Battle of the Thames Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The Battle of the Thames was one of the most decisive U.S. land victories during the War of 1812, and it also brought the death of the Shawnee chief Tecumseh and contributed to the decline of his multitribal Native American alliance.

Summary of Event

The Battle of the Thames was an important United States victory in the northwestern theater during the War of 1812 with Great Britain. The battle took place on the northern bank of the Thames River near Moraviantown Moraviatown in Upper Canada (now southern Ontario Province). On September 10, 1813, U.S. naval forces had won control of Lake Erie in the Battle of Put-In Bay. This prevented reinforcement and resupply of the British army at the lake’s western end, in the vicinity of Detroit and Fort Malden. Thames, Battle of the (1813) War of 1812 (1812-1814);Battle of the Thames Tecumseh [p]Tecumseh;Battle of the Thames Harrison, William Henry [p]Harrison, William Henry;Battle of the Thames Johnson, Richard Mentor Procter, Henry Shawnees;Battle of the Thames Native Canadians;and War of 1812[War of 1812] Ontario;Battle of Thames [kw]Battle of the Thames (Oct. 5, 1813) [kw]Thames, Battle of the (Oct. 5, 1813) Thames, Battle of the (1813) War of 1812 (1812-1814);Battle of the Thames Tecumseh [p]Tecumseh;Battle of the Thames Harrison, William Henry [p]Harrison, William Henry;Battle of the Thames Johnson, Richard Mentor Procter, Henry Shawnees;Battle of the Thames Native Canadians;and War of 1812[War of 1812] Ontario;Battle of Thames [g]Canada;Oct. 5, 1813: Battle of the Thames[0640] [g]United States;Oct. 5, 1813: Battle of the Thames[0640] [c]Wars, uprisings, and civil unrest;Oct. 5, 1813: Battle of the Thames[0640]

When a superior U.S. force under William Henry Harrison crossed the lake on September 27, Major General Henry Procter, the British commander in Upper Canada, began withdrawing toward the east along the Thames River. Procter’s Native American allies, who made up the bulk of his forces, angrily protested the abandonment of their homelands in Michigan. Procter reassured the Shawnee chief Tecumseh, who was the leader of an alliance of warriors from many tribes, that a stand soon would be made against Harrison’s advancing army. However, Procter’s retreat up the Thames was mismanaged and slow, and most of his spare ammunition and other supplies were lost. Harrison’s faster-moving army overtook the British on October 5, forcing Procter to turn and fight before he had reached the defensive position that was being prepared at Moraviantown. Moraviatown

Commodore Perry at the Battle of Put-In Bay, in which the United States won naval control of Lake Erie. Painted in c. 1911 by Percy Moran (1862-1935).

(Library of Congress)

The British force included five hundred warriors of Tecumseh’s alliance. In addition to Tecumseh’s fellow Shawnees (then dwelling principally in Indiana), this body included warriors from the Sac, Fox, Ottawa, Ojibwa, Wyandot, Potawatomi, Winnebago, Lenni Lenape, and Kickapoo nations, all from the Northwest Territory, Northwest Territory and a small band of Creeks Creeks;Battle of the Thames from the South. Their women and children accompanied the still-loyal warriors. Approximately one thousand of Tecumseh’s followers, angered by Procter’s retreat from Michigan, had abandoned the British. Procter’s forces totaled more than a thousand, including 450 regulars of the Forty-first Regiment of Foot and some Canadian militia.

The U.S. army under Harrison numbered about three thousand troops. One 120 of these troops were infantrymen from the regular army; the rest were Kentucky mounted militia volunteers. A one-thousand-man militia regiment commanded by Colonel Richard Mentor Johnson played a decisive part in the battle. There were also 260 American Indians in Harrison’s force, including about forty Shawnees.

Outnumbered three to one by the U.S. troops, Procter’s British and American Indian force took a position across a road that ran along the north bank of the Thames River. With the river protecting his left flank and a wooded swamp his right, Procter placed his British regulars in two parallel lines one hundred yards apart. On his left, commanding the road, Procter positioned his only cannon, a six-pounder. Tecumseh’s warriors were placed in the swamp on the British right flank. The swamp slanted away at an angle that would enable the Indians to fire into the left flank of U.S. troops advancing toward the British infantrymen. Because Procter expected Harrison to send his mounted units, as usual, against the Native Americans, he dispersed the two lines of British soldiers thinly, sheltering behind scattered trees in open order, several feet apart. Only when infantry were positioned almost shoulder-to-shoulder, however, could they effectively repel a cavalry charge. When Harrison noticed this inviting disposition, he sent Colonel Johnson’s mounted regiment to attack the British infantry, while his other forces, dismounted as infantry, marched against the Indians on the American left. The small force of regular U.S. infantry was assigned to rush the single British cannon.

Colonel Johnson’s well-drilled mounted regiment, organized in columns, galloped through the two lines of thinly spread British infantry to their rear. The militiamen then dismounted and began to fire. The British, demoralized and hungry after not having eaten in more than fifty hours, quickly surrendered. Each line of British soldiers seems to have fired a single volley and panicked. The crew working Procter’s cannon fled without firing a single shot. This part of the battle lasted less than five minutes.

The infantry units on the U.S. troops’ left were having less success against Tecumseh’s warriors in the swamp. The poorly disciplined militia infantry, now on foot, were initially repulsed and driven back by the Indians. The collapse of the main British position enabled Johnson to swing part of his regiment leftward to attack the Indians’ flank. At this point, where Tecumseh’s warriors joined the right of the British soldiers, Tecumseh and the Shawnees had taken their position. Led by Johnson and a small, select group that called itself the Forlorn Hope, Johnson’s regiment dismounted and pushed into the woods. Heavy firing erupted, and most of the twenty men in the Forlorn Hope were killed or wounded. Colonel Johnson was hit by five bullets, his horse by seven. Early in this intense action, Tecumseh fell, killed by a shot near his heart.

With the death of their leader, the warriors in this part of the swamp, on the Indians’ left, began to fall back. Demoralization spread, and this, coupled with the continuing advance of the U.S. forces, brought an end to the fighting. Although Procter himself had fled after a brief effort to rally his troops, Tecumseh had stood his ground and died fighting, as he had sworn to do. The Native American warriors had fought on for more than thirty minutes after the British regulars had given up, but now they slipped away through the woods to find their families. The victory of Harrison’s army was complete.

Because of mismanagement of the retreat and his poor handling of the battle, Major General Procter was court-martialed and publicly reprimanded. Harrison, on the other hand, became a national hero, as did Colonel Johnson, who was widely credited with killing Tecumseh. Tecumseh [p]Tecumseh;death of Twelve British troops were killed, 22 were wounded, and 601 were captured. Harrison reported a count of 33 Indian bodies on the field. Contradictory records suggest that on the U.S. side, as many as 25 were killed or mortally injured, and 30 to 50 wounded.

Significance

The Battle of the Thames enabled the United States to regain control of territory in the Detroit area that had been lost in earlier defeats, ended any British threat at the western end of Lake Erie, and greatly reduced the danger of tribal raids in the Northwest. Another important result of the battle was the decline of the multitribal alliance that Tecumseh had fashioned and brilliantly led. Native Americans continued to take the field in support of British operations, but now their support became sporadic and ineffective. Tecumseh’s strategy of protecting tribal lands through military cooperation with Great Britain had failed.

On the northern shore of Lake Erie, the Canadian right flank, a stalemate developed. Harrison’s army disintegrated as the enlistments of his militiamen expired and they returned to Kentucky. The weakened U.S. troops were unable to advance eastward toward Burlington and York, or to threaten British-held Michilimackinac to the north. However, U.S. naval control of Lake Erie prevented fresh initiatives in the area by the British.

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Antal, Sandy. A Wampum Denied: Procter’s War of 1812. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1997. Chronicles the battle on the Detroit frontier, led by British commander Henry Procter, during the War of 1812. Details Tecumseh’s role in assisting the British.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Borneman, Walter R. 1812: The War That Forged a Nation. New York: HarperCollins, 2004. Comprehensive study of the war that pays special attention to the conflict’s contribution to unifying the United States.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Dowd, Gregory Evans. A Spirited Resistance: The North American Indian Struggle for Unity, 1745-1815. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992. Explains the Shawnee leaders’ struggles as part of a larger pattern of cultural revitalization and military resistance.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Edmunds, R. David. The Shawnee Prophet. Lincoln: University of Nebraska Press, 1983. An insightful study of the Shawnee society that produced Tecumseh and his alliance. Argues that Tecumseh’s brother, Tenskwatawa, the Prophet, originated the alliance, which Tecumseh took over as Tenskwatawa’s influence faded.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">________. Tecumseh and the Quest for Indian Leadership. Boston: Little, Brown, 1984. A brief treatment that concentrates on the warrior brother.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Gilpin, Alec R. The War of 1812 in the Old Northwest. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1958. A scholarly, well-written study that puts Harrison’s 1813 campaign and the Battle of the Thames into context of the entire war in the northwestern theater.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Sugden, John. Tecumseh: A Life. New York: Henry Holt, 1998. The best biography of Tecumseh to date. Does an especially good job of placing Tecumseh’s life within the wider context of Shawnee and Native American history.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. Tecumseh’s Last Stand. Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1985. Detailed analysis of the battle and the campaign that preceded it. Examines the question of who actually killed Tecumseh.

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