October, 1813: Battle of the Thames Summary

  • Last updated on November 11, 2022

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 in Upper Canada (southern Ontario Province). In the Battle of Lake Erie (September 10, 1813), U.S. naval forces won control of Lake Erie. This prevented reinforcement and resupply of the British army at the lake’s western end, in the vicinity of Detroit and Fort Malden.

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 in Upper Canada (southern Ontario Province). In the Battle of Lake Erie (September 10, 1813), U.S. naval forces won control of Lake Erie. This prevented reinforcement and resupply of the British army at the lake’s western end, in the vicinity of Detroit and Fort Malden.

When a superior U.S. force under William Henry Harrison crossed the lake on September 27, the British commander in Upper Canada, Major General Henry Procter, 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. The Shawnee chief Tecumseh, leader of an alliance of warriors from many tribes, was reassured by Procter that a stand soon would be made against Harrison’s advancing army. 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 a defensive position being prepared at Moraviantown.

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

The U.S. army under Harrison numbered about three thousand troops. One hundred twenty of these were infantrymen from the regular army; the rest were Kentucky mounted militia volunteers. A thousand-soldier mounted 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 40 Shawnees.

Proctor’s British and American Indian force, outnumbered three-to-one by the U.S. troops, 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 a hundred yards apart. On his left, commanding the road, Procter positioned his one 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.

Death of Chief Tecumseh at the Battle of the Thames. (F. R. Niglutsch)

The Fighting Begins

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, surrendered. Each line of British soldiers seems to have fired a single volley and panicked. The crew of Procter’s one cannon fled without even firing it. This part of the battle lasted less than five minutes.

The infantry units on the U.S. troops’ left were having much 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 his 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 (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, the British commander, 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 became a national hero, as did Colonel Johnson, widely credited with having shot Tecumseh. Of the British troops 12 were killed, 22 wounded, and 601 captured. Harrison reported a count of 33 warriors’ 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.

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. An 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 this support was 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 enlistment 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.

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