Thursday, November 24, 2011

Decisive Battles: Wabash 1791

Wabash (or "St. Clair's Defeat") 4 NOV 1791Forces Engaged: United States - the force that fell in on the morning of 3 NOV 1791 reported a total of 52 officers and 868 enlisted men out of an original establishment of roughly 2,000 recorded two months earlier.

How they got there, and in what condition, is a huge part of the story of the ensuing disaster.

The expedition from Fort Washington had originally consisted of two three-battalion regiments of U.S. regular infantry, the 1st and 2nd U.S. Infantry, and five more batallions in two "regiments" of federal troops formed from six-month conscripts, the 1st and 2nd "Levy Regiments". All of these units were severely understrength as a result of poor pay, poor service conditions, poor leadership, or a combination of all three.The assigned strength of the St. Clair expedition is reported to have been roughly 600 regulars, 800 "levies" or conscripts, and 600 Pennsylvania and Kentucky militiamen in late summer 1791.

So assuming that the regulars probably suffered marginally less from desertion and illness at the time of the attack on 4 NOV 1791 the regular troops led by MG St. Clair probably consisted of no more than about 300-350 all ranks.

Below this the organizations are hard to discern, and this is made more perplexing by the early U.S. custom of designating individual battalions by the commander's name rather than by a numerical position in the regiment ("1st Battalion, 1st U.S. Infantry"). At the time of the Battle of the Wabash we know that the 2nd U.S. Infantry had been reduced to a "detachment" or probably less than 50 troops. There appear to have been the remnants of the five named levy infantry battalions as well; Butler's, Clarke's (or possibly Darke's), Patterson's, Gaither's, and Beddington's.

How strong these "battalions" were I was unable to determine, but it seems likely that, since between the regulars and the conscripts the U.S. regulars numbered around 400-500 and the regulars were reduced to nearly cadre strength these levy "battalions" would have been about 80-100, the size of a modern U.S. infantry company.

At the time the U.S. Army had only a single field artillery unit, the U.S. Artillery. This organization was represented at the Wabash by two companies (what today we would call batteries): Ford’s, organized around four 6lb cannons, and Bradford’s, with four 3lb cannons. The total number of artillerymen probably numbered no more than 100, about the size of a modern U.S. FA battery.

Roughly 300 local militia were organized into seven companies (1 Pennsylvania, 6 Kentucky). About half of these were poorly-trained, musket-armed infantry culled from local unemployed, volunteer townsmen, and the occasional bought substitute. The better grade of militiamen were rifle-armed frontiersmen due to their familiarity with the forest, their weapons, and the frontier warfare. Among these are listed 60 riflemen noted in the PA company, and about 150 in the KY companies.

Roughly one company of U.S. dragoons were assigned to the force as cavalry. The dragoons of 1791 retained little of their original use as mounted infantry, being instead used largely as scouts, flank, and rear security. In the wooded terrain of southern Ohio they would have had little value as shock cavalry.

So roughly 600-700 musket- or rifle-armed heavy infantry, 100 artillerymen with 8 (4 light, 4 medium) cannon, and 100 cavalrymen; 900 to 1,000 or so all arms under MG Arthur St. Clair.Western (or "Miami") Confederacy - Roughly 1,000 to 1,400 light infantry organized (to the best of our knowledge) as follows:

Left Wing:
Ottawa (150) under (Egushwa)
Ojibwe (150) (Wapacomegat)
Pottawatomi (100) (Mad Sturgeon)

Center:
Miami (100) (Little Turtle)
Shawnee (300) (Blue Jacket, Black Hoof, Black Fish, CPT Johnny)
Delawares (300) (Buckongahelas, CPT Pipe, Big Cat)

Right Wing:
Wyandot (200) (Tashe, Roundhead)
Mingo - now the Seneca-Cayuga of the Iroguois Confederacy (75) (Girty)
Cherokee (25) (J. Ward)

The subunits of these tribal organizations would have varied between a single group for the smaller nations up to multiple 20-30 man bands grouped into 80-100 man elements under the overall leaders Weyapiersenwah (Blue Jacket) of the Shawnee, Buckongahelas of the Delaware, and Mihšihkinaahkwa (Little Turtle) of the Miami.

The Campaign: Among the causes of the American Revolution twenty years earlier "kill the redskins" tends to get less press than "taxation without representation" but was as if not more crucial and forms the backstory behind this month's battle.

Because many of the events that led to the breakup of Great Britain and her American colonies - the quartering of British troops, those un-represented taxes, the Intolerable Acts, the tea tax and the tea party of legend - related directly to the immense difference in opinion regarding the native inhabitants of the North American continent between the British colonists and their government officers back in Blighty.

As far as about 95% of the American settlers were concerned the natives, whatever tribe, sex, nature, or calling, were a form of two-legged vermin; dangerous, unpredictable, shiftless, nasty, and troublesome. What the Americans wanted from the natives was more of their land and less of them. By whatever means necessary.

Which is not to make our American ancestors some sort of Nazis. They wanted the native peoples gone and weren't particularly picky about the means. But revisionist history to the contrary there does not ever seem to have been any sort of American Endlösung for the natives.Typically what happened was that the white population expanded into native lands through a sort of personal Brownian motion beginning with a handful of frontier ruffians headed out for pelts and general cussedness. These guys, usually single, usually distasteful of settled life, were perfectly happy to take on native ways (and native women) when offered, or fight with them (since many of the native cultures saw fighting as tribal cultures often have, a mixture of entertainment for the young men, venture capitalism, and social ritual) when not.

But these frontier tales drew landless men, or desperate families, or just the excess of the settled lands to the east. And the immense tragedy of the white settlement was that, in general, all of these people shared the common belief that the natives didn't really "own" the land they lived on the way a white man would have.

So they simply took it.

And, not surprisingly, the natives tried to take it back.

The natives were "right", if you want to consider the right-and-wrong purely based on seniority. They had squatter's rights. But the entire business has gone long past right and wrong, and, truth to tell, it would be beyond hypocritical for me to sit here, the grandson of Scots and Englishmen, in Portland, Oregon and revile my predecessors for their greed. They won, for their and my good, and the natives lost, for their and their descendents' woes.

Vae victus, woe to the vanquished, the Roman historian Livy wrote, and who should have known better than the Romans who made so much woe in their day? Before our modern sensibilities it was just business as usual for two tough, strong, dominating peoples who wanted the same piece of real estate.

The British government, on the other hand, was pretty sick and tired of funding and fighting the wars their colonial proxies ginned up with the local aborigines. They wanted a source of natural resources and a market for British finished goods, and didn't need land west of the Appalachians for that. So when the Americans kept pissing off the natives His Majesty's Government got fairly shirty and decided to charge them for the expense.

The original Teabaggers didn't like those taxes any better than their latter-day Laz-e-boy Libertarians, and so the tea went in the harbor, the port of Boston was closed, the shot heard 'round the world was fired, and sixteen years later MG St. Clair was dispatched to subdue another group of those pesky redsticks, because the success of the Revolution meant that woe was coming to the Ohio Valley as sure as the sunrise.

Before the Curtain: Beaver Wars

So I don't end up making this another of the "noble savage" or "Lo, the poor Indian" stories, let's step back over a century to the original Northwest Wars, the savaging of the Ohio area by the Iroquois to remind ourselves that the Noble Red Man could be just as rapacious as the white invaders...

Because beginning in the early Seventeenth Century and continuing for some fifty to seventy years the Iroquois Confederacy began a series of conflicts that had the effect of battering the original residents of the "old northwest" - what are today the western parts of the state of Pennsylvania and the states of Ohio, Michigan, Illinois, and Indiana.These wars are not well known simply because white people were involved only as passersby. But so far as we can tell the Iroquois destroyed almost all the Algonquin culture in the western Great Lakes region - the Hurons and their allies - drove the Shawnee out of western Pennsylvania, and ramped all across the northwest, driving the Siouan tribes out to the Great Plains, and spending most of the mid-Seventeenth Century exchanging raids with the Anishininaabeg Confederacy of the Miami, Shawnee, Illinois, and Pottawatomi.

The effect was to drive out the tribes living in the Ohio region; raid and counter-raid made existence in what became the no-man's-land of the Old Northwest too precarious. The Iroquois remained in notional "control" of the area but only as a resource area (their "hunting ground") as differentiated from a dwelling place.As I said, we know very little about these wars, but they sound as desperate and bloody as any in North American history. In the end the Iroquois made the strategic error of siding with Britain against her former colony. When the United States emerged from its colonial nascence the Iroquois in turn were forced to give up their lands, die, or become just another American - their power as a nation was broken.

Act I, Tragedy and Farce: The Northwest Territories

But the Ohio territory was in flux; claimed by five U.S. states including Pennsylvania, Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, and Virginia, while the native claimants included many of the former Anishininaabeg Confederacy including the Miami, the Shawnee, the Delaware and the actual residents, mostly former Iroquoian tribes such as the Mingo.

While the British had "given" control of the Northwest to the United States it had no way of enforcing this on the native nations, and, in fact, British troops remained in forts along the Great Lakes, formally until the conclusion of the Jay Treaty negotiated in 1794, and informally until militarily destroyed during the War of 1812.

The new U.S. government, though, took the word for the deed. The U.S. government, then as now, was deep in debt and hoped to reduce this deficit by selling off this "free land", regardless of who the Shawnee thought really owned it.

Congress passed a "Land Ordinance of 1785" that encouraged the Wall Street of their day, the western land-speculators, to buy up vast tracts, survey them, and sell them to gullible rubes hardy settlers. Already white farmers from marginal lands in Connecticut were already flooding into the "Western Reserve", actually the southern shore of Lake Erie in what is today northeastern Ohio.In the "Northwest Ordinance" of 1787 the Confederation Congress showed that it had perfected the tragicomic song-and-dance routine that both whites and reds grew to know painfully well over the next century. On the one hand it claimed to be the Great White Father; the Ordinance gave Indians U.S. legal title to "enjoy whatever lands they lived on".

But the Ordinance also encouraged the white folks to settle north of the Ohio, and expedited land claims for those who wanted their forty acres and their mule. Not surprisingly these frontrunners often met their manifest destiny at the sharp end of a Shawnee or Mingo belt axe or bullet, and the Ohio story of raid and counter-raid, killing and revenge killing continued.

Act II: Westward, Ho!, or, Damn the Redskins, Full Speed Ahead! Oops!

Lots of individuals and groups enjoyed making trouble in the region.

To the north the Brits kept a hand in, selling guns and ammo to the tribes and encouraging them to take a whack at the encroaching Yankees. To the south land speculators and Indian-haters wanted to see more Indians being made into good Indians. The native tribes wanted to be left alone on their lands, the settlers wanted the land they felt that the redskins were wasting. The result was a bloody mess from Yorktown until the autumn of 1786 when one BG Logan led a U.S. expedition against the Shawnee towns along the Mad River. His force of U.S. infantry and Kentucky militia did the usual burning and killing, in this case largely of women, children and older men "home guard"...since the Shawnee soldiers were themselves out killing, raping, and burning in Kentucky!

The Logan raid just added to the furor. For the next five years something like 1,500 U.S. citizens of Kentucky or travelers on the Ohio were killed. American raids into native territories probably killed as many during that time.By 1790 the new administration of George Washington had had enough. Washington directed his Secretary of War, Knox to organize an offensive into central Ohio to what would be later called "pacify" the Miami and Shawnee (meaning, obviously, to kill as many as possible and to drive the rest north and west).

The War Department set about doing what it was named for.

BG Josiah Harmar was instructed to assemble about 1,500 troops near modern Fort Wayne, Indiana in the autumn of 1790. Harmar, who was by the accounts of his surviving officers either drunk, incompetent, or both, got his troops in place and then managed to commit this already-small force in penny packets against the Shawnee, who defeated the U.S. troops in a series of engagements during October, 1790, including the "Battle of Heller's Corner", "Hartshorn's Defeat" and the gruesomely named "Battle of the Pumpkin Fields" (supposedly because the steam from the scalped Yankee skulls made the natives think of freshly-cooked gourds scenting the autumn air).

Harmer lost about 130 troops and was forced back to his logistical base by the onset of winter.

Act III: The Madness of President George

As both former army commander and President of the young nation George Washington was honked off with Harmer and the failure of his command. He said "my mind... is prepared for the worst; that is, for expence without honor or profit." He demanded another offensive against the tribes the following summer. Congress raised a 2nd Regiment of regulars but then proceeded to display the sort of fiscal foresight and prudence that Congress has made legendary by cutting the troopers' pay and laying off troops already serving, reducing the establishment of the 1st U.S. Infantry to under 300. As a result the new unit managed to pull about half their authorized strength and the boys of the First were pretty pissed off.

And the First U.S. Infantry weren't all that happy to begin with - they'd been badly mishandled during Harmar's fiasco and the boys weren't exactly raring to go have another whack at the redsticks. The militia was the usual shambles as an organization (thought individual militiamen might have been good fighters) and the "levies" were a bloody mess. Discipline was slack, and between supply and management problems many of the troops who fell into the firing lines on 4 NOV had never before fired a round, live or blank.

St. Clair's force assembled in the summer of 1791 at Fort Washington near what is now Cincinnati, Ohio.Everyone, from the commander to the most raggedy private, seems to have hated the whole business. Supplies were slow in arriving and bad when they arrived. Transport - horses and mules - was in bad shape, the animals in poor health and their fodder lean or nonexistent.

Act IV: Anabasis, or, The Journey Up.

We do not have an extant copy of St. Clair's orders. From what I can tell his objective was purely geographical; to construct a string of fortifications northwards from Fort Washington to the heart of the Miami country. The defeat of the Confederacy forces seems to have been considered an afterthought, regardless of the good showing they had made against Harmar's force the previous year.

St. Clair does seem to have had some notion of the hazards of his movement in enemy country; we have a contemporary document prepared by the Army's Adjutant General entitled "Order of Battle, march and encampment of the Army of the United States under Major General Arthur St. Clair during the campaign of 1791" showing that the commander understood the need to move and encamp carefully in enemy territory.But the logistical and disciplinary problems were so great that the force was unable to move until September. Benjamin Lossing, writing in 1869, gives us a delightfully Victorian word-picture of the expedition.

After noting that the force departed Fort Washington on 5-6 SEP 1791 Lossing says that they marched north twenty miles to the modern town of Hamilton where they constructed a fort named for the place. From there the force marched a further forty-two miles to a site in the present Darke County, Ohio, where they built a second fortification they called Fort Jefferson.

Then Lossing (1869) continues:
"When they moved from there, on the 24th of October, they began to encounter the subtle foe in small parties. It was evident that dusky scouts were hanging upon their flanks, and they became hourly more cautious and vigilant. The nights were frosty, but serene. The days were genial and brilliant. The summer warmth had been diffused over the whole of September; and now the forests were arrayed in all the gorgeous beauty of autumnal splendors peculiar to them.
At length, when dark clouds were overhead, and falling leaves were thick in their path, the invading army halted and encamped upon the borders of an unknown stream, which proved to be a chief tributary of the Upper Wabash. They were ninety-seven miles from Fort Washington, deep in the wilderness. A light fall of snow lay upon the ground – so light that it appeared like hoar-frost. Over a piece of rising ground, timbered with oak, ash, and hickory, the encampment was spread, with a fordable stream, forty feet in width, in front. The army lay in two lines, seventy yards apart, with four pieces of cannon in the centre of each. Across the stream, and beyond a rich bottom land three hundred yards in width, was an elevated plain, covered with an open forest of stately trees. There the militia – three hundred and fifty independent, half-insubordinate men, under Lieutenant Colonel Oldham, of Kentucky – were encamped.

Eight weary miles through the woods the soldiers had marched that day, and when the camp was arranged the sun was low in the cloudless sky of the west. The tired soldiers early sought repose, without suspicion of danger near. All around them were evidences of old and recent Indian camps, and a few lurking savages had been seen by vigilant eyes; but no one knew whether Little Turtle and his confederates, with their followers, were near or far away."
They were not far away. The battle would occur the next morning.

Sources: As always when we deal with engagements between Western forces and native groups the problem is that the sources are hopelessly one-sided.

On the one side we have all the daily business records of an early industrial Army and a modern government; War Department papers such as the above, logistical returns, daily reports, casualty lists, rosters, muster lists, as well as the original summations such as the results of inquiries or the reports of courts-martial and committee meetings. One good place to start is here, the War Department papers for 1791, if for no other reason than to marvel that any military business got done before the invention of the typewriter. Much of the handwriting is difficult to read, to say the least.

The investigation of the disaster initiated by the House of Representatives (more of which later) is summarized in "Causes of the Failure of the Expedition against the Indians in 1791, under the command of Major General St. Clair," contained in the American State Papers, Class V, Military Affairs, Vol. I, pp. 36-39, Document No.5.St. Clair's account of the battle: "A Narrative of the Manner in which the Campaign against the indians, in the Year One Thousand Seven Hundred and Ninety-one, was Conducted, under the Command of Major General Arthur St. Clair" was published in Philadelphia in 1812. This account is, obviously, biased in the general's favor.

Of the numerous volumes published since the era one of the most accessible and useful is the recent Osprey campaign issue "Wabash 1791" by John Winkler

On the other we have, if extant, usually oral histories at best, or sometimes written accounts told to third parties, often ling after the events of the day. Among the secondary sources that discuss the native troops, their leaders, and the issues they fought for are Harold Allison's "The Tragic Saga of the Indiana Indians" (1986), Lewis's "The Life and Times of Little Turtle: First Sagamore of the Wabash" (1987) and John Sugden's "Blue Jacket: Warrior of the Shawnees"

And perhaps the most memorable - and certainly the most haunting - is the ballad "St. Clair's Defeat"
that was written some time in the 19th Century within the lifetimes of the survivors.

Ignore the video attached - some idiot didn't know the difference between the French and Indian War (the video is from a film version of the British assault on Fort Ticonderoga) and the Battle of the Wabash, - but you might listen to the doleful little tune while you read the sorry tale that follows.

The Engagement: Lossing describes the morning of 4 NOV:
"The morning of the 4th dawned brilliantly. "Moderate northwest wind, serene atmosphere, and unclouded sky." All night long the sentinels had been firing upon prowling Indians, and the men, by order of the commanding general, had slept upon their arms."
Despite the clear warnings that the enemy both knew his force's location and was making a reconnaissance of its position, St. Clair had already failed to make some elementary precautions.

First he had divided his force or, to be precise since he had little effective control of his militia element at this point, allowed it to be divided. Neither the regular elements nor the militia could effectively support the other.
(here's the legend for the map above, keyed to the letters next to the units):
a Butler’s battalion;
b b artillery;
c Clarke’s battalion;
d Patterson’s battalion;
e Faulkner’s rifle company;
f f cavalry;
g detachment of U. S. Second Regiment;
h Gaither’s battalion;
j Beddinger’s battalion;
b n p flank guards;
o 2 pickets;
s swamp;
m camp guard.

The "numerous crosses represent the enemy"

z z, troops retreating; the crooked stream, a tributary of the Wabash.
He also either failed, or was unable, to insist on any sort of field fortifications. Even a low log breastwork or some sort of brush abatis might have helped his force survive the coming encounter.

And that was not long in coming.

Like many tribal or preindustrial troops, the Confederacy had no more than a handful of simple tactics. These were no less effective for their simplicity; ambush, hasty, and deliberate attack still work just like they worked in Pharoah's day because they're fundamentally sound. Having made a thorough recon of the U.S. position the central element of Miamis, Shawnees, and Delawares slammed into the worse-organized militia camp.Let's go to Lossing again:
"The troops had been early mustered and dismissed from parade. They were preparing for breakfast, when, half an hour before sunrise, a body of Indians, with yells that wakened horrid echoes miles away through the forest, fell suddenly upon the militia. The assailed camp was immediately broken up, and the frightened soldiers, most of whom had never been in battle, rushed wildly across the bottom and the creek into the lines of the regulars, producing alarm and confusion there. The Indians closely followed, and fell upon the regulars."
This is classic irregular warfare; slow, careful IPB (intelligence preparation of the battlefield) followed by sudden, violent close action - we saw this at the Little Bighorn almost 100 years later.

And, again as we've seen since then, the native light infantry continued forward, "hugging the belt", driving the broken militia into the unshaken enemy regulars, successfully masking the potentially effective organized fire and heavy weapons of those regulars.

Because one very real danger to the Confederacy were the cannon of the U.S. Artillery. This is where one of the Confederacy leaders - said to be Mihšihkinaahkwa - had done his tactical planning; he had told off designated marksmen to target the gunners. The U.S. redlegs found out that snowy day what other smooth-bore artillerists were to learn painfully over the next fifty years - that a smoothbore cannon without a body of formed troops to hit was fearsomely vulnerable to concealed riflemen whose range was only slightly less than their own.

Some time early in the morning so many of the gun crews had been killed or wounded that the remaining gunners spiked their cannons - drove actual nails into the touchholes to disable them - rather than face the ultimate artillery disgrace of losing a mission-capable cannon.

The U.S. regulars were still, at bottom, good troops. They broke their musket stacks and formed into volley firing lines. Their disciplined fires drove the initial Confederacy assault back, and continued to hold their ground even as the attacking force completely enveloped them. Forming a 360-degree perimeter the U.S. forces continued to fight for the next several hours.The tactical errors of St. Clair and his officers continued to hammer them, however. For some reason the regular officers were convinced that the bayonet was their combat weapon of decision and persisted in making repeated bayonet charges out of their perimeter. The Confederacy troops fell back before these rushes, which inevitably ran out of energy and cohesion among the snowy woods and were then surrounded and cut apart. COL Darke supposedly was among the most hardheaded of these bayonet-fighters and payed the price; his son Joseph died somewhere out in the woods of Ohio.

By about 9:00 or 10:00 in the morning the untenable position of the St. Clair force was obvious even to its commander. He ordered a breakout toward Fort Jefferson and abandoned his artillery, supplies and, worst of all, his wounded - knowing that the native tribes had no use for wounded enemies, and neither the capability nor the inclination to treat them.

This time the breakout succeeded. The Confederacy troops pursued for several miles before losing interest and returning to the more entertaining looting and torturing of the prisoners.

Only 24 officers and troopers reached Fort Jefferson unwounded, and less than a total of 100 men reached safety.The execution fires burned for days afterward.

St. Clair admitted the disaster; "It was, in fact, a flight" he wrote to Henry Knox. His President was apoplectic. He ranted to his private secretary
"Here, yes, HERE, on this very spot, I took leave of him. I wished him success and honor. You have your instructions, I said, from the Secretary of War. I had a strict eye to them, and will add but one word – beware of a surprise! I repeat it – 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, butchered, tomahawked, by a surprise – the very thing I guarded him against!! O God, O God, he is worse than a murderer! How can he answer it to his country? The blood of the slain is upon him – the curse of widows and orphans – the curse of Heaven!"
It is difficult to comprehend the size of the butchery relative to the size of the country and the Army - the dead of Wabash constituted one-quarter of the entire U.S. Army of 1791. It was as if the Afghan muj managed to kill 10,000 GIs in a single engagement. St. Clair's defeat stunned the Army and the nation.

The Outcome: Decisive Western Confederacy tactical victory

The Impact: As always with native American victories, the best the natives could hope for was a short reprieve. The sheer numbers of the white invaders, their better organization, their more powerful industrial economy (which freed them from the fragility of a subsistence economy) meant that no American defeat would ever be really decisive. Within three years "Mad" Anthony Wayne would bring the Confederacy to its knees at the Battle of Fallen Timbers.

Guns, germs, and steel - and printing, paved roads, Robert's Rules of Order, and the steam engine - doomed the Western Confederacy. Within a generation the scattered, desperate remnants of the proud nations that sent their fighting men to defeat the white army at the Wabash were broken, scattered fugitives being forced far from their homes and into a penurious, disinherited future.That did no good for St. Clair's wretched troops, though. From the Wiki entry:
"The American casualty rate, among the soldiers, was 97.4 percent, including 632 of 920 killed (69%) and 264 wounded. Nearly all of the 200 camp followers were slaughtered, for a total of 832 Americans killed."
The 2nd U.S. Infantry was destroyed and had to be completely reconstituted. Something was clearly wrong with the Army of 1791.

And so the disaster resulted in the changes that produced, in time, the U.S. Army of today. In 1792 the Congress raised new units, took control of the militia with the Militia Acts that required the state rabble to meet federal troop standards, and made them federal troops upon the command of the President. One of the new troop units, the "Legion of the United States" was critical in the destruction of the fighting power of the Confederacy at Fallen Timbers. And the new forces were also instrumental in establishing federal power by their employment during the Whiskey Rebellion of 1794.

Perhaps the most significant consequence of the battle - and the least remarked at the time - was in the establishment of the now-pernicious practice of "executive privilege".

St. Clair reported to his superiors in Philadelphia in JAN 1792. He refused to take the blame for the mess, blaming his militia commanders, the quartermaster general as well as the War Department. The President through SEC Knox refused him a court-martial and forced him into retirement.

The House of Representatives had other ideas. It began the very first Congressional investigation in U.S. history and demanded documents from the War Department. SEC Knox believed that this transgressed the "separation of powers" doctrine and went to Washington, suggesting that the administration resist this demand. Washington, in turn, pulled his department heads (Knox, Jefferson (State), Hamilton (Treasury), and Attorney General Randolph) to discuss this question - the first recorded meeting of what would become the Cabinet.

In the end Congress got their papers...but the result of this and several following meetings was that Washington and his cabinet concluded that, at least in theory, the both on the grounds of separation of powers as well as "the public good/official secrets" that refusing to divulge any papers or materials was constitutionally legal, a precedent that remains troubling to this day.

Touchline Tattles: Perhaps the most dismal little tale that hangs from the deadly morning along the Wabash is the tale of the last days of Arthur St. Clair.

Keep in mind that this man had stood on the heights of power. He had been general and a hero of the Revolution. He was president of the Congress of the United States Assembled, making the de-facto ruler of the Articles United States, and as such he was only a little less crucial to the eventual Constitutional U.S. than Washington himself. He helped force through the passage of that document, and then even after his defeat on the Wabash remained the governor of the Northwest Territories. In that post he spent a pantsload of money out of his own pocket, sure that his new government would reimburse him.

It didn't.

Then he came down on the wrong side of Ohio statehood.

The the new President, Jefferson, sacked him.

He returned to his home outside Pittsburg, a debtor, and lost his home and his possessions. He moved to a hillside shack outside the Ligonier Valley, overlooking what is now Latrobe, opened a tavern and, the former president of his country, bankrupt and ignored, served rum and bread to strangers traveling the Forbes Road. Some time in the teens he was described in a letter: "I saw a relic of the revolution today serving ale at a tavern, it was Arthur St. Clair."

He died in the late summer of 1818, supposedly after a fall from a wagon; one can only imagine how the old campaigner got to be in a state that would enable him to fall from a wagon and be killed.

He was buried in a small park in Greensburg, Pennsylvania by the charity of his fellow Masons. His original monument was not well-made and crumbled in the early Twentieth Century; the local historical society replaced it with a stone that is carved to read: "The earthly remains of Arthur St. Clair are deposited beneath this humble monument which is erected to supply the place of a nobler one due from his country."

No such stone was ever placed there.Today whatever remains of the patriot, revolutionary, political leader, and commander that was so roughly mishandled on that snowy November morning, is forgotten in a weedy corner of rural Pennsylvania, his only honor guard the crumpled cans that litter his grave like the bodies of his soldiers scattered over the bloody snow beside the Wabash two hundred and twenty years ago.

16 comments:

Kevin said...

Very interesting, I'll have to take some time to digest, and will have to look at your blog more generally.

Just a minor, tangent, squibble, "Vae victus, woe to the vanquished", was not said by the Romans, but by the gauls (or rather, it's attributed to Brennus, a gaul chieftain :
http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Brennus_(4th_century_BC) , who supposedly said that, TO the romans.

Kevin said...

Great read.

Ael said...

Superb work, as usual Chief.

I've often wondered about the differences in treating the natives between the settlement of western Canada and western USA.

While we did have two rebellions by the Métis, Canada does seem to have spent rather less on bullets and rather more on empty promises in their successful quest to implant a white society in western North America.

Maybe the example south of the border encouraged the natives to come to an agreement. Also, perhaps the extinction of the bison was also a huge factor.

Finally, there was some control of the whisky traders by the mounted police, so maybe the natives did not see the government as an unmitigated force for evil.

I don't know. Certainly, the end effect seems to be very similar: many whites living on the good land, aboriginals sequestered onto reserves, out of sight and out of mind.

FDChief said...

Kevin: Well, if you want to get REALLY technical, it was the Roman historian Livy who said it, supposedly quoting the Gaulish chieftan Brennus. I've always been suspicious, though, of those Roman-reported Gaulish or Caledonian chieftans who managed to be so epigrammatic in Latin (e.g. Tacitus's Caledonian chieftain Calgacus). I've always had a sneaking suspicion that the actual Gaul or Briton said something like "Those fuckin' Romans, whatcha gonna do, eh?" and the Roman writers, with a better sense of history, wrote that they SHOULD have said instead of what they did.

FDChief said...

Ael: Someone, I think it may have been Rob Farley over at "Lawyers, Guns & Money" wrote a post to the effect of "What Happens If The American Revolution Fails?"

His conclusion?

We're Canada. That sucks for Washington, Jefferson, Adams and the rest of the Liberty Boys of '76 - most of them are hung for treason.

But for the average North American - including the native tribes - the outcome is certainly no worse and probably considerably better. For one thing, slavery is abolished by fiat in 1833 instead of through a massively destructive civil war. Resulting conditions for African-Canadians may not be great, but they're better than 100 years of Jim Crow.

And, as you point out, the native tribes don't do well; smallpox, land-hunger, and alcohol see to that. But they do better. In fact, given a couple of decades to build up their industrial and political base some of the more powerful and coherent native polities like the Cherokee might even have managed some sort of military stalemate with a less-agressive British colonial administration in the Thirteen Colonies; enough to eventually be admitted as a native-dominated province in their own right.

Turtledove riffed on this in his alternative-future novel "The Two Georges", where the Cherokee Nation is a separate entity within a Commonwealth North America.

Interesting thought.

But like the post I did on the "Sorrowful Night", Wabash just drives home the reality that faced the native residents; the best they could do just wasn't = and would never be - good enough. The illegal immigrants just had all the advantages. It was the Germans versus the Soviets in 1944; the massive advantages of the one side ensured that the impact of their defeats were minimized and all of their victories had the worst possible effect.

Doomed. Poor bastards.

Leon said...

Just a comment on Livy, all historians of that time would pen speeches that they thought the speaker would have said or summed up the situation nicely. So in all likelihood, vae victus was never actually spoken by any gallic chieftain but it does sum up that moment nicely. Sounds alot nobler and dignified than "sucks to be you" and "you mad bro?"

Another good article chief. Why haven't you put these stories together in a book?

FDChief said...

Leon: Point well taken. Roman historians still maintained the tradition the Greeks began and most Western historians until after the Industrial Revolution adhered to; that the point of "history" wasn't just to tell stories about past people but to make a point with the stories. So in a sense all their historical people were characters in a play about the point they wanted to make. The actual factual record was...let's call it "fungible".

Y'know, I thought about collecting this stuff in a little pamphlet. But the reality is that lots of other people have done each of these battles better and in more depth. But I often have to spend ten or fifteen hours digging through various printed and on-line sources to distill the facts down to a Clif's Notes version that still gives enough detail to be interesting and directs the reader to the other sources.

So all in all I think they serve the best purpose where they are; a sort of Reader's Digest version of the historical battles and skirmishes I'm interested in, and that can direct the reader to more depth if he or she wishes...

rangeragainstwar said...

Chief,
I'm from SW Pa and moved to Ohio at age 10. All the names and places are familiar to me. I went to college in western Ohio, bgsu, on/near the Grand and Maumee rivers. I know all the ground that is in this epic. This makes it more interesting. The Indian names are still commonplace.
CMTs- GW was a large land speculator in Ohio. I think he started this interest when he was with Braddock.
St. Clair has a street named for him in EVERY n. Ohio city.
St. Clair like Custer had no active patrols providing intel on the Indians, but hey, Lee did the same at Gettysburg.
Nice analysis.
jim

mike said...

Great post Chief. Both I and my grandmother's grandmother love it when the good guys won.

And I agree with Leon, you should publish. Or at least put all of the battles you have written up onto a separate website. And get a sponsor to cover the cost of hosting on a separate server, maybe Amazon or Powell’s or perhaps even Osprey.

Christopher Ward in his history of the Revolution calls St. Clair’s service in that war competent to a degree, but in no way did he show the capacity, the military ability, that would have justified his appointment as Major General. But Pennsylvania politics prevailed. Ward also mentions that it was St. Clair who ordered the abandonment of Fort Ticonderoga during Burgoyne’s attempt to split the colonies in half, although it was General Schuyler who took the heat from Congress for that abandonment. I think that Washington never forgave St. Clair for that, but the victory at Saratoga kind of swept it under the rug. But who knows, maybe it was not worth defending.

One of the men who did not make the breakout with St Clair was Robert Kirkwood. According to Light-Horse Harry Lee’s memoirs (published in 1812): “The State of Delaware furnished one regiment only; and certainly no regiment in the army surpassed it in soldiership. The remnant of that corps, less than two companies, from the Battle of Camden, was commanded by Captain Kirkwood, who passed the war with high reputation; and yet as the line of Delaware consisted of but one regiment, and that regiment was reduced to a captain’s command, Kirkwood could never be promoted in regular routine, –a very glaring defect in the organization of the Army, as it gave advantages to parts of the same army denied to other portions of it. The sequel is singularly hard. Kirkwood retired, upon peace, a captain; and when the army under St. Clair was raised to defend the West from the Indian enemy, this veteran resumed his sword as the eldest captain of the oldest regiment. [P] In the decisive defeat of the 4th November, the gallant Kirkwood fell, bravely sustaining his point of the action. It was the thirty-third time he had risked his life for his country; and he died as he had lived, the brave, meritorious, unrewarded, Kirkwood.”

Am I misreading the presidential reference in this sentence in your fourth paragraph from the bottom re St. Clair? –“He moved to a hillside shack outside the Ligonier Valley, overlooking what is now Latrobe, opened a tavern and, the former president of his country, bankrupt and ignored, served rum and bread to strangers traveling the Forbes Road.”

FDChief said...

Mike: My understanding is that Ft. Ti was kind of a mess when St. Clair took over, and that he was correct in his estimation of the place as indefensible at the time. But certainly other officers disagreed and there is enough evidence to the contrary to at least raise some questions about it.

And I think the Congressional came to the right conclusion. His campaign was doomed from the start by the combination of logistical mismanagement and the dire quality of his troop units. If you can fault the man for anything beyond the immediate tactical failings of 4 NOV it was that a commander of the Napoleon variety would have managed to at least discipline his troops; the appalling mess that his militia had become was a huge factor in the disaster. But the logistical and personnel problems were not of his own making, and as such everyone up to SEC Knox gets to bite off a piece of that disaster.

And as President of the Articles Congress St. Clair was as close as that system came to a "president" as we understand it. It wasn't the same, but it was a position of unequaled power in the Articles nation, and had he thrown his weight behind resistance to the new Constitution he could have done a great deal to oppose it. I've read that his influence in shaping the post-Articles U.S. in the 1780's was close to that of Washington himself.

A remarkable man but deeply gifted with unluck; one of history's great failure stories.

mike said...

Chief -

I had thought that the President of those early Congresses was pure ceremonial. But maybe the position morphed into something more powerful after the war.

It could be that both Christopher Ward and your sources on St. Clair are both wrong. Perhaps it was not that St. Clair was an unlucky general. Perhaps it was more that Little Turtle, Blue Jacket, and Buckongahelas were just better generals. As you yourself say they used fundamentally sound tactics and did a superb reconnaissance of St. Clair’s movement and his camp. They applied a concentration of force. They exploited prevailing weather conditions. They also cut his lines of communications. They successfully masked their own intentions and movements. They had an intelligence network that knew of St. Clair’s intentions back in the summer of 91, months before he marched out of Fort Washington. They had no logistics problems of their own. And they solved their personnel problems by putting together a coalition of at least nine different tribes that were sometimes at each other’s throats.

Too bad that the coalition did not unite all of the 500 nations.

FDChief said...

mike: Oh, no question - the Confederacy leaders that morning flat-out outgeneralled and whipped the U.S. Army's ass. When I referred to St. Clair as "unlucky" I was really thinking of his life in general. The man just had a gift for being in the wrong place at the wrong time and doing the wrong things.

The whole "presidency" deal is like that. For all that he was one of the most influential guys in the Articles Congress the entire Articles set-up made it almost impossible for anyone to get anything done. So it was like being the world's tallest midget; a distinction, yes, but a fairly useless one...

Y'know, the more I learn about the natives-vs-Americans deal the more I have to feel like the natives had and have a real reason to feel hard done by. They really did damn well given the handicaps they started with. The bottom line is that they had to beat 100-1 odds and many of them, like the Cherokee and these Confederacy guys, the Seminole, the Apache...they made it to something like 75-1. But they just couldn't overcome those huge advantages the gringos had.

But the fact that they did as well as they did is a good reminder that this wasn't some sort of Rape of the Sabines. The native tribes were tough, smart, aggressive, and just as convinced of their own superiority as the white-eyes. If geography had given them the resources and the immunities I'll bet we'd be living in Glasgow or Rennes but speaking Cherokee...

mike said...

Not as unlucky as Captain Robert Kirkwood.

FDChief said...

mike: Or the other 800 poor nameless bastards left lying in the Ohio woods.

Good point.

Leon said...

Chief, have you seen this site: http://www.badassoftheweek.com/

This guy made wrote a couple of books on "bad-asses" throughout history. He's succeeding due to his witty writing style.

What I'm getting at is it's not necessarily the content (yes, this can be both good and bad) but also how it's presented. What you do is look at forgotten battles throughout history and give us clear vision stripped of hyperbole, flag-waving and myth. There's got to be a market for this book.

David RH said...

wow, great write up
loved the story.

this is a time in US history that is completely lost to the masses.

these men are every part of our heritage and should be honored just like we honor WWII vets today on every veterans day.