Monday, April 22, 2013

The Forgotten Battle: The 1814 Battle of Credit Island, Iowa and Illinois

Today's fascinating post, the first in a series of five, comes to us from Chris Espenshade. Chris is the Regional Director at the Jackson, Michigan office of Commonwealth Cultural Resources Group.  When he joined CCRG in October 2012, Chris brought experience with several ABPP (American Battlefield Protection Program) and other military projects in the Southeast and Middle Atlantic.  Credit Island provided the opportunity to pursue this work closer to his new home.

Welcome to the first in several posts about a different sort of War of 1812 battle. The Battle of Credit Island was fought September 4 and 5, 1814, on the Mississippi River near the present-day Davenport, Iowa.  The battle was noteworthy for a number of reasons:

The defeated Americans were led by Zachary Taylor, the future president, and the Native American forces included Chief Black Hawk (Black Hawk’s autobiography is available as a free ebook).

The 800-1200 Native American combatants far outnumbered the 334 Americans and the 20-30 British.  Unlike battles on the eastern seaboard, there was a heavy involvement by Native Americans at Credit Island.

It was one of very few battles on the Upper Mississippi, and featured eight reinforced river boats (see the current issue of the Midcontinental Journal or Archaeology,

The weather was a major determinant in the outcome of the battle.

Three artillerists with a brass 3-pounder and two swivel guns (probably 1-pounders) caused most of the damage and forced the American retreat.

The battle marked the last effort in the war by the Americans to wrest control of the Upper Mississippi from the British.

The victory helped cement the relationship between the British and the local tribes.
Detail of Battlefield.  Blue outline is Pelican Island.  The head of Credit Island is in southwest corner.  B marks mostly likely position of British artillery.  Red lines on northeast shore of Pelican Island are likely locations of American boats (Figure created in GoogleEarth 2013).
Despite these interesting aspects, the Battle of Credit Island is not well-known to the general public.  It is a forgotten battle, and was not included in the national survey of War of 1812/Revolutionary War Battlefields.

The only public signage about the battle is located away from the core battlefield - in fact, it faces away from the battlefield, and includes questionable information. In an effort to better understand and interpret The Battle of Credit Island, the City of Davenport applied for and won a 2012 grant from the American Battlefield Preservation Program.

The City owns much of the property in the core battlefield. The research was conducted by Commonwealth Cultural Resources Group of Jackson, Michigan.

Before talking about the present project, let’s consider a brief summary of the battle:

The Battle of Credit Island occurred on September 4 and 5, 1814, as American troops tried to take control of the Upper Mississippi away from the British and the British-allied Native American tribes. For the Americans, Zachary Taylor led 334 men in eight gunboats. The American force hoped to destroy the Native American village and crops on the Rock River, upstream from its confluence with the Mississippi River.  When Taylor realized his artillery would not be effective from the gun boats and the large number of Native American warriors present would not permit him to disembark his guns, Taylor decided to feint movement upstream, as if his target was the British fort at Prairie du Chen, Wisconsin. The Americans had just begun this upstream move on the afternoon of September 4, when a strong storm blowing downstream forced the Americans to stop for the night at Pelican Island. At least two of the American boats had poor anchors, and these boats tied off to the island.

The American boats were larger (80 feet long or more) and better armed than the 55-foot long keel-boat used by the Lewis and Clark expedition, but were likely similar in design. This model of the Lewis and Clark boat is featured on the Lewis & Clark Fort Mandan Foundation.
At first light on September 5, a number of Native Americans had waded to Pelican Island from Credit Island, and an American sentry was shot and killed.  The Americans disembarked a force and cleared the Native Americans from Pelican Island.  At about this same time, the few British with a 3-pounder and two swivel guns abandoned their position watching the Rock Island rapids, and moved downstream to the western bank of the Mississippi, where they had a clear view of the American boats.  

View facing south-southeast from the suspected British artillery position. 
Taylor had one of his boats drop downstream to cover the channel between Credit and Pelican Islands, to keep the Native Americans from returning to Pelican Island. Shortly thereafter, the British began an artillery barrage, inflicting serious damage to the American boats.  By one account, 51 of the 54 shots hit American boats. The barrage continued only 45-60 minutes, before Taylor recognized the need to retreat from his untenable position. The Americans retreated downstream. The Native American forces and the British were low on ammunition and supplies, and did not pursue the Americans.

More to come next week! Keep reading and please post questions or thoughts in the comments!

This research – conducted by Commonwealth Cultural Resources Group -- was sponsored by the American Battlefield Preservation Program and the City of Davenport, Iowa.  This material is based upon work assisted by a grant from the Department of the Interior, National Park Service. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of the Interior.

1 comment:

  1. Dakota Chiefs Wabasha and Little Crow had at least 50 Dakota fighting men at the Battle of Credit Island. They were manning the British Cannons. They said they would guard them with their lives. The Dakota were successful in driving the American boats back down the Mississippi River. We need to be more accurate in historical reports. Especially when there is readily available archival resources to take from.