General Arthur St. Clair
The Revolutionary War had ended, at least theoretically. The British from positions in Canada and their northern forts such as Detroit and Niagara continued to support the Indians against the evolving United States. The Indians did not need much encouragement to continue the war against the Americans since their goal was to evict the settlers who were encroaching into their territory like a plague of locust. The Americans strategy was to wrest the lands from the Indians at the minimum cost and with the lowest risk possible. George Washington tried to promote a policy within the Government that involved buying the land from the Indians. This had led to a series of attempts to negotiate peace with the Indians and through treaties acquire more and more land. As part of this policy, several times orders were issued from the new nations capitol forbidding the settlers to attack the Indians while these peace efforts were in progress. Such orders permitted actions of self-defense by the settlers and their militia and to pursue war parties that attacked the white settlers and military positions. But no further aggression was authorized.
Arthur St. Clair had been an officer in the Revolutionary War and, at the recommendation of George Washington, in 1788, had been appointed by Congress as the first governor of the newly established Northwest Territory. As the Governor of the new territory, St. Clair was also the military commander with the rank of brigadier general.
Many, if not most, of the settlers and forward military outposts on the frontier were in disagreement with the policy of non-aggression imposed by the Congress. After all it was the people on the frontier who were being routinely attacked and killed by the Indians and most felt that the appropriate action was to mount a major offensive that would go into the Indian territories and punish and eliminate the Indians' ability to carry on their offensive.
For the Indians' part, the situation was about ideal. Of course they would have preferred peace, but they had learned long ago that the treaties of the white men meant nothing since the oncoming plague of settlers violated the terms almost immediately upon signing. The Indians came to realize that either there was no one among the whites who could speak for them or that the whites were perpetrating a ruse to take Indian lands and dispossess them. The fact was that they were correct on both counts. The Indian objective was to cause the whites to leave their lands. They wanted to force the whites to move east of the Allegheny Mountains. So under the current circumstances, the Indians could choose their battles and their timing. They were encouraged and supplied by the British to continue such attacks. They gained the harvest of horses and whatever goods they could carry away from their victims. They took pleasure in the sport of raiding the whites and got revenge of their losses. Finally, they were paid by the British for the scalps that they took from their victims and the prisoners that they captured. They were then free to retire to their villages without fear of retaliation from the whites.
Finally, as negotiations failed and as the situation on the frontier became intolerable, Congress agreed to try the approach advocated by the settlers. They agreed to mount an attack on the Indians to both punish them and "bring them to their knees" so that they could not continue their offensive.
Brigadier General St. Clair undertook to organize and lead the mission himself. But while St. Clair had been an officer in the Revolutionary War, he was neither a military strategist nor a tactician. As he prepared for the campaign, very little went right for him. Supplies and regular army personnel that had been promised never arrived. He was only able to recruit the county militia who for the most part were brave enough, but they had no military training. The militiamen had to furnish their own weapons and bring part of their own rations. Delays ran into months as the rag-tag army waited for supplies and reinforcements that never came.
Finally, St. Clair, under pressure to get the campaign underway, began his march. He still expected supplies to arrive and left orders for them to follow. He put his men on half rations as they began their march. Their march took them from the Ohio River northward near the current western border of Ohio. They moved slowly and with little military bearing. To make matters worse, a contingent of about 250 "camp followers" who consisted of women and others tagged along behind the army of nearly 1500 men.
Concerned that the supply train that he still expected might be ambushed, he sent about 15% of his force back to escort the supplies. He pressed ahead with the remaining forces but again split his force dispatching enough of his troops on other tasks that only about 900 or so men remained in the main force.
Indian spies had closely monitored the movements of St. Clair's army from the time it set off on its mission. From the intelligence gathered by these spies the leaders of the Indian army recruited more than enough warriors to engage his main force. The Indians planned an ambush of the St. Clair army but later decided to attack the weakened troops who were tired from their march and half starved from lack of food. The resulting battle was decisive. Of the 900 plus troops and nearly 300 "followers" over 800 were killed by the Indians with very few casualties to their own forces. The survivors of the battle panicked and bolted from the fight leaving the wounded and dead to the enemy.
A Congressional investigation was held to inquire into the disastrous defeat that cleared St. Clair of primary responsibility. Instead, it blamed the War Department for not providing support, the contractors who were to supply the army, and the militia for being untrained and not following orders. Arthur St. Clair, however, was finished as a commander and politician.
The Indians took great comfort and pleasure in their ability to effectively dispatch such a large army of whites. Instead of reducing the frequency of attacks on they frontier, they increased.