BATTLE OF FALLEN TIMBERS
Taken from American History Illustrated, Volume III, Number 10, February 1969.
We fully realize that this magazine article is dated and not wholly accurate. Nonetheless the narrative covers the major historical issues concerning the Battle of Fallen Timbers. For more detailed information about the site and current preservation issues, please refer to Heidelberg College's homepage. Wednesday, August 20, 1794 dawned hot and rainy on the lower Maumee River Valley of the present state of Ohio where Major General Anthony Wayne was encamped with a military force of some 3,700 men, of whom 2,000 comprised most of the Regular Army of the United States. The rest were Kentucky mounted militia plus a few scouts. Confronting the Americans were 2,000 hostile Indians, allies of the British; and close to the Indians stood frowning Fort Miamis. This post, recently built by the British deep in American territory, challenged American authority in the Northwest Territory and stood as a barrier to further westward expansion of the new nation.
Wayne, a Pennsylvanian, had taken command of the minuscule United States Army when it was reorganized and expanded after the Miami Indians had ambushed and disastrously defeated Major General Arthur St. Clair ninety miles north of Fort Washington (site of Cincinnati) on November 4, 1791. He had spent the winter and spring of 1792-93 training the new force, retitled "The Legion of the United States," at a camp he named Legion Ville, twenty-two miles downstream from Pittsburgh. Training had been rigorous and so had discipline. Wayne taught his soldiers to shoot with deadly accuracy, not just rely on blind volleys. The discipline, which demanded instant and complete obedience, was designed to insure steadiness under attack and to prevent panic when momentary reverses occurred. Wayne was determined that there would be no breakdown such as had occurred under St. Clair. Finally, when Wayne believed his men were ready, he loaded them on flatboats and floated them down the Ohio River to Fort Washington. From there he began a long March, first north then east down the Maumee. The British were responsible for the Indian troubles in the Northwest Territory.
The Treaty of Paris that had ended the Revolutionary War had fixed the boundary between the United States and Canada along the Great Lakes. Now, ten years after peace had been declared, the British had failed to relinquish key frontier posts (within the boundaries of the new nation) that they felt were essential to British fur trade: Oswego, Niagara, Detroit, and Michilimackinac Island. British officials in London had devised a scheme to force Americans to give up these posts by accepting the establishment of an "independent" Indian state between the Ohio River and the Great Lakes that actually would be a puppet state of Britain. Wayne, under orders from President Washington and Secretary of War Henry Knox, tried hard to avoid antagonizing the British and to get a peaceful arrangement with Indians that would permit Americans to settle safely in the Northwest Territory. The Indians responded to his overtures by killing his envoys, rebuffing his request for a peace conference , and attacking Fort Recovery-which he had built at the site of St. Clair's defeat. All this Indian arrogance was encouraged by the British, who furnished the savages arm, sammunition, blankets, and even vermilion war paint. Nevertheless England, in 1794 deeply involved in the wars of the French Revolution, was anxious to avoid another conflict with the United States. This attitude unfortunately was not shared by the governor general of Canada, Lord Dorchester-remembered by Americans as General Sir Guy Carleton, an enemy during the Revolution-and Colonel John Graves Simcoe, lieutenant governor of the new sub-province of Upper Canada. They were pushing hard for a separate Indian state to be carved out of United States land. So General Wayne was finally compelled to take action. He knew that nothing short of a resounding defeat of the Indians and destruction of their villages and cornfields in the Erie plains would put a stop to Indian-Canadian machinations.
The tribes facing Wayne when he began his offensive on that August day in 1794 were the Miamis under tall, long-nosed Chief Little Turtle, who had led the attack on St. Clair; the Shawnees under stocky little Blue Jacket, who had over-all command; and Pottawawatomies, Ottawas, Chippe was, Sauk, Fox, and some Iroquois, plus a few British and French Canadians disguised as Indians. There were even a few American renegades, including the notorious buyer of scalps, Simon Girty, and Alexander McKee, the British Indian agent Wayne blamed for stirring up most of the trouble. In making his plans to move against the Indians Wayne had seen the heavily wooded, hilly terrain was unsuitable for the employment of artillery.
It would be difficult to get it through the woods, and there likely would be no places where it would have an unobstructed field of fire. Therefore when he marched on August 20, he left the cannon at Fort Deposit and Fort Defiance. Wayne's nickname, "Mad Anthony," was a misnomer, derived mainly from his Revolutionary War daring but successful night attack with bayonets against the British at Stony Point, on the Hudson below West Point. Actually he had one of the shrewdest military minds in the American service. His men called him "Old Tony," and they had confidence in him as a first-rate commander in a crisis. He was a good tactician-resourceful and imaginative. His striking appearance commanded respect and denoted authority and competence. Above average height, he was strongly built, and despite a rather high forehead and aquiline nose was considered handsome. His dark brown hair was usually well powdered in the mode of the day, and even before a battle he had the camp barber dress it. His hazel eyes were penetrating. During the Revolution, when he was in his prime physically, Wayne had been well-proportioned. Now, at 49, he was heavier, and his limbs were often swollen with gout, that age-old ailment that has impartially tortured laymen and clergy, sinners and saints.
At times the gout was agonizing when he was forced to ride a horse rather than in a carriage. It sharpened his temper and stimulated the sarcasm and profanity he hurled at his subordinates, even his generals. Brigadier General Charles Scott, commanding the Kentucky militia, cringed and ducked his head when Old Tony spouted oaths and vituperation. Wayne was one of the first in camp to arise on August 20. Everyone had been edgy for three days, expecting the Indians to make one of their typical surprise attacks. Few of the officers or men had a good night's sleep. This did not stop Wayne from having the barber dress and powder his hair. The gout in his left leg pained him, so he wrapped it in flannel almost to his hip-a useless precaution, but no good palliative was then known. He put on his blue coat, dark hat, buff breeches, and boots; then he primed his pistols and thrust them in his belt. He looked around to insure that all the troops were in proper uniform, and despite the heat he ordered that neither coats nor any other article of uniform would be removed during the march or action expected.
At eight o'clock the rain let up, and the advance began. Well out to the front combing the woods were the scouts, led by William Wells and William Miller. These two men had been kidnapped as children and reared by Indians; they were expert woodsmen and contributed greatly to Wayne's well screened marches. As a result, the Indians called him "Back Snake." With Wells and Miller directing the movements of the scouts, there was small likelihood that Wayne would be ambushed as St. Clair had been. Following the scouts at a short distance was advance guard, or "vanguard," a select battalion of Kentucky militia under major William Price. Then came the main body; the Legion was on the right, next to the river. They were in two lines, separated considerably and each line at extended order. They made a fine appearance with their infantry blue uniforms: jackets and "overall" trousers that terminated as buttoned gaiters with straps fastened under heavy shoes. With a buff waistcoat under the jacket, these garments were much too heavy for comfortable summer campaigning. On their heads the infantrymen wore high but rounded leather hats, each with a bearskin crest extending fore and aft across the top, from brim to brim, and a cockade that extended even beyond the fur.
They wore bandoleers crossed over their chests, and carried muskets equipped with bayonets, Wayne's favorite weapon. Supporting the infantry on the right were the dashing dragoons, the regular cavalry, with blue coats, buff breeches and boots. Their primary weapon was the saber, with pistols for an emergency. On the left were Scott's mounted Kentucky volunteers in two brigades, commanded by Brigadier Generals Robert Todd and Thomas Barbee. Their uniforms were predominantly buckskins.
About nine o'clock when almost within sight of Fort Miamis, the Americans approached the "Fallen Timbers," a place where a tornado had blown down hundreds of large hardwood trees. The Indians had taken cover behind this natural barrier, with other warriors strung out across Wayne's front for two miles-too far apart for an effective defense. As the American vanguard came close, the Indians fired a sudden burst of musketry at them. The Kentuckians, who had not had the stern training of Wayne's Regulars, panicked briefly and dashed back on the moving main body. A temporary confusion ensued. The senior officer at the front was Brigadier General James Wilkinson, Wayne's second in command. He was a compulsive double-dealer who had been a part of the old Conway cabal that had plotted against Washington during the Revolution. Although he had been working to undermine Wayne and get the command for himself, he now acted honorably and quickly. Believing that the British in the fort had opened fire, he shouted to his men to oppose them and dashed down a hill to direct the action.
Wayne was at the rear when the action started, catching up on his administrative "paperwork." Young Captain Bartholemew Schaumburg galloped up, to find the general seated on the ground with his back against a tree, drawing a map. "General!" shouted Schaumburg excitedly. "We're being attacked in front! We're being attacked." Wayne looked up, frowning. He did not like his officers, even generals, to approach him unceremoniously. "Well," he replied irritably, "I knew it. I heard it. A skirmishing party. There were six or eight gun shots." "Oh, sir, I heard at least a hundred and fifty shots," persisted Schaumburg. "Great man!" the general exclaimed, suddenly fired with his old-time martial spirit. He shouted for his orderlies. Three of them got him to his feet and boosted him into the saddle astride his black stallion. The pain was so intense that his eyes filled with tears. Then, forgetting such annoyances in his eagerness for battle, Wayne dashed toward the front, swinging his saber. His hat fell off as he galloped wildly forward-and his powdered hair stood out like a mane. Arriving where the fighting was the hottest, Wayne quickly grasped the situation and saw what had to be done to counter the enemy challenge. Brilliantly he began taking steps to meet it. Seeing some of his men fighting at a disadvantage in high grass where visibility was poor, he shouted for them to shift to higher ground. He ordered the infantry of the Legion to advance in two lines at trail arms through the woods to flush out the savages. He told the commander of the first line to charge with the bayonet when he had closed with the enemy, then shoot the Indians as they fled. He directed the second line to support the first. Then he turned his attention to the cavalry-the dragoon Regulars and the mounted Kentucky militia. Because of the spectacular and unorthodox performance of the dragoons, most historians have concentrated their narrative of the battle on them, thus distorting the brilliance and depth of Wayne's tactical concept. What he attempted was nothing less than the classic double envelopment, a Hannibal-like Cannae in the American wilderness.
Recognizing that the forest was no place for cavalry action. Wayne sent the dragoons around the Indian's left flank, toward the river, where the country was more open. Scott and his Kentuckians were to make a circuitous swing around the right flank. Nevertheless the dragoons found many fallen timbers, even on the open left flank, barring their way and concealing Indian marksmen. In one of the most dramatic cavalry charges ever made by American troops, the dragoons took the log parapets at full gallop, like jockeys in a steeple chase. Once over, they swung their heavy sabers, cutting down Indians at practically every stroke. Indian snipers, as the horsemen charged, killed the dragoons commander, a captain with the unusual name of Robert Mis Campbell. The next in command, Lieutenant Leonard Covington, took over at once.
Waving his saber in a wide arc, he pressed the attack, cutting down two warriors himself. The Indians on the flank, terrified by the rushing, pounding horses, fled in dismay. General Wilkinson, a methodical fellow who "went by the book," was puzzled and annoyed by the way in which the battle was developing-quite different from the Continental style of heavy masses of infantry stopping to deliver volleys at close range. Uncertain what to do next, he hesitated to give any orders to capitalize on the dragoons' success. When hostile fire began knocking dragoons from their saddles, an aide dashed up to Wilkinson and begged for orders that would clear up this apparent setback. At first Wilkinson refused to accept his responsibility. Saying that "the Big Mogul" (Wayne) was coming up, and let him do something, Wilkinson declined to act. Then, seeing that the dragoons were hard pressed and closely engaged, he regained his composure and ordered a general charge along the whole line. The first line of infantry, unflinching under sniper fire, scrambled over the timbers and went after the Indians with the bayonet. The Regulars obeyed every command instantly.
There was no panic, not even when the Miamis under Little Turtle (Blue Jacket, ed.) essayed a counterattack. It was repulsed and the Indians thrown back. Wayne's prolonged drills and stern discipline were paying off. A special detachment of riflemen had been included in the Legion. Wayne had great respect for the rifle as an instrument of precision. But he had not placed full reliance on it because it could not be loaded as rapidly as the smoothbore musket and was not made to receive the bayonet. Now, however, it proved its worth. Captain Schaumburg led riflemen through the Indian position to their rear and, as the hostile line began to disintegrate under the Legion's assault, the riflemen with accurate fire herded the enemy back into the bayonets of the charging infantry.
The fighting became so intense in the August heat, with the soldiers running after the enemy through the tangled windfalls, that a half-gill (two ounces) of whiskey was issued to each of the "holy Regulars" who were in the brunt of the battle. One of these, young Lieutenant William Clark, recorded in his diary that the troops "much required" the liquor because of their exertions.
Clark was gaining the experience as a frontiersman that would eventually lead him to the joint command of the famous Lewis and Clark Expedition. Wayne was enjoying his success, bellowing orders to take advantage of everopening. Coming across some men who had removed their jackets owing to the heat, he rebuked them for violating regulations. When Wilkinson kept riding back with anxious questions, Wayne finally shouted at him: "Be so very kind as to believe that I know what I am doing-and see that you do too!" Wayne was riding about fearlessly in full view and within easy gunshot range of the enemy. Whenever one of his officers approached, he dashed away and los himself in the thick of the fighting. He did not like interruptions. At length his aides caught up with him while he was in the midst of a melee. Horrified, Lieutenant William Henry Harrison begged him, for the sake of the army, to move out of the line of fire. Wayne laughed, remarking that if he should fall, "the order of the day is still to charge the damned rascals with the bayonet." But he moved, more prudently, a short distance from the front.
Young Harrison, then winning his spurs, was still a long way from " Tippecanoe and Tyler too," the political battlecry that would help him win the Presidency. The Indians were now breaking rapidly under the bayonet attacks of the infantry, who then shot the warriors as they attempted to flee. The battle evolved so quickly that by the time Scott and his Kentuckians had made the long swing to their left and were in a position to launch a flanking movement, there was no longer an Indian line to there envelop.Wayne's success at the center and right thus prevented the Cannae-like double envelopment. As Wayne described it in a dispatch to Secretary of War Knox, "Such was the impetuosity of the charge of the first line of the infantry, that the Indians and Canadian militia volunteers were drove from all their coverts in so short a time, that although every possible exertion was used by the officers of the second line of the Legion and by Generals Scott, Todd, & Barbee of the Mounted Volunteers to gain their proper positions, but part of each could get up in season to participate in the action, the enemy being drove in the course of one hour more than two miles through the thick woods already mentioned, by less than half their number."
From their fort the British could see the disaster that was overtaking their ingenuous allies, to whom they had promised so much aid. Nevertheless, the gates of Fort Miamis were not opened when chiefs Blue Jacket and Little Turtle and other fleeing warriors begged to be admitted. The Indians were greatly disillusioned. After all Indians had been put to flight, Wayne called off further pursuit. He sent the dragoons ahead under Leonard Covington, with Wells scouting in front, to insure that the Indians did not stop to reform their lines. He then burned the Indians' lodges and fields of corn, up and down the river on both banks. In his official report Wayne praised everyone who had fought in the battle, beginning with Wilkinson. The Americans had lost thirty-one killed and 102 wounded. He found forty dead Indians, and believed that others were carried away by the redskins. Wayne also estimated that up to a score of disguised British and French Canadians had been hit. As he rode over the field, counting the enemy dead, Wayne commented on the primitive appearance of the Indians, remarking that they had gone into battle clad only in breechcloths, and many of these had been lost during the fighting.
What Wayne did not realize was that most tribesmen, in the East as later in the West, habitually stripped to their breechclouts just before a battle, and often greased their skin, in order to be able to slip silently through the brush and grass, like serpents. But Wayne, not knowing this, exclaimed, "They are fighting as naked, by the Eternal God, as when they came out of their mother's wombs!" Now the big question was whether Fort Miamis' garrison, three companies of British regulars, would become involved in fighting that could lead to another war between England and the United States. Gunners within the fort lit matches to fire their cannons if the Americans attacked. But Wayne, with his artillery back at Fort Deposit, did not contemplate assailing the fort. If the British had made a sally, he undoubtedly would have attacked them, since they were on United States soil.
The next day Wayne and the British commander, Major William Campbell, exchanged messages, carried under flags of truce-their remarks being well larded with acerbities and sarcasm. "In what light am I to view your making approaches to this garrison?" wrote Campbell. "I know of no war between England and the United States. Should you continue to approach my post in the threatening manner you are at this moment doing, my indispensable duty to my King and country and the honor of my profession will oblige me to have recourse to those measures which the thousands of either nation may hereafter have cause to regret and which, I solemnly appeal to God, I have used my utmost endeavors to avert." Wayne replied contemptuously that if he chose to attack, "...neither the fort nor its guns could much impede the progress of the Victorious Army under my command." Fortunately, both sides confined themselves to hot words. And after watching for three days for indications of hostile action by the British, Wayne turned back to his nearest bases, Fort Deposit and Defiance, where he was still close enough to Fort Miamis to counter any major renewal of fighting by the Indians. The small wilderness battle brought great and immediate results.
In London, Chief Justice John Jay, one of America's ablest diplomats, was making desperate attempts-with little help from his home government-to negotiate a treaty with the British that would guarantee relinquishment of the Great Lakes forts and security for American seamen and ships in the spreading French-British war. Jay's Treaty was signed three months after the Battle of Fallen Timbers. It did not recognize Americans' rights as neutrals on the high seas, but it pledged England to evacuate the northwestern posts by 1796. In the summer of 1795 Wayne negotiated his own treaty with the Indians, a more far-reaching one for the United States than Jay's. It ceded to the Americans the right to settle from the Ohio River to a line approximately at the level of Fort Recovery and extending eastward to about the longitude of the Cuyahoga River. The ceded area included the mouth of that river, where Cleveland would be built. The Americans also got some important enclaves north of the line, including Detroit. Fort Defiance, the site of Chicago, and Forts Wayne and Vincennes.
The Indians would have all land north of the specified line, at least until further American expansion would renew hostilities, plus an annuity of $10,000. The British undoubtedly were glad to avoid a conflict with the Americans at a time when they were embroiled with France. It is significant that Dorchester and Simcoe returned to England when Wayne, under the terms of Jay's Treaty of 1796, received the northwestern forts. The acquisition of Fort Miamis removed a barrier to the flow of American pioneers westward. It opened the Northwest Territory to settlement.
Archaeologist holds a bayonet found on the recently discovered Fallen Timbers battlefield. Courtesy of U.S. News & World Report, August 7, 1995.