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When the new nation needed a soldier to fight Indians and build a standing army, it called on a man whose hard-charging style had earned him the nickname ‘Mad Anthony’

George Washington rarely lost his temper, but when he did, the explosion was a spectacle witnesses never forgot. Among the most memorable detonations occurred on Dec. 9, 1791, when a messenger from Secretary of War Henry Knox arrived at the president’s Philadelphia mansion while Washington was entertaining dinner guests.

The president’s secretary, Tobias Lear, hurried into the dining room and whispered there was news from Maj. Gen. Arthur St. Clair, commander of the Western army. The previous day a newspaper had reported a rumor the army had been mauled in a clash with Indians. The president excused himself, rushed to a nearby parlor to glance at St. Clair’s dispatch, then returned to the table and chatted agreeably with his guests until they departed.

Having seen the visitors out, Lear walked into the parlor to find the 59-year-old Washington in a rage, his face red and eyes wild.

“It’s all over!” the president roared, his long arms flailing. “St. Clair’s defeated—routed! The officers nearly all killed! [I told him when] I took leave of him, ‘Beware of a surprise!’ And yet, to suffer that army be cut to pieces, hacked, butchered, tomahawked, by a surprise —the very thing I guarded him against! The blood of the slain is upon him; the curse of widows and orphans; the curse of heaven!”

For another five minutes, Washington damned St. Clair, using words that appalled the genteel Lear. Breathing in rasps, Washington finally flung himself on a nearby sofa. When he spoke again, it was in a calm measured voice: “This must not go beyond this room. General St. Clair shall have justice. I will hear him without prejudice.”

But Washington was already thinking beyond St. Clair, whose military career was over. The president had realized his defeat could be a blessing in a very unpleasant disguise.

Even before Washington’s 1789 election, the fledgling United States had been fighting an Indian war in the vast region between the Atlantic Ocean and the Mississippi River. Though Britain had officially ceded this territory in the treaty that ended the War for Independence, British officials in Canada refused to evacuate forts in the wilderness now called the Midwest and then called the Northwest Territory. Furthermore, King George III’s representatives instructed their agents and traders to encourage Indian attacks on American settlers swarming into the region.

The result of Britain’s perfidy was a series of brutal frontier massacres in which Indian war parties slaughtered an estimated 1,500 American men, women and children. Settlers in Kentucky screamed for vengeance and attacked even those tribes trying to remain at peace. Washington sent envoys to negotiate the amicable cession of some of the Indians’ lands, but the Miamis, Shawnees and other warlike tribes evaded or violated the agreements.

To the president’s intense frustration, the United States did not have a standing army to back his diplomacy with muscle. The reason was political: At the end of the Revolutionary War, soldiers of the Continental Army had threatened to march on Congress to extract money owed them. Though Washington had managed to talk his former troops out of such rash action, Congress came to abhor the idea of an army of regulars that might pose a threat to its authority and would require unpopular taxes to support.

Washington had proposed a token peacetime force of 3,000 men, but Congress icily ignored him. The politicians refused to recruit more than the lone regiment created in 1784. If more men were needed, the cynics said, the government could hire militiamen by the day. This reliance on amateur soldiers must have infuriated Washington, who’d told Congress throughout the war that militias specialized in running for the rear at the very sight of British bayonets.

Events soon validated Washington’s opinion. In 1790 America’s one-regiment regular army, reinforced by some 1,000 militiamen, launched a punitive attack on a cluster of hostile Miami villages near present-day Fort Wayne, Indiana. About 100 Miamis ambushed the advance guard, and the panicked militiamen abandoned the regulars in headlong flight. The following day the Indians mauled a second American detachment. Survivors stumbled back to Fort Washington, near present-day Cincinnati, Ohio, demoralized and humiliated. Little Turtle, the Miami chieftain, became a hero in the eyes of Northwest Indians.

The setbacks persuaded Congress to authorize creation of a second regiment and the raising of 2,000 “levies” for six months’ service. Though considered regulars, these soldiers were closer to militia. To command this force, Washington and Knox chose St. Clair, who had been a major general during the Revolution. But anti-army ideologues in Congress soon undermined the new commander by reducing the regulars’ pay. Less than 10 percent of the men whose enlistments expired that year signed up again. When St. Clair reached Fort Washington, he found the First Regiment had dwindled to 299 men. Recruiting for the new Second Regiment also faltered, leaving the regulars 50 percent below their authorized strength. Saddled with his barely trained six-month levies, St. Clair was forced to call out 1,160 militiamen.

At dawn on Nov. 4, 1791, a 1,500- warrior force of Northwest Territory Indians under Little Turtle attacked St. Clair’s unfortified campsite. Both militiamen and levies fled, and the attackers killed or wounded 64 officers and 807 enlisted men. In terms of casualty rate, it was the worst defeat inflicted by Indians on an American army. St. Clair managed to escape on one of the few surviving horses.

The destruction of St. Clair’s force enabled Washington to brow- beat a chastened Congress into authorizing four regular regiments, with three-year enlistments, plus a squadron of cavalry. As a sop to antiarmy politicians, Knox called the new force the Legion of the United States rather than the U.S. Army.

To lead the new Legion, Washington and Knox chose Pennsylvanian Anthony Wayne, a former Continental Army major general who had led the successful 1779 nighttime assault on the British fort at Stony Point, N.Y., and engineered a 1782 victory in Georgia over a much larger British army.

Wayne, whose hard-charging leadership style had earned him the nickname “Mad Anthony,” was deep in debt from an ill-fated postwar venture as a Georgia rice grower and readily accepted Washington’s offer. Told his army would be waiting for him in Pittsburgh, Wayne hastened there, only to find 40 morose recruits. Low pay and the prospect of facing the tomahawk-wielding “savages” who had slaughtered St. Clair’s army did not attract the best and brightest. It took another 10 months for the nascent Legion to reach 1,200 men.

Wayne set about turning the illiterate farm boys and urban drifters into an army. They soon learned he was a professional soldier committed to unremitting discipline. Within five weeks in the fall of 1792, he executed seven deserters. Anyone found asleep on duty or showing “an intention to desert” got 100 lashes. Those on parade in a soiled uniform got 20 lashes. Drunk and disorderly officers were cashiered with equal ruthlessness.

To brace his tyro soldiers for the shock of war, Wayne set up mock combat. He sent one contingent into the woods with orders to imitate Indians. The chosen men stripped off their shirts and painted their bodies and faces. Then the rest of the army mounted an attack. The pseudo-Indians whooped and howled and fired blank cartridges as the attackers blasted back, roaring defiance. On the frontier, real Indians waited.

In the spring of 1793, Secretary of War Knox ordered Wayne to transport his men by boat to the disputed Northwest Territory. At Cincinnati, cheering crowds lined the banks of the Ohio River, greeting the soldiers as saviors. But the Indians, especially the warlike Miamis, were displeased with the proximity of Wayne’s “legionnaires.” They accused the government—still engaged in diplomatic efforts to defuse the frontier crisis—of speaking “with a double tongue.”

Wayne asked the governor of Kentucky to call out 1,500 mounted militiamen. Responding militia commanders insisted they be allowed to act independently of Wayne’s command. The request infuriated “Mad Anthony,” who told them flatly they were in the pay of the United States and would obey his orders, or else. In an eloquent letter, Wayne warned them the Indian enemy was “a hydra,” a widespread confederation hoping to cinch a chain “around the frontiers of America.” The Kentuckians grudgingly agreed to obey the general.

Later that spring, news from Europe complicated matters: War had broken out between Great Britain and Revolutionary France. British officials in Canada in turn resolved to have Indian allies tie down any American forces that might invade the “14th colony” on France’s behalf.

Thus prompted by the British, the Indians announced they would tolerate no Americans north of the Ohio River. American negotiators rejected the demand, given that several thousand Americans already lived on those lands under the provisions of prior treaties with individual tribes. Wayne, meanwhile, marched his army from Cincinnati 40 miles north to the American outpost at Fort Jefferson, then six miles farther into the wilderness Indians claimed was forever theirs. His soldiers built a fort that enclosed 50 acres, with huts for the enlisted men and roomier quarters for the officers. Wayne named it Fort Greene Ville, after Maj. Gen. Nathanael Greene, his closest friend in the Continental Army.

That winter Wayne confronted a stickier problem. Brig. Gen. James Wilkinson, his second in command, had overseen Fort Jefferson and other outposts in the Northwest Territory. A born liar and intriguer who sought Wayne’s job, Wilkinson was also on the payroll of the Spanish government, as “Agent 13,” and was hoping to make a fortune by persuading Kentucky to declare independence, backed by Spanish gold.

Wilkinson planted newspaper stories portraying Wayne as corrupt, cruel, incompetent and stupid, but “Mad Anthony” chose not to confront the disloyal subordinate and his supporters. Instead, while assuring the Indians he was willing to parley, Wayne marched eight companies of men 20 miles north to the battlefield where St. Clair’s army had been butchered in 1792—the ground still littered with bones of the unburied dead. After interring the remains with military honors in a mass grave, Wayne ordered his men to build another stronghold, which he named Fort Recovery. He found the cannon St. Clair had abandoned and the Indians had buried and installed the guns in the new redoubt—an added gesture of defiance Wayne made sure the watching Indians noticed.

The Indians conferred with Lord Dorchester, the governor of Canada, who as General Guy Carleton had ably defended the colony against the Americans’ 1775 invasion. Dorchester told the Indians that war between Britain and America was likely to flare up again within a year, and if the red men remained loyal to their benevolent father, George III, the Americans would be scoured from every foot of ground west of the great mountains. To prove his sincerity, Dorchester ordered Lt. Gov. John Graves Simcoe to build a fort on the Maumee River, 16 miles south of Lake Erie and well within American territory. Simcoe had commanded a Loyalist unit, the Queen’s Rangers, during the Revolution and nursed a lifelong hatred of George Washington. He garrisoned the new outpost with regulars and named it Fort Miamis, in honor of Little Turtle’s tribe.

The emboldened Indians decided to strike first at Wayne’s Fort Recovery. On June 30, 1794, Little Turtle led an estimated 1,700 warriors through the forest. One British officer called it the most formidable Indian army in history. Their assault began with a classic ambush, as the Indians caught a 360-horse pack train in the open and annihilated it, killing a third of the soldiers in its 100-man escort. Then, whirling bloody scalps, the screaming warriors charged the fort.

It marked the first test of Wayne’s 18 months of training and discipline. Fort Recovery’s 250-man garrison met the assault with punishing musketry, firing buckshot and ball through loopholes as cannon flung grape into the Indian ranks. The stunned warriors sought cover behind tree stumps and sniped back for several hours, but it became apparent the fort was impregnable. The next day the attackers abandoned their siege.

The impact of failure on the fragile Indian confederacy was devastating. British agents had convinced more than 600 warriors from the Great Lakes tribes to join the attack, and its repulse prompted those warriors to pull out of the alliance and go home. An exultant Wayne hailed the victory and informed Knox that upon arrival of the 1,500 Kentucky volunteers his army would advance on the main Miami villages.

On July 29, 1794, in blazing summer heat, the Legion began its march. Ignoring his cautious aides, Wayne often rode with the advance guard to prove his confidence in their ability to repel an ambush. Each day the army set up camp well before sundown and built fortifications against a surprise attack. On August 2, after an advance of about 40 miles, Wayne paused to build a fortified supply depot.

Around 3 p.m. the following day, Wayne retired to his tent to escape the burning sun. As he rested, a massive beech tree crashed down on the tent, smashing an empty cot beside Wayne and badly bruising the general. His aides suspected Wilkinson’s allies of foul play, but Wayne dismissed the incident as an unfortunate accident.

Back east, a less overt threat to the Legion’s existence was emerging. To finance the army, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton had persuaded Congress to levy a tax on whiskey. But whiskey making was a main revenue source among many small farmers, and the excise had infuriated people in western Pennsylvania and elsewhere along the frontier. On July 15, 1794, a riot erupted in Pittsburgh. A mob burned the house and barn of John Neville, the federal tax collector for the district, and fought a pitched battle with responding soldiers. The rioters talked wildly of seceding from the United States, and several suggested seeking help from the British in Canada. Washington promptly condemned the rebellion and called out 13,000 militiamen to suppress it.

It became increasingly clear that the future of the United States might well depend on the success of Wayne’s army. Resuming its march, the Legion built a passable road as it advanced. On August 8 it reached one of its objectives, the Miami settlement of Grand Glaize, comprising hundreds of cabins surrounded by fields of corn, beans and other crops.

To Wayne’s surprise, the Indians had abandoned this prize without a fight. He called the settlement “the grand emporium of the hostile Indians of the West” and began building another fortification, dubbed Fort Defiance. In the meantime, his soldiers filled their knapsacks and wagons with fresh produce, trampling the rest and burning the cabins. They left a wasteland.

The Indian retreat signaled growing disarray in their ranks. In late July, Little Turtle had gone to Detroit to extract from the British a promise of military support—specifically infantry and artillery. All he got were vague promises. Upon hearing of Wayne’s razing of Grand Glaize, the British did dispatch two infantry companies to Fort Miamis but issued no orders to support the Indians in battle.

At a hastily convened Indian council, Little Turtle dismayed everyone by urging peace negotiations with Wayne. The war chiefs of the Shawnees, Ottawas and other tribes scornfully dismissed him. So Little Turtle turned over command of the army to Blue Jacket, a tall Shawnee known for his fancy clothes and hatred of white men. He had 1,300 warriors at his disposal, plus 70 Canadian militiamen mustered by Simcoe.

On August 20, a day of rain showers and oppressive humidity, Wayne’s army trudged up the Maumee Valley toward Fort Miamis, laboring across deep ravines and through thick woods. The Americans marched in three columns, with 150 Kentucky cavalry and a 74-man advance guard of select troops. Cavalry guarded both flanks and the rear. Wayne was in agony from an attack of gout, but he thrust the pain aside and rode at the head of the left column.

Ahead, muskets barked here and there, followed by a volley, as breathless messengers arrived to report contact with the Indians. Blue Jacket had chosen to fight in a tornado-ravaged section of the forest, where hundreds of felled trees wove a massive tangle. The site, a few miles south of present-day Toledo, was known among the Indians as Fallen Timbers. To Blue Jacket, it seemed an ideal battlefield, a position cavalry could not penetrate and infantry would find difficult to attack in a compact mass, wielding the much-feared bayonet.

The opening Indian volley killed the leaders of the advance guard, and the Americans fell back, firing as they retreated, not a few turning to run. Anticipating a harvest of scalps, Ottawas and Potawatomis in the center of the Indian line charged from the tangled timber. But they collided with the main body of Wayne’s army amid tall grass and open forest, where American marksmanship came into play.

Wayne ordered the cavalry under Captain Robert MisCampbell to outflank the Indians. Taking only a single troop, he charged across a deep ravine into a cluster of Indians, one of whom sprang up and shot the captain in the chest, scattering the rest of the troop.

Back with the infantry, Wayne formed two lines and brought his artillery to bear with grapeshot and canister. For a few minutes the battle seesawed wildly, as the Indians sought to outflank the Legion. Some of the hottest fighting fell to the vaunted company of Vermonters known as the Green Mountain Boys. They lost seven men but stood their ground, in turn killing several Wyandotte chiefs and the commander of the Canadian militia company.

“Charge the damned rascals with the bayonet!” Wayne roared, and his men sprang into action. On the right, under Wilkinson’s command, the Indians took one look at the oncoming “long knives” and ran. On the left, the Canadian militia met the charge with “a most heavy fire.” (It is in this section archaeologists have reaped a grisly harvest of spent musket and rifle balls and uniform buttons, attesting to the ferocious combat.)

A company of Kentucky militia then hit the enemy from the flank, breaking their line. As the Canadians and Indians fled across open ground, Wayne’s Kentucky horsemen ruthlessly rode them down. Mounting a rock to rally his men, an Ottawa war chief toppled to the ground in mid-sentence, shot through the heart by one of Wayne’s riflemen. Other war chiefs also fell; Little Turtle was carried from the field, streaming blood, and flung onto a horse bound for Fort Miamis.

The British bastion now became the Indians’ last hope. They would find refuge there with their English brothers and perhaps fight the long knives another day. But when they reached the fort, they found the gates shut and British soldiers on the ramparts waving them away. The illusion that had fueled their defiance came crashing down, and the Indians fled north, a routed rabble.

Within an hour, the Battle of Fallen Timbers was over. American casualties tallied 33 dead and about 100 wounded. Indian losses were thought to be about 40. Wilkinson, still trying to undermine Wayne, sneered that it was more a skirmish than a battle. But the humiliating rout and collapse of the British-Indian alliance transcended numbers.

Two months after the battle, Washington’s militia army marched into western Pennsylvania to stamp out the Whiskey Rebellion. Had Wayne’s army failed at Fallen Timbers, the inflamed westerners might have assumed the feckless federal government could be defied with impunity, and the British might have been encouraged to ship the rebels guns and ammunition. Instead, the king’s men watched glumly from Canada as cowed rebel leaders surrendered before the federal government’s show of overwhelming force.

Back in Philadelphia, news of the victory at Fallen Timbers had triggered celebrations. The president urged Congress to congratulate the Legion and its commander. The surly Jeffersonians agreed to praise the Kentucky militiamen and their brigadier general but claimed it was inappropriate for the congress of a republic to recognize a regular army general. Washington made sure Wayne received his personal congratulations. The irked ideologues tried to dismantle the Legion, but the president had too much political momentum. He insisted on a bill to establish a regular army and eventually got one. Signing it was surely one of the most satisfying moments of his presidency.

At Fort Greene Ville, Wayne negotiated an August 1795 treaty with the Indians that opened all of Ohio and much of Indiana to American settlement. A few months later the British government agreed to evacuate all its forts on American territory, and within a decade there were more than 40,000 settlers in Ohio. As the frontier retreated farther west, it became increasingly clear Anthony Wayne’s victory at Fallen Timbers represented a turning point in American history.


For further reading, Thomas Fleming recommends: Bayonets in the Wilderness: Anthony Wayne’s Legion in the Old Northwest, by Alan D. Gaff, and Anthony Wayne: Soldier of the Early Republic, by Paul David Nelson.

Originally published in the September 2009 issue of Military History. To subscribe, click here