In the long and troubled history of the United States’ relations with its indigenous population, the Battle of the Wabash in 1791 stands out as the worst defeat ever inflicted on US forces by Native Americans. That it continues to occupy an important place in the nation’s psyche is indicated by the alternative name by which the action is still popularly known: St Clair’s Defeat. General Arthur St Clair was governor of the Northwest Territory, a volatile region in the years following the formal recognition of American independence in 1783, whose Indian tribes disputed the fledgling nation’s territorial claims. In 1791, following an abortive campaign the previous year, President Washington ordered St Clair to mount another expeditionary force to secure the lands northwest of the Ohio River and quell any resistance encountered.
The 2,000-strong force which St Clair led out from Fort Washington (near modern-day Cincinnati) in mid September was undisciplined and poorly equipped; the troops were ill prepared for the cold temperatures of the advancing winter. After establishing two new forts, St Clair made camp on a slight rise above the Wabash River in Ohio. By this time the effects of sickness and low morale (there were many deserters) had reduced his force by over one third. Nevertheless, it still outnumbered the 1,000 or so Native American warriors who launched a dawn raid on St Clair’s encampment on November 4. Led by Little Turtle of the Miami tribe and Blue Jacket of the Shawnee, the attack took the troops completely unawares. After two hours’ fighting, in which he sustained heavy losses, St Clair ordered a retreat which quickly turned into a rout.
News of the defeat shocked the country and the President demanded St Clair’s immediate resignation.
When: November 4 1791
Where: Wabash River, Ohio, USA
Death toll: Over 800 US troops and ancillaries were killed, and some 250 wounded. Native American losses numbered fewer than 100.
You should know: It was another 100 years before American Indian resistance on the continent was effectively brought to an end, by which time the indigenous population had been largely confined to designated reservations.