In 1812, with questionable justification and inadequate preparation, the newly united States of America declare war on Great Britain, the most powerful nation on earth. In Backlash, five young Americans wage a war that drastically changes their life—and the history of the world.
Award-winning author Mike Klaassen began writing fiction when his sons were teenagers. His first two books were young-adult action-adventure novels influenced by his experience as a Kansas farm boy and as a Scoutmaster. A visit to the site of the Battle for New Orleans led Mike to write Backlash: A War of 1812 Novel, featuring five young Americans in the fight of their life. Ongoing research encouraged Mike to write books about the craft of writing fiction. The use of folktales as examples in his nonfiction books inspired him to begin Klaassen's Classic Folktales, a collection of ancient stories retold as novellas.
Technically, the Battle of Tippecanoe was not part of the War of 1812, but I thought it was a perfect opportunity to begin the story of Lemuel Wyckliffe.
NOVEMBER 1811, INDIANA TERRITORY
Sixteen-year-old Lemuel Wyckliffe woke from fitful sleep. Throughout the night, moisture from the ground had soaked through his blanket and clothes. He had tried to convince himself that everything would be all right. After all, he was lying next to his pappy, among dozens of other seasoned frontiersmen. And they were surrounded by nearly a thousand well-armed men. But the camp lay deep in the wilderness, within sight of a huge Indian village.
The order to remain fully armed had been understandable, but it hadn’t made for a restful night. Lemuel pulled his pappy’s old musket a little closer under the woolen blanket, then rolled slightly so his hip didn’t mash against the handle of the hunting knife sheathed to his belt.
He figured it must be nearly dawn, but the starless sky showed no sign of light. A gentle breeze whispered through leafless branches high overhead, and an owl hooted in the distance. The air hung heavy with smoke and was ripe with the smell of cattle and horses. Flickering campfires sent shadows dancing across canvas tents nestled among stately trees. Freezing drizzle settled on his cheeks as he peered into the darkness around him.
Nearby, an armed guard slogged through rustling leaves and mud that sucked at his boots. The sound of the guard assured Lemuel that all was well, for now at least.
He relaxed a little, then began to think about the coming day. If the rumors were accurate, they would be facing Indians recruited by the great Shawnee leader Tecumseh. He had been encouraging tribes from the Great Lakes all the way down to the Gulf of Mexico to unite and halt American acquisition of native lands. In recent months, thousands of Indians had gathered near the juncture of the Wabash and Tippecanoe rivers. The village, named Prophet’s Town after Tecumseh’s brother, was to be the capital of the new Indian confederation.
The gathering of such a large body of Indians had alarmed the settlers of Indiana. When rumors circulated that British soldiers from Canada were arming the natives, the pioneers pressured Territorial Governor General William Henry Harrison to do something about it. Harrison, an experienced Indian fighter and successful treaty negotiator, asked for militia volunteers to augment his small army of uniformed regular soldiers. With visions of his mutilated mother and sister flashing through his mind, Lemuel joined his pappy as part of a Kentucky militia company of mounted riflemen that responded to the general’s request for help.
In late September, Harrison’s army headed north from the territorial capital of Vincennes with horse-drawn supply wagons and a small herd of cattle. They chopped their way through a hundred miles of wild woodland and forded numerous streams.
Entirely on their own in Indian country, they were in constant danger of ambush. Along the way, Lemuel’s father and some of the other militiamen coached Lemuel in the skills of Indian fighting. After crossing to the west bank of the Wabash, they followed the river northeast toward Prophet’s Town.
As they had neared the Indian village in the late afternoon, a warrior carrying a white flag approached the army. A delegation of chiefs assured Harrison that they wanted peace and friendship with the States. In response, Harrison assured the Indians he would not attack them if they would comply with his demands to disperse and return to their traditional villages. Both sides agreed that there would be no hostilities, at least until after Harrison met with the chiefs on the following day.
Ignoring the campsite suggested by the chiefs, the Americans bivouacked on a timbered ridge overlooking a steep creek bank to the west and a mile-wide marsh to the east. Blue-uniformed infantrymen and rough-clad militiamen bedded down just inside a rectangular perimeter over a hundred yards long. With wagons forming a barricade to corral the horses and cattle, sentries were posted and outposts established. Lemuel, his pappy, and the other militiamen were camped along the southern edge.
Lemuel’s eyelids grew heavy as he began to doze again in the quiet of the night. He flinched at the sound of a musket shot. An Indian war cry made Lemuel cringe. The first war cry was followed by dozens more. A flurry of shots erupted from the northwest corner of camp. War cries rose up in a wave just outside the perimeter. The cries spread first along the northern line. Then along the long eastern front facing the marsh. Finally, around the southern edge of camp to the creek bank.
Lemuel froze, his insides churning. If thousands of natives suddenly rushed into camp, the Americans would be overwhelmed, butchered, and scalped. Lemuel wanted to run for the creek bank where he could hide, but his legs wouldn’t move.
A ball whizzed past his head and thunked into a tree behind him. All around, men scrambled to their feet and rushed toward the perimeter. Lemuel flung his blanket aside and staggered to his feet. Musket held ready, he vowed to kill as many natives as possible before they got him.
His pappy was already up. “Stay with me, Son!”
A uniformed soldier near a campfire yanked the cover off a flagstaff. The regiment’s battle flag unfurled in the breeze. Just then three Indians appeared out of the darkness, two brandishing war clubs, the third carrying a musket. In a flurry of American gunfire, two of the Indians fell. The third one stooped next to a campfire and fiddled with his musket. A burly frontiersman called Stubby shot the Indian, then drew a hunting knife to take the scalp.
Lemuel ran after his pappy. At the southern perimeter, Indians howled like demons. Militiamen fired into the darkness. Lemuel scooted next to his father and knelt. Trembling, Lemuel raised the old musket to his shoulder and pulled the hammer back. A musket flash illuminated an Indian about twenty paces outside the perimeter. Lemuel noted the spot, aimed, and pulled the trigger. The hammer snapped down on the frizzen but didn’t produce a flash. Cursing, Lemuel realized his powder was wet. He dumped the damp powder and reached for his powder horn, hoping his pappy and the other men hadn’t noticed.
The din of war cries waned, and musket fire ebbed.
“Put out the fires!”
Lemuel recognized the voice. He turned and saw General Harrison astride a horse. The fires were backlighting the Americans, especially the mounted officers, making them easier targets for the Indians. Behind the general, bark splintered and scattered as a ball ripped into a tree trunk. Arrows streaked past Harrison and disappeared into the night. The general calmly wheeled his horse and trotted away.
A militiaman next to Lemuel’s father stumbled forward, clutched the front of his buckskin jacket, then slumped to the ground.
“Help with the fires, Son,” said Lemuel’s father.
Lemuel hesitated, not wanting to leave his pappy’s side.
Lemuel slung the musket over his shoulder as he rushed to the nearest campfire. He grabbed a stout stick and swept it across the flaming logs and embers, scattering them over the soggy ground. Flames flickered from individual coals, but Lemuel stomped them out. Satisfied, he raced to the next fire as arrows and musket balls flew past him.
A dozen cattle emerged from between the wagons and milled in confusion. Alarmed that the army’s food supply might be lost, Lemuel tried to shoo them back behind the wagons. An arrow whizzed past his head. He ducked behind a tree just as the cattle stampeded past him into the darkness. He hurried back to the wagons, hoping to keep the horses from stampeding. Then he remembered that each horse had been hobbled with a short rope.
From the northwest corner of the perimeter, the highest ground in the camp, rose war cries and a deafening roar of musket fire. Scores of flashes lit the trees amid a growing cloud of gun smoke. Lemuel prayed that the Americans could hold the natives back. After a few minutes, the roar of gunfire and war cries ebbed. Lemuel hoped the attack was over.
As he scattered the embers of the next campfire, another wave of war cries and gunfire surged, more intensely than before. Downhill, at the northeast corner of the perimeter, the orange flash of musket fire glowed through a cloud of smoke that billowed high into the trees. A handful of dragoons mounted horses, drew sabers, and charged in that direction.
The din of battle dwindled as Lemuel and several others finished putting out the campfires. War cries from outside the perimeter continued but with less intensity than just a few minutes before. Here and there, firearms popped.
Lemuel ran back to the southeast corner of the campsite and found the men in his company. He knelt between his pappy and Stubby at the very edge of the perimeter. A musket flashed. Lemuel fired back. Without knowing if he had hit his mark, he reloaded, grateful that the musket loaded much faster than a rifle. And since the fighting was up close, the greater accuracy and range of the rifle was no advantage.
The noise from outside the camp subsided, and Lemuel began to think the Indians had retreated. Just then, a war cry echoed through the trees right in front of him. The first scream was joined by hundreds more in a hideous chorus that clawed at Lemuel’s nerves.
Out of the darkness rushed an Indian, then dozens more. A volley of American gunfire illuminated hundreds of warriors. Into the camp flooded screaming natives, war clubs arcing overhead. Lemuel pointed his musket at the nearest warrior’s chest and pulled the trigger. The Indian disappeared in a cloud of smoke. Before Lemuel could reload, more warriors rushed through the American line. Lemuel let his musket drop and drew his hunting knife.
Someone crowded behind him. A bayonet-tipped musket barrel appeared over his shoulder and discharged point-blank into the advancing Indians. The musket was replaced by another, which also fired.
Ears ringing, Lemuel ducked as the deafening volley of musket fire cut into the screaming horde. The air became so thick with gun smoke that Lemuel coughed and could barely breathe. A uniformed soldier thrust forward, skewering an Indian with his bayonet. Scores of soldiers charged forward, shoving bayonets into any native who didn’t retreat fast enough.
Lemuel retrieved his musket from the mud, quickly reloaded, and hurried after the infantrymen. They drove the Indians beyond the cloud of gun smoke. Ahead, the eastern sky had brightened.
Pounding hooves rumbled as a dozen screaming dragoons galloped, sabers drawn, past the infantrymen. The Indians fled, but the horsemen bore down on them, sabers slashing right and left. Lemuel rushed after the dragoons and infantrymen as they pursued the warriors to the edge of the marsh. There they fired at any Indian who hadn’t ducked into the tall marsh grass.
Scores of Indians lay sprawled across the ground. Some appeared to be even younger than Lemuel. One of the warriors jumped to his feet. With tomahawk in hand and a chilling scream, the young native charged Lemuel.
In a blur of motion, the warrior swung his tomahawk at Lemuel’s head. He raised his musket, and the tomahawk blade hit the barrel with a clang. As the blade scraped down the barrel, Lemuel swung the musket stock up and around with all his strength. The wooden stock hammered the warrior across the ear. The Indian’s head snapped to the side, and he toppled to the ground. Lemuel straddled the sprawled warrior, then rammed the butt of the musket down again and again until the Indian’s skull split.
Lemuel spun around, musket held ready to propel another attack. But the only Indians in sight appeared to be dead. The dragoons were walking their mounts back toward camp.
Lemuel glanced at the dead warrior before him. Visions of his butchered mother and sister returned. He set his jaw and pulled his hunting knife from his belt, trying to remember Stubby’s instruction. Lemuel clutched a clump of the native’s hair, pressed the razor-sharp edge into the scalp until it hit the scull. As the blade etched bone, he sliced a half-circle around the clump of hair. With another deft move, he sliced a second half-circle around the other side. He placed the bloody knife blade between his teeth and pressed his knees into the Indian’s back. With a wrenching sideways yank, he ripped the patch of scalp free, leaving a bloody circle of exposed bone.
Lemuel felt a burst of energy. He held the blood-dripping trophy high and let out a scream that matched any of the Indian war cries. He wiped the scalp clean on the grass, then tied it around his belt.
With a watchful eye for more natives, Lemuel headed toward camp. The site already swarmed with activity as soldiers and militiamen hurried to reorganize in case of another attack. The southeastern corner of camp was strewn with dead and wounded Americans.
Stubby approached, his face grim. Without a word, the burly old frontiersman grabbed Lemuel and pulled him close. Before Lemuel could respond, Stubby stepped back, holding Lemuel firmly by the shoulders.
The bearded, wrinkle-faced man seemed to hesitate before he spoke. “I’m sorry, boy. It’s your pa. He’s dead.”