St. Clair’s Defeat – November 4, 1791

The 1783 Treaty of Paris ended the American Revolution and transferred ownership of the Northwest Territory from Great Britain to the United States. In order to secure the territory, the First American Regiment was created, to which the 3d U.S. Infantry Regiment traces its lineage. The Northwest Territory (present-day Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan Wisconsin and parts of Minnesota) was inhabited by numerous tribes of native peoples that formed the Western Confederacy, a loose organization of tribes that included the Shawnee, Iroquois, and Miami among a dozen others. In 1790, General Josiah Harmar launched a campaign into the Northwest Territory with 1,400+ men, but was easily defeated when he encountered 1,100 warriors and Harmar only engaged 400 of his men against the Western Confederacy.
The following year, President Washington ordered Arthur St. Clair to open up the territory for settlers. St. Clair, first governor of the Northwest Territory, held the rank of major general during the American Revolution. St. Clair’s force was made up of Regular Army soldiers (600), six-month enlistees who were paid and outfitted by the Army (800), along with self-supported militia who signed three-month enlistments (600). A portion of the First American Regiment (approx. 320) was dispatched to support St. Clair’s campaign. This fighting force of 1,400 was followed by a significant number of family members and camp followers.
The campaign started slowly in October 1791 from Fort Washington (present-day Cincinnati) and gained little momentum despite the President’s order to move during the summer. By November 1791, they managed to reach the Wabash River near the current border of Ohio and Indiana. St. Claire lost large numbers of soldiers from desertion, now numbering around 900 men. The Western Confederacy, headed by Miami Chief Little Turtle (Michikinikwa), continued to grow in size.
St. Clair established camp on November 3, having been shadowed by Little Turtle’s scouts along the route. The next morning, November 4, 1791, Little Turtle’s forces attacked the militia units as they stacked arms and fell in for breakfast. Little Turtle effectively attacked in waves, using different tactics for each successive wave. In the course of three hours, the Army suffered a 97% casualty rate. Of the 920 men still on the rolls, 632 were killed and 264 were wounded. The approximate 200 camp followers were slaughtered in the attack and retreat.

A Congressional committee convened and decided that St. Clair was not at fault, but the lack of disciplined troops and poor timing were to blame. Three years later, General “Mad” Anthony Wayne set out to defeat the Western Confederacy and established Fort Recovery, on the very site of St. Clair’s Defeat in 1791. Wayne’s campaign saw the Western Confederacy overwhelmed in an hour of fighting at the 1794 Battle of Fallen Timbers.

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