Disaster: The Wabash River 1791

T’was November the fourth, in the year of ’91,

We had a sore engagement near to Fort Jefferson

St Clair was our commander, which may remembered be

For there we left 900 men, in the Western territory.

-“St Clair’s Defeat”, as sung by Vivien Richman

The greatest single military disaster the United States has ever known took place in the later autumn of 1791, a mere four years after the signing of the Constitution and two years into the Presidency of George Washington. Along the banks of the Wabash River, on the present day border of Indiana and Ohio, an American army, the first US army in history, led by Scottish-born General Arthur St Clair, was surrounded and almost completely destroyed by a coalition of Delaware, Shawnee, Miami, Iroquois, Wyandot, and other Native American tribes of the Western Confederacy. This battle, in which an American army of just over 1,300 men suffered over 75% killed, wounded, or captured, constitutes the greatest defeat of US forces in American history and the most disproportionate, with the losses of the Western Confederacy estimated to be near to, or less than, 100 men.

Aided and abetted by British and Metis agents, the Western Confederacy had formed in the aftermath of the Treaty of Paris and the end of the American War of Independence, with the purpose of opposing American settlement and expansion into the Ohio Valley and the Northwest Territories. Already, Virginian settlers in Kentucky had fought a brutal series of battles against the native peoples, who were themselves largely settled in permanent farming communities. Reciprocal raids on these villages and on the new American settlements compelled President Washington to dispatch Arthur St Clair, a veteran of the War of Independence, with the Army of the United States, at the time numbering well under 1000 men, to protect the settlements and bring the Confederacy to terms. Given little time to assemble his forces, St Clair had to make due with conscripts and a supply line short on wagons and pack animals for his march through wooded and unfriendly country.

Swelled (though also slowed) by the presence of volunteers from Kentucky, and marching unguided up a fairly narrow trace, St Clair advanced from Pennsylvania into Ohio with the small army of the United States, comprising mostly of infantry, the first US artillery with a few light cannon, and a small detachment of mounted dragoons, whose mobility counted for little outside the few roads into the Northwest Territory. Forced to rely on supply wagons on the insecure trace, the brave little army slowly made its way to the outpost at Fort Jefferson. Already demoralized remembering the failure of Gen Josiah Hamar’s expedition against the Miamis and Shawnees led by Little Turtle and Blue Jacket the year before, the volunteers many times threatened to abandon the army, and the small force of regular soldiers had trouble keeping discipline as the advance was constantly stalked by their agile Indian foes.

Marching ahead of their supply lines, the American column reached a half-prepared position at the modern day town of Fort Recovery on November 3rd. St Clair, with 300 of his regular soldiers back along the trail attempting to guard the precious convoy of flour, encamped in an open field just short of a ford of the Wabash River. He prepared a forward position on the far bank, picketed by Kentucky and Virginian volunteers, to guard against Natives infiltrating the camp. The field was surrounded on nearly all sides by trees and narrow branches of the Wabash.

Map of the American Position

Map of the American Position looking from North to South. Note the exposed vanguard across the river and the trace on the left leading back to Fort Jefferson.

The vanguard were mostly inexperienced and ill-disciplined soldiers. They were exposed in front of the line, with their backs to the Wabash, in order to keep them from stealing back down the trace. The regular troops too, especially the large body of freshly conscripted soldiers, were inexperienced, and despite the presence of many veteran officers of the Revolutionary and Indian Wars, the army was ill-prepared when a force of approximately 1,400 Indians of the Confederacy, lead by the Miami Little Turtle and the Shawnee Blue Jacket, closed in on Fort Recovery.

Though not significantly outnumbered, the American forces were ill-disposed and unused to the swarming tactics of the Indians, whose skills in woodland and irregular warfare were unmatched among the volunteers or the regular soldiers. They had constantly harassed the approaching forces of the Americans; using classic feints and ambushes to kill any “fool-braves” whose pursued them into the woods. While alerted by scouts and pickets that Confederate forces were nearby, St Clair made no substantive effort to prepare for a battle, assuming the Natives would not attack in force.

He was to be proven wrong. In the early hours of November 4th, beginning at 5:30 AM, the pickets across the Wabash were roused by the howls of the approaching Delaware and Shawnee. The sight of the advancing foe, painted warriors in bright shirts and deerskin chaps with mohawks and shaved heads, screaming and letting loose a hail of shot so horrified the volunteers that many were said to have frozen up in terror and could not form a cogent defense. Overcoming the advanced detachments, who quickly fled to spread the panicked alarm, the swift and mobile Indians spread out to envelop the field in which St Clair’s men made a defensive position.

Using British and Metis supplied muskets, the Indians were armed much like their opponents, though they preferred to shoot from cover, taking aimed shots at whatever targets presented themselves. Under the cover of the trees, they quickly surrounded the American force.  Supported by a few light artillery pieces and a regular disciplined fire from his ranks, St Clair held off their initial assaults. The natives retired to the protection of the tree line, continually dropping the soldiers with accurate and sporadic fire. The dawn broke upon the terrified Americans, surrounded by pop of musket fire and the echoing shouts of the Wyandots, Cherokee, Lenape, Ojibwe, and Shawnees from the woods. The Americans responded with volleys of musketry and booming cannon, trying to calm their fear as the officers began to topple off their horses.

Experience taught the Ohio Natives, who lacked artillery or mounted troops, to play against these strengths by keeping their forces dispersed in the woods, slowly thinning the closely-ordered American ranks by accurate and sporadic fire from the cover of the woodline. On the advice of British agents among the Confederates, the American artillerymen were explicitly targeted. Cannon fire slackened as the cannoneers fell about their artillery pieces, and the Indians began to grow more aggressive. Native sorties throughout the early-morning, through the smoke of the gunfire and under the low autumn morning light, broke into the wagons and killed and scalped many of the wounded, sick, and camp women sheltering there, before being driven out by close-order bayonet charges from the Americans.

The withering fire of the natives continued to decimate the American ranks, and bayonet charges to break the envelopment advanced into fields of fire without killing a soul, then withdrew in bloody confusion under a hail of whizzing lead. The officers and men of visible rank were rapidly shot down by Native marksmen, adding to the breakdown of American command. As the cannons ceased to fire, the attacks steadily increased in intensity, with the Americans caught in a terrible crossfire. Already the militiamen and volunteers were fleeing for their very lives.

By 9:45 AM, St Clair, his coat torn by seven musket balls, gave the order for a retreat from the field, back along the narrow trace to Fort Jefferson. While a brave rearguard was attempted by the remaining regular troops, little could be done to forestall the collapse of the army. The desperate Americans fled, one survivor had a tomahawk still embedded in him. The victorious Indians held the field completely by 10:30, while St Clair and the survivors, meeting the flour train and the detached soldiers outside Fort Jefferson, retreated nearly 100 miles to Fort Washington, on the outskirts of modern day Cincinnati. Survivors of the fight continued to stumble down the trace for days thereafter, some having hid, others getting lost in the woods, and others just barely outrunning their pursuers.

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The battle was a disaster; after four hours the United States Regular Army evaporated. Losses were just shy of 1,000 men killed, wounded, or captured, to say nothing of camp-followers killed and the capture of the cannons. So unbelievable was the scale of the disaster that President Washington would use the first instance of Executive Privilege to set up an official inquiry into the cause of the defeat, the first of many to follow. St Clair would be cleared of any official responsibility for the disaster, and he retired to a Pennsylvania estate after serving as Governor of the Northwestern Territory until 1802.

Another Revolutionary War veteran, General ‘Mad’ Anthony Wayne, would rebuild the army into a far bigger and professional force, reorganized into the ‘Legion of the United States of America’, arguably the foundations of the modern institution. While fighting the criticisms of anti-federalists in congress, who argued that the 4 regiment legion represented an institution of government tyranny and overspend (and indeed it was not called upon by Washington to aid in the suppression of the Whiskey Rebellion for this reason), Wayne continued the war on the Natives, scoring a decisive, if somewhat limited, victory the following year at Fallen Timbers against the remaining Western Confederates under Blue Jacket.

Little Turtle, judging a change in the character of his opponent, argued for negotiation over armed confrontation, and refused to assume military leadership after the Fallen Timbers. He afterwards would make terms, as would the other tribes, and never again took arms against the American government.

Ultimately, settlement and encroachment would force the Ohio natives to come to peace terms, as they lacked both coordinated leadership and a source of powder and bullets outside their British and Canadian allies. Their populations could not support a long-term war of attrition, and their hesitance to continue fighting as a group spoke to the difficulties of long-term cooperation in their unwieldy Confederacy. Their last major war would be either as allies of the British or Americans during the War of 1812. Many of the tribes present at the Wabash followed the Shawnee Warrior-Prophet Tecumseh against the Americans. His death at the Battle of the Thames effectively ended their cogent resistance and their autonomy.

The Wabash remains the most disastrous defeat of American forces in percentage and in proportion. It joins the ranks of other disasters like the Little Bighorn and Pearl Harbor, and from it there are lessons to be drawn for commanders, politicians, and historians alike.

First, the American forces were badly coordinated and inexperienced, having had little time (less than four months) to train or instill a practical cohesion and discipline to the many components of the Army, professional and amateur soldiery alike. Likewise, American tactics were suitably inflexible. American linear tactics, adapted from European battlefields, relied on mass firepower and frontal assaults that failed to connect with their more mobile adversaries. The Indians, masters of asymmetric warfare,  could absorb such charges by falling back and surrounding their attackers in a deadly isolating fire. American effectiveness was certainly dampened by the surprise attack, but also by the shortcomings of discipline and small-unit leadership. Effective skirmishing, which might have prevented the envelopment that doomed St Clair, required discipline and cohesion. The American soldiers, especially those Regulars who formed the rearguard for the retreat, showed great valor, but lacked coordination, especially due to the high mortality rate among line officers.

The Americans were so deployed as to maintain a singular position of strength, but then failed to foil their enemies’ envelopment by aggressive counterattack. Given the surprise nature of the Indian assault and the wooded surroundings, it is easy to see why the Americans on the near side of the Wabash naturally made a central defensive position, but in doing so they allowed their enemy to surround them and make it near impossible to then defeat the enemy decisively. While it is true that the Indians had begun to run low on ammunition by the time St Clair ordered the retreat, they had used highly effective swarm tactics to paralyze and sap their enemy’s strength so that it hardly mattered. As was seen in Mujaheddin ambushes on Soviet columns or in Mogadishu in 1992, such tactics, if well guided (as the Indians’ were in targeting the artillery and mounted officers), can prove high effective at breaking superior forces’ will to continue resistance.

In operational terms, St Clair reaped what he had sowed in the compromises made and risks taken to deepen the advance. The tenuous lines of supply and the division of forces to logistically maintain the thrust into unfriendly territory were responsible for the bad dispositions that St Clair had on the morning of November 4th. In an attempt to shoehorn more of the volunteers and local militia into remaining with the army, St Clair continued to advance for fear of losing his strength. But this also meant dividing his forces along a rough trace which prevented bringing the full weight upon the enemy and required garrisons to be left at fortified positions, hence depriving him of additional soldiers that could have acted as bulwarks against surprise and encirclement.

While unable to dispense with supply wagons and the many sutlers and supply contractors who held him up, St Clair could not meet the challenges of campaigning along a very restricted line of operations while his enemy was allowed a far wider scope of maneuver. His disaster was not wholly of his making; without proper resources at his disposal in men and material he could hardly have been expected to reap greater results for Congress and Washington, even had he avoided defeat at Wabash. His small forces would likely have done little to effect a general pacification of the Northwest Territory, or even to seriously defeat his opponents on his terms. If his purpose was to make a punitive expedition, his forces were too large to rapidly strike his enemies without giving them plenty of warning, and if his purpose was to control and pacify the territory, his forces were too small to do so while maintaining a healthy forward advance.

It is true that Woodland Native Americans on the whole did not attack European/American forces unless in a position of strength and never without an easy route of withdrawal; often they would harass incrementally or attempt to envelop small parties, but not press home to destroy an enemy where he was in force. Lacking the population base to suffer intense casualties in any one engagement, Native Americans often retreated to fight another day rather than risk losing too many irreplaceable warriors (and community members) in one desperate gamble. This notable trend may have in some ways justified St Clair’s and his officers’ confidence that Little Turtle would not attack with such ferocity, and thus their content to push forward into dangerous territory.

However, the experience of the previous two centuries showed that the advantage in mobility was with the Indians, and that defeating or capturing even a small group without dedicated light infantry (often provided by other, allied, Indians) was extremely difficult. Wayne’s better-trained light infantry, and greater numbers, allowed him to avoid a similar trap at Fallen Timbers, in which he outflanked his enemies and was able to spoil Blue Jacket’s surprise attacks before they could break up his infantry and artillery. Nevertheless, Fallen Timbers also showed that the Natives were content to draw off before taking serious casualties. While Wayne held the field, he killed remarkably few of his opponents, who were ultimately defeated by a splintering of their coalition and the lack of provisions as opposed to military action. The task of pacifying the Northwest was outside the means given to St Clair, and it is worth noting this fact when judging his performance on that day. Similar findings were made evident in the inquiry that exonerated him.

While victory in the Northwestern Territory was ultimately the American’s to enjoy, it was bought at a terrible cost in lives and a stunning defeat. Other battles and later wars would diminish the reputation of the 4th of November, 1791, a date of infamy for the US Army. The battle lives on in the memorials in the little town of Fort Recovery and the ballad of St Clair’s Defeat, which was written shortly thereafter and has been repeatedly recorded in various iterations. Outside this and the historians of the Ohio territory, the Battle of the Wabash remains a footnote, if a very bloody one, in American history.

An excellent article about the battle can be found online here. Those interested in an explicit treatment of the battle are advised to consult John F Winkler’s recent publication for the Osprey Campaign series, Wabash 1791: St Clair’s Defeat. Another excellent source on campaigns against the Eastern Woodlands Indians and their warfare can be found in A. Starkey’s European and Native American Warfare, 1675-1815.

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One Response to Disaster: The Wabash River 1791

  1. Pingback: Disaster: The Wabash River 1791 | battlegroundhistory

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