The Battle of Tippecanoe

Burnetts' Creek and Battle Ground, from the West
Burnetts' Creek and Battle Ground, from the West


The battle of Tippecanoe was the precursor of the War of 1812. It was a great struggle, in which civilization triumphed over barbarism. It was by far the greatest military engagement ever fought on Indiana soil. It effectually checked the Indian depredations in the Northwest, and had it not been for the War of 1812, this check would have been a permanent cessation of hostilities. It broke Tecumseh's confederation into fragments. The calm that followed, however, was deceptive, preceding, as it did, the storm that broke forth on the northwestern frontier during the war which shortly followed. Tecumseh revisited the tribes and assisted in forming an alliance of the British and Indians against the United States. But the defeat of his brother at Tippecanoe forever put at rest his dreams of a vast Indian empire. That battle, though national in its results, has been more particularly appreciated by the people of Indiana. No less than fifteen counties of that State have been named in honor of heroes who participated in that conflict.

On the 9th of November General Harrison commenced his return march from the Tippecanoe battlefield. He traversed the same road over which he had approached The Prophet's Town, arriving at Fort Harrison on the 14th. The wounded, which up to this time had been hauled in wagons, were sent on to Vincennes by means of boats. Captain Snelling, with his company of regulars, was left in command at Fort Harrison, and the army continued its return march. The volunteers from Kentucky and southeastern Indiana were discharged at Bosscron Creek on the 17th. The remainder of the army arrived at Vincennes on the following day.

The following preamble and resolution was adopted by the Territorial Legislature on the 18th of November;

"Whereas, The services of His Excellency, Governor Harrison, in conducting the army, the gallant defense made by the band of heroes under his immediate command, and the fortunate result of the battle fought with the confederacy of the Shawnee Prophet, near Tippecanoe, on the morning of the 7th instant, highly deserve the congratulations of every true friend to the interests of this Territory and the cause of humanity:

"Resolved, therefore, That the members of the Legislative Council and House of Representatives will wait upon His Excellency, Governor Harrison, as he returns to Vincennes, and, in their own names, and in those of their constituents, welcome him home, and that General W. Johnston be, and he is hereby appointed, a committee to make the same known to the governor, at the head of the army, should unforeseen circumstances not prevent."

Governor Harrison had been governor of the Indiana Territory since its organization, in the year 1800. He had been appointed to this post in pursuance of the wishes of the people of the Territory, successively, by Presidents Adams, Jefferson and Madison. His long and vigorous administration had created many enemies among the territorial inhabitants. His Indian policy, though perfectly justifiable, was the most prolific in this respect. Many persons had opposed the expedition against the town of Tippecanoe for humane reasons. Some of General Harrison's personal and political enemies were inclined to ascribe to Colonel Boyd the honor of having saved the army from defeat on the field of Tippecanoe. The following address was prepared by the Legislative Council (the higher branch of the Legislature), and afterward adopted by the House of Representatives by a vote of four to three. It was delivered to Governor Harrison, December 5, 1811:

"To His Excellency, William Henry Harrison, Governor and Commander-in-Chief in and over Indiana Territory;

"When, in the course of human events, it becomes necessary for a nation to unsheath [sic] the sword in defense of any portion of its citizens, and any individual of society becomes intrusted with the important charge of leading the army of his country into the field to scourge the assailants of its right; and it is proved by the success of their arms, that the individual possesses superior capacity, accompanied by integrity and other qualities of the mind which adorn the human character in a superlative degree, it has a tendency to draw out the affections of the people in a way that must be grateful to the soldier and the man. Such is the light, sir, in which you have the honor to be viewed by your country, and one which the Legislative Council and House of Representatives (of this Territory) think you justly entitled to. And, sir, in duly appreciating your services, we are perfectly sensible of the great benefits and important services rendered by the officers and soldiers of the United States infantry under your command; and it is with pleasure we learn that the officers and militiamen of our country acted with a heroism more than could be reasonably calculated upon from men (such as they generally were) undisciplined and unaccustomed to war."

On the 9th of December Governor Harrison sent the following reply to the foregoing address:

"To the Legislative Council and House of Representatives:
Fellow Citizens, -- The joint address of the two houses, which was delivered to me on the 5th instant by your committee, was received with feelings which it is more easy for you to conceive than for me to describe. Be pleased to accept my sincerest thanks for the favorable sentiments you have been pleased to express of my conduct as the commander-in-chief of the expedition; and be assured that the good opinion of the people of Indiana and their representatives will ever constitute no small portion of my happiness. If any thing could add to my gratitude to you, gentlemen, it is the interest you take in the welfare of those brave fellows who fought under my command. Your memorial in their favor to the Congress of the United States does equal honor to the heads and hearts of those in whose name it is sent, and is worthy of the Legislature of the Indiana Territory."

On the 4th of December the House of Representatives adopted the following resolutions:

"Resolved, by the House of Representatives of Indiana Territory, That the thanks of this body be given to Col. John P. Boyd, the second in command, to the officers, non-commissioned officers, and private soldiers comprising the Fourth United States Regiment of infantry, together with all the United States troops under his command, for the distinguished regularity, coolness and undaunted valor, so eminently displayed by them in the late brilliant and glorious battle fought with the Shawnee Prophet and his confederates on the morning of the 7th of November, 1811, by the army under command of His Excellency, William Henry Harrison.

"Resolved, That the said Col. John P. Boyd be requested to communicate the foregoing to the officers, non-commissioned officers, and privates belonging to the said Forth Regiment, and that a copy of these resolutions, signed by the speaker of this House, be presented to the said Colonel Boyd by a committee of this House.

"Resolved, by the House of Representatives of the Indiana Territory, That the thanks of this House be presented to Col. Luke Decker and Col. Joseph Bartholomew, the officers, non-commissioned officers, and men composing the militia corps under their command, together with the officers, non-commissioned officers, and soldiers composing the volunteer militia corps from the State of Kentucky, for the distinguished valor, heroism and bravery displayed by them in the brilliant battle fought with the Shawnee Prophet and his confederates on the morning of the 7th of November, 1811, by the army under command of His Excellency, William Henry Harrison."

The following reply to these resolutions was sent to the House of Representatives by Colonel Boyd:

"United States Troops, Main Quarters,
Vincennes, December 4, 1811.
"To the Honorable, the House of Representatives of The Indiana Territory:

Gentlemen, -- I have the honor, for myself, the officers and soldiers comprising the Fourth United States Regiment, the rifle company attached, and the small detachment of Posey's company, to return you thanks for the distinguished notice you have been pleased to take of our conduct in the battle with the Shawnee Prophet and his confederates, on the morning of the 7th of November, 1811, by your resolution of this day. If our efforts in discharging our duties shall have resulted in advancing the public good, we are gratified; and to believe that we have merited this tribute of applause from the assembled representatives of this very respectable portion of our country, renders it peculiarly flattering to our honor and pride."

Five days after the adoption of the resolutions addressed to Colonel Boyd, General Harrison sent the following message to the House of Representatives:

"Gentlemen of the House of Representatives: Your speaker has transmitted to me two resolutions of your House, expressive of your thanks to Col. John P. Boyd and the officers and soldiers of the Fourth United States Regiment, to Colonels Bartholomew and Decker, and the officers and privates of the militia under their command, also to the Kentucky volunteers, for their bravery and good conduct in the action of the 7th ultimo. It has excited my astonishment and deep regret to find that the mounted riflemen of the Territory, who so eminently distinguished themselves, and the squadron of dragoons, whose conduct was so highly meritorious, have on this occasion been totally neglected. I can not for a moment suppose, gentlemen, that you have any other wish than that of rendering impartial justice to all the corps. I can not believe that you have the smallest tincture of that disposition, which certainly elsewhere prevails, to disparage the conduct of the militia, and to deprive them of their share of the laurels which have been so dearly purchased by the blood of some of our best and bravest citizens. No! I can never suppose that it was your intention to insult the shades of Spencer, McMahan and Berry, by treating with contempt the corps which their deaths have contributed to immortalize; nor will I believe that a Daveiss, a White, a Randolph and a Mahan, have been so soon forgotten, or that the corps to which they belonged and faithfully performed its duty, was deemed unworthy of your notice. The omission was certainly occasioned by a mistake, but it is a mistake by which, if not rectified, the feelings of a whole country, and part of another, now abounding with widows and orphans, the unhappy consequence of the late action, will be wounded and insulted.

"The victory of the 7th ult., gentlemen, was not gained by any one corps, but by the efforts of all; some of them, indeed, more particularly distinguished themselves, and of this number was the United States Regiment. In my official report to the secretary of war, I have mentioned them in such terms of approbation, that if stronger are to be found in the English language, I am unacquainted with them. But I have not given them all the honor of the victory. To have done so, I should have been guilty of a violence of truth, of justice, and of a species of treason against our Republic itself, whose peculiar and appropriate force is its militia. With equal pride and pleasure, then, do I pronounce that, notwithstanding the regular troops behaved as well as men ever did, many of the militia companies were in no wise inferior to them. Of this number were the mounted riflemen, commanded by Captain Spencer. To them was committed the charge of defending the right flank of the army. That it could not have been committed to better hands, their keeping their ground (indeed gaining upon the enemy) for an hour and a half with unequal arms against superior numbers, and amid a carnage that might have made veterans tremble, is sufficient evidence. Nor can I say that Captain Robb's company, after it was placed by the side of Spencer's, was at all inferior to it. It is certain that they kept their post, and their great loss shows that it was the post of danger. The dragoons also did everything that could have been expected from them in the situation in which they were placed. Before they were mounted they certainly kept the enemy for a considerable time from entering the camp by the left flank; and when mounted, they remained firm at their posts, although exposed to the fire of the enemy at the time when they were necessarily inactive, and consequently placed in a situation most trying to troops. The failure of the charge made by Major Daveiss was owning to his having employed too small a number, but even with these, it is more than probable that he would have been successful, if he had not, unfortunately, mistaken the direction in which the principal part of the enemy lay. A successful charge was made by a detachment of the dragoons at the close of the action, and the enemy were driven into a swamp, in which they could not be followed.

"You may, perhaps, gentlemen, suppose that I ought to have given you the information necessary to your forming a correct opinion of the merits of each corps. Military etiquette, however, and the custom of our country forbade this. It is to the Government of the United States alone that a detailed account of an action is made. In this communication I have given you such information only as was necessary to enable you to correct a mistake which I am sure was unintentional on your part. My sense of the merits of the other corps of the army will be known when my official account is published."

The House of Representatives referred Governor Harrison's message to a committee, who reported the following answer, which the House adopted, on the 17th of December:

"His Excellency, William Henry Harrison, Governor and Commander-in-chief of the Indiana Territory:

Sir, -- When this House addressed that portion of the troops to which you refer in your communication of the 9th inst., it was not the intention of this body to cast a shade over any portion of the troops that were under the command of your Excellency in the late engagement; nor to take from the commander-in-chief any of that honor which he so nobly acquired in the late victory. In the joint address of both houses to you, their notice of the militia in general terms was thought sufficient, as it was out of their power to notice every man who distinguished himself; therefore it was considered that any evidence of respect paid to the commander-in-chief was an evidence of approbation of all. It is not to be supposed that those gentlemen, to whom it is supposed particular respect has been paid, have done any more than their duty, or that they distinguished themselves any more than private soldiers. Those gentlemen who fell, some of them did well and some others had not the opportunity, being killed too early in the battle. But there is not an individual in this body but acknowledges that it was a well-fought battle, and that praise is due, but they generally agree that the laurels won, principally, ought to be the property of the commander-in-chief."

The Legislature of Kentucky passed the following resolution, notwithstanding the gloom which overspread the State by the untimely loss of some of her bravest and most gallant sons:

"Resolved, That in the late campaign against the Indians on the Wabash, Gov. W. H. Harrison has, in the opinion of this Legislature, behaved like a hero, a patriot, and a general, and that for his cool, deliberate, skillful and gallant conduct, in the late battle of Tippecanoe, he deserves the warmest thanks of the nation."

The sense in which the Government regarded the importance of this victory is expressed, very emphatically, by President Madison in a message to Congress, December 18, 1811:

"While it is deeply to be lamented that so many valuable lives have been lost in the action which took place on the 7th ult., Congress will see with satisfaction the dauntless spirit and fortitude victoriously displayed by every description of troops engaged, as well as the collected firmness which distinguished their commander, on the occasion requiring the utmost extertion of valor and discipline."

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Nancy Trice,