Battle of Mississinewa River | The Canadian Encyclopedia


Battle of Mississinewa River

The Battle of Mississinewa River is considered a significant victory for the Americans during the War of 1812. In December 1812, American troops, led by General William H. Harrison, fought against the British-allied Miami, Indigenous peoples who traditionally occupied the lands that became the states of Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Wisconsin, and Michigan. The battle was in response to raids on American settlements at Fort Wayne and Fort Harrison in the Indiana territory. The primary aim of the battle was to remove the threat of attacks against the Americans.

Historical Context

Of all the troops the Americans faced in the War of 1812, none were more feared than the Indigenous warriors. Experts at raids and guerrilla warfare, Indigenous troops added terror to their mix of tactics and were growing in number and strength on the British side. In September 1812, Indigenous warriors, including Shawnee, Delaware and Potawatomi, attacked the Pigeon Roost settlement in southern Indiana, resulting in approximately 20 American deaths. On 6 September 1812, a force of Potawatomi and Miami attacked Fort Wayne but were repelled. Reprisals were ordered, and the Americans burned several Potawatomi and Miami villages in retaliation. The Americans also successfully defended Fort Harrison, which had been attacked by the Miami and other Indigenous nations.

US General William Henry Harrison, commander of the Northwestern Army, planned an attack on the offensive. After securing permission from the secretary of war, Harrison ordered Lieutenant Colonel John B. Campbell to go with an expedition into Mississinewa River area, where there were mainly Miami villages. Harrison believed Mississinewa was a location where Indigenous forces could resupply for further attacks in Ohio between St. Mary's and the Miami Rapids. Campbell was given orders not to hurt the Indigenous leaders, if at all possible, for fear of dire reprisal. He was also ordered to save the women and children from harm so they could be "resettled" in Ohio.

Expedition Into Mississinewa

In early November, Campbell assembled his men in Ohio, roughly 600 mounted troops, a mix of mounted infantry, Dragoons and Kentucky volunteers, and made for Fort Greenville to prepare their next move. In knee-high snow and harsh winter cold, they marched out of Fort Greenville on 14 December. The adverse conditions were considered excellent for crossing frozen streams and hiding their movement from the Indigenous warriors. However, neither Harrison nor Campbell gave as much consideration to the effect on the soldier cutting his way through the drifts.

Led by an Indigenous guide, they marched almost all day and night until they found their first objective, the village of chief Silver Heel, located on the banks of the Mississinewa. The Americans were discovered before they could unleash their surprise attack, and the warriors in the village fled. As the American forces encamped, a stray soldier was killed on the outskirts by a bullet fired by an Indigenous warrior.

Two more Miami villages were sacked, with dozens of Indigenous people killed or taken prisoner, as Campbell and his men rode hard into the cold winter. Fear of frostbite, which could cripple the expedition, had Campbell reconsidering the advisability of continuing the fight. When they returned to Silver Heel's village on 17 December, a greater threat than frostbite emerged.

Three hundred Indigenous warriors unleashed a counterattack to retake the village, reclaim their winter stores and rescue their imprisoned families. The temporary military shelter in northern part of the village was retaken by the Indigenous troops in harsh fighting. The "Bourbon Blues" unit from Kentucky was in the thick of the fighting, which included hand-to-hand combat between war hawks and bayonets.

Campbell pulled in some reserve units to give the main attack more firepower. Soon, the Indigenous warriors were outnumbered and on the defensive, and as it became clear their initial assault would not dislodge the Americans, they began a retreat. Campbell ordered a joint cavalry charge by two captains, Johnston and Trotter, to ensure the Indigenous forces were routed. According to one participant, few listened to Campbell's order and after the initial charge, the pursuit of the Indigenous troops was meek. Still, the Battle at Mississinewa River was a harsh hour of gunfire and bloodshed that resulted in eight dead and 48 wounded on the American side. Forty-eight Indigenous warriors were killed and dozens more were captured or taken prisoner.

American Withdrawal to Fort Greenville

After taking Silver Heel's village, Campbell debated the value of pursuing any further expeditions on Miami villages, his main objective being nearly 30 km ahead. When the battle was done, Campbell was told by one of his captives that Shawnee war chief Tecumsehwas close by and headed toward Silver Heel's village with 100 more men. With his men already succumbing to the harsh conditions, more than 100 of his own horses dead, and with stores of gunpowder dwindling, Campbell ordered his men to return to Fort Greenville.

With so many horse casualties, many made the journey on foot, including the wounded. Added to this burden was the requirement to return with Indigenous captives. The result was a slog, in frigid temperatures, both hellish and slow. Campbell ordered that Indigenous ponies be used for Indigenous prisoners, earning him scorn from his men who thought of the livestock as a plunder of war. But these Indigenous prisoners might have been the only thing keeping the troops safe from reprisal; with the possibility of Indigenous warriors on their trail, Campbell had got the word out that their prisoners would be harmed if his men were attacked.

On the verge of starvation, Campbell's men were saved by reinforcements brought by Captain Adair, and they successfully returned to Fort Greenville. Campbell had lost 60 per cent of his unit's strength as casualties to war or weather, and while Campbell's men had shown courage and skill in defending their position, they did not seriously cripple the ability of the Indigenous warriors to wage guerrilla war in the region.

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