The St. Clair Expedition of 1791

The St. Clair Expedition of 1791 or
Defeat of the U.S. Army against the Miami Tribe & their Allies
Commander: Major General Arthur St. Clair

Autumn of 1791 - near present day Fort Recovery, Ohio

Source: Fairfax Downed, Indian Wars of the U.S. Army 1776-1865 (1963), pa. 54-59

Congress, now convinced that one regiment was not enough, authorized the formation of the and Infantry--once more "too little and too late." Militia contingents were drafted, as unfit as before. Again President Washington made an unfortunate choice of commander. He recommissioned as major general the Governor of Northwest Territory, Arthur St. Clair, a comrade-in-arms of the Revolution.

St. Clair had fought well at Trenton and Princeton. He had extricated his army from Fort Ticonderoga when, as he had been vainly warned, British guns were hauled up onto Mount Defiance to dominate it. Behind the general's imposing facade of rough-hewn features and a big, heavy-set frame lay little real ability. Besides, he was fifty-five years old and suffering from gout. Poor planning, delays, failure to see to his troop's rations and pay, a chronic neglect of proper reconnaissance--he must be called to account for all those grave faults. The cards were stacked against an expedition with such a man in command.

On October, 1791, St. Clair's motley army marched from Fort Washington north through the Ohio wilderness on the road to disaster. Besides the four washerwomen per company allowed by regulations (ordinarily only for garrison duty), a throng of other women and children totaling 200 or higher, was incredibly allowed to accompany the expedition--wives or mistresses of officers and troops. Some nursed babies; others were pregnant. With their frontier upbringing, they were hardy and courageous. They could march as well as most men and in time of need were ready to snatch up a casualty's musket and fight in the ranks. But those camp followers made severe inroads on provisions, scanted from the first by the conscienceless grafting of a contractor, and otherwise hampered a force operating in hostile territory.

Militiamen, pay in arrears, ill-clothed, food running short, began to desert even before the expiration of short terms of enlistment. Floggings and hangings had little effect. The column's strength, 600 Regulars, 800 six-month levies, and 600 militia, dwindled to 1400. Morale sank lower and lower. Because of the late start, autumn frosts had killed grazing for the horses and beef cattle. Rain seeped through the sieve-like tents, chilling men and ruining powder. Surgeons, belatedly checking medical chests, found supplies short of useless.

Forts Hamilton and Jefferson had been built, and one hundred miles beyond the latter had been covered by November 3 when St. Clair, with no idea of the whereabouts of the enemy, ordered camp pitched near the headwaters of the Wabash. The site, a small, elevated meadow surrounded by dense forest, was cramping, so the militia were moved across the river, at that point fifteen or twenty yards wide and shallow. Glimpses were caught of Indians lurking in the woods, but no defensive works were built, and no security measure taken other than the posting of sentries. However, a volunteer patrol was made about 10 o'clock. It detected many Indians and barely managed a return to camp by great stealth. The patrol leader at once warned both the militia and Major General Richard Butler, the army's second in command. That officer did not bother to pass on the alarming information to St. Clair.

Little Turtle, following his race's custom, launched no night attack which might well have proved even more calamitous to his foe than the event impending. He held concealed his 1100 Miamis and allied tribesmen, along with some British from the Detroit garrison and let the invaders manage a fitful sleep, broken by the firing of nervous sentries. He watched them turn out well before dawn and stand reveille parade. When the formation was dismissed, and the men were streaming back to camp was the moment he choose to hurl warriors whooping down on the separated militia.

Panic-stricken by the sudden, savage onset, the green troops dashed through the creek to recoil in frantic confusion on the main body. Its infantrymen and artillerymen struggled through the milling mass into a semblance of a line of defense. When at last they were able to clear a field of fire, the white smoke of musketry and cannonade wreathed the hill and drifted into the woods. Bullets, roundshot, and canister hit few targets, and the lowering battle smoke served to mask the advance of the Indians, closing in from cover of tree, log, and stump. Levies from the East, devoid of the frontiersman's skill, had not been trained to handle their muskets properly. Their frantic, random fire did no more than cut twigs from trees.

St. Clair, half crippled by his gout, was hoisted up on a horse by four men. No sooner was he in the saddle than the animal was shot through the head. A new mount and the orderly bringing it up were killed. On a third remount--he would need still another that day--the general, white hair streaming, galloped about, shouting for a rally. Eight bullets ripped through his clothing. Surely only the fact that he was wearing nondescript garb and not a uniform saved him, for Indian marksmen were steadily picking off officers distinguished by insignia.

Loudly the general bellowed for a bayonet charge. Several were gallantly led, but the red men only faded back into the forest before them. From behind trees they shot down the bayonet men. The charge ebbed, leaving a bloody wake. Another, headed by St. Clair himself, bravely hobbling on foot in its van, was equally futile.

A red cordon tightened around the hill. Indian fire, directed by Little Turtle and a white youth adopted into the tribe, continued to drop officers and concentrated on the cannoneers. The guns, all but unmanned, were spiked by surviving artillerymen when it became evident that they must soon be lost.

No reinforcements appeared. In supreme folly St. Clair had sent the veteran 1st Regiment to the rear several days before to round up sixty or seventy deserters who had sworn to take the ration-laden pack horses with them. The mission was important, but a detail from the 2nd would have served as well for it. As a result the troops most experienced in Indian fighting were absent at a time of critical need. From a distance the 1st heard the uproar of battle and marched toward the sound of the guns. En route it was met by frightened fugitives whose reports of a complete massacre caused the regimental commander, who could not have reached the field before night, to fall back to Fort Jefferson to save what he believed to be the army's sole surviving unit and protect supplies.

Remnants, stiffened by the stanch 2nd Regiment, still stood firm on the hill. The ground, Major Ebenezer Denny saw, "was literally covered with dead," including the unwary General Butler. All company officers were down but one. The living, ringing moaning wounded, fought on. By the third hour of combat they were entirely surrounded and being mowed down by fire from all quarters.

The circle narrowed under a hail of bullets and arrows. With blood-curdling yells warriors broke through. Flashing tomahawks cut down a surgeon dressing wounds and felled soldiers who. utterly demoralized, let themselves be butchered. Around the silent guns savages crouched over prone bodies, living or dead, to tear off scalps. A scalped captain, "sitting on his backside, his head smoking like a chimney," pitifully called out to ask if the battle were not almost over.

St. Clair, pistol drawn, threatened to shoot anyone who refused to fight. Remaining officers and noncoms kicked and cursed groveling cowards into redeeming their manhood. The camp women not only played a heroic part fighting in the ranks, but they, too, drove craven wretches back into combat, burning them out from their hiding places beneath wagons with blazing firebrands. Only three of those valiant women are said to have escaped from that fatal hill.

A little longer and all making that last stand would have been annihilated. It was near 9 o'clock when St. Clair ordered a retreat that must abandon the severely wounded and all heavy equipment. A charge smashed into massed Indians blocking the road to the rear. Two hundred whites stampeded through the gap "like a drove of bullocks." A few more managed to follow the flying wedge before red waves submerged the hill. What happened there the bulk of the warriors returned from their pursuit of St. Clair's men is vividly described in an account based on reports that finally filtered through.

"In a frenzy of victory [the Indians] inflicted on the luckless captives every species of cruelty that savage ingenuity could devise," wrote James Ripley Jacobs in The Beginning of the U.S. Army. "They danced and laughed and howled at the screams of prisoners roasting at the stake; they pulled out men's intestines bit by bit; they flayed others alive and slowly hacked or wrenched their limbs away. They dashed out the brains of children against the trunks of the trees and then flung their battered bodies into the brush. Some of the women were stretched naked upon the ground and run through with wooden stakes; others were cut in two after their breasts had been hacked away."

Meanwhile Little Turtle's braves scourged the flight of St. Clair's shattered remnants toward Fort Jefferson, twenty-nine miles distant. Only the general's efforts, seconded by stout-hearted subordinates, prevented the headlong retreat from degenerating into a helpless rout. The road was littered with weapons and equipment, thrown away by panicky soldiers. Here and there shone instances of courage and self-sacrifice. When mounted men refused to stop, a soldier carried on his back a comrade with a broken thigh. A few hundred yards and his strength gave out. Indians closed in. To save himself the carrier had to cut loose his burden's desperately clutching fingers with his knife, leaving him to be tomahawked. A packer caught a horse and hoisted on a wounded friend. The rider, shot through the hips, could not keep his seat; he rolled off, and a Shawnee took his scalp. The packer, tottering on cramped feet, wrenched off his shoes, and frozen ground against his soles revived him enough to be able to walk, A mother at her last gasp threw her infant son into a snowbank where Indians found the child and adopted him into their tribe. The strong spirit of a tall woman called "Red-haired Nance" lifted an exhausted squad over the last stretch to safety.

If the Indians had not ceased to harry the fugitives after four or five miles, it is probable that none would have escaped. At last, late on November 4, St. Clair, on an old pack horse able to move a little faster than a walk, brought the wreckage of his army to Fort Jefferson. Its epitaph might have been pronounced in words Little Turtle once had used to gloat over the slaying of a single foe: "We met. I cut him down. And his shade as it passes on the wind shuns my walk."

St. Clair's defeat stands as the most stricken field in the history of Indian warfare. News of the heavy casualties--37 officers killed, 31 wounded; 593 enlisted men killed, 251 wounded, out of a force of 1400--shocked the nation. So appallingly high a proportion had only been suffered thereto in Braddock's defeat with its loss of 725 out of 1200. Both dwarf the toll to be taken by another Indian victory eighty-five years later: the "massacre" of Custer and 211 officers and troopers of the 7th Cavalry at the LIttle Big Horn, far more widely commemorated in history.

Source: Howard R. Lamar, ed., The Reader's Encyclopedia of the American West , p. 558

A second expedition [to punish the Indians] of 1791 also failed. Governor Arthur St. Clair started late and moved slowly, pausing to construct forts along his route. When he camped near the upper Wabash on November 3, he was unprepared for an attack. The Indians surprised the camp the following morning and put his ill-trained militia to flight, killing more than 600 and wounding 260 in one of the worst defeats ever suffered at the hands of the Indians.

Source: Richard Battin, "Mad Anthony" Wayne at Fallen Timbers, The News-Sentinel, Fort Wayne, IN

Harmar's defeat was a national humiliation and a major setback to President Washington's plans for the Northwest Territory. Congress quickly authorized higher troop levels, and another army of men was dispatched to Miami Village, now Fort Wayne, to punish the Indians.

In November 1791, the army was attacked by Indians again led by Little Turtle, around what is now Fort Recovery, Ohio. The general leading the army had been warned by Washington to be careful of surprise attacks. He didn't listen.

More than 700 Americans died in the fighting, including 56 women who had accompanied their soldier husbands to the frontier. By comparison, about 200 soldiers died at Custer's Last Stand in 1876.

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