When the Cornfields Ran Red with Blood
Uncovering Indiana's Role in the War of 1812
In the long term of the human condition, a true spoil that belongs to the victors of human conflict is the history for which their efforts will be remembered by future generations to come. No stronger does this correlate than in an event described as “America’s Second War of Independence”; The War of 1812. This war marks a secondary process of military violence between the young United States and the British Empire in order to secure permanent sovereignty on the North American continent and would cost over 15,000 American, British, Canadian, and Indigenous lives. Surprisingly though, there is an irony which lies in how our modern generations have metaphorically shrugged aside the historical importance of this conflict. Even the author and state-historian, James H. Madison writes only three paragraphs about the wartime experience in the then Indiana Territory in his 400 page book Hoosiers: A New History of Indiana. Certainly, the events that took place in Indiana are rather miniscule compared to the Burning of Washington or the Battle of New Orleans. However, I wish to argue that the strategic value of the Indiana Territory at the time was equally as important as the White House or the bayous of Louisiana. For Hoosiers, the War of 1812, is utterly consequential as part of Indiana’s state-based identity. This is largely in part due to the numerous indian tribes, united under the Shawnee Chief Tecumseh, and were willing to fight to the death to protect their sovereign lands surrounding the Great Lakes; as well as the dire American holdouts, which would retain U.S. dominance in the territory; even when under the threat of annihilation.
Prior to the signing of any declaration of war, the Indiana Territory had already had it’s baptism of fire by those who would become key leaders of the front. In November of 1811, territorial governor William Henry Harrison led an expeditionary force of 1,000 men to quell the rising insurgency of native resistance under Tecumseh and his younger brother; a one-eyed Shawnee shaman named Tenskwatawa (The Prophet). Making up Harrison’s force were approximately 325 U.S. Army regulars and 675 volunteers. Approximately 490 of the volunteers were from the Indiana Territory. Others made their way from Ohio or Kentucky. Upon establishing their base camp along the banks of the Tippecanoe river, Tenskwatawa was left to keep order at the village of Prophetstown. For Tecumseh had departed to native lands in the south to gather further support for his cause. A vision revealed to Tenskwatawa that, if Harrison was killed, the Americans would be left unable to defend themselves from an indian attack. He approved of an attack at night.
500 warriors with the leadership of four chiefs of varying Great Lakes tribes assaulted the Americans as they slept in their tents. In the course of several hours, these warriors would kill nearly 200 combatants within Harrison’s army, by means of their tactics of stealth assassination, using the cover of the woodlands to conceal their positions, and concentrating their arrows and musket rounds on officers; depleting the morale of the regular foot soldiers. However, this battle would not be claimed by Tenskwatawa and his war council. As daybreak arose, the Americans formed proper lines of volley fire and drove the conglomerate of warriors back. Upon Harrison’s arrival at Prophetstown in the afternoon, he found that the village was hastily abandoned, and upon the discovery of stockpiles of British muskets, he ordered his surviving men to burn the village down. To Harrison, his victory at Tippecanoe and Prophetstown was a decisive crushing of internal rebellion by a culturally inferior indigenous people. Yet, little would he realize that this would only mark the beginning of a much larger conflict to stabilize America’s future on the frontier, west of the Appalachians.
On June 18, 1812, Congress (with the written request of President James Madison) voted to go to war with Great Britain, with a House vote of 79 to 49 and a Senate vote of 19 to 13. This was on account of other transpiring events of hostility in previous years between the U.S. and the United Kingdom. Such as the impressment of American sailors by the Royal Navy, and with the evidence of British firearms at Prophetstown, illicit weapons deals between British agents in Canada, and Tecumseh’s inner circle of Great Lakes chiefs. In the eyes of senators like Henry Clay and John C. Calhoun, these actions justified not only war with Great Britain, but the invasion and annexation of Canada as part of the United States. Even the former president Thomas Jefferson referred to the U.S. invasion of Canada as “a mere matter of marching”. He most likely would have retracted that statement if he had known that during the course of his presidency (as well as the beginning of James Madison’s presidency), the military was heavily reduced to a standing army of less than 7,000 soldiers and a navy of less than 20 ships. With those numbers in mind, invading Canada certainly was a rather ludicrous item on the agenda. However, as Democratic Republicans, Jefferson and Madison advocated to compensate a weak federal military with regional militias to enforce the liberty of the civilian populous. These militias were state (or territorial) funded volunteers, who were to be provided military training in order to preserve law and order and defend American settlements from the threat of foreign hostilities. Nevertheless, many of these militias were rather impractical in comparison to the regular army. In contrast to the regulars, where the federal government uses tax dollars to supply soldiers with standard issue weapons, uniforms, appointed officers, and training for utmost performance in battle, the militias often relied on each volunteer to bring own weapons, had no real uniforms (outside of hunting garments or regular civilian clothes), officers were democratically elected, and training was only conducted on a monthly basis. This was the liquidized “civilian military” that the Madison administration and the war-hawks in Congress put their faith into, when tasked to conduct offensives into Canada. Even the standards of militia for the Indiana Territory under Governor Harrison were lax and lenient in comparison to the regular United States Army (even before war broke out in 1812).
"Governor Harrison didn’t arrive at Vincennes until January, 1801. Meanwhile, Indiana Territorial Secretary John Gibson began to structure the government and had organized the Indiana militia in August, 1800. Indiana’s territorial militia was founded under provisions of a Northwest territorial act of 1791. It was amended by Indiana Territory in 1806 and altered substantially in 1807. The law required that able-bodied male citizens aged 18 to 45 except preachers, jail keepers, and certain territorial officers, enroll with the captain commanding the company in their militia districts. The citizen soldier was to arm himself with musket, bayonet, extra flints, cartridges, balls, one fourth pound of powder, knapsack, and pouch." (Spears, Watt 15)
On the Northwestern front of the war, the governor of the Michigan Territory, William Hull, was appointed to be Brigadier General of the U.S. Army and command a force of over 3,000 men (including the 4th U.S. Infantry and the Ohio State Militia) to invade Canada from Fort Detroit. Being that Hull was a distinguished veteran of the American Revolution, a generalship seemed rather reasonable in the eyes of President Madison. Yet by 1812, William Hull had become elderly, senile, and a mere shadow of the patriot soldier he once was. On the opposite side of the Detroit River, Major General Sir Isaac Brock was tasked by the crown to coordinate a strong defensive of Upper Canada with the 41st Regiment of Foot towards Michigan, the 49th Regiment of Foot towards New York, as well as the provincial militias stationed in various settlements in between. Yet, even with the capture of the American Fort Mackinac (also known as “Michilimackinac”) on July 17 and a Royal Navy fleet on Lake Erie, the infantry regiments and provincials were not enough to guarantee a successful defense of the King’s land.
Brock decided that in order to retain Upper Canada and keep the invading Americans at bay, he would need assistance from the indigenous tribes. On August 13, Tecumseh was invited to Fort Malden and was greeted by the British high command. Among those were General Brock, Colonel Henry Proctor, Lieutenant Colonel Augustus Warburton, Major James Givins, and Captain Adam Muir. By the end of the day, their common opposition towards the United States had forged an alliance which would proceed to effectively turn the tide. In the course of three days following the alliance, another two American forts fell into enemy hands. Fort Dearborn, situated in what is now Chicago, Illinois, was evacuated and it's occupants (both soldiers and civilians) were massacred by Potawatomi warriors along the banks of Lake Michigan. Those who were not killed were taken as prisoners for ransom and the fort was set aflame by the Potawatomis. As for Fort Detroit, British artillery units and warships on the river, would tenaciously bombard the fort; with one cannon shot in particular, decaptating one of Hull's junior officers (Lieutenant Porter Hanks. The former commandant of Fort Mackinac). Amidst this barrage of artillery fire and native war cries, General Hull was found to be in a state of fearful panic with his courage virtually depleted; slumped on the floor of his private quarters and trying to drink and smoke his fear of another massacre like that of Fort Dearnborn away. Despite the hesitations of his surviving officer corps and without firing a single retaliatory shot, a white flag of surrender was raised and the entire Army of the Northwest had found itself defeated, disarmed, and disbanded. The fallout of these American, would be that the Indiana Territory quickly became vulnerable to the wrath of Tecumseh’s vengeance seeking warriors and the tenacity of Brock’s battle hardened redcoats.
Between September of 1812 and April of 1813, several engagements would take place between the Americans and the Anglo-Indian alliance in the confines of the Indiana Territory. However, the most strategically important of these engagements can be condensed into three phases. The first of these phases being the opening act of war in the territory, followed by attacks on U.S. forts, and concluding with the American “scorched earth” reprisals. Beginning on September 3, a band of Shawnee, Delaware, and Potawatomi warriors (of unknown numbers) conducted a surprise raid on the undefended settlement of Pigeon Roost; located in modern day Scott County. In the course of the carnage, the townspeople fled for refuge inside a militia stockade. When a party of militiamen arrived to the scene, the indians were long gone and their mark on the village was well made. 24 civilians were murdered while only four native bodies were found amongst the fray of butchered corpses. The written memoirs of militia captain, Robert McAfee, would detail the specifics of the massacre as well as his personal discontent for the enemy alliance in his 1816 book, History of the Late War in the Western Country.
"The children had their brains knocked out against trees; and one woman, who was pregnant, was ripped open, and her unborn infant taken from her, and it’s brains knocked out. ... What must we think of the British government and it’s agents, who could thus instigate the sanguinary savage of the forest to deeds of ingratitude, perfidy, and murder?" (McAfee 101, 154-155)
Yet it must be made clear that Robert McAfee himself was not a witness to this massacre (for he served in the Kentucky State Militia and not the Indiana Territorial Militia), and due to the inaccurate chronology of the war in his published memoirs (as well as his future political career as a Jacksonian Democrat advocating for the Indian Removal Act), the native participants of the conflict are demonized in his work. In his eyes, they were not even human beings, but rather barbarous savages; agents of the unholy. In other words, cultural and racial bias with no amount of subtlety to hide behind. However, Dr. George Geib indicates a specific purpose as to why the Pigeon Roost Massacre was the only native attack on a civilian settlement in the territory. He states in the book Indiana's Citizen Soldiers that the raid was intended as a diversionary tactic for the militia to focus on defending the southern settlements. Meanwhile the larger bodies of Tecumseh’s warriors would concentrate their attacks on the U.S. Army forts stationed further to the north.
On September 4th, Fort Harrison (positioned in modern day Terre Haute, Indiana) became subject to a siege by 600 warriors under the Wea Chief Stone Eater. Inside the fort, approximately 20 effective soldiers, commanded by Captain (and future U.S. President) Zachary Taylor, were capable to repel these besiging warriors. This extreme minority in effective infantrymen was due to an outbreak of malaria, which was plaguing the standing force of 50 men. Upon the beginning of the native siege, 30 of Taylor’s men were ill and bedridden (even Taylor himself was diagnosed with a dengerously high fever). Despite the illness of part of his small force, Capt. Taylor and his men were able to keep the fire from spreading to the remainder of the fort. A temporary breastwork was erected across the opening created by the destruction of the blockhouse and after several hours of cross firing departed. Captain Taylor’s effective men would hold the damaged Fort Harrison for another eight days of barrages by Chef Stone Eater and his fellow native warriors.
Meanwhile on September 5th, Fort Wayne (positioned along the banks of the Maumee River) found itself besieged by another group of 500 warriors under two tribal confederates of Tecumseh; Chiefs Winamac of the Miami nation and Wannangsea (“Five Medals”) of the Potawatomi nation. Inside Fort Wayne, Captain James Rhea commanded a garrison force of only 100 infantrymen and four howitzers to compose a secure defense. However, the courage and defiance towards superior enemy forces exhibited by Captain Taylor, was not a part of Captain Rhea’s character, according to Dr. Geib.
"Rhea, a captain of some 20 years service in the Army, had contracted rheumatism and with it an excessive addiction to alcohol. When another 500 tribesmen moved to surround the fort, he was able to do little except sit in his quarters, yelling that the garrison would be massacred, emerging only to offer a 50-cent bribe to withdraw from the attack." (Spears, Watt 22)
In the beginning of the siege, Chief Winamac and Five Medals employed a psycological tactic of intimidation, by carving tree trunks and wagon wheels, and coating them in black oil to resemble cannons at a distance. They then offered a flag of truce and terms of surrender, and when Captain Rhea attempted to hand over the fort to them, his inferior officers (Lieutenant Philip Ostrander, Lieutenant Daniel Curtis and Indian Agent Benjamin Stickney) conspired to commit an act of mutiny and defiantly took command of the fort; confining Rhea to the blockhouse. Their mutiny would keep the defense of Fort Wayne going for another seven days. Even when the two chiefs requested British reinforcements from Detroit.
If these forts fell into the hands of the besieging warriors, there would be no standing force to halt the advance of the Anglo-Indian alliance to conquer the territory and continue their offensive to the east. In essence, establishing a two front offensive with a Royal Navy blockade of the Atlantic coast on one side and the British Indian coalition to the west; very much establishing the pan-indian nation Tecumseh had been advocating for since the beginning of the century. Yet, these garrisons would miraculously survive these tenacious and physcologically trying attacks. A force of over 2,000 soldiers and militia under William Henry Harrison (now a Major General), arrived to relieve the garrisons on September 12. On September 14, British Captain Adam Muir left Fort Malden with a force of 50 regulars, 150 Canadian militiamen, and three units of artillery to capture Fort Wayne. In the absence Tecumseh, who had returned to his old stomping grounds at Prophetstown, Chief Roundhead of the Wyandot nation led 800 Indians alongside Captian Muir. However, this expeditionary force was driven back upon reaching the Auglaize River in Ohio, by a detachment of Harrison’s relief under Brigadier General James Winchester.
With Fort Harrison and Fort Wayne retained by the Americans, the Anglo-Indian alliance would be repelled back into Michigan after General Harrison organized reprisal expeditions. These expeditions were specifically designed to employ “scorched earth” tactics to deplete the natives of their villages, their food, their weapons, and to cut off British supply lines. Such tactics which would become staples of military strategy by the likes of the Russians during Napoleon's march on Moscow, General William T. Sherman’s march to Atlanta during the American Civil War, and the Russians again during Operation Barbarossa (Hitler’s attempt to invade russia in 1943). Colonel James Simral would lead the first march along the Eel River. Major General Samuel Hopkins (aided by Captain Taylor) would march another force along the Wabash to destroy Prophetstown (again), and Lieutenant Colonel John Campbell would command the third expedition along the Mississinewa River. Their primary objective was to remove as much British and/or Indian influence (physical or otherwise) from the territory, in order to prevent further military incursions. It was also at this point, when a special branch of the Indiana territorial militia was formed. 600 mounted and heavily armed volunteers would be assigned to aid the army’s expeditions along the riverbanks, and spearhead the attacks on enemy villages with the same hit-and-run tactics favored by their tribal enemies; known as the Indiana Rangers. Dr. Gieb further elaborates on the nature of the rangers in his writing.
"Ranging was the early nineteenth century term for scouting, and the creation of small companies to “range” the frontier was a frequent practice. Harrison for example, had maintained several small companies of Indiana rangers when hostilities erupted in 1807. Recognizing the the popularity of rangers, the United States government early in 1812 had authorized four mounted companies in the northwest and subsequently expanded this to approximately 18 companies. Of this force, roughly one-fourth was designated for the Indiana Territory. Each ranger company consisted of 40 to 60 mounted troops, enlisted for one year and intimately acquainted with the terrain and geography of their own area." (Spears, Watt 27)
Between the end of September and the middle of December, 1812, these expeditionary forces successfully accomplished their assigned tasks. Colonel Simral’s force successfully defeated a Miami war party, however, his march was the only one that did not go unscathed in the process of enemy subjugation. While marching along the banks of Wildcat Creek, Major General Hopkins' force of 12,000 had successfully captured Prophetstown again, only to find nothing but abandoned huts and other abandoned villages nearby. On the 21st of November, A band of 60 mounted cavalrymen (including Indiana Rangers) were being spied on by a roaming Shawnee on horseback. When a band of the rangers drew their weapons and charged after them, a trap was sprung. The rangers had fallen into a natural ditch and a larger band of native warriors emerged to ambush them as they lay fallen from their horses. Approximately 20 rangers were killed or mortally wounded in this trap, and the warriors fell back into the woods. Upon news of the ambush, General Hopkins’ force ordered a retreat back to Vincennes; out of fear that the whole of Tecumseh’s force (on the march from the destroyed Prophetstown) would commence a larger attack on their position and risk the loss of many (if not all) of his remaining men. As for Lieutenant Colonel Campbell’s force marching along the Mississinewa River, they had successfully destroyed a Miami stronghold under Chief Francis Godfroy, but the village inhabitants had counterattacked in the pre-dawn hours of the next day as Campbell’s soldiers slept; resulting in nearly 60 American casualties. With harsh conditions of winter weather inflicting severe frostbite and hypothermia on his men, Campbell ordered a retreat back to Fort Greenville, Ohio.
Aside from one minor engagement along the White River, between a band of rangers and a native hunting party, the Indiana Territory had ceased to become an area of military concentration or concern by 1813. This was primarily due to a change in high command and overall military strategy in the British army in the area. Major General Sir Isaac Brock was transferred to the eastern end of Upper Canada facing the Niagara River, and was killed during the Battle of Queenston Heights, on October 13, 1812. Brock’s passing resulted in Colonel Proctor to take his place as Major General by the Spring of 1813. With his promotion to commanding officer, Proctor insisted that the alliance directly attack the Americans in Ohio head-on (where Major General Harrison was assembling a new northwestern army at Fort Meigs) rather than capture the less strategically valuable territories to the west. Another factor which devalued the military concentration of the Indiana Territory, was the amount of Tecumseh’s followers defecting to the U.S. after their failure to capture Fort Harrison and Fort Wayne. Even Tecumseh’s own nephew, Semica Lawba (whom he changed to “John Logan”) had abandoned his uncle’s cause of united native sovereignty and offered his services to General Harrison as a guide and advisor on irregular "frontier style" warfare.
Nevertheless, the British and Indian forces commenced an invasion of Ohio, only to never claim a single victory. At first, the coalition attempted to capture Harrison’s headquarters at Fort Meigs, only to abandon the effort after a twelve day siege with no surrender. In August, 1,400 British regulars and Indians attempted a second American position at Fort Stephenson, only to prove equally as unsuccessful. By October of 1813, following the defeat of the Royal Navy at the Battle of Lake Erie to Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry, General Proctor and Tecumseh marched out of Ohio, retreated from Detroit, and fell further back to the Canadian village of Moraviantown. As historian John Winkler writes in his book The Thames 1813.
"In the last of the Ohio Indian Wars, their effort culminated at the October 5, 1813, battle of the Thames River, which militiamen, led by William Henry Harrison defeated a British and Indian army, and killed the famous Indian leader, Tecumseh." (Winkler 5)
The Battle of the Thames only lasted less than an hour. With the British regulars assembling two lines of infantry and one cannon crew towards the advancing American army of nearly 4,000 men. Meanwhile, Tecumseh and Chief Roundhead assembled their warriors to ambush the Americans from the swamps adjacent to the open field (once the British pushed them back). However, much to the dismay of Tecumseh’s plan, General Proctor’s men were only able to fire one volley of musket fire, until being routed by charging cavalrymen. Proctor hastily fled from the battlefield with less than 300 surviving regulars. His fellow officers and regulars were either dead, wounded, or captured. Tecumseh then ordered a charge of his own into the fray of gunsmoke, only to have the rearguard of Harrison’s infantry march forward as he and his fellow warriors were tiring themselves out in hand to hand combat. It was at this moment when a lead ball struck Tecumseh’s chest and killed him instantly. Some say the bullet came from the pistol of American Colonel Richard Mentor Johnson at close range, while others claim a volunteer rifleman named William Whitley picked him off at a much further distance; only to be killed himself shortly afterwards. Chief Roundhead also died alongside his fellow tribesman, yet his exact cause of death remains unknown.
Yet, whoever’s bullet pierced Tecumseh’s chest, his vision of a pan-indian nation and the communal sovereignty of the Great Lakes tribes would die with him at the Battle of the Thames. For the next two years, the major fronts of the War of 1812 would encompass less and less of the borders between America and Canada and more towards the Chesapeake Coast and the American South towards the Gulf of Mexico. With the defeat and exile of Napoleon in 1814, new invasion forces from the British Army and Royal Navy began offensives which would culminate in the burning of Washington D.C., the invasion of Baltimore, and the Battle of New Orleans.
In December of 1816, following Andrew Jackson’s victory in Louisiana, and the ratification of the Treaty of Ghent, the Indiana Territory officially became a U.S. state. Even though much of the newly founded state remained unsettled and claimed by the Great Lakes tribes and their warrior veterans, by 1833, more treaties of land cession and the Indian Removal Act brought about the almost permanent extraction of the native communities in Indiana. Tenskwatawa returned from exile to Kansas in 1824 and relocated his fellow Shawnees to modern day Kansas, and of all the chiefs which made up Tecumseh’s war council Chief Francis Godfroy was one of the few surviving warchiefs who remained in Indiana until the land of Miami nation was ceded to the United States and passed away in 1840. By 1841, William Henry Harrison was elected the 9th President of the United States, but only served a one month term, until his passing at age of 68 years old. The strife and struggle of these two cultures, seperate in their values, yet similar in their desires was now in full circle; but only for the benefit and exploitation of one people and the disenfranchisement and suffering of another. Even Tecumseh in death, has become a remembered and honored figure but both native nations, but also by Americans. In 1924, the YMCA established a summer camp bearing his name and a fiberglass statue of him stands tall over the campgrounds. Other statues of Tecumseh depicting him as a stoic steward of nature or a martyr for his people, can be found in Canada, astride a horse next to his British comrade, General Brock, as well as in Washington D.C.. Inside the Capitol Building, there is a marble carving depicting Tecumseh’s final stand at the Battle of the Thames, and the Smithsonian American Art Museum has a marble statue of Tecumseh in his dying state at the Thames battle, with his tomahawk in hand. A position heavily similar to the dead Jesus being held by the Virgin Mary following the Crucifixion. Even in the business of performing arts and film, Tecumseh’s story has been put to the screen twice (Tecumseh in 1972, and Tecumseh: The Last Warrior in 1995) on television with the 2018 History Channel series The Men who Built America: Frontiersmen, and on stage with the theatrical production Tecumseh! Outdoor Drama in Chillicothe, Ohio.
Only in recent decades have tribal nations and communities which once resided in Indiana have begin to return to their respected homelands. Today the Miami and Wea tribes reside in Indiana, and many of their elders and tribespeople keep their cultural traditions alive, while also recognizing that their political sovereignty can only rot along the metaphorical “Boulevard of Broken Dreams”.
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● McAfee, Robert B. History of the Late War in the Western Country: Comprising a Full Account of All the Transactions in That Quarter, from the Commencement of Hostilities at Tippecanoe, to the Termination of the Contest at New Orleans on the Return of Peace. Bowie, MD: Heritage Books, 1994. Print. March 20, 2020.
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