Fighting in the Backwoods of the Old Northwest

There were not many occasions during the War of 1812 when an official letter of an action would attract the attention of many newspaper editors, in all parts of the country.   First to come was the brief description of the action, here, from the Missouri Gazette of April 2, 1814:  “The express of last night states, that about an hour by sun on the 3d mar. the detachment of mounted infantry and rangers, under the command of capt. A. H. Holmes, was attacked somewhere on this side of Delaware (on the river Thames) by a  party of 250 British and Indians–that after a severe contest of an hour, victory declared in our favor.”  Later came the official letter of Captain Holmes to Lieut. Col. Butler, commanding at Detroit.  There was something about the account of an encounter of not many forces in the remote backwoods that caught the attention of the various editors, and persuaded them to republish it.  This is taken from the Mercantile Advertiser, April 18, 1814

Fort Covington, March 10th, 1814


I have the honor to submit in writing that the expedition sent under my command against the enemy’s posts by your special orders of the 21st ultimo, had the good fortune on the 4th instant to meet and subdue a force double its own, fresh from the barracks, and led by a distinguished officer.

I had been compelled to leave the artillery by the invincible difficulties of the route from Point au Plait to the Round O.  No wheel carriage of any kind had ever attempted it before, and none will ever pass it, until the brush and fallen timer are cut away, and the swamp causewayed or drained.  After joining Capt. Gill, I began the march for Fort Talbot, but was soon convinced of its being impossible to reach the post, in time to secure any force which might be there or adjacent.  Thhis conviction, united with the information that the enemy had a force at Delaware upon the Thames, that I should be expected at Fort Talbot, and consequently, that a previous descent upon Delaware might deceive the foe, and lead him to expose me some point in defending others he might think menaced, and coupled with the possibility that hearing of Captain Gill’s march to the Round O by M’Gregor’s militia, whom he had pursued, a detachment had descended the Thames to intercept him, determined me to exercise the discretion allowed by the order and to strike at once upon the river.

On the 3d inst. when only 15 miles from Delaware, we received intelligence that the enemy had left Delaware with the intention of descending the river, and that we should probably meet him in one hour; that his force consisted of a light company from the Royal Scots, mustering for duty 120 men; a light company from the 89th regiment of foot (efficiency not known); Caldwell’s Indians, and M’Gregor’s militia, amounting in all to about 300 men–My command originally had not exceeded 180 rank & file.  Hunger, cold and fatigue had bro’t on disease, and though none died, all were exceedingly depressed, and 16 had been ordered home as unable to continue the march.  I resolved therefore to avoid the conflict on equal grounds, and immediately retreated five miles for the sake of a good position, on the Western bank of the Twenty Mile Creek, leaving captain Gill with 20 rangers to cover the rear, and to watch the enemy’s motions.  We had encamped but a few minutes, when Captain Gill joined, after exchanging shots with the enemy’s advance, in vainly attempting to reconnoitre his force.  The Twenty Mile Creek runs from north to south, through a deep and wide ravine, and of course is flanked east and west by lofty heights.  My camp was formed upon the western heights.  The enemy’s upon the opposite.  During the night of the third, all was quiet.  At sun rise on the fourth, the enemy appeared thinly upon the opposite heights, fired upon us without effect, and vanished.–After waiting some time for their re-appearance, Lt. Knox of the rangers was sent to reconnoitre.  On his return, he reported that the enemy had retreated with the utmost precipitation, leaving his baggage scattered upon the road, and that the trail and fires made him out not more than seventy men.  Mortified at the supposition of having retrograded from this diminutive force, I instantly commenced the pursuit, with the design of attacking Delaware before the opening of another day.   We had not, however, proceeded beyond five miles, when Capt. Lee, commanding the advance, discovered the enemy in considerable force, arranging himself for battle.  The symptoms of fear and flight were now easily traced to the purpose of seducing me from the heights, and so far the plan succeeded.  But the enemy failed to improve the advantage.  If he had thrown his chief force across the ravine above the road, and occupied our camp when relinquished, thus obstructing my communication to the read, I should have been driven upon Delaware against a superior force, since found to be stationed there, or forced to take the wilderness for Fort Talbot without forage, or provisions.  Heaven averted this calamity.–We soon regained the position at Twenty Mile Creek, and though the rangers were greatly disheartened by the retreat, and to a man insisted upon not fighting the enemy, we decided to exhibit on that spot the scene of death or victory.  I was induced to adopt the order of the hollow square, to prevent the necessity of evolution, which I knew all the troops were incompetent to perform in action.  The detachments of the 24th and 28th infantry occupied the brow of the heights.–The detachment from the garrison of Detroit formed the north front of the square, the rangers the west, and the militia the south.  Our horses and baggage stood in the centre; the enemy threw his militia and Indians across the ravine above the road and commenced the action with savage yells and bugles sounding from the north, west and south.  His regulars at the same time charged ddown the road from the opposite heights, crossed the bridge and charged up the heights we occupied, within twenty steps of the American line and against the most destructive fire.  But his front section was soon shot to pieces.  Those who followed were much thinned and wounded.  His officers were soon cut down and his antagonists continued to evince a degree of animation that bespoke at once their boldness and security.  He therefore abandoned the charge and took cover in the wood at diffused order, between fifteen twenty and thirty paces of our line, and placed all hope upon his ammunition.

Our regulars being uncovered, were ordered to kneel, that the brow of the heights might partly screen them from the enemy’s view.  The firing encreased on both sides with great vivacity.  But the crisis was over.  I knew the enemy dare not uncover, and of course that no second charge would be attempted.  On the north, west and south front the firing had been sustained with much coolness and with considerable loss to the foe.  Our troops on those fronts being protected by logs hastily thrown together, and the enemy not charging, both the rifle and musket were aimed at leisure, perhaps always told.  The enemy at last became persuaded that providence had sealed the fortune of the day.  His cover on the east front was insufficient; for as he had charged in column of sections, and therefore, when dispersing on either side of the road, unable to extend his flanks, and as our regulars presented an extended front from the beginning, it is evident that a common sized tree could not protect even one man, mush less the squads that often stood and breathed their last together; and yet upon his regulars the enemy relied for victory.  In concert therefore, and favored by the shades of twilight, he commenced a general retreat, after one hour’s close and gallant conflict.

I did not pursue for the following reasons.  1.  We had triumphed against numbers and discipline, and were therefore under no obligation of honor to incur additional hazard.  2.  In these requisites (numbers and discipline) the enemy were still superior, and the night would have ensured success to an ambuscade.  3.  The enemy’s bugle sounded the close upon the opposite heights.  If then we had pursued, we must have passed over to him as he did to us, because the creek could be passed on horse back at no other point, and the troops being fatigued and frost bitten and their shoes cut to pieces by the frozen ground it was not possible to pursue on foot–It follows that the attempt to pursue would have given the enemy the same advantage that produced the defeat.

Our loss in killed and wounded amounted to a non-commissioned officer and six privates, but the blood of between 80  and 90 brave Englishmen, and among them four officers, avenged their fall.–The commander, Capt. Bards [Basden] of the 89th, is supposed to have been killed in an early stage of the contest–The whole American force in action consisted of one hundred and fifty rank and file of whom seventy were militia, including the rangers.  the enemy regulars alone were from one hundred and fifty to one hundred and eighty strong, and his militia and Indians fought upon three fronts of our square.

I am much indebted to all my regular officers, and trust their names will be mentioned to the army and to the war department.  Without intending a discrimination, it must be acknowledged that the exertions of Lieutenants Kouns and Henry of the 28th and Jackson and Potter of the 24th were most conspicuous, because fortune had opposed them to the main strength of the foe.  Captain Lee of the Michigan dragoons was of great assistance before the action, at the head of the advance and spies; and my warmest thanks are due to acting sailing master Darling of the United States schr. Somers, who had volunteered to command the artillery.  Ensign Heard of the 28th, acting as volunteer adjutant, merits my acknowledgments, and especially for his zeal in defending my opinion against a final retreat when others permitted their hopes to sink beneath the pressure of the moment.

The enemy’s wounded and prisoners were treated with the utmost humanity.  Though some of our men were marching in their stocking feet they were not permitted to take shoes even from the dead.

I have the honor to be with perfect respect, sir, your most obedient servant.
A. H. Holmes, Captain 24th Inft.
Lieut. Col. Butler, Commanding the Territory of Michigan and its dependencies


Some commentary on this battle from the opposite side can be found in How Canada was held for the Empire, the Story of the War of 1812, by James Hannay, p. 244:

“He [Holmes] was foiled in his attempt on Fort Talbot, and was retreating by way of Longwood, when Captain Basden, of the 89th, advanced against him from Delaware Town, with the two flank companies of the 1st Royal Scots, the light company of the 89th, and fifty militia rangers and Kent militia, in all one hundred and ninety-six rind and file, and fifty Indians under Colonel Elliott.  Holmes, learning of the approach of the British, fell back five miles to Twenty Mile Creek, where he secured himself on a commanding eminence beyond a wide and deep ravine behind long intrenchments forming a hollow square.  There on the fourth of March, Captain Basden found and attacked the Americans in their stronghold.  The snow was about fifteen inches deep with a strong crust rendering the approach to the enemy very difficult.   . . .  Captain Basden, no doubt, was a brave officer, but he showed a lamentable lack of common sense in his method of attack, and exhibited his utter unfitness for a separate command.”

The official British account was made by Captain Stewart, of the Royal Scots, as printed in the Richmond Enquirer on April 16, 1814:

“Capt. Stewart reports, that receiving a report late on the night of the 3d inst. from Capt. Caldwell, that a party of the enemy had been seen in Longwood, he directed the Flank Companies of the Royal Scots and the Light Company of the 89th regt. under the immediate command of Capt. Caldwell; and that at 5 o’clock, in the evening, the enemy was discovered, in very superior force, posted on a commanding eminence, strongly entrenched with log breast works–this post was instantly attacked in the most gallant manner, by the Flank Companies in front, while Capt. Caldwell’s company of Rangers and a detachment of the Loyal Kent militia and a small band of Indians made a flank movement to the left, with a view of gaining the rear of the position; and after repeated efforts to dislodge the enemy, in an arduous and spirited contest of an hour and an half duration, which terminated with the daylight, the troops were reluctantly withdrawn, having suffered, severely, principally in officers.

The enemy has since abandoned his position in Longwood.”

Separately, we find that Captain Holmes had, by August, 1814, become a Major of the 32nd Infantry, and that he was killed August 4, 1814 at Fort Michilimackinac, Michigan.  Before then, he had been sent by Lt. Col. Croghan to Sault St. Mary’s “for the purpose of breaking up the enemy’s establishment at that place.”  He did so, and reported his success to Lt. Col. Croghan on July 27, 1814.  On August 4, Lt. Col. Croghan met the enemy on the west end of Michilimackinac; advanced Major Homes’ battalion of regulars on the right of the militia.” Unfortunately “a fire was opened by some Indians posted in a thick wood near our right, which proved fatal to Major Holmes and severely wounded Captain Desha, (the officer next in rank.)”  After driving the enemy back, on the 5th, Colonel Croghan sent a flag to the enemy asking permission to bring away the body of Major Holmes.  In his report to the Secretary of War, Croghan reports, “I am happy in assuring you that the body of Major Holmes is secured and will be buried at Detroit with becoming honors.”–Lt. Col. George Croghan to the Secretary of War, August 9, 1814, printed in the National Intelligencer, September 3, 1814

The Scioto Gazette Extra of August 25, reprinted by the Nashville Whig of September 6, 1814, reported on Croghan’s expedition and one result:  “The number of killed were estimated variously from 10 to 20–among the latter, our country has to lament the loss of the gallant and accomplished Maj. Holmes, of the 32d Infantry, Capt. Van Horne, of the 19th, and Lieut. Jackson of the 24th, whose bodies were brought down to Detroit and buried on the 16th.”

About the Author

Mary Bowden is a researcher working at the Texas Collections Deposit Library at the University of Texas. A little-known but invaluable treasure of U.S. history and the history of American journalism is archived in the collection of bound United States’ Newspapers at the University of Texas at Austin. The collection began more than a century ago and has been stored in recent years in the Texas Collections Deposit Library on the campus of the University of Texas. The sizeable archive is currently in the early stages of being digitized before being moved to a more climate-controlled environment at the J.J. Pickle Research Campus of the University, on the north side of Austin.

Mary Bowden