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  • James Houser

November 4, 1791 - Battle of the Wabash/St. Clair's Defeat

Updated: May 21, 2021

November 4, 1791. Eight years after the end of the American Revolution, the infant nation faces a new foe. An expedition under the command of General Arthur St. Clair has set out into the wilderness of the Ohio Country, where they run into a coalition of Miami and Shawnee warriors. On the banks of the Wabash River on the Ohio-Indiana border, the United States Army is about to suffer the worst defeat in its entire history.

To understand how this could have happened, we need to delve into the Founding Fathers’ beliefs about standing armies and their place in the new republic. Granted, whenever anyone says “the Founding Fathers believed,” they’re already lying because the Founders agreed on basically nothing. Alexander Hamilton wanted George Washington to become a monarch, Thomas Jefferson made an edit of the Bible that took anything “superstitious” out, and Benjamin Franklin was a vegetarian who believed that meat was murder. There was some kooky stuff floating around. (Not that being vegetarian is kooky. But it was kooky then.)

A very strong principle that many Founders held to, though, was the suspicion of an established regular military. If we open our American History middle school textbooks to probably Chapter 4 or 5, we’ll recall that British troops being stationed in the Thirteen Colonies was one of the prime grievances of the American Revolution. In the views of men like Thomas Jefferson, James Madison and their Anti-Federalist allies, anything that smacked of too much central government power was basically the devil, and that included a regular standing army. A few mutinies and Continental Army conspiracies in the closing days of the Revolution, such as the Newburgh Conspiracy, helped confirm their suspicions that a regular military would be a dangerous force in the Republic. In contrast, George Washington, Hamilton, and a number of other Federalist figures saw the Regular Army as a necessity, especially when it came to defense against foreign nations and the Indian tribes on the western frontier.

I cannot exaggerate enough how committed some Americans were, in the immediate aftermath of the Revolution, to not having a military – AT ALL. Period, end of. Yes, you would have militia forces, and this was Jefferson’s favorite solution. There was and is a myth of the American “minuteman” fighting to defend his home at the drop of a hat. It was a romantic and commonly held belief among many Anti-Federalists that the militia had played the starring role in the Revolution, and that this proved the United States didn’t really NEED a standing army, the militia would take care of any major problem. People like Hamilton were quick to point out that Jefferson hadn’t actually *fought* in the Revolution; he and Washington *had*, and they had seen how useless the militia usually were in combat. Only Washington’s hard core of Continentals carried most of the major operations.

This was all made worse by the fact that the Articles of Confederation, America’s initial governing document, wasn’t exactly clear on whether Congress even had the authority to raise troops. Washington had recommended a standing force of 2,600 men to garrison the frontier and certain fortresses on the coast, to be supplemented by militia when needed, but lingering doubt about the standing army and the absolutely barren bank accounts of the new nation combined to prevent any such units from being raised. In 1784, the last units of the Continental Army were officially disbanded, except for only 80 – yes, 80 – soldiers to garrison West Point and Pittsburgh. So the Army is 80 people. Let’s see how this goes.

The Confederation Congress did ask – because that was all they COULD do – the states to send volunteer militiamen to serve on the frontier. This unit, the “First American Regiment”, was composed of about 300 men serving three-year enlistments and was posted in the Ohio Country. They were undermanned, undersupplied, with poor pay and terrible morale. They were just enough soldiers to irritate the local settlers and Indians, but not enough to actually do anything about it. To make matters worse, a Massachusetts tax revolt known as Shays’ Rebellion broke out in 1786. Though the Massachusetts militia put it down, they only did so with great difficulty, and the Confederation Congress was virtually helpless against the rebels – hell, many of the militia officers had joined the rebellion! Clearly, some other solution was required.

Of course, the Constitution fixed many of the leftover issues from the Articles of Confederation, and our first President George Washington began to implement part of his vision for a small American military. The new document explicitly gave Congress the power to “raise and support” armies and navies, but also made the President the Commander-in-Chief of the militia and gave them the authorization to call it into service. That was all well and good, but there was still basically no U.S. Army when Washington took office in 1789, and trouble was already brewing in Ohio Country.

In the 1783 Treaty of Paris that had ended the American Revolution, Great Britain ceded the vast Northwest Territories to the United States. The Northwest Territories, also known as the Ohio Country, included modern Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin; it was prime real estate, and many American settlers were already trying to push across the border and stake their claims there. It was to protect these settlers that the pathetic First American Regiment had been established. But the Ohio Country already had people living there. The treaty had been between the United States and Great Britain, but no one had thought to check with the Indians.

The Northwest Indian tribes, under pressure from white settlement, coalesced into an alliance called the Western Confederacy. Led by the two strongest tribes – the Miami and Shawnee – the Confederacy refused to recognize American claims to the Ohio country. This precipitated the Northwest Indian War, which started in 1785 – just as the Articles of Confederation government had been trying to scrape together something resembling a military. As Indians and settlers began to raid and counter-raid each other, the pitiful forces of the First American Regiment were barely able to feed and equip themselves and certainly not enough to maintain order. Throughout the 1780s, the Indians killed almost 1500 settlers, usually with weapons and ammunition supplied by the British-occupied forts in Canada.

With George Washington’s occupancy of the Presidency in 1789, it was now possible to do something about the Northwest Indian crisis. The governor of the Northwest Territory was Major General Arthur St. Clair, a Revolutionary War veteran with a mixed reputation. Washington asked St. Clair whether he believed peace was possible with the Northwest Indians, or whether it had to be war. St. Clair confirmed that he believed war to be the only possible outcome, and that the Indians had to be dealt with. The Governor wanted militia reinforcements to be sent to Fort Washington (later Cincinnati) and Vincennes, Indiana, where they could combine with the First American Regiment to launch an expedition against the natives. The First American Regiment had been renamed (which would happen several times) as the “Regiment of Infantry” upon the Constitution’s coming into effect, but we’re just gonna start calling them the 1st Regiment.

The 1st Regiment’s Colonel Josiah Harmar was ordered to lead this initial campaign, a “punitive expedition,” in early 1790. His task was to destroy the main Miami village of Kekionga - now Fort Wayne, Indiana. The 320 regulars of the 1st Regiment joined with 1100 Kentucky and Pennsylvania militia, along with three cannons, to participate in the 1790 Campaign. Most of these militia were recent immigrants and vagrants from their respective states, with little woodland skill and no military discipline. When the states had sent in their militia notices, many registered militiamen paid the old or the recently arrived to take their place, resulting in a hobbled and unmotivated force. As we’ve seen, the 1st Regiment wasn’t much better. Harmar took his column deep into the Ohio Country from Fort Washington, burned some Miami towns and crops, but were ambushed by the Miami on their way back. The militia were easily lured into traps, after which the Indians could surround the isolated regulars. Harmar and his broken expedition straggled back to Fort Washington in disgrace.

The abysmal failure of the “Harmar Campaign” was a major scandal for the Washington Administration, and both the President and Secretary of War Henry Knox agreed that the militia were one of the main causes of the whole mess. They ordered St. Clair to mount a larger and more vigorous campaign in the summer of 1791, and persuaded Congress to raise a second regiment of Regular soldiers. Congress had to be dragged kicking and screaming to put a single extra soldier in Army blues, and to balance their books cut the soldiers’ pay across the board. The demoralized and embittered 1st Regiment soon experienced widespread desertion and heavy alcohol abuse, and the 2nd Regiment only arrived in fragments, barely trained and totally undisciplined. Despite Washington and Knox’s wishes, St. Clair was forced to add large forces of Kentucky militia and local levies to his ranks. It would be a mixed regular-militia force that once again marched to battle against the Northwest Indians.

The next issue was gathering sufficient supplies. Congress was barely giving the Army pennies, so food was hard to procure and horses near impossible. Though Washington was riding St. Clair’s ass to get him moving in the summer, when the weather wouldn’t be a significant factor, St. Clair understandably protested that his men were already starving at their home base, let alone on expedition. Nevertheless, St. Clair finally agreed to move out into the wilderness of Ohio Country in October 1791. He had 600 regular soldiers, 800 levies, and 600 militia at their very peak, but desertion and illness cut this 2,000-man force down to 1500 before the expedition even set out. They were accompanied by almost 250 camp followers – the wives, children, girlfriends and even prostitutes of the force. Taking them along would prove to be, um, a BAD decision.

St. Clair’s force staggered northwest through the Ohio woods, with the Miami village of Kekionga their objective once again. The expedition made only a few miles a day, and with each passing day more militia and levies deserted. St. Clair himself was in very poor health, suffering from gout (he was in no shape to be leading an expedition, but insisted on it.) Commanding from a litter half the time, the General was totally unable to maintain control of his force. While the regulars maintained some sort of cohesion, the militia and levies were soon little better than a mob. This travelling circus was cruising for a bruising.

And a bruising was coming. The glacial pace of St. Clair’s pitiful army gave the Indians time to react. The Miami under Chief Little Turtle and the Shawnee under Blue Jacket had already assembled 700 warriors, and were constantly harassing the American force with skirmishes and nightly raids, all of which seriously diminished the morale and bearing of the expedition. Little Turtle was the natural leader of the expedition, a gifted and capable tactician who planned to destroy the American force outright. He only waited for the arrival of 400 reinforcements from the Michigan area under Lenape Chief Buckongahelas. Little Turtle wanted every brave in the fight when he decided to openly confront the American force.

By November 3, 1791, St. Clair’s army was down to only around 920 men of the 2,000 he had started with, not including the camp followers. That night, the army camped on a snow-covered hill near the headwaters of the Wabash River, straddling the modern boundary between the states of Indiana and Ohio. Unbeknownst to the Americans, Little Turtle and Blue Jacket had their 1,000 Indian warriors only a mile off, watching and waiting for an opportunity. The Americans made camp but failed to send out patrols or even post adequate sentries, stacking their weapons and bedding down for the night with virtually no security while St. Clair slept on his cot. Winthrop Sargent, St. Clair’s second in command, tried to get the Americans to take the situation seriously but to no avail.

At dawn on November 4, 1791, Little Turtle and his fellow leaders watched in amazement as the militia got out of their tents and set about cooking breakfast, not even bothering to replace the sleeping sentries or check their weapons, their breath making clouds in the frigid air. Hardly believing what he was seeing, Little Turtle identified the least-disciplined looking unit and decided to attack them first. At his word the Indians surged forward, firing their British-provided muskets with dangerous accuracy.

The American militia immediately panicked, leaving their weapons behind and fleeing across a stream as they were shot down by the sudden strike. All along the line, the militia and levies scattered in every direction, not even trying to put up any sort of fight against this sudden whirlwind of fire coming from the treeline.

The regulars of the 1st and 2nd Regiments were in better shape, though, and quickly got into line formation and dressed their ranks. They at least had some idea of what they were doing, and the only professional soldiers on the field unleashed a volley that blew back the initial Indian attack. But Little Turtle smelled blood, and he pushed his warriors around either flank of the densely packed American formation. He ordered his sharpshooters out to target the few artillery pieces, and the gun crews were decimated by accurate Shawnee musket fire.

The isolated American formation on top of the hill decided to fix bayonets and charge the Indian position. Little Turtle had prepared for this tactic. When American soldiers with their long bayonets charged any part of his line, that part would fade back into the trees and lead the Americans deeper into the forest. There, the Americans could be surrounded and picked off from all sides. Each American bayonet charge ended the same way, and soon the Regulars too were beginning to break. St. Clair had horse after horse shot out from under him as he staggered blearily back and forth, his horse’s hooves crunching through the snow. Small units of American cavalry tried to charge the Indians, but their horses lost their footing in the ice and snow and were easily dodged in the thick forest. Soon blood was flecking the white ground all along the Wabash.

St. Clair saw a disaster in the making. The Northwest Indians had by now totally surrounded the surviving Americans, and were unleashing a deadly fire into the hilltop from all sides. The general ordered an officer of the 1st Levy Regiment, Captain Henry Carberry of Maryland, to make a breakout attempt. Against all odds, Carberry’s scraped-together remnants of units fixed bayonets and broke through the Indian perimeter. With this gap opened up, the rest of St. Clair’s army disintegrated into a rabid, fleeing mass, with every man for himself. Men ran, walked, stumbled or crawled through the narrow opening, some carrying the wounded. They broke out from the Indian perimeter with desperation, with Colonel William Darke of the 1st Levy Regiment beheading an Indian with his saber and another man killing a warrior with his own tomahawk. On the hill they left behind, according to militiaman Jacob Fowler, “freshly scalped heads reeking with smoke.” Most of the wounded, sick and camp followers did not escape.

St. Clair’s army was ruined. They made a panicked and demoralized retreat over the 97 miles back to Cincinnati – well, what was left of them. Of the 52 American regular officers engaged in the battle, 39 were killed and 7 wounded, a casualty rate of 88%. The two-hour fight had killed 632 American soldiers out of the 920 engaged, and nearly all of them were also wounded, for a total casualty rate of around 97%. Only 24 men came out unwounded. The camp followers – women and children all – were slaughtered by the Indians, and most of the soldiers mercilessly tortured before being executed. For all this, Little Turtle and his Confederacy army had lost around 61, with only 21 of them dead.

It was the worst defeat in United States Army history – indeed, the worst defeat America as a nation has ever suffered in war. Even the slaughter at Little Big Horn was only a third as lethal as the massacre of St. Clair’s force on the Wabash. A quarter of the U.S. Army died that bitter day in the cold, bloody snow of the Northwest Territory.

Washington was predictably furious, and when St. Clair came to Philadelphia to explain himself the President demanded his immediate resignation. A bunch of firsts proceeded to happen: the first Congressional investigation, the first use of “executive privilege” to deny Congress certain confidential Presidential documents, some of the first Cabinet meetings and first American dealing with a national security crisis. Lots of fun things that we’d see a lot more of as the years went on.

But St. Clair’s defeat finally lit a fire under Congress’s butt to take action. They approved funds for a much larger army of 5,000 regulars, to be organized into the “Legion of the United States.” Washington appointed a new commander, the hard-fighting General “Mad” Anthony Wayne, one of his best subordinates from the Revolutionary War. Washington also persuaded Congress to have patience, rather than insisting on a sudden expedition, which allowed Wayne to train and drill his men into a real fighting force.

As the Americans got stronger, the Indian alliance began to fracture, as some tribes split off to seek peace. The Indians had won two great victories in two years, but they had no way of turning those victories into a lasting settlement without some sort of overt British assistance. The British, who had always been happy to stick a thumb in America’s eye after the Revolution, may have given more open aid to the Northwest Indians but they were a little busy with a DIFFERENT Revolution – the French – over in Europe right now. Thus, British support was withdrawn from the Confederacy just when they needed it most.

Wayne marched his Legion of the United States into the Ohio Country in 1793, and built Fort Recovery on the site of St. Clair’s defeat. In June 1794, Little Turtle and Blue Jacket attacked this fort as well, but this time the Legion was ready and waiting and the Indians were repulsed. The next month, Wayne advanced from Fort Recover with 2,000 regulars and 1,500 Kentucky militiamen, and Wayne’s aggressive demeanor and powerful will kept this force in line. He finally defeated Little Turtle, Blue Jacket and Buckongahelas – and some not-supposed-to-be-there Canadian militia – at the Battle of Fallen Timbers on August 20, 1794. The battle was named for the large number of felled trees from a recent tornado.

With Wayne’s victory at Fallen Timbers, the United States was finally able to force peace on the Northwest Confederacy. For years afterwards, the Ohio Country would remain quiet – until a visionary Indian leader replaced Blue Jacket as the head of the Shawnee. His name was Tecumseh, and he would make the last great pan-Indian bid to stop the inevitable growth of American settlement. But his story comes later this month.

Though the Legion of the United States would be disbanded in 1796 and the regular army reduced to 3,000, never again would any President or Congress try to do away with a standing army. The disaster at Wabash had demonstrated, above all, just what can happen without a solid military establishment to wage the nation’s wars. It was one of the most important turning points in the early military history of the United States of America.

And for those few salty Sergeants that survived, it was a story their soldiers probably got REALLY tired of hearing when they tried to sleep in while on patrol. “What, you want Little Turtle to scalp you, private? Get moving!”

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