general st clair

The War with the Indians of the West during Washington’s Administration

After the termination of the Revolutionary War, the hardy settlers of the west had still a contest to maintain, which often threatened their extermination. The Indian tribes of the west refused to bury the hatchet when Great Britain withdrew her armies, and they continued their terrible devastation. The vicinity of the Ohio River, especially, was the scene of their operations. Boats were plundered and their crews murdered. Farms were destroyed and settlements burned. A great number of people were carried into hopeless captivity. All efforts to obtain peace by negotiation proved fruitless. For the Indians were stimulated to these hostilities by the British agents, and supplied with arms and sheltered under the guns of the British forts, which, in defiance of the treaty, were still held in American territory.

Finally, it became necessary to reduce the Indians by force of arms, and an expedition was prepared for that purpose.

The object of the expedition was, to bring the Indians to an engagement, if possible; but, in any event, to destroy their settlements on the waters of the Scioto and Wabash. On the 30th of September, General Harmar, who was placed at the head of the federal troops, marched from Fort Washington with three hundred and twenty regulars, and effected a junction with the militia of Pennsylvania and Kentucky, who had advanced about twenty miles in front. The whole army amounted to fourteen hundred and fifty-three men.

On the approach of Colonel Harden, who commanded the Kentucky militia, with a detachment of six hundred men to reconnoiter the ground, and to ascertain the intentions of the enemy, the Indians set fire to their principal village, and fled precipitately to the woods. The same officer, again detached at the head of two hundred and ten men, thirty of whom were regulars, when about ten miles west of Chilicothe, where the main body of the army lay, was attacked by a small party of Indians. The militia fleeing at the first appearance of the enemy, the handful of regulars, commanded by Lieutenant Armstrong, made a brave resistance. Twenty-three of them fell in the field, and the surviving seven escaped and rejoined the army. The remaining towns on the Scioto were, notwithstanding, reduced to ashes; and the provisions, laid up before the winter, were entirely destroyed. After this service, the army decamped, to return to Fort Washington. To retrieve the disgrace of his arms, General Harmar halted about eight miles from Chilicothe, and late in the night detached Colonel Harden again, with orders to find the enemy and bring on an engagement. His detachment, consisting of three hundred and sixty men, of whom sixty were regulars commanded by Major Wyllys, early the next morning, reached the confluence of the St. Joseph and the St. Mary, where it was divided into three columns. The left division, commanded by Colonel Harden, crossed the St. Joseph, and proceeded up its western bank; the center, consisting of the federal troops, was led by Major Wyllys up the eastern side of the river; and the right, under Major M’Millan, marched along a range of heights which commanded the right flank of the center division. The columns were soon met by a considerable body of Indians, and a severe engagement ensued. The militia retrieved their reputation. Several of the bravest officers fell; among whom was Major Fontaine, a gallant young gentleman, who acted as aid to the general. The Indians, after giving a semblance of fighting with the regulars in front, seized the heights of the right of the center column, and attacked the right flank of the center with great fury. Major Wyllys was among the first who fell; but the battle was still kept up with spirit, and with considerable execution on both sides. The remnant of this little band, overpowered at length by numbers, was driven off the ground, leaving fifty of their comrades, beside two valuable officers, Major Wyllys and Lieutenant Frothingham, dead upon the field. The loss sustained by the militia amounted to upwards of one hundred men, among whom were ten officers. After this engagement, the detachment joined the main army, and the troops returned to Fort Washington.

Fort Washington
Fort Washington

The general government was prompt in the endeavor to retrieve the defeat of Harmar’s detachments. Another expedition was determined upon, and General St. Glair was appointed to command it.

The troops could not be raised and assembled in the neighborhood of Fort Washington until the month of September, 1791. On the 7th of that month, the regulars, marching thence directly north towards the object of their destination, established two intermediate posts, Forts Hamilton and Jefferson, about forty miles distant from each other, as places of deposit and security, after garrisons had been placed in these forts, the effective number of the army, including militia, amounted to nearly two thousand men. With this force the general continued his march, which was necessarily slow and laborious. After some unimportant skirmishes, as the army approached the country in which they might expect to meet an enemy, about sixty of the militia deserted in a body; in pursuit of whom the general detached Major Hamtranck with the first regiment. The army, consisting of about fourteen hundred effective rank and file, continued its march, and on the 3d of November, encamped on a commanding ground, about fifteen miles south of the Miami villages. The militia, crossing a creek, and advancing about a quarter of a mile in front, encamped in two lines; and on their approach, a few Indians, who had showed themselves on the opposite side of the creek, fled with precipitation. It was the general’s determination to throw up a slight work at this place, for the security of the baggage; and after being rejoined by Major Hamtranck, to march unencumbered, and expeditiously, to the Indian villages. In both these designs, however, he was frustrated.

General St. Clair
General St. Clair

The next morning, about half an hour before sunrise, an unexpected attack was made upon the militia, who fled in the utmost confusion, and rushing into the camp through the first line of continental troops, threw them into disorder. The exertions of the officers to restore order were not entirely successful. The Indians pressed closely upon the flying militia, and intrepidly engaged General Butler. The action instantly became severe. The fire of the assailants, passing round both flanks of the first line, was in a few minutes poured furiously on the rear division of the American army. Directed most intensely against the center of each wing, where the artillery was posted, it made great destruction among the artillerists. The Indians, firing from the ground, and from the shelter of the woods, were scarcely seen, but when springing from one cover to another. Thus advancing close up to the American lines, and to the very mouths of the field pieces, they fought with the most daring and intrepid bravery.

The unequal conduct of the soldiers, as is usual on such occasions, imminently exposed the officers, who, in their fearless efforts, fell in great numbers. Their only hope of victory was now in the bayonet. Lieutenant Colonel Darke, with the second regiment forming the left of the wing, made an impetuous charge upon the enemy, and drove them with some loss, about four hundred yards; but, though followed by that whole wing, he was unable, for want of a sufficient number of riflemen to press this advantage, and when he stayed the pursuit, the enemy renewed the attack. In the meantime, General Butler was mortally wounded; the left of the right wing was broken; the artillerists, almost to a man, were killed; the guns seized; and the camp penetrated by the enemy. Darke, with his own regiment, and with the battalions commanded by Majors Butler and Clarke, charging again with the bayonet, drove the Indians out of the camp, and recovered the artillery. But while pressed in one point, they kept up a fatal fire from every other. Though successfully charged in several instances by particular corps, they could not be fought by the whole combined forces; and in every charge, a great loss of officers was sustained. The soldiers breaking their ranks, flocked together in crowds, and were shot down without resistance. To save the remnant of his army, General St. Clair, in the morning, ordered Lieutenant Colonel Darke, with the second regiment, to charge a body of Indians who had intercepted their retreat, and to gain the road; and Major Clarke, with his battalion, to cover the rear. A most disorderly flight now commenced. After a pursuit of about four miles, the Indians turned back to the camp for plunder, and the troops continued their flight about thirty miles, to Fort Jefferson. Here they met Major Hamtranck with the first regiment; and, calling a council of war, it was determined not to attempt to retrieve their misfortune; and, leaving the wounded at Fort Jefferson, the troops continued their retreat to Fort Washington. In this disastrous battle, thirty-eight commissioned officers were killed upon the field and five hundred and ninety-three non-commissioned officers and privates were slain and missing; twenty-one commissioned officers, several of whom died afterwards of their wounds, and two hundred and forty-two non-commissioned officers and privates were wounded. General Butler was a gallant officer, who had served with distinction through the revolutionary war. It was observed by General St. Clair, in his official letter: “The loss the public has sustained by the loss of so many officers, particularly of General Butler and Major Ferguson, cannot be too much regretted.” The Indian force, in this action, was estimated from one thousand to fifteen hundred warriors; but no estimate could be made of their loss.

The celebrated chief, Little Turtle, was the Indian commander in both of the battles with General Harmar’s troops, and in this one with St. Clair. He belonged to the Miamis, and his Indian name was Mishikinakwa. Emboldened by their great success, the Indians committed more serious depredations. Ambassadors sent to negotiate a peace with them were murdered, and no resource was left but to send another army against them. Several months elapsed before the necessary troops could be collected. The gallant General Wayne, known to the Indians as a “sleepless chief,” was appointed to succeed St. Clair, who had resigned his command.

To bring the war to a prosperous termination, it was judged necessary not merely to expel the Indians, but to prevent their return, and for this purpose to hold the country by a chain of permanent posts. Not being able to execute this plan during the autumn, the general had contented himself with collecting his army and penetrating about six miles in advance of Fort Jefferson, where he established himself for the winter in a camp called Greensville. After fortifying this camp, he took possession of the ground on which the Americans had been defeated in 1791; and there another fort was erected, called Fort Recovery. The opening of the campaign was unavoidably protracted until near midsummer. Early in August, General Wayne reached the confluence of the Au Glaize and the Miamis of the lakes, where were the richest and most extensive settlements of the Indians; and here he threw some works of defense and protection for magazines. About thirty miles from the mouth of the Au Glaize was a post occupied by the British, on the Miamis of the lakes, in the vicinity of which was collected the whole strength of the enemy, understood to be somewhat less than two thousand men. The continental legion was not much inferior in number; and a reinforcement of about eleven hundred mounted militia from Kentucky, commanded by General Scott, gave the army of Wayne a decided superiority in strength. Though it was well understood that the Indians had determined to give him battle; yet, in pursuance of the pacific policy of the United States, the general sent messengers to the several hostile tribes assembled in his front, inviting them to appoint deputies to meet him for the purpose of negotiating a permanent peace.

General Scott
General Scott

The American army, on the 15th of August, marched down the Miamis, and on the 18th arrived at the rapids, where they halted the next day to erect a temporary work for the protection of the baggage, and to reconnoiter the enemy. The Indians were advantageously posted behind a thick wood, and behind the British fort. On the morning of the 20th the American army advanced in columns: the legion, with its right flank, covered by the Miamis; one brigade of mounted volunteers, commanded by General Todd, on the left; the other, under General Barbee, in the rear; and a select battalion commanded by Major Price, moving in front of the legion in advance. After marching about five miles, Major Price received a heavy fire from a concealed enemy, which compelled him to retreat. The Indians had taken a position almost inaccessible, in a thick wood in front of the British works, where they were formed in three lines, with a very extended front, their lines stretching to the west, at right angles with the river, about two miles; and their first effort was to turn the left flank of the American Army. On the discharge of the first rifle, the legion was formed in two lines. The front was ordered to advance with trailed arms reserving their fire until they had forced the enemy from his covert at the point of the bayonet, and, after a discharge, to press the fugitives too closely to permit them to reload their pieces. Perceiving the aim of the enemy to turn the American left, the general ordered the second line to support the first. The legion cavalry, led by Captain Campbell, was ordered to penetrate between the Indians and the river, to charge their left flank; and General Scott, with the mounted volunteers, to make a circuit, and turn their right flank. These orders were executed with Great Spirit and complete success. An impetuous charge, made by the first line of infantry, entirely broke the enemy’s line; a rapid pursuit succeeded; and in the course of one hour the Indians were driven more than two miles, through thick woods, within gunshot of the British fort. In this decisive battle, the loss of the Americans in killed and wounded, including officers, was one hundred and seven. Among the slain were Captain Campbell, and Lieutenant Fowles, both of whom fell in the first charge. The American troops engaged in the battle did not amount to nine hundred; the number of Indians was two thousand.

After remaining on the banks of the Miamis, in front of the field of battle, three days, during which time the houses and corn fields above and below the fort were burnt, General Wayne, on the 28th, returned with the army to Au Glaize, having destroyed all the villages and corn within fifty miles of the river.

The Indians still continuing hostilities, their whole country was laid waste, and forts were erected in the heart of their settlements. The effect of the battle of the 20th of August was instantly and extensively felt. To the victory, gained by the Americans, is ascribed the reuse of the United States from a general war with the Indians northwest of the Ohio; and its influence is believed to have extended to the Indians in Georgia.

The principal tribes engaged in the war were the Miamis, Delawares, Shawnees, and Wyandots. Besides the brave and cautious Mishikinakwa, the Indians had other commanders, of almost equal fame. Blue Jacket, a Shawnee chief, was known as a crueler and precipitate leader than Mishikinakwa, but possessed of less discrimination and judgment. The Shawnees, though compelled to peace, retained their hatred to the whites.

Frost, John, LL. D. Frost's Pictorial History of Indian Wars and Captivities, From the Earliest Record of American History to the Present Time; Nearly 200 Engravings from Original Designs, by Distinguished Artists. New York: Wells Publishing Company. Vol. 1. 1873.

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