St. Clair’s Defeat: The Day Cincinnati Almost Died

Only a twist of fate saved Cincinnati from a massacre in the days following November 4, 1791.

It is sometimes called the Battle of the Wabash or the Battle of a Thousand Slain. It remains the greatest victory by Native American warriors against the United States Army. People still sing about it. We mostly know it as St. Clair’s Defeat. It might have been the day Cincinnati died.

Only a twist of fate saved Cincinnati from a massacre in the days following November 4, 1791. The little river town was not quite three years old and was home to only 100 or so settlers. Many of the men were off dying in General Arthur St. Clair’s misbegotten campaign against what they called “the savages.”

It is often forgotten today that hostile attacks by Native American warriors on early settlements in the Ohio lands were encouraged, financed, organized and sometimes even led by the British. Despite their defeat in the American Revolution, England hoped to contain the United States to the eastern seaboard and to preserve a lucrative fur trade in the Northwest Territories. The British equipped their indigenous allies for proxy wars right up through the War of 1812. In 1791, Detroit was still a British outpost and the funnel through which furs flowed into Canada and on to England.

Cincinnati was first settled in the final days of 1788, almost simultaneously with the towns of North Bend and Columbia. All three settlements endured regular attacks by Native American tribes, mostly encouraged by the British. Although no significant populations of Native Americans lived in the immediate area around Cincinnati, several tribes hunted in the area. Harassment by native hunters passing through the region led to increasingly vocal appeals to the federal government for protection.

Portrait of General Arthur St. Clair

By Charles Wilson Peale From Wikimedia Commons

Remember that Cincinnati is older than the United States Constitution. In 1788, there was hardly any national army left. The next year, brand new President George Washington sent Revolutionary War veteran Arthur St. Clair out to command the new Fort Washington in Losantiville. St. Clair immediately changed the name to Cincinnati and began assembling an army to chasten the British-backed Indians.

St. Clair was a popular war hero. Born in Scotland, he was among Washington’s favorite generals and distinguished himself at the Battle of Trenton (for which Washington crossed the Delaware River). After the war, he presided over the Continental Congress in 1787 when the Northwest Ordinance was drafted. St. Clair’s assignment to Fort Washington followed the lackluster performance of General Josiah Harmar who had led a couple of inconsequential expeditions against the natives in 1790.

General Arthur St. Clair arrived in a very nervous settlement, described by none other than future President Theodore Roosevelt in an article he wrote for Harper’s New Monthly Magazine [February 1896]:

The squalid little town of Cincinnati also suffered from the Indian war parties in the spring of this year, several of the townsmen being killed by the savages, who grew so bold that they lurked through the streets at nights, and lay in ambush in the gardens where the garrison of Fort Washington raised their vegetables.

Washington ordered St. Clair to assemble a militia and attack the combined Miami, Shawnee, Delaware, and Potawatomi in the summer of 1791. Difficulties in finding volunteers and acquiring horses and supplies hampered St. Clair’s operation and he was unable to march out of Cincinnati until October, leading a rag-tag, poorly trained and meagerly equipped army of about 2,000 men.

At its peak, St. Clair’s force consisted of maybe 600 regular army soldiers, 800 conscripts on six-month contracts, and about 600 militia drawn mostly from Kentucky. As St. Clair’s army marched toward their destination around today’s Fort Wayne, Indiana, more and more men deserted. The force dwindled to about 1,500 men and some 250 camp followers (women of various associations and even a few children).

While St. Clair suffered from gout, disciplinary problems, desertions, and faulty supply lines, his opponents gathered in strength. Waiting for St. Clair were two of the most formidable chieftains of the Native American confederation, Little Turtle of the Miami and Blue Jacket of the Shawnee. They led a well-equipped army of around 1,000 men drawn from all of the areas surrounding the British trading post at Detroit.

St. Clair made camp just outside of what is now Fort Recovery, Ohio, about halfway to Toledo. He was lax in setting sentries and negligent in sending out patrols. The native army struck while the American troops were eating breakfast, their weapons stacked in piles.

Little Turtle led his first attack against the poorly trained militia. They were so shocked they ran away, leaving their weapons behind. The regular army troops responded and drove the attackers back temporarily. On at least three attempts, the Americans charged the Indians with fixed bayonets. In each case, the natives surrounded them and killed everyone.

“On the battlefield itself the slain lay thick.”

Illustration from Harper’s New Monthly Magazine, February 1896, Page 402

After three hours of battle, St. Clair joined the few survivors in flight southward to Fort Jefferson in Darke County. At least 630 men were killed and 260 wounded in various degrees. The dead amounted to approximately one-quarter of the entire United States Army at the time. Many of the wounded were captured and there are reports that execution fires burned brightly for several weeks. Almost all of the camp followers—women and children—were slaughtered.

And then? And then Cincinnati got the biggest break in its history. Many Native American leaders, egged on by their British allies, argued that now was the time to wipe the American settlers out of Ohio. Opposing them, a majority maintained that a poor harvest necessitated warriors returning home to hunt. The mighty Indian confederation disbanded.

According to a surviving letter of John Cleves Symmes, the settlers at Cincinnati panicked and many abandoned the town:

On my arrival in the purchase about the 20th of November, I found the settlers in the greatest consternation, on account of the late defeat. Several had fled into Kentucky, and many others were preparing to follow them.

With residents fleeing and soldiers slaughtered, Cincinnati, according to Charles Greve’s “Centennial History of Cincinnati,” found itself occupied by herds of cattle.

One strange result of this defeat was the throwing upon the market of a large number of beeves which had been provided by the government contractors and which were made unnecessary by the destruction of the army.

It took weeks to entice some of the scattered refugees back to town. Some never returned.

George Washington was so outraged at the news, he threw a presidential temper tantrum. St. Clair demanded a court martial to prove his innocence. He was denied and retired to a farm in Pennsylvania.

Having missed their opportunity, the Native American tribes also lost their momentum. U.S. forces led by “Mad” Anthony Wayne defeated another confederated army, assisted by British militia, in 1795, effectively ending the Northwest War.

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