Date of Award
Master of Arts (MA)
On November 4, 1791, the United States Army under the command of Arthur St. Clair suffered its worst defeat at the hands of the Indians. Over half of the nearly 2,000 men engaged in battle were killed or wounded along the headwaters of the Wabash River in present-day Ohio. Dismissed as a mere skirmish in a series of engagements against the Indians from 1790 to 1795, this battle and its fateful commander have fallen into obscurity in the annals of American history. The story of the doomed campaign of 1791 is only one of a number of crucial engagements for the Northwest Territory, which encompass the states of Ohio and Indiana from 1790- 1795. Soon after the conclusion of its war for independence, the United States set out on a course of nation building. Long before the Revolution, settlers had ventured into the hostile wilderness along the Mississippi and Ohio River valleys. With the war over and the United States a sovereign nation, the land bordered by the Great Lakes to the north and the Ohio River to the south seemed primed for the influx of settlers. Contrary to popular beliefs that this region was uncivilized, many Indian nations prospered within the forests north of the Ohio River. Indians living in this region became increasingly more defensive and aggressive toward encroaching settlers. The United States government, fearful of provoking the Indian nations into war, yet hungry for the land, half -heartedly pursued a course of peaceful co-existence. Eventually, hostilities between Indians and settlers in the Old Northwest Territory sparked a land war initiating two centuries of bloodshed in America. The war started in the forests of the Old Northwest in the 1790's set a precedent throughout the American West, as the United States government and settlers could not resist their appetite for land controlled by Indian nations. The United States military was unprepared for the war about to begin along its frontier. Controversy engulfed the nation over the re-establishment of the military following the Revolution. The fear of a standing army gripped American people who saw firsthand the seemingly unlimited powers the British army could exude over a population. Accordingly, the framers of the Articles of Confederation and Constitution felt it necessary to limit military power by recruiting state militias, rather than providing for a large, federally regulated army. Thus, supporting the army fell to private and civilian contractors who were responsible for arming, feeding, and equipping the soldiers on the frontier. By 1790, the War Department's reliance in filling the army's quotas with state militias, while depending upon private contractors to meet the army's logistical needs, contributed to the army's first major defeat in the Old Northwest Territory. Major-General Josiah Harmar, commander of the first campaign against the Miami Indians, faced numerous problems with his soldiers, particularly the militia, as well as logistical nightmares. Supplies either reached his men late or not at all; and when engaged by the Indians, the militia soldiers under Harmar's command fled from the field of battle. Harmar experienced many difficulties with the militia and civilian contractors years earlier. From 1785 until the campaign in 1790, contractors responsible for supplying the frontier army, supplied defective equipment. The supplies that did reach the troops were nearly always late. The contractors' usual excuse for the inadequate supplies cited a lack of funding by the Confederation government. Harmar also experienced despair from the militia detachments sent to the Northwest Territory. Those soldiers were largely inexperienced or unwilling to submit to the discipline of the military, and Harmar always lacked enough troops to man the frontier garrison from states unwilling or unable to send men out into the harsh lands along the Ohio River. The United States' first major campaign against a "foreign" enemy revealed some serious deficiencies in the military establishment. However, the disaster of the first campaign would not change any policies within the War Department on manning and supplying the army. For the second campaign into the Old Northwest Territory, the policies that hindered the military's effectiveness for nearly a decade would spell doom for the soldiers under the command of Arthur St. Clair. The War Department, in planning the campaign of 1791, decided the only improvement needed to defeat the Miami Indians was to build a larger army. It soon became evident that such was not the case. General St. Clair took command of the army in March 1791, but the army did not begin its journey to the Indian Territory until September, two months behind schedule. St. Clair's efforts to prepare an army for battle had been impeded at every turn by contractors, unruly soldiers, weather, and a myriad of other difficulties. The two men largely responsible for the delays and difficulties of the army were Quartermaster General, Samuel Hodgdon and William Duer, contractor for provisions. The preparations for the campaign were obstructed from deficient equipment and unnecessary delays committed by these two men. Training suffered as time needed to drill the men was spent repairing equipment. Eventually, the poorly trained soldiers left Fort Washington, bearing inadequate equipment and rations, totally unprepared for the fate which awaited them along the Wabash River. On the morning of November 4, St. Clair's army was overwhelmed by a band of Indians led by the brilliant Miami chief, Little Turtle. Within hours, the United States Army was routed and withdrew from their camp along the Wabash River in disarray. On the slow and arduous march into Indian Territory, the logistical problems continued to affect the overall preparedness of the army. Supplies were deficient, and the rations were late in reaching the troops in the field. St. Clair's efforts were also obstructed by desertions and the advancing winter season. By the morning of November 4, 1791, the beleaguered army under St. Clair's command was simply unprepared and overwhelmed by an Indian army half their size. In retrospect, St. Clair's logistical system failed to support his mission. Mismanagement of supplies, coupled with the poor troop turnout, affected the ability of the army to mount a successful campaign against the Indians of the Northwest Territory. The defeat of St. Clair was the climax to seven years of rebuilding the nation's military following the Revolutionary War. The War Department, relying on civilians to supply the troops and on state militias to fill their ranks, discovered all too painfully the mistakes of this policy. Not until three years later, would a United States Army be able to defeat and subdue the Indians of the Northwest Territory and claim this region for the young nation. After defeating the greatest military power in the world, Great Britain, it took two humbling campaigns and nearly a decade of carelessness for the United States Army to attain its former glory.
Copyright 1995 Timothy Nehls
Nehls, Timothy, "The Battle of the Wabash: A Study of the Effects of Logistics During General Arthur St. Clair's Campaign Against the Indians in the Old Northwest Territory, 1791" (1995). Master's Theses. 2523.