‘Twas November the fourth in the year of ‘91
We had a strong engagement near to Fort Jefferson
Saint Clair was our commander as it may remembered be
For we left nine hundred lying in that curséd territory.
It was the worst defeat under arms ever suffered by the US Army. Out of some 1,100 men who answered muster on the night of November 3rd, 1791, only 27 were unwounded at sunset on the 4th. 90% were dead. The camp followers, the artillery, all were lost.
In just over three hours on that bloody morning General Arthur St. Clair lost 60% of all the men then under arms in the service of the United States.
St. Clair was no bumbler. He had been recognized for valor on the Plains of Abraham, where Britain took Quebec from the French. When the Revolution broke out he was a magistrate in Pennsylvania, where he raised a regiment. He crossed the Delaware with Washington. Shortly afterward he came up with the plan, and led the column, that took Princeton in a daring night march around the British lines. After the war, he became the 9th President of the United States under the Articles of Confederation. As President, he put down Shays’ Rebellion. He convened the Constitutional Convention that gave us our current Constitution, and sent that Constitution to the states to be ratified.
So, what happened?
Out on the Western Frontier of the United States (as it was in those days) there’d been peace between the Europeans and the Native Americans for quite some time. Then the Revolution happened, and when it was over the new United States felt that any treaties between King George and the Indians were no longer valid. The Indians, as you’d expect, were all “What the hey?!” about that.
Low-Intensity Conflict (as we’d call it these days) broke out in Ohio. Henry “Hair Buyer” Hamilton, Lieutenant-Governor of Canada at Detroit, offered bounties for European scalps, but none for living prisoners. He also supplied the native forces with powder and firearms.
St. Clair’s wasn’t the first army to go west in an attempt to end the situation. General Harmar had tried in 1790 with spectacularly bad results. (Among other things he sent a detachment forward; it ran into an ambush. He refused to send a relief party or make an assault himself. Some said that he was drunk at the time.)
President Washington sent for his old friend Arthur St. Clair to clean up the situation. St. Clair, with a militia, was to make his way northwest from Kentucky. He had been ordered to cut his way through the forest and build a fort after he had defeated the Indians; for this purpose he had been issued just 15 hatchets, 18 axes, 12 hammers and 24 handsaws. The troops had light-weight uniforms and tents. Much of the money that had been appropriated for equipping the militia had instead been spent on land speculation by Henry Knox, then Secretary of War.
The militia itself was poorly trained. Many of the men did not even know how to load and fire a musket. The horse-master “had never been in the woods in his life.” St. Clair spent the summer of 1791 training them, and on 17 September, with the weather deteriorating, headed out from Ft. Washington (near present-day Cincinnati) to find and destroy the Indian forces.
The march was plagued by cold weather, desertions, and the friction between St. Clair and his second in command, General Richard Butler (the man who had received Cornwallis’s sword at Yorktown). By the evening of the 3rd of November the two men were not on speaking terms. When Butler heard the word from the scouts that a large band of Indians was massing nearby, he neglected to tell St. Clair.
General St. Clair himself was old, tired, and sick. He made the march being carried on a stretcher due to his gout. He made errors. First, he divided his forces, putting half on one side of a river, half on the other. He had send off a strong party of his most reliable troops to round up deserters and supplies. Second, he placed his artillery where it couldn’t support his line (an error made earlier in Scotland by General Sir Henry Hawley at Falkirk and by General Sir John Cope at Prestonpans with equally bad results). These two things, elementary errors as they were, didn’t ensure the disaster. His failure to build breastworks and stand-to at first light (despite his experiences at Trenton and Princeton when he’d been on the offensive) left him in a very bad position indeed.
Before dawn on the 4th somewhere between 1,400 and 2,000 Miamis (under Little Turtle), Delawares (under Buckongahelas), and Shawnees (under Blue Jacket and his adopted brother Tecumseh) attacked the camp, taking it by surprise.
Says Colonel Gibson to his men, my boys, be not dismayed,
I’m sure that true Virginians were never yet afraid;
Ten thousand deaths I’d rather die, than they should gain the field,
With that he got a fatal shot, which causéd him to yield.
The powder the American militia had (provided by William Duer, described as “an unscruplous New York financier,” and Henry Knox’s partner) was woefully bad. A soldier described musket balls striking the Indians and bouncing off.
Says Major Clark, “My heroes, we can no longer stand.
We must strive to form in order and retreat the best we can.”
Forming in order proved difficult. Retreat turned into rout then into headlong flight. Men threw away their arms and equipment in order to run faster. The Indians only chased the army for three miles or so—about a half-hour.
When the news reached the capitol in Philadelphia, President Washington called together all his advisers. Some say that occasion marked the first Cabinet meeting. There was an investigation—the first time Congress ever investigated the Executive branch. President Washington invented “Executive Privilege” for the occasion (a precedent that has haunted us to this day), making secret documents that touched on state security, and claiming that among those that were handed over to the legislative branch that only copies—not the originals—would be submitted.
General St. Clair demanded a trial by courts-martial to defend his honor. Washington refused to convene one, instead dismissing St. Clair from the Army.
The Indian problem on the frontier continued, but it was obvious by now that the militia (raised on each occasion for a specific purpose then disbanded) wasn’t up to the job. Congress created a standing Army, and, under the command of General Anthony Wayne, that army headed west two years later, in 1793. Wayne, taking a page from Caesar’s book, built a road as he went and built a fort every night.
The army finally came face-to-face with the Indians at the Battle of Fallen Timbers (20 August, 1794). The fight was one-sided. The Indians fell back seeking entrance to the British fort at Fort Miami. The British, their allies and suppliers up to then, turned them away. It isn’t hard to understand why, from the British point of view. Detroit was a long way off, England farther still (when St. Clair was defeated along the Wabash it had taken a full seven months for the news to reach London), and relief and reinforcements were unlikely to arrive, while Mad Anthony Wayne might prove perfectly willing to reduce a British fort, he was there, he had the capability to do so; no need to give him a reason. Wayne went on to build the fort on the Maumee River as St. Clair had originally been ordered to do.
And that, my friends, is why Fort Wayne, Indiana, is called “Fort Wayne” rather than “Fort St. Clair.”
That too is where we got a standing army, and where the doctrine of “Executive Privilege” comes from.
Tell the truth to a man you trust,
The truth to a man you fear.
Lie to a woman because you must.
But since whatever you do or say
He’ll never believe you anyway -
Lie, lie, lie to a General
Lie to a Brigadier.