Ohio History Journal





[Author of the valuable little volume, entitled "The Treaty of Greenville,"

published 1894.-E. 0. R.]

Probably the most disastrous defeat ever suffered by the

Americans at the hands of the Red Men was that of the army

of Gen. Arthur St. Clair on the east branch of the Wabash near

the present western boundary of Ohio, November 4th, 1791. Both

for the number of men killed and the blighting effect on the

frontier settlements was this disaster noted and the first report

of it cast a pall over the new nation. The tide of white immi-

gration which had begun to flow over the crest of the Alleghenies

just at the opening of the Revolution, was greatly augmented

after its close when the survivors of that great struggle who had

sacrificed their all for liberty turned their faces from the older

communities of the East to the promising lands of the West.

Considerable settlements were being made in southwestern Penn-

sylvania, in western Virginia around Wheeling, and the mouth

of the Kanawha, and in Kentucky below the Licking river. The

settlers built stockades and blockhouses, cleared small tracts of



St. Clair's Defeat.                31

the dense wilderness for the plow and lived the rude life of

the frontiers in constant menace by the hostile Indian tribes, who

viewed this steady invasion of their ancient hunting grounds with

jealousy and alarm. In 1787 the famous "Ordinance" providing

for the organization and government of the "Territory North-

west of the river Ohio" was passed by Congress, and the tide

of immigration soon turned in this direction. In 1788 Marietta

was founded by a company of New Englanders and became

the capital of the territory. In a few years Gallipolis, Man-

chester, Columbia and Fort Washington (Cincinnati), dotted

the northern shore of the Ohio.

Early in 1790 Arthur St. Clair, who had served with dis-

tinction in the French and Indian War and the Revolution, was

appointed governor of the newly organized territory. Scarcely

had he set the wheels of government in motion when reports of

Indian attacks along the frontier kept coming in. The tribes

along the Wabash and the Maumee (Miami of the Lakes) were

especially hostile and were probably assisted and goaded on

by the British agents at Detroit and Ft. Miami, who wished to

retain their favor and discourage the extension of the American

settlements. In order to deal the savages an effective blow,

Gen. Harmar of the U. S. Infantry, was instructed to lead an

army of about 1200 frontier militia and mounted riflemen against

the Maumee villages while Major Hamtramck, the commander

at Vincennes, was sent against the Wabash towns with a much

smaller force. The latter officer soon succeeded in destroying

some of the villages and a quantity of corn without any serious

engagement and returned to Vincennes. Harmar's force left Ft.

Washington September 30th via Miami Valley and arrived at

the Maumee towns, near the present site of Ft. Wayne, Indiana,

on the 17th of October, marching about 10 miles per day. By

the 21st the chief town, several other villages and probably

20,000 bushels of corn had been destroyed. Two or three at-

tacks were made by detachments sent out at different times,

but ended in failure and the army soon returned to Ft. Wash-

ington, having lost about 180 men and incited the savages to

further resistance. News of the late disaster was soon spread

among the Northwestern tribes who now united to make open

32 Ohio Arch

32        Ohio Arch. and His. Society Publications.


war. Little Turtle, chief of the Miamis, a warrior of great

intelligence and prowess, who led the attack against Harmar

and who had great influence among the western tribes, together

with Blue Jacket, the great chief of the Shawnees and Buckon-

gehelas, Chief of the Delawares, formed a confederacy of the

northwestern savages to drive the white settlers beyond the Ohio.

These chiefs, with the assistance of Girty, McKee and Elliott,

the renegades, headed a band of warriors whose discipline has

probably never been equalled in Indian warfare. Nothing but

a decisive blow by a large and well disciplined force could quell

the uprising being stirred up by these leaders. Accordingly

Governor St. Clair was appointed a Major General in the U. S.

army, March 4th, 1791, and placed in chief command of the

forces to be employed against the Indians. The object of the

main expedition planned by the goverment was to establish a post

at the Maumee village for the purpose of awing and curbing

the Indians in that region, and preventing future hostilities. The

troops were to consist of two small regiments of regular in-

fantry, two regiments of levies and 300 or 400 Kentucky militia.

"The mounted men were to receive two-thirds of a dollar per

day and to be under command of their own officers, while

footmen were to receive three dollars per month and be subject to

military law. It proved a difficult task to preserve harmony


St. Clair's Defeat.                 33

among the regulars and volunteers, as the latter would scarcely

submit either to the discipline of the army, or to the slow

movements which one having a road to cut every step he ad-

vanced, and forts to build was necessarily subjected to--neither

would they labor." While St. Clair was getting ready or the

main campaign, the Kentuckians were permitted to send two ex-

peditions of volunteers against the Wabash tribes, with the view

of discouraging them from joining the Miami tribes. The first

raid was made by Gen. Chas. Scott and was soon followed up

by Col. Wilkinson. Both succeeded in destroying corn and prop-

erty and cowing the Indians, but did little else. An effort was

also being made in the meantime to induce the Indians to peace

through the intervention of the friendly Senecas. Col. Proctor

was sent out from Philadelphia on the 11th of March with in-

structions to proceed to the Miami villages on the above mis-

sion. Proctor was to return to Ft. Washington (Cincinnati, O.)

where St. Clair would receive him and be prepared to conciliate

the Indians if possible. Negotiations were delayed and the enter-

prise, it seems, ended in failure.

Preparations for the main expedition were now pushed

vigorously but at great disadvantage. Maj. Gen. Richard Butler

had been placed second in command with orders to remain in

Pennsylvania to recruit and forward troops. Two thousand

levies were to be raised, marched to Ft. Pitt (Pittsburgh) in

companies as soon as collected, and there receive orders from

St. Clair. They could be safely sent in small companies but

were held back by Butler to protect the frontiers according to

orders from the War Department but much to the annoyance

of St. Clair, who kept urging that they be sent to Ft. Wash-

ington. A Mr. Samuel Hogdon had been appointed Quarter-

master General of the army and, although zealous, seems to

have been totally unfit for the responsibilities of the position.

The delay in forwarding troops was also partly due to his failure

in furnishing horses, supplies, provisions, and the necessary boats

for transportation. St. Clair arrived at Ft. Washington on the

15th of May after passing through Lexington to arrange for the

forwarding of the Kentucky militia. He found a garrison of

Vol. XI-3

34 Ohio Arch

34        Ohio Arch. and His. Society Publications.


but eighty-five men fit for duty here. The arms and accoutre-

ments left from Harmar's expedition were in a bad condition

and the supplies forwarded later by the Quartermaster from time

to time were deficient both in quantity and quality. New gun

carriages had to be made; the deficiencies of the camp equipage

supplied; nearly all of the ammunition had to be made up and

a laboratory equipped for this purpose. Musket shells, artillery

cartridges, and shells for the Howitzers had to be filled-a

tedious and laborious business. Not only ammunition for the

campaign but also for the garrison of 1200 or more for the

projected post at the Maumee and intermediate posts must be

prepared. Workshops and an armory had to be built and tools

constructed. In his report the General said-"A great number

of axes, camp-kettles, knapsacks, kegs for the musket cartridges,

and spare cannon ball, and boxes of ammunition, had to be made;

and cordage of various kinds, and the cartridge boxes to be re-

paired. Splints for the wounded were to be made of half-

jacked leather prepared on the spot. In short, almost every art

was going forward, and Ft. Washington had as much the ap-

pearance of a large manufactory on the inside, as it had of a

military post on the outside." To perform all this labor smiths,

carpenters, harness-makers, colliers, wheel-wrights, etc., had to

be drafted from all that could be found among the troops as they

slowly arrived. Considerable cattle and horses for the use of

the army had to be cared for and on August 7th, the country

near the fort being eaten off, all the troops that had arrived,

except the artificers and a small garrison, advanced about six

miles northward to Ludlow's station. On the 1st of September

the Secretary of War wrote to St. Clair: "The President enjoins

you by every principle that is sacred to stimulate your operations

in the highest degree, and to move as rapidly as the lateness

of the season and the nature of the case will possibly admit."

The balance of the troops, however, had not yet arrived at the

above date but soon came on and joining those at Ludlow's

station, moved on about twenty miles to the Great Miami river

where a fort was built to command the river crossing, to serve

as a place for depositing provisions, and to form the first link in

the chain of forts projected between Ft. Washington and the


St. Clair's Defeat.                 35

Indian villages on the Maumee. St. Clair described this post

in the following very interesting manner: "A stockade fifty

yards square, with four good bastions, and platforms for cannon

in two of them, with barracks for about two hundred men,

with some good store houses, etc."  *  * *  "That circuit of

that fort is about one thousand feet, through the whole extent

of which a trench about three feet deep was dug to set the

picquets in, of which it required about two thousand to enclose

it; and it is not trees, taken promiscuously, that will answer

for picquets, they must be tall and straight and from nine to

twelve inches diameter (for those of a larger size are too un-

manageable) of course few trees that are proper are to be

found without going over a considerable space of woodland.

When found they are felled, cleared of their branches, and cut

into lengths of about twenty feet. They were then carried to the

ground and butted, that they might be placed firm and upright

in the trench, with the axe or cross-cut saw; some hewing

upon them was also necessary, for there are few trees so straight

that the sides of them will come in contact when set upright.

A thin piece of timber, called a ribband, is run round the whole

near the top of the picquets, to which every one of them is

pinned with a strong pin, without which they would decline

from the perpendicular with every blast of the wind, some

hanging outwards and some inwards, which would render them

in a great measure useless. The earth thrown out of the trench

is then returned and strongly rammed to keep the picquets firmly

in their places, and a shallower trench is dug outside about three

feet distant, to carry off the water and prevent their being

moved by the rains; about two thousand picquets are set up

inside, one between every two of the others; the work is then

inclosed. But previously, the ground for the scite of the fort

had to be cleared and two or three hundred yards round it,

which was very thickly wooded and was a work of time and

labour.  (The ground where this fort stands, is on the east

side of the Miami river, on the first bank; but there is a second

bank considerably elevated, within point blank shot, which ren-

dered it necessary to make the picquets, particularly along the

land side, of a height sufficient to prevent an enemy seeing

36 Ohio Arch

36        Ohio Arch. and His. Society Publications.

into the area, and taking the river in reverse, and a high plat-

form was raised in one of the bastions on the land side to

scour the second bank with artillery. Another made with the

trunks of trees, and covered with plank, as that was, was raised

in one of the bastions towards the river, in order to command the

ford, and the river for some distance up and down. Plank

was sawed for the platform and the gate, and barracks for one

hundred men; a guardroom, two store houses for provisions, and

barracks for the officers were constructed within it and, all this

was done in about fourteen days, almost entirely by the labour of

the men; though some use was made of oxen in drawing the

timber, the woods were so thick and encumbered with under-

wood, it was found to be the most expeditious method to carry

it.") This post was named Ft. Hamilton.

The main part of the army, consisting of two small regi-

ments of regular infantry, and the levies, about two thousand in

all, left this place October 4, and were followed on the 5th by

about 300 Kentucky militia. St. Clair, in describing the march-

ing order of the troops, observes: "When the army was in

march, it was preceded by a small party of riflemen, with the sur-

veyor, to mark the course of the road; for we had no guides,

not a single person being found in the country who had ever been

through it, and both the geography and the topography were

utterly unknown; the march was, therefore, made up on a com-

pass course, conjectural indeed, but which proved to be suffi-

ciently correct, as it brought us into a large path leading to the

Miami towns about twenty miles from them; from that party

scouts were sent out to scour the country every way; then fol-

lowed the road cutters with a party to cover them; then the

advanced guard, and after them the army in two columns, with

one piece of artillery in front, one in the center, and one in the

rear of each. In the space between the two columns marched

the remaining artillery, destined for the fort at the Miami towns;

then the horses with the tents and provisions, and then the

cattle with their proper guard, who were to remove them in case

of the enemy appearing. Without the columns, at a distance of

about one hundred yards, march the cavalry in file, and without

them, at the same distance, a party of riflemen, and scouts with-


St. Clair's Defeat.                37

out them; then followed the rear guard at a proper distance."

Roads for the artillery had to be cut through the thick timber

nearly all the way and some considerable bridges built. Pro-

gress was necessarily slow and by the 13th, the army had ad-

vanced but 44 miles from Ft. Hamilton. Finding a suitable place,

a halt was made and the work of erecting another post entered

into. This fort was about 100 feet square, with four good bas-

tions and was built of logs laid horizontally, the walls forming

the outer sides of the soldiers' barracks. It was garrisoned by

a small detachment, two pieces of artillery left in it and given

the name Fort Jefferson. The plan of encampment here is shown

in the illustration below, the artillery and cavalry being in two

lines divided upon the flanks and the riflemen at right angles

on the sides:

While the work was going on at this place, Gen. Butler, who

was second in command, proposed to St. Clair that he be allowed

to take 1,000 picked men and go to the Maumee villages, and

38 Ohio Arch

38       Ohio Arch. and His. Society Publications.


there establish the projected post, leaving the Commander-in-

Chief to finish the fort and follow at his leisure. The season was

late, and as St. Clair was advanced in years and very much in-

disposed at times by attacks of the gout, this was proposed,

ostensibly to relieve him and hasten the consummation of the

campaign. The General, however, was very disagreeably sur-

prised by the proposition and refused the proffer. Butler seems

to have taken offense at the rebuff and grown more reserved

in his relations with St. Clair, although the latter thought that

his own action was a proper and due exercise of his power as

head of the army.

On the 24th of October the troops marched about six miles,

still following the same Indian trail, and camped on the present

site of Greenville, Ohio, a creek being in front and a large prairie

on the left which afforded excellent forage for the jaded horses.

Here the army halted a week awaiting provisions and sending

out spies to ascertain the whereabouts of the Indians. On the

30th the march was continued seven miles, the direction changing

to 25 degrees west of north. On the 31st sixty of the Kentucky

militia deserted, threatening to plunder the second convoy of

provisions which was then thought to be within twenty miles

on the trail. In order to save the supplies which were necessary

for the sustenance of the army, and to prevent further desertions,

the whole of the first regiment of regulars was detached, and sent

back. The quartermaster had failed to start the convoy at the

appointed time, however, and this regiment was separated from

the main body by a greater distance than anticipated, thus re-

ducing the effective fighting force to about 1,400 men. On No-

vember I the army halted to allow the road-cutters to get some

distance ahead. A few Indians had been observed hanging about

the flanks of the army and on the 3d a larger number than usual

were noticed. After a hard march through the cold on short

rations the army arrived about sunset on that day at a small

stream flowing southward, which was supposed to be the St.

Mary's, a branch of the Maumee, but was in fact a branch of

the east fork of the Wabash. Here an encampment was made

in two lines on a slightly elevated piece of ground with the

creek in front and on the right and a ravine on the left. The


St. Clair's Defeat.                39


first line was composed of Butler, Clarke and Paterson's bat-

talion of levies, and commanded by Gen. Butler. The second

consisted of Bedinger and Gaither's battalions and the second

regiment of regulars commanded by Lieut. Col. Darke and was

about 200 feet to the rear of and parallel with the first. The

right flank was protected by the creek; the left by a steep bank,

Faulkner's corps and some of the infantry. The militia advanced

about a fourth of a mile across the creek bottom and camped

on high ground. It had been a hard day's march and was near

8 o'clock before the scanty mess was cooked. The soldiers, tired

and worn, were soon sleeping heavily. Capt. Slough of the 1st

battalion of levies was sent out with a small number of picked

men with instructions to advance one, two or three miles along

the trail in search for Indians. About midnight they returned,

with the report that they had fired on a party of six or seven

savages, killing one, and had been passed by a much larger party

later going towards the camp. The report, according to Capt.

Slough's testimony, was made to Maj. Gen. Butler, who then

dismissed him for the night without instructions to inform St.

Clair. Col. Oldham of the militia also predicted an attack in

the morning. Gen. St. Clair had observed on the afternoon pre-

vious that he did not expect an attack yet and in the evening

concerted plans with Major Ferguson of the artillery for throw-

ing up a small earthwork, wherein to have deposited the knap-

sacks and heavy luggage. He then intended to make a forced

march to the Maumee village, which he thought to be about

15 miles, but which was in fact very much farther, as soon as

the first regiment came up.. He was permitted to do neither,

for on the 4th before sunrise just after the regular morning pa-

rade an attack was made on the pickets of the militia across

the creek. A few shots were exchanged, but fear seized the

Kentuckians, and they rushed pell mell into camp, pursued by

a large party of Indians, whooping and yelling fiercely. A volley

from the artillery in the front rank drove them back to cover but

they soon renewed their fire and gradually encircled the en-

campment, concealing themselves behind trees, brush and fallen

logs and pouring in a galling fire. The soldiers were cramped

for room and exposed because of the nature of the ground on

40 Ohio Arch

40       Ohio Arch. and His. Society Publications.


which they were encamped and made an easy target for the

savages who were expert marksmen. The main fire was di-

rected against the men at the guns in the center of the encamp-

ment and they were driven away again and again with great

slaughter. This was kept up perhaps an hour and a half until

nearly every officer of the artillery had been killed or wounded

and all the guns silenced. The roar of the artillery and rattle

of the muskets of the regulars may have tended to awe the sav-

ages, but much ammunition was wasted by the random shooting

of the untrained troops. Men were falling in great numbers

in all parts of the camp, confusion was spreading, and the In-

dians, becoming emboldened, swarmed forward to seize the guns.

Previously they had flitted from cover to cover under the pall

of smoke but now they became more exposed at close quarters.

A spirited charge was made against them under Col. Darke and

they were driven back across the creek at the point of the bayonet.

For want of a sufficient number of riflemen to follow up this

charge, they were forced to return and were gradually followed

by the Indians, who pressed forward from tree to tree and soon

came into camp on the left flank. Here they were met by a

spirited charge from the second regiment, Butler's and Clarke's

battalions, and pushed back. Again and again was this repeated

but with great loss, especially of the officers who had to expose

themselves to rally the raw and undisciplined troops. In these

charges Major Butler was dangerously wounded and all the offi-

cers of the second regiment fell except three. Both St. Clair

and Butler exhibited great bravery throughout, the former hav-

ing had two or three of his horses killed and several bullet holes

shot through his clothes; the latter having been mortally wounded,

continued to give orders while propped up in the center of the

camp. The fire was continued nearly three hours until the ma-

jority of the officers and half of the army were either killed or

wounded. The soldiers crowded to the center of the camp, be-

ing pressed gradually closer from all sides by the exulting sav-

ages. The remnant of the army became stupefied and bewil-

dered and it became necessary to order a retreat. Accordingly

Col. Darke was ordered to make a charge and with a number of

the best men made a feint driving the Indians beyond the road

and making an opening through which the balance of the troops


St. Clair's Defeat.                41


hurried pell mell with the militia in front. The Indians had been

thrown into confusion by the charge, but, discovering its object,

soon pursued the struggling army along the trail and harassed

the rear for three or four miles. Attracted by the rich booty,

however, they soon returned to plunder the camp and kill or

torture those of the wounded who had been left on the field.

Here a sickening sight presented itself. Huddled in a compara-

tively small space were piles of the slain on the frozen ground,

the silent cannon, the deserted tents and valuable camp equip-

ments all abandoned in the flight for life. While the Indians

were securing their plunder and gloating over their victims, the

routed army continued its retreat and kept throwing away arms

and equipments in the panic of fear. Nearly all the horses had

been taken or killed and St. Clair, mounted on a slow pack-horse,

was unable to reach the front himself and the other officers found

it impossible to establish order and check the flight. The rout

continued along the road to Fort Jefferson, a distance of about

30 miles, where the men arrived just after sunset. Here the

first regiment, which had been sent back to intercept the desert-

ers, was met, but in view of the broken condition of the troops,

42 Ohio Arch

42        Ohio Arch. and His. Society Publications.


the lack of provisions in the fort and the strength of the enemy,

it was decided to continue the march toward Fort Washington

on the next morning with the prospect of meeting a convoy on

the way.

The number of Indians in this engagement has been variously

estimated at from 700 to 2,500 or 3,000, but 1,000 or 1,500 is con-

sidered a conservative figure, and the amount of government

property either lost or destroyed is put at more than $34,000.

Little Turtle, chief or the Miamis, was their leader and their loss

was estimated at about 150 killed and several wounded, but be-

cause of their custom of carrying away or concealing the slain

it is difficult to ascertain the number of their slain. The Ameri-

cans had thirty-nine officers killed, and twenty-two wounded, and

their entire loss was estimated at 677 killed, including 30 women,

and 271 wounded. Among the prominent officers killed were Gen.

Richard Butler, Maj. Ferguson of the artillery, Col. Oldham of

the militia, Maj. Clarke and Maj. Heart; and among the wounded

were Col. Sargent (the Adj. Gen.), Lieut. Col. Gibson, Major

Thos. Butler, and the Viscount Malartie, aide de camp to St.


The new government was experimenting in Indian warfare

and had much to learn. Washington had been present at Brad-

dock's defeat and had warned St. Clair before departing. The

latter sent his aide, Major Denny, with the news of his defeat to

the President at Philadelphia. On account of the ice in the Ohio

River and the bad condition of roads it took twenty days to

reach Wheeling and ten more to reach the capital. President

Washington received the dispatch while eating dinner, but con-

tinued his meal and acted as usual until all the company had gone

and his wife had left the room, leaving no one but himself and

Secretary, Col. Lear. He now commenced to walk back and

forth in silence and after some moments sat down on a sofa. His

manner now showed emotion and he exclaimed suddenly: "St.

Clair's defeated-routed; the officers nearly all killed, the men

by wholesale, the rout complete! too shocking to think of-a sur-

prise in the bargain." Pausing again, rising from the sofa, and

walking back and forth, he stopped short and again broke out

with great vehemence: "Yes! here on this very spot I took leave

of him; I wished him success and honor. 'You have your in-


St. Clair's Defeat.                43


structions,' I said, 'from the Secretary of War; I had a strict

eye to them, and will add but one word, beware of a surprise!

you know how the Indians fight us! He went off with that as

my last solemn warning thrown into his ears. And yet, to

suffer that army to be cut to pieces-hacked by a surprise, the

very thing I guarded against! . . ." The President again sat

down on the sofa and his anger subsided. At length he said:

"This must not go beyond this room." After a while he again

spoke in a lower tone: "General St. Clair shall have justice.

I looked hastily through the dispatches-saw the whole disaster,

but not all the particulars. I will hear him without prejudice,

he shall have full justice." A committee of the House of Repre-

sentatives investigated the cause of St. Clair's defeat and ac-

quitted him with honor. He afterwards served as the first Gov-

ernor of Ohio and died at Greensburg, Pa., in 1818, at an ad-

vanced age and in comparative poverty, having seen the final

overthrow of the hostile tribes and the permanent founding of

civilization in this matchless region of the old Northwest.