An introduction to the War of 1812: an episode in the history of bungling, with its effects on the Indians
There is an enormous amount of material on this subject, including patriotic semi-mythology and stodgy summaries, bad enough to not even be wrong, which reference to your on-line library catalog will show you. My main intention here is to create interest (it is a very interesting story) and summarize the action, concentrating on the western activity that I believe was the focus of the war, not the usual maritime scuffles or political wrangling among the lawyers in Congress. Indeed, Congress was totally occupied by how to pay for the war, not how to fight it. For managing the fighting, President Madison appointed incompetents as Secretaries of War, one after the other, as was traditional. I enjoy exposing the sturdy incompetence of most of the military and governmental chiefs in the United States of the time. West Point, founded in 1802, was staffed by incompetents and imbeciles, and taught mainly dueling and drinking. Many officers classfied their generals, political appointees all, as cowards, drunkards, old grannies, or traitors, singly or in various combinations. Harrison, who was not an incompetent, provides much material for this in his struggles with the bureaucracy, and many other observers contribute as well. I have not, by any means, touched all the incompetent blundering by the braggarts of the time. The memory of the non-blunderers (Wayne, Harrison, Perry, Jackson) deserves preservation. Special attention is given to the American Indians, since the war was mainly an Indian war. The war specifically in the Northwest is treated in more detail in the page on William Henry Harrison.
The War of 1812 lasted from 18 June 1812, when the United States declared war on Great Britain, until 17 February 1815, when President Madison ratified the Treaty of Ghent with his signature. The War was a purely Republican project, unanimously and bitterly opposed by the Federalists. It was hoped that the declaration would frighten Britain into concessions over trade, impressment of seamen, and fisheries, and into ratification of the seizure of Canada, which was soon to occur. It did not work out that way. 32 months of bungling warfare resulted in a treaty in which the American negotiators managed to secure the status quo ante bellum when the British negotiators bungled their opportunity. The war was stopped before any real damage could be done. The war was also called "The Second War For Independence" , and "Mr. Madison's War" , or described as "Perpetual War, the policy of Mr. Madison." It was probably James Monroe, the imperialist Secretary of State, who was behind it all, however.
Great Britain had been at war with Revolutionary France since 1793, and Bonaparte since 1799. Wellington had been fighting in Portugal and Spain since 1808. Bonaparte invaded Russia in 1812, taking wooden Moscow on 14 September, which then burned down. He abandoned his army to utter destruction during the winter retreat to France. More Frenchmen were conscripted, and Nappy defeated Austria, Prussia and Russia at Dresden in August 1813. In October, he was defeated in turn at Leipzig, and fled back to France, again leaving the ground littered with dead Frenchmen. In March 1814, the Prussians took Paris and sent Napoleon to Elba. In 1815, Bonaparte escaped from Elba, collected an army, and lost it on 18 June 1815 at Waterloo. 330,000 troops were engaged in this battle.
The United States Navy consisted of 17 ships, the largest being three 44-gun frigates. Ships of the line, zero. At Trafalgar, 21 October 1805, the Royal Navy had 27 ships of the line, the French and Spanish 33. If the whole United States Navy had been there, it hardly would have been noticed. In 1812, the Royal Navy had over 1000 ships, 500 of which were on station at any time. The United States was like a terrier clamped on an ankle of Britain while it was engaged in this gigantic world war, not much more than a noisy nuisance.
The population of the United States in the Census of 1810 was 7,240,000. The population of Great Britain in 1811 was 12,000,000. The population of Canada in 1806 was estimated at 433,000. The last state admitted to the Union before the war was Ohio, the 17th state, in 1803. Lousiana was admitted shortly after the declaration of war, on 30 April 1812. The first state admitted after the war was Indiana, in 1816. Kentucky had a population of 407,000 in 1810, Ohio 231,000, and Louisana 77,000. Virginia, New York and Pennsylvania were the most populous states, each approaching 1,000,000. New Orleans was the largest city in the west, followed by Cincinnati, Louisville and Pittsburgh. The center of population was 40 miles northwest of Washington, D.C., in northern Virginia. Most people lived on farms, and there was little industry. James Madison (1751-1836) had been elected President in 1808, succeeding Thomas Jefferson (1743-1826), and was re-elected in 1812 after the declaration of war and its first few catastrophes. Madison was succeeded by James Monroe (1758-1831) in 1816. Jefferson, Madison and Monroe were the Virginia Dynasty of Republicans. Andrew Jackson was later to insult and overturn their republican-aristocratic pretensions when he was elected President in 1828.
In 1812, there were no telegraphs and no railways. Steamboats had just been introduced on the Hudson, the Lakes, and on the Ohio and Mississippi, but were still rare and did not yet go to sea. Most power came from the muscles of animals and men, and some from water wheels and the wind. Aside from the new steam engine and the increasing use of iron in machinery, technology and transport were not far different from what they had been in Roman days, except that the roads, water supply and public sanitation were worse. The most important novelty was the printing press, but illiteracy was common. American transport was dominated by boats and horseback. Wagons were useful only in good weather. To take a wagon from Cincinnati to the St. Mary's River, 105 miles, a month was required. Oxen were the preferred draught animal, since they could forage while horses required grain. The mail travelled in saddlebags, at an average rate of about 4 mph, or 30 miles a day. A pack horse could make 12 to 15 miles a day. A voyage across the Atlantic took about a month. Sea voyages were hazardous, because the ships, lacking power, were easily driven onto rocks.
The aim of the War of 1812 was the annexation of Canada. It would have been embarrassing to avow this aim openly, but its importance was clear to everyone at the time. Arguments over trade policy, especially the British Orders in Council, and impressment of seamen, both results of the Napoleonic Wars, had festered for years. Subsequent to the Chesapeake affair of 1807, the impressment issue had been more or less worked out by diplomacy. The worst of the shame was being insulted like an insignificant yokel by the arrogant Royal Navy, not any special concern for the British deserters who did often find their ways onto American ships. Satisfaction was demanded. However, the Battle of Tippecanoe fought on 7 November 1811, in which the Indian confederation led by Tecumseh (1768-1813) was defeated, was actually the first battle of the war. The British were known to support the Indians, and were thought the instigators of all the trouble, which had been continual since 1791. Tecumseh was the spiritual successor of Pontiac, the great Ottawa, who had assembled a confederation extending from the Lakes to the Gulf, allied with the French in 1763. Pontiac had been instrumental in Braddock's defeat at Fort Duquesne in 1755. Upon their defeat, the French had perforce to abandon the Indians, who then had no recourse except to the British, who protected them by the Proclamation Line of 1763, forbidding settlement west of the Atlantic watershed. This angered the colonists, who did not respect the paper threat anyway. The Indians naturally supported the British in the War for Independence, again choosing the losing side, which was their unerring custom.
The Indians preferred the French to the British by far, but there were no longer French around. The British had abandoned the Indians they had promised to protect in 1783 with the Treaty of Paris ending the War for Independence, and again in 1794 with the Jay Treaty. Still, it was a case of any port in a storm, and the British were again promising them protection. Of course, the British abandoned them again in 1815, and after that there was no help. The northwest Indians, principally Miamis under Little Turtle, had utterly defeated General Arthur St. Clair (1736-1818) on the Wabash in 1791, where 1000 men were lost out of 1400, with only 8-12 casualties for the Miamis, it was said. General "Mad" Anthony Wayne (1745-1796) was more formidable, raising Wayne's Legion at Pittsburgh in 1792 to fight the Indians. The Indian confederation was crushed by Wayne's Legion at Fallen Timbers, near the mouth of the Maumee, in 1794. The Treaty of Greenville that followed in 1795 confined them to northwestern Ohio and northern Indiana, opening the trans-Ohio for white settlement.
It is impossible to appreciate the temper of Americans, especially westerners and Republicans, by reading modern histories. These people were capable of self-delusion and hypocrisy to a level seldom attained except among the very religious. They considered the American policy with respect to Indians, as expressed by Jefferson, for example, as kind, enlightened and generous. Jefferson was, of course, an unsurpassed dissembler and hypocrite of high order, whose actions show his real intentions. Indians were ungrateful savages, it was held, treacherous and cruel, believing the British lies that the Americans wished to kill them all off and take all their lands. Of course, what the Americans wanted was only to kill them off and take all their lands, as subsequent history demonstrates. Within 30 years, there were no more Indians whatever in the Northwest. The British were supposed behind it all, as bad as the savages they egged on to outrage and atrocity. The British were hated with that peculiar kind of hate that exists within families. The French and the Spanish were hated more fundamentally. Americans did not like anybody very much.
Americans were petrified by Indians, whose skills as warriors were of a high order. The shame of this fear was eased by boasting and equivocation. In every conflict up to Tippecanoe, Indians could be defeated only by overwhelming numerical superiority, and small Indian war parties could wreak havoc on isolated detachments. Most depredations were the work of small bands of outlaws, whether of Indian on white, white on Indian, white on white, or Indian on Indian. White robbers and bandits preyed on Indians as well as whites, and Indian banditti did the same. Whenever a hostile Indian band was reported on the prowl, alarm spread like wild fire. Any outrage was repaid on the nearest Indian, whether he had anything to do with the outrage or not. Indians were admonished to settle down and adopt agriculture, but when they did, they were robbed, murdered and driven out, carrying the bones of their ancestors to strange places in the west.
Most tribes tried to ensure as much peace as possible, well knowing that the Americans did not discriminate when revenge was on their minds. Dangerous bands were controlled, and murders of whites punished with death, which was advertised as widely as possible. William Henry Harrison (1773-1841) worked for equal justice, in that just as Indians punished Indians for murdering whites, so would whites punish whites for murdering Indians. To his extreme disgust, this never happened. Juries failed to convict, and criminals walked through jail walls, it seemed. Killing an Indian was not a crime to an American, just as killing a black was no crime either. Whatever people said, what they actually did was different.
It had been a generation, 30 years, since the 1783 Treaty of Paris ending the War for Independence (usually called the Revolutionary War in the United States, as if anything done by a pack of lawyers could be called revolutionary), and a new generation sought military glory. The incompetent, intriguing Federalists of the post-war era had now been replaced by Virginia planter-lawyers and other tobacco-chewing Republicans, with their anti-European, anti-aristocratic, anti-business, anti-intellectual, anti-trade, anti-bank, anti-Atlantic seaboard and anti-government proclivities. Federal government was in the hands of the Virginia mafia, while corruption and cronyism permeated it from crown to large toe. The hardships and pain, and incompetence, of the last war had dissolved into glowing mythology and hero-worship. The Republicans now sought their own chance at immortal fame through the hazards of war, relying on Bony to keep the British occupied. Moreover, the French and British each constantly tried to cripple the trade of the other with neutrals, such as the United States, leading to intolerables such as the Orders in Council and Napoleon's paper blockades. This trade warring was the source of plentiful resentment against the British, and had almost led to war with France earlier.
The War Hawks (Clay, Calhoun, Cheves, Lowndes, Grundy, Porter, Johnson and Troup), or Young Republicans, gained control of Congress and agitated for war in every direction. Madison gave them their war in consideration for being renominated for President. No great military leaders are found among the War Hawks, since they avoided battle, with the exception of Richard M. Johnson (1781-1850) of Kentucky, who was with Harrison at the Battle of the Thames, as we shall see below. The Clay that fought in the war was Green Clay, not Henry Clay (1777-1852). Isaac Hull (1773-1843), the naval officer, must be distinguished from his uncle William Hull (1753-1825), the incompetent general. The John Armstrong (1755-1816) who fought the Miamis at Eel River on 18 October 1790 where the Kentucky militia panicked and he lost his sergeant and 21 of his 30 regulars, and hid under a log until the Indians were gone, is not the same as the John Armstrong (1758-1843) of New York who married a Livingston, was minister to France, and became Secretary of War in 1813. Many actors in the war have the same last names, so it is not easy to identify them properly. The war was unpopular in New England, which contemplated secession, and was often accused of treason. It is interesting that the United States was at war with someone practically continuously from the adoption of the Constitution in 1789 until the close of the Civil War, and aggressively invaded both its neighbors during this period.
The strength of partisan feeling in the United States is demonstrated by the Baltimore Riots of June and July 1812. The Republican mob attacked the offices of the federalist newspaper Federal Republican, and in the worst incident nearly beat several people to death, including the venerable "Light Horse" Harry Lee (1756-1818), Revolutionary hero, who never recovered from his wounds and died a few years later.
Secretary of State Madison was the driving force of American imperialism at this time. He seemed impressed by Napoleon's conquests, and thought the United States could do the same in its hemisphere. As we shall see, American military expertise was not up to the challenge. Not only was Canada a possible conquest, but Mexico was another tempting prize, with its possibility of the extension of slavery. Mexico was in the agony of a bloody civil war at the time, which had begun in 1810 with Hidalgo's rising. Although independence from Spain was achieved in 1821, the internal wars continued almost without pause. Joel Poinsett was sent as minister plenipotentiary to the viceroy in Mexico, but his real mission was to foment rebellion, as he did most effectively in Chile, as well as in Mexico. Onís, the Spanish minister in Washington, well knew Madison's views. Spain was occupied and oppressed by Bonaparte at the time, and the American colonies were largely thrown on their own resources to suppress the independence movements. American adventurers in West Florida took advantage of the situation to declare their independence, and this territory was included as part of the State of Louisiana in 1812. A similar effort in East Florida was less successful.
Madison already knew what he wanted. His map proposed a southern border of the United States extending from the mouth of the Rio Bravo (Rio Grande) up to 31° latitude, and then west to the Pacific. Cuba was also included, as a natural part of the American domain. Most of this new territory would ensure room for the support and extension of slavery, an aim close to the hearts of the southern War Hawks. It is remarkable that this expansion took place as it was planned this early, in the treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo in 1848. Cuba was always a problem, and never became American territory, though dominated economically by the United States for many years, and, of course, invaded. Madison suggested to the Mexican states in rebellion (as far as was possible in the chaos) that they form their governments similarly to American states, so that they could be easily annexed. He also intimated to Mexican visitors that the 75,000 men raised for the taking of Canada could just as well be used against Mexico. These insulting suggestions guaranteed that Mexico would do all in its power to resist the demands of the United States.
The United States was, however, a refuge for Mexican supporters of independence. Hidalgo was making for the United States when he was captured by treachery in the spring of 1811, and Bernardo Guitiérrez de Lara fled to the U.S. with his family when the royalists captured his villa on the Rio Bravo at the same time. Revolution broke out early in Texas, but was suppressed by a counter-revolution not long after. In 1813, de Lara led a group of American adventurers into Texas, capturing the capital San Antonio de Béjar with the help of Americans who already were there. José Alvarez de Toledo, a Spanish naval officer from Santo Domingo and fugitive from the Spanish government in Cádiz, supplanted de Lara, but lost to royalist forces that had come up from Nuevo Santander (Tamaulipas) at the critical battle on Rio Medina. The remnants were pursued by Colonel Elizondo as far as Nacodoches (as it was spelled then), and were largely captured and shot. This was a fairly typical episode of American penetration into Texas, which probably began with Burr and Wilkinson early in the century (but then without effect). The 1812 Texas Revolution is discussed in Texas Revolution.
Although General Ramón Rayón of the supreme junta of the independence party in Mexico (a body of minimal influence) tried to send Francisco Antonio Peredo to Washington to procure arms, the royalists controlled the coast at the time and Peredo could not travel. Envoys were also sent to the Archbishop of Baltimore concerning the spiritual support of those in areas controlled by the independence party. Of course, due to the British blockade and pirates in the Gulf, any direct support from the United States was impossible anyway, even if more effective measures had been taken to secure it. The United States also had little to spare in this line, since its resources were also stretched to the limit by the war.
The principal war aim was to conquer Canada and thereby remove British support for the Indians objecting to the seizure of their land west of the Appalachians, and to show how splendidly military the new nation could be. The professed aims of war were to limit British naval arrogance in the Atlantic (the Napoleonic wars had been hard on neutrals) and to claim fishing rights. This pretense was mainly to appease New England. To achieve these aims, the Republic had forces shaped by Jefferson's absurd theories, as useless as could only be devised by a man of high self-esteem who had avoided all military service and was devoid of any military or naval experience (a type then becoming prominent in the British establishment as well). Soldiers were to be provided by the ordinary citizens, locally organized as the need arose, and electing their own officers democratically. Jefferson's Second Amendment to the Constitution is a relic of this theory, now twisted out of all recognition. These "militia" were commanded by officers appointed by the states or the federal government on the basis of political patronage and influence. An astounding number of Americans claimed high military rank. The "Kentucky Colonel" is an example, but Major-Generals were not uncommon. For units called to federal service, Washington provided the general officers, pay and supplies, making full use of political connections and influence. There was corruption at all levels of the chain of supply. For detailed information on the army, see The Army.
The Republican doctrine was that a Navy and coast artillery were unnecessary, apparently because they were something that individual states could not rationally supply. Sailors were to be provided by the merchant marine, fishermen and rivermen, marines by citizens of the ports, again locally raised as necessary and commanding small boats perhaps mounting a single cannon. Commodores commanding these mosquito fleets were to be state political appointees.
There actually was no US Navy, as far as any ability to support fleet actions or protect the coast went. What there was of a navy had been inspired by the earlier near-war with France under the Adams administration. There was nothing larger than the three 44-gun frigates, and even these had trouble leaving port through the blockade. USS President, for example, was lost after being disabled trying to leave New York, and USS Chesapeake was captured by HMS Shannon off Boston (some of its timbers are in the fabric of a pub in Ashford, Kent). In individual actions, however, US ships, both frigates and smaller vessels, came off very creditably against the Royal Navy, in spite of all probabilities, even once or twice winning against superior force, which rarely happened with sailing navies. The Royal Navy forbade the expensive firing of cannon in gunnery practice, brutally treated its sailors, and equipped its ships badly (cheap carronades instead of expensive long guns, for example). Only the excellence of a few individual commanders, which was, typically, poorly rewarded, saved the Royal Navy from humiliation in these minor engagements. Hundreds of privateers prowled the seas, and their crews filled up the prisoner-of-war camp at Dartmoor.
Any impressions you may have formed of the probable efficacy of this military force from the brief outline just given will be completely confirmed in the sequel. The British were engrossed with Bonaparte, but spared enough ships to erect a tight blockade of the entire Atlantic seaboard, effectively stopping all seaborne trade except that beneficial to them, and smuggling. New England, in fact, was not blockaded until late in the war, since it supplied the British army. The blockade was a serious discomfort, one effect of which was to change the domestic fuel in eastern cities from Welsh coal to Pennsylvania anthracite. Few men were spared for the defense of Canada, that region being instructed to look out for itself as best it could with its own resources. One useful ally was the Indian, who often made up a somewhat unruly but frightening element in every British Canadian force. In the time since independence, the United States had managed to convert the native inhabitants of the West into implacable enemies, many of whom (such as Tecumseh) had taken refuge in Canada, and were itching for revenge. The British Canadians were Canadians because they had declined to become Americans, and had no taste whatsoever for being liberated by the Democracy.
No sooner was war declared than preparations were made to take Canada. Dr. William Eustis (1753-1825), Harvard '72,the gormless Secretary of War, assigned the equally gormless General Henry Dearborn (1751-1829) to create a cunning plan. Eustis's military experience was as a surgeon in the Continental Army, and as Secretary had helped to reorganize the army after his appointment in 1809. He established the Superintendent of Ordnance, the Quartermaster General and the Commissary General departments, but their jurisdictions overlapped and feuding was the result. Dearborn decided there were to be three roughly simultaneous, slashing attacks, the first upon Montreal, marching up by Lake Champlain, the second across Niagara, and the third a bold thrust via Detroit into Upper Canada.
To lead the western thrust, Governor William Hull of Michigan Territory was named Major-General. With Kentucky and Ohio militia, and a few regulars, all hot for victory, he marched from Dayton, arriving at Fort Detroit on 5 July 1812. Across the Detroit river lay the capable General Isaac Brock and his small force of militia and Indians in Fort Malden. Later in the month, after issuing proclamations to the inhabitants of Upper Canada about how he would govern them, Hull crossed the river. The Ohio militia refused to cross, saying they could serve only within the United States. Hull crossed anyway, and proceeded to threaten Malden. Then the shocking news reached him that forces dispatched by General Brock had taken Mackinaw (17 July 1812). Almost swallowing the huge quid he was known for, he scurried back to Fort Detroit. The force that took Mackinaw included Indians, and if there was anything that terrified Hull, it was Indians. Lewis Cass and Duncan McArthur tried to break out southward into Ohio, but Indians menaced them back. As General Hull shivered and chewed and dribbled on his union suit in his wooden fortress, General Brock laid siege, with regulars, militia and mainly Indians, about 1600 in all.
Mackinaw, or Michilimackinac (the final "c" is silent), is at the straits connecting Lake Huron and Lake Michigan, on the chief route from Illinois to the east, via Buffalo and the Mohawk. Hull managed to get a messenger overland to Fort Dearborn (founded 1803, later Chicago) ordering the garrison to abandon the fort and evacuate. On 15 August they did so, helped by a friendly band of Potawatomies who claimed to be there for the purpose. The Potawatomies, still peeved by Tippecanoe, killed most of them.
Meanwhile, General Brock suggested to Hull that if a breach was made in Fort Detroit, he might have a hard time restraining his Indians when they got in. Hull, having visions of bloody tomahawks and scalp dances, promptly surrendered everything--himself, officers, soldiers, stores, cannon, ammunition, camp followers and hogs--on 16 August, without putting up any fight. One of the cannons had been seized at Saratoga in 1777, and was now restored to His Majesty, along with nine American 24-pounders that would come in handy later. The 4th Regiment, U.S. Infantry, which had been at Tippecanoe, was surrendered with everything else. British command of Lake Erie made this outcome almost certain in any case.
General Hull was court-martialed on his return to American jurisdiction when exchanged, and sentenced to death for his poltroonery. The sentence was commuted by the President, however, and he returned to politics.
The Niagara prong was assigned to General Stephen van Rensselaer (1764-1839), of good name but little capability. He had 6000 men to take Queenston Heights from 2000 British and Indians across the river. As the boats were being collected for the crossing, the one boat that contained all the oars got away and was swept over the falls. Eventually more oars were found, and the force, commanded by Lt. Col. Winfield Scott (1786-1866), got over and captured the heights. The New York militia, meanwhile, refused to cross into British territory, so Scott was not reinforced. A British counterattack retook the heights, capturing Scott and 950 men with him. This victory was costly, because the very able General Brock was killed in the assault. Rensselaer was relieved of duty and replaced by the insufferable General Alexander Smythe, called "Van Bladder" by the men. Smythe attacked Fort Erie and then abandoned the attack and retreated. The Pennsylvania militia had refused to cross here. Smythe disappeared quietly from the army.
General Dearborn himself led the spearhead up to Montreal. It is about 370 miles from New York City to the St. Lawrence, via the Hudson River, Lake George, Lake Champlain and the Richelieu River, the obvious invasion route for an army that otherwise would have to travel overland in forested wilderness. In November, he marched with 6000 to 8000 men from Albany to Plattsburgh. The militia refused to cross the border. United States troops that did invade Canada fired on each other in the night, and scared themselves back to Plattsburgh. Dearborn said oh well, it's pretty late in the year anyway, and retired to the comforts of New York.
Hull's surrender, and the loss of forts Dearborn and Detroit shocked the west and emboldened the Indians. The next point of danger was obviously Fort Wayne, on the Maumee (Miami of the Lake) River at the portage to the Wabash, which had been built by General Wayne in 1794 on the site of the Miami town of Kekionaga. There was no civil settlement here, or anywhere else in the area, until 1815. On 22 August 1812, William Henry Harrison, governor of Indiana Territory, who had been General Wayne's aide-de-camp in 1792-4 was appointed Brigadier General in command of all forces in Indiana and Illinois territories, to go to the relief of General Hull in Detroit. Brigadier General James Winchester, an ambitious Tenneseean, was also ordered (and was eager) to aid General Hull. His commission was older, so he ranked Harrison. On 25 August, Harrison was made Major-General of the Kentucky Militia, though he was not a citizen of that state. This would normally have caused difficulties with the soldiers, but they knew Harrison and accepted him willingly. Now Harrison ranked Winchester, and they started out amicably for the relief of Fort Wayne, since Hull's surrender had become known by then. An order from the War Department on 19 September now put Winchester in charge of the relief of Fort Wayne, so Harrison turned over to him all troops assigned to this operation, but kept those intended for the relief of Detroit. A further order then came, dated the 17th (the tardy mail was responsible for the delay) making Harrison the overall commander. Winchester agreed to a subordinate position when he found out about this on the 25th, but he still commanded the forces for the relief of Fort Wayne, which was already beseiged by Indians. All this confusion is the result of Secretary Eustis' bungling and the slow mails. Expresses cost money, after all.
James Winchester (1752-1826) was born in Carroll County, Maryland and became a surveyor like his father. He rose from private to captain in the Continental Army. In 1785 he emigrated to Tennessee, where he became a planter. His brother George was killed by Chickasaws, but he survived and built a fine home, "Cragfont." He saved 15-year-old Susan Black from the foggy, foggy dew and she bore him 14 children, the first in 1793. Later, they got married. Upon Tennessee statehood, he was named Brigadier General. He agitated constantly for the acquisition of Canada, so when the war broke out, he eagerly volunteered himself and the militia he had enlisted in Tennesse and Kentucky. As we have noted, he commanded Harrison's left wing on the march to Detroit.
Captain Zachary Taylor (1784-1850), later to be called Old Rough and Ready and Mr President, successfully defended Fort Harrison on the Wabash (built during the Tippecanoe campaign in 1811) from an Indian attack on 4-5 September 1812. He was promoted to Major as a reward for his vigorous defense. This action is called by an historian "the first American victory on land." It was a rather small "victory," as the successful defense of a fort was known, involving a few men in a limitless expanse of shady forest. Taylor lost 3 killed, and 3 or 4 wounded. Taylor and Scott were later to earn laurels in Mexico, and Taylor was to be president, but that is many years in the future.
The army struggled its muddy way north from Cincinnati, having been equipped by the armory at Newport, Kentucky just across the Ohio. Supplies and enlistments were a continual agony for Harrison. The weather was turning wet, and the wagons were mired to the hubs. Harrison spent most of his time raising troops, and arguing with the chiseling contractors. The column was delayed at Piqua for lack of flints for the rifle locks. The existing maps were useless, but Harrison relied on his intimate knowledge of the country. When the left wing with General Winchester reached Fort Wayne, the Indian besiegers melted into the woods after a brief argument. James Logan, the Shawnee chief who was loyal to the United States, and whose family was murdered by white ruffians, was killed here while carrying out a mission to prove his loyalty. He acquired his name from the Kentucky general of the same name who captured him in 1786, and was a nephew of Tecumseh's. His village was Wapakoneta, on the Auglaize near St. Mary's. General Harrison, meanwhile, moved the right wing to a point near the mouth of the Maumee, where he built Fort Meigs, and other small forts near Sandusky River (there was no settlement here at the time). He gave orders to Winchester to fortify the area he had occupied at the rapids of the Maumee, and wait for further orders. This was the region of the great Black Swamp bounded by the Maumee, the Auglaize and the Portage rivers, a formidable barrier blocking the way to Michigan.
Winter was coming on, and it was high time for the troops to go into winter quarters. By January, the frosts had made the swamps in northwestern Ohio more or less passable, but February was unseasonably warm and they thawed again. Some settlers from Frenchtown (now Monroe) on the River Raisin came to Winchester at Fort Defiance, the fort built at the rapids of the Maumee, and begged him for help against the British and the Indians. Colonel Proctor (some sources spell Procter, but Proctor is probably correct), who had replaced General Brock at Detroit, was foraging through the countryside, and oppressing those who favored the Americans. General Winchester saw glory and renown staring him in the face, and decided to go teach Proctor a lesson. He sent Colonel Allen ahead, then followed himself with all the troops that could be spared after a successful preliminary action by scouting parties on the 18th was reported. In this advance, over some 75 miles of difficult ground, he far outran any possibility of support. On the 20th, the column arrived at Frenchtown. Winchester had the men camp along the frosty river any old how, while he went to the warm house of his friend Colonel Navarre 3/4 of a mile away for a toddy and a warm bed. There was plenty of time to fortify, but it was not done. Proctor and the Indians descended quietly at dawn on the 22nd, when the militia were snoring loudly. Slaughter and confusion reigned, with fires and explosions all around. Winchester, horrified and confused, could only run to Proctor coatless and surrender, leaving his men uncertain whether to defend themselves or give up. The details are more complex, but this gives the general idea. 290 were killed or missing, and Proctor took 592 prisoners. 33 got away, and did not stop running until they ran babbling into the relief column from Fort Meigs, scaring the troops and creating much business for the laundry. The Indians, including some of Tecumseh's Red Sticks, who were not happy with the Americans, entertained themselves fearfully with the wounded lying on the field. Proctor was made Major-General for his feat.
As soon as Harrison knew that Winchester had moved, he had sent a relief column, but the going was very hard in the unseasonable thaw, and the news had been received too late. The relief column encountered successive waves of fleeing soldiers from the disaster, and decided that nothing could be done. Winchester was exchanged in 1814, and returned to a hero's welcome in Nashville. He then joined Jackson for the remainder of the Southwestern campaign. After the war, he went on to found the city of Memphis.
That winter of 1812-1813 saw several vigorous mounted penetrations of Indian territory, planned and executed in the usual ignorance of Indian habits. General Hopkins took an army wandering towards the Kickapoos at Peoria, giving up in confusion 60 miles from his objective. Governor Edwards of Illinois and Colonel Russell rode for 400 miles through Indian country, from the White River to the Wabash, to Lake Michigan and river St. Joseph's of the Lake, and back to Ohio, hardly ever seeing an Indian. One village was surprised near Peoria, however. The Americans probably killed women and children, as they accused the Indians of doing, but did not brag about it in their reports. All the villages were empty, the warriors hunting or with Tecumseh, and the squaws making sugar. All they could do was kick apart some bark lean-to's.
To this extent was Canada seized by the Americans in the 1812 campaign. The indecisive and fumbling William Eustis resigned as Secretary of War in December, temporarily replaced by James Monroe, who always displayed his proud ignorance of warfare. Madison named General John Armstrong of New York as permanent Secretary. The preceding year, Armstrong had been named Brigadier General and assigned the defense of New York Harbor for services against DeWitt Clinton in the election. Most government positions were handed out for similar party reasons, regardless of suitability or aptitude. Armstrong devoted himself to a pet project, the Rules and Regulations of the Army of the United States, which appeared on 1 May 1813. Armstrong knew more than Eustis did about military matters, having served in the Pennanite war which Pennsylvania waged against Connecticut in 1784, but most of this additional information seems to have been wrong. He was politically correct, and an intriguer like General Wilkinson, though probably not as much of a scoundrel. He was actually a pretty good writer, and should have confined himself to that.
General James Wilkinson (1757-1825), who appears here and there during the war, was a native of Maryland, and a captain in the Continental Army before he was 21. He was at the defeat of Québec, and the victory of Saratoga, contributing little to each. At 21, he was brigadier general but had to resign the rank because of his agitation in favor of General Gates to replace General Washington, in the Conway Cabal. He then became clothier-general of the army, 1779-1781, which was no doubt lucrative, since he had to leave the army hastily before the auditors showed up. He founded Frankfort, Kentucky in 1786, and intrigued with the Spanish over turning over the area to them, in return for trade privileges and possibly a generalship in the Spanish Army. He fought in the Ohio War with the Miamis and Shawnees in 1791, with Kentucky militia, and accompanied General Wayne in 1794 as an aide-de-camp. He was a commissioner for the receipt of Louisiana from the French, and was Governor 1805-1806. While there, he became interested in Burr's filibustering expedition into Spanish territory, which Jefferson turned into treason to eliminate this rival. Later, Tennesseeans created Texas in a similar episode. Wilkinson gave evidence against Burr in return for political favor, but both stood trial. Both he and Burr were acquitted. His later efforts in seizing West Florida and Mobile, his departure for New York in 1813, and his bungling there, are told below. He retired to Mexico and wrote his memoirs.
General Proctor came up the Maumee in boats to attack Fort Meigs in the spring, hoping to beat it into submission by artillery, the heaviest of which had been supplied by General Hull the previous summer. Tecumseh, prodding him onward, made him promise to give him Harrison when the fort was captured. Later, Harrison jokingly told his Indian allies that he would give them General Proctor, if they would dress him in petticoats. Colonel Dudley of the Kentucky Militia assaulted a British position on the other side of the river and carried it. While jumping up and down with joy and making merry and congratulating one another, the Kentuckians failed to observe a counterattack on the way that annihilated them before they had a chance to uncork their jugs. Proctor raised the siege when his ammunition ran low and no progress was evident. Harrison had protected the fort with a large bank of earth that stopped the cannonballs. The bank had been built behind the cover of the fort's tents, which Proctor was expecting to devastate with his artillery. When the bank was complete, the tents were suddenly moved behind it, and now the artillery could see nothing but earth.
Proctor then attempted some lesser game, and attacked Fort Stephenson on the Sandusky. Harrison ordered the commander, Major Croghan, to abandon the small fort, but by the time the message was received, this was inadvisable, and Croghan decided to hold out. There was some confusion over whether Croghan had disobeyed orders or not, but when the facts were laid out Harrison exonerated him completely. The fort did hold out, Croghan became a hero, and Proctor again retired to Fort Malden, General Tecumseh giving him no rest. The young Croghan, a nephew of George Rogers Clark, received a nice sword from the ladies of Chillicothe, and promotion to Lieutenant Colonel.
While the summer was occupied by these excursions, Commodore (then Captain) Oliver Hazard Perry had been assigned to Lake Erie and was building ships at Presque Isle (Erie, Pennsylvania). His opposite number, Captain Barclay RN, was also building at Fort Erie, at the mouth of the Niagara River. On 10 September 1813, the two fleets finally came out of port, and the ensuing Battle of Lake Erie was won by Commodore Perry. It had been very difficult to find sailors, and General Harrison had given him some of his troops as sailors. There was actually some coordination between the Army and the Navy here, which was very unusual. Later, Commodore Chauncey sailed away just when his fleet could been of some use on Lake Ontario, the usual scenario. Perry's victory made General Proctor's situation so far west without control of the lake untenable, so he had no option but to withdraw eastward. Command of Lake Erie should have been the first order of business in the spring of 1812, but the politicians and lawyers were too dim to realize this.
On 27 September, Harrison loaded his army onto boats at Middle Sister, in the islands at the western part of Lake Erie off Sandusky. The army included 260 Indians, Wyandots and Shawnees, that he had enlisted for the American cause. The landing across the lake was unopposed, and Amherstburg was quickly occupied. Fort Malden had been abandoned and burnt. Proctor paused briefly at Sandwich to observe the landing, then marched eastward by the back route along the river Thames. Colonel Richard M. Johnson's Kentucky mounted infantry, a type of unit greatly favored by General Harrison for good reason, rode by land up to Detroit, crossing to Sandwich on 1 October, completing the invasion force. The pursuit of Proctor was the next order of business. There were two routes, one by land along the river Thames, and the other by lake to the harbor at Port Talbot, and then inland. Perry advised against the water route, because the weather was bad, so the army marched up the south bank of the Thames.
The Kentucky troops had no "Constitutional scruples" about crossing the border, as did many militia soldiers. There was a story of a pet sow that had followed a regiment on its march through Ohio, and even as far as Middle Sister Island, but would not then step on the boat. She was said to have "scruples" and was permitted to remain in Ohio. Harrison and Perry had seen eagles circling before critical events, and regarded them as good omens.
Tecumseh had urged Proctor to stand and fight like a man, not a squaw, but Proctor was in a hurry to get away, since he did not relish capture by the vengeful Kentuckians. Tecumseh organized resistance at Chatham, where Harrison crossed the river, but Harrison swept his Indians aside. On 5 October, Proctor was overtaken at the Moravian Towns, and he turned for battle. His Indians were on the right flank, the few regulars with him on the left, towards the river. There were too few regulars to properly occupy the space between the woods, where the Indians were, and the river. Harrison noticed the wide spacing, and sent in Johnson's mounted infantry there. They broke through easily, and the battle was quickly won. Proctor had about 800 Indians and 500 regulars, Harrison about 3000, largely Kentucky militia. Tecumseh was killed in the battle, the Indians putting up the last resistance. Johnson claimed to have killed him, but Johnson probably could not have told Tecumseh from Sitting Bull. The victorious troops, as was their custom, took little souvenirs from the fallen warriors, that were later claimed to be parts of Tecumseh. The Indians never told what they had done with Tecumseh's body. Proctor made his getaway with a few guards on fast horses. It was so precipitate that he was reprimanded, but the Prince Regent prevented his being suspended from duty. Some reports on casualties say that only 15 men died on the American side, 12 on the British, in this battle, which cannot have included the Indians. Casualty reports are very difficult to verify. Also, one should keep in mind that war is not a board game, and the results of a battle are not measured by the casualties. Casualties of the attacker are almost always higher than those of the defender, twice as high being not at all unusual.
The death of Tecumseh was the sunset of Indian power in the northwest. The next year, at the Miami town of Greenville, Ohio, the site of the 1794 treaty that began their decline, they were compelled to sign a treaty on 22 July 1814 making peace with the United States, and declaring war on Britain. Tecumseh's family and the Prophet (Tensquatawa or Olliwachica) were pensioned in Ontario, near Windsor, but the Prophet appears to have gone to the Shawnee reservation in Kansas later.
The western campaign presents three clear examples of the blundering incompetence of the War Department, among many others. First was the lack of effort to gain command of Lake Erie. It was finally gained by the enterprise and individual initiative of Commodore Perry. Second was the order of Secretary Armstrong to disband the militia in the west (too expensive) and rely on regulars. This was overcome by the enterprise and individual intiative of General Harrison, whose success was hard for Washington to oppose. Third was Armstrong's imbecilic order to move Colonel Johnson's mounted infantry 400 miles from the Maumee to Kaskaskia to protect against an imagined threat, inspired by political expediency (Governor Edwards's direct appeal to Washington) and ignorance. This winter march would have decimated the regiment, killing the horses and sickening the men, so that they would have arrived in tatters. The regiment was sent via Kentucky to recuperate, on the initiative of Colonel Johnson, and the resulting delay was sufficient for the War Department to come to its senses and rescind the order. Harrison always obeyed an order, but often used his discretion in the absence of orders. War Department incompetence is displayed in all its glory in the next section.
In April 1813, Admiral Sir George Cockburn brought a squadron into Chesapeake Bay. On the 13th, he burnt Frenchtown, at the far north end on Elk River, a port on the Philadelphia-Washington sea and land route. He ranged up and down for 12 days, raiding and looting without encountering resistance. Hampton, Virginia was raided, and 600 runaway slaves given sanctuary. Slaves were drawn to British descents on the coast, eager to escape from the Land of the Free. Virginia had taken the unusual step of organizing a state army, as distinct from a militia, in this year, fearing slave revolt. The state army was only temporary, as it was deprecated by the federal authorities.
By November 1813, the blockade of the coast was solid from Florida to New York. New England had been left unblockaded to facilitate the supply of Canada. Earlier, grain was furnished for Wellington's troops in the Peninsula, but this was no longer necessary. Ships of the Royal Navy on blockade duty obtained their supplies from the country they were blockading in this blockade. This trade, carried out in small boats, was quite profitable.
The next summer's cruise was more ambitious. On 19-20 August 1814, Admiral Alexander Cochrane deposited General Robert Ross's 4500 regulars at Benedict, Maryland, on the Patuxent, which was as high as large ships could go. Captain Joshua Barney USN had been given the charge to defend the Chesapeake with his Jeffersonian flotilla of gunboats, but had immediately run up the Patuxent as far as he could go and burnt his boats when he saw the British coming. This was the complete answer of the United States Navy in this whole campaign. Neither the navy nor the worthless coast artillery could defend the Chesapeake. All considered, Ross's advance was a wise move. By the 22nd, the force had marched up the Patuxent to Upper Marlboro. On the 24th, they had reached the East Branch of the Potomac at Bladensburg.
This campaign seems to have been prompted by the United States raid on York, Ontario on 27 April 1813, which operated out of Sackett's Harbor, New York. The town was burned and looted, apparently in violation of orders. Col. Zebulon Pike seems to have been killed while accompanying looters who set off an explosion.
Secretary Armstrong had appointed General William Winder as commander of the forces covering the Capital on 1 July. Winder wandered about until he saw Ross's force at Bladensburg. He had arranged his 5938 troops and 22 guns in three lines: the Washington and Baltimore brigades, and Barney's sailors and marines. He'd put Barney's division where it couldn't support the other two, and James Madison came up and thought he could do better, so Madison moved the second division so it couldn't support the first, either. Ross did not know what to make of the motley crew opposing him, but thought he had better get things started before nightfall. Considerately, Winder had left the bridge across the Potomac whole, though the water was shallow enough to wade through.
Ross's 4270 troops and 3 guns moved forward, firing Congreve rockets that terrified but did little damage, and engaged the defenders. One American officer thought he should move his division back a little, and that was all it took to start the Bladensburg Races. The American troops fled in any directions in which there was not a redcoat, only Barney's division putting up a stiff resistance. Barney was soon overwhelmed and captured.
Meanwhile, everyone was leaving Washington. Dolley Madison saw that some important papers, and the portrait of President Washington, were saved from the Executive Mansion, leaving her own belongings behind. The President had already fled precipitately. There was no transport for records in the capitol, since all the horses and gigs were very much in demand in a general move in the direction of Alexandria. When Ross arrived about 8 pm, there was no one there to greet him. He looked for someone to treat with, but nobody official was left. Government buildings were soon blazing in the night, all except the Patent Office, where the Commissioner of Patents had convinced him that the patent models were an irreplacable treasure. (They were later burnt up in a fire in the 1830's, anyway. They were no treasure, just curiosities.) The Executive Mansion was left a charred shell, looted by the inhabitants of Washington, not Ross's troops. When it was refurbished after the war, it was whitewashed to hide the smoke stains, and became the White House.
Ross withdrew the next day, 25 August, and re-embarked at Benedict on the 30th. While this was going on, Captain Gordon sailed up the Potomac in support of Ross. The commander of Fort Washington was already drunk when Gordon arrived, and surrendered immediately. Gordon went on to sack Alexandria, making off with all kinds of valuables. If this whole ridiculous episode had not actually happened, it would be considered beyond belief. Ross and Cochrane were not inconvenienced, either by the Navy or the Army. Secretary Armstrong immediately resigned, and the episode speaks volumes about his capabilities. He was replaced as Secretary of War by James Madison, who had made the appalling troop movement at Bladensburg. Madison immediately pushed for another invasion of Canada.
Historians usually say Winder was "incompetent" and dump the blame on him. The real incompetence was in the War Department and particularly in its Secretary, Anderson, who was fully responsible, and some blame also adheres to Madison who fled in a cloud of dust when he heard the British were coming, and as well to Monroe, who was on the spot but contributing only some bungling of his own. This seems to be the way lawyers run a war, at any rate (Jackson, however, was a lawyer too). American stores of bad generals appeared to be inexhaustible.
The good generals, Harrison and Jackson, were too popular with soldiers and citizens, and were, therefore, politically suspect, Jackson as a westerner, and Harrison as not a reliable Republican (he was known to associate with Henry Clay, and later became a Whig). They represented a danger to the Virginia Dynasty, and were suppressed as far as possible. Before Armstrong resigned, he had insulted Harrison deeply enough for Harrison to leave the army in disgust on 11 May 1814. The fear of the Republicans was justified: both Jackson and Harrison became Presidents.
The Washington raid had gone so splendidly that a sequel was planned for September. On 12 September, General Ross landed at North Point, near Baltimore. This time he was actually rudely blocked by Maryland militia under General Stricker. It was a hard fight, but another costly victory for the British, since Ross was killed by a sniper during the fight. Colonel Brooke took over and continued toward Baltimore, but decided not to attack, and retreated. He was not pursued. In the harbor, Fort McHenry was bombarded through the night of 13-14 September. The fort could not return the fire, since its armament was not properly designed, but made it through anyway. Admiral Cochrane had hoped the Americans would show the same courage as at Washington the month before, and decamp for the hills, but for once this did not happen, since neither party could injure the other. The night bombardment did provide a fine show, however. The Star Spangled Banner was written by F. S. Key, on board a British ship to arrange for exchange of a prisoner of war, where he had to stay the night. Ms. Pickersgill's big flag had the wrong number of stars and stripes, fifteen each. Stars for Tennessee and Ohio, and even Louisiana, should also have been included by this time, but legislation lagged. Admiral Cochrane made several attempts at landings, but nothing effectual was done, so he withdrew. Everyone was re-embarked, and the fleet returned to Jamaica. American patriotic folklore expands this minor episode into a great and glorious matter. But nothing was really at stake, especially American independence--the United States was the aggressor in the war. It just demonstrated government incompetence.
The southwestern theatre of war was the vast Mississippi Territory, and the new state of Louisiana. Florida, the southern boundary, was claimed variously by Spain and France, but became British in 1763. West of Georgia, it reached to latitude 33°. To the north, Georgia claimed to the Mississippi River, and South Carolina even claimed a narrow panhandle to the same boundary. Spain seized Florida in 1781, and Britain ceded it to Spain in the treaty that ended the War for Independence, in 1783. In 1795, the strip north of 31° was ceded by Spain to the United States. This strip included the town of Natchez, and was organized as Mississippi Territory in 1798. Georgia and South Carolina gave up their western claims, and this territory was added to Mississippi in 1804.
Mississippi Territory was settled from the west, with its outlet at New Orleans. The Chickasaw Trail, also called the Natchez Trace, was a path from the Mississippi at Natchez to the Cumberland at Nashville, 501 miles, used by boatmen returning from New Orleans and infested by bandits. It passed through the territory of the Chickasaws, and had been improved to something somewhat like a road by the federal government, beginning in 1806. South and east of the Chicasaws were the Choctaws, and east of them was the large Creek Federation, based on the Muskokees. These people were less warlike than the northwestern Indians, since they had been less affected by the fur trade, and practiced agriculture. They had given way with more or less grace before the Europeans, who occupied the seacoast and major river valleys, and moved into the vast interior. Quite a number of Europeans had preferred Creek ways, and had blended into their culture, as did escaped slaves. It was the last integrated society in the United States for quite a while.
Tecumseh had agitated among the Creeks, his mother's people. The Red Sticks, a group of influential young Creeks, had been at the River Raisin débacle, as we have seen. The "red sticks" were medicine rods painted red that protected the warriors in battle. The Red Sticks took up the cause, and a civil war broke out among the Creeks, between the elders who wished to sit tight, and the youths who clamored for war. On 27 July 1813, a band of Red Sticks were attacked by the Mississippi militia at Burnt Corn, 80 miles north of Pensacola, while returning from there with trade goods. The Red Sticks came off the better in this encounter, but lost most of their property. On 30 August, William Weatherford or Red Eagle (1780-1824), a Creek war chief, overran Fort Mims, 40 miles north of Mobile, in retaliation, and massacred the inhabitants, said to have numbered 553, except for the slaves and mixed bloods, who joined him. Screaming terror broke out in the white population, and militias were called out in response to their cry for help.
By this time, the United States had seized the part of Florida west of the river Perdido, called West Florida. American settlers had risen at Baton Rouge in 1810 and declared the Republic of West Florida. It was quietly absorbed by the United States the next year. The part west of Pearl River was attached to Louisiana, the rest to Mississippi Territory. Spain was in no position to object, because of Bonaparte, and held on gamely where not pushed out. This whole area possesses an aura of romance and wildness, with its strange mix of people and trackless swamps.
The conflagration in Mississippi attracted the attention of Andrew Jackson (1767-1845), Major-General of the Tennessee militia. With 2500 troops including Sam Houston (1793-1863) and Davy Crockett (1736-1836), he marched over the difficult country directly to the heart of the conflict. We have already seen that Tennessee sent enthusiastic troops for the conquest of Canada. This was the start of Manifest Destiny, and its heart was in Tennessee. Jackson was victorious at Tallushatchee and Talladega, but the enlistments were soon up, and the men returned to Tennessee. By the new year, he had collected some 1000 new militia, and drew the battles of (charmingly named) Emuckfau on 22 January and Enotachopco Creek on the 24th. At Calibee Creek, on 27 January, he was roughly handled by the Creeks. However, by February he commanded 4000 men, including 600 regulars, and won an overwhelming victory at Horseshoe Bend on the Tallapoosa on 27 March. Among his allies were Choctaws and Cherokees. Disunity was the curse of the Indians' cause. The Creeks were prostrate, and by the treaty of Fort Jackson, 9 August 1814, they ceded more than half of their lands.
Andrew Jackson was a proud, coarse barbarian much better appreciated from a distance than close up, an almost exact opposite of William Henry Harrison. They were by far the best American generals of the period, but had very different styles. Harrison shared the discomforts of his men, was fair, clement and even-tempered, sober and scrupulously honest. Harrison talked to his men personally on important matters, considering them his fellow-citizens, instead of having general orders read to them by others. Jackson's men fought because they feared him more than the enemy, with good reason. Jackson brawled and drank, fought duels, and considered Indians and Blacks little more than animals. He shot deserters, and was autocratic with civilians. These admirable traits made him very popular with the average American citizen. Both Harrison and Jackson had to undergo unwarranted and cruel personal attacks, Jackson's perhaps harder to bear. Jackson was promoted to regular Major-General on 22 May 1814.
By late 1814, with Napoleon apparently out of the way, Britain could apply more naval and military pressure to the American war. Canada was reinforced as a base for possible future action, and American attempts to retake Mackinaw and other places on the lakes firmly repulsed. Combined forces attacked on the Chesapeake, as we have seen, and attention was now directed to the Gulf Coast. The forts of Pensacola, the best harbor on the Gulf, were occupied by a force of 100 Royal Marines. Indians and escaped slaves were recruited to strengthen the force. The Spanish, remaining in nominal control of the port, were helpless to object, and viewed the recruitment of blacks with the same horror as the Americans did. There was agitation for a slave revolt in Louisiana on 29 August, and the white settlers sweated much more than usual in the humid heat. An attempt to take Mobile with a small force was unsuccessful, when a slave revolt did not materialize.
Secretary of War Madison, in the same spirit as his immediate predecessors, ordered Jackson not to attack Pensacola when he got wind of the general's intentions. Fortunately, communications were too slow, or Jackson ignored them, and on 7 November 1814 Jackson marched into Pensacola while the Spanish governor wrung his hands in indecision, his forces hopelessly outnumbered. The British blew up the forts and retired to the Apalachicola, 145 miles east, and built a fort there in the swamps. Jackson then marched west, by way of Mobile. When he did not find the British there, he left General Winchester there out of the way, and hurried on to New Orleans, arriving on 1 December.
General James Wilkinson (1757-1825) had been in command in the southwest for long enough to have become thorougly unpopular. On 15 April 1813 he had captured Mobile from the Spanish, presenting Mississippi with an excellent port. The assault of Spanish forts seemed to be an exercise within the compass of any American general, since the forts were very thinly manned and poorly supplied. To forestall a mutiny of the Louisiana troops, he was removed in 1813, promoted, and sent to do his rotten best in New York. How he fared will be related below.
The city, having been under the command of Wilkinson, was as unprepared as Washington to resist an attack. Many, if not most, of the locals cared little whether the United States or Britain prevailed, so Jackson had to scratch for troops. The Baratarian Pirates were enlisted. This band of bloodthirsty criminals, led by Jean Lafitte, hoped their service would earn them a pardon if the United States prevailed, and they had most of the artillery and munitions in the area, which made them welcome in spite of Jackson's misgivings. Black troops from Santo Domingo, under Jean Baptiste Savary were accepted, as well as any free blacks who wished to fight, again in spite of Jackson's misgivings. However, the most reliable troops were 850 Tennessee riflemen that were marched in from Baton Rouge, in addition to those that Jackson had brought with him.
A force under General Edward Pakenham composed of regulars of the Peninsular War against France was assembled in Jamaica for the assault on the Gulf coast. The flotilla moved westward from Florida, looking for opportunity. When none presented itself, the force bypassed Mobile and reached Cat Island, 65 miles east of New Orleans, on 13 December. On the 14th, the force entered Lake Borgne, where a small flotilla under Captain Jones blocked the way until it was removed in a sharp action. By 23 December, an advanced party reached Villeré's plantation, where the headquarters was established. Jackson acted immediately when he heard the news, and in a confused battle came off about equally with the surprised British. This was a valuable check, causing the British to halt and entrench.
General Pakenham's force numbered about 5300 (some say 8000), while Jackson had 5700, not all of which could be considered reliable. However, Pakenham did not counterattack, giving Jackson the opportunity to pull back and construct a strong defensive line along the Rodriguez Canal from the river levee to the cypress swamp, about 900 yards. He put 3200 of his best troops, including the Tennessee riflemen and the Pirate artillery, behind the breastworks, and moved the less reliable ones across the river to guard a battery there that protected his river flank. His line extended into the swamp to protect his left flank, but it was never threatened. Battle began at daylight on 8 January 1815. Pakenham made a frontal assault on Jackson's line, hoping by shock to dislodge the untrained troops. Jackson kept his men firing from cover and took care to prevent any rearward motion. The long-range rifle fire and the effects of the artillery were devastating, but the red coats pressed the attack valiantly. Then General Pakenham was killed by a cannon ball while encouraging his men, and this took the heart out of the assault. Two other generals also fell, leaving only General Lambert, who was with the reserve, to command. Colonel Thornton attacked the militia across the river and routed them, but it was too late to help the failed assault.
Colonel Thornton was recalled from the right bank after the failure of the assault, and the British forces retired on their camp. Around the 18th, the force re-embarked, unwilling to make another attack on Jackson, and went to Mobile, which they assaulted and captured from Winchester on 11 February. There they learned of the signing of the Treaty of Ghent, and their war was over. It is easy in hindsight to see that the British should have pinned Jackson to his fortifications, while bypassing him on the other bank of the Mississippi, or turning his left flank, instead of making futile frontal assaults. He would then have had to retreat to cover his rear, and all would have been over. However, there was no effective leadership in the British camp, three generals having fallen in the initial assault, and they could not believe that they outnumbered Jackson.
Meanwhile, Jackson had declared martial law in New Orleans and was making himself extremely unpopular, especially with the Louisiana legislature and judiciary. He threw people in jail who disagreed with him, as well as judges who would not find his way. He executed five deserters on 15 February, ringleaders from a group of Tennessee militia who thought their enlistments were up earlier than he did. Martial law was lifed on 13 March with official news of peace.
The Battle of New Orleans was a victory only in the sense that it prevented the capture of New Orleans and was costly to the British. Jackson successfully thwarted British intentions, but he did not defeat its army, which remained encamped and unattacked for two weeks before moving on. It was a big battle for the War of 1812, but small potatoes compared with battles of the Napleonic war. It had no effect on the outcome of the War of 1812. When it was fought, the war was legally still on, since the actual end did not come until 17 February, in spite of what is usually said.
Early in 1813, there was a second assault on the Niagara frontier, under the overall command of General Dearborn, with the aid of Commodore Chauncey on the waters of Lake Ontario. York (Toronto) was raided and temporarily captured on 27 April, but General Z. M. Pike was killed when a magazine being destroyed blew up with unexpected vigor. Against General Dearborn's instructions, he had burned noncombatant property in his zest for destruction. The barbaric burning of the town of York in this raid was the warrant for the burning of Washington the next year. Commodore Perry cooperated with Winfield Scott in the taking of Fort George, driving out the British commander Vincent. Fort Chippewa, Queenston and Erie were abandoned, but Vincent regrouped at Burlington Heights (later Hamilton). On 5 June, after the defeat of two brigades, the United States evacuated all but Fort George. After Lt. Col. Boerstler surrendered at Beaver Dams, General Dearborn was relieved of duty, and Fort George was abandoned on 10 December 1813. General Sir Gordon Drummond then took command and crossed into New York, taking Fort Niagara on 18 December. General Amos Hall was routed at Black Rock later in the month. Buffalo and Black Rock were then burnt.
Over on the road to Montreal, the United States lost command of Lake Champlain on 3 June. General James Wilkinson moved up to Sackett's Harbor, succeeding Dearborn in command of the area, but General Wade Hampton in Plattsburgh would not subordinate himself, and the two feuded and operated more or less independently. John Armstrong even came up to encourage his naughty boys, and all three roundly hated each other. Hampton marched first, and on 26 October was met by 1400 French Canadians, hastily assembled at Chateaugay, who threw him back across the border. Wilkinson moved a little later down the St. Lawrence. He was ill, and quite high on opium, so he put General Boyd (who had been at Tippecanoe, and claimed he actually won the battle) in charge. Boyd was routed at Chrysler's Farm. Wilkinson tried once again in March 1814, but was repulsed at La Colle Mill on the St. Lawrence. It was his last battle, since he was retired soon after.
By the summer of 1814, the British had sent enough reinforcements to Canada that an offensive action was possible. The Governor-General, Sir George Prevost, crossed the border near Plattsburgh on 31 August 1814 with a force of 10,000. With the usual perspicacity, Secretary Armstrong had just ordered General Izard to leave Plattsburgh for Sackett's Harbor. General Macomb, with the troops remaining, put up a feeble resistance while Prevost paused for support from the fleet on Lake Champlain. On 11 September, Lt. Thomas MacDonough's small fleet won an impressive victory over the British fleet on the Lake. Though Macomb had been crushed, Prevost could not proceed with his rear menaced by the American fleet on the lake, so he returned to Canada. Prevost was execrated for his failure, but MacDonough was showered with praise. Not all the incompetence was on the American side.
The British seized Eastern Maine in June 1814. This area, then an outpost of Massachusetts, hindered communication between Halifax and Québec. The United States claimed lands to the Proclamation Line of 1763, which extended to not far south of the St. Lawrence, a huge salient. Plans to retake the area came to nothing, because of lack of sea power and scarcity of militia, not to mention lack of will, so it remained in British hands until the end of the war.
The American peace negotiators at Ghent--John Quincy Adams, Henry Clay, James Bayard and Jonathan Russell--were much more skilled than their British opposites--William Adams, Lord Gambier and Henry Goulbourn. William Adams, a lawyer, was named because it was thought the Americans liked lawyers, Gambier was there to protect naval interests and Goulbourn to protect Canada. Nobody represented the Indians. The British first team had been sent to Vienna; these were what happened to be left around Whitehall. The British dropped their demand for an Indian refuge in the northwest on the boundaries of 1795, while the Americans dropped their demands for an end to impressment. The British were tired of a war that was so annoying and distant, and the Americans foresaw becoming the centre of British naval and military attentions after the fall of Napoleon. The treaty was based on status quo ante bellum, with no important demands of either side satisfied. The treaty was signed 25 December 1814, and was to be effective when ratified by both parties.
The Treaty of Ghent encouraged some settlement of the Maine boundary question, but negotiations dragged on, including an inconclusive arbitration by the King of the Netherlands in 1831, until the Webster-Ashburton Treaty of 1842 resolved boundary disputes from Maine to Minnesota. The Maine boundary was set along the St. John river, in its current location, a little fragment was added to New Hampshire to include the Connecticut Lakes, the border was moved a half-mile north of the 45th parallel across Vermont and New York to miss an American fort, and the boundary of Minnesota set to run from Grand Portage, via Rainy River, to the Lake of the Woods. The boundary west of Lake of the Woods had been put at the 49th parallel earlier, by the Convention of 1818. The Lakes were not de-militarized (though fleets were reduced to almost nothing), and the forts had little to do but wait to be transformed into tourist attractions.
Canadian experiences in the war gave the first consciousness of a national identity, bringing the French Canadians, British emigrants and American tories closer together to create a single nation. That half a million Canadians had held off 15 times as many Americans was a source of justifiable pride, enough to build a country on. There were many struggles yet ahead, but the Dominion of Canada finally was born in 1867.
In the Treaty of Paris, Britain was given the right of navigation on the Mississippi, and this had never officially been withdrawn. The Treaty of Ghent ended this right, and set up commissions to adjust all such matters, culminating in the 1818 Convention. Unfortunately, the Convention left the matter of Oregon up in the air, which later ripened into a lively confrontation under President Polk.
Jackson was to become a scourge of southern Indians, driving them out with a ferocity that appalled Winfield Scott, who was assigned the unpleasant and unjust task of pushing the Cherokee out of Georgia a decade later. The south was hungry for land as the soils of the east were depleted and eroded by their primitive, thoughtless agricultural methods, and the Indian lands offered a rich bounty. The War of 1812 sealed the fate of the Indians.
Displaced Creeks, escaped slaves and disaffected whites and Indians came together around the old British fort on the Apalachicola after the war and began to form the Seminole people. On 27 July 1816, United States troops destroyed the fort, but the Seminole menace only grew, and centred itself in Pensacola, the chief city of Spanish East Florida. Andrew Jackson was given orders to proceed to the region on 26 December 1817 to punish marauders but not to take Pensacola, to avoid offending the Spanish. On 24 May 1818, he took Pensacola and set himself up as the law there, executing civilians and killing Indians in what became known as the First Seminole War. His actions were ratified by the Adams-Onís Treaty of 1819, in which Spain ceded East Florida to the United States and defined the western boundary of Louisiana. The United States temporarily gave up its claims to Texas, which were soon to arise again. The Second Seminole War erupted in 1835 and lasted until 1842, when the remaining Seminoles, except for a few who retreated deep into the swamps, were exiled to Indian Territory. Jackson considered annihilation of the Indians as "true philanthropy."
The war had several lasting effects in the United States. One of them, unfortunately, was not the reform of the Army and Navy, whose bad theory was again fully demonstrated in the next generation's Democratic war, the Mexican War, and which was not finally corrected until the Civil War. Government contractors during the war were chosen in the usual way, by influence and bribery. The result was boots whose soles wore through in a day, uniforms that disintegrated in the rain, cannon that blew up, pork that was rotten, and gunpowder that would not burn. The military academy at West Point was reformed, because its staff and graduates had proved totally incompetent in the war. Its new staff came from Napoleon's École Polytechnique, the original French model for West Point, where the former staff were now looking for jobs owing to a change of management. This brought the new rational engineering that created a corps of ingenious if somewhat impractical engineers. These had to be supplanted by engineers trained on the Erie Canal in the English tradition before the country really had an effective civil engineering profession.
The War of 1812, as it is known in the US, falls at the middle of the first century of the nation (1763-1860), but marks a divide much less significant than that of the Civil War, but nonetheless an important one. So far as the US was concerned, it was mainly an Indian war, the one in which the ultimate defeat of the Indians was confirmed. It was also in the middle of a period of astonishing and often amusing incompetence in governmental, financial and military affairs world-wide. The War spawned the numerous duelling and spitting captains and colonels that suffused American society, which so amused Mrs Trollope and other visitors. These titles and distinctions were easily attained with little military exertion. One had only to form a company for a few weeks' service when the call went out that some Indians needed to be suppressed, or be friendly with the governor and show up for the annual muster day. This spirit has not entirely died out. The dominance of lawyers is another distinguishing characteristic of American society, with a penchant for sterile argument in place of wisdom. All in all, the period is a remarkable unexploited opportunity for the historical novelist and movie maker.
I have used the word "Indian" as the most dignified and honorable name for the aboriginal people of North America in the above. The term Native American is modern, condescending, inaccurate and too long. It refers to modern-day people, not to their ancestors. Terms like redskin or red man were certainly used historically, by Indians as well as Europeans, but lack dignity and may retain a pejorative odor at the present day. Any association with India is, of course, completely absent, however it arose from an initial error, so Indian is simply an arbitrary word that correctly specifies the people named to all readers. The ugly word "aborigine" is an incorrect singular of "aborigines" at best, so I avoid it. What follows is simply my best understanding of the subject, as a basis for studying the War of 1812 and its era, not an authoritative account. Only the area east of the Mississippi is considered. My study has fostered a great respect for these misunderstood and vanished people.
Practically all studies of Indians demonstrate the projection of the prejudices and superstitions of the investigators onto the subjects. Many histories were written by missionaries, who had destroyed the cultures. The point of view of the observer must also be taken into consideration. Cotton Mather preached that Indians were the instruments of the Devil, and that Christian love could best be expressed by robbing and killing them. The usual Christian hypocrisy is everywhere evident. It was quite generally thought that Indians were descendants of the ten lost tribes of Israel, and there was much learned discussion about just which tribes were represented. The Mandans were suspected of being Welsh, suggested by language and what looked very much like coracles for boats. Indian religion was utterly misunderstood, and not regarded with any respect. Europeans made much of a Great Spirit, which played hardly any role at all in Indian religion. Smallpox, whiskey and the Bible destroyed Indian society as surely as rifles. There appears to have been little change in this picture over a century or two: today's scholars see themselves and their beliefs reflected in their subjects as much as those of the past.
The most useless of all archaeological concepts (and that is saying something) is the concept of progress through stages of development from the savage to the civilized. One speaks of "progress," but there is no goal or direction. The Indian, as a palaeolithic savage, was presumed to be a case of retarded development who had little complexity or value, and was therefore an object of "improvement" at best to the advanced, Christian European. That this was untrue was obvious to many at the time, though the general belief was used to justify, or at least render inevitable, the extermination of the Indian. It was demonstrated over and over that even the "improved" Indian had no place in white society, and no rights that were protected by law.
Indians, like all or most New World people, had no writing, no metals (except native metals, copper and gold, used for decoration), no domesticated animals except the dog, which was good eating--and there were always women to do the work anyway--no woven fabrics, no fired pottery, and no wheels (which would have been useless in the absence of roads). There are exceptions to these general statements, but they are particular ones and mainly prove the rule. Excellent use was made of the materials provided by nature, however, and there was no lack of ingenuity when a need arose. The birchbark canoe, fragile but light, perhaps invented by the Ojibwa, was a great improvement on the dugout pirogue introduced by the French, especially for warfare. The skin tipi, easily movable, was another excellent invention made when the need arose. Most northeastern Indians lived in houses made of logs and bark, and the conical lodges ("wigwams") were sheathed in bark. The Iroquois, and others, built palisaded forts, quickly changing the original round style to rectangular when firearms made this tactically better. At one siege in the Northwest, Indians bored out logs and fitted reinforcing iron bands to make improvised cannon. There was no lack of ingenuity and enterprise.
Trade goods, introduced by the French and Spanish in the 16th century, were instantly accepted and made life much easier. The steel knife, steel needle and brass pot became indispensable. The tomahawk with a metal blade replaced the less-effective war club, except as a ceremonial object. Firearms and powder were provided to the Iroquois by the Dutch, and to the Algonquins by the French, almost immediately on arrival. The musket was quickly mastered, and proved much more efficient than the bow and arrow, or the lance, tipped with flint. Trade goods, however, required something in trade, and this consisted of skins and fur. Indians were such good hunters that the beavers, martens, and bison were driven to extinction. The fur trade caused wars as the tribes in the depleted areas fought to seize, control or retain the traffic, but it was by no means the primary cause of war. The trade also brought with it disease and spirits--originally rum and brandy. Americans added whiskey.
The names of tribes (as used by Europeans) have largely been taken by me as they appear in the different sources. There is little consistency of spelling, simply an attempt to reproduce the sound. Recently, the spelling Algonquian has been replaced by Algonkian, apparently for the benefit of poor readers, and similar modern changes have been made in other names, mainly reflecting a lack of knowledge, not its abundance. Most tribes had at least three names, one that they called themselves, one that their enemies or Europeans (French or British, usually different) called them, and one coming from (or given to) the area they inhabited. Iroquois is a French name, while they called themselves Ongwehonwe, "the best men." The Delawares (after the river, from de la Warre, an early proprietor) called themselves Lenni Lenape, "the first men." The Navajo, a name given by their Apache relatives and enemies, call themselves Dineh. The Cheyenne, so named by Shoshone enemies, call themselves Tsististas. In many cases, a tribe has given its name to a river or area, as Susquehanna, Erie, Mohawk, Maumee (Miami), Illinois, Iowa, Missouri or Omaha. There is little hope of sorting out the names logically, or knowing exactly to which people they refer.
The Indians east of the Mississippi fell into three large groups by language. Algonquin (Algonkin) was the largest. The Iroquoians were surrounded by Algonquins, living south of Lakes Ontario and Erie, with isolated groups of Tuscaroras and Cherokees left to the south, as if they all had invaded from that direction. Finally, from the Gulf to the Cumberland River were the Mobilian or Gulf people, apparently the last to arrive from the south. Each great division was divided into independent tribes, bands and villages "vertically" and into clans with animal totems "horizontally." There was sometimes a moiety organization by opposites, such as red and black. One did not marry into one's own clan. Heredity was in the female line, except for the Algonquians, who had heredity in the male line. All concerted tribal actions were taken only by consensus. The civil chief, or sachem, exercised only the power of persuasion. There was no civil authority among Indians; each man was free to do as he wished. Transgressions of custom were punished by individual feuds, and outrages were never forgotten. War chiefs were created, again by agreement, as conditions demanded, each at the head of a small, fluid band of supporters. Some tribes were organized into large confederations, which acted together according to the decisions of councils of the important men. Examples of these confederations are the Five Nations (later Six) among the Iroquois, and the Creek Confederacy in the south.
The Five Nations (Mohawk, Onondaga, Oneida, Cayuga, Seneca) had long been confederated when they first met the French under de Champlain and their Algonquian allies in May 1609 near Lake George. A period of warfare then followed that some authorities attribute to the fur trade, and others to the pride of the Iroquois. The Eries and Mingos were Iroquoian peoples between Lake Erie and the Ohio River, while the Hurons and the "Neutrals," also Iroquoian, were north of Lakes Erie and Ontario. In 1649 the Five Nations fell upon the Hurons and dispersed them. The "Neutrals" followed after a bitter resistance. The Delawares, Algonquians, were subdued in 1650. The Five Nations then destroyed the Eries, Andastes (Susquehannas) and Mingos around 1655. The usual cruel tortures by fire and knife followed in each case, but when these desires were satisfied, captives were distributed among the Iroquois to recruit their numbers. The conquered tribes disappeared. Enough of the Hurons escaped to carry on their tribe, which became known as Wyandot and inhabited the western end of Lakes Erie and Huron. Hurons were indeed the bravest of the brave, the best warriors known. In all this, the numerical strength of the Iroquois did not exceed 4000 warriors. The Iroquois also raided far west into the Algonquians, reducing many tribes to pitful remnants by the early 18th century. The Tuscaroras, driven from their southern mountains by settlers, joined the Iroquois Confederation in 1714-15, after which it was known as the Six Nations. The Cherokees, from still further south, never joined the rest of the Iroquois family, and drew closer to the Mobilian people in their culture.
Indian warfare, and its effect on European tactics, are treated in detail in the page on William Henry Harrison, with actual examples. Eastern Indians were extremely skilled warriors with excellent and effective tactics, characterized by surprise and avoidance of casualties. They were much superior, in their environment of endless forest, to the plains Indians of later and more familiar days. Only in exceptional cases could a victory be won over them unless they were outnumbered. Indian casualties in an action were always much fewer than white casualties. They never made mass charges; these were a European specialty. A whole American folklore grew up of white men who fought Indians alone and lived to tell about it (Mike Fink, Daniel Boone). Such men were very few. A white man could perhaps become the equal of an Indian warrior, but not his superior. The torture of captives, usually by fire, was all but universal, and was stoically endured. It was a great incentive to fight well. An Indian never forgot a friend--or an enemy.
The Delawares had been subdued by the Iroquois when they encountered the first English settlers. The claim that the Iroquois had made them "women" is probably misunderstood. They were unwarlike and easily displaced in this state of existence, but retained their identity in their wanderings. They later became formidable warriors. The Shawano, or Shawnee, seem to have inhabited the Ohio valley in early times, but fled before the Iroquois terror. Returning later, they settled in Kentucky in time to be attacked by the Virginians, and were driven over the Ohio river. Remnants later settled in Kansas. The Miamis were a group of tribes inhabiting the Wabash valley and the land to the east of it into Ohio. The Weas occupied the upper Wabash valley, the Piankeshaws the lower Wabash, the Eel Rivers the valley of that name. The Piankeshaws gave land on the White River to the wandering Shawnees for their farms.
The Ojibwa or Chippewa occupied the Lake Superior area and northern Michigan. Their vigorous expansion pushed other tribes southward. The Pottawatomies were east of Lake Michigan, and the Ottawa, who had fled from the Iroquois from some place in the east, were between the two. To the west of Lake Michigan were the Kickapoo, Winnebago and Menominee, from south to north. The Sac and Fox lived in the Wisconsin valley. The Pottawatomies are in northern Indiana at the time of Tippecanoe, later in Illinois, then in western Iowa, and finally in Oklahoma, leaving county names behind them. The five Illinois tribes, powerful in 1600--Peorias, Kaskaskias, Cahokias, Tamaroas and Michigans--gave their names to towns and rivers, but were nearly extinct by 1800, largely by warfare with the Iroquois. Tribes from the north, such as the Sac and Fox, and the Kickapoo, took their places.
Maps showing areas occupied by different tribes can be misleading, and often different areas show the situation at different times. There is uncertainty as to names, and precise boundaries did not exist at all. As one proceeds from east to west, tribes are usually shown where they were first encountered, from the 17th century along the Atlantic coast, to the 19th century in the west, from early neglect in the east to detailed ethnography in the west. After the United States began Indian clearances in 1783, tribes were constantly on the move, often colliding with each other, amalgamating and dispersing.
Indians had no writing, so their oral history was limited to a few generations before it became assimilated into myth. Wampum belts were a form of symbolic writing used in treaty and alliance relations to jog the memory of an interpreter. Therefore, we know only the most recent events, say those after 1600, and even those imperfectly. Language distribution and cultural matters seem to indicate that North America was settled from the south in waves. The earliest wave yet apparent is the Algonquin. Then the Iroquoian penetrated to the north, and finally the Gulf Indians arrived. The Gulf Indians were largely agricultural, growing the familiar crops of corn, beans, squash and tobacco. The Iroquoians were less, but still importantly, agricultural. The Algonquians apparently adopted agriculture from their neighbors in the more southern regions, but the northern tribes of the Great Lakes depended largely on hunting and what grew naturally. Agriculture gave continual sustenance and supported a larger population. Hunting gave alternate feast and famine, famine predominating, and a very hard life, but a free one.
Monuments of an earlier religion, the mounds of the Mississippi and Ohio valleys were, and still are, mysterious. The Natchez and Caddos in the southwest preserved traces of these religions, which were based on sun worship as in Mexico, into historical times. Perhaps people rebelled against these cruel priesthoods and rigid castes in other places, adopting a simpler organization of society founded on the individual. The Indians of Ohio and Illinois had no idea of what the mounds represented, and regarded them with awe or indifference.
The density of population was remarkably low. Any estimates of population are only wild guesses, but a figure of 5 per square mile has been put forth. The reason for this thin population has been said to be warfare. However, I doubt that even endemic warfare is sufficient to limit the population to the observed degree. One could argue that warfare would encourage the production of babies, since a numerous tribe would be a powerful tribe. It seems more likely to me that high infant mortality, and the uncertainties of nutrition, would explain the small population better. When trade goods made life a little more secure, they also brought with them the diseases that counterbalanced any improvement. There is evidence for great plagues that have eliminated whole tribes, perhaps endemic ones not due to European contact. Whites seem always to have far outnumbered Indians in settled areas. General Harrison described his troops as being "numerous as Wabash musquitoes" when he threatened the Indians. This numerical superiority was the chief reason for White victory.
At the time of the War of 1812, the countryside of the Northwest was far different from what it has become today. Of course, there were no inland towns, settlement being along rivers, but the great difference was the presence of the virgin forest, which extended from the Atlantic to Illinois, where it merged into the tall-grass prairie. The trees, mainly hardwood, were 100 to 200 feet high and their branches blocked most of the sunlight from the ground, so that underbrush was rare, and one could see until tree trunks themselves blocked the view. This gloomy expanse was hated by the settlers, whose efforts to "improve" it by clearing and burning the trees was unceasing. They have been completely successful, so that there is no place where one can still experience the forest of the Old Northwest. A small area of somewhat different old forest has been preserved in northwestern Pennsylvania, the 7182-acre Cook Forest along the Clarion River, with old white pines and hemlock, that must present the same dark and gloomy atmosphere. There were occasional "openings" in the forest, where for some reason the trees did not grow or had been blown down, and these were highly prized, even by the Indians. In some cases, bison had kept routes clear, the "buffalo traces" that served as roads. Kentucky hunters had exterminated the bison, along with much of the other game. Bison, deer, bear, and wolves were present and plentiful everywhere east of the Mississippi, before the Europeans arrived. Father Hennepin left us a sketch of a buffalo he drew near Niagara, where Buffalo now spreads. A famous buffalo trace ran from opposite Louisville to Vincennes, the first part of the road to St. Louis. The river route via Cairo was much longer, and beset by bandits, but it still saw most of the traffic. Water travel was impossible in the winter, and overland travel impossible in the spring. The difficulty of overland travel in the Old Northwest cannot be overestimated, and greatly affected every enterprise, both of peace and war.
Composed by J. B. Calvert
Created 10 April 2000
Last revised 11 September 2006