Kentucky in the War of 1812
Narrative by William Otter

My thirst for history including that of my ancestors, Oldham County and my home state of Kentucky have led me to this venue to share some of my findings, and to ask others to share theirs. My research, personal thoughts and dialogue are intended to raise pertinent questions and to challenge readers to join in this discussion. Please feel free to browse the pages that follow with an open mind and prepared to contribute your own research and critical thinking.  W.O.

At Tippecanoe and Saltillo too?

When I agreed with the President of the Governor Isaac Shelby Chapter of the Sons of the American Revolution to help locate soldiers of the War of 1812 in my bailiwick, it sounded easy, a small war involving a small area. How wrong I was. The war fought, mostly by Kentuckians, on the high seas and our Great Lakes, and from the Gulf of Mexico to the interior of Canada for over two years involved many men who lived between the Ohio River and Harrods’s Creek in Jefferson County, west of the 1798 western boundary of Henry County. Many are yet to be found, and this writing is an appeal to readers for new information and more leads.

This was Kentucky’s war. War hawks, such as Henry Clay, led their so called Republican Party pressing President James Madison to declare war on Britain or face the prospect of losing his bid for re-nomination. The Federalist Party, prominent in the eastern states, opposed a second war with Britain; however, following a political campaign of several years and ongoing pressure from Clay and others, Madison, a Republican, eventually relented.

Governor Charles ScottAfter Congress voted in favor of war, the steps necessary to gain a war footing were not undertaken in Washington. Kentucky Governor, Charles Scott, appointed the Indiana Territorial Governor, William Henry Harrison, to brigadier general of the Kentucky militia. Plans for the invasion of Canada began in earnest. Former Governor, Isaac Shelby, was persuaded to run for a second term with the promise that he would lead Kentucky forces in the impending war.

Governor Isaac ShelbyShelby became Kentucky’s first Governor in 1792. He was loved by Kentuckians of the Revolutionary War generation as the hero of King’s Mountain. His frontier style of fighting was successful in the bloody civil war against southern Tories where Kentucky rifle defeated the British bayonet. Shelby easily won reelection for his second term as Governor of Kentucky.

Like most Kentuckians, Isaac Shelby was convinced that the British had never abandoned their intention to neutralize the “old” northwest and continued to supply the resident Indians with the armaments and advice necessary to carry out another Pontiac rebellion.

1812 Map of United States           The United States of America in 1812- download (350Kb PDF)

Prior to the outbreak of the second war with Great Britain, British demands included a surrender of a large block of land for their allies, the Indians, who inhabited parts of the Old Northwest Territory.

In the very first interview, held on August 8th, the British put forth as a sine qua non a proposition that amazed and almost dumbfounded the American commissioners. They produced the demand that the Indians should be included in the peace, and that a buffer state should be erected out of the American Northwest and guaranteed forever to them. The Canadian Gazette had for some time been agitating this Indian state, which it would have bounded on the south by the line from Sandusky to Kaskaskia. 1

The specific limits of this buffer state as determined by the British commissioners were to include all American territory north and west of the Greenville Treaty line of 1795, which is to say the whole of the old Northwest included today in the states of Michigan, Wisconsin and Illinois, four-fifths of Indiana, and one-third of Ohio. 2

Pontiac’s rebellion had been successful because the frontiersmen of that time retreated rather than fight ceding land to the Indians. The Kentuckians who came during the Revolution were of a different breed. They stayed and fought back despite the destruction and depredation of Indian warfare. One author called these Kentuckians “the ark of empire” and on it was built the America we became. Expansive? Yes, and deceitful when necessary to our manifest destiny, yes. “Jacksonizing” the Indians was a popular strategy. As one Indian chief put it, “we broke their hearts.” This was the America that Kentuckians prized and were willing to die for.

If the declaration of war with Great Britain was only a minor detail in an ongoing conflict, then Tippecanoe was a battle in the War of 1812 and will be treated as such here. Governor Harrison’s report after the Tippecanoe battle reinforced the Kentucky belief that the British were still trying to stop our westward growth.

Indian troubles had long beset the Kentuckians—in the fact they had been cradled in savage warfare. They firmly believed that the British were guilty of inciting the Indians against the whites at every time and place possible. They had not forgotten the evidences of English, intriguing the Indian uprisings finally put on by “Mad Anthony” Wayne in 1794; and General Harrison kept the charges of British interference before them by declaring directly after the 1811 battle of Tippecanoe that assistance by Great Britain…

William Henry Harrison“…had been afforded in as ample a manner as it could have been, if war had actually prevailed between us and that power. Within the last three months, the whole of the Indians on this frontier have been completely armed and equipped out of the King’s stores at Malden… The Indians, had moreover, had an ample supply of the best British glazed powder-some of their guns had been sent to them so short a time before the action, that they were not divested of the list covering in which they were imported.” 3

Harrison also said he was always able to judge the relations between the United States and Great Britain by the behavior of the Indians. 4

In the East were many Americans who did not believe in American expansion and who were content to remain “New Englanders”. Without Kentucky’s commitment to war as a means of continuing westward expansion, and perhaps with a weaker President, the country might have remained New England.

At this same time, the United States was also involved in a clandestine armed struggle with Spain over Florida. Andrew Jackson admitted as such when he stated that…

“…he would rejoice at the opportunity of placing the American eagle on the ramparts of Mobile, Pensacola and Fort St. Augustine.”
1812 Kentucky Battle Flag
The American eagle banner that Jackson referred to was the battle flag of Kentucky. Ordered by the Kentucky legislature, it was this same flag that Isaac Shelby placed at Fort Malden after the Battle of the Thames.

“Kentuckians should plant the standard which bears your country’s eagle on the walls of Malden.” 5
1810 West Florida FlagIn addition to their defiant settlement of the Indiana Territory, Kentuckians had gone to Louisiana and the Mississippi Territory to help push the Spaniards from West Florida. In a number of “private” raids across these borders, Reuben Kemper (later resident of Westport, Kentucky) and his brothers were captured. Once rescued, Kemper took vengeance on his captors and their ears were contained in a jar of moonshine that decorated the mantle of his Westport home.6 The Kemper claims in West Florida were accomplished under the banner of a single star, later a similar flag was used in Texas.

As a result of their wins at Tippecanoe and the Thames, the Kentucky battle flag was carried to the battle of New Orleans and another great victory was won by soldiers and militia hailing from Kentucky. I feel certain that there were a number of scalps and other battlefield souvenirs of these successful battles adorning the mantels of triumphant soldiers here at home. After generations of blood feud with the Indians, we surely must have adopted some of their bad habits. In fact, I know of one such artifact that surfaced from a returning veteran’s collection. The brass belt plate was identified as having been worn by a British officer who was in a regiment that participated in the battle of New Orleans.

The Kentucky battle flag was also carried in less fortunate engagements. United States forces and Kentucky militia were soundly defeated at the battle of the River Raisin. In January of 1813, the worst defeat of the War of 1812 took place at Frenchtown near present day Monroe, Michigan. More casualties were incurred in this battle than in any other engagement in the war.

Several Kentuckians from this area were present at the River Raisin debacle. On a farm near my home, is an old cemetery where a veteran of the River Raisin, Battle of New Orleans and member of Captain Bland Ballard’s First Rifle Regiment of Kentucky Militia is buried.

Bland Ballard was a seasoned scout and Indian fighter having participated in many military campaigns throughout Indiana and Ohio from 1780 through the War of 1812. Like many other officers, Ballard was in his fifties when he volunteered and marched to Michigan. He was twice wounded at the River Raisin but refused medical treatment and fought on. Because Ballard’s company of frontiersmen consisted of keen marksmen, they were assigned to support General James Winchester, who was in command of the Kentucky forces engaged in this battle. Winchester, and his guardian company, were captured at the River Raisin and marched to Detroit where they were imprisoned for several months before being released in a prisoner exchange.

General James WinchesterI am a four times great nephew of James Winchester. My family tradition describes General Winchester’s subsequent command of forces at Mobile when the British attacked after the battle of New Orleans. After the war, Winchester co-founded the city of Memphis, Tennessee, and was later chosen to survey the Tennessee-Kentucky boundary following the Jackson Purchase. During this time, he made frequent trips to Frankfort and often passed by what later became Oldham County.

On occasion, James Winchester would visit his nieces both of whom lived along the Ohio River. One niece, Livonia Snowden, lived in Goshen; and the other, Olivia Veech, lived near General Zachary Taylor’s home in Indian Hills. It is in the Veech home that Winchester is known to have met with Taylor, a fellow veteran who entered the War of 1812 as a young West Pointer. Winchester is said to have renewed acquaintances with veterans of the war while in Kentucky and this undoubtedly included post-war Oldham County natives.

Zachary TaylorAs a result of their experiences in the War of 1812, returning veterans often named places and communities after revered commanders. Oldham County was no exception. Tippecanoe (now Skylight) was named for General Harrison. Saltillo (now Goshen) was named after a nickname Zachary Taylor received for his headquarters during the battle of Buena Vista. General Taylor’s nickname was replaced with the more memorable “Old Rough and Ready”. Both of these men later became Presidents of the United States, and both visited Oldham County during their political campaigns. One such famous campaign rally for their old commander was held by Tippecanoe residents on the Ohio River near Meade’s Landing.

Kentucky’s War of 1812 veterans fought and died in the struggle for American expansion and independence. Men, like those who forfeited their lives in a “forlorn hope” to break the Indian lines at the battle of the Thames, did so without reservation. Their monument is America, now stretching from “sea to shining sea”. Without men of this ilk, America as we know it may not have ever happened.

William "Bill" Otter passed away in September of 2010. We are continuing to include the list of Oldham County, Kentucky veterans his research revealed elsewhere on this site. It is our sincere hope that some of you reading these pages will take up Bill's research and cooperate if you can by augmenting his records for generations of researchers and Kentuckians to come. Ed.

Care to contribute? Use the contact page.

1 Kerr, History of Kentucky, 566
2 Kerr, History of Kentucky, 567
3 Letter to John M. Scott of Frankfort, December 2, 1811,
   quoted in Niles’ Register, Vol. I, pp 311, 312
4 Kerr’s History of Kentucky p 548
5 Acts of Kentucky, 1812, 107-109 in Kerr’s History of Kentucky p 558
6 History of Harrods Creek, Chamberlain, p.__

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