Tecumseh: A Chronicle of the last Great Leader of his People: Chapter 10
Tecumseh's Last Fight
Procter pointed out that the fort, which had been dismantled to equip the Detroit, was open to attack from the river; that the hospital was filled with sick soldiers; and that starvation stared the British in the face. But the argument which weighed most with Tecumseh was that they would be able to find along the river Thames a place much better suited for battle. And at last the Indian leader reconciled his mind to the thought of retreat.
The troops were soon busily engaged in loading the baggage. Part was stowed in boats to be sent inland by way of the Detroit river, Lake St Clair, and the Thames; the remainder was placed in heavy wagons to be taken overland. The women and children, among whom were the general's wife and his sick daughter, were sent on ahead, the squaws trudging along bearing their papooses on their backs. The troops set fire to the shipyards, fortifications, and public buildings on September 24, and marched out leaving Amherstburg a mass of flames. Tecumseh seemed sad and oppressed; and as he gazed at the rolling clouds of smoke he said to Blue Jacket: 'We are now going to follow the British, and I feel well assured we shall never return.'
Procter halted at Sandwich, where he was joined by the garrison of Detroit, now also abandoned by the British, its fortifications and public buildings having been destroyed. On the morning of the 27th the column moved out of Sandwich. The lumbering wagons, encumbered with much heavy and unnecessary baggage, made slow progress. Procter's energy had vanished, and he displayed none of the forethought that a commander should have in the performance of his duty. He took no precaution to guard the supply-boats; his men were indifferently fed, and no care was taken for their safety. Even the bridges, which should have been cut down to hamper the progress of the enemy in pursuit, were left standing.
Three days after Procter's flight from Amherstburg Harrison landed below the town from Perry's vessels an army about five thousand strong. Finding Fort Malden a smoking ruin, and no enemy there, he pressed on to Sandwich, with his bands playing Yankee Doodle, and encamped. Two days later he was joined by Colonel Johnson with fifteen hundred cavalry, and on the same day (September 29) a flotilla under Perry sailed up the river and stood off Detroit. After taking possession of Detroit, Harrison resolved to hasten in pursuit of the British. On October 2 he left Sandwich with four thousand men, sending his baggage by water under the protection of three gunboats which Perry had provided. Thus unencumbered, his troops marched rapidly. On the morning of the 3rd they overtook and captured a small cavalry picket of the British; and keeping in motion throughout the day, they encamped that night not far below the place known as Dolsen's, on the south side of the Thames river, about six miles below Chatham.
The main body of the British had left Dolsen's just a day in advance of the enemy, having travelled only forty-five miles in five days. All along the route Tecumseh had persistently urged that a stand should be made. Procter had promised that this should be done, first at one place, then at another; but each time he had made some excuse. At length, when they came to the site of the present city of Chatham, where McGregor's Creek falls into the Thames, Tecumseh pointed out to Procter the natural advantages of the ground and appealed to him to prepare for battle. The general approved of making a stand at this point, and declared that the British would either defeat Harrison here or leave their bones on the field of conflict. After the leaders had completed their survey of the proposed battle-ground, Tecumseh gazed musingly at the swiftly flowing waters. 'When I look at those two streams,' he said, 'they remind me of the Wabash and the Tippecanoe.' A gentler light shone in the warrior's eyes; his thoughts were far away among the scenes of his Indian village—the village that he had hoped to make the centre of a great confederacy of red men.
Meanwhile the main body of the British troops were at Dolsen's, where they had arrived on the 1st of October. Leaving his troops at their camp, and Tecumseh and his Indians at Chatham, Procter set out with a guard to escort his wife and daughter to Moraviantown, a village of the Delaware Indians, twenty odd miles farther up the river. He was still absent on October 3, when scouts returned with news of the capture of the cavalry picket. Procter had left no orders; and Warburton, the officer in command, was at a loss what action to take. After consulting with Tecumseh, who had come down from Chatham, he ordered a retreat for two miles up the river; there the troops formed up, fully expecting attack. But as the enemy failed to appear, they proceeded to Chatham. Tecumseh desired the troops to halt and encamp with his Indians on the opposite side of the river. Warburton, however, desired to continue the retreat. But Tecumseh would not yield, and Warburton ordered his men across the stream, where the entire force camped for the night. Next morning, before the troops had breakfasted, scouts rushed into the camp bringing word of the rapid advance of the enemy. Immediately Warburton ordered his men to march, not allowing them time even to take food. About six miles up from Chatham Procter joined the army and took command. The retreat continued until nightfall, when the troops encamped about five miles below Moraviantown, on the north bank of the Thames, where the village of Thamesville now stands.
But Tecumseh and his band had not accompanied the retreating party; and when Harrison reached McGregor's Creek at Chatham, he found his progress checked. The bridge there had been destroyed, and Tecumseh with his warriors disputed the passage. Harrison, thinking he was opposed by the whole British force, marshalled his army and brought up his artillery. After a slight skirmish, in which Tecumseh was wounded in the arm, the Indians were forced to fall back. A second bridge was similarly contested, with a like result. Then Tecumseh and his Indians retreated and joined Procter's forces near Moraviantown, while the Americans pushed eagerly forward. Drifting down-stream were seen several British boats, which had been deserted by their occupants and set on fire.
The morning of the 5th found Harrison near Arnold's Mills, where he overtook and captured two gunboats and some bateaux laden with supplies and ammunition. A few of the occupants escaped and fled overland towards the British camp. Harrison's men then crossed the Thames, some of them in boats and canoes and others on horseback. By noon the entire American army had reached the opposite shore, where, farther up, the British were bivouacked, only a short march distant.
On the morning of the same day, while the soldiers were waiting for their rations to be meted out, the fugitives from Arnold's Mills arrived at Procter's camp and informed him of the capture of the gunboats and of Harrison's near approach. Tecumseh was sitting on a moss-covered log, smoking and discussing the situation with Shaubena and a few of his chief warriors, when a messenger summoned the Indian leader to the general's headquarters. He returned after a short absence, with clouded brow and thoughtful mien, and silently resumed his pipe. One of the chiefs finally asked, 'Father, what are we to do? shall we fight the Americans?' 'Yes, my son,' slowly replied Tecumseh. 'We will be in their smoke before sunset.'
The dark shadow of his fate stole across Tecumseh's consciousness. He had the same strange presentiment of death as his brother Cheeseekau, but he entered upon his last battle just as fearlessly. 'Brother warriors,' he said to those about him, 'we are now about to enter into an engagement from which I shall never come out. My body will remain upon the field of battle.' His followers gazed at their leader in superstitious awe, as if they were listening to a prediction that must inevitably be fulfilled. He removed his sword, and presented it to the Potawatomi chief Shaubena, saying, 'When my son becomes a noted warrior, give him this.'
Again the troops, tired and hungry, were ordered to march without being permitted to eat their morning meal. They now numbered less than four hundred, without counting the Indians. Many were sick; all were worn out with marching and much disheartened. Retreat has a depressing effect upon the best of soldiers, but in this instance the troops, in addition, had lost faith in their leader and entertained only slight hope of victory. The boats that carried their ammunition had been taken—all they had left was what their pouches contained. Five of their cannon were at a ford behind Moraviantown, and the one remaining gun—a six-pounder—was useless for lack of ammunition.
The British took up their position about two miles below the village of Moraviantown, across the travelled road which lay along the Thames some two hundred yards from its banks. Their left flank was protected by the river and their right by a cedar swamp. By about one o'clock the troops were drawn up in order of battle between the swamp and the river. A double line was formed extending across the road into the heart of a beech wood, the second line about two hundred yards to the rear of the first. The six-pounder mounted guard on the road, threatening, but useless. Procter, on a fleet charger and surrounded by his staff, had taken up his position far back on the road, as if prepared for flight.
Tecumseh had sagaciously disposed his thousand warriors behind the swamp on the right of the British lines; and, when all was in readiness, the Indian leader visited Procter and, expressing his approval of the arrangement of the forces, passed down the British line. All eyes followed admiringly the familiar figure in its tanned buckskin. In his belt was his silver-mounted tomahawk, and his knife in its leathern case. About his head a handkerchief was rolled like a turban, and surmounted by a white feather. He addressed each officer in Shawnee, accompanying his speech with expressive gestures. Whatever doubts were in his mind, he maintained the dignity of a warrior to the end, and endeavoured to instil courage into the hearts of those about him. 'Father, have a big heart,' were his last words to Procter. He then joined his warriors and awaited the attack.
Clear and distinct sounded the American bugles through the autumn wood, and in a few moments the enemy came into view. As soon as Harrison caught sight of the British formation he halted his troops, and spurred his horse forward to consult with Colonel Johnson, one of his cavalry leaders. It was quickly decided to break through the British line with cavalry. Only one cavalry battalion, however, could manoeuvre between the river and the swamp; but Johnson was to lead another in person across the swamp against the Indians. The order to charge was given, and the American horsemen swept towards the British position. A loud musketry volley rang out along the first scarlet line, and the cavalry advance was checked for the moment. Horses reared and plunged, and many of the riders were thrown from their saddles. The British delivered a second volley before the Americans recovered from their confusion. But then, through the white, whirling smoke, sounded the thunder of trampling hoofs. With resistless force the American horsemen dashed against the opposing ranks and fired their pistols with telling effect. The first line of the British scattered in headlong flight, seeking shelter behind the reserves. The second line stood firm and delivered a steady fire; but the men of the first line were thrown into such disorder by the sudden attack that they could not be rallied. The Americans followed up their first charge and pressed hard upon the exhausted British, for whom there was now no alternative but to surrender. Those not killed were taken prisoners, with the exception of about fifty who effected their escape through the woods. Procter and his staff had taken flight at the first sight of the enemy.
Behind the swamp, where the Indians were posted, the battle went no more favourably. Tecumseh and his warriors had lain silent in their covert until Johnson's cavalry had advanced well within range. Then the leader's loud war-cry rang out as the signal for battle. The enemy shouted a derisive challenge, and the Indians replied with a well-directed volley. So destructive was the fire of the Indians that the front line of the Americans was annihilated. The horses were struggling in the swamp, and Johnson, himself wounded, ordered some of the horsemen to dismount, hoping to draw their foe out of cover, while he and a few of the boldest soldiers led the attack. Tecumseh's keen eye singled out the American leader. He rushed through his warriors to strike him down. Johnson levelled his pistol. Like lightning Tecumseh's tomahawk gleamed above his head. But before it could whirl on its deadly flight, there was a flash and a report. Johnson, weakened by the wound he had already received, but still clutching the smoking weapon, reeled from his saddle. Tecumseh's tomahawk dropped harmless to the earth, and the noblest of red patriots, the greatest and truest of Indian allies, fell shot through the breast. The Indians lost heart and fled into the depths of the forest, leaving many of their bravest warriors dead on the field.
Sunset faded into darkness. The body of Tecumseh lay on the battlefield in the light of the American camp-fires. Like spectres his faithful followers stole swiftly through the wood and bore it away. On the dead face still lingered the impress of the proud spirit which had animated it in life. But silent was the war-cry that had urged his followers to battle; stilled was the silver eloquence that had won them to his purpose.
Tecumseh was no more; but his memory was cherished by the race for whose freedom he had so valiantly fought. In the light of the camp-fire his courageous deeds were long extolled by warriors and handed down by the sachems of his people. Many an ambitious brave felt his heart leap as he listened—like Tecumseh when as a boy he drank in the stories of the heroic deeds of his ancestors.
The white men respected Tecumseh as the Indians revered Brock. But how different the obsequies of the two heroes! For Brock flags floated at half-mast. He was borne to the grave to the sound of martial music, followed by a sorrowing multitude. His valour was the theme of orators. A stately monument perpetuates his memory and attracts pilgrims to his burial-place. The red hero fell fighting for the same flag-fighting on, though deserted by a British general in the hour of direst need. But no flag drooped her crimson folds for him. A few followers buried him stealthily by the light of a flickering torch. No funeral oration was uttered as he was lowered to his last resting-place. Night silently spread her pall; softly the autumn leaves covered the spot, and the wind chanted a mournful requiem over his lonely grave. No towering column directs the traveller to Tecumseh's burial-place; not even an Indian totem-post marks the spot. The red man's secret is jealously guarded and to no white man has it ever been revealed.