July 4, 2007

In the Old Northwest

On July Fourth,1876 the nation was celebrating its centennial. Celebrating citizens were shocked to learn of the defeat of General George Custer just a few days prior. The event has been immortalized in history, movies and popular culture. Custer, Crazy Horse and the Battle of the Little Big Horn remain mythic icons still. But these events were minor in comparison to a defeat laid on the US Army some 85 years previous.

As settlers spread into the Northwest Territory (now Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan), the native inhabitants of the area resisted mightily. Attacks on settlers prompted action. A punitive expedition led by US Brigadier General Josiah Harmar was sent to deal with the Shawnee, Miami and Delaware in the Ohio country. They were soundly defeated by the Indians in October near modern Fort Wayne, Indiana.

President Washington was furious and charged Major General Arthur St. Clair, who was also Governor of the Northwest Territory, to do the job right. Congress agreed to finance the campaign and provided funds to raise a new regiment in the US Army for the purpose (doubling the standing army). St. Clair also called up the Kentucky Militia. The fall of 1891 saw St. Clair on the move. By the time he reached president day Fort Recovery, Ohio on November third, St. Clair's force numbered 52 officers and 868 enlisted men. He also had about 200 camp followers along.

He was opposed by Indians under the leadership of Blue Jacket of the Shawnee, Little Turtle of the Miami and Buckongahelas of the Delaware. The Indian force numbered around 1,100. The Indians attacked at dawn on November Fourth.

The casualty rate was the highest ever suffered by a United States Army. Of the 52 officers engaged, 39 were killed and 7 wounded (an 88% casualty rate).In less than two hours the battle became a rout. "It was, in fact, a flight," St. Clair described a few days later in a letter to the Secretary of War. The American casualty rate, among the soldiers, was 97.4 percent, including 632 of 920 killed (69%), and 264 wounded. Nearly all of the 200 camp followers were slaughtered, for a total of 832 Americans killed. Approximately one-fourth of the entire standing United States Army had been wiped out. Only 24 of the 920 troops engaged came out of it unscathed. Indian casualties were around 61, of which about 21 were killed.

St. Clair traveled to Philadelphia to report on the battle. He blamed the quartermaster as well as the War Department for not providing adequate supplies or soldiers for the task. St. Clair asked for a Court Martial to exonerate him from the defeat, but Washington instead demanded his immediate resignation.

The aftermath of the battle resonates today. Congress began its own investigation into the defeat (someone must be blamed!). These were the first ever Congressional Hearings on the actions of the Executive Branch. As part of the proceedings, the House committee in charge of the investigation asked for documents from the War Department. Secretary of War Knox sought the advise of the President. Washington summoned a meeting of all of his department heads (Knox, Secretary of State Thomas Jefferson, Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, and Attorney General Edmund Randolph). This was one of the first meetings of these officials, and some scholars consider this the beginning of the Cabinet. This group decided the documents were protected under Executive Privilege. They claimed the documents in question should be kept secret for the public's good. This doctrine continues to divide us today as practiced by all subsequent Presidents including Reagan, Bush and especially Clinton.

In 1794 another army, this time led by General "Mad" Anthony Wayne, defeated the Indians of the Northwest Territory at the Battle of Fallen Timbers. The Indians ceded much of their land at the Treaty of Greenville. For the most part the Indian Wars were over in Ohio.

At least one bright war chief of the Shawnee recognized the tenacity and power of the US Army. He had participated in Harmer and St. Clair's defeats as well as the loss at Fallen Timbers. This young Indian knew all the Native Americans would have to band together to drive the white man back across the mountains. He began traveling among all the tribes of the Eastern US to form alliances. His name was Tecumseh and he will be the subject of another post.

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