Saturday, October 1, 2011

The Miami Indian Massacre of General St. Claire - 700 Dead

The Miami Indian Massacre of General St. Claire - 700 Dead

The struggle to open the Wabash portage resulted in three massacres that included the massacre of DeLaBalme near Fort Wayne, Indiana, The massacre of Harmer and his men at the site of  Fort Wayne and the massacre of St. Clair.


—The first great massacre to the Federal armies brought about by the Miamis.

The objectives of General St. Clair have already been mentioned. He was now to take the village of Kekionga, establish a garrison there, and erect a chain of posts stretching from the new establishment to Fort Washington at Cincinnati.
Miami Indian Photo Gallery
The army with which St. Clair was expected to accomplish this task consisted of "two small regiments of regulars, two of six months' levies, a number of Kentucky militia, a few cavalry, and a couple of small batteries of light guns." In all there were fourteen hundred men and eighty-six officers. The Kentucky militia were under the command of Colonel Oldham, a brave officer who afterwards fell on the field of battle. The levies were "men collected from the streets and prisons of the city, hurried out into the enemy's country and with the officers commanding them, totally unacquainted with the business in which they were engaged." Their pay was miserable. Each private received two dollars and ten cents a month; the sergeants three dollars and sixty cents. Being recruited at various times and places, their terms of enlistment were expiring daily, and they wanted to go home. As they were reckless and intemperate, St. Clair, in order [Pg 196]to preserve some semblance of order, removed them to Ludlow's Station, about six miles from Fort Washington. Major Ebenezer Denny, aide to St. Clair, says that they were "far inferior to the militia." On the morning of October twenty-ninth, when St. Clair's army was penetrating the heart of the Indian country, this disorderly element was keeping up a constant firing about the camp, contrary to the positive orders of the day.
In the quartermaster's department everything "went on slowly and badly; tents, pack-saddles, kettles, knapsacks and cartridge boxes, were all 'deficient in quantity and quality.'" The army contractors were positively dishonest, and the war department seems to have been fearfully negligent in all of its work. Judge Jacob Burnet records that "it is a well authenticated fact, that boxes and packages were so carelessly put up and marked, that during the action a box was opened marked 'flints,' which was found to contain gun-locks. Several mistakes of the same character were discovered, as for example, a keg of powder marked 'for the infantry,' was found to contain damaged cannon-powder, that could scarcely be ignited."
St. Clair was sick, and so afflicted with the gout that he was unable to mount or dismount a horse without assistance. On the night before his great disaster he was confined to his camp bed and unable to get up. Born in Edinburgh, in Scotland, in 1734, he was now fifty-seven years of age, and too old and infirm to take command of an army in a hazardous Indian campaign. Besides, he had had no experience in such a contest. He was, however, a man of sterling courage. He had been a lieutenant [Pg 197]in the army of General Wolfe at Quebec. He espoused the cause of the colonies, and had fought with distinguished valor at Trenton and Princeton. Under him, and second in command, was General Richard Butler, of Pennsylvania. Butler was a man of jealous and irritable temperament and had had a bitter controversy with Harmar over the campaign of the year before. A coolness now sprang up between him and St. Clair, which, as we shall see, led to lamentable results. The mind of General Harmar was filled with gloomy forebodings. Taking into consideration the material of which the army was composed and the total inefficiency of the quartermaster and the contractors, "it was a matter of astonishment to him," says Denny, "that the commanding general * * * * should think of hazarding, with such people, and under such circumstances, his reputation and life, and the lives of so many others, knowing, too, as both did, the enemy with whom he was going to contend; an enemy brought up from infancy to war, and perhaps superior to an equal number of the best men that could be taken against them."
Owing to delays the army which was to rendezvous at Fort Washington not later than July tenth, did not actually start into the wilderness until the fourth day of October. On the seventeenth of September, a halt had been made on the Great Miami, and Fort Hamilton erected. Twenty miles north of this place, a light fortification known as Fort St. Clair, was built. About six miles south of the present town of Greenville, in Darke county, Ohio, the army threw up the works of Fort Jefferson, and then moved forward at a snail's pace into the forests and [Pg 198]prairies. Every foot of the road through the heavy timber had to be cleared. Rains were constant. The troops were on half rations and terribly impatient. Parties of militia were daily deserting. On the twenty-seventh of October, Major Denny entered in his diary the following: "The season so far advanced it will be impracticable to continue the campaign. Forage entirely destroyed; horses failing and cannot be kept up; provisions from hand to mouth." The Little Turtle was again on the watch. A hostile army was entering the sacred domain of the Miamis. Indian scouts and runners were constantly lurking on the skirts of the army. In after years, a woman heard the great chief say of a fallen enemy: "We met; I cut him down; and his shade as it passes on the wind, shuns my walk!" This terrible foe, like a tiger in his jungle, was waiting for the moment to spring on his prey. It soon came. On the thirty-first of October, a party of militia, sixty or seventy in number, deserted the camp and swore that they would stop the packhorses in the rear, laden with provisions. St. Clair sent back after them the First United States Regiment under Major John Hamtramck, the most experienced Indian fighters in the whole army. These were the men the Indians most feared. The savage chieftain determined to strike.
Later than usual, and on the evening of November third, the tired and hungry army of St. Clair emerged on the headwaters of the river Wabash. "There was a small, elevated meadow on the east banks of this stream, while a dense forest spread gloomily all around." A light snow was on the ground, and the pools of water were covered [Pg 199]with a thin coat of ice. The Wabash at this point was twenty yards wide. The militia were thrown across the stream about three hundred yards in advance of the main army. As they took their positions, a few Indians were routed out of the underbrush and fled precipitately into the woods. The main body of troops was cooped up in close quarters. The right wing was composed of Butler's, Clark's, and Patterson's battalions, commanded by Major General Butler. These battalions formed the first line of the encampment. The left wing, consisting of Bedinger's and Gaither's battalions, and the Second United States Regiment of regulars, under the command of Colonel William Darke, formed the second line. An interval between these lines of about seventy yards "was all the ground would allow." St. Clair thought that his right flank was fairly well secured by a creek, "while a steep bank, and Faulkner's corps, some of the cavalry, and their picquets, covered the left flank." No works whatever were thrown up to protect the army, but the great camp-fires of the soldiers illumined the whole host. In the circumjacent forests, and a little in advance of the position occupied by the militia, was a camp of over eleven hundred Indians, composed of Miamis, Shawnees, Potawatomi, Delawares, Ottawas, Chippewas and Wyandots, with a number of British adherents from Detroit, waiting for the first hours of dawn of the coming day.
What strange sense of security lulled the vigilance of the American leaders will never be known. During the night the frequent firing of the sentinels disturbed the whole camp, and the outlying guards reported bands of [Pg 200]savages skulking about in considerable numbers. "About ten o'clock at night," says Major Denny, "General Butler, who commanded the right wing, was desired to send out an intelligent officer and party to make discoveries. Captain Slough, with two subalterns and thirty men, I saw parade at General Butler's tent for this purpose, and heard the general give Captain Slough very particular verbal orders how to proceed." Slough afterwards testified before a committee of Congress, that he was sent out during the night with a party of observation and that he saw a force of Indians approaching the American camp, with a view to reconnoitering it, whereupon, he hastened to the camp of the militia and reported to their leader. "I halted my party," says Slough, "near Colonel Oldham's tent, went into it, and awakened him, I believe about twelve o'clock. I told him that I was of his opinion, that the camp would be attacked in the morning, for I had seen a number of Indians. I proceeded to the camp, and as soon as I had passed the camp guards, dismissed the party, and went to General Butler's tent. As I approached it, I saw him come out of the tent, and stand by the fire. I went up to him, and took him some distance from it, not thinking it prudent that the sentry should hear what I had seen. I also told him what Colonel Oldham had said, and that, if he thought proper, I would go and make a report to General St. Clair. He stood some time, and after a pause, thanked me for my attention and vigilance, and said, as I must be fatigued, I had better go and lie down." Fatuous and unexplainable conduct in the face of certain peril!
[Pg 201]At a half hour before sunrise on the morning of November fourth, 1791, the army of St. Clair is at parade. The soldiers have just been dismissed and are returning to their tents, when the woods in front ring with the shots and yells of a thousand savages. On the instant the bugles sound the call to arms, but the front battalions are scarce in line, when the remnants of the militia, torn and bleeding, burst through them. The levies, firing, check the first mad rush of the oncoming warriors, but the Indians scattering to right and left, encircle the camp. The guards are down, the army in confusion, and under the pall of smoke which now settles down to within three feet of the ground, the murderous red men approach the lines. The yelling has now ceased, but from behind every tree, log and stump a pitiless fire rains on the troops. The officers shout, the men discharge their guns, but they see nothing. The artillery thunders with tremendous sound, but soldiers are falling on every hand.
St. Clair is valorous, but what can valor do in a tempest of death? He tries to mount a horse, but the horse is shot through the head, and the lad that holds him is wounded in the arm. He tries to mount a second, but horse and servant are both mowed down. The third horse is brought, but fearing disaster, St. Clair hobbles to the front lines to cheer his troops. He wears no uniform, and out from under his great three cornered hat flows his long gray hair. A ball grazes the side of his face and cuts away a lock. The weight of the savage fire is now falling on the artillery in the center. The gunners sink beneath their guns. The herculean lieutenant-colonel, [Pg 202]William Darke, who has fought at Yorktown, is ordered to charge on the right front. The troops rush forward with levelled bayonets, the savages are routed from their coverts, are visible a moment, and then disappear. As the levies advance the savages close in behind. Darke is surrounded on all sides—his three hundred men become thirty, and he falls back.
In the absence of Darke, the left flank of the army is now pressed in. Guns and artillery fall into the hands of the foe. Every artillery-man is killed but one, and he is badly wounded. The gunners are being scalped. St. Clair leads another charge on foot. The savages skip before the steel, disappear in the smoke and underbrush, and fire on the soldiers from every point as they make retreat. Charge after charge is made, but all are fruitless. The regulars and the levies, out in the open, unable to see the enemy, die by scores. The carnage is fearful.
The troops have fought for about three hours, and the remnants of the army are huddled in the center. The officers are about all down, for the savages have made it a point to single them out. Butler is fatally wounded and leaning against a tree. The men are stupefied and give up in despair. Shouts of command are given, officers' pistols are drawn, but the men refuse to fight. The wounded are lying in heaps, and the crossfire of the Indians, now centering from all points, threatens utter extermination. There is only one hope left—a desperate dash through the savage lines, and escape. "It was past nine o'clock," says Denny, "when repeated orders were given to charge towards the road. * * * Both officers [Pg 203]and men seemed confounded, incapable of doing anything; they could not move until it was told that a retreat was intended. A few officers put themselves in front, the men followed, the enemy gave way, and perhaps not being aware of the design, we were for a few moments left undisturbed."
In after years it was learned that Captain William Wells was in charge of a party of about three hundred young Indian warriors, who were posted behind logs and trees, immediately under the knoll on which the artillery stood. They picked off the artillery-men one by one, until a huge pile of corpses lay about the gun wheels. As the Indians swarmed into the camp in the intervals between the futile charges of the regulars, the artillery-men were all scalped. Wells belonged to a Kentucky family and had been captured by the Miamis when a child twelve years of age, and is said to have become the adopted son of Little Turtle. He had acquired the tongue and habits of a savage, but after the battle with St. Clair he seems to have been greatly troubled with the thought that he might have slain some of his own kindred. Afterwards when Wayne's army advanced into the Indian country he bade the Little Turtle goodbye, and became one of Wayne's most trusty and valuable scouts. After Fallen Timbers he returned to his Indian wife and children, but remained the friend of the United States. In General Harrison's day he was United States Indian agent at Fort Wayne, but was killed in the massacre of Fort Dearborn, in 1812, by the faithless bands of Potawatomi under the chief Blackbird.
[Pg 204]The retreat of St. Clair's army was very precipitate. "It was, in fact, a flight." The fugitives threw away their arms and accouterments and made a mad race for the walls of Fort Jefferson, twenty-nine miles away, arriving there a little after sunset. The loss of the Americans was appalling, and recalled the disaster of Braddock's defeat on the Monongahela. Out of an army of twelve hundred men and eighty-six officers, Braddock lost seven hundred and twenty-seven in killed and wounded. St. Clair's army consisted of fourteen hundred men and eighty-six officers, of whom eight hundred and ninety men and sixteen officers were killed or wounded. The slaughter of officers of the line had been so disastrous, that in the spring of the next year, Anthony Wayne, the new commander, found it extremely difficult to train the new troops. He had first to impart the military tactics to a group of young officers. "Several pieces of artillery, and all the baggage, ammunition, and provisions, were left on the field of battle, and fell into the hands of the Indians. The stores and other public property, lost in the action, were valued at thirty-two thousand eight hundred and ten dollars and seventy-five cents." The loss of the Indians was trifling. As near as may be ascertained, they had about thirty killed and fifty wounded.
The field of action was visited by General James Wilkinson about the first of February, 1792. An officer who was present relates the following: "The scene was truly melancholy. In my opinion those unfortunate men who fell into the enemy's hands, with life, were used with the greatest torture—having their limbs torn off; and [Pg 205]the women had been treated with the most indecent cruelty, having stakes, as thick as a person's arm, drove through their bodies." In December, 1793, General Wayne, having arrived at Greenville, Ohio, sent forward a detachment to the spot of the great defeat. "They arrived on the ground, on Christmas day, and pitched their tents at night; they had to scrape the bones together and carry them out to make their beds. The next day holes were dug, and the bones remaining above ground were buried; six hundred skulls being found among them."
The whole nation was terribly shocked by the news of the defeat. The bordermen of Pennsylvania, Virginia and Kentucky were immediately exposed to a renewal of Indian attacks and the government seemed powerless. St. Clair came in for severe censure, more severe in fact, than was justly warranted. The sending back of Hamtramck's regiment, the unfortified condition of the camp on the night before the attack, the posting of the militia in advance of the main army, and the utter lack of scouts and runners, were all bad enough, but on the other hand, the delay and confusion in the quartermaster's department, the dereliction of the contractors, and the want of discipline among the militia and the levies, were all matters of extenuation. To win was hopeless. To unjustly denounce an old and worthy veteran of the Revolution, who acted with so much manly courage on the field of battle, ill becomes an American. A committee of Congress completely exonerated him.
The administration itself and the department of war, were sharply criticized. But the representatives of the [Pg 206]people themselves were more to blame than the government. Thousands had deprecated the attempt of the President to protect the frontiers and to sustain the arm of the western generals. The mean and niggardly support accorded the commander-in-chief, was largely instrumental in bringing about the lamentable result. The jealous and parsimonious states of the east, had regarded only their own selfish ends, to the utter exclusion of the national interest.