Archive for the ‘Frontier warfare’ Category

Location: Vincennes, Indiana (midway between Louisville, Kentucky and St. Louis, Missouri)

George Rogers Clark Memorial, Vincennes, Indiana

In the spring a young woman’s fancy turns to George Rogers Clark. Or at least mine does, remembering a couple of great trips we made to Vincennes, Indiana, to visit the site of Clark’s amazing victory over the British at Fort Sackville in 1779. Ultimately, Clark’s triumph had incalculable consequences: it secured for the United States the present-day states of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Michigan, Wisconsin and a portion of Minnesota. It is impossible to imagine the Louisiana Purchase and westward expansion without Clark’s triumph.

I’ve approached Vincennes from both Louisville and St. Louis. From Louisville, most of the driving is on a winding highway through the woods, which unfortunately must be shared with innumerable trucks. The St. Louis route is more interesting and educational. Taking tiny backroads will enable you to closely follow the trail that George Rogers Clark and his band of 172 intrepid volunteers followed in 1779, when they set off for a surprise winter attack against British forces who controlled Fort Sackville on the Wabash River near the French village of Vincennes.

Acting on the time-honored underdog principle that the best defense is a good offense, Clark aimed to destroy the forces of British General Henry Hamilton (despised on the American frontier as the “Hair Buyer” for his practice of encouraging Indian scalping raids) before Hamilton could bring his superior forces out in the spring and destroy Clark’s. Today’s route lets you skip the frozen swamps they encountered and instead takes you past cultivated fields,big farmhouses and barns (some in full operation and some abandoned), and many little Illinois towns.

And fortunately, you can cross ravines on old railroad bridges with names like Wabash Cannonball and Baby Bear. Clark and his men weren’t so lucky. They encountered a completely flooded landscape. The account of their courageous approach to Vincennes is the centerpiece of James Alexander Thom’s Long Knife (highly recommended). Clark and many of his men would never be the same after the physical suffering they underwent here.

Inside the George Rogers Clark Memorial

It’s one of the great mysteries of my entire Lewis & Clark existence that the incredible contributions of George Rogers Clark to his nation’s history are now considered “local history” and rarely taught outside of the Ohio River Valley. That certainly wasn’t the case in the 1920s, during the sesquicentennial of the American Revolution. The state of Indiana laid plans to build a memorial to Clark, a project that was taken over in the 1930s by the federal government. Completed in 1936 and dedicated by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, the Clark memorial is the largest federal monument outside of Washington, D.C. and, along with the Jefferson Memorial and the Theodore Roosevelt Memorial in New York, the last of the great classical federal monuments.

The Clark memorial is situated in a lovely park along the Wabash on the one-time site of Fort Sackville. It appears all the more gigantic in scale with the town of Vincennes, a slightly seedy old railroad town awaiting history’s next call. At the visitors’ center adjacent to the memorial, we saw some small but interesting exhibits, received instructions form a guide in period dress who made darn sure we didn’t go away ignorant of the relationship between George Rogers Clark and his younger brother William, and took in a good film about George and the Vincennes campaign.

A pleasant walk takes you to the magnificent Beaux-Arts monument itself, designed by Frederic Charles Hirons, whose portfolio included numerous public buildings. Inside the rotunda, a beautiful statue of George by Hermon Atkins MacNeil stands in the center. MacNeil is best known for designing the famous “Standing Liberty” U.S. quarter, as well as sculpting the figure of “Justice” for the U.S. Supreme Court building. Some of Clark’s famous quotations are displayed on the floor and walls, including:

“If a country is not worth protecting, it is not worth claiming.”


“Great things have been effected by a few men well conducted.”

On all sides are large and thoughtful murals done by Ezra Winter depicting the scenes of George’s heroism, including leading settlers into Kentucky, taking Kaskaskia, and leading the march to Vincennes. It was fun to talk to the guard and learn some about the structural issues that constantly plague the monument, mostly due to the challenges of maintaining it in the extremely harsh conditions that prevail in winter.

Liz at the statue of Francis Vigo, Vincennes, Indiana

Afterwards, I highly recommend that you stroll the grounds to take a look at the Wabash and particularly to visit the Johns Angel statue of George’s friend, the great patriot Francis Vigo. Vigo was an Italian immigrant and fur trader who helped the patiot cause with money and intelligence. For his trouble, he was financially ruined when the U.S. government refused to reimburse Clark for his expenses (essentially destroying Clark’s life). Vigo died in poverty, though his heirs pursued his case, finally winning restitution for Vigo’s services in 1875 — a century after the war! Also, don’t miss the nearby historic church with its statue of another of Clark’s benefactors, Father Pierre Gibault, who persuaded the French inhabitants of Vincennes and the rest of the Illinois territory to aid the Americans.

Vincennes is a great place to visit for anyone who deeply cares about the founding of this country. Here, Clark pulled off one of the great bloodless victories of all time, a colossal, audacious bluff in which he convinced Hamilton that he was camped on his doorstep with five times the forces he actually had. The befuddled general surrendered to Clark without firing a shot. Imagine Hamilton’s surprise when Clark’s array of starving frontiersmen trooped into Fort Sackville to take possession, and he realized he’d been had by a 26-year-old Virginian who just happened to be a military genius.

For more reading:

George Rogers Clark and the Taking of Vincennes, Part I
George Rogers Clark and the Taking of Vincennes, Part II
Great George Rogers Clark site from the Indiana Historical Bureau


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Fort Washington, 1791, by Major Jonathan Hart. The city of Cincinnati grew up around the fort, which was active from 1789-1808. It is a major setting for our novel The Fairest Portion of the Globe.

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.

St. Clair's Defeat. From Stories of Ohio, by William Dean Howells, 1897.

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.

The Battle of Fallen Timbers, Part 1

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.

View of Fort Greeneville, active 1793-1814

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

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George Rogers Clark and the Defense of Fort Harrod in 1777, by Frederick Yohn

The first obligation of the historical novelist is to create a believable alternate universe, a world of the past that people can enter and explore from the perspective of our own times. When we think about entering the world of Meriwether Lewis and William Clark, we may think of technology (no electricity, no telegraph, no railroads, no steamboats). We may think of politics (the U.S. was not a world power, the Indians still hunted the buffalo unmolested by white expansion). Or we may think of glaring social differences, such as the existence of slavery or the role of women.

One difference we may not always consider is the difference in psychology that existed on Lewis and Clark’s frontier. Quite simply, a huge percentage of the population spent years living under the constant threat of Indian raids, and many people had witnessed atrocities and even engaged in mortal combat with the Indians. Today we might expect people who experienced such helplessness and horror to be at risk for post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

PTSD is best understood as a persistent anxiety disorder that is caused by severe trauma that threatens you with serious injury or death. People may suffer from PTSD after a natural disaster or being the victim of a crime, but it is most commonly associated with combat veterans.To some degree the affliction is still quite poorly understood, especially why some people suffer from PTSD and others who endured the same events do not. The answer may lie in biochemistry, differences in the brain, or even genetics. The National Institutes of Health estimates 8% of people involved in a traumatic event will develop the disorder, though some experts believe it is significantly higher.

PTSD has been observed in combat veterans going back to the Civil War, though it was called by other names such as combat fatigue, shell shock, and soldier’s heart. So what about the frontier of Lewis & Clark’s time?

The defense of Boonesborough, 1777

Of the two explorers, the most likely to have been intimately familiar with frontier trauma was William Clark. From the time he was 14, Clark grew up on the Kentucky frontier. During the American Revolution, Kentucky was by far the most violent place in America; in fact, some historians believe that from 1776-1794, Kentucky was the most violent place in the world. In a great article (published in the Australian academic journal ERAS, November 2008) called “Soldiers of Settlement: Violence and Psychological Warfare on the Kentucky Frontier, 1775-1783,” Darren Reid writes about the relentless everyday warfare suffered by Kentuckians during the Revolution and early Federal period. Deaths by combat were seven times higher than in any of the 13 rebelling colonies, and many of them came among civilians.

Meriwether Lewis spent several years of his boyhood on the Georgia frontier, and family lore holds that the family had a tense wait for an Indian raid on one occasion, though fortunately no violence actually occurred. Kentucky was different and far worse. Essentially, almost every adult Clark knew had been a part of extreme traumatic violence, either as a victim, perpetrator, witness, or all three. Certainly Clark’s legendary older brother, the great frontier soldier George Rogers Clark, was deeply involved in the relentless warfare, having formulated and carried out numerous daring plans to combat the British and their allies among the Shawnee, Cherokee, Wyandot, and numerous other tribes.

Clark’s own family suffered severe losses during the frontier war. Clark’s brother Dick, age 24, was serving as an assistant to George Rogers when he disappeared while carrying a message near present-day Vincennes, Indiana. His body was never found but he was presumed killed by Indians. Clark’s cousin Joe Rogers was among the many frontiersmen kidnapped by the Shawnee. As memorably recounted in Long Knife by James Alexander Thom, Rogers lived as a captive for several years before troops engaged with the Shawnee at the Battle of Piqua near present-day Cincinnati in 1782. Unrecognizable as his former self, he was gunned down by American forces under the command of George Rogers Clark while trying to run to the American lines. One can only imagine the anguish of Clark recovering the body of his dead cousin.

The Shawnee and their allies were highly organized and militarily savvy, and they were backed by the full power of the British in supplying both arms and advisers to drive the Americans out of Kentucky. Atrocities included torture, mutilation, and kidnapping of children, which resulted in a spiraling war of retaliation and revenge. Even after the Treaty of Paris ended the American Revolution in 1783, the British did not vacate their frontier forts (though required to do so by the treaty) and continue to arm and back the Indians.

Kentucky militia reenactor. Courtesy Sumac Enterprises (Ohio-based storytellers and reenactors Fred and Ross Shaw)

William Clark may have begun to go out on engagements to fight the Indians with George when he was as young as 16. It is certain that he enlisted in the Kentucky militia at the age of 19 and took part in several search-and-destroy missions against the Indians, including burning villages and crops. In at least one of these skirmishes, Indians attempting to flee in canoes were massacred.

At the age of 21, Clark served as a militiaman under our old friend General James Wilkinson, burning Indian villages but being extremely fortunate to miss the battle known as St. Clair’s Defeat. The losses suffered by the U.S. Army and Kentucky militia in the battle were staggering and have been compared by historians to the disaster at Pearl Harbor. Clark would almost certainly have been killed.

In 1792, Clark was commissioned an infantry lieutenant in the regular army, then being rebuilt almost from scratch by General Anthony Wayne. By 1794, he was highly experienced at scouting and escorting supply convoys and had become a skilled leader, woodsman, and riverman. In March of that year, a large pack train under his command was attacked by Indians. Clark built a breastwork of baggage and fought the Indians off. In August, he commanded a group of Chickasaw allies in the Battle of Fallen Timbers, one of the most decisive battles in American history. This excerpt from our novel The Fairest Portion of the Globe gives something of the flavor of that day:

The forest exploded. Hidden in the weeds and the trees, the Indians fired. Balls thudded into flesh. Trees splintered and became projectiles, jagged shards of wood spiraling into faces and eyes.

The forest screamed. Soldiers bellowed, officers roared, horses shrieked. Clark bawled so many orders at the Chickasaws he lost his voice, and now couldn’t remember anything he’d said. Guns blasted everywhere.

In his article, Reid explicitly compares the frontier period in Kentucky with the “woodland warfare” experienced by troops in Vietnam, including the factors of guerrilla war, atrocities committed against civilians, and a constant sense that danger was lurking everywhere and could strike at any moment. Added to that was the witnessing of the suffering of women and children when their men were killed in the war — a circumstance that, in the words of one settler, left the families “poor, distressed, & naked, & starved.”

For decades to come, frontiersmen were often characterized as hard-drinking, violent, and anti-social, as well as restless and always ready to move on to the next frontier. It would be interesting to know to what degree PTSD played a role in these aspects of life in the early American West. In any case, dealing with traumatized people would have simply been part of life for William Clark (and later, during his many years on the frontier, Meriwether Lewis). Who knows — it’s even possible PTSD may have played a role in the alcoholism and lack of focus that characterized the post-war years of George Rogers Clark.

Recent studies of the effects of PTSD on the civilian populaces of places like Bosnia, Rwanda, and Afghanistan show that the populations have much higher levels of mental illness than similar countries where death and horror are not everyday realities. Combat survivors, who generally have no access to mental health care, suffer from violent flashbacks and unexpected rages. There is even a new word in the language of Rwanda: ihahamuka, which means “breathless with frequent fear.”

Without any mental health care records whatsoever, it’s hard to know how one would go about researching the prevalence of PTSD on the frontier. What is certain is that Clark, Lewis, and anyone else navigating the social scene on the frontier would have to be aware that a huge percentage of the soldiers and civilians they encountered had been involved in the carnage — a reality so gruesome that, thankfully, few of us can imagine it today.

For more reading:

The Battle of Fallen Timbers, Part 1
The Battle of Fallen Timbers, Part 2
Young William Clark
Lewis and Clark road trip: Old Fort Harrod

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By all accounts, Meriwether Lewis was a competent, respected and reliable army officer – otherwise, he would not have been selected as leader of the cross-continental exploring expedition. But when he was just starting out in the army, Lewis did not travel a golden road any more than any young person beginning a new career. In 1795, 21-year-old Ensign Lewis was in trouble so deep he could not have foreseen his later success. He had just joined the Fourth Sublegion of “Mad Anthony” Wayne’s army, and he was facing a potentially disastrous court-martial.

Officers at a court martial, circa 1835

Officers at a court martial, circa 1835

Courts-martial are as old as armies. To maintain army discipline in the field, the court martial deals with crimes committed by soldiers, especially uniquely military offenses. Then as now, courts-martial are not standing courts, but ad hoc bodies convened each time that charges are referred for trial. A military court may consist of a military judge, the prosecutor and defense counsel, and the members of the court who will decide guilt or innocence and pass sentence on the accused. In Lewis’s case, the outcome of the trial was being followed closely by General Anthony Wayne himself.

"Mad Anthony" Wayne

General "Mad Anthony" Wayne

One of the more comprehensive accounts of Lewis’s court-martial published to date is in Richard Dillon’s Meriwether Lewis: A Biography, originally published in 1965. (We eagerly await new research and a fuller account of the court-martial in Thomas Danisi’s forthcoming book, Uncovering the Truth about Meriwether Lewis, due out this month.)  Here is how Dillon describes the events of November 6, 1795:

Major Joseph Shaylor presided at [Meriwether Lewis’s] trial, the first such court-martial held in Wayne’s Legion. Testimony began on the 6th and did not close until the 12th because of an adjournment. The charges were brought against Lewis by a Lieutenant Elliott (perhaps Surgeon John Elliott, a New Yorker [or Lieutenant Joseph Elliott – ed.]). The first was the accusation that Lewis had made a direct, open and contemptuous violation of Articles One and Two of the Seventh Section of the Rules and Articles of War. To wit, that on September 24, 1795, Lewis had engaged in provocative speech and gestured in the Lieutenant’s quarters and had presumed, that same day, to send him a challenge to a duel. Elliott’s second charge was that of conduct unbecoming an officer and a gentleman. According to the accuser, Lewis, drunk, had burst into his room, uninvited and “abruptly and in an ungentlemanly manner.” He had then not only insulted the Lieutenant without provocation and offered to duel to the death with him, but had disturbed the “peace and harmony” of the officers who were Elliott’s guests that day.

It is believed that the conflict that triggered Lewis’s outburst was over politics. Then as now, politics made quick enemies. Lewis was, of course, a Jeffersonian Republican, and Elliott was evidently a Federalist.

See The Politics of Meriwether Lewis

Given the mores among the officers of Wayne’s Legion in the 1790’s, drunkenness and political disagreements were hardly uncommon, so perhaps the most serious of the infractions of which Lewis was accused was dueling. Gentlemen of the time, particularly Southern gentlemen, lived by the code duello, in which insults and other offenses to personal honor could not be tolerated. Such an insult must be quickly redressed – if not verbally, than with pistols at ten paces, in a ritual of carefully choreographed violence.

Dueling in the 18th century

Dueling in the 18th century

According to Alan D. Gaff’s Bayonets in the Wilderness, numerous duels had interrupted the Legion’s training and led to at least six fatalities amongst an already thin officer corps in the preceding years.  Even for Anthony Wayne — who had disagreed with George Washington’s remonstrances against dueling among officers during the Revolution – enough was enough. He was ready to dismiss officers who resorted to dueling when they could not get along. Article 2 of the Seventh Section of the Rules and Articles of War read: “No officer or soldier shall presume to send a challenge to any other officer or soldier, to fight a duel, upon pain, if a commissioned officer, of being cashiered.”

Bayonets in the Wilderness by Alan D. Gaff

Bayonets in the Wilderness by Alan D. Gaff (2008)

The battery of charges was stated to Lewis at the start of his court-martial, and he was asked to plead. According to Dillon, “The reply from the now stone-cold sober Virginian was a resounding ‘Not Guilty.'” The officers of the court called witnesses, studied the evidence, and finally issued their decision six days later. Lewis was indeed found not guilty of the charges against him. The court recommended that he be “acquitted with Honor,” a verdict that was upheld by Anthony Wayne, with the added “fond hope” that “as this is the first, that it also may be the last instance in the Legion of convening a Court for a trial of this nature.”

The fact that Meriwether Lewis was competent and reliable – adjectives that could not be applied to every officer in Wayne’s army – no doubt worked in his favor. As fate would have it, this unpleasant experience led to one of the most fortuitous events in Lewis’s life. To forestall any possible further conflict with Elliott, Lewis received a transfer. He was reassigned to the Chosen Rifle Company, a unit of elite sharpshooters commanded by another young officer, Lieutenant William Clark. The rest, as they say, is history.

More interesting reading from “The Art of Manliness” Blog: An Affair of Honor – The Duel

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The Burning of Washington, 1814

The Burning of Washington, 1814

Today marks the 197th anniversary of the Battle of Bladensburg. The day began with President James Madison confident that the U.S. capital was safe from the threat of British attack. It ended with the public buildings of Washington a smoking ruin. It is one of the ironies of history that the battle that is sometimes called “the greatest disgrace ever dealt to American arms” led to the genesis of the modern U.S. Army.

From the colonial period forward, Americans had had a deep mistrust of standing armies. Colonials who fought alongside British troops in the French and Indian War had a low opinion of British troops, finding that the redcoats were generally coarse, profane drunkards from the lower ranks of British society. Further aggravating colonists’ hostility towards the British Army was the massive debt incurred during the conflict, which led the British Parliament to tax the colonies more heavily. The Quartering Act, which required colonists to provide housing and provisions for troops in their own homes, was another thorn in the colonists’ side. For many, the British Army began to seem like merely an expensive way to enforce King George’s tyranny.

The Boston Massacre, March 1770

The Boston Massacre, March 1770

With the Boston Massacre in March 1770, Americans’ dislike of British soldiers turned into a rebellious rage. The death of five civilians at the hands of British troops crystallized American attitudes about standing armies for generations. The final draft of the Declaration of Independence railed against King George’s abuse of the army’s power. Citing his insistence that the British army was independent of American civilian authority, his quartering the troops among the people, and his use of mercenary soldiers, the Declaration accused King George of using the army to “compleat the works of death, desolation, and tyranny.”

After independence, James Madison was one of the founding fathers who most strongly opposed creating a standing army on the American continent. Despite Madison’s support for a strong central government, he felt that a regular professional army could not be “a safe companion to liberty.” Madison told the 1787 Constitutional Convention in Philadelphia, “The means of defense against foreign danger have been always the instruments of tyranny at home. Among the Romans it was a standing maxim to excite a war whenever a revolt was apprehended. Throughout all Europe, the armies kept up under the pretext of defending have enslaved the people.”

Most Americans shared Madison’s view. By the early 19th century, hatred of a standing army had become a powerful and near-universal attitude among the American people. The Continental Army was quickly disbanded after the Revolution, and irregular state militias were generally relied upon for local defense, with the exception of regular troops posted on the western frontier and at the arsenal at West Point. The Legion of the United States, created in 1792 to counteract the British/Indian threat on the western frontier, was disbanded after its victory at the Battle of Fallen Timbers, the signing of the Treaty of Greenville, and the surrender of British forts in 1796.

James Madison

James Madison

During the Jefferson years, the regular U.S. Army was kept small, weak, and deeply politicized. Jefferson tolerated the dubious loyalties of commanding General James Wilkinson in exchange for his commitment to keep the army firmly under civilian control. The officer corps was full of incompetent dinosaurs from the Revolution, appointed mostly for political purposes, and the army relied heavily on the participation of citizen-soldiers – the mainstay of the Revolution – which all too often were poorly trained and ill-equipped for battle. It was this army that Madison inherited, and saw in action at Bladensburg, in August 1814.

The British Army, newly energized by the defeat and exile of Napoleon in the spring of 1814, had turned its attentions to the American theater. A brigade of British troops under Major General Robert Ross, consisting entirely of veterans from the army of the Duke of Wellington,  arrived in the Chesapeake Bay to “effect a diversion on the coasts of the United States of America in favor of the army employed in the defence of Upper and Lower Canada.”

U.S. Secretary of War John Armstrong was not concerned about an attack on Washington, believing the British were more likely to attack the more strategic city of Baltimore. Commanding the troops defending Washington was Brigadier General William H. Winder, a lawyer by trade and a veteran of the Battle of Stoney Creek. Although Winder theoretically had 15,000 militia at his disposal, his “boots on the ground” troop strength was actually about 120 Dragoons, 300 Regular troops, and 1500 poorly trained militia.

General William H. Winder

General William H. Winder

After a brief clash with Ross’s leading troops on August 22, Winder fell back and began to set up a line of defense at Bladensburg. Bladensburg commanded the roads to Baltimore, Annapolis, and one the two roads available for an advance on Washington. Unfortunately, Winder had placed Brigadier General Tobias Stansbury in command at Bladensburg. When Stansbury received a message from Winder that he had withdrawn across the Eastern Branch of the Potomac and intended to fire the lower bridge, Stansbury panicked, abandoned his strong position, and threw away the American tactical advantage.

The action the next day was a disaster for the Americans. The defending U.S. troops were poorly placed and their fire was largely ineffectual. When it became clear the British were about to overwhelm their position, the poorly-trained militia broke and ran, fleeing through the streets of Washington. A group of 400 navy men and marines desperately tried to hold the field, but were heavily outnumbered, badly cut up, and forced to retire.

The road to Washington was wide open, and the British marched in. That night, they burned the Capitol, the White House, and most of Washington’s other public buildings to the ground. Madison, who along with the rest of the cabinet had been present at the battle, was forced to flee for his life and liberty. The cabinet’s hasty flight was later satirized in an 1816 poem, “The Bladensburg Races:”

So like an arrow swift he flew,

Shot from an archer’s bow;

So did he fly—so after him

As swift did fly MONROE.

Six gentlemen upon the road

Beheld our GENERAL ride—

MONROE behind—the chapeau gone;

The broadsword by his side.

As for Madison, what he had seen on the battlefield caused him to reexamine his long-held prejudice against a standing army. Just before the White House went up in flames, he exclaimed, “I could never have believed that so great a difference existed between regular troops and a militia force, if I had not witnessed the scenes of this day.” Madison’s eyewitness view of the debacle at Bladensburg, along with the superb performance of well-trained American troops under General Winfield Scott at the Battle of Lundy’s Lane earlier in the summer, convinced him that a well-trained, well-equipped standing army was not a danger to liberty, but a vital part of national defense.

The Battle of Lundy's Lane, July 1814

The Battle of Lundy's Lane, July 1814

This sea-change in Madison’s attitude led to a wholesale reorganization of the U.S. Army. Within the next year, four-fifths of the Old Army’s officer corps was dismissed, with the new criteria for an officer’s appointment being competence to serve rather than political affiliation. Under new Secretary of War William Crawford, funding was provided for a military general staff, an expanded military academy at West Point, and improved conditions and uniform drill for new recruits. Much of their training was to be implemented by Winfield Scott, the hero of Lundy’s Lane. Out of disgrace and defeat at Bladensburg, the modern U.S. army was born.

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Have you seen me? This portrait of young William Clark has been missing since the mid-1950s, when it was known to be in the possession of Mrs. William Bryce, who purchased it from the estate of Clark's granddaughter Eleanor Voorhis. If you know anything of its whereabouts, contact Carolyn Gilman, the special projects director at the Missouri History Society.

Our novel The Fairest Portion of the Globe is about how Lewis and Clark became such good friends. They met as young officers under the command of “Mad” Anthony Wayne during 1795-96, a time in which the army was occupying the Ohio territory and guarding against the many intrigues, foreign and domestic, that imperiled the western United States.

Before he met Lewis, Clark was involved in one of the most significant and underrated military campaigns in American history. Following the American Revolution, the British never withdrew their troops from the western territory of the United States. Instead, they formed an alliance with the Indian tribes of the region–Chippewa, Ottawa, Pottawatomi, Shawnee, Delaware, Mingo, and Wyandot–and waged unrelenting warfare against the civilian populace in the West (mostly settled in Kentucky). This war became a brutal “eye-for-an-eye” quagmire with seemingly no possible end.

The early campaigns to strike back against the Indians were led by militia leaders (including Daniel Boone and George Rogers Clark). Any success these campaigns had never lasted; the Indians, armed by British might, would regroup and launch more attacks. Finally, after the present Federal government was formed, the United States took on the responsibility for combating the Indian-British menace.

In 1790, General Josiah Harmar’s punitive expedition against the Wabash and Miami Indians was beaten badly by the forces of Little Turtle, the Miami chief whom historians consider one of the great military geniuses ever produced on the North American continent. Stung by the humiliating defeat, President Washington authorized a 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 as it existed at that time.

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 scope. Over 600 of St. Clair’s men were killed and another 258 wounded–an astounding 62% casualty rate. (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 the aftermath, international observers predicted that it was only a matter of time before the United States lost the west to Britain; the credibility of George Washington’s government was in a shambles.

The Fallen Timbers monument near Toledo, Ohio depicts Mad Anthony Wayne along with a Kentucky militiaman and an Indian combatant.

Enter Anthony Wayne, known since the Revolution as “Mad Anthony.” Wayne was named commanding general of the newly-formed Legion of the United States and given 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, who had previously served in the Kentucky militia and was lucky to have escaped getting mixed up in St. Clair’s Defeat, joined Wayne’s Legion as a lieutenant in March 1792, at the age of 21. It is interesting to note that Clark didn’t like Wayne very much. The army waited at Cincinnati and prepared for war until the summer of 1794. Young, eager for glory, and under the influence of Wayne’s arch-rival James Wilkinson, Clark was an enormously frustrated young man who complained constantly that Wayne was a sick, timid old granny who was unwilling to fight.

How do we know? Because Clark kept a journal at this time, now one of the only contemporary records of Wayne’s campaign. In the journal, William Clark at ages 23-24 comes off very differently than the thoughtful, loyal, and fun person that we know and love from the Lewis & Clark journals, written when he was 32-36 years old. Quite simply, Clark was immature. Like many a young person before and after, Clark was immensely critical of his elders, bitterly sarcastic, and in the thrall of a manipulative mentor (Wilkinson). Take this passage in which Clark alleges that Wayne has allowed the Indians to escape:

The head of the long talked of Hydra might have been so easily severed from his body, one of his heads at least, which must have greatly wekened him & perhaps saved the effusion of much blood, but this is no consideration with some Folks. I am now lead to a reflection which if indulged, would perhaps give me two great a disgust to a Military life, and embiter my present situation — Were subalterns of this army, in general, to forego such oppertunities of rendering theire Country a service & absolutely so far neglect their duty, as do some officers of higher rank, what merit would they find. Non.

On August 20, 1794, Clark and the Legion met the Indians in the forest near present-day Toledo, Ohio. After a short, pitched battle, the Indians realized they were up against a superior force and ran. Though not a spectacular fight, the Battle of Fallen Timbers would go down as one of the turning points in American history. What Clark hadn’t realized in his inexperience is that Wayne and the Legion had seized and fortified every significant portage point and river junction in the territory during their slow march north. Realizing this, the British declined to help the Indians, casting them back on their own devices. In the meantime, Wayne’s troops destroyed the Indians’ fall harvest and prevented them from regrouping in the villages over the winter.

The tribes had been outsmarted and had no choice but to come to the bargaining table. In the summer of 1795, Wayne and the Indian leaders negotiated the Treaty of Greeneville, which secured America’s hold on the Ohio territory. In terms of historical consequence, it was one of the great victories in American history.

This mural in Cincinnati's Union Terminal shows the town's beginnings as a military outpost. Fort Washington, where Lewis and Clark met and lived, is in the background.

And what did Clark and his new friend Meriwether Lewis think about all this as it unfolded? You’ll just have to read The Fairest Portion of the Globe to find out. Why not “Buy Now” at the top of this page? You know you want to.

More reading:

The Battle of Fallen Timbers, Part I
The Battle of Fallen Timbers, Part II
Three Diaries of William Clark

Mad Anthony Wayne at Fallen Timbers
Signing of the Treaty of Greeneville (includes the epic painting that hangs in the Ohio State House that depicts Lewis and Clark among the crowd — scroll down for the key)

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Location: One mile east of Metropolis, Illinois (also the home of Superman)

Fort Massac. Foundations of original fort in foreground; reconstruction in back.

Fort Massac State Park is a reconstruction of a fort that was a major control point on the Ohio River for decades. The first historically documented fort here was constructed by the French in 1757 and called Fort Ascension or Fort Massiac; some historians believe the Spanish may have fortified this spot even before that date. In any case, the fort was turned over to British control in the aftermath of the French and Indian War in the 1760s. The Chickasaw Indians burned the fort to the ground before it was ever occupied by British troops.

In July 1778, George Rogers Clark chose this spot to begin his memorable march across southern Illinois to seize control of the occupied British frontier forts. In my opinion, Clark is easily the most underrated figure of the American Revolution, and the Illinois campaign illustrates why. At the beginning of the Revolution, Kentucky was extremely sparsely populated and under siege by Native Americans backed by the British. Most people thought the territory would have to be evacuated. In retrospect, the alternate history that might have unfolded from this retreat is almost unfathomable. If the United States had ended the American Revolution without possession of the territory west of the Alleghenies, westward expansion might never have happened.

A young officer named George Rogers Clark volunteered to defend the Kentucky territory and much more. With authorization from Virginia’s governor Patrick Henry (Kentucky was part of Virginia at the time), Clark raised a regiment of 150 men. Not one to adopt a purely defensive posture, Clark then went on the offensive to seize the British-occupied forts in the remote west.

George Rogers Clark overlooking the Ohio, by Leon Hermant

Clark’s first target was the village of Kaskaskia, near modern-day Centralia, Illinois. Ordinarily, frontier Kaskaskia was reached by paddling up the Mississippi River, but Clark obviously wanted the element of surprise. He staged a 120-mile march across southern Illinois. The starting point of that historic march was the ruins of old Fort “Massac.”

Ultimately the heroism of Clark and his tiny band would lead to the possession of modern-day Illinois and Indiana by the state of Virginia. The vast territory needed to be defended, as the British, Spanish, and French continued to plot to wrest the western territories from the struggling new nation (this international intrigue is quite thrilling and forms the background for our novel The Fairest Portion of the Globe (and isn’t today the day to click that “Buy Now” tab for some exciting summer reading? Thanks.). As a result, the Americans rebuilt Fort Massac. At the height of the Indian Wars of the 1790s, the fort had the largest garrison of any United States fort. It served as the port of entry into the United States for goods coming up river from the Mississippi (under Spanish control).

By November 1803, Meriwether Lewis and William Clark (George’s little brother) stopped at Fort Massac, under the command of Daniel Bissell. Probably to his dismay, Bissell had orders from President Jefferson to allow Lewis and Clark to recruit as desired from his garrison. He could not have been pleased about allowing the Expedition leaders to cherry-pick his best men. John Newman and Joseph Whitehouse would become the first two active-duty military personnel to enlist in the Corps of Discovery. In addition, Lewis recruited the indispensable George Drouilliard at Fort Massac. The half-Shawnee hunter and interpreter possessed frontier skills and knowledge that would make him one of the most valuable members of the Corps.

Recruitment at Fort Massac, 1803, by Michael Haynes

In June 1805, about the time Lewis and Clark were struggling to make their epic portage around the Great Falls of the Missouri, Fort Massac was the site of an intriguing meeting between disgraced former vice-president Aaron Burr and none other than our old friend, General James Wilkinson, the governor of the Louisiana Territory. Wilkinson outfitted Burr with a barge and letters of introduction to his wide circle of international acquaintances in New Orleans. It is believed that Burr and Wilkinson drew up plans to launch a treasonous expedition of conquest into the American Southwest; Wilkinson would later betray Burr’s plan and order his arrest.

Fort Massac was heavily damaged in the New Madrid earthquakes of 1811 and 1812. It was, however, used as a training center during the War of 1812 before being closed at the end of the war in 1814. By 1833 it was described as a “ruin.” The fort’s site was purchased by the Daughters of the American Revolution in 1903, and became an Illinois state park in 1908. Interesting archaeological research has been taking place at the fort site since the 1930s.

The current replica fort lies just beside the archaeological site and provides an accurate model of the fort as it existed in 1802. Visiting the fort is a total blast for buffs of the period. It consists of a four-sided wooden fort surrounded by trenches and palisades. Inside are wooden buildings and barracks. The design and construction of Fort Massac would have been typical of other frontier forts such as Fort Washington, the Cincinnati-area fort where Lewis and Clark first met in the 1790s. Lewis & Clark’s smaller Expedition forts, Fort Mandan and Fort Clatsop, would have followed the same model.

There’s a good introductory film at the visitor’s center. We especially enjoyed the quaint 1930s statue of George Rogers Clark and spending lots of time exploring the outline of the original fort.

More great reading:

George Rogers Clark and the Taking of Vincennes, Part I

Lewis & Clark road trip: Old Fort Harrod


The Four Sergeants of the Lewis and Clark Expedition

George Drouillard: Wanted for Murder


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