While a little outside the chronological range covered by this blog, I thought I would share exciting news about a new book that seeks to alter our impression of antebellum slavery through the lens of the War of 1812.
Gene Allen Smith, historian at Texas Christian University, has written an interesting examination of how slaves viewed and used the conflict for their own opportunities. He showed that the war saw all sides using African Americans to aid their causes, while blacks saw the war as their chance to assert themselves, whether for seeking equality, in the case of free blacks, or freedom for slaves. Further, the war was a turning point in American race relations, as Smith noted that slavery was in a tenuous situation on war’s eve.
He noted that the war drastically altered this path of decline and that it further halted any potential progress towards freedom or equality, as blacks who joined British forces, seeking to better their lot in life, returned with invading forces, leading enemy troops into American communities. The consequence of this was a greater distrust among whites of arming slaves and enrolling blacks in militia units to augment white manpower, which continued into the Civil War, where African Americans served in segregated regiments with white officers. One of the other major problems resulting from the war was the expansion of available land for plantation agriculture, and plantation-based slavery.(3-4)
Smith begins his study by examining the story of black participation in North American wars. What is great about this chapter is the examination of the cross-cultural interactions, echoing Richard White’s remarkable work The Middle Ground. He concluded that the contributions of blacks to military conflicts during the colonial and revolutionary periods redefined the relationships between blacks and whites in North America.(31)
As he examined the role of blacks during the War of 1812, he weaved in the stories of black participants across the various theaters, providing a new and exciting understanding of the war that is as important to the larger field of study on the war as Donald Hickey. Smith concluded that blacks found became aware that their contributions to the war were minimized in post-war America. Further, white Americans began to react fearfully to black insurrection possibilities and worked to prevent the arming of blacks. Also, northern states began enacting laws outlawing blacks residing in them. Slavery became more entrenched in the South, as new areas were available for cotton production. Thus the war served as the last opportunity for blacks to attempt to fight for their place in society until the Civil War.(210-214)
The book is well researched, relying on sources from such scholars as Richard White, Gary Nash, Ian Steele, Stagg, and Don Hickey. In addition to strong secondary sources, Smith utilized several great primary sources that considered black participation, as well as interactions with Native Americans.
A good monograph that examines the difficult situation faced by blacks as they attempted to choose a side in the War of 1812 to further their position, Smith’s The Slaves’ Gamble is a great book for scholars interested in African American history, military history, the War of 1812, and is a good book for those interested in the Civil War, as it illustrates quite well how the forces that led to that great struggle came into being by America’s “second war for independence”.
Richard Middleton. The War of American Independence, 1775-1783. Modern Wars in Perspective series. Harlow, England: Pearson Education, 2012. ISBN 978-0-582-22942-6. Maps. Notes. Appendix. Bibliography. Pp. xvi, 351. $44.00 (paperback).
Dr Richard Middleton provides a superb up-to-date synthesis of published primary works and modern historical studies focusing on the political, military, naval, and diplomatic aspects of the American War of Independence (1775-1783). Middleton is an independent scholar and a former Reader in American History at Queen’s University in Belfast, Northern Ireland. He is the author of The Bells of Victory: The Pitt-Newcastle Ministry and the Conduct of the Seven Years War, 1757-1762 (1985), Colonial America, A History, 1565-1776 (Third edition, 2002), and Pontiac’s War: Its Causes, Course and Consequences (2007).
Middleton depicts the origins, course, and outcome of the War of American Independence. The author focuses on the leadership of the Britain, the Patriots and Loyalists, France, and Spain. He emphasizes British strategy (when…
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On Monday, September 13 at 9PM Central Time (check local listings), PBS will air a documentary on one of the more unique and important figures from the Revolutionary War, the Marquis de Lafayette. Lafayette was a French noble, who came to fight for the American cause at only 19. Lafayette: The Lost Hero presents the intimate story of the man who served as major-general in the Continental Army, and was a close friend of George Washington.
The story of Lafayette involves struggle and troubles, as while he is from a noble family, he strives to prove himself in French aristocratic society. He marries Adrienne, daughter of French aristocrats in 1775. In his youth, he became enamored with the idea of liberty and found sympathy with the American cause, which motivated him to travel to America, leaving a pregnant Adrienne in France.
The Revolution is but one part of the whole story. Lafayette’s life after the Revolution is covered very well, including his role in the French Revolution, imprisonment in France and Austria, and return to America to a hero’s welcome in 1824-5. The interesting aspects of this film are the love between him and Adrienne, as well as how both France and the United States have seemed to forget Lafayette (an example given was a statue of him donated by American schoolchildren being moved from the center of Paris to an obscure park). Through wonderful use of living history demonstrations, interviews with scholars and descendants of the Marquis, and wonderful use of images and animations, Lafayette: The Lost Hero is a documentary that you should record and watch.
Here’s a trailer:
This film is the first in a planned series under the title of America: Her People, Her Stories, which is produced by Tony Malanowski, who seeks to creat positive, family friendly productions that present a more positive outlook on American history. The film features a docudrama and a section providing the historical context, presented through interviews with historians. Having had a couple of weeks to reflect on the production since viewing it, I have found both positives and negatives within it.
First, as a historian, I want to commend Mr. Malanowski for his idea, as presenting history in an interesting light for children is always good. Despite covering a violent subject, like war, he presents the battle in a way that younger children can learn without being frightened. In addition, despite limitations he was able to pull off an over two-hour production rather well.
The film consisted of two main parts, a docudrama and a historical perspective. The docudrama part consisted of a movie reenactment of the battle, focusing on two fathers and sons, living in the area. The historical perspective placed the battle and the Revolutionary War within the larger context of early American history, incorporating interviews with three, as the film puts it, “historical experts.” Gregory J. W. Urwin is a scholar of both the Revolution and Civil War at Temple University who has written many works. Richard Patterson is the director of the Old Barracks Museum in Trenton, NJ, while William Chemerka has written several books on Texas history and has appeared on History Channel documentaries. My only problem is that Urwin is the only scholar working in the field covered by the film. Patterson is a good choice given his public history work at Trenton, but Chemerka seems out-of-place, as I could find no information related to any work he did on the Revolution. Though this is merely a difference of historical outlook, I had to mention it.
That said, the docudrama was an interesting work. The battle scenes were well done, given the budgetary issues. It was portrayed well for an audience geared towards younger children and makes the colonial militia out to be heroic, which is good. My only observation was that the acting seemed a little over done at the beginning. The sons portrayed in the film present an interesting issue, as they seem to be fourteen or so. Their presence at the battle is a conundrum, as if old enough to come and help, they likely would have been allowed to stay and fight, as they would have known how to use a musket. Further, what about leaving the son home to tend the farm? Again, this is my observation and reflects training and a slightly different outlook.
The historical perspective was rather good and placed the battle in context, which is very important. Despite my concern over the experts chosen, they did well. In addition to the two main parts, a few extra features were added, including Reagan’s farewell address, which I enjoyed immensely.
Now, the only real artistic difference I would note is that I would have chosen a battle involving George Washington, likely Trenton, as while Bunker Hill was a significant engagement, the struggle of the army under Washington, especially at Trenton would have better achieved the goals of Mr. Malanowski.
Overall, the docudrama is a good program for families with young children to engage them in history. However, as I always state with any film, be sure to supplement the viewing with proper books and documents, as reading is always good. Get children reading the Constitution, Declaration of Independence, and other primary documents. I look forward to seeing more from this project.
David Hackett Fischer has written a remarkable book on one of the more important events of the American Revolution: the Battle of Trenton, placing that battle within the larger Revolution with great detail. The book is part of the Pivotal Moments in American History series, edited by Fischer and James McPherson. Fischer’s work, like others in the series examines a significant moment in American history and how that event shaped the course of the development of the nation. Washington’s Crossing explores the importance of Trenton, as it is one of the most important days for the creation of the United States, as without this event, the Revolution would have likely collapsed.(ix)
Fischer provided an enormous amount of background, starting first with the competing forces. He discussed the American army, including a brief biography of George Washington, noting more democratic elements within it, like the Committee of Privates in one Pennsylvania unit, as well as an overall lack of discipline.(11-2, 27) In contrast to the American army, Fischer presented the British army as a more disciplined force.(42-45) Finally, he explored the mercenary forces from Germany, collectively known as Hessians.
In addition to looking at the forces involved, Fischer devoted space to the background of the battle. Subjects included the Howe brothers, who commanded the British/Hessian forces during the campaign, as well as the failures at New York. Fischer then analyzed the desperate picture of the American Revolution, discussing Thomas Paine’s pamphlet The American Crisis and how it reflected the low point of the Revolution. Overall, the inclusion of this background is very helpful to comprehending the importance of the Trenton Campaign to the success of the Revolution.
The detail on the campaign itself is immense, with Fischer describing the conditions of New Jersey under enemy occupation. Further, his chapters explored key aspects and persons directly surrounding the battle, including Colonel Johann Rall, commander of the Hessian force in Trenton. Readers will come to have a strong grasp of the battle and the Revolution thanks to Fischer’s inclusion of multiple, detailed subjects on the battle.
In addition to the rich focus, there are several other aspects of this book that make it a landmark work on the Battle of Trenton and the Revolution. First, is the relative simplicity to the organization. Fischer structured his chapters both chronologically and by subject. This organization allows readers to use this book as a great research tool. Second, is the use of maps and other images that compliment the text, which makes the book accessible to those unfamiliar with the Revolution.
The area where Fischer shines is in his historiography essay. The essay covers the wide variety of interpretations on both the battle and larger war, focusing upon early views of both the battle and larger war from those who participated in the conflict. Fischer illustrated how, for each side, Trenton represented different ideas, including republican virtue, criticism of British policy, as exhibited by the Howe brothers, contempt for the Hessians, and religious fervor.(425-432) He then explored the creation and rise of a romantic school, embodied by Washington Irving, which later combined with an earlier republican school to create the Whig, later called Liberal, school. George Bancroft characterized this school, which placed the campaign within the larger struggle of democracy and freedom against more oppressive forms of government.(433-437) This idea of a moral struggle that Fischer alludes to (435) is rather similar to the earlier view held by some participants that viewed Trenton as a righteous victory.(425)
Fischer’s exploration of the historiography included interpretations linked to later events in American history. He noted how historians after the Civil War studied the Revolution in light of their own participation in the conflict, which renewed their faith in republicanism and a national identity.(438-9) One of the more interesting aspects he looked at was Marxist Howard Fast’s historical fiction on the war. Fischer appeared to mention this subject for mere curiosity and hinted at a lack of value of Fast’s work.(445-6) While Howard Fast may be a way to attract Marxist scholars to Fischer’s book, it seems irrelevant to the overall historiography.
Overall, Fischer’s look at historiography is quite helpful to those unfamiliar with it and wishing to learn more about the war. He covered the many versions of writing over the years, including the clash in the late twentieth century between academic and popular history, as well as the rise of multiculturalism. The result is a full treatment of Trenton and the war, which allows the book to be both a standard monograph and reference work.
Another great feature that sets this book apart is Fischer’s inclusion of an annotated bibliography, which lists and discusses the vast amount of primary and secondary sources. He also provided his own interpretation of the value of various secondary sources. This section adds to the reference qualities of the work and compliments the historiography essay well, and illustrates that Fischer’s book is based on sound scholarship.
There are so many great qualities to Washington’s Crossing that it is a must read for anyone interested on both the Trenton Campaign and the larger American Revolution. Fischer provides the necessary background on the players involved and the conflict and created a rather balanced view of the event. He drew upon both military and social history, discussing the commanders and strategies, as well as providing room for the inclusion of African-Americans and women in the story, which reflected the goals of the series the book belongs to of including traditional interpretations with new trends in scholarship. His use of appendices, a historiography essay, and bibliography enhance the value of the work to general readers, students, and scholars alike. While the book appears daunting, it is well worth the effort to examine. With all the positives to this study, it is very clear why Washington’s Crossing won the Pulitzer Prize and was an American Library Association Notable Book. David Hackett Fischer made a significant and wonderful contribution to the scholarship of the Revolutionary War.
The US Constitution proved a remarkably forward-thinking document for its day, encoding individual liberties. Many historians state that the delegates used the ancient Roman republic and Greek democracy for their examples. While evidence of this exists, I believe they relied on their established roots with the Magna Carta and English common law. Some erroneously claim that the Constitution limits the rights of the individual; in fact it limits the power of government.
Most of the Founding Fathers believed government little more than a “necessary evil,” and that they must control its power. Any time that a government passes a law it restricts the liberty of the individual, no matter how just the law. As stated previously, in the world of the Founding Fathers they witnessed the “tyranny” of “despotic monarchs” in Europe. They wanted none of this for America and developed “federalism” for establishing the powers of federal, state and local governments.
Ironically today, most Americans seemingly want government interference in their lives, as long as they receive entitlements. Americans of the 18th Century jealously guarded their individual liberties, while many Americans today comfortably become wards of the state. Increasingly today the federal government usurps the power the Constitution reserved for the states and the people. I believe the broad powers assumed by government today go well beyond the intent of the Founding Fathers.
The federal government assumed the responsibility for “providing the common defense,” however little changed for our Armed Forces. Thus continued a congressional tradition of inadequately fielding, arming and supplying military forces for defending our country, which continues today.
While the federal government assumed responsibility for recruiting they still assigned quotas for the states. This prevented one state from achieving too much power and enforcing its will on the others. The fear of a “standing army” still overruled any foreign or domestic threat, and the strength of the First US Regiment remained 700. Little changed with the previously described mismanaged administration of the Army, and soldiers still suffered. The Department of Navy did not exist and the few naval vessels did not adequately defend our national interests.
Internationally, most of the European monarchs viewed America’s “republican ideals” as a threat, particularly in their colonial empires. Defeating these ideals meant that they must work against the new nation at every opportunity. Little foreign investment occurred because of this and the continuing political and economic chaos in the US. England and Spain still encroached on American territory and instigated Indians tribes against the western settlers. France, angry over the unreliability of America as an ally, proved as disruptive as England and Spain.
American authority expanded no further than its diminutive military power, and the westerners began looking elsewhere. British and Spanish agents circulated in modern Kentucky and Tennessee, fomenting the secessionist sentiment among the settlers. Both promised an end of the Indian raids and economic benefits from declaring themselves “subjects” of their respective kings. The American settlers, seeing no relief from an impotent federal government, drifted dangerously toward seceding from the new Union.
Achieving peace on the frontier required negotiations with the various Indian tribes that lived in the region. Unfortunately overcoming the hatred from decades of brutal warfare between the settlers and the Indians proved difficult. Each viewed the other as “barbarians,” and neither understood the others’ cultural differences. American negotiators deceitfully found willing “chiefs,” got them drunk and obtained their “marks” on treaties. Equally deceitful, the Indians sold the Americans the land of tribal enemies for inciting warfare. Under the loose tribal political structure, individual Indians did not feel themselves bound by the word of a “chief.” Many settlers on the frontier likewise did not feel themselves bound by the treaties signed by federal government officials.
Again, the Indians did not feel themselves bound by any agreement between the Americans and British. Something that British officials exploited for keeping the various tribes under their influence and hostile toward the Americans. British agents dominated the trade with the tribes and provided arms and ammunition for raiding the American settlements. The Americans lacked the military power for impressing the Indians, defending the settlers and ending the British influence.
Governor Arthur St. Clair of the new Northwest Territory (all US territory west of the Appalachian Mountains and north of the Ohio River) negotiated a treaty with the Indians in January 9, 1789. Of doubtful legality, a council of about two hundred Indians, only four of them principal chiefs, signed over most of the present state of Ohio. Most of the other Indians repudiated the treaty and vowed continued warfare against the “Kentucky people.”
If possible, the level and brutality of warfare increased as a confederation of Indian tribes formed under the Miami chief, Michikinakwa, Little Turtle in English. The son of a chief, Little Turtle fought as a British ally during the American Revolution. He earned his position as war chief by defeating an expedition under the French adventurer, Agustin de la Balme. Little Turtle led the attack on de la Balme, killing him and thirty others, establishing his reputation as a war leader. He then led attacks on Kentucky settlers throughout the subsequent time, enhancing his reputation among the Indian tribes. Little Turtle wanted the Ohio River as the boundary between the Indians and the US. He evolved as one of the most charismatic leaders of the tribes of this region, eclipsed only by Tecumseh.
The new federal government must demonstrate its power, for maintaining its survival in a harsh world. In 1790 the Congress authorized military action by President Washington against the Miami Confederacy. Unfortunately the campaign proved a failure for a number of reasons, mostly a lack of preparedness.
The American frontier of this period proved as difficult for military operations as any foreign operation today. Support troops did not exist, therefore civilian contractors ran the Army’s transportation and supply systems. Many of these contractors proved incapable of their responsibilities, incompetent and several proved corrupt. Since they owned the animals and wagons they often balked at taking them on campaigns, fearing the loss of property. Military officers possessed no authority for forcing the participation of the contractors or confiscating their property on these campaigns.
Congress authorized the mobilization of several hundred militiamen for augmenting the small force of regulars. Unfortunately for economic reasons the Congress only mobilized them for a short term, which did not allow for sufficient training. When the militia arrived, the quota did not contain the experienced “frontiersmen” of the frontier legend. Most of them arrived as unarmed substitutes unfamiliar with both military operations and living in the forests. Furthermore, most of them refused any form of discipline and proved ineffective during the campaign.
Supplies arrived in the standard too little, too late scenario so familiar with frontier operations. A mediocre officer, Lieutenant Colonel Josiah Harmar, commanded the First US Regiment mostly through political influence. He received a brevet (temporary and without increased pay) promotion as a brigadier general, making him the commander of the expedition. From his base at Fort Washington, near Cincinnati, Ohio, Harmar developed an ambitious two-pronged attack. Harmar planned on leading the main effort himself, striking north from Fort Washington.
The second wing proved even more difficult, launched from far away Fort Knox, near modern Vincennes, Indiana. Troops and supplies for this effort must first descend the Ohio River and then ascend the Wabash River. This consumed too much time and resources, hindering the effectiveness of this operation from the beginning. Nevertheless, Major John Hamtramck marched from there with 50 regulars and about 300 Kentucky militiamen on September 30, 1790.
Harmar marched on the same day with about 320 regulars and about 1,100 militiamen from Kentucky and Pennsylvania. This army blundered north, losing horses and equipment as it went, hardly resembling an organized military campaign. An unknown number of deserters, mostly militia, reduced the number of combatants that actually reached the objective.
Hamtramck’s wing fared even worse, beginning the campaign on half-rations and reaching their first objective on October 10th. Although they found only an empty village, with no live Indians, the militia threatened a mutiny. Facing this mutiny, further reduced rations and an estimated hostile force of 750 Indians, Hamtramck turned back.
Harmar reached the main Indian camp at Kekionga, near modern Fort Wayne, Indiana on October 14th, the same day Hamtramck withdrew. The next day Harmar divided his command into three wings and attacked the village, falling immediately into an ambush. Almost immediately the surprised militia bolted for the rear, leaving the outnumbered regulars vulnerable and confused.
The first battle of the “United States Army” ended in defeat as a numerically inferior force ambushed them. This ambushed force consisted of about 30 regulars and 180 militiamen, opposed by an estimated 130 Indians. Only nine militiamen stood with the regulars, and almost all of them died, along with twenty-two regulars. This defeat demoralized the remaining militia, many of whom threatened mutiny if Harmar continued the campaign. It further fostered a deep resentment of the regulars for the militia, a resentment that endured for years thereafter.
Restoring some semblance of order, Harmar broke camp and continued the campaign on October 20th. The Army destroyed five largely unoccupied Indian villages, burning huts, crops and any other possessions found. These “easy victories” restored some of the militia’s confidence and Harmar saw hopes of success. He hoped that this destruction of these Indian towns “would break up the Indians’ base of operations.” However, it seemingly caused the opposite effect as the Indians laid another ambush.
On October 21st Harmar planned another complicated maneuver, again beyond the capabilities of his mostly militia troops. Harmar learned that about 120 warriors reoccupied the ruined village of Kekionga and threatened his rear as he withdrew. One of the militia officers, Colonel John Hardin, smarting from the poor performance of his troops, suggested this attack. Hardin, a veteran of the Revolution and Indian warfare in Kentucky, hoped for reestablishing his reputation as an “Indian fighter.”
Unfortunately Indian scouts watched the entire movement of the 400 American troops as they advanced. At the initiation of the ambush most of the militia fled once again, leaving the sixty regulars alone. Almost all of them died, including their commander, Major John Wyllys, with their bodies abandoned. One militia officer, Major John Fontaine, ordered a charge and spurred his horse into the Indians, firing his pistols. When he turned, he found only one of his men, Private George Adams, followed him. Adams escaped with five wounds, while no one saw the seriously wounded Fontaine again.
With his troops’ morale rapidly deteriorating, and the October weather turning colder, Harmar began his withdrawal on October 23rd. At one point during the withdrawal Harmar used a show of force from his regulars for quelling a militia mutiny. The dispirited command arrived at Fort Washington November 3rd and Harmar amazingly declared “victory.”
However, the facts belied that news, including scathing reports from several of Harmar’s subordinate officers. The results of the expedition forced Harmar’s resignation from the Army, although a court of inquiry subsequently cleared him of misconduct. Little Turtle emerged as a charismatic leader of the region’s Indian tribes and the frontier warfare increased. The Indians became more dependent on the British for supplies, who offered them food and shelter at Detroit.
The new American government appeared weak and the American military seemed incapable of defending the nation. Dissatisfied with their neglect by the Congress, including not receiving pay for most of 1790, veteran soldiers left when their enlistments expired. Besides, they experienced a high casualty rate, mostly because militia units deserted them, and sought the comforts of civilian life.
With Harmar gone Washington must appoint a new commander for the Army, someone with more experience. He commissioned Governor St. Clair a major general and gave him command of the Army. St. Clair arrived in Philadelphia on November 8th, and seemingly courted this appointment through political influence. He possessed vast military experience, beginning as a British officer during the Seven Years War in 1757. St. Clair served on the Louisburg and Quebec campaigns with the 60th Regiment of Foot, the Royal Americans. Remaining in America following this war he joined the Continental Army and ended the war as a major general. However, his war record remains somewhat controversial marked by his abandonment of Fort Ticonderoga without a fight in 1777.
Unfortunately by the time of the current crisis St. Clair suffered from advancing age, gout and obesity. If he possessed any drive as a younger officer, it eroded as he grew older. However, he wanted the job when no one else seemingly wanted it, which meant something. Washington appointed him, the Senate approved him and St. Clair accepted the command in March, 1791.
Congress, which bore much of the blame for the failed expedition, made only superficial changes. First it doubled the size of the Army adding the Second United States Regiment in April, 1791. However, in an economic move, Congress reduced the already low pay of soldiers and deducted clothing and rations from this amount. Volunteers proved slow in assembling and veterans left when their enlistments expired, leaving the Army under strength. Again, why serve in the primitive frontier conditions and suffer high casualties for low pay and poor provisions. Besides, a shortage of labor existed in the comfortable eastern cities, and earning high wages did not possess the dangers of Indian warfare.
When the regular regiments embarked upon the next campaign both achieved only about 50% of their authorized strength. A substantial number consisted of recent recruits, lacking in the training and discipline needed. However, they proved the best soldiers on the campaign and stood their ground against hopeless odds.
Congress “addressed” the continuing problem with the civilian-managed Quartermaster Department, which meant that they did little. They did fire some of the most inept and corrupt of the contractors, however the replacements proved little better. For economic reasons Congress obtained the supplies from stocks left over from the Revolution, most of it unserviceable. Transportation proved the biggest obstacle on the frontier meaning that food and other supplies arrived late. The frontier settlements lacked the resources for supplying the needs of the Army, meaning that supplies came from the east.
The circumstances provided England and Spain a golden opportunity for achieving their goals against the US. A delegation of Indians arrived at Detroit and demanded increased British aid in defeating the Americans. Fortunately for the Americans, the Indians addressed a subordinate officer, and no one with the authority for changing policy. This communication reached the British governor of Canada in Quebec two months later, who also lacked the authority.
Winter weather closed communications from Quebec, forcing the delay of communications with London until March, 1791. The governor did not receive a reply until September, 1791, almost one year after Harmar’s campaign. Fortunately both England and Spain focused their priorities on the continuing troubles from the French Revolution. At any rate, both nations still armed and instigated their allied Indian tribes, but hesitated at providing troops.
The various Indian tribes also missed an excellent opportunity because of enduring inter-tribal rivalries. The Miami Confederacy also included Shawnee, Delaware, Pottawatomie, Wyandot, Kickapoo, Ottawa and smaller contingents from other tribes. However, the Iroquois Confederacy, who dominated the region for decades, remained neutral because they resented the growing power of the Miami. South of the Ohio River the Cherokee attacked settlers in modern Kentucky and Tennessee, but few of them allied themselves with the Miami. The Creeks, aided by the Spanish, attacked the frontiers of Georgia and South Carolina. Their rivals, the Chickasaw and Choctaw, sided with the Americans and sent scouts for aiding the Americans.
St. Clair began organizing his expedition, mostly repeating the same mistakes of the previous campaign. Before he departed Philadelphia he received sound advice from President Washington, “beware of surprise.” Events demonstrate that he did not heed these words, or at least did not enforce this advice on his subordinates. He established his headquarters at Fort Washington and awaited both troops and supplies, neither of which he currently possessed.
Congress, once again for economic reasons, augmented the Army with the mobilization of short-term militia. Repeating the mistakes of the Harmar campaign, they did not call for them in time for proper training and discipline. Expecting 3,000 militiamen from several states, enlistments proved unsatisfactory, with initially 2,500 recruited. However, even these numbers proved overly optimistic and they arrived at Fort Washington in small groups throughout the summer. Many did not make it past Pittsburgh and missed the campaign altogether, something they did not regret.
Supplies trickled in, and proved inadequate for the needs of the Army for a long expedition. The contractor, William Duer, and his agent, Israel Ludlow, proved incompetent and more interested in making a profit. They did not purchase adequate rations, nor did they purchase the required horses for transporting the provisions.
The small arms used by the troops arrived with most of them needing immediate repair. Cartridge boxes and other individual equipment arrived from storage at West Point with visible mold. Tools needed for building roads and a line of forts proved entirely too few for the needs of this expedition. Nevertheless, Congress pressured St. Clair into launching his expedition without the necessary supplies and improper training of his force.
While he awaited both men and supplies St. Clair approved two militia raids into Indian territory north of the Ohio River. He hoped that raiding deep into their homelands might demonstrate the vulnerability of their villages and persuade them toward peace. One of these under Brigadier General Charles Scott, a veteran of the Revolution and competent leader, consisted of about 750 mounted Kentuckians. It crossed the Ohio on May 19, 1791 and struck the Wea Indian villages on the Wabash River ten days later. Fortunately for Scott, most of the warriors departed for joining the Miami, leaving mostly women and children in these villages. After burning the villages and destroying the crops, Scott’s men delivered their prisoners into US Army custody at Fort Steuben, across the Ohio from Louisville, Kentucky.
Viewed as an American victory, this raid did force most of the Wabash Indians from the Miami Confederacy. With their homes and provisions destroyed, most of them made peace with the Americans in early 1792. However, most of the remaining hostile Indians viewed this raid on mostly women and children as an outrage.
A second raid, led by Lieutenant Colonel James Wilkinson, who participated in the first, departed on August 1st. Wilkinson, briefly mentioned earlier, another veteran of the Revolution, took over 500 mounted Kentuckians again toward the Wabash villages. A vain man, with a dark history of intrigue and deceit, Wilkinson hoped that this raid might enhance his national reputation.
Originally from Maryland, Wilkinson enlisted in the Continental Army where he met Washington, St. Clair, and more importantly Major General Horatio Gates. Gates, a former British officer, believed himself a better commander than Washington and lobbied Congress for the position. Wilkinson served as Gates’ aide for a time and became associated with the “Conway Cabal,” a sinister plot against Washington. Somehow he avoided the scandal and finished the war as a brigadier general.
After the war Wilkinson became involved in the tobacco trade in Kentucky, with commerce down the Mississippi river cut off. He made a trip downriver, bribed some Spanish officials, met some unscrupulous people and became “Agent 13” for Spain. Wilkinson further became involved in Kentucky politics, making many influential friends and became part of the “Spanish Conspiracy.”
His intrigue and dealings with Spanish officials also brought him some powerful enemies and he sought retribution through military accomplishments. Again, Wilkinson struck villages of mostly women and children, and stirred up a “hornets’ nest.” He burned the village of L’Anguille, the capital of Little Turtle’s Eel River Miami, who vowed a vengeance.
On August 7, 1791 St. Clair moved his untrained and undisciplined army of 2,300 men six miles north, bivouacking at Ludlow’s Station. He hoped that removing the army from the “distractions” of nearby Cincinnati might improve their health and training. It further reduced the number of deserters, many of whom signed on with passing boat crews for higher wages.
Exasperated by still inadequate troops, rations, other supplies and transportation, St. Clair left there on September 17th. Already more than five weeks behind schedule, the army slowly cut its trail north on half-rations. Furthermore, a growing dissension among the senior officers threatened the “good order and discipline” needed for waging a war.
About 200 “camp followers” also hindered the expedition’s progress, and also consumed the meager amount of supplies. This group consisted of mostly soldiers’ families, laundresses and sutlers, the forerunners of today’s Post Exchange (PX) system. It also consisted of an unknown number of “women of ill repute,” who served the soldiers’ “other needs.” These people delayed the march and required protection, which lengthened the column and thinly spread the soldiers.
A detachment of Chickasaw joined St. Clair’s column against their hated enemies, the Miami. Their benefit at providing reconnaissance for St. Clair, and defeating the Miami scouts might prove invaluable. However, St. Clair did not trust them and sent them on a distant scouting mission that ultimately served no purpose.
As St. Clair’s expedition moved north, the weather turned colder and the terrain proved more difficult. This army averaged about five miles of travel per day and the undisciplined men frequently left the column. Stragglers and deserters often became the victims of the Indian scouts who observed the march almost from its beginning. Building the necessary forts required an average of two weeks labor apiece, and the army built two, Forts Hamilton and Jefferson. Performing this intensive labor and the necessary marching severely taxed the men living on half-rations. As the officers bickered, the militia grew more mutinous and the “fighting spirit” of the army declined.
The long line of communication caused further delays as the army must frequently stop and await the arrival of supply convoys. The pack animals suffered from a lack of forage and the civilian packers turned them loose for grazing. Indian scouts stole them at random, which further exacerbated the transportation problem. Subsequently the troops left behind a considerable amount of tents and other baggage, reducing their shelter from the worsening weather.
On October 31st, St. Clair made a fateful mistake that provide a series of “what if” scenarios for military historians. About sixty militiamen deserted the camp, vowing the capture of an enroute supply convoy. With the army severely suffering from hunger and a lack of flour, St. Clair detached his best unit, the First US Regiment, in pursuit. The 300 regulars, under Major Hamtramck, marched away, not for capturing the deserters, but for securing the critical supply convoy. This departure left St. Clair with about 1,500 troops and kept his best troops from the ensuing battle.
At sunset on November 3, 1791 St. Clair made camp on the Wabash River, 97 miles north of Fort Washington. The campsite proved a poorly drained site on low, wet ground and all of it wooded. As the troops cleared the ground for a camp a light snow fell, making the misery worse. Camped in the heart of Indian territory, St. Clair did not take all the proper precautions for guarding against attack. The nervous sentries fired throughout the night at supposed Indians, preventing any rest for the troops.
An advanced guard of Kentucky militia under Captain Jacob Slough ambushed six or seven Indians, killing at least one. The men remained in place and fifteen minutes later a larger force of Indians approached looking for the hidden Americans. Unsuccessful, they continued toward the American camp, followed shortly by a much larger war party.
Shaken by the appearance of so many Indians, Slough and his men stealthily left their positions and reentered the American camp. Slough informed his commander, Lieutenant Colonel William Oldham, who in turn informed Brigadier General Richard Butler. Here the advance warning provided by Slough failed because of the personality conflicts between senior officers. Butler, the expedition’s second-in-command, did not inform St. Clair of the approach of these Indians. He strongly disliked St. Clair and still resented the callous treatment he received from the major general.
As reveille awoke the camp, St. Clair still knew nothing of the danger facing him as hundreds of Indians surrounded him. Butler made no attempt at informing his commander of the presence of the large number of Indians near the camp. Oldham, who also knew of the Indians, just received a verbal reprimand for not sending out morning patrols. Once finished with the “morning parade,” St. Clair dismissed the men for preparing their breakfast. He planned on remaining here until the First US Regiment returned with the much needed supplies. Besides, his command arrived too late and too tired the previous evening for constructing proper fortifications. After breakfast the men must begin work on the fortifications for defending against a possible attack, until the First US Regiment returned. Private Robert Bradshaw, a Kentucky militiaman, stood near a campfire with his comrades when he saw the Indians. He fired his rifle at them and the Indians immediately responded with a volley that killed most of Bradshaw’s comrades.
The Indians immediately launched their attack, firing from all directions on the men preparing their breakfasts. Caught by surprise, most of the militia fired one volley then fled the battlefield, throwing away their weapons. Indians immediately chased them down and tomahawked them killing hundreds of them.
Officers of the Second US Regiment tried forming their men into ranks, but the stampeding militiamen disrupted the formation. They also trampled many of the regular officers, leaving these men confused and largely leaderless. However, the regulars formed ranks and briefly stopped the Indian advance, and even counterattacked three times with bayonets. Unfortunately they proved too few in number and the Indian gunfire decimated their ranks. The artillery further hindered the Indian attack until the Indians killed or wounded most of the gunners.
A major “what if” develops here about the absent First US Regiment doubling the number of regulars on the field. Supposedly the presence of the expedition’s best troops strengthens the counterattack and prevents the ensuing massacre. While possible, I believe it just traps more American troops in the crossfire established by the Indians.
For all of his incompetence, St. Clair emerged from his tent and valiantly tried organizing his demoralized troops. Although suffering from gout he moved among the men, losing two horses from gunfire in the process. Unfortunately most of the soldiers proved beyond motivation by this time and many of them milled around the center of the camp. Some even huddled inside their tents, as if that saved them from the Indians. It did not, and the Indians took advantage of their passivity by killing them in massive numbers. Among the casualties, the mortally wounded General Butler, whose dereliction of duty largely caused this debacle. Colonel Oldham also fell with a mortal wound, perhaps as punishment for his negligence as well.
Fearing the annihilation of his command, St. Clair ordered a breakout attack toward the south end of his encircled camp. This attack almost failed until the attack turned east off the road and surprised the Indians. Most of the survivors ran through the woods with all semblance of military formation gone. Major John Clarke eventually formed a weak rearguard of the remnants of the Second US Regiment and delayed the Indians. The Indians gave up the pursuit after about four miles and sought easier prey among the abandoned wounded.
The Indians then returned and plundered the American camp in celebration of their victory. Here they mutilated the dead, tortured and killed the wounded, witnessed by Stephen Littel from a hiding place. While sources vary, most of them state that fewer than one thousand Indians conducted this surprise attack. The charismatic Little Turtle achieved a previously unknown level of organization and discipline among this loose confederation of warriors.
In a little over three hours the Americans lost almost 600 killed, almost half of the force engaged. Total casualties of soldiers, civilian contractors and female “camp followers” exceeded 900, with most of the wounded abandoned. This remained the worst disaster experienced by American forces throughout the long period of Indian wars, yet remains largely unknown. Proportionately, it remains the worst military disaster suffered by the US Army throughout its history.
The routed army moved much faster in retreat than it advanced, reaching Fort Washington on November 8th. Panic spread along with the news of the disaster, and the demoralized soldiers recounted tales of Indian brutality. The next day St. Clair wrote his report for Secretary of War Henry Knox, detailing the extent of the losses. Desertion occurred at a phenomenal rate and troops eagerly sought discharges when their enlistments expired. Many officers, disgusted with the conduct of the campaign, resigned their commissions, leaving the remaining troops mostly leaderless.
On the frontier the savagery of Indian warfare increased, with many frontier families returning east of the Appalachian Mountains. Allegiance with either England or Spain looked more favorable for many of the western settlers given the defeat of American arms. The self-serving James Wilkinson, now a US Army brigadier general, assumed command of the troops at Fort Washington. He did perform a valuable service at restoring the combat readiness of the troops remaining on the frontier Wilkinson kept the forts built by St. Clair open and built another midway between the existing two, Fort St. Clair. He also took an expedition and hastily buried most of the dead on St. Clair’s battlefield.
In Philadelphia this disaster caused the first congressional investigation in history and required the testimony of several survivors. The heated committee hearings proved more than incompetence by St. Clair, who demanded a court of inquiry. Although exonerated of all charges, the scandal forced St. Clair from the Army, resigning his commission as a major general. He once again became the governor of Northwest Territory, a position where he proved more competent.
Besides investigating St. Clair, the hearings revealed deeper problems throughout the entire War Department and the negligence of Congress regarding military matters. Much of the focus proved the inadequacy of short-term militia enlistments and their refusal of accepting military discipline. The Quartermaster Department received scathing reports for incompetence, corruption and the inability of meeting its obligations.
To be continued.