St. Clair’s defeat showed how to lose a battle


GREENVILLE — Before Major-General Arthur St. Clair started his campaign, Josiah Harmar predicted to Captain Denny that this army will be defeated in a fight against the well-trained Indians. Denny said maybe I should not go, but Harmar said, “You must go. They will need men like you to help, some will escape, and you may be in that number.”

To begin with, St. Clair was authorized 3,000 U.S. soldiers for his campaign against the Indians. In addition, he expected at least 800 experienced Kentucky Militia to also assist his army. There were recruitment problems. St. Clair started his campaign with 2,000 officers and infantry. He had confidence in his officers, but over half of the recruits had no experience or training. Some were not even fit to walk distances in the wilderness. Many recruits had never loaded and fired a musket, and ammunition was too scarce to allow practice shooting. Only about 300 Kentucky Militia showed up to join St. Clair’s army, and many of them had no working weapons or experience.

There were 656 pack horses delivered to move supplies. The horse master, W. Dunn, was inexperienced and scattered forage on the ground rather than feeding them in troughs. The horses kicked each other and fought, which caused many injuries. Also, the Cavalry horses were turned loose in the woods without hobbles or bells. Seventy came up missing. Disgusted, St. Clair said that Dunn must never have been in a woods before. “He should carry a bell himself so he can find his way out of the woods.” The pack saddles were too large for horses, they quipped they would fit elephants.

Supplies were a problem from the start. They received cannons, but the cannon balls were the wrong size. The army had to halt and wait on flour and meat. By the time they got to where Fort Jefferson would be built, the army was put on half rations. The tents were small and the fabric on the ends leaked like sieves. It rained several days in a row and the men could not keep dry. It was cold, it hailed and snowed. The uniforms were thin. Much of the powder had gotten wet and would not fire properly.

When the army started to build Ft. Jefferson, they realized the few axes they had were soft and would bend. They had one saw and too few adzes.

On top of that St. Clair was sick and at times had to be lifted on his horse or carried on a litter. It wasn’t long until morale broke down. The officers quibbled and some did not follow orders.

Men began deserting. At Fort Jefferson two deserters were caught and hung in front of the whole army as an example to encourage discipline. Men continued to desert anyway.

Five days before the battle on the Wabash, 60 Kentucky Militia deserted. St. Clair sent the First Regulars under Major John Hamtramck to pursue the deserters and protect the supplies which were on the way. This reduced St. Clair’s fighting army to approximately 1,700 men, less than half his original goal.

Early in the campaign, St. Clair had admonished second in command Major General Richard Butler for not carrying out an order to march in two lines. It seems Butler held a grudge and did not want to even to speak to St. Clair after that. It was a costly error in judgement. The night of 3 November 1791 scouts came into camp and reported to Butler there were large numbers of Indians surrounding the camp. Should we tell General St. Clair? Butler said he would take care of it. He did not report to St. Clair and in the morning the attack began while St. Clair was sleeping. Within two hours, Butler was killed, and St. Clair’s army was decimated and in full retreat, leaving cannons, weapons, and all equipment behind. It had taken the army two weeks to travel from Ft. Jefferson to the battlegrounds at the Wabash. The scattered remains of the army returned in 10 hours.

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