Plan of encampment. Click here for larger image.
Story by Capt. Jason Moore - 138th Regional Training Institute
The Battle of Tippecanoe resulted from American attempts to settle new areas in the northwest and from Indian attempts to prevent that expansion. The fighting took place Nov. 7 and 8, 1811, at Prophetstown, the Indian confederacy capital near the confluence of the Tippecanoe and Wabash Rivers.
Drawn together by the leadership qualities of the Shawnee Chief Tecumseh, along with the visionary doctrines of his brother Tenskwatawa, otherwise known as “the Prophet,” Native Americans were alive with hope as their greatest opportunity to move decisively against Gov. William Henry Harrison was close at hand. Furthermore, with the English breathing down the American’s necks from Canada and the War of 1812 on the doorstep, it was now or never for the Native Americans and they had the perfect leader in Tecumseh.
In the battle on Nov. 7, Tecumseh and his Indian confederation fought bravely against U.S. forces but were defeated and Harrison’s folklore was solidified propelling him ultimately into the presidency. Given these points, the purpose of this study is to analyze the mission command of Harrison resulting in victory at the Battle of Tippecanoe. Specifically, Harrison’s use of and ability in understanding and assessing situations will be described in context prior to and leading up to the battle. Next, Harrison’s ability to visualize and direct will be emphasized before and during the battle. Lastly, Harrison’s leadership will be covered throughout from the beginning of the campaign on through to the end. But before going straight into the battle analysis and review of Harrison’s mission command impact, some background and history leading up to the Battle of Tippecanoe must follow.
Conflict with the American Indian was all but inevitable following the Revolutionary War as the U.S. government viewed natives, many of whom were allied with Great Britain, as a conquered people with few rights. Prior to this, following the British victory in the French and Indian War the British in 1763 announced a “Proclamation Line,” which separated colonists from Indians and prohibited colonial governments from purchasing land or settling west. Twenty years later, upon succeeding Britain in the War of Independence, the United States not only attained autonomy but also acquired an empire beyond the Appalachian Mountains.
By 1800 the Northwest Territory, with the exception of Ohio, became the Indiana Territory. Throughout this expanse there was a white population of only 5,641 people, as most of the territory remained in the hands of various Indian tribes using the forests and prairies as their hunting grounds. Harrison, a veteran of the Battle of Fallen Timbers and well aware of the strengths of these native warrior-residents, was appointed Governor of the Indiana Territory by the War Department and made head U.S. negotiator with all the Indian tribes of this vast and rugged area.
By way of contrast, in 1808 under the leadership of Tecumseh and his brother, the Shawnee spiritual leader the Prophet, Native Americans came together at a place known as Prophetstown approximately 200 miles up the Wabash River from Vincennes. Meanwhile, Harrison completed one of the most disputed Native American cessions in his tenure as Indian Superintendent in 1809, acquiring approximately 3 million acres of choice land for the United States.
In the end, Harrison’s treaties through 1809 had secured title to almost 30 million acres of Indian lands. By the summer of 1810, as more and more land was taken from the Indians, Tecumseh and his brother, the Prophet, implored Native Americans to give up their differences and unite to defend what was historically theirs, as both sides were preparing for war. Tecumseh continued his travels seeking to strengthen his confederacy, while the U.S. secretary of war ordered an infantry regiment and two separate companies to the Indiana Territory. Given this background, the mission command analysis now follows.
A key aspect of understanding and establishing a situation’s context is to circulate within the area of operations and, as often as possible, collaborate with subordinate commanders and Soldiers. Leading up to the Battle of Tippecanoe, Harrison had a large intelligence system setup throughout the frontier consisting of spies, traders, and government agents. As a result, detailed reports were continuously submitted to Harrison giving him greater understanding of the operational environment concluding that Tecumseh and the Prophet were preparing for war against the United States. In addition, boatmen returning to Vincennes from Indian lands reported to Harrison that hundreds of canoes were lined up along the banks of the Wabash, moving Harrison to conclude that a large force could attack Vincennes quickly by river versus the slower overland approach. As a result, an attack could happen with little warning.
Not only did intelligence point toward conflict, but with tensions continuing between settlers and Indians meetings were arranged between Harrison and Tecumseh for two days in August 1810 and again the following July. After the second day of discussion in the summer of 1811, Tecumseh informed Harrison that he planned to travel south seeking more tribes to join his confederation and to delay action until his return in spring. In other words, the enemy in charge was going on leave and requested that there be no action.
Knowing that more tribes supporting the confederation would pose an even greater threat to U.S. interests and ready to seize the advantage created by the void in Indian leadership, Harrison spelled out his vision in a letter to his senior, Secretary of War William Eustis, emphasizing that Tecumseh’s absence “affords a most favorable opportunity for breaking up his confederacy.” In addition, Harrison knew the British were supporting the Indians with guns, ammunition, and supplies, and that a war with the British and Indians was likely. Noting these conditions, Harrison visualized crushing the Indian threat now while their leadership was away before the British openly came to their aid.
Harrison was successful in selling his vision and approach to Eustis, who gave Harrison permission to stand up a force against the Indian confederacy. By October, Harrison had an army of about 1,100 men, however many of them were untrained and inexperienced militia from Kentucky and Indiana. A regular force commanded by Col. John Parker Boyd was under Harrison’s command, but overall the experience of this army was no match for the experienced Indian fighters. Moreover, many of the regulars lacked combat experience as there had not been a major campaign since the Battle of Fallen Timbers approximately 20 ago. In spite of this, Harrison assessed his current condition and countered the lack of skill by relying on training and practice along with adequate numbers to overcome the lack of experience in his men.
Moving on to the early operations of the campaign, as commander, Harrison established command and support relationships throughout the territory. This was done through both land and water lines of communication ensuring resupply from the capital at Vincennes to Prophetstown successfully displaying the mission command element of directing.
According to Maj. Harry D. Tunnell IV, who wrote “To Compel with Armed Force: A Staff Ride Handbook for the Battle of Tippecanoe”: “Harrison’s lines of operation were clearly exterior and extended about 150 miles from Vincennes through the new land purchases to Prophetstown. This line of operation was supported by land lines of communication from Vincennes, through Fort Harrison, and Boyd’s Blockhouse. The Wabash River provided an excellent water line of communication that supported resupply between the capital and the outposts.”
On Nov. 3, 1811, Harrison’s army crossed into Indian territory. Their approach was slow and on the last day they began to encounter hostile parties of Indians from afar who refused to communicate with Harrison’s interpreter. As Harrison’s army drew closer to Prophetstown drew closer, Harrison ordered his men to take off their packs and align themselves into battle formations. Eventually, one of the Prophet’s representatives met with Harrison’s interpreter reassuring him that there would be no attack and that the Prophet was willing to have talks in the morning. Harrison “inquired about a location with enough wood and water for the army,” and was given a site that would eventually become the battlefield. In possibly the best order given, Harrison had his men sleep fully dressed in the elements near their battle positions with weapons ready and bayonets fixed. Meanwhile, a heavy guard of almost two companies patrolled the perimeter.
Around 4 a.m., Cpl. Steven Mars fired a shot at an infiltrating Indian as the Prophet decided to attack the trapezoid shaped encampment. The fight lasted for several hours as the Indians attacked three sides of the camp heavily. Harrison exemplified leadership providing purpose, direction, and motivation to both his subordinate commanders and Soldiers by continually moving “from one threatened location to another throughout the battle to direct his forces and inspire his Soldiers.”
At the first critical event on the left flank, Capt. Robert C. Barton’s regulars along with Capt. Frederick Geiger’s Kentucky militia were hit so quickly that their flank caved in. In this case, Harrison felt his physical presence necessary and arrived at the scene ordering Capt. Joel Cook’s 4th U.S. Company and an Indiana militia company to restore the angle. Once the penetration was reduced, Harrison immediately rode to the front of the perimeter approximately 134 yards away and took control as a militia company started to “give way in disorder.” Maj. Joseph Hamilton Daviess was finally granted permission to move his reserve of dragoons to attack the Indians, but was flanked and suffered several casualties. Finally, Capt. Josiah Snelling of the 4th U.S. took his company and eliminated the threat.
Meanwhile, at the southwest perimeter several Indiana militia were fighting against a powerful Indian assault and most of their officers were killed or wounded. Harrison arrived and realized that the security of this important area was under the command of two junior officers. He assessed the situation and immediately searched for men to restore the line. Prior to this, Capt. David Robb’s company was mistakenly moved earlier from the northern part of the perimeter, which supported Wells’ command, and an officer recognizing this error held the company in the center of the encampment. Harrison recognized this useful reserve, ordered them up to restore the line on the southwest perimeter and then moved one of the companies from the 4th U.S. Regiment to restore Wells’ line on the north perimeter.
Throughout the dark, early morning hours, Harrison’s priority was to maintain the perimeter and keep the Indians from breaking through. By contrast, once daylight began to surface, Harrison assessed, according to Tunnell, “that he could order a general charge of infantry and mounted troops. The charges would clear the remaining Indians off any important terrain around the perimeter. Meanwhile, Harrison ordered companies to reinforce the left and right flanks in preparation for the counterattacks at first light … the subsequent charge of the regulars and militia routed the enemy to their front.”
Once Harrison routed the Indian attack, his force was left to consolidate, reorganize, and reestablish chains of command as 37 were killed and 126 wounded.
Livestock was lost for the most part until the following day, and Harrison’s men were forced to eat horses killed in battle. Lastly, the army built breastworks in the event of a follow-on attack and pulled 100-percent security through the night. Despite the losses, a decisive victory was won.
In the end, Harrison’s mission command – his exercise of authority and initiative – was vital to the U.S. victory over the Prophet and his followers. By remaining calm, not only throughout the chaos of battle but also the absence of light during the early engagement hours, Harrison maintained the perimeter and kept his army from being overrun. Moreover, he moved all throughout the battlefield inspiring his Soldiers while providing purpose, direction, and motivation. Harrison continued to display leadership by enduring all of his Soldier’s hardships, including the last day on the field by burning his personal property in order to make room in wagons for the wounded.
To summarize the significance of Harrison’s command, before the battle campaign Harrison maintained a day-to-day understanding of the Indian territory collaborating with a network of spies, traders, and others enabling him to make the best decision. Moreover, with this understanding he was able to visualize an end state successfully pushing it to the secretary of war and ultimately solving the problem altogether. Had Harrison not acted upon his vision of attacking the Indians while the Shawnee chief Tecumseh was away, the Battle of Tippecanoe would have been fought at another time and may have concluded quite differently.
Once Harrison received the secretary of war’s approval, he directed both land and water lines of communication ensuring resupply from the capital at Vincennes to Prophetstown more than 150 miles away. He assessed the ability, or lack thereof, of his ragged and hastily formed mixture of militia and inexperienced Soldiers compensating lack of skill with training and superior numbers.
Lastly, Harrison’s leadership transcended throughout every element of mission command described. According to one witness, “in the heat of the action, his voice was frequently heard and easily distinguished, giving his orders in the same calm, cool, and collected manner with which we had been used to receive them on drill or parade. The confidence of the troops in the general was unlimited.” Thus we can see the significance and success of Gov. William Henry Harrison’s mission command at the Battle of Tippecanoe.