War of 1812: Battle of the Thames, October 5, 1813

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General William Henry Harrison

After failed assaults on Fort Meigs and Fort Stephenson, Major General Henry Proctor’s army was further crippled by the American victory at the Battle of Lake Erie. With their vital supply line cut, the British troops in Forts Detroit and Amherstburg were starving. In addition to food, they needed military supplies, munitions, and payroll. Long-promised reinforcements had not arrived, and morale was non-existent. Major General William Henry Harrison was approaching with an overwhelming force, and the U. S. Navy could appear at any time to bombard the British forts.

Much to the dismay of the Shawnee Chief Tecumseh and his allied warriors, the British army decided to retreat east towards Niagara.

General Proctor Abandons His Forts

On September 20, 1813, the women, children, and ill soldiers sailed from Fort Amherstburg to Chatham on the Thames River, where they awaited the army. Four days later, General Proctor and his soldiers, accompanied by Tecumseh and his men, moved north to Sandwich after burning the fort, shipyard, and all public buildings. The Fort Detroit garrison torched their facilities and joined General Proctor in Sandwich. On September 27, the British Army and their tribal allies retreated east from Sandwich. General Harrison and his army reached Sandwich two days later.

Tecumseh’s warriors no longer trusted General Proctor and many returned to their homes. The British Army retreated at a leisurely pace and foolishly left the bridges intact behind them. After five days, on October 1, they reached Dolsen’s on the Thames. At this point, General Proctor inexplicably abandoned his army. Taking 200 men with him, Proctor joined the noncombatants in Chatham and escorted them to Moraviantown.

General Harrison Pursues the British Army

General Harrison and more than 4,000 U.S. soldiers advanced on October 2, after a delay awaiting the arrival of Colonel Richard M. Johnson and his 1,200 mounted Kentucky soldiers. The following day, they made contact with the British Army’s rearguard.

Proctor rejoined his retreating army on October 4, six miles northeast of Chatham. On the same day, Tecumseh and his remaining warriors destroyed the bridge in Chatham and hotly defended the crossing when General Harrison’s army arrived. Two 6-pounder cannon chased them away, and the Americans continued their pursuit.

On the morning of October 5, the U.S. Army captured two gunboats, several small transports, and their escort of 175 British soldiers. General Proctor had foolishly allowed his baggage train to fall behind his army’s retreat. Aboard the boats were all the British army’s ammunition and other military supplies. Later that day, General Harrison and his army caught up to General Proctor.

The Two Armies Prepare for Battle

The British Army was in a defensive line facing west, with the Thames riverbank on their left. A large wooded swamp defended by Tecumseh and approximately 1,000 warriors protected their right. General Proctor had less than 400 soldiers in two thin lines stretched from a road near the riverbank to a small swamp, and from the small swamp to the large swamp. There were no breastworks or other defensive barriers to protect them.

General Harrison prepared for a frontal attack of the British lines. He protected his left from Tecumseh and his men by positioning an infantry division facing the large swamp. At 3 o’clock, Colonel Johnson and his volunteer corps of 1,200 Kentucky mounted riflemen led the advance, followed by three lines of U.S. infantry in support, spread out from the river to the swamp. General Harrison personally led the front line of infantry. The cavalry’s orders were to advance slowly, allowing the foot infantry to keep pace. After the Redcoats fired their first volley, they were to charge the British line.

General Harrison Orders a Cavalry Attack

Soon after his army began the advance, General Harrison observed that the British position was weak. General Proctor had so few men that they were standing 4-5 feet apart, a formation that was extremely vulnerable to cavalry. General Harrison immediately ordered Colonel Johnson to charge the British lines, break through, and then attack them from the rear.

One brigade, commanded by Lieutenant Colonel James Johnson, galloped forward. When the Kentucky riders neared, the Redcoats fired a volley that caused some casualties and frightened the horses. Before their enemy could reload, however, the cavalry recovered and charged.

The first line broke and ran back to the second line. The second row of British regulars fired one quick volley before the cavalry rode through their line as well. As the U.S. infantry continued its advance and the British officers tried to rally their men, the Kentucky soldiers turned and began firing at anyone who opposed them. The demoralized army was defeated; the British dropped their weapons and surrendered.

The Death of Shawnee Chief Tecumseh

Tecumseh’s men were not so easily beaten. General Harrison’s infantry could not dislodge them from the swamp. Colonel Johnson and his victorious cavalry attacked, but the wooded swamp slowed the horses and the native warriors were experts at this type of warfare. The battle raged on in the swamp for some time after the British surrendered. The action finally ended when the great Shawnee Chief Tecumseh was killed. His shocked warriors lifted his body and fled into the woods.

Results of the Battle of the Thames

The British army suffered approximately 650 men killed, wounded, or captured, including twenty-five officers. The American losses were about 30 killed and wounded. All of the British arms, munitions, and baggage were captured. General Proctor escaped the battlefield but not the ensuing court marshal.

Chief Tecumseh’s men buried him in some unknown location. The victory led to an armistice between the United States and the native tribes. It also ended armed conflict in the Western Theater for the duration of the war. In the Eastern Theater, a new commanding officer, General James Wilkinson, prepared to invade Canada.