The Battle of Tippecanoe

In early September, to foster splits among the Indians living on the Wabash preparatory to his march, Harrison called together a council with the Miamis and their allies at Fort Wayne.  Addressing them as “my children,” Harrison told them that he discerned a dark cloud on the Wabash but that this would bring danger only to the Indians, not to himself.  The followers of the Prophet were to be deemed hostile Indians, and  for their own safety, other Indians were commanded to break with them and to inform on their movements, as they were required to do under the terms of  the Treaty of Greenville the Indians had signed with the U.S. in 1795.  The Miami chief Little Turtle was compliant, but the Wea chief Laprusiuer was not.                                         

By this time, Harrison was already putting together an expeditionary force. This consisted of eight companies of Army soldiers from the 4th U.S. Infantry Regiment, one company from the Riflemen Regiment under Col. John P.  Boyd from Philadelphia, three troops  of light dragoons, and Kentucky and Indiana militia members in their buckskins shirts and carrying scalping knives and tomahawks.  The total force numbered altogether somewhere between 1,000-1,200 men according to various estimates, and on the morning of September 26th, they started northward from Fort Knox near Vincennes with Harrison in command and all their heavy baggage on boats.

Crossing a level, open prairie lying near the river banks, they reached the present-day site of Terre Haute, Indiana, 60 miles up the Wabash River, on October 3rd.  There, overlooking the Wabash on the east side in a grove of trees and just a couple of miles south from a Wea Indian village, they erected a fort named “Fort Harrison.”  The fort’s construction took most of the month.  With the flour ration going short after several weeks and no resupply yet because the merchants had been shot at on the river, the soldiers helped feed themselves with catfish and venison procured from the land.  Militia members who knew how to forage found bee trees for the sweet honey, but some militiamen still deserted.

Harrison construed some small probes by Indians on their camp as signs that a full-scale war with the Indians had begun, so he sent to Kentucky for reinforcements.  He dispatched some Delawares who had come to the camp with a message to Prophetstown, which was basically an ultimatum calling on all the non-Shawnees to depart from there and go back to where they came from.  The Delawares reported to him that their mission had been met with scorn and derision; Harrison was clearly not succeeding in his mission of instilling respect and fear into the breasts of the defiant Indians.  Thus, he concluded  that he needed to march his force 80 miles onward to Prophetstown itself to make a heavier impression on them.

More provisions and some reinforcements arrived, but Harrison did  not order his forces to march on Prophetstown until he had received a letter from Secretary of War Eustis that he took as providing him with the authorization to do so. At the same time, this letter suggested that hostilities be avoided if possible in the course of insisting on the fulfillment of the treaty’s stipulations.  Leaving behind some men to garrison the new fort, along with those men unfit for duty, the expeditionary force – now with 880  soldiers – resumed its advance northward on October 29th.   Near the mouth of the Vermillion River, the expedition stopped again for two days to build a blockhouse, and the expedition’s boats and surplus baggage were left there under guard.

Arriving near Prophetstown late in the day of November 6th, Harrison ordered his forces into their battle formation. Prophetstown, although not fully ready, had been fortified; the Native American camp was surrounded by a massive zigzag log wall with port-holes cut at regular intervals for shooting out of, behind which were trenches for the warriors to sit in.   As Harrison’s soldiers came within sight, the Indians, fearing that an attack was imminent, scrambled to get behind their breastworks.

Three Indians on horseback carrying a white flag came out to parley, and after consulting for a short time with Harrison, they galloped back to the village.  The soldiers continued their march to within 150 yards of the village, at which point more consultations with the Indians transpired.  Harrison, although urged by some of his officers to attack them forthwith, agreed to meet with Tenskwatawa the following day.

Tired from their long day’s march and not expecting an attack, Harrison did not order the camp to be fortified by felling trees, as was the customary practice, but the force encamped in a defensive rectangle (or parallelogram) and spent the night with their guns loaded and close at hand. On the western side of Harrison’s perimeter, a small creek (Burnet Creek) ran, providing a natural impediment to an attack, and a very steep bluff on the eastern side precluded any attack from that direction. Only the narrow southern point of Harrison’s perimeter and the northeastern side, southwest of a Catholic mission, posed serious threats of attack.

Sentinels were posted that night, and the Yellow Jackets, led by Captain Spier Spencer, manned the southern point of the perimeter. After setting sentinels, Harrison and his officers and men retired. It was a cold night with drizzly rain, and at 4:00 a.m. that morning, November 7, just as the camp began to awaken and would soon be lining up in formation to start the day, the Indians attacked with loud, terrifying war whoops. Coming out of the woods, the natives were able to break into one side of the hollow rectangle as the warriors rushed in among the Yellow Jackets manning the southern sector of the perimeter. The Yellow Jackets’ captain, Spier Spencer, was among the first casualties. Though wounded in the head, the Yellow Jackets’ leader urged his men to fight, and Spencer managed to make it to his feet after being wounded only to be shot through both legs and fall again. Continuing to encourage his company, Spencer was raised to his feet by other soldiers, but he was then shot through the torso and immediately died. Harrison would later inform officials in Washington, “Spencer was wounded in the head. He exhorted his men to fight valiantly. He was shot through both thighs and fell; still continuing to encourage them, he was raised up, and received [another] ball through his body, which put an immediate end to his existence.”

Spencer was briefly replaced by his two surviving company officers, but they too were soon wounded and killed. Leaderless, the Yellow Jackets began to fall back with the retreating sentries, toward the center of the perimeter. Two companies of reserve troops, roused by the sound of battle, relieved the retreating militiamen by reforming a line and turning the Native American attack. The perimeter was reformed and again manned, but a second charge targeted both the northern and southern sides simultaneously. Once inside the rectangle, the Indians briefly held the advantage since the white soldiers did not want to fire into the darkness for fear of hitting their own men.  The white soldiers were also silhouetted against the fires they had built and kept going overnight to dry out their clothing and gear.

In the frenzied early moments of the battle, Harrison’s servant could not locate Harrison’s  usual grey mare, so Harrison mounted a darker horse to ride to rally his troops.  This was a fortuitous accident for him because the natives knew he rode a light-colored horse and were looking for him on it.  Another officer who was with a white horse was shot dead early on. Harrison did receive a shot through the brim of his hat but remained otherwise unscathed.

All told, the Indians made four or five fierce charges on the camp, which they coordinated by blowing on a whistle, but each time they were driven back. As the dawn brought daylight, the advantage shifted to the white soldiers, who were now able to charge in formation, and their mounted men were able cut down the fleeing Indians. After about two hours of strenuous fighting, the battle came to an end.  Among the whites, 188 officers and men were killed and wounded, a fairly serious loss.  The bodies of 38 Indians were found on the field, and several more were discovered later in or around Prophetstown.

With a rumor circulating that Tecumseh was on the way with another 1,000 warriors, Harrison’s men spent the rest of the day fortifying their camp, but no more attacks were forthcoming. Tecumseh was not present for the Battle of Tippecanoe or located anywhere nearby; along with a hand-picked delegation of six Shawnees, six Kickapoos and six Potawatomis, the Shawnee leader was still on an extended six-month trip through the South visiting with the Creeks, Choctaws, Cherokees and other tribes to try to gain their support for his plan of a greater pan-Indian confederacy.  On his way back north, Tecumseh also visited tribes in Missouri where he was present for the great earthquakes.  According to some accounts, when he returned to Indiana in January 1812, he was exceedingly angry with his brother for having launched a war before he felt their plans were sufficiently matured.

As Harrison’s men soon discovered, far from getting ready to attack again, the natives had precipitously abandoned Prophetstown and left behind all kinds of supplies in the form of corn, hogs, poultry, numerous brass cooking kettles. A few guns, some of which were apparently gifts from the British, were still in their original coverings and had never been used.  The herd of cattle brought along by the soldiers for meat had been driven off by the Indians, so the soldiers had to subsist on horse meat or whatever they were able to plunder from the village. Harrison had his men burn the town and its contents and then marched his troops back to Vincennes, stopping at the blockhouse on the Vermillion River to put his wounded men into canoes. From his headquarters near Prophetstown on November 8th, Harrison had already sent a dispatch to the Secretary of War claiming the battle was a “complete and decisive victory.”

A number of the white soldiers who participated in the Battle of Tippecanoe kept journals or later left reminiscences.  Charles Larrabee, a lieutenant in the 4th Regiment, wrote a series of informative letters before and after the battle to a cousin in Connecticut, and before the battle, he had expressed hopes that the situation would terminate without bloodshed. Judge Isaac Naylor, at that time sergeant of an Indiana militia riflemen company, recalled how a friend and fellow soldier had told him of a bad dream that he believed “foreboded something fatal to him or to some of his family.” His friend was shot by an Indian and fell dead in the mass confusion at the commencement of the attack.  Naylor also described how nearly all the dead Indians left on the battlefield were scalped and had their scalps mounted on the militia’s muskets, which he considered a barbarous practice but excusable under the circumstances.

Conversely, a different report on the nature of the battle reached British ears at Amherstburg in Upper Canada (Ontario) via a Kickapoo chief who was in the action.  He claimed that the attack  had been launched to avenge two young Winnebagos who, out of curiosity, had approached the American encampment overnight and had been shot at by the white pickets.  Pretending to be wounded, they had jumped up and tomahawked the soldiers who had come to dispatch them.  According to this report, only about 100 warriors, consisting of Winnebagos and Kickapoos, were involved directly in the fighting, and they drove the whites back and forth between them until they ran out of arrows and ammunition. Furthermore, the Kickapoo asserted that while Harrison had been able to destroy a lot of the village’s corn, other corn had survived concealed underground.  The British officer wrote to his superior, “The Prophet and his people do not appear as a vanquished enemy; they re-occupy their former ground.”

Years after what became known as the Battle of Tippecanoe, Tenskwatawa told Lewis Cass, the Governor of the Michigan Territory, that he had not ordered the attack that started the battle. Instead, he accused the Winnebagos in his camp of starting the attack. Other accounts corroborate this, but some claim that the evening before the attack Tenskwatawa spurred the attack by claiming to have consulted with spirits and instructing a small band to try to murder Harrison in his tent to avoid the impending battle. According to this account, Tenskwatawa had assured the attacking warriors that he would cast spells preventing them from being harmed or killed, but when that obviously didn’t happen, they were enraged.

The Miami chief Little Eyes reported to Harrison a description of the events that may have been tailored to what he thought Harrison would want to hear. Little Eyes was near Prophetstown looking to meet with Harrison when the fighting took place, and he described Tenskwatawa as having been the architect of the attack. Little Chief further claimed the Prophet was being blamed for the failure of his protective charms and was thus being treated as a pariah by his former followers.   According to this report, a crestfallen Tenskwatawa had tried to shift blame onto his wife, whom he said he did not know had been menstruating at the time.  His wife had touched the bowl containing his sacred beans and deer hoofs, and for that reason he pled to be given a second chance.

Regardless of such reports about disaffections, it appears that the Prophet was able to retain a fairly strong spiritual following until after the War of 1812. Prophetstown was rebuilt, and the massive pair of earthquakes that struck on December 16, 1811 with their epicenter near New Madrid in present-day Arkansas convinced some Indians (and also some whites) that they were living in an apocalyptic time period.  This benefitted Tenskwatawa, as it appeared to be a fulfillment of his prophecies.  A newspaper reported that a fortunate Indian who had been swallowed up by the earth but disgorged declared “the Shawnoe Prophet has caused the earthquake to destroy the whites.”  Whether Tenskwatawa made that claim for himself was not recorded, but a legend persisted that Tecumseh had told doubters among the Creeks during his visit to the South that the earth would soon tremble and they would regret not listening to him. 

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