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Definition: Thames, Battle of the from Rourke's Native American History & Culture Encyclopedia

occurred in 1813 in the War of 1812 between Americans and the British allied with Tecumseh's Shawnee warriors. On the Thames River in present-day Ontario, Tecumseh's force fought U.S. Army troops led by William Henry Harrison. British soldiers led by Colonel Henry Proctor retreated when the attack began. Harrison's men won the battle, during which Tecumseh died. The battle ended Native American resistance in the Old Northwest.

See also: Tecumseh and War of 1812

Summary Article: Thames, Battle of the
from Encyclopedia of the War of 1812, The: A Political, Social, and Military History

Event Date: October 5, 1813

Climactic battle of the War of 1812 in the Old Northwest. Also known as the Battle of Moraviantown, the Battle of the Thames signified the end of British and Native American influence on the Great Lakes frontier. The engagement occurred in Canada near present-day Chatham, Ontario, along the Thames River.

Throughout 1813 the British and their Indian allies, commanded by Major General Henry Procter and Tecumseh, had frustrated efforts by Major General William Henry Harrison to regain U.S. control over the region. When U.S. Navy master commandant Oliver Hazard Perry defeated the British in the Battle of Lake Erie on September 10, 1813, the Americans regained control of Lake Erie. This naval victory also enabled Harrison to undertake an offensive to recapture Detroit and invade western Upper Canada.

Procter, his logistical support now all but cut off, hoped to withdraw from Detroit by moving through Upper Canada along the Thames River. Tecumseh strongly opposed Procter's decision, seeing it as evidence of abandonment by the British, who had promised the Indians their own lands. Eventually the allies reached a compromise to retreat but to make a stand somewhere along the route. The British march from Sandwich began on September 24 with about 880 troops and perhaps 500 Native American warriors and their families. The withdrawal was not well organized and proceeded slowly, encumbered with considerable personal baggage. Soon the men were on half rations. Morale was low, and the officers were reportedly dissatisfied with Procter's leadership, although Lieutenant Colonel Augustus Warburton, second-in-command, resisted calls that he intervene to remove Procter.

Depiction of the Battle of the Thames on October 5, 1813, showing the death of Shawnee chief Tecumseh, leader of the Indians fighting on the British side. (Library of Congress)

On September 27 Harrison's army landed in Canada. He had almost 5,000 U.S. regulars and Kentucky militiamen. Harrison left Sandwich on October 2, the speed of his advance greatly enhanced by mounted Kentucky riflemen led by Colonel Richard M. Johnson. On October 4 the American column reached the third and unfordable branch of the Thames. Tecumseh and his warriors had dismantled the bridge there and were then on the opposite side. Harrison ordered up two 6-pounders and used these to drive away the Indians and then ordered his men to set about repairing the bridge. In just two hours Harrison was again on the move. Johnson's Kentuckians then intercepted Procter a few miles from Moraviantown along the Thames River, the British having already set fire to watercraft they were using to transport their baggage and supplies on the river.

By the morning of October 5 it was clear to Procter that a final stand was inevitable. He deployed his regulars in a wedge-shaped clearing in a beech forest. The left flank rested on the river beside which ran the road to Moraviantown some three and a half miles to the east. The line ran some 250 yards to the north, ending at a small swamp. It then extended from the small swamp another 250 yards, where it ended at a large swamp. The left portion of the British line was held by 540 men of the 41st Regiment of Foot and 290 men of the Royal Newfoundland Regiment. Procter also positioned a 6-pounder artillery piece in the road to provide some support. The portion to the right of the small swamp was held by Tecumseh's 500 warriors. The British, however, had not erected any sort of earthworks or abatis by felling trees.

The Americans arrived before the British position at about 8:00 a.m. The American force numbered 140 regulars, 1,000 Kentuckians in Johnson's regiment, and about 2,300 Kentucky volunteers. There were also perhaps 160 allied Indians. As Harrison was making his dispositions prior to an attack, Johnson learned that the British left was only thinly held by men standing about three feet apart. The situation seemed tailor-made for Johnson's mounted men, and he asked permission from Harrison to make an immediate charge. Harrison agreed. With many of the attackers screaming “Remember the Raisin!”—a reference to the Raisin River Massacre—the Kentuckians quickly drove through the British line. The British artillery piece having failed to fire, the Kentuckians then dismounted and used their rifles to attack the British from the rear. Attacked from both front and rear, the British line crumbled, and most of the men surrendered. Only the grenadier company of the 41st Regiment managed to escape intact.

The Indians, protected somewhat by the swamp, held their ground and halted Johnson's horsemen with musket fire, killing or wounding 15 of them. Johnson himself was wounded several times. Tecumseh, who had a premonition of his own death, was slain in combat. His body was never recovered (the natives said that it had been lifted up to heaven), but Johnson claimed to have killed him and was generally so credited. With the sizable American force converging on their position, the remaining Indians fled the battlefield.

The Battle of the Thames lasted less than an hour, with the British suffering 12 killed, 22 wounded, and some 600 captured. As many as 33 Native Americans were also slain. American casualties were 7 killed and 22 wounded. Procter, who escaped, was widely blamed for the defeat. He blamed his men, whom he said had not carried out his orders. Procter demanded a court of inquiry, and when this was denied he appealed directly to the British commander Frederick, Duke of York. This led to a court-martial and a finding that he was guilty of failing to properly prepare for the retreat and of exercising poor tactical judgment. The court recommended that he be reprimanded and suspended from duty for six months. In the end, he was only reprimanded, in July 1815.

Although a relatively minor action, the Battle of the Thames proved decisive and provided a rare victory for the United States. Even though the American side had enjoyed the advantage of greatly superior numbers, they had defeated British regulars, and the victory was received with great enthusiasm in Kentucky and helped renew public support for the war. Thereafter the battle was used to considerable political advantage by any on the American side who could claim to have participated in it. Certainly the battle destroyed the British position west of the head of Lake Erie and broke forever Native American power in the Old Northwest Territory. This opened the territory for white settlement west to the Mississippi River. After their victory the American troops burned Moraviantown, a peaceful Indian settlement. Then, lacking naval support, which was needed elsewhere, and faced with the mass expiration of enlistments, they departed Canada for Detroit.

See also

Detroit, Surrender of; Frenchtown, Battle of; Harrison, William Henry; Lake Erie, Battle of; Native Americans; Old Northwest Territory; Perry, Oliver Hazard; Procter, Henry; Tecumseh

Further Reading
  • Antal, Sandor. A Wampum Denied: Procter's War of 1812. Carlton University Press Ottawa, 1997.
  • Skaggs, David. “River Raisin Redeemed: William Henry Harrison, Oliver Hazard Perry, and the Midwestern Campaign, 1813” Northwest Ohio History 77 (Spring 210): 67-84.
  • Sudgen, John. Tecumseh's Last Stand. University of Oklahoma Press Norman, 1985.
  • Steven J. Rauch
    Spencer C. Tucker
    Copyright 2012 by Spencer C. Tucker

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