Although the 1791 disaster would be remembered as St. Clair’s Defeat, the officer behind it—described as ‘worse than a murderer’ by President Washington—was cleared by a congressional committee of all wrongdoing.
It appeared that no man was better qualified to command the coming expedition. President George Washington presumed that Major General Arthur St. Clair, as governor of the Northwest Territory, possessed an unparalleled familiarity with both its geography and its natives, and his record of field command during the War of Independence had earned the full confidence of the nation’s chief executive. Washington, himself no stranger to Indian fighting, nevertheless felt obliged to offer St. Clair rather blunt advice when the two men met in Philadelphia in March 1791. “General St. Clair, in three words, beware of surprise,” warned the president. “Trust not the Indian; leave not your arms for the moment; and when you halt for the night be sure to fortify your camp— again and again, General, beware of surprise.”
The Territory of the United States Northwest of the River Ohio, ceded by Great Britain at the close of the Revolution, long bedeviled Washington’s administration. Encompassing the present states of Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, and portions of Minnesota, the territory in 1791 was an uncharted wilderness to which the young republic could lay claim in name only. Its virgin soil proved irresistible to land-hungry settlers, but the territory was home to a score of Indian nations that had bitterly contested the loss of their homeland for more than three decades. Though some of the tribes, such as the Wyandot and Seneca, had sought accommodation with the “Thirteen Fires” once the United States secured its independence, the 1783 Treaty of Paris meant little or nothing to the more hostile tribes of the Wabash and Maumee river valleys, particularly the Miami and Shawnee.
A loose confederacy of tribesmen, dedicated to preserving the Ohio River as a permanent barrier to American encroachment, centered on the leadership of the Miami chieftain Michikiniqua, known to the whites as Little Turtle. During the American Revolution, Little Turtle had orchestrated the destruction of an enemy invasion force, and in the ensuing years, he had become the most influential Indian leader on the frontier.
The continued presence of British troops further aggravated border tensions. Although the Treaty of Paris had guaranteed that the English would evacuate their forts in the Northwest “with all convenient speed,” this woefully ambiguous phrasing practically guaranteed British stonewalling on the matter. Additionally, America’s failure to adjust prewar debts to English creditors—another provision of the treaty—gave the British the pretense they were looking for to justify retaining the posts.
Great Britain viewed the tribes as the perfect buffer against further American expansion, and British agents operating out of Detroit were all too willing to fan the flames of discord and to supply southbound raiding parties with war materiel. Chief among these agents were Alexander McKee and his subordinates Simon Girty and Matthew Elliot, a notorious trio of American deserters who found ready employ with the British because of their fluency in native tongues.
Secretary of War Henry Knox did his best to keep this volatile frontier tinderbox from igniting. The corpulent New Englander, self-educated but an experienced warrior, was also something of a pragmatist when it came to Indian affairs. As such, Knox had labored for years to keep the desultory frontier raids from breaking out into a general war, once warning that “the sacrifices of blood and treasure in such a war far exceed any advantages which can possibly be reaped by it.”
The secretary cast blame with equanimity, reviling both white squatters who illegally entered Indian territory and hot-blooded young braves eager for the warpath. He did, however, assert that because the United States was “more powerful and more enlightened” than the tribes, it befitted the “responsibility of national character” to manage affairs equitably.
Knox set in motion a series of treaty talks to accomplish just that, but had run into a host of problems. The perennial difficulty in forming lasting Indian treaties stemmed from the government’s inability to assemble high-level tribal chiefs who had the authority to negotiate for their respective nations. While some minor chiefs possessing no authorization to do so were more than willing to sell vast tracts of the Northwest in exchange for the American government’s modest offerings, hostile principal chiefs such as Little Turtle and the Shawnee Black Hoof continued to refuse a negotiated settlement altogether.
The temperament of one of the American commissioners, Richard Butler, hindered negotiations. Although Butler had behaved fearlessly on Revolutionary War battlefields, his aggressive nature and no-nonsense handling of affairs proved disastrous in the council house. Described by a contemporary as “a fiery, austere hothead,” Butler exhibited explosive behavior at the negotiations that had helped secure the signatures of browbeaten tribal delegates but dashed all hopes of establishing a permanent peace with the more intractable tribes.
Though Knox continued to warn that a general war “would at present be embarrassing beyond conception,” events rapidly escalated out of his control. In 1787 Congress officially organized the Northwest Territory and installed Arthur St. Clair, that body’s former president, as territorial governor. The resulting influx of pioneers into the territory invited further attacks, and Indian raids increasingly targeted settlers’ convoys headed downstream on the Ohio. Ultimately, traveling on that river, the most vital trade route west of the Alleghenies, became all but suicidal, and the macabre depredations indiscriminately perpetrated on men, women, and children only served to provoke American authorities.
By 1790, Congress had had enough. That August it authorized a punitive expedition, sending 320 regular army soldiers and 1,133 Kentucky and Pennsylvania militiamen against Miami, Shawnee, and Wyandot villages in northeastern Indiana and northwestern Ohio. The commander of the column, Brigadier General Josiah Harmar, operated under a plan largely formulated by Governor St. Clair.
In marching north from Fort Washington (near modern Cincinnati), Harmar’s primary objective was Kekionga, the principal village of the Miami. The town was situated on fertile bottomland where the confluence of the Saint Joseph and Saint Mary’s rivers forms the Maumee. Straddling the lucrative fur trade routes linking the Great Lakes with the Mississippi Valley, the locale had been coveted by European powers ever since whites had discovered it in the seventeenth century.
Although Harmar’s army initially met with success, burning Kekionga and several satellite villages, the general twice dispatched smaller columns to operate in outlying areas, and they were lured into ambushes by Little Turtle and cut to pieces. During the fights, unreliable Kentucky militia quickly broke under fire and caused elements of the 1st U.S. Regiment to bear the brunt of the casualties, sowing seeds of mutual animosity between militia and regulars that would fester for decades to come. Harmar attempted to characterize the campaign as a success, but a staggering 183 men of his command had been killed, further emboldening the Indians to escalate their raids along the frontier.
On March 11 of the following year, Secretary Knox dispatched a final, desperate plea for peace to the Wabash tribes. Knox’s message, which contained no small amount of saber rattling, met with a cool reception, the tribes preferring to risk a war that Knox threatened “would be absolute destruction to you, your women, and your children.” The Indians’ rebuff came as no surprise to the administration, which had already set in motion plans for another campaign, to be led by a commander of President Washington’s choosing.
Arthur St. Clair enjoyed not only the president’s professional respect but also his personal friendship. Born on March 23, 1736, in Thurso, Scotland, St. Clair had begun his military career by purchasing a commission as an ensign in the British army during the French and Indian War. Upon the outbreak of the Revolution, he cast his lot with the patriot cause and eventually attained the rank of major general, earning Washington’s esteem during more than four years of campaigning and recruiting. He was assigned to guard Fort Ticonderoga, but could not hold it with his small force against Lieutenant General John Burgoyne’s invading army. Later court-martialed for losing the fort, he returned to active duty when the court exonerated him.
St. Clair was initially pleased with the prospects of a new campaign. Shaken by the embarrassing Harmar campaign of the previous autumn, Congress appropriated $300,000 for the coming expedition and authorized an increase in the size of the standing army. St. Clair would gain not only one more regiment of regulars but also two additional regiments of six-month levies, raised and officered by the federal government. He was to launch this formidable force, augmented by Kentucky militia, toward Kekionga by the end of July 1791. Congress wanted him to permanently subdue the Miami by erecting and maintaining an American military installation at the site.
On paper, it was a reasonable plan, but St. Clair and his army seemed providentially frustrated from the outset. Though Congress intended that St. Clair have an army of three thousand men at his disposal, the largest yet assembled in the Northwest, recruitment shortfalls crippled the general’s plans. In fact, in 1790 Congress had reduced army pay, a move that made it difficult to retain veteran soldiers in the 1st Regiment, the only seasoned unit available to St. Clair.
Major General Richard Butler, erstwhile American treaty commissioner appointed as St. Clair’s second-in-command, fared little better in raising the two newly authorized levy regiments. The irascible Butler struggled not only with the lack of volunteers but also with quarrelsome subordinates alienated by what they considered his overbearing demeanor.
An unusually wet season likewise frustrated Butler’s efforts. The Ohio eventually became nearly impassable to river transport, the only practical means of getting troops to Fort Washington. By the end of July, the proposed starting date of the expedition, only 299 soldiers made up the various companies of the 1st Regiment consolidated at Fort Washington. The following month a mere six hundred levies gathered at Pittsburgh.
The complete lack of an effective supply system compounded the difficulties arising from these severe manpower shortages. Samuel Hodgdon, the nation’s fifth quartermaster general, had only taken office in March 1791. The longtime commissary general of military stores and an inept if well-meaning political appointee, he was entirely unacquainted with the needs of a frontier army. To economize, he sent St. Clair surplus supplies, including much of the powder for the rifles, some of which dated from the Revolutionary War.
Worse yet was William Duer, former assistant secretary of the treasury who, thanks to close personal ties to both Washington and Knox, had landed the lucrative contract of supplying St. Clair’s troops. Duer cut corners purchasing supplies and reputedly funneled his excessive profits into nefarious real estate schemes.
Even Hodgdon acknowledged a logistical nightmare, noting, “Every thing was in the utmost confusion.” The locally purchased horses that Duer’s agents delivered were a sorry lot. Each was fitted with a packsaddle “large enough for elephants”—or well-fed horses back east. Tent canvas was notoriously leaky, and shoes fell to pieces in a matter of days. Although the troops were to clear a route through the wilderness for artillery to pass and build a fort, they had only one hundred axes and a single grindstone. One officer wrote that St. Clair’s raw troops were “badly clothed, badly paid and badly fed.”
Morale was dreadful, even among the army’s commissioned ranks. St. Clair himself set the tone. He was painfully afflicted with gout and consequently quite irritable, in particular with General Butler, with whom he had grown dissatisfied during the summer’s excessive delays. Butler’s younger brothers, Thomas and Edward, also serving as officers with the army, likewise responded coolly to St. Clair. Adjutant General Winthrop Sargent, a civilian administrator personally selected by St. Clair, rankled a good number of regular officers who considered his appointment another blatant example of political patronage.
On September 11, St. Clair dispatched Major William Ferguson twenty-three miles from Fort Washington to erect an advance post on the Great Miami River. Ferguson, an artillery officer as well as an able military engineer, supervised the construction of Fort Hamilton while the main body of the army prepared to follow. Campaigning time, however, was dwindling.
Painfully aware of the rapid passing of the season, St. Clair was further prodded by Secretary Knox, who dropped not-so-subtle barbs warning of the president’s “anxiety” over the army’s unusually slow progress. The high command had determined at all costs to conduct the campaign in 1791. Not only did the drubbing of Harmar’s troops demand a reckoning, but the funds required to raise the two levy regiments would be wasted if St. Clair did not deploy the soldiers before their six-month enlistments expired.
The haste of pressing the campaign forward in 1791 left St. Clair with one of the most dispirited and ill-prepared armies the United States ever fielded. An observer noted that the army’s unsavory recruits had been “gotten from the prisons, wheelbarrows, and brothels of the nation.” One veteran officer lamented that St. Clair’s men were “chiefly recruits unaccustomed with the use of fire arms, or the yells of Savages,” adding disgustedly that they were “the worst and most dissatisfied troops I ever served with.”
Finally heading north on September 17, St. Clair led an army of approximately twenty-three hundred men, along with a large body of camp followers. The general was most concerned with thwarting any surprise attacks and issued orders accordingly. The troops cut two parallel roads through the forest during the day, and in the evening constructed breastworks around the camp perimeter. Each morning the army would form up before dawn and stand to arms until all threat of attack had passed.
St. Clair sent the army north from Fort Hamilton on October 3, under the command of General Butler. He returned to Fort Washington to expedite reinforcing the army with militia, but found that just three hundred Kentuckians led by Lieutenant Colonel William Oldham had gathered. Morale was already miserably low among the citizen-soldiers, and that evening a sergeant and twenty-five men stole away from their bivouac, setting a precedent for desertion that would be a recurring problem during the campaign.
Returning to his army on October 8, St. Clair found that the column had advanced a mere twenty-two miles in five days. Furthermore, Butler had seen fit to cut only one rather than two roads through the forest, a direct violation of standing orders. St. Clair’s wrath boiled over as he berated Butler for his decision. A seething Butler henceforth avoided his commander as much as possible, and eventually the army’s two ranking officers were barely on speaking terms.
St. Clair also found that the army was dangerously close to exhausting its supply of flour. He called a halt on October 12 to await an expected pack train, but when it failed to materialize, he ordered Major Ferguson to begin building another intermediate post, christened Fort Jefferson.
The army’s experience at Fort Jefferson brought the men’s already poor morale to new lows. Hard rains moved in on the evening of the 14th and continued unabated for days, apart from a brief outburst of freezing hail. The foul weather not only hampered construction of the fort but left the entire army drenched to the bone. Their light tents, intended for summer campaigning, offered little protection from the elements.
In fact, the army’s unit cohesion was fast breaking down. Many of the levies insisted that their six-month enlistments were up; dozens demanded and got discharge. Desertions increased even among the two regular regiments. Some unruly soldiers openly refused to serve in work details.
The march north finally resumed on October 24. St. Clair’s gout had worsened to such an extent that he was barely able to accompany the army. After the column had proceeded a mere six miles, the troops made another camp where they would await resupply. For five more days they waited, nervously noting signs of increasing Indian activity. Indians ambushed several men foolish enough to go hunting in the surrounding countryside. They killed one outright, and another was never heard from again.
The Americans’ elusive enemy had not been idle. Despite a long history of intertribal jealousies, Little Turtle had succeeded in forging a heterogeneous confederacy made up of more than a half dozen nations. During the summer, Kentucky militia had struck hard and fast at the Wabash Valley in two raids. Tactical successes, the raids had backfired strategically. When the Kentuckians took Indian women and children captive, it angered even peacefully inclined tribes such as the Wyandot and Delaware, and they cast their lot with the hostiles.
The tribes had initially gathered on September 1 at the rapids of the Maumee River in northwest Ohio. More than three thousand Indians assembled for the grand council, supplied and encouraged by British agents Alexander McKee and Simon Girty. The council entrusted Little Turtle with command of the confederacy, seconded by Blue Jacket, the noted Shawnee war captain.
In October, Little Turtle’s force moved to Kekionga but dwindled as warriors went home for the autumn hunt. Still committed to the fight, however, were several powerful chiefs: Black Hoof of the Shawnee, Buckongahelas of the Delaware, and Tarhe of the Wyandot. Indian scouts fanned out in the face of St. Clair’s advancing army and kept Little Turtle apprised of every American move.
On October 28, Little Turtle led 1,040 warriors out of Kekionga toward the disorganized Americans. Simon Girty, accompanying the Indians not only as an adviser but also as an active combatant, reported to his superiors that “the Indians were never in greater heart to meet their enemy nor more sure of success—they are determined to drive [the Americans] to the Ohio.”
Meanwhile, St. Clair’s army continued to degenerate into little more than an undisciplined mob. Major Ebeneezer Denny reported that the levies, anticipating discharge, were taking “great liberties” and “at present they are more troublesome and far inferior to the militia.” Colonel Oldham warned St. Clair that his Kentucky militia intended to desert en masse. Their officers did persuade most of the militia to stay, but sixty of the men and a good number of camp followers stormed away amid threats that they intended to plunder the army’s oncoming pack trains. St. Clair felt obliged to detach his most reliable unit, the three hundred men of the 1st Regiment, to hunt down the deserters and escort the pack trains.
On November 3, the army, which had averaged just four miles of march per day, cut a grueling nine miles through the forest before halting. The campground chosen for the evening, situated on high ground fronting a shallow creek, constituted just a few open acres surrounded by low-lying forest. While the exhausted troops filed into camp near dusk, St. Clair sent Oldham’s militia to high ground several hundred yards across the river, both to allow the federal troops enough space to pitch their tents and to discourage further desertions by the militia.
St. Clair deployed the rest of his army in a hollow rectangle roughly seventy by 350 yards wide. Due to desertions, the garrisoning of two forts, levy discharges, and the detachment of the 1st Regiment, St. Clair’s force had been reduced to just fourteen hundred men. The line facing the river consisted of the levy battalions of Majors Thomas Butler, John Clarke, and Thomas Patterson, under the command of General Butler. The opposite side of the formation was composed of Lieutenant Colonel William Darke’s command, the battalions of Major Henry Gaither and Captain James Rhea, as well as the 2nd U.S. Regiment under Major Jonathan Heart. Major Ferguson apportioned his eight guns equally to the two main lines. St. Clair anchored his right flank with Captain William Faulkner’s company of riflemen, and on the left Captain Jonathan Snowden deployed his troop of horse near a small rivulet.
The army’s commanders failed, however, to attend to the most routine detail of establishing camp, throwing up breastworks. Major Denny, St. Clair’s aide, recorded in his diary that the troops being “much fatigued prevented the General from having some works of defense immediately erected.” Before retiring for the evening, St. Clair met with Major Ferguson and outlined his plans for the next day. Believing that his camp was on the St. Mary’s River about fifteen miles from Kekionga, the general instructed Ferguson to erect a fortified baggage depot at first light so that a rested army could advance unfettered toward the Maumee as soon as the 1st Regiment came up.
However, St. Clair seriously erred in his assumptions. The creek to his front was not the St. Mary’s but rather the headwaters of the Wabash River, and he was some sixty miles—not fifteen—from his objective at Kekionga. Worse, a complete lack of intelligence deprived the general of a most vital bit of information: Little Turtle, several miles to the north, was moving more than a thousand warriors into position to attack.
Later in the evening, several officers had gathered in Lieutenant Colonel George Gibson’s tent when one of them offhandedly remarked that a nighttime scouting party “might have an opportunity of catching some of the rascals who might attempt to steal horses.” A levy officer, Captain Jacob Slough, offered to lead such an effort if he was provided with good men. Two dozen volunteered, including experienced veteran George Adams. General Butler, who assumed command of the operation, instructed Slough over a glass of wine to “be very cautious in going out.”
Around 10 P.M. Slough’s men quietly slipped out of camp and headed north, briefly stopping in the militia camp, where Oldham pleaded with Slough not to attempt the mission. In their advanced camp, the Kentuckians had seen and heard signs of Indian activity throughout the evening, and the colonel was certain that hostiles would cut off Slough’s party.
Despite Oldham’s warning, the young captain advanced his little company a mile north of the militia camp and deployed his troops on both sides of an Indian trail. Slough recalled that soon after his men were in position, a party of six or seven Indians approached to within fifteen yards and the Americans fired on them. The enemy scattered while Slough’s men reloaded, the crusty Adams itching to pull the scalp of the Indian he was certain he had brought down. Some fifteen minutes later, large bodies of Indians passed around their flanks, coughing in the darkness in a vain attempt to draw fire. Slough and his men grew understandably uneasy; even Adams, disappointed at not retrieving a scalp, advised a pullout.
Fate (and lethargy) again intervened to curse the American enterprise. Around midnight Slough reported to Colonel Gibson, who had retired for the evening and was in no mood to get dressed. The captain then approached General Butler, who was still awake and warming himself by a fire. Slough advised Butler of the large Indian parties he had seen and offered to report personally to St. Clair. He remembered that Butler “stood for some time and, after a pause, thanked me for my attention and vigilance, and said, as I must be fatigued, I had better go and lie down.”
The following morning, the army paraded for its accustomed predawn formation. As usual, no disturbance materialized, and the men were dismissed about half an hour before sunrise. Inexplicably, General Butler had not reported Slough’s findings during the night and failed to approach St. Clair this morning as well.
As the men began preparing their breakfast, they heard a few scattered shots from the direction of the militia camp, followed by what one officer called “the damnedest noise imaginable.” Variously described as the howling of wolves or even hundreds of cowbells, the noise quickly became apparent; the unearthly crescendo was the enemy’s war cry, delivered in unison by a thousand confederated tribesmen.
Little Turtle had deployed his braves in a wide arc facing the American camp. On the right were the Wyandots, accompanied by British agent Simon Girty. Little Turtle’s strongest contingent, the warriors of the Miami, Shawnee, and Delaware tribes, held the center. On his left he positioned the northern lake tribes, known as the Three Fires of the Michigan Peninsula: the Ottawa, Chippewa, and Pota watomie. Small parties from other tribes including the Iroquois, Sac and Fox, Winnebago, and Kickapoo were also dispersed along the line. Little Turtle specifically instructed his warriors to target officers and artillerymen and to rapidly envelop both of the enemy’s flanks.
Collectively, the Indians constituted a most formidable force. Tribal culture, its very existence dependent on the skills of a robust warrior class, trained men from young boyhood in the art of stalking— and killing—both game and men. In the coming fight, they would practice their art with brutal efficiency.
The battle began when militia sentries fired on a large body of Indians seen “dodging among the trees to their front,” Robert Bradshaw recalled. A heavy fusillade in response stunned the Kentuckians, who then broke in confusion when hundreds of screaming warriors burst out of the forest. All semblance of organized resistance evaporated in a matter of moments; the men made a mad dash for the main camp, splashing across the river with the Indians “following close at their heels,” St. Clair later wrote in his official report.
The Kentuckians raced pell-mell through the camp, causing great confusion in the ranks of Butler’s and Clarke’s battalions, who were struggling to form a line of battle. In an attempt to slow the enemy attack, Major Ferguson commenced firing his artillery. Although the noisy barrage momentarily distracted the Indians, it had little material effect. Ferguson had placed his guns on a steep bluff on the Wabash’s east bank, and could not sufficiently depress them. Though his gunners shattered a good many treetops, they failed to halt the warriors’ rapid approach through the timbered bottomland across the river.
Among the Indians closing on Ferguson’s position was a party of Miami under the leadership of William Wells. Taken captive at the age of 14, Wells had not only acclimated to life among the Indians, he had become Little Turtle’s son-in-law. On this morning, the chief had assigned him the important task of silencing the American artillery on the heights facing the Wabash. Wells and his warriors took shelter beneath the hillside and commenced a galling fire on the artillerymen.
The rest of Little Turtle’s men worked quickly to encircle the American position. Most participants later agreed that it was only a matter of minutes before the natives surrounded the small American camp, wiped out all the sentry detachments, and then opened up a murderous crossfire. It was a commonly held belief that disciplined soldiers would always triumph over disorganized savages, but as St. Clair’s troops faced the grim reality of frontier combat, they found themselves at a decided disadvantage.
While the American commanders forced their troops to stand erect in an exposed position, the tribesmen swarmed about the encampment, hiding “behind every tree, stump and log [and] with their rifles cut our men down at a shocking rate,” Captain Daniel Bradley recorded in his journal. Though the officers worked hard to form up the troops and return fire, the inexperienced soldiers, bewildered by the ferocity and suddenness of the attack, struggled even to find targets they could shoot. Under the circumstances, the men acquitted themselves well but accomplished little. St. Clair later reported that though “the fire of the army was constant,” it was “not well directed.”
The army’s two chief officers, despite the many tactical and administrative blunders they had previously committed, were unquestionably courageous under fire and paid scant attention to their own safety. St. Clair had not even had time to don his uniform, and continued to suffer miserably from gout. Almost incapacitated by pain, he had to be helped into the saddle, but after the enemy shot a succession of his mounts dead, he hobbled off to the frontlines on foot.“Cool and deliberate,” St. Clair and Butler were seen exposing themselves “continuously up and down the lines; as one went up one line, the other went down the other,” Colonel Semple later testified in the Congressional inquiry.
However, their efforts could do little to strengthen their lines, which were rapidly collapsing and growing cluttered with the dead and wounded. “Exposed to a crossfire,” wrote Major Denny, “men and officers were seen falling in every direction; the distress, too, of the wounded made the scene such as can scarcely be conceived.”
The gun crews suffered especially heavy casualties, subjected as they had been to a steady fire from the outset of the battle. Major Ferguson was mortally wounded early in the fighting; his second, Captain Mahlon Ford, suffered a severe wound but remained the only artillery officer left alive. His command all but wiped out, Ford secured volunteers to staff the guns. The Miami had worked ever closer to the artillery, and Wells observed that the dead artillerymen were stacked almost to the height of the gun barrels.
Realizing that his army’s musketry was having little effect, St. Clair determined—he wrote in his official report—to “try what could be done by the bayonet.” He ordered Colonel Darke to mount a charge on the Indians’ right. To make the attempt, Darke formed a mixed group of about three hundred men. Darke’s strike force, which included a good number of regulars, charged over a rivulet to the south of camp and then veered west across the Wabash. The charge was “executed with great spirit,” Major Denny recalled, but it gained virtually no tactical advantage. While Darke’s force sustained casualties from harassing fire, a survivor recounted that the Indians “could skip out of reach of the bayonet, and return as they pleased.” When the colonel saw Indians pressing his former position, he led his column back at a run, determined to catch the Indians in the rear and “have them in a severe fix.”
Far from catching the enemy unawares, Darke’s men returned to a scene of surreal horror that none would forget. The brief absence of Darke’s column had created a weakened gap in the American line through which poured a horde of enemy warriors. Working feverishly at close quarters with tomahawks and skinning knives, the Indians left bloody wreckage in their wake. They silenced the four artillery pieces in the rear line, leaving their mutilated crews lying nearby. The Indians scalped men both dead and alive. One horrified participant, Lieutenant Micah McDonough, said he had seen a dazed officer who had just been scalped “setting on his backside, his head smoaking like a chimney” in the crisp morning air.
The stricken cried piteously for help, while some wounded writhed on the campfires where Indians had thrown them. When the men came across the remains of the army’s helpless camp followers, they found even more disturbing sights. The Indians had killed nearly all of the women, and then set to butchering them.
Darke’s men engaged in a vicious fight with the warriors remaining in the camp to keep them from overrunning the army’s last tenuous position. “They were so thick we could do nothing with them,” said one dismayed soldier. “They swarmed like bees.” Neither side gave quarter. When the impetuous Darke saw one wounded Indian crawling to safety, despite a wound in his own thigh, he ran after the warrior and beheaded him.
With his army on the verge of annihilation, St. Clair acted quickly. He directed a detachment of levies under Colonel Gibson to aid Darke’s men and ordered yet another bayonet charge, hoping to relieve pressure on the line fronting the Wabash. Major Heart’s 2nd U.S. Regiment and Major Thomas Butler’s levies performed the task but paid a high price. Charging down the bluff and across the river, the troops seemed to melt away under a withering Indian fire. The survivors quickly retreated; Major Butler, painfully wounded, narrowly escaped only because his brother Edward rescued him.
Suddenly the terror of the morning’s battle seemed to subside. After the firing tapered off, only a few isolated shots and the cries of the wounded broke the unexpected silence. St. Clair was convinced that the Indians had given up the fight and retired. Those hopes were soon shattered, however. The Indians had quietly regrouped, preparing a final push to overrun the American position. The short respite “was like the interval of a tornado” that ushered in a “deeper horror,” one participant later recalled.
Little Turtle’s warriors soon resumed the attack with renewed intensity, and the army’s entire perimeter began to give way. General Butler’s beleaguered troops along the Wabash finally cracked under the pressure. Captain Ford’s four guns fell to the Miami, but only after their crews had spiked them. The Indians gained possession of a good part of St. Clair’s left and sat astride the road to the south, blocking all possibility of retreat. Groups of soldiers flocked to the center of the camp, paralyzed with fear and “perfectly ungovernable,” according to Major Denny. Facing little opposition, Indians closed in on the American position and coolly shot down the frightened men as if taking target practice.
Threatened with the complete destruction of his command, St. Clair wisely reckoned his only sensible course of action lay in retreat. He issued orders to that effect around 9:30. Amid the confusion, Captain Edward Butler, carrying his brother Thomas, found Richard Butler propped up beneath a large oak tree. The mortally wounded general entrusted his personal effects to a nearby officer and then told Edward, “Leave me to my fate and save our brother.”
By sheer force of numbers and with little organization, the panicked army broke through the surprised Indians and made for the road cut only the previous day. Allowed to withdraw from the field, the remnants of the army degenerated into an uncontrollable mass and shed every impediment to their precipitate flight. “The conduct of the army after quitting the ground was in a most supreme degree disgraceful,” wrote one disgusted officer. “Arms, ammunition and accoutrements were almost all thrown away, and even the officers in some instances divested themselves of their fusees.”
While the army conducted its mad retreat, the men could hear continued firing in the distance—testament to even greater horrors befalling those soldiers left behind. There had simply been no possibility of carrying off the vast majority of the wounded. “No preparation could be made,” a survivor later explained. “Numbers of brave men must be left a sacrifice.”
The natives had little conception of offering quarter to an enemy captive, except for the occasional child captured and adopted into a tribe, or an officer they might offer for ransom to British authorities. Left in possession of a battlefield littered with dead and dying men, the Indians commenced a methodical butchery of those unfortunates left behind. Warriors dispatched wounded Americans until their arms grew weary, while Indian women who had hidden during the battle emerged to finish scalping the dead.
According to tradition, a tomahawk-wielding Ottawa dispatched General Butler. They killed the fortunate ones quickly; others suffered indescribable torture. Indians tied one camp follower down before driving large stakes through her body. They dismembered and hideously disfigured corpses, and shoved fistfuls of dirt into the mouths of the fallen in grotesque mockery of the Americans’ insatiable hunger for land. So many scalped skulls lay clustered together that survivors described the scene as resembling “red pumpkins in a cornfield.”
The booty at the campground proved far more tempting than further pursuit of the American army, although small bands of warriors chased the stragglers for about four miles. Tribesmen rifled through hundreds of tents seeking axes, blankets, and personal effects. They also captured some twelve hundred stands of muskets and all eight pieces of the army’s artillery.
While the Indians celebrated, St. Clair’s wrecked command continued its southward flight, traversing twenty-nine miles and reaching Fort Jefferson around dusk. The sight the troops presented horrified the fort’s garrison. Almost half the army had simply ceased to exist, although stragglers continued to arrive at the fort for several more days. Captain Bradley wrote in his journal that one pathetic fellow staggered in without his scalp, suffering miserably from two tomahawk wounds to his head.
St. Clair called a hurried council of his few remaining senior officers. The dead included General Butler, Lieutenant Colonel Oldham, and Majors Ferguson, Heart, and Clarke. The officers present, several of them gravely wounded, unanimously agreed to continue retreating, reasoning that the meager provisions at hand in Fort Jefferson could scarcely supply its own garrison, let alone the entire army.
The exhausted column, finally reunited with the 1st Regiment, resumed the march at 10 P.M., leaving a small garrison behind to care for stragglers. The retreat continued all night. It took just five days for the tattered army to reach the safety of Fort Washington, a march that had taken weeks on the outbound trip.
On the morning of November 9, St. Clair sat down to the unenviable task of filing an official report of the battle to Secretary of War Henry Knox. The general rendered an honest account of the disaster, which he described as a “warm and unfortunate action…in which every corps was engaged and worsted.” He likewise refrained from pointing any fingers and roundly praised his officers for their conspicuous gallantry, in particular the slain General Butler.
The postmortem of the battle revealed an almost unbelievably one-sided victory for the Indian confederacy. The Miami told British authorities that they had lost just twenty-one Indians killed and forty wounded. St. Clair’s losses were appalling; Little Turtle’s braves killed more Americans during the three-hour fight on the Wabash than in any other battle of the Indian wars. Although precise figures are lacking, the small regular U.S. Army had been devastated. The Indians had killed at least 630 men and wounded over 280 more. Others were simply “unaccounted for,” but most of those had died. Indians had also massacred almost all of the army’s female camp followers.
Informed of the disaster during a formal dinner party, Washington restrained his anger until he was alone with his private secretary. The president then raged against St. Clair for allowing his army “to be cut to pieces, hacked, butchered, tomahawked, by a surprise—the very thing I guarded him against! Oh, God! Oh, God, he is worse than a murderer! How can he answer to his country?” After venting his fury, Washington regained his composure and calmly admitted that he had “looked hastily through the dispatches—saw the whole disaster, but not the particulars. I will hear him without prejudice; he shall have full justice.”
Ultimately, it was not a court-martial that evaluated the particulars of the case but a special investigatory committee of the U.S. House of Representatives, the first such panel the House ever sanctioned and convened. The committee cleared St. Clair, who still had powerful friends in Congress, of all wrongdoing. Members officially attributed the failure of the campaign to the army’s lax training, poor morale, and shameful supply system. Privately, Washington realized that St. Clair’s generalship had likewise been a factor. In 1792 he gingerly maneuvered his old friend into resigning his commission as major general, though St. Clair remained governor of the Northwest Territory until 1802.
Having twice failed to suppress the intransigent tribes of the Northwest, the president took great care in selecting his next field commander. Exasperated by the plodding campaigns of both Harmar and St. Clair, Washington settled on an officer he felt was “more active…than judicious and cautious.” His choice, “Mad Anthony” Wayne, was a distinguished veteran of the Pennsylvania line, a stern disciplinarian who possessed an almost fanatical devotion to the bayonet and relished the opportunity to meet the Indians (“rascals,” as he likened them) in a decisive contest of arms.
Though impetuous on the field, Wayne was a methodical planner and possessed a keen eye for detail. He undertook a complete reorganization of the army, which he christened the “Legion of the United States,” and drilled his men ceaselessly until he was confident they were prepared for active campaigning. After getting underway in 1793, Wayne constructed a strong chain of forts extending north from the Ohio, eventually establishing his base of operations at Fort Greenville, a massive fifty-acre complex twenty-three miles south of St. Clair’s battleground.
In December Wayne sent a burial detail to the Wabash and then constructed an outpost on the site of the disaster, naming it, fittingly enough, Fort Recovery. The garrison successfully defended the stockade against an all-out Indian attack the following June, and Wayne readied his Legion for a final push to the Maumee River, where the British had erected Fort Miami at the site of modern Toledo.
After failing to destroy Fort Recovery, Little Turtle advised conciliation with the Americans. He perceived in Wayne a wily opponent the likes of which he had never before faced, referring to the general as the “chief who never sleeps.” Though he had long been the standard-bearer of the hostiles, and his opinions carried great weight with the tribes, they rejected his counsel and conferred overall command of the confederacy upon Blue Jacket of the Shawnee.
About five miles from Fort Miami, Wayne finally brought the Indians to bay on August 20, 1794, at Fallen Timbers, a tangled swath of forest along the Maumee that a tornado had struck some years earlier. He had waited three days before attacking (some say delayed by rain), during which time many of his foes had left to forage. The remaining tribesmen sought cover in the forest, a perfect place for an ambush, confident that their position in the confusing mass of downed timber would break up any American assaulting column. Mad Anthony, yet another officer afflicted with gout, was nonetheless as game as ever, and encouraged his men to “Charge the damned rascals with the bayonet!”
The Indians’ position proved not a stronghold but a deadly trap. Their lines soon broke before the onslaught of the well-disciplined Legion, and dozens were shot or bayoneted as they frantically scrambled to escape the killing ground the timber maze had become.
Unopposed, Wayne marched his men up the Maumee Valley, laying waste to all Indian villages and crops in his path. The advance finally halted at Kekionga, where the Legion forever prostrated Miami power by erecting Fort Wayne on the site of their former capital.
Wayne officially pacified the southern two-thirds of Ohio on August 3, 1795, when he and delegates from a dozen defeated tribes signed the Treaty of Greenville. During the decades-long contest for the territory, untold hundreds of lives on both sides had been sacrificed to possess it. Now, by the stroke of a pen, the Indians ceded twenty-five thousand square miles for a mere pittance, approximately one-sixth of a cent per acre.
Not until August 12 did a reluctant Little Turtle affix his signature to the document. He then spent the rest of his days attempting to help his people adapt to the new realities of American ascendancy. Peace reigned in the Old Northwest for the succeeding two decades, due in no small part to his influence. The grand old chief who had vanquished two American armies remained a quiet peace advocate, in keeping with the promise he made to Wayne after making his mark on the treaty. “I am the last of the chiefs to sign this peace with the Americans,” he vowed, “so also will I be the last to break the agreement.”
Originally published in the Spring 2008 issue of Military History Quarterly. To subscribe, click here.