Monday, November 5, 2012

221 Years Ago in Ohio-- The Bloody Battle of the Wabash

Yesterday was the 221st anniversary of the Battle of  the Wabash, also known as St. Clair's defeat after the American commander at the battle, Major General Arthur St. Clair. You can read more about the battle here:

Of St. Clair's approximately 1,000 men and civilian camp followers, less than 300 survived, and most of those were walking wounded. Some sources (including the article) give casualties as high as 950 of the 1,000.

How did it happen? Essentially, General St. Clair's troops were marching into the wilderness of western Ohio and stopped for the night on November without fortifying the campsite. A small advance guard of Kentucky volunteers was posted outside the encampment, but they were quickly overrun. St. Clair's best troops, the 1st United States Infantry Regiment, had been sent back to escort food supplies and most of his men were green recruits. The perimeter of the camp was too small, and when the 1,000 Indian warriors under Chief Little Turtle surrounded and began to fire from the cover of the forest, they created havoc in the American camp.

Even though the Americans had brought six field guns with them, they were unable to clear the Indians with canister fire or bayonet charges from the infantry. Instead, artillery crews were cut down by rifle fire, while the Indians simply retreated from the infantry and light dragoon charges before surrounding and cutting down the counter-attacking detachments.

The disaster would have an immense effect on American military thinking. In 1794, General Anthony Wayne's Legion was a sleek combined-arms force, much better trained and coordinated than St. Clair's army had been. They erected a fort on the bone-strewn site of the massacre and called it Fort Recovery.

Wayne's system of warfare was adopted from his experience during the American Revolution, and the legion was meant to move fast, each of its sub-legions included line infantry, light infantry skirmishers, riflemen, light dragoons, and cavalry as organic parts of the order of battle.

The Legion was converted back into a more conventional United States Army and largely disbanded after the Treaty of Greenville. But leaders such as William Henry Harrison (who had arrived in Cincinnati to witness the aftermath of St. Clair's defeat in '91) remembered. Their tactics during the War of 1812 would draw upon these experiences.

General Harrison was surprised at the Battle of Tippecanoe in 1811 in much the same circumstances as St. Clair had been in, with a compact bivouac site lacking fortification (perhaps in order to goad the Indians into attacking him). His infantrymen were able to maintain their perimeter until daylight, when he ordered a decisive counter-attack by mounted dragoons. Later on, he was always careful to order breastworks put up wherever his army stopped to camp.

Another American commander, Brigadier General James Winchester, was not so careful on the eve of the battle of Frenchtown in January 1813. The exposed 17th US Infantry Regiment was cut to pieces while the regiments of Kentucky militia, who had taken shelter behind a wall, were able to hold out much longer. Strangely, at the beginning of his march in the fall of 1812, Winchester had ordered his men to fortify themselves nightly. It was probably the sheer fatigue of their winter campaign that caused Winchester and his officers to repeat the fatal mistake of St. Clair.

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