The War of 1812: Beyond Battle Reports and Correspondence
In a previous blog (Music at the National Archives, June 2011) I wrote about those rare instances when archivists and researchers come across a document that stands out because it is so different from what is usually found within our holdings. On one occasion I located two such records within the Secretary of War records at Archives I.
Richard M. Johnson, then a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Kentucky, wrote to the Secretary of War, John Armstrong, on December 14, 1812, requesting permission to organize a regiment of mounted volunteers in order to conduct a winter campaign against the Indians. While this plan was rejected by General William Henry Harrison, Johnson continued to appeal to the Secretary. In a letter received by the War Department on February 23, 1813 (see image above right), he announced that he was again prepared “to raise two regiments of mounted men to serve for any period not exceeding four months after meeting any place of rendezvous, not exceeding 300 miles from Cincinnati.” Once authorized by Secretary Armstrong on February 26, 1813, Johnson set out to do as he had planned and a regiment consisting of about 1,500 men was formed, with him serving as the commanding officer.
Wanting to update the Secretary on the situation, Johnson enclosed a handbill with correspondence, dated May 12, 1813, to “appraise [him] of the rendezvous of the mounted regiment.” The printed handbill (see image below), entitled A Call for the Mounted Regiment, is broken down into two sections. On the left is a copy of a letter from the Governor of Kentucky, Isaac Shelby, to Johnson, in which the former assured the latter of his support, promising to “issue commissions to the officers.” The right side, on the other hand, was authored by Johnson and appears to have served as a rallying cry to his troops. Authored by Johnson, he promises that his regiment would “meet any crisis which might involve the honor, the rights, and the safety of the country. Furthermore, he goes on to state
“That crisis has arrived! Fort Meigs is attacked—the North-Western army is surrounded by the enemy, and under the command of General Harrison, nobly defending the sacred cause of their country, against a combined enemy, the British and Indians. They will maintain the ground until relieved. The intermediate garrisons are also in imminent danger, and may fall a bleeding sacrifice to savage fury, unless timely reinforced. The frontiers may also be deluged in blood; the Mounted Regiment will present a shield to the defenceless [sic], and united with forces marching….the enemy will be driven from our soil.”
Colonel Johnson’s Regiment did see action a few months later. On October 5, 1813, he and his men took part in the Battle of the Thames. According to Gen. Harrison’s report of the engagement, he was severely wounded and yet continued to fight. Although not mentioned in the report, but later widely believed, Col. Johnson was considered to be the one responsible for killing Tecumseh, the legendary Shawnee Indian chief who fought against the Americans during the war.
Of course, this document was just one of those nuggets that I have sporadically found over the years. But as with everything about my job, I am always surprised and pleased when something different jumps out during my forays into the records.