St. Clair Defeat

February 13th, 2012

Following the disastrous Harmar expedition against the Western Indians  in the fall of 1790, which resulted in the loss of 180 men (including 73 federal troops),  planning began for another expedition in 1791.  Governor Arthur St. Clair was appointed General in Chief, Richard Butler commanded the levies, Samuel Hodgdon became the Quarter Master General and General Charles Scott commanded the Kentucky militia.  The public clamored for a swift and effective response against the Indians of the Ohio wilderness.   This in turn pressured Hodgdon to take up a frantic pace in administering the procurement of supplies.  The problems of supply were many, but the major ones were  related to coordination with contractors, transportation of supplies through the rugged wilderness,  and the generally low quality of the arms and supplies themselves.   Delays throughout the spring and summer of 1791 taxed the patience of St. Clair, who became concerned about the onset of winter and the expiration of six month long militia enlistments.    So in August, he began to move his incomplete force toward Fort Washington (modern day Cincinnati).  Eventually  General Butler and his levies joined up with St. Clair, but movement remained extremely sluggish as the army stopped to build forts and  struggled under the weight of excessive baggage and a seemingly limitless  trail of wives, washerwomen and camp followers.  Morale too suffered because of supply problems.  Desertion was so rampant that St. Clair resorted to public execution of deserters.

This was all before any shots were fired in anger.  One of St. Clair’s officers sounded this ominous note:  “I pray God that should the General proceed, the Enemy may not be disposed to give us battle-our force…are the worst and most dissatisfied Troops I have ever served with.”   A week later, St. Clair established his force on either side of the Wabash River.  On 4 November, both Generals St. Clair and Butler were sick, so the adjutant general Colonel Winthrop Sargent was nominally in charge during  reveille.  After Sargent had finished inspecting the militia,  the Indians launched a surprise attack.  The battle only lasted three hours,  but the results were devastating.  Of the 920 American soldiers, 632 were killed and 264 wounded (a casualty rate of 97%).  General Butler’s heart was cut out and General St. Clair had eight bullet holes in his uniform.  St. Clair’s Defeat remains the single worst defeat suffered by the U.S. Army in its history.  Here in the Papers of the War Department collection is a sketch  drawn by Winthrop Sargent showing the disposition of forces when the Indians attacked.  Note the positioning of forces on both sides of the river.