Northwest Indian War: Battle of the Wabash

Arthur St. Clair
Major General Arthur St. Clair. Public Domain

Battle of the Wabash - Conflict & Date:

The Battle of the Wabash was fought November 4, 1791, during the Northwest Indian War (1785-1795).

Armies & Commanders

Western Confederacy

  • Little Turtle
  • Blue Jacket
  • Buckongahelas
  • approx. 1,000 men

United States

Battle of the Wabash - Background:

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 US. The following year, they decided that the Ohio River would serve as the border between their lands and the US. In the mid-1780s, the Confederacy began a series of raids south of the Ohio into Kentucky to discourage settlement.

To deal with the threat posed by the Confederacy, President George Washington instructed General Josiah Harmar to attack into Shawnee and Miami lands. As the US Army had essentially been disbanded after the American Revolution, Harmar marched west with approximately 1,500 militia. Fighting two battles in October 1790, Harmar was defeated by Confederacy warriors led by Little Turtle and Blue Jacket. In the wake of this setback, Washington directed the governor of the Northwest Territory, Arthur St. Clair, to mount a vigorous campaign against the Confederacy in 1791.

Battle of the Wabash - Preparing the Campaign:

A veteran of the American Revolution, St. Clair also held the rank of major general in the US Army. 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.

Battle of the Wabash - On the March:

Of the remainder, 800 were conscripts and 600 were local militia. In all cases, St. Clair's men were largely ill-trained and equipped. Moving slowly, the Americans built supply posts as they advanced. As the campaign progressed, discipline among St. Clair's men, which was never good, worsened and many began to desert. By November 2, he only retained 920 soldiers and around 200 camp followers. The situation was worsened by the fact that St. Clair was suffering from a severe case of gout and was not on speaking terms with his second-in-command, Major General Richard Butler.

While the American expedition was struggling, Little Turtle and Blue Jacket were receiving a steady supply of reinforcements including 480 men led by Buckongahelas. Numbering around 1,000 warriors, their combined force departed Kekionga on October 28 and began moving south to intercept St. Clair. During the course of their march, the Americans were shadowed by Native American warriors, but these sightings were largely dismissed as St. Clair believed that the enemy would submit in the face of his army.

Battle of the Wabash - St. Clair Beaten:

On November 3, St. Clair's men encamped on a raised meadow near the headwaters of the Wabash River. Against advice he had received from Washington, he did not fortify the camp before nightfall. Approaching the American camp before dawn on November 4, the Native Americans deployed in the nearby woods to launch a surprise attack. Watching the Americans, they waited until St. Clair's men had stacked their arms for breakfast before attacking. Charging forward, Little Turtle first targeted the militia and succeeded in forcing them to flee without their arms.

Amid the chaos, St. Clair's regulars grabbed their muskets and formed battle lines. Firing a volley, they briefly halted the Native American attack while the American artillerymen began working their guns from a nearby bluff.

Shifting his forces, Little Turtle moved to flank the regulars while his sharpshooters picked off American officers and artillerymen. In an effort to turn the battle, one battalion charged Little Turtle's lines. Giving way, the Native Americans fell back into the woods where they surrounded and destroyed the American attackers.

Additional bayonet charges were attempted with similar results. With defeat looming, St. Clair desperately attempted to rally his men and had several horses shot out from under him. Angered that many were hiding under wagons and avoiding the fight, he repeatedly yelled, "Cowards, cowards, cowards!" As the battle raged, Butler was mortally wounded. After around three hours of fighting, St. Clair met with his remaining officers and decided to attempt a breakout south towards Fort Jefferson. Abandoning their supplies and wounded, he and the survivors successfully charged through the Native American lines and fled.

Battle of the Wabash - Aftermath:

As St. Clair retreated south, his party was pursued for three miles until the Native Americans broke off to loot the camp. In the battle, St. Clair's command lost 632 killed 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.

Retreating to Fort Washington, St. Clair soon traveled to Philadelphia to explain his defeat. Blaming the War Department and quartermaster, he intended to seek a court-martial to exonerate his actions before resigning. Assessing the battle, Washington denied his request for a court-martial and forced his immediate resignation. A subsequent Congressional investigation did find that the War Department had done a poor job equipping the expedition, but did not go further. With the frontier exposed, Washington turned to Major General Anthony Wayne to rescue the situation. Realizing that previous forces had lacked training and discipline, Wayne spent much of 1793, drilling and instructing his men. Moving against the Confederacy in 1794, he decisively defeated them at the Battle of Fallen Timbers and forced them to sign the Treaty of Greenville in 1795.

Selected Sources