How Did St. Clair’s Defeat Happen?
On November 4, 1791, on the banks of the Wabash River in what is now western Ohio, the United States Army suffered its worst defeat of the entire U.S.-Indian Wars. The battle itself remains little known among most Americans and has been researched and written about very little in academia. Although three times more Americans lost their lives in this battle than at Little Bighorn, it is usually referred to as “St. Clair’s Defeat” instead of being named for the nearest town or geographical marker.
Some academics attribute the lack of interest in the battle to the American commander, General Arthur St. Clair, who as governor of the Northwest Territory was more of a politician than a general. Others point to the apparent anonymity of the Indian leaders – modern scholars believe they know what chiefs led the warriors in battle, but are not sure about their roles. Whatever the reasons for the lack of interest in the battle, all scholars agree that it played a pivotal role in the Northwest Indian War (1785-1795), setting the stage for future American-Indian conflicts.
As significant as St. Clair’s Defeat may have been in the broader geopolitical situation between the Northwest Indian tribes, the infant United States, and Great Britain, the immediate question that many ask is: how was the United States Army beaten so soundly by an Indian army? The answer is, of course, a bit complex and involves an examination of both armies. For the Americans, their leadership was sub-par, which was especially pronounced in poor planning, intelligence, and logistics. On the other hand, the Indians were a unified and committed army who were led by able and seasoned leaders.
The Western Indian Confederacy
Many of the eastern Indian tribes supported the British during the American Revolution because they were told the British would stop or severely limit white migration and settlement west of the Appalachian Mountains and south of the Great Lakes. Whether that would have actually happened is irrelevant because the Americans won and the British allied tribes were forced to move farther west. The Miami, Shawnee, and Delaware tribes ended up in what are now the states of Ohio and Indiana, but was in the late eighteenth century the Northwest Territory.
The tribes formed several semi-permanent communities, one of which was comprised of seven villages at the headwaters of the Maumee River near what is today the city of Fort Wayne, Indiana. Farther up the Maumee River, where it meets the Auglaize River near the modern city of Defiance, Ohio, there was another Indian community known as “The Glaize.” The Glaize was established in 1789, becoming a home and meeting place for the different western tribes. The Glaize was also home to British and French trading posts and became the headquarters of the Western Indian Confederacy.  The Americans viewed this strong Indian presence in the Northwest Territory as an impediment to their long-term goals. With that said, many members of President Washington’s administration believed the tribes could be dealt with peacefully, as long as the British were not in the picture.
Continued British Influence
Under the Treaty of Paris of 1783, which recognized American independence, the British were to cede the land west of the Appalachians to the Mississippi River and south of the Great Lakes to the United States. The British were also to close their forts within that area and end their support with the Indian tribes. The British neglected to close their forts in the Northwest Territory and continued to trade with the Indians at the Glaize and other locations. When the Western Indian Confederacy formed in 1786, the British helped armed the new army and offered them logistical support. The Shawnee chief, Blue Jacket, in particular, was known to work and trade with the British, but most of the Western Indian Confederacy tribal leaders maintained working relations with the British.  President Washington was not happy with the British-Indian situation in the Northwest, but in the late eighteenth century it would be the Indians who suffered the brunt of American anger.
The U.S. Goes to War against the Western Indian Confederacy
As the Northwest Indian War raged, Secretary of War Henry Knox ordered the construction of Fort Washington in 1789 on the banks of the Ohio River in the location of what is today Cincinnati. Fort Washington was to be the first in a series of forts throughout the Northwest Territory extending to the headwaters of the Maumee River,  which would eventually either lead to the total defeat of the Western Confederacy or its banishment west of the Mississippi.
The military began mustering a large force of both regular army and militia in 1790 in anticipation of this major campaign, which was led by General Josiah Harmar. The campaign was ill-advised and began with Knox telegraphing its moves by warning the British, who in turn warned their Indian allies. Although Harmar was able to burn about 300 Indian villages, he lost 200 men in battle and returned to Fort Washington defeated.  Harmar’s loss meant that Knox would attempt to use diplomacy with the Indians one last time. The gulf between the desires of the Americans and Western Indian Confederacy was too great, though, so the talks ended in the spring of 1791.  Both sides began mobilizing for war, and it soon became apparent which side was better prepared.
Although General Arthur St. Clair requited himself quite well in the French and Indian War and the American Revolution, he was fifty-four-years-old in 1791 and past his prime as a soldier. St. Clair had for the most part moved on past his military career and was at the time a civilian leader. He was the governor of the Northwest Territory, but he still had a longing for the military and wanted to lead a force to defeat the Western Indian Confederacy personally.
A force of regular army and militia began mustering at Fort Washington in the summer of 1791 to finish what Harmar had started by destroying the Miami, Shawnee, and Delaware villages and erecting U.S. Army forts. The more than 2,000 man army left Fort Washington and quickly built two forts in October before coming to the headwaters of the Wabash River in early November.  It would be at this location where St. Clair would be handed his humiliating defeat.
A good commander will do everything in his power to win a battle before a shot is even fired. This is accomplished through proper intelligence of the enemy, planning, and ensuring proper logistics. General St. Clair failed on all of these counts. The lack of intelligence that St. Clair’s forces gathered about their enemy and the terrain they were in was woefully inadequate and totally lacking in some respects. They were not sure which chief was in charge of the Indian army they faced and even worse, they did not have any idea of their enemy’s numbers and St. Clair was not even sure about the name of the river. 
Logistical problems compounded the lack of intelligence. Although St. Clair brought cannons on the campaign that were enough to give an edge in any battle, they were misused from the start. He had the cannons placed on a bluff overseeing the battlefield, but they were aimed too high and did no damage.  The cannons could have given the Americans a major advantage in the battle, but instead they became a hindrance.
Another logistical mistake St. Clair made was dividing or allowing his camp to divide into two separate camps. The militia camped on the opposite side of the river from the army regulars, which proved to be a great advantage for the Indian forces once the battle began. 
The camp division between the regular army and the militia was indicative of more significant divisions and problems within the American force. About half of the men on the battlefield were backcountry militia, many from Kentucky, who were poorly trained and had problems with the authority of the regular army officers.  Not long after the force left Fort Washington, the lack of discipline among the militia members was exacerbated by illnesses that afflicted the troops, including St. Clair. Many of the militia members deserted and St. Clair was forced to send regular army soldiers to retrieve them, decreasing the size of the American force to about 1,000 men on the eve of the battle.  The American force was beset by numerous problems, while on the other hand the Indians had many advantages going into the battle.
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Western Indian Confederacy Strengths
Militarily speaking, the tribes of the Western Confederacy valued individualism and generally eschewed dictatorial type leadership on the battlefield. This philosophy generally cost them against the Americans, even when they had British supplied guns, but they were able to change their outlook when they faced St. Clair temporarily. The leaders of the Western Indian Confederacy all came together to assign their campaign against the Americans as a tribally mandated one, which made it a national or even a racial war.  It was, therefore, a war that transcended individual glory and one where victory was more important than taking scalps or booty. It is believed that Little Turtle of the Miami tribe was the primary war chief and he was supported by Blue Jacket of the Shawnee tribe and Buckongahelas of the Delaware.  The chiefs relinquished some of their authority over their warriors to Little Turtle, who in turn listened to their council before and during the battle.
Little Turtle and the other chiefs probably shadowed St. Clair’s army for some time, gauging its strengths and weaknesses in the process and picking the time and place to strike. Finally, on the evening of November 4, 1,000 warriors from the Western Indian Confederacy emerged from the forests of the headwaters of the Wabasha River and attacked the Kentucky militia camp. The militia was caught off guard and quickly retreated to the other side of the river, which caused even more confusion among the Americans. The Americans responded with their own charge, but the Indian warriors did a feigned retreat to the woods, where more warriors were waiting.
While some Indian warriors were fighting the front line of the Americans, others were using the cover to take focused, sniper shots at American officers and the artillery batteries. Eventually, the Indian warriors formed a crescent that outflanked the American artillery batteries, forcing the Americans to spike the cannons.  After three hours the battle was lost, forcing St. Clair to take what was left of his forces and limped back to Fort Washington. The Americans lost more than 600 men, while the Western Indian Confederacy only lost twenty-one of their warriors.
Depending on one’s perspective, St. Clair’s defeat was the greatest victory by an Indian force against the Americans or the worst defeat by the American military at the hands of an Indian adversary. Although the outcome of the battle shocked many Americans at the time, an examination reveals that the factors that led to the Indian rout were apparent. The American force had severe problems with a lack of intelligence, logistical problems, and morale issues. On the other hand, the Indian force was better prepared and much more motivated. Although the Western Indian Confederacy would lose the Northwest Indian War, their victory over General Arthur St. Clair became one of the most important battles in early American history.
- Tanner, Helen Hornbeck. “The Glaize in 1792: A Composite Indian Community.” Ethnohistory 25 (1978) p. 16
- Tanner, pgs. 16-18
- Williams, Samuel C. “The Southwest Territory to the Aid of the Northwest Territory.” Indiana Magazine of History 37 (1941) p. 152
- Tanner, p. 16
- Tanner, p. 31
- Williams, p. 153
- Eid, Leroy V. “American Indian Military Leadership: St. Clair’s 1791 Defeat.” Journal of Military History 57 (1993) pgs. 76-77
- Eid, p. 73
- Williams, p. 154
- Williams, p. 156
- Williams, p. 154
- Eid, p. 82
- Tanner, p. 20
- Eid, p. 83