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Under the British Flag

We now leave the Wabash for the Detroit, and the interior of Indiana for the frontiers of Canada. Early in June 1812 Tecumseh, with a small band of chosen warriors, left his wigwam and set out through the forest for the British post at Amherstburg on the Canadian side of the Detroit river, solemnly vowing not to bury the tomahawk until the Long Knives were humbled. At Amherstburg he sought out Colonel Matthew Elliott, the Canadian superintendent of Indian Affairs, and formally pledged his allegiance to the king of Great Britain. In front of Fort Malden at Amherstburg, near the mouth of the Detroit river, lay Bois Blanc Island, upon which several blockhouses had been erected. This island was fixed upon as the headquarters of the Indians, and here Tecumseh and his warriors encamped.

The fidelity of the great chief was put to the test even before active hostilities began. A band of neutral Indians, encamped at Brownstown, on the American side, opposite Amherstburg, invited him to a council they were about to hold. His decision was quickly made. He had cast in his lot with the British and would not falter in his allegiance. 'No,' he replied to the runner that awaited his answer; 'I will suffer my bones to bleach upon this shore before I engage in any council of neutrality.' He soon gave proof of his sincerity by leading his intrepid little band in one of the initial engagements of the war, an engagement, as we shall learn, of the greatest importance in this early stage of the conflict.

Tecumseh had taken his stand for the coming war: the flag of Britain should be his flag, and her soldiers his comrades-in-arms. To him, indeed, it was that Britain owed her Indian allies in the War of 1812. Canadians and Indians stood side by side in face of a common peril and were inspired by a common purpose. To Canada defeat meant absorption in the United States and the loss of national life; to the red men it meant expulsion from their homes and hunting-grounds and the ultimate extinction of their race.

Long before the formal declaration of was by the United States (June 18, 1812) the inevitable conflict had been foreseen. The Democrats, then in power in the United States, were determined to have it. To many Americans it appeared as a necessary sequel to the Revolution, a second War of Independence; to others it seemed a short and easy means of adding to the United States that northern territory, the inhabitants of which had refused the opportunity to join the Thirteen Colonies in the War of the Revolution. But the causes of this unhappy war are too complex and manifold to be discussed here.

Canada's position at the opening of hostilities was far from reassuring. The population of all British North America was only half a million of whites at most, as compared with about eight million in the United States. Great Britain was engaged elsewhere in a life-and-death struggle and could spare but few troops to support the Canadian militia. Indeed, there were not fifteen hundred British soldiers along the whole Canadian frontier; while, even before the declaration of war, to Detroit alone had been dispatched more than two thousand American troops. The Americans had, therefore, reasonable grounds for confidence in the ultimate result, notwithstanding a somewhat depleted treasury and the opposition of a considerable party in the northern, especially the New England, States. Canadians, however, loyally answered the call to arms, and proved the truth of the words that 'a country defended by free men enthusiastically devoted to the cause of their king and constitution can never be conquered.' Canada, too, had a tower of strength in Isaac Brock, a distinguished British soldier, who had seen active service in the West Indies and in Holland, and had been with Nelson at Copenhagen.

On July 11, 1812, General William Hull, commander of the American army of the north-west, invaded Canada and occupied Sandwich, a small town almost directly opposite Detroit. On the following day he issued a proclamation with the intent of detaching Canadians from their allegiance. In this proclamation he protested against the employment of Indians as combatants, although the persistent endeavors of the Americans to win the Indians over to their cause must have been known to him. The words of the proclamation are as follows:

If the barbarous and savage policy of Great Britain be pursued, and the savages let loose to murder our citizens, and butcher our women and children, this war will be a war of extermination. The first stroke of the tomahawk, the first attempt with the scalping-knife, will be the signal for one indiscriminate scene of desolation! No white man found fighting by the side of an Indian will be taken prisoner; instant destruction will be his lot.

To this Brock replied:

This inconsistent and unjustifiable threat of refusing quarter, for such a cause as being found in arms with a brother sufferer in defense of invaded rights, must be exercised with the certain assurance of retaliation, not only in the limited operation of war in this part of the King's Dominions, but in every quarter of the globe. For the national character of Britain is not less distinguished for humanity than strict retributive justice, which will consider the execution of this inhuman threat as deliberate murder, for which every subject of the offending power must make expiation.

Tecumseh, with the aid of the British agents, had assembled six hundred warriors on Bois Blanc Island, and his scouts were soon out watching the movements of the enemy in the surrounding country. The only way of communication open to the Americans who were advancing towards Detroit was along the west side of the Detroit river by a road which passed through Brownstown from the river Raisin. This road was kept under the strictest surveillance by the Indians. On August 5 the scouts reported that Major Van Horne, with two hundred cavalry of Hull's army, was on his way from Detroit to meet Captain Brush, who was near the Raisin with a company of Ohio volunteers, bringing official dispatches and provisions for Hull at Sandwich. On receiving this news Tecumseh mustered seventy of his boldest warriors at Brownstown and started through the woods towards Detroit to meet Van Horne. About three miles out he secreted his men on each side of the road and awaited the enemy. Apparently Van Horne, little dreaming that a trap would be set for him, had not sent out scouts; and as he marched down the road the quiet forest gave no indication of the foe lurking on his flanks, until Tecumseh and his band, suddenly springing from their ambuscade and sounding the war-whoop, leaped upon his horsemen. The terrified Americans thought the woods alive with Indians. Officers tried in vain to rally their men, who turned and sought safety in flight, while Tecumseh and his warriors followed in pursuit. A Parthian shot from one of the Americans killed a young chief; this was Tecumseh's only loss. The enemy lost about a hundred in killed, wounded, and missing; and, what was of the greatest importance, a packet, containing official dispatches from Hull to the secretary of War and other papers, was captured. This was Tecumseh's first engagement in the British cause.

The Indian leader knew that the majority of Indians would incline towards the side which was first victorious. When, therefore, the encouraging news was now received that the American fort on Mackinaw Island had been captured, Tecumseh sent runners in all directions to tell the Indians of his recent victory and of the fall of Fort Mackinaw. He announced that British success was assured, and adroitly added that, if they desired to share the plunder, they must immediately join the conquerors. One of these light-footed messengers reached the famous chief of the Potawatomis, Shaubena, as he was about to start on a hunting expedition. The runner distributed presents of bright-colored beads and other ornaments among the women of the tribe, and to Shaubena he delivered a belt of wampum with Tecumseh's message. The hunting expedition was abandoned, Shaubena with his warriors set out at once for Amherstburg, and became Tecumseh's trusty aide, fighting henceforth by his side until the hour of the great Shawnee's death.

Meanwhile General Hull had come to the conclusion that he could not maintain his position on the soil of Canada. On the night of August 7 he withdrew his troops from Sandwich and crossed the river to Detroit. It was of the utmost importance, however, that he should make a juncture with Captain Brush and reopen his communications with the country beyond Lake Erie. To effect this object he sent out a force of six hundred men under Colonel James Miller, with cavalry and artillery. At this time Tecumseh was at Brownstown with about two hundred warriors, and Major Muir of the British Army, in command of about one hundred and sixty regulars and militia, was also stationed there. On the morning of August 9 some Indians emerged from the forest and reported that the American troops under Miller were about eight miles distant, and, on account of the difficulty of transporting the guns over the heavy roads, were making but slow progress. It was evident that they could not reach Brownstown before night, and Major Muir, after a hasty consultation with Tecumseh, decided to meet the enemy at Maguaga, a small Indian village between Brownstown and Detroit. The Indians in their scant habiliments of war, their dark bodies grotesquely painted in varied colors, strode silently by the side of the British soldiers. The allies rapidly pushed their way along the muddy road, past the scene of the recent attack, where carcasses of men and horses still lay by the roadside. A halt was called within a quarter of a mile of Maguaga, at a place favorable for an ambuscade, and preparations were made for battle. The British took up a position behind a slightly rising bit of ground. Tecumseh disposed his men in a meadow, about six hundred yards in extent, which bordered the road along which the Americans were advancing. The wild grass grew rank and high and afforded sufficient concealment. The Indians threw themselves down to await the enemy, and their example was followed by the British. Tecumseh and his men, peering from their covert, soon distinguished the main body of the enemy marching in two lines, slowly and steadily. As they came within range a single shot rang out the signal for battle. The Indians fired one deadly volley, and, with the blood-curdling cry that the Americans had learned to dread, burst wildly from their hiding-place. The enemy replied with a crackling fire and, as Tecumseh and his men sprang bravely forward, followed it up with a bayonet charge.

The bright uniforms of the British now revealed their position, and the action became general. Unknown to the regulars, a body of Indians had been posted at the extremity of a neighboring wood, and; being subjected to a hot fire and unable to endure the hail of bullets, they endeavored to gain the British rear. Appearing in this unexpected quarter they were mistaken for the foe, and as they emerged from the wood were fired upon by their comrades-in-arms. The red men in turn mistook the British for Americans and promptly returned the fire, and for some time disorder and confusion reigned. The loud remonstrance of the officers were lost in the din and confusion of battle. Hard pressed in front and, as he imagined, attacked in the rear, Major Muir ordered a retreat; he then reformed his men on the crest of a hill to await the appearance of the enemy. This position commanded a small bridge over which the American artillery would have to pass. Here, about a quarter of a mile distant from their former position, the British waited for a quarter of an hour, after which, as the enemy did not reappear, Muir again ordered a retreat. His communication with Tecumseh had been broken, and, hearing sounds of firing from the woods to his left, he inferred that the Americans were driving the Indians in that direction with the object of reaching the road to cut him off from his boats. He gained the shore of the river, however, without interference from the enemy, found his boats intact, and pulled swiftly towards Amherstburg.

Tecumseh and his warriors had borne the brunt of the battle and displayed magnificent courage. After the firing of Muir's men had ceased, they still fought stubbornly, in spite of the vast numerical superiority of the enemy, and retreated slowly through the woods in a westerly direction. Then, turning about, they succeeded in regaining their canoes, and followed in the wake of the British. The Americans were unaware of the extent of their success, and fearing a renewed attack, they abandoned their march and retreated to Detroit. And it was not until several days after this lively encounter that they again attempted to reopen communications with their army to the south.

Four uneventful days followed. The night of the 13th was calm and cloudless. About Fort Malden sentries paced their ceaseless round. Camp-fires glowed about the wigwams and blockhouses of Bois Blanc. Tecumseh lay in the open, surrounded by his sleeping warriors. Although it was past midnight, his sleepless eyes scanned the heavens. The moon cast a shimmering path upon the water, in whose depths myriads of stars were reflected. Even as Tecumseh gazed a bright star sped like a golden arrow across the sky. He marked its flight until it fell afar and seemed to cleave the dark depths of the river. What did this fiery messenger portend? Again a youth, he threaded his way through the gloom of the forest, seeking the guiding spirit of his manhood, until a bright star fell across his path. Then, in vivid memory, came the tortures of initiation. A man, he journeyed in strange lands beneath a scorching sun, or felt the biting winter blasts. Again his heart beat high with hope, only to be cast down by the crushing defeat of his plans. But still, upborne by almost superhuman strength, urged by some strange, impelling power, he must battle for his race. The restless river, as it fretted the sides of the little island placed so protectingly against the Canadian shore, sang of battle, whose outcome none might guess. Suddenly he was aroused from his waking dream by shouts of joy and the booming of cannon from the decks of the General Hunter, which lay at anchor in the river. It was a salute in honor of the arrival of General Brock. A vigorous cheer announced his appearance at Fort Malden. The Indians joined in the welcome and fired off their muskets. A boat made its way towards the island, and the warriors crowded about it as Colonel Elliott stepped ashore. He gave them official information of Brock's arrival, and warned the Indians to save their scanty ammunition. Notwithstanding the lateness of the hour, Tecumseh with his attendant chiefs accompanied Elliott back to the fort to meet the commander in whose hands he had placed the fate of his people. Arrived at Amherstburg, Elliott replied to the sentry's challenge, and they entered the fort. On reaching the room in which Brock sat, they found him deeply engrossed in the contents of the captured mail packets, which were strewn on the table before him, for these told him that General Hull had lost the confidence of his garrison at Detroit, and that dissensions had destroyed all unity of purpose among the officers. The candlelight streamed on his red-brown hair and shone on the gold-fringed epaulets of his scarlet uniform. Elliott at once presented Tecumseh to Brock. The latter raised his eyes to behold 'the king of the woods,' whose very presence seemed to exhale the freedom of the forest.

One of the best pen-portraits extant of Tecumseh is by Captain Glegg, who thus describes him upon this occasion of his presentation to Brock:

Tecumseh was very prepossessing, his figure light and finely proportioned, his age I imagined to be about five-and-thirty, his height five feet nine or ten inches, his complexion light copper, his countenance oval, with bright hazel eyes beaming cheerfulness, energy and decision. Three small crowns or coronets were suspended from the lower cartilage of his aquiline nose, and a large silver medallion of George the Third, which I believe his ancestor had received from Lord Dorchester when governor-general of Canada, was attached to a mixed colored wampum string which hung round his neck. His dress consisted of a plain, neat uniform, a tanned deer-skin jacket with long trousers of the same material, the seams of both being covered with neatly cut fringe, and he had on his feet leather moccasins much ornamented with work made from the dyed quills of the porcupine.

Tecumseh regarded Brock calmly, noting with admiration the athletic form as it towered to its full height. Thus stood the two commanding figures, both born to lead, alike bold in purpose and ready in resource. With the same intuitive perception each trusted the other. They were akin—both of the 'brotherhood that binds the brave of all the earth.' The brown hand of Tecumseh met the strong white hand of Brock in a warm clasp, the seal of a firm friendship. Brock thanked Tecumseh for his salute of welcome, and like Colonel Elliott mentioned the shortage of ammunition. With warm words of praise he referred to the work of the warriors in the recent engagements, commending Tecumseh's leadership and courage in the highest terms. The chief listened with characteristic calm. Brock continued: 'I have fought against the enemies of our great father, the king beyond the great lake, and they have never seen my back. I am come here to fight his enemies on this side the great lake, and now desire with my soldiers to take lessons from you and your warriors, that I may learn how to make war in these great forests.' After a pause Tecumseh, turning round to his attendant chiefs, stretched out his hand and exclaimed, 'Ho-o-o-e; this is a man!'

Brock was particularly pleased with the contents of the mail taken at Brownstown. In striking contrast to Hull's high-sounding proclamation, it revealed that general's real attitude of dejection. Communication from the rear had been cut off; he feared starvation and despaired of being able to withstand attack. The contents of these dispatches prompted Brock to invade American territory without delay. Rapidly he unfolded a daring plan against Fort Detroit, but his officers shook their heads and strongly dissented. Not so Tecumseh, who, as Brock sketched his scheme, had listened with gleaming eye, and who now enthusiastically supported it. The commander inquired as to the character of the country through which they must pass to reach Detroit. For answer the chief unrolled a piece of elm bark, which he held flat with four stones; and, drawing his scalping-knife from its sheath, he traced with its point the roads, ravines, groves, and streams. Brock intently followed the blade of Tecumseh, beneath whose hand a fine military map rapidly took shape. Was ever before Indian scalping-knife put to so good a use! This unexpected skill surprised and delighted Brock. When the map was completed, clear in outline, intelligent in detail, any misgivings he may have had vanished. In the face of all opposition and dissent Brock resolved to attempt the capture of Detroit. Thanking Tecumseh for his invaluable aid and promising to address his followers at noon the next day, the commander retired for a few hours of much-needed rest. Accompanied by his chiefs, the Indian leader made his way back over the water to the little island. It was now almost morning, and as he scanned the brightening sky he wondered within himself whether it heralded a hopeful dawn for his unhappy people.

At noon of that day one thousand Indians of various tribes assembled beneath the trees about Fort Malden. After the customary opening ceremonies Brock addressed them, telling them he had come across the great salt lake (the Atlantic ocean), at the request of their great father, to help them, and that with their assistance he would drive the Americans from Fort Detroit. His words were greeted with noisy approval. Tecumseh then replied that he was pleased that 'their father beyond the great salt lake had at last consented to let his warriors come to the assistance of his red children, who had never ceased to remain steadfast in their friendship and were now all ready to shed their last drop of blood in their great father's service.'

Seeing Tecumseh surrounded by his warriors, who, fiery and indomitable, but unstable as water, were united by his leadership alone, Brock realized the powerful personality of his new and valuable ally. Here is an extract from one of Brock's letters written soon afterwards:

Among the Indians whom I found at Amherstburg and who arrived from different parts of the country there were some extraordinary characters. He who most attracted my attention was a Shawnee chief brother of the Prophet, who for the last two years has carried on, contrary to our remonstrance, an active war with the United States. A more sagacious or a more gallant warrior does not, I believe, exist. He was the admiration of every one who addressed him.

Preparations were rapidly made for a movement against Detroit, and on the morning of the next day, August 15, the British and Indians marched towards Sandwich. Brock sent Lieutenant-Colonel Macdonell and Captain Glegg to General Hull, under a flag of truce; demanding the surrender of Detroit. Adroitly embodied in his dispatch were the following words: 'You must be aware that the numerous bodies of Indians who have attached themselves to my troops will be beyond my control the moment the contest commences.' Hull replied that he was prepared to meet any force at Brock's command; whereupon the British batteries at Sandwich opened fire, which continued until evening. Under cover of darkness Colonel Elliott and Tecumseh led six hundred Indian warriors to the shore of the river on the night of the 15th, where they silently launched their canoes and gained the American side, prepared to protect the crossing of the main army in the morning.

In the quiet early dawn 320 British regulars and 400 Canadian militia were in readiness to embark; and, as sunrise colored the sky, a motley fleet pushed off from the Canadian shore. The war vessel Queen Charlotte and the batteries at Sandwich opened fire, while the wooded shores re-echoed to the savage yells of 600 painted braves. Brock stood erect in the foremost boat, which steered towards Springwells, about four miles below Detroit, where Tecumseh awaited his landing. Scarcely had Brock stepped ashore when a scout rushed up with the news that a large body of American troops, who had left the fort two days before for another attempt to reach the army at the Raisin, were approaching from the rear, and were now but a few miles distant. The attack must, therefore, be made at once. The forces were rapidly formed in two columns, an advance was sounded, and the allies pressed forward towards Fort Detroit.

That formidable stronghold bristled with cannon, which could be trained on any part of the advancing army. Yet steadily forward marched the British, while the Indians shouted their wild war-cry, which doubtless struck terror to the heart of Hull. The gunners in Detroit stood at their posts with lighted fuses, but the British and Indians dauntlessly advanced till they could see the black, yawning mouths of the guns, whose thunder each moment they thought to hear.

At some distance from the fort Brock and Tecumseh ascended an elevated bit of ground to reconnoiter. Scarcely had they done so when a messenger was seen speeding from the fort with a white flag. Colonel Macdonell and Captain Glegg were sent to meet him. The news they brought back was that Hull was prepared to surrender. The fire from the batteries at Sandwich and from the Queen Charlotte, with the bold advance of the British and the Indian war-cry, had done their work. The commanders rode forward and took possession of the fort. Hull's twenty-five hundred men became prisoners of war, and all the armaments and stores, along with the territory of Michigan, passed into the hands of the British. The Stars and Stripes were lowered, and the Union Jack streamed out upon the breeze.

Tecumseh was elated and amazed at this bloodless victory over the Long Knives. Shortly after the surrender of Detroit, he is reported to have said to Brock:

I have heard much of your fame and am happy again to shake by the hand a brave brother warrior. The Americans endeavored to give us a mean opinion of British generals, but we have been witnesses of your velour. In crossing the river to attack the enemy, we observed you from a distance standing the whole time in an erect position, and when the boats reached the shore you were among the first who jumped on land. Your bold and sudden movements alarmed the enemy and compelled them to surrender to less than half their own force.

Brock, realizing the value of Tecumseh's services, honored him publicly. Removing his silken sash, he fastened it about the chief's shoulders, presenting him at the same time with a pair of pistols. Stoic though Tecumseh was, he could not conceal his pride and gratification at Brock's gift. Next day, however, he appeared without the sash; and when the British general sent to inquire the reason, he explained that he had given it to Roundhead of the Wyandots, an older and more valiant chief than himself.

In his general order from Detroit, August 17, Brock wrote:

The conduct of the Indians, joined to that of the gallant and brave chiefs of their respective tribes, has since the commencement of the war been marked with acts of true heroism, and in nothing can they testify more strongly their love to the king, their great father, than by following the dictates of honor and humanity by which they have been hitherto actuated. Two fortifications have already been captured from the enemy without a drop of blood being shed by the hands of Indians. The instant the enemy submitted, his life became sacred.

That such was the case at Detroit was almost entirely due to the dominating influence of Tecumseh over his followers.

Footnotes:

1. See The War with the United States in this Series.]


This site includes some historical materials that may imply negative stereotypes reflecting the culture or language of a particular period or place. These items are presented as part of the historical record and should not be interpreted to mean that the WebMasters in any way endorse the stereotypes implied.

Chronicles of Canada, Tecumseh, A Chronicle of the Last Great Leader of his People, By Ethel T. Raymond, Toronto, 1915

 

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