Kentucky soldiers played key role in the War of 1812
By Ted Garrison, Clay County Historical Society member and area historian
The War of 1812, sometimes known as The Second Revolution, happened because of several unsettled and problematic issues following the American Revolution. Among the concerns were international respect for our sovereignty as a nation and the right to trade without foreign intervention. To add insult to injury, the British had been stopping American ships and forcing our sailors to join the Royal Navy. Kentucky and other frontier states believed the British, Canadians and Native Americans were obstacles to civilization and peace.
America declared war on Great Britain June 8, 1812. Brig. Gen. William Hull and the United States Army were trapped in Detroit by a military force of British regular troops, Canadian militia and Shawnee Chief Tecumseh’s Native American confederation. Tecumseh, “The Shooting Star,” was an eloquent orator and a highly convincing leader whose primary objective was organizing a confederation of tribes to protect their land. He was appointed to the rank of brigadier general by the British military, to prove how much the British valued his knowledge and leadership ability.
On August 16, Hull surrendered, a move that yielded the Michigan Territory, the Frenchtown Settlement with the militia, and the River Raisin District. The people were at the mercy of raiding groups of outlaw American Indians and British.
Meanwhile, patriotic fervor was high in the mountains of southeastern Kentucky. Some Clay County men joined Capt. Ambrose Arthur’s company of soldiers in Knox County. Reuben Woods Jr., John Gregory, John Fry, Turner Hays, James White, Caleb Henson, John Bryant and others were in that group. Arthur’s company was assigned to Lt. Col. William Dudley’s regiment.
In August, Capt. Daniel Garrard was organizing a company of recruits in Manchester; over 100 men signed up, most from Clay County. They were attached to Lt. Col. William Jennings’ 2nd Infantry Regiment, Kentucky Militia, with Thomas McJilton of Clay County selected as regimental adjutant officer. Revolutionary War veteran “King” David Benge was a fine example of the volunteers who joined the company. Benge said, “I will go fight the Red Coats to keep my son from going. I already have experience.” (Charles House) ( At 53, Benge was the oldest man in the group.)
Garrard’s company walked from Manchester to Georgetown, Kentucky, where they were inducted into the American army. After a brief rest, they continued on to Newport and received combat weapons.
Cpl. Daniel Sibert noted in a letter, “Some of the men walked that entire distance barefooted!” Those mountain men from eastern Kentucky deserve admiration and respect for their patriotism and unbelievable physical strength. Later in the campaign, a Kentucky soldier was observed on guard duty, clothed only in his hunting shirt, standing in the snow and ice—barefoot.
When the women in Kentucky heard of the severe hardships that inclement weather caused their troops, they quickly came to the rescue with needle and thread. Those men were deeply grateful for the clothing made by the resourceful and sympathetic Kentucky women.
Many citizens believed lasting security for them and their property would be possible only if the Americans sent a new army to push the British forces back into Canada. Maj. Gen. William Henry Harrison ordered Brig. Gen. James Winchester to advance as far as the rapids at the Maumee River and wait for reinforcements. After news that the British forces occupying Frenchtown were stockpiling supplies and equipment, Winchester placed Cols. William Lewis and John Allen in command of 600 volunteer troops to retake Frenchtown Settlement.
“Remember the Raisin”
Lewis and Allen led their men down the Maumee River and crossed frozen Lake Erie, where they moved inland south of the River Raisin, ready to attack the British and Native Americans across the river at the Frenchtown Settlement. History would remember this encounter as the Battle of the River Raisin, an important event in the War of 1812.
Winchester was in charge of all Kentucky troops at this time. His soldiers were briefly victorious—until they failed to maintain necessary security measures after the battle. The British and their allies were able to reorganize and kill or capture the relaxing Americans in a horrific massacre on January 16, 1813. Some soldiers from Sextons Creek in Clay County reportedly were among those at River Raisin. In future battles, “Remember the Raisin” became a war cry. During this time, Garrard was promoted to colonel.
Dudley, a well-known magistrate in Fayette County prior to the war, successfully led a unit of approximately 800 soldiers against a British artillery battery in Ohio Territory on May 5, 1813. A short time later, overly anxious militiamen pursued the enemy through the forest. This error enabled the “woods wise” adversaries to regroup and attack the Americans, which ended in a massacre.
Dudley, shot in the midsection, was last seen sitting against a tree, paralyzed and unable to move. He still did his best to fight from this position until he was overwhelmed by Native Americans, who killed and mutilated him. “Dudley’s Defeat” joined “Remember the Raisin” as an urgent cause for revenge.
Harrison chose Garrard and some of his soldiers to accompany him to Fort Wayne in the Indiana Territory. They discovered it to be mostly destroyed and uninhabited. After they returned to their base of operation, Winchester ordered Garrard and 20 of his militiamen to lead the regiment, and they prevented an attack by a large force of British and American Indians. “Garrard’s company lost nine men to sickness. One of them was second in command, Lieutenant Daniel Cockrells,” Sibert wrote.
During the following three months, the company struggled primarily with extreme winter weather. Garrard’s men helped to build Fort Meigs, a headquarters for Harrison on the Maumee River about 12 miles north of Lake Erie. The war ended here for most of Garrard’s troops. John House, Richard Lucas and others joined the regular army.
The Kentucky Legislature financed troops to replace those who had completed their service requirement. McJilton, by then a captain, organized a small mounted company of 32 men from Clay County to continue the war effort, including some of those who made the first journey with Garrard. Included in the mounted company were Benge and Sibert, who had been promoted to sergeant encourage him to stay on. Also joining was Lt. Robert Julius “Juder Bob” Baker, a justice of the first Clay County court and former sheriff, whom Baker chose as his second in command. McJilton’s company enlisted August 10, 1813, for the duration of the war and was assigned to Col. William Williams’ 11th Regiment, Kentucky Volunteer Militia.
“Times that try men’s souls”
Williams’ troops joined with Col. Isaac Shelby (who was also serving his second nonconsecutive term as governor) and Harrison. “We are on the eve of a dangerous war, and the times that try men’s souls are about to return,” said Shelby, who had been Kentucky’s first governor and the military commander at King’s Mountain during the American Revolution.
Soon after these troops joined, they learned that Commodore Oliver Hazard Perry and the American Navy had defeated the British Navy on Lake Erie on September 10, 1813. Perry used an unusual tactic to defeat the superior naval force: He asked expert riflemen from Kentucky to climb the masts of his ships. When the American ships closed the distance, the Kentucky sharpshooters opened fire on the British sailors below them on the decks. This prevented the British from efficiently firing their cannon against the American ships.
This positive change of events scared British Maj. Gen. Henry Proctor, prompting him to order a retreat into Canada shortly afterward. Tecumseh was critical of the general’s decision, calling him an animal with his tail between his legs.
The pursuing American Army overtook British and Native American forces at the River Thames in Ontario, Canada. Proctor and Tecumseh set up their battle lines for the October 5, 1813, conflict along the left bank of the river; a dense swamp covered a large area on the extreme left side of the bank. Tecumseh and his warriors occupied the swamp, while the forces of Col. Richard M. Johnson and Capt. James Davidson were in front of the swamp. To minimize casualties, Johnson asked for 20 volunteers to storm the swamp. The volunteers were led in their “Forlorn Hope” charge by 63-year-old William Whitley. Fifteen of the patriots, including Whitley, were killed instantly; four were wounded and just one was uninjured. This strategy allowed the main force to attack before the warriors could reload.
Heroic Whitley and “Shooting Star” fall
Tecumseh and David King both ran toward Whitley, arriving simultaneously. Tecumseh was holding his tomahawk high, intending to scalp Whitley. King attempted to shoot Tecumseh but his rifle jammed. He grabbed Whitley’s gun and shot Tecumseh. When Davidson and King examined Tecumseh’s body, they found two shots in close proximity. Whitley always loaded his weapon with two balls when he prepared for battle. Later, King returned Whitley’s personal effects to his wife back home at Crab Orchard in Lincoln County. Whitley County is named for William Whitley.
Later that day, Tecumseh’s friends gently placed his body on their shoulders and carried their fallen leader, who had always stood in the brunt of battle with no fear of death. Prior to that battle, the 45-year-old had unbuckled his sword and asked one of his chiefs to give it to his son as if to say, “It is my last and final effort.” He was fearless, able and at times merciful. They carried him deep into the forest, buried him under a huge tree and covered his gravesite with leaves and other forest debris so that the location would remain concealed.
At this juncture, the Kentucky soldiers’ discipline had been immensely improved and fueled with a strong desire for revenge. The battle of the Thames, the last battle of the war in the Northwest, was a complete victory for the Kentuckians, fought only by Kentucky soldiers. McJilton and most of the Clay County soldiers returned home. A small number of them, including Jeremiah Broaddus, Henry Francs, James and Granville N. Love, and others joined the regular army.
“The names of the men who fought at the Thames on October 5, 1813, stand out with a brilliancy and glory which time cannot dim and ages will not efface,” wrote Confederate Civil War veteran Col. Bennett Henderson Young, 8th Kentucky Calvary, in 1903. The American Indian confederation dissolved and the Shawnee migrated to Texas and Oklahoma, leaving their beloved Kentucky and Ohio forever. (We appreciate the extensive research of Tecumseh by E. B. “Reb” Allen and Ronnie Miller.)
Not the end for Kentucky soldiers
On December 24, 1814, the United States and Great Britain signed the Treaty of Ghent in Belgium. However, due to the distance between the two nations, the warring parties were uninformed of the treaty ending the war.
One of the conflict’s largest and most conclusive engagements happened after the treaty was signed. Future president, Maj. Gen. Andrew Jackson, was challenged by Lt. Gen. Sir Edward Pakenham and his 8,000 seasoned British regular troops to determine who would control New Orleans, the gateway seaport to the U.S. Many of Pakenham’s soldiers were veterans of England’s recent victory over Napoleon.
Jackson had been a prisoner of war in the American Revolution, so he had no kind words for the British. He assembled a force of army regulars, frontier militiamen, free blacks, Choctaw, New Orleans aristocrats and pirates, the latter including their leader, the dashing Jean Lafitte. “Old Hickory” Jackson ordered Brig. Gen. John Adair and his 1,000 Kentucky soldiers, including some from Clay County, to the center of his battle line, which would be the main point of the British attack. Jackson’s motley crew of defenders numbered about 4,500.
“I have confidence we can win tomorrow’s engagement,” Jackson told his aide-de-camp (personal assistant), Maj. Auguste Davezac, the night before the January 8, 1815, battle, while Pakenham said, “The dirty shirts will wilt before the mighty British army formation.” (source to come)
At dawn, the British batteries opened up, answered by a withering barrage from Jackson’s 24 artillery cannons, some manned by Lafitte’s pirates. American cannon fire began cutting large holes in the British formation and their ranks were riddled by musket fire. Jackson was perched on a vantage point for viewing, often yelling, “Give ’em hell, boys!”
Jackson’s militiamen had sharpened their aim while hunting on the frontier, and multiple redcoats fell with each American volley. The British main formation was cut to pieces by musket and cannon fire; Pakenham was killed during the rout. Within 30 minutes, the British had suffered about 2,000 casualties, including three generals and seven colonels. Jackson’s ragtag unit lost less than 100 men.
Soon after the battle, “Old Hickory” addressed the troops, praising them for having the courage to halt a planned invasion of America. Newspapers in Washington, D.C., called Jackson the national savior and he in turn gave all credit to God.
When news of the signed Treaty of Ghent reached the U.S., Congress ratified it February 16, 1815, officially ending hostilities. If the U.S. had lost the War of 1812, Great Britain would have re-established rule over America. And yet Americans generally are unaware of the great importance of the War of 1812.
Kentucky suffered disproportionate losses
No one is sure of the number of casualties from Clay County in the War of 1812; records were poorly kept in those days. Roy White, editor and publisher of The Manchester Guardian, wrote in 1932 that the only local soldiers known to be killed were John Bryant and Caleb Henson, who probably died at “Dudley’s Defeat.”
The official listing of casualties for the War of 1812 was 6,765: 2,260 killed in action and 4,505 wounded. Sixty percent of the losses were Kentucky soldiers. While the casualty number might seem insignificant by today’s standards, it was a notable sacrifice for liberty in the early 1800s.
On a personal note, I have never known Kentuckians to be shy when confronted with a serious fight, especially if freedom is in jeopardy. It would be difficult to find any group of military men who expressed greater patriotism and dedication than the eastern Kentucky volunteers who walked all the way to the northwestern battlefields for combat duty in the War of 1812. Uncommon valor doesn’t come close to describing them.
As Willis Weatherford Sr. was quoted in The Wolfpen Notebooks by James Still,
“God sent the very strongest people to live in these here mountains. Otherwise they couldn’t of stood it.”
Searching for more to honor
Clay County veterans have been honored by having their names listed on the Veteran’s Memorial Wall in downtown Manchester. However, as Russell Wolfe pointed out, the names of hundreds of our veterans are missing because so many Clay County citizens moved elsewhere. Several of us have been on a mission to find the names of those missing veterans so that all can be honored.
I have found many names by searching through the archives of the Clay County Historical Society and visiting local cemeteries. James Davidson and Maggie Bowling have also collected a large number of names from our cemeteries. Davidson and the Historical Society are developing a database to include information covering all of our veterans.
Originally, we wanted to extend the existing Memorial Wall to accommodate the additional names, but the existing wall is deteriorated and must be replaced with a larger one of better quality that would permit the listing of the veteran’s name, rank and location of service. This is achievable if we have the support of our elected officials at the local, state and national levels. We hope they can assist us again as they have so graciously in the past.
This article is dedicated to the memory of our good friend, Harley Sibert. He was very proud of his ancestor, Sgt. Daniel Sibert, who fought in the War of 1812.
Quotes and information about the War of 1812 come from the following historians and books:
Charles S. House, Blame it on Salt: The first 150 years of an unruly county and some of its people(February 1, 2010) and Heroes & Skallywags: The People Who Created Clay County, Kentucky (February 1, 2010)
War of 1812, The Second Revolution, Clay County Public Library
Book by Col. Bennett H. Young, Civil War, 8th Kentucky Calvary Regiment, Confederate States of America. Born in Jessamine County, Kentucky, May 25, 1843.