Ten years before the Lewis and Clark Expedition, William Clark was involved in one of the most significant—and underrated—campaigns in American military history. Following the end of the American Revolution, the British defied the terms of the 1783 Treaty of Paris and refused to withdraw their troops from the old Northwest Territory of the United States (present day Ohio, Indiana, and Illinois). Instead, the British formed an alliance with the Indian tribes of the region—Chippewa, Ottawa, Pottawatomi, Shawnee, Delaware, Mingo, Miami, and Wyandot—a coalition sometimes known as the Western Indian Confederacy. Together, the British and their Indian allies waged brutal, unrelenting warfare against American settlers moving west into the Northwest Territory and Kentucky.
This war became a brutal “eye-for-an-eye” quagmire that seemingly had no end. Militia leaders, including Daniel Boone and George Rogers Clark, attempted to strike back at the British-Indian alliance, but any gains were temporary. Armed by British might, the Indians would quickly regroup and hit back harder than ever. Finally, after the U.S. federal government was formed, George Washington took on the responsibility for combating the British-Indian menace.
In 1790, Miami chief Little Turtle—considered by many historians to be one of the greatest military geniuses ever produced on the North American continent—trounced a punitive expedition under General Josiah Harmar that George Washington had sent against the Wabash and Miami Indians. Humiliated, President Washington authorized another huge force under General Arthur St. Clair. St. Clair moved out of Cincinnati in the fall of 1791 at the head of 1400 men—virtually the entire United States Army.
The result was utter disaster. Indian forces under Little Turtle and Blue Jacket ambushed St. Clair’s army and inflicted a defeat so overwhelming that it far eclipses Custer’s Last Stand in terms of casualties. Over 600 of St. Clair’s men were killed and another 258 wounded—an astounding 62% casualty rate. (For comparison, about 200 died at Custer’s Last Stand in 1876 out of 2400 assigned to the campaign.)
In essence, the United States Army was wiped out, a defeat comparable in magnitude to the Navy’s losses at Pearl Harbor in 1941. In the aftermath, international observers predicted that it was only a matter of time before the United States lost the Northwest Territory to Britain. The credibility of George Washington’s government was in ruins.
Enter Anthony Wayne, known since the Revolution as “Mad Anthony.” Washington named Wayne the commanding general of the newly-formed Legion of the United States and gave him carte blanche to recruit, train, and outfit a force. While the Washington Administration tried and failed to negotiate a settlement with the Indians, Wayne meticulously prepared a campaign to seize the Ohio territory, defeat the Indians, and lay the groundwork for a lasting peace based on military might.
William Clark joined Wayne’s Legion as a lieutenant in March 1792, at the age of 21. Already a veteran of the Kentucky militia, Clark had been Indian-fighting for a couple of years and was lucky to have escaped being involved in St. Clair’s Defeat. As we noted in a previous post, Clark didn’t like Wayne very much. Young, eager for glory, and under the influence of Wayne’s arch-rival James Wilkinson, Clark was a frustrated young man who complained constantly that Wayne was a sick, timid old granny who was unwilling to fight.
While Clark chafed, the army drilled at Cincinnati, built a string of frontier forts and supply depots, and prepared for war. At their stronghold in Detroit, the British braced for the coming attack. They constructed a strong fort, Miamis, near present-day Toledo in April 1794, to prevent the Americans from marching on Detroit. Further, the British assured the Indians they could count on British supplies and support. The leaders of the Western Indian Confederacy, except for the cautious Little Turtle, were confident they would win the upcoming fight. They had no clue that the real British policy was to avoid any possibility of being drawn into another war with the United States. Wayne, on the other hand, had permission from President Washington to take any action necessary to defeat the Indians—even if he had to strike the British themselves.
Next: The Battle of Fallen Timbers and its aftermath.