Early America's Bloodiest Battle
On September 17, 1791 Maj. Gen. Arthur St. Clair headed north from what is now Cincinnati, Ohio to establish a fort at the head of the Maumee River. Had he been successful, folks in Fort Wayne, Indiana would have celebrated their bicentennial three years earlier and presumably it would have been in Fort St. Clair, not Fort Wayne.
Instead, St. Clair was soundly defeated by the Indians in what has been called the bloodiest battle of pioneer American history. The battle site, which became Fort Recovery, Ohio, was about 50 miles southeast of the Indians' Kekionga village, where Fort Wayne was built.
Nearly 700 of St. Clair's people were killed, compared with approximately 40 Indians who lost their lives. Of St. Clair's dead, more than 600 were soldiers, and at least 56 were women - wives who had accompanied their husbands on the trip. Dozens of other women and children were taken prisoner.
It was more than three times the number the Sioux would kill 85 years later at Custer's last stand at Little Big Horn - and, by far, the worst defeat of an American force by Indians in the nation's history.
In relative terms, some historians have called it the country's worst military defeat ever because it left the United States with a total army of about 300.
Three years would pass before Gen. Anthony Wayne and his better-trained army would defeat the Indians at Fallen Timbers - near present-day Toledo, Ohio - and then move southwest to the confluence of the St. Marys and St. Joseph rivers to build a fort.
In mid-March 1791, Arthur St. Clair, governor of the Northwest Territory, was summoned to the Philadelphia office of President George Washington. St. Clair was selected, Washington explained, because the president had "full confidence" in his military abilities based on St. Clair's Revolutionary War experience.
His mission, set forth in a 4,500-word document from Secretary of War Henry Knox, was to "establish a strong and permanent military post" at the Miami village of Kekionga, something General Josiah Harmar had failed to do the previous October when his troops were defeated around the area that would eventually become Fort Wayne.
That debacle at the hands of the Miami Chief Little Turtle - who would also lead his well-trained men against St. Clair - became known as "Harmar's Defeat." Arthur St. Clair was a Scottish-American who served as a British army officer in America during the French and Indian War. When the Revolutionary War began, he joined the colonial army and organized the New Jersey troops.
He fought at Trenton and Princeton, and became a major general. He commanded Fort Ticonderoga, but did not try to defend it, abandoning the New York fort to the British in 1777. St. Clair was criticized for failing to defend the fort and was recalled from service.
His checkered military career, however, did not prevent him from winning a seat in the Congress of the Confederation after the Revolutionary War as a representative of Pennsylvania. In 1787, he became president of the congress and that same year he was named governor of the Northwest Territory.
At the time Washington picked him to lead an army to Kekionga, Arthur St. Clair was 55 and afflicted with a very bad case of gout. He was, for the times, a tired old man.
Still, President Washington had confidence in the Revolutionary War veteran. But, speaking as an "old soldier," Washington offered St. Clair some advice: "Beware of surprise," he warned. "Trust not the Indian; leave not your arms for the moment; and when you halt for the night be sure to fortify your camp. Again and again, General: Beware of surprise!"
It was advice St. Clair failed to take seriously enough, although, given the cards stacked against him - primarily his ragtag army of amateur, ill- prepared and poorly equipped soldiers - it probably would have done little to change the situation.
Plans were to raise 3,000 soldiers for the taking of Kekionga. The War Department estimated the opposition at about 1,000 Indians along the Wabash River, and maybe 1,000 "more distant Indians." Knox decreed a 3,000-man army would be "superior to all oppositions." St. Clair talked openly of the Indians' pending "utter destruction," telling anyone who would listen that "ruin will surely overtake them." But St. Clair's army came to be made up largely of "levies," or short- term soldiers recruited for six-month terms. They were not professional fighters, they had no commitment to victory beyond staying alive, and they were unfamiliar with the area.
The Indians, however, were fighting for their homeland. They were experienced warriors led by the brilliant Little Turtle of the Miamis and Blue Jacket of the Shawnees.
The Indians were encouraged and supplied by the British, who hoped to regain the Northwest Territory they had lost to the Americans during the Revolutionary War. Henry Hamilton, British lieutenant governor at Detroit, earned the nickname "Hair Buyer" among the Indians because he had bought so many American scalps. Delays kept the Americans at Fort Washington (now Cincinnati) until September. Expecting a summer departure, the troops were equipped with lightweight tents. The weather already was turning cold.
Secretary of War Knox appointed his friend William Duer, an unscrupulous New York financier, to supply the troops, but the two of them were instead spending government money on land speculation.
The army was supposed to cut its way through the Ohio wilderness, building forts along the way, but it was equipped with only 15 hatchets, 18 axes, 12 hammers and 24 handsaws.
Duer sent reprocessed and damaged gunpowder to the troops. One soldier noted that his musket balls bounced off Indians during the battle.
There was a serious deficiency of horses. The army had a horsemaster who one soldier observed, "had never been in the woods in his life." More than 600 pack horses were injured fighting for food that was improperly scattered on the ground rather than put in troughs. Calvary horses were turned loose in the woods at night without bells or hobbles, and dozens wandered away or were stolen by Indians.
St. Clair headed north from Fort Washington on Sept. 17, 1791, with a little more than 2,000 men. Desertions were common among officers as well as the regular soldiers. Discipline was inconsistent. St. Clair and his second- in command, Brig. Gen. Richard Butler, were barely speaking to each other.
They had no information on what the Indians were doing or where they were.
St. Clair assumed the Indians would abandon their villages and beg for peace as he approached. Occasional sightings of warriors by sentries were discounted as chance encounters with roaming Indian hunters.
The Indians, meanwhile, led by Little Turtle and Blue Jacket, were receiving a constant stream of information from deserters, prisoners and warrior scouts sent to spy.
Their forces totaled a little more than 1,000 men. On Oct. 28, they left Kekionga, advancing on the Americans to the south.
Six days later, St. Clair's troops reached a tributary of the Wabash River. This spot, elevated from its surroundings, was chosen as an ideal place to camp for the night.
St. Clair's army now numbered 1,400 regulars and militia, and 86 officers.
The weather was bitterly cold.
B.J. Griswold writes in his "Pictorial History of Fort Wayne":
"The sun had not yet risen when the army was thrown into a state of consternation by the yells of savages who advanced from all sides and at once commenced their fierce attack upon the startled encampment." And from the journal of Maj. Ebenezer Denny: "The savages seemed not to fear anything we could do. They could skip out of reach of bayonet and return, as they pleased. The ground was literally covered with the dead. . . . It appeared as if the officers had been singled out, as a very great proportion fell. The men being thus left with few officers, became fearful, despaired of success, gave up the fight."
The rout lasted three hours before the survivors - among them St. Clair himself - fled south to Fort Jefferson, one of two forts they had erected since Fort Washington. The spoils of the camp kept the Indians from serious pursuit.
Washington Irving describes the president's reaction to the news in his "Life of Washington": "It's all over!" Washington exclaimed. "St. Clair defeated! - routed! The officers nearly all killed, the men by wholesale; the rout complete; too shocking to think of, and a surprise into the bargain. . .To suffer that army to be cut to pieces, hacked, butchered, tomahawked, by a surprise - the very thing I guarded him against - O, God! O God!. . . . He's worse than a murderer! How can he answer to his country!"
St. Clair did manage some kind of answer. He lost his commission, but Washington allowed him to continue as governor of the Northwest Territory.
While it was a major victory for the Indians, they failed to take advantage of it. By mid-November of 1791, much of the Indian force had scattered. It had been a bad crop year, and most of the food supply had been exhausted.
Before dispersing, the Indian tribes met on the banks of the Ottawa River near what is now Lima, Ohio. They decided nothing except to meet in the spring and talk some more. Only the Miami Indians took action, moving from Kekionga to near what is now Toledo to be closer to the British fort.
The British, too, could have taken better advantage, but word of St. Clair's defeat didn't reach England until nearly seven months later.
Enough time passed to permit Washington to pick Anthony Wayne to lead a third expedition against the Indians. This army was well-equipped and well- trained, and found victory against the Indians at Fallen Timbers in August 1794.
Less than two months later, on Oct. 22, 1794, fifteen cannon rounds and three cheers signaled the official opening of Fort Wayne.