Northwest Indian War: Battle of Fallen Timbers

Fighting at Fallen Timbers
Battle of Fallen Timbers. Public Domain

The Battle of Fallen Timbers was fought August 20, 1794 and was the final battle of the Northwest Indian War (1785-1795). As part of the treaty ending the American Revolution, Great Britain ceded to the new United States the lands over the Appalachian Mountains as far west as the Mississippi River. In Ohio, several Native American tribes came together in 1785, to form the Western Confederacy with the goal of dealing jointly with the United States. The following year, they decided that the Ohio River would serve as the border between their lands and the Americans. In the mid-1780s, the Confederacy began a series of raids south of the Ohio into Kentucky to discourage settlement.

Conflict on the Frontier

To deal with the threat posed by the Confederacy, President George Washington instructed Brigadier General Josiah Harmar to attack into Shawnee and Miami lands with the goal of destroying the village of Kekionga (present-day Fort Wayne, IN). As the US Army had essentially been disbanded after the American Revolution, Harmar marched west with a small force of regulars and approximately 1,100 militia. Fighting two battles in October 1790, Harmar was defeated by Confederacy warriors led by Little Turtle and Blue Jacket.

St. Clair's Defeat

The following year, another force was dispatched under Major General Arthur St. Clair. Preparations for the campaign began in early 1791 with the goal of moving north to take the Miami capital of Kekionga. Though Washington advised St. Clair to march during the warmer summer months, incessant supply problems and logistical issues delayed the expedition's departure until October. When St. Clair departed Fort Washington (present-day Cincinnati, OH), he possessed around 2,000 men of which only 600 were regulars.

Attacked by Little Turtle, Blue Jacket, and Buckongahelas on November 4, St. Clair's army was routed. In the battle, his command lost 632 killed/captured and 264 wounded. In addition, almost all of the 200 camp followers, many of whom had fought alongside the soldiers, were killed. Of the 920 soldiers who entered the fight, only 24 emerged uninjured. In the victory, Little Turtle's force only sustained 21 killed and 40 wounded. With a casualty rate of 97.4%, the Battle of the Wabash marked the worst defeat in the history of the US Army. 

Armies & Commanders

United States

Western Confederacy

  • Blue Jacket
  • Buckongahelas
  • Little Turtle
  • 1,500 men

Wayne Prepares

In 1792, Washington turned to Major General Anthony Wayne and asked him build a force capable of defeating the Confederacy. An aggressive Pennsylvanian, Wayne had repeatedly distinguished himself during the American Revolution. At the suggestion of Secretary of War Henry Knox, the decision was made recruit and train a "legion" which would combine light and heavy infantry with artillery and cavalry. This concept was approved by Congress which agreed to augment the small standing army for the duration of the conflict with the Native Americans.

Moving quickly, Wayne commenced assembling a new force near Ambridge, PA at a camp dubbed Legionville. Realizing that previous forces had lacked training and discipline, Wayne spent much of 1793 drilling and instructing his men.  Titling his army the Legion of the United States, Wayne's force consisted of four sub-legions, each commanded by a lieutenant colonel. These contained of two battalions of infantry, a battalion of riflemen/skirmishers, a troop of dragoons, and a battery of artillery. The self-contained structure of the sub-legions meant they could operate effectively on their own. 

Moving to Battle

In late 1793, Wayne shifted his command down the Ohio to Fort Washington (present-day Cincinnati, OH). From here, units moved north as Wayne built a series of forts to protect his supply lines and the settlers in his rear. As Wayne's 3,000 men moved north, Little Turtle became concerned about the Confederacy's ability to defeat him. Following an exploratory attack near Fort Recovery in June 1794, Little Turtle began to advocate in favor of negotiating with the US.

Rebuffed by the Confederacy, Little Turtle ceded complete command to Blue Jacket. Moving to confront Wayne, Blue Jacket assumed a defensive position along the Maumee River near a copse of fallen trees and close to British-held Fort Miami. It was hoped that the fallen trees would slow the advance of Wayne's men.

The Americans Strike

On August 20, 1794, the lead elements of Wayne's command came under fire from Confederacy forces.  Quickly assessing the situation, Wayne deployed the his troops with his infantry led by Brigadier General James Wilkinson on the right and Colonel John Hamtramck on the left.  The Legion's cavalry guarded the American right while brigade of mounted Kentuckians protected the other wing.  As the terrain appeared to preclude the effective use of cavalry, Wayne ordered his infantry to mount a bayonet attack to flush the enemy from the fallen trees.  This done, they could be effectively dispatched with musket fire.

Advancing, the superior discipline of Wayne's troops quickly began to tell and the Confederacy was soon forced out of its position. Starting to break, they began to flee the field when the American cavalry, charging over the fallen trees, joined the fray. Routed, the Confederacy's warriors fled towards Fort Miami hoping that the British would provide protection. Arriving there found the gates closed as the fort's commander did not wish to start a war with the Americans. As the Confederacy's men fled, Wayne ordered his troops to burn all of the villages and crops in the area and then withdrawal to Fort Greenville.

Aftermath & Impact

In the fighting at Fallen Timbers, Wayne's Legion lost 33 dead and 100 wounded. Reports conflict regarding the Confederacy's casualties, with Wayne claiming 30-40 dead on the field to the British Indian Department stating 19. The victory at Fallen Timbers ultimately led to the signing of the Treaty of Greenville in 1795, which ended the conflict and removed all Confederacy claims to Ohio and the surrounding lands. Among those Confederacy leaders who refused to sign the treaty was Tecumseh, who would renew the conflict ten years later.