Keith Hunt - Ego goes before Destruction! - Page Twohundred   Restitution of All Things

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Ego goes before Destruction!

Vanity leads to silly Mistakes!


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certainly the most distinguished, the most eloquent. A handsome
Kentuckian, tall, sandy-haired, blue-eyed, close friend and
boyhood companion of the lamented Jo Daviess (Tippecanoe's
victim), next to Clay the state's greatest orator, leading
lawyer, state senator, onetime candidate for governor. When he
speaks all listen, for Allen commands as much respect as, if not
more than, his general.
     He is fed up with inactivity - weary of slow movements that
get nowhere, as he complains in one of his letters to his wife,
Jane, herself the daughter of a general. He hungers for action;
now he sees his chance.
     Winchester's forces, he points out, have three choices: they
can withdraw - an ignominy which, piled upon other American
setbacks, is unthinkable. They can wait here at the Maumee rapids
for the rest of Harrison's force, but if they do that they will
give the British time to build strength. Or they can go to the
aid of the beleaguered inhabitants of Frenchtown, secure the
desperately needed food at the settlement, strike a decisive blow
against the British, open the road to Detroit, and - certainly
not least - cover themselves with glory.
     The council does not need much convincing, nor does
Winchester. Why wait for Harrison, who is sixty-five miles away?
A victory over the British - any victory - can make Winchester a
national hero. His men, he knows, are as eager to move as he is.
The term of the sixmonth volunteers will end in February; they
have refused to re-enlist. All want one brief taste of glory
before returning home. They have just received a welcome shipment
of woollen underwear, and their morale, reduced by long weeks of
inactivity and hunger, has risen again. And there is food at
Frenchtown! Winchester, who has already written to General
Perkins at Lower Sandusky asking for reinforcements for a
proposed advance, now dispatches a second letter to Harrison
announcing his intention to send a detachment to relieve
Frenchtown and hold it.
     One of Harrison's many frustrations during this exhausting
fall and winter has been a collapse of communications. His letter
to Winchester, urging him to abandon his march to the rapids,
arrived too late. Winchester's reply, announcing his intention to
move ahead to the rapids, does not reach him until the force is
actually at its destination. It is carried by an
eighteen-year-old Kentucky volunteer named Leslie Combs, who,
with a single guide, crosses one hundred miles of trackless
forest through snow so deep that the two men dare not lie down
for fear of suffocation and are forced to sleep standing up.
     Exhausted, ill, and starving, the pair reach Fort McArthur
on January 9. Harrison, at Upper Sandusky, gets Winchester's
letter two days later.
     Five days pass during which time Harrison has no idea of
Winchester's position or intentions. Then on the night of the
sixteenth he hears from Perkins at Lower Sandusky that Winchester
has reached the rapids and wants reinforcements, apparently
contemplating an attack.
     The news alarms him - if it were in his power he would call
Winchester off. He sets off at once for Lower Sandusky,
travelling so swiftly that his aide's horse drops dead of
exhaustion. There he immediately dispatches a detachment of
artillery, guarded by three hundred infantrymen, to Winchester's
aid. The camp at the rapids is only thirty-six miles away, but
the roads are choked with drifting snow, and the party moves
     Two days later, on January 18, he receives confirmation of
Winchester's intention to send a detachment to relieve
Frenchtown. Now Harrison is thoroughly alarmed. The proposed move
is "opposed to a principle by which I have ever been governed in
Indian warfare, i.e. never to make a detachment but under the
most urgent circumstances." He orders two more regiments to march
to the rapids and sets off himself, with General Perkins, in a
sleigh. Its slowness annoys him. He seizes his servant's horse,
rides on alone. Darkness falls; the horse stumbles into a frozen
swamp; the ice gives way; Harrison manages to free himself and
pushes on through the night on foot.
     Winchester, meanwhile, has already ordered
Lieutenant-Colonel William Lewis and 450 troops to attack the
enemy at Frenchtown on the Raisin. Off goes Lewis, with three
days provisions, followed a few hours later by a second force of
one hundred Kentuckians under the eager Lieutenant-Colonel Allen.
They rendezvous at Presqu'Isle, a French-Canadian village on the
south side of the Maumee, twenty miles from the rapids, eighteen
from the Raisin. Elias Darnell is overwhelmed, as are his
comrades, by this first contact with anything remotely resembling

"The sight of this village filled each heart with emotions of
cheerfulness and joy; for we had been nearly five months in the
wilderness, exposed to every inconvenience, and excluded from
everything that had the appearance of a civilized country."

     The inhabitants pour out of their homes, waving white flags,
shouting greetings. The troops are in high spirits; they know
that some will be corpses on the morrow, but with the eternal
optimism of all soldiers, most hew to the conviction that they
will survive. Nonetheless, those who can write have sent letters
home to wives, parents, or friends. One such is Captain James
Price, commander of the Jessamine Blues, who writes rather
formally to his wife, Susan, at Nicholasville, Kentucky, that "on
the event of battle I have believed it proper to address you
these lines."
     It is his two-year-old son that concerns Captain Price
rather than his three daughters who, he feels, are his wife's
responsibility: "Teach my boy to love truth," he writes, "to
speak truth at all times.... He must be taught to bear in mind
that 'an honest man is the noblest work of God'; he must be
rigidly honest in his dealings.... Never allow him to run about
on Sabbath days, fishing. Teach my son the habits of industry....
Industry leads to virtue.... Not a day must be lost in teaching
him how to work.... It may be possible I may fall in battle and
my only boy must know that his father, next to God, loves his
country, and is now risking his life in defending that country
against a barbarous and cruel enemy.... Pray for me that you may
be with me once more."

     The following morning, January 18, as the Kentucky soldiers
march along the frozen lake toward their objective, they meet
refugees from Frenchtown. What kind of artillery do the British
have, the troops want to know. "Two pieces about large enough to
kill a mouse," is the reply. From Frenchtown comes word that the
British are waiting. Lewis forms up his troops on the ice, and as
they come in sight of the settlement, the lone British howitzer
opens up. "Fire away with your mouse cannon!" some of the men
cry, and as the long drum roll sounds the charge, they cross the
slippery Raisin, clamber up the bank, leap the village pickets,
and drive the British back toward the forest.
     Later, one of the French residents tells Elias Darnell that
he has watched an old Wyandot - one of those who took part in the
rout of Tupper's Ohio militia at the rapids - smoking his pipe as
the Americans come into sight. "I suppose Ohio men come," he
says. "We give them another chase." Then as the American line
stampedes through the village he cries, "Kentuck, by God!" and
joins in the general retreat.
     The battle rages from 3 P.M. to dark. John Allen forces the
British left wing back into the forest. The British make a stand
behind a chain of enclosed lots and small clusters of houses,
where piles of brush and deadfalls bar the way. The American
centre under Major George Madison (a future governor of Kentucky)
and the left under Major Benjamin Graves now go into action, and
the British and Indians fall back, contesting every foot. When
dusk falls they have been driven two miles from the village, and
the Americans are in firm possession.
     Lewis's triumphant account of the victory is sent
immediately by express rider to Winchester, who receives it at
dawn. The camp at the rapids is ecstatic. Harking back to Henry
Clay's speech of August 16, Lewis reports that "both officers and
soldiers supported the double character of Americans and
Kentuckyans." The state's honour has been vindicated. The
soldiers at both Frenchtown and the rapids now feel they are
unbeatable, that they will roll right on to Detroit, cross the
river, capture Amherstburg. General Simon Perkins, after the
fact, will write dryly: "I fancy they were too much impressed
with the opinion that Kentucky bravery could not fall before
[such] a foe as Indians and Canadians."

     The troops on the Raisin are dangerously exposed. Yet their
eagerness for battle is such that Winchester would be hard put to
withdraw them even if he wished to - even Harrison will admit
that. But Winchester does not wish to. Caught up in the general
intoxication of victory, seeing himself and his army as the
saviours of his country's honour, he takes what troops he can
spare - fewer than three hundred - and marches off to Frenchtown.
There is another force drawing him and his men toward the little
village - an attraction quite as powerful as the prospect of fame
and glory: Frenchtown, at this moment, is close to paradise.
Hereon the vine-clad banks of la Riviere au Raisin is luxury:
fresh apples, cider by the barrel, sugar, butter, whiskey, and
more-houses with roofs, warm beds, hearthsides with crackling
fires, the soft presence of women. When Winchester arrives late
on the twentieth, Lewis's men have already sampled these
delights. Billeted in no particular order in the homes of the
enthusiastic settlers, they are already drunk and quarrelsome,
wandering about town late into the night. There is some vague
talk of entrenching the position, but it is only talk. The men
are weary from fighting, unruly from drink, and in no mood to
take orders.
     The village is surrounded on three sides by a palisade
constructed of eight-foot logs, split and sharpened at the ends.
These pickets, which do not come all the way down to the river
bank, enclose a compact community of log and shingle houses,
interspersed with orchards, gardens, barns, and outbuildings. The
whole space forms a rectangle two hundred yards along the river
and three hundred deep. On the right of the village, downriver,
lies an open meadow with a number of detached houses. Here
Lieutenant-Colonel Samuel Wells, brother to the slain scout Billy
Wells and a veteran of Tippecanoe, encamps his regulars.
     Winchester demurs: the regulars would be better placed
within the palisade. But Wells insists on his prerogatives:
military etiquette determines that the regular troops should
always be on the right of the militia. Winchester does not argue.
Wells's men are exposed, but he expects to find a better
campground for them on the following day.
     Leaving Wells in charge of the main camp, the General and
his staff, including his teen-aged son, take up quarters on the
south side of the river in the home of Colonel Francis Navarre, a
local trader. It is a handsome building, the logs covered with
clapboard, the whole shaded by pear trees originally brought from
Normandy. Winchester is given a spacious guest-room at the front
of the house, warmed by a fireplace. It is now Wells's turn to
demur. He believes the General and his officers should be as
close as possible to the troops on the far side of the river in
case of sudden attack. The British fort is only eighteen miles
     But James Winchester has made up his mind. For twenty years
as a wealthy plantation owner he has enjoyed the creature
comforts of a sedentary life. For five months without complaint
he has slept out in the elements, enduring the privations with
his troops, existing on dreadful food - when there was food at
all - drinking, sometimes, stagnant water scooped out of wagon
tracks. Later, he will argue that there was no house in
Frenchtown; he would have had to move some of the wounded. But
this is palpably false.
     A strange lassitude has fallen over the General and his
troops. The sudden euphoric victory, the almost magical
appearance of food, drink, warmth, and shelter - the stuff of
their dreams for these past weeks - has given them a dreamlike
confidence. There is talk of moving the camp to a better
position, and on the following day the General and some of his
officers ride out to look over the ground. Nothing comes of it.
It does not apparently occur to them that it might be a good idea
to put the river between themselves and the British.
     Wells leaves camp that morning claiming that he has baggage
to collect at the rapids. Winchester, who believes that Wells has
lost faith in him, sends a note with him to Harrison, detailing
his situation. It reflects his sense of security: his patrols
have detected no British in the vicinity; he does not believe any
attack will take place for several days. His own intentions are
far from clear. Later that night, Captain Nathaniel Hart,
Harrison's emissary, rides in with the news that Harrison has
arrived at the Maumee rapids and that reinforcements are on the
way. This adds to the general complacency.

     It is an axiom of war that from time to time even the best
of generals suffer from a common failing - a refusal to believe
their own intelligence reports. Psychological blinkers narrow
their vision; they decline to accept any evidence that fails to
support their own appreciation of the situation. Winchester seems
deaf to all suggestions that the British are massing for an
attack. On the morning of the twenty-first, he sends Navarre's
son Peter and four of his brothers to scout toward the mouth of
the Detroit River. En route, they intercept Joseph Bordeau,
Peter's future father-in-law, crossing on the ice from the
British side. Bordeau, who has escaped from Amherstburg, brings
positive news that the British, with a large body of Indians,
will be at the Raisin some time after dark. But "Jocko" La Salle,
a voluble and genial French Canadian - and a possible British
plant - convinces Winchester that this news must be in error.
Winchester and his officers, "regaling themselves with whiskey
and loaf sugar" as Elias Darnell believes, dismiss Peter Navarre
with a laugh.
     That afternoon, a second scout confirms the story, but again
Winchester is deaf. Later in the evening, one of Lewis's ensigns
learns from a tavern keeper that he has been talking to two
British officers about an impending attack. But Lewis does not
take the report seriously.

     Some of Winchester's field officers expect that a council
will be called that night, but no word comes from the General.
Though Winchester has issued vague orders about strengthening the
camp, little has been done. Nor does he issue the ammunition,
stored at Navarre's house. Wells's detachment is down to ten
rounds per man.
     It is bitterly cold. The snow lies deep. Nobody has the
heart to send pickets out onto the roads leading into the
settlement. William Atherton notices that most of the men act as
if they were perfectly secure, some wandering about town until
late into the night. Atherton himself feels little anxiety,
although he has reason to believe the situation is perilous. He
sleeps soundly until awakened by the cry "To arms! to arms!" the
thundering of cannon, the roar of muskets, and the discordant
yells of attacking Indians.


To be continued

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