by Harry Tunnell
According to Indiana’s Department of Natural Resources, the Wabash River is the state’s most famous river. It rises in Ohio and flows for 30 miles or so before it becomes an Indiana river, running about 450 miles through the state to the Ohio River and border with Illinois. Known for its scenic beauty, the river inspired On the Banks of the Wabash, the state song of Indiana. What is less known about the river is the martial side to its history. During the early years of the American Republic, United States and Indian armies spent decades fighting it out along the Wabash. Two of the most noteworthy battles near the Wabash River occurred in 1791 and 1811. The fight in 1791 was one of the greatest failures of American arms. The 1811 battle, in contrast, was an important victory.
General Josiah Harmar led an American army on campaign against a Miami-Shawnee Indian Confederacy led by Little Turtle (Miami) and Blue Jacket (Shawnee) in 1790. Harmar’s force was defeated by the Indians in a series of engagements near present-day Churubusco and Fort Wayne, IN. In response, General Arthur St. Clair was ordered by President Washington to lead a punitive expedition against the confederacy. The army was organized at Fort Washington (present-day Cincinnati, OH) during March 1791. Originally intending to conduct a summer campaign, St. Clair and the army were delayed due to a variety of organizational problems. The army, composed of more than 1,400 regulars and militia, departed in October, plagued by poor training, inadequate logistics, and dreadful discipline. The army moved north toward the large Indian towns in northeastern Indiana—the destruction of which was their objective.
By November, the army had dwindled to less than 1,000 personnel due to desertion and other problems. On the evening of November 3, 1791, the American army encamped on high ground near the banks of the Wabash River (present-day Fort Recovery, OH), but failed to establish adequate defensive works. During the early morning hours of November 4, 1791, the encampment was attacked and overrun by an Indian army. According to William Wells, a participant in the battle, the Indians scalped and tomahawked until they could no longer raise their arms—the American army suffered 632 killed and 264 wounded. Indian casualties were comparatively light, with 66 killed and 9 wounded. The battle, known as St. Clair’s Defeat, is the worst thrashing of American arms in the 100-year history of the Indian wars. (By comparison, 263 Americans were killed at Custer’s last stand.) What remained of St. Clair’s command eventually struggled back to Fort Washington. Rather than being subdued as President Washington wished, the Indian Confederacy was emboldened. It would take another American army, led by General Anthony Wayne, to defeat the Miami-Shawnee Confederacy in August 1794 at the Battle of Fallen Timbers.