As detailed in our novel The Fairest Portion of the Globe, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark met and had their first experiences as leaders of men while serving in the U.S. Army on the Ohio frontier. Their world was essentially defined by log forts, which stood as bastions of American military power amidst a vast wilderness dominated by Indians. The more I’ve learned about the frontier forts of the Wayne’s Legion period, the more I’ve been impressed by just how much Lewis & Clark were influenced by Anthony Wayne and his “by the book” approach to surviving on an Indian frontier.
The forts of the Ohio frontier varied in size, but were all built along the same general model, as log stockades that rose at least 12 feet high with four- and six-pound cannons protruding from the bastions, ready to blast grapeshot at any Indians attempting to scale the walls. Inside the fort’s walls lay the barracks and storerooms of the garrison. The roof sloped inwards so that the fort could capture rainwater in the event of a siege. When peaceful conditions prevailed, the men (and often their wives) planted vegetables and raised livestock outside the forts.
The first forts erected in the Ohio territory, such as Fort Harmar in 1785, allowed the army to establish a presence to repel the advance of settlers into the Ohio territory. Thanks to the efforts of George Rogers Clark, Ohio was part of the United States under the treaty that ended the American Revolution. However, the territory was considered indefensible with the small army of the fledgling republic. But nothing, not the Army and not even repeated massacres, seemed to deter the pioneers from venturing into Ohio’s cold, rough, rich terrain.
Eventually, the conflict developed into a brutal quagmire, with British-backed Indians essentially carrying on the war of the British against American independence by other means. In 1791, President Washington decided to do something about it, sending out virtually the entire United States Army — some 1400 men — under the leadership of Arthur St. Clair to punish and defeat the Indians. The result, as we detailed in a previous post, was complete disaster for the United States.
Over 600 of St. Clair’s men were killed by the forces of Little Turtle and Blue Jacket, 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.
Anthony Wayne, a retired hero of the American Revolution, was called in to rebuild the Army (which he designated the Legion of the United States) practically from scratch. It was at this time that 22-year-old William Clark joined up and was commissioned an infantry lieutenant as Wayne worked to rebuild his officer corps.
Clark had a ringside seat as Wayne methodically trained his army, then moved them to Fort Washington at present-day Cincinnati to prepare for his mission, which was to avenge St. Clair’s Defeat and make Ohio safe for Americans once and for all. Clark kept a journal which is now one of the most important primary sources on the campaign. (It also exposes young Clark’s naive infatuation with none other than our old friend General James Wilkinson, whose machinations against Clark’s brother George Roger Clark helped lead to his final ruin, and who much later may have played a role in the death of Meriwether Lewis).
“William Clark’s Journal of General Wayne’s Campaign” was published in 1915 by the Mississippi Valley Historical Review and can be read on Google Books. One thing the journal documents is that Clark really didn’t like Anthony Wayne very much. Unbeknownst to Clark or anyone else in the officer corps, Wayne had sweeping authorization to wage total war against the Indians, even if it meant reigniting war with the British, who had built Fort Miamis in American territory near present-day Toledo in clear violation of the Treaty of Paris.
With that kind of responsibility under his belt, and with an understanding of his opponent (namely, Little Turtle, one of the greatest military geniuses the American continent ever produced), Wayne proceeded with extreme deliberation. A primary reason for St. Clair’s defeat was poor preparation, and Wayne built a new fort, Greeneville (present-day Greenville, Ohio). Wayne promptly took the Legion into winter camp here and spent the cold months of 1793-94 drilling his army.
Provisioning the fort (as well as others built by previous generals) was always a challenge on the frontier. Though still young, William Clark was an experienced leader, woodsman, and river man, and was tasked with a great deal of responsibility during this period, leading large groups of troops and traders on long missions to and from centers of civilization like Louisville and Vincennes. With his usual flair for bluntness and creative spelling, Clark described his duties as “corn halling,” but it was dangerous work by any standard. In March 1794, Clark was in command of a pack train of 700 horses, 70 soldiers and 20 dragoons when it was attacked by Indians. Clark’s quick thinking and self-possession saved the day and the Indians were driven away after a battle lasting just 15 minutes.
According to his journal, Clark didn’t get the attaboys he expected from General Wayne after this incident, leading him to believe the general was playing favorites. “Kissing goes by favor,” he noted bitterly. In fact, Wayne was paying more attention than Clark realized, and within weeks he had named Clark as quartermaster for the entire Fourth Sublegion, in charge of seeing to the supply needs of some 500 men.
Coming soon: Wayne’s forts of the Fallen Timbers campaign