and 13 wounded.
The way to Frenchtown was now open for Miller—Captain Thomas Maxwell and his mounted scouts rode ahead the next day to Frenchtown and returned without opposition. They had found fresh scalps drying in a village along the way, though—the Indians were not far off and the colonel had to see to his wounded. His men were out of food, having only drawn two days’ worth of rations at Detroit. Miller set his men to burying the dead and securing the battlefield while he sent Captain Snelling to Detroit to request reinforcements and supplies—the men of the 4th Infantry were not even able to go back to the point where they had dropped their knapsacks to collect them. So ended the first American victory of the War of 1812.