American Revolution: Major General Arthur St. Clair

Arthur St. Clair, US Army
Major General Arthur St. Clair. Public Domain

Arthur St. Clair - Early Life & Career:

Born in Thurso, Scotland on March 23, 1736, little is known about the early life of Arthur St. Clair.  The identity of his parents is not known with certainty though it is believed that he studied for some time at the University of Edinburgh.  Leaving school, St. Clair apprenticed with physician William Hunter before deciding to pursue a military career.  Purchasing an ensign's commission in the Royal American Regiment in 1757, he traveled to North America the following year with Admiral Edward Boscawen's fleet.

  As the French & Indian War was raging, St. Clair quickly saw service under Major General Jeffery Amherst at the Siege of Louisbourg.

The next spring, St. Clair purchased a promotion to lieutenant on April 17, 1759.  Assigned to Major General James Wolfe's expedition against Quebec, he saw combat during the fighting outside the city late that summer.  In 1760, St. Clair married Phoebe Bayard whose brother-in-law was the Governor of Massachusetts, James Bowdoin.  Resigning from the British Army on April 16, 1762, he elected to settle on the Pennsylvania frontier.  In 1764, using funds obtained from Bowdoin, St. Clair purchased four hundred acres of land in the Ligonier Valley.  This made him the largest landowner in Pennsylvania west of the Appalachian Mountains. 

Arthur St. Clair - The Revolution Approaches:

Purchasing and investing in local mills and industry, St. Clair quickly became one of the region's most prominent citizens.

  In this role, he served in a judicial capacity, filled several governmental offices, as well as oversaw the frontier areas of the colony for the Governor of Pennsylvania.  Pursuing friendly relations with the Native Americans in the Ohio Valley, St. Clair also worked to advance Pennsylvania's land claims in the area against those from Virginia.

  As tensions escalated between Virginia and the Native Americans in the early 1770s, his previous work helped spare settlers in western Pennsylvania from attack.

During this same period, relations between the colonies and Great Britain began to deteriorate in earnest.  Considering himself an American, St. Clair favored the Patriot cause and served on his county's Committee of Safety and aided representatives of the Continental Congress when they visited the western parts of Pennsylvania.  With the beginning of the American Revolution in 1775, he began to actively seek a military position.  Using his background and influence, St. Clair obtained a commission as colonel of the newly-formed 3rd Pennsylvania Regiment which was organized that December.

Arthur St. Clair - To Canada:

Ordered north in early 1776, St. Clair and his men marched to reinforce those American troops that had invaded Canada the previous year.  Having withdrawn from Quebec after a defeat there and a failed siege, they had established a new position at Sorel.  Serving under the direction of Brigadier Generals William Thompson and John Sullivan, St. Clair took part in the severe defeat at Trois-Rivières on June 8.  Retreating back into New York with Sullivan and Brigadier General Benedict Arnold, he reached Crown Point in early July.

  On August 9, 1776, St. Clair received a promotion to brigadier general.  Shortly thereafter, the commander in chief of the Continental Army, General George Washington, ordered him to New Jersey to aid in organizing that colony's militia.

Arthur St. Clair - Trenton & Princeton:

Joining Washington's army later that fall, St. Clair retreated into Pennsylvania as American forces shifted west after the loss of New York.  Assuming command of a brigade, two of his regimental commanders were Colonels John Stark and Enoch Poor.  In December, St. Clair led his men during the crossing of the Delaware and the march on Trenton.  In the resulting Battle of Trenton, his brigade attacked through the lower town and engaged the Hessians on King Street.  On January 2, with the army south of Trenton and having turned back British attacks at Assunpink Creek that afternoon, Washington consulted his officers on future operations.

  During these conversations, St. Clair recommended an audacious scheme that called for slipping away during the night and striking British forces at Princeton.  Adopting this plan, Washington's men moved out and won a victory at Princeton the next day.      

Arthur St. Clair - Fort Ticonderoga:

In recognition of his performance, St. Clair earned a promotion to major general on February 19, 1777.  Shortly thereafter, he received orders to take command of around 2,500-3,000 men at Fort TiconderogaCaptured in 1775 by Arnold and Ethan Allen, the fort lay at the southern end of Lake Champlain.  Though its defenses had been greatly expanded, St. Clair's command was too small to man then effectively.  Understanding this, Northern Department commander Major General Philip Schuyler worked with St. Clair to devise lines of retreat to the south and east.  As a major British invasion was expected, Schuyler instructed St. Clair to hold the fort for as long as possible and then escape with his men.

On July 2, British forces led by Major General John Burgoyne began to arrive in the area.  Badly outnumbering St. Clair's garrison, the British began skirmishing with the defenders and worked to covertly construct an artillery battery on a nearby height known as Sugar Loaf (Mount Defiance) which dominated the fort and surrounding area.  This position had been overlooked by the Americans as they did not believe it possible to get heavy guns up the slope.  Alerted to the danger on July 4, St. Clair called a council of war the next day.

  Discussing the situation with his commanders, he decided to abandon the fort and withdraw after dark.  As Fort Ticonderoga was a politically important post, St. Clair understood that this course of action would badly damage his reputation but he felt that saving his army took precedence.   

Arthur St. Clair - The Revolution Ends:

Retreating via Hubbardton, St. Clair's rearguard fought an action against pursuing British troops there on July 7.  Pressing on, he led his forces to Fort Edward where they united with Schuyler.  As predicted, St. Clair's actions were severely criticized by the Continental Congress and other American leaders.  Relieved of his command, he strenuously defended his actions and requested a court martial to clear his name.  This was finally held in September 1778 and St. Clair was exonerated.  Though cleared, no field commands were forthcoming and he instead found a position as an aide to Washington.  Serving in this role during the Yorktown Campaign in 1781, he was ordered south with a force of Pennsylvania Continentals after the British surrender that October.  

Arthur St. Clair - Politics:

Commencing service as a member of the Pennsylvania Council of Censors in 1783, St. Clair was elected to the Confederation Congress two years later.  During his term he was selected to be President of the Continental Congress on February 2, 1787.  In this position until November, St. Clair oversaw the organization's waning days as the Constitutional Convention occurred during his time as president.

  That summer, he presided over the passage of the critical Northwest Ordinance that created the Northwest Territory which included parts of present-day Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Minnesota.  Appointed governor of the territory, St. Clair took office on July 15, 1788.

Arthur St. Clair - Northwest Territory:

Devising a legal code for the Northwest Territory, St. Clair also worked to end Native American claims to land in Ohio.  This resulted in some tribes signing the Treaty of Fort Harmer in 1789.  Those tribes which did not sign began to mount resistance to settlers arriving in the area leading an escalation in the Northwest Indian War.  In 1791, Washington, who was now president, had St. Clair commissioned as a major general in the US Army and instructed him to lead an expedition against the resisting tribes.  Moving out that fall, he quickly fell out with his second in command and his troops lacked experience and training.  

Though warned by Washington to "beware of a surprise", St. Clair failed to post guards or fortify his camp on the night of November 3/4.  Attacked the next morning while his men were having breakfast, his command was taken by complete surprise.  In the resulting fight, St. Clair's command was routed and destroyed by Native Americans led by Little Turtle, Blue Jacket, and Buckongahelas.  Suffering 97.4% casualties, the Battle of the Wabash marked the worst battlefield defeat of US Army forces.  Escaping, St. Clair arrived in Philadelphia in early 1792 with the intention of seeking a court martial to gain exoneration and then resigning.  Meeting with Washington, the court martial request was denied and his immediate resignation demanded.

Leaving the US Army, St. Clair returned to his post as governor.  He remained in office until 1802 when he clashed with President Thomas Jefferson over plans for Ohio's statehood.  Retiring back to his lands in western Pennsylvania, St. Clair soon encountered financial difficulties as Congress declined to reimburse him for his expenses as governor.  Losing the majority of his holdings, he lived his final years with his daughter, Louisa St. Clair Robb, and her family in Greensburg, PA.  St. Clair died on August 31, 1818, and was buried in what is now Old St. Clair Cemetery.     

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Hickman, Kennedy. "American Revolution: Major General Arthur St. Clair." ThoughtCo, Mar. 4, 2016, Hickman, Kennedy. (2016, March 4). American Revolution: Major General Arthur St. Clair. Retrieved from Hickman, Kennedy. "American Revolution: Major General Arthur St. Clair." ThoughtCo. (accessed November 19, 2017).