War of 1812 Bicentennial: Kentucky enters the war

Unrest, Conflicts and WarPoliticsArmed ForcesNational GovernmentHuman InterestU.S. Congress

Editor's note: This is the unabridged version of the condensed article that appeared in the Jan. 17 Interior Journal.


This article is the first in a series to commemorate the War of 1812 Bicentennial. The Congress of the United States has designated November 7, 2011 through June 15, 2015 as the bicentennial period. The important contributions of Kentucky and Lincoln County troops began in early 1813 so our commemoration period in Lincoln County will run from January 8, 2013 through January 15, 2015. The official symbol of our observance will be the 15 Star/15 Stripe "Star Bangled Banner" flying with the present national flag and the flag of the Commonwealth in front of the courthouse. From a disaster to the triumph of New Orleans Kentuckians from all walks of life participated and Lincoln Countians were among both the victims and the victorious.

Our second war with Great Britain is a forgotten conflict to many Kentuckians. It was fought over neutral rights on the high seas and Indian depredations in the Old Northwest. It was also a conflict avoided since the first administration of George Washington. All of the presidents after 1796 [Adams, Jefferson & Madison] attempted every diplomatic & economic strategy to remain neutral in the great world conflagration of the Napoleonic Era with little success. Only John Adams in 1798 had allowed guns to be fired in the Quasi-War with France prior to his great diplomatic triumph in 1800 ending and avoiding further hostilities with the French.

The British were a different matter. Refusing since the end of the War of independence to recognize the United States as a member of the world community, both politically and economically, the former Mother Country constantly harassed American commerce on the Atlantic. President Jefferson's well intentioned, but poorly conceived embargo failed to move the English towards any type of compromise. The height of outrage was the attack, in American territorial waters, on the US frigate Chesapeake by the British frigate Leopard on June 22, 1807. Three Americans were killed and four others were "impressed" into British service. Though the matter was settled temporarily through diplomacy it would be left to the next administration to settle things on a more permanent basis. James Madison tried the diplomatic route as well and was stymied in every direction. By 1811 many Americans had had enough as a new generation appeared in Congress to finally take action.

In the halls of government a group of men, born during or after the Revolution, appeared responding to a ripple of nationalism not seen since 1798. Newly elected Speaker of the House Henry Clay, Joseph Desha, Samuel McKee [of Garrard County] and Richard M. Johnson of Kentucky, John C. Calhoun of South Carolina, and Felix Grundy of Tennessee were just a few of those called "War Hawks" who, from November 1811 to June 1812, finally pushed President Madison to ask Congress for a Declaration of War. In his war message on June 1, 1812 the President stated, "... the conduct of [The British] government presents a series of acts hostile to the United States as an independent and neutral nation." He went on to list the acts and the attempts to solve the problems as they had been successfully solved with France. Unknown at the time, the British had just revoked the orders which had caused the outrage of Americans, but the slow communication of the time ruined any chance for peace. With a close party line vote, 79 to 49 in the House & 18 to 13 in the Senate, war was formally declared on June 18, 1812.

Kentucky's military contribution to the war really began in November of 1811 when troops led by Indiana Territorial Governor William Henry Harrison withstood an attack by the Shawnee Prophet at the Battle of Tippecanoe. Kentuckians had agitated for the war and were prepared to fight it. One of the strategies of the war was the conquest of Canada as bargaining chip in negotiations to end, once and for all time, British support to the Indians of the Northwest. To this end armies were formed to invade Canada from Detroit & New York. Our concern here is the western front in the early days of the war.

The first offensive of a three-pronged plan began in the west. Under the command of General William Hull, governor of the Michigan Territory, 2,200 men crossed the Detroit River into Canada on July 12, 1812. That is as far as the force had advanced when Hull, fearing for his communications because of British control of Lake Erie, retreated to the protection of Fort Detroit. When a force of 2,000 under British General Isaac Brock arrived, Hull almost immediately surrendered on August 16. On the previous day the garrison and civilians at Fort Dearborn, now Chicago, had surrendered just to be massacred by Indians. In one short campaign the United States lost Michigan, Illinois, and most of Indiana. General Hull was court-martialed and sentenced to death, but President Madison remitted the sentence. Interestingly, future President Martin Van Buren, much against his will, was part of Hull's defense counsel. No Kentucky units were with Hull, but five regiments had been raised and were at Cincinnati when news of the surrender arrived.

On July 24 Richard M. Johnson wrote President Madison, "The people of this state are accustomed to prompt & active measures....If they should be disappointed in these expectations-I am sure great injury will be done to that noble & patriotic ardor which has prompted our people to volunteer." At the same time Henry Clay, speaking for Kentucky militia, urged Secretary of War William Eustis, "For God's sake give them something to do." They were given something to do, but under the wrong commander. The War Department named Brigadier James Winchester of Tennessee, a martinet who inspired nothing but dislike and ridicule from the militia, as commander of the Kentucky and Ohio troops assigned to re-take Detroit. Those in the know in Frankfort knew things had to change or volunteering would dry up. The choice of Kentuckians for command was Governor William Henry Harrison, hero of Tippecanoe and "the most highly respected military figure in the Northwest." On August 25 outgoing Governor Charles Scott and incoming Governor Isaac Shelby met with many of the Commonwealth's prominent men to appoint Governor Harrison Major General of Kentucky Militia. Not being a citizen of the state involved Harrison receiving a brevet rather than a regular commission.

This action removed all Kentucky troops from Winchester and split the command in the west. This was a ploy to finally force President Madison to make a decision on a commander.  Harrison refused a United State's commission which would have made him subordinate to Winchester which caused a great deal of strain when the new Kentucky major general arrived in Cincinnati in September.  The Kentucky Gazette declared, " Now, the backwoodsman are satisfied. Now, they can, with confidence, rally round the standard of their country." Meanwhile, new Governor Shelby pressed his plan to give local direction to the war in the west on the War Department. His plan was rejected, but the administration finally gave command to Harrison on September 24 as his army marched north. While the army began the advance another Kentuckian was winning the first of many laurels. Captain Zachary Taylor, commanding a small detachment of the Seventh Infantry Regiment, successfully withstood the week long siege at Fort Harrison one hundred miles north of Vincennes, Indiana.

Tragically Harrison's advance north was slowed by the ineffectiveness of the government's war machine. Pay, provisions and orders were late, worthless and contradictory. Even Governor Shelby lost patience and sent a Kentucky only force of 2,000 cavalry under Major General Samuel Hopkins to retake Detroit. This expedition, crippled by the 30 day enlistment of the volunteers, ended in disappointment instead of disaster. Bad weather kept the Northwest Army in uncomfortable camp and near mutiny south of Detroit. In the northwest corner of Ohio Harrison had split his army in two wings: Harrison on the Right, Winchester on the left. The left wing was to advance to the Rapids of the Maumee River and await the right. Winchester arrived at the rapids in early January 1813 and received word of a force of fifty Canadian militia and one hundred Indians guarding a large supply of provisions thirty-five miles away at Frenchtown.. Without waiting for the rest of the troops the left wing advanced on its own to meet its fate at the River Raisin.

On January 16, 1813, 550 Kentuckians under the command of Lieutenant Colonel William Lewis and 100 under Lieutenant Colonel John Allen began the advance towards Frenchtown. On the afternoon of January 18 the Kentuckians crossed the river and pressed their attack against a slightly larger force for several hours. Having only pushed the enemy back two or so miles the advance was called off as darkness began to set in.  Reinforcements were called up with General Winchester arriving with nearly four hundred militia and regulars on January 20. Now at Frenchtown there were nearly 1,000 Americans awaiting attack from Fort Malden only eighteen miles away. From Fort Malden General Henry Proctor was advancing with nearly 1400 troops and Indians plus six pieces of artillery. By the night of January 21 the British were only five miles away.

Winchester had camped his regular troops in the open to the right of Colonel Lewis' picketed enclosure. The General then proceeded to re-cross the river and established his headquarters in a house one and a half miles away. At dawn of January 22 Proctor attacked the regulars in the open driving them towards the pickets. Within a short time the Kentuckians and regulars on the right were driven across the river and either killed or captured. On the left future Governor George Madison made a stand until compelled to surrender by the capture of General Winchester and the short supply of ammunition. As quickly as possible the prisoners were prepared to move north as proctor feared the arrival of General Harrison. Those wounded remaining in Frenchtown were left to the mercy of the Natives who, by their massacre on January 23 of the helpless Kentuckians, provided a battle cry for the remainder of the war: "Remember the Raisin!"

The casualties from both battles and the massacre were listed as 290 killed, 644 made prisoners and only 33 escaped either death or capture. Proctor was made a Brigadier for his victory, but earned censure for his conduct in allowing the massacre. From the casualties of the battle came the names of ten Kentucky counties and one governor. Most of the prisoners were paroled late in January while many others were never heard from again. Many of the officers captured were released from Quebec in 1814 during a general exchange of prisoners. Nearly all of the troops involved on the American side, both regular and militia, were Kentuckians. After many internments in Michigan the remains of those lost were put to rest under the state military memorial in Frankfort in 1834. General Winchester resigned  on March 31, 1815. he provided some public service in his home state of Tennessee and along with John Overton and Andrew Jackson founded the city of Memphis. Of General Harrison and Governor Shelby we will hear more in subsequent articles.

Lincoln County was represented by Lieutenant John Allen, the son-in-law of our Benjamin Logan, and Captain John Simpson's Company, all killed, wounded or captured on January 22, 1813, of John Allen's First Rifle Regiment. Also serving in the First Rifle Regiment were the fourth and fifth sons of Benjamin Logan: Dr. Benjamin Logan, captured and paroled, and Robert who was killed in the battle. Captain John Simpson was also a resident of Lincoln County before relocating to Shelby County prior to 1806. Future articles will go as in depth as possible on Lincoln Countians service in the war.

While this disastrous beginning to Kentucky's military effort did not bode well for the future, more volunteers and veteran leaders would finally achieve victory in the Northwest. We'll tell more about that in October.

Suggested Reading

  • Kentucky & The Second American Revolution: The War of 1812 by James w. Hammack, Jr.
  • Remember the Raisin! by G. Glenn Clift.
  • Kentucky in the War of 1812 by Anderson C. Quisenberry.
  • The War of 1812: A Forgotten Conflict by Donald R. Hickey.
  • Kentucky Rising by James A. Ramage and Andrea S. Watkins.
  • The Weight of Vengeance by Troy Bickham.
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