Showdown at Fallen Timbers — The Northwest Indian War & the Birth of the U.S. Army

The 1794 Battle of Fallen Timbers was the first test of America’s new permanent standing army. (Image source: WikiCommons)

“Washington knows the long-term solution to the Indian problem lies in something the framers of America’s Constitution feared: the creation of a true standing army.

By John Danielski

NOVEMBER 4, 1791 — A tall Shawnee warrior smashes his tomahawk down on the skull of a half-awake American soldier cleaving his skull in two. The attacker unleashes a blood-curdling howl of triumph and wastes no time in seeking his next victim. He is part of a fearsome thousand-man raiding party made up of Native American braves, each clad in leather breech clouts, war painted in bold reds and blues, and armed with tomahawks and muskets purchased from British traders.

On this chilly autumn morning, Shawnee and Miami nations have succeeded in surprising an encampment of 1,200 unprepared American soldiers. The white men had marched into the area the previous month to burn the farms and fields surrounding the great Miami village of Kekionga, near present day Ft. Wayne, Indiana. Now, deep in the North American wilderness, the tables have turned.

The Indian assault is surprisingly well disciplined and expertly coordinated. The attackers stealthily encircle the camp of General Arthur St. Clair, a 54-year-old veteran of the French Indian War and Continental Army major general. Their strike against the Wabash River encampment, which is defended by 1,000 regulars and militia, begins just after sunrise and achieves complete surprise. The raiders advance in a crescent formation, with the base moving slowly forward and the ends rapidly encircling the American camp. St Clair’s men are hit with hammer blows from all sides. They resist bravely, but the Indians have pulled off a classic double envelopment, a rare feat in warfare. St. Clair’s position is hopeless; his men fall thick and fast.

The Battle of the Wabash saw a massive force of Indian warriors defeat a professional army in open battle. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The general and just 300 of his soldiers escape the slaughter. The survivors quickly degenerate into small bands of cold, dispirited rabble. They stagger starving and half-dead into Fort Washington near Cincinnati a week later. It’s the worst defeat America has ever suffered in its conflicts against the Indians and a stunning humiliation for a struggling young nation. The butcher’s bill includes not just militia, but half of all the regulars in the tiny United States Army. Indian casualties are light: maybe 50 dead.

The two Indian leaders who achieved this remarkable success are exact opposites, like fire and ice.

Blue Jacket is a short, fiery 45-year-old chieftain who is blessed with a silver tongue and tremendous personal magnetism. He lives and drinks hard, dresses in a British officer’s coat and appreciates European creature comforts. His own daughter is even married to a white man.

Little Turtle, also 45, is six feet tall. He is quiet, imposing, and conveys utter steadfastness. An intellectual and an aesthete, he is inclined toward mysticism.

Both subscribe to the teachings of Neolin, a revered Indian firebrand who rejects white culture and calls for all American settlers to be driven out of the Ohio Country. Guided by this religious inspiration, the two war chiefs do what no one has done since Pontiac‘s rebellion of the 1760s: they forge a working coalition of Indian tribes into a weapon with one mind.

St. Clair’s doomed expedition was mounted to subdue the Indians by burning their extensive croplands and towns along the upper Wabash River. It was also intended to avenge the ignominious failure of a flying column led by Lieutenant Colonel Josiah Harmar the previous year. At the time, the 38-year-old Quaker was the highest-ranking officer in America’s minuscule post-Revolution national army. His force contained 300 regular troops in addition to more than 1,000 green militiamen. Harmar’s campaign fell prey to a series of well-orchestrated hit and run attacks that whittled the column down to half its original strength. His failure to bring the tribes to heel became an embarrassment to the nation.

(Image source: WikiCommons)

The Wild Frontier

America’s Northwest Territory, which is the stage for these battles, included lands that were eventually divided into the states of Ohio, Indiana, Michigan, and Illinois. The fertile soil attracted small but growing bands of settlers who penetrated the region via the Ohio River on flatboats. The tiny settlements Marietta, Gallipolis, and Cincinnati were poised to grow into sizeable towns. The wider area, which the British had seized from France during the French Indian War, had been granted to the United States by the 1783 Peace of Paris. Britain refused to surrender its outposts at Niagara, Detroit, and Mackinac until the Americans agreed to reimburse Loyalists and Tories for lost property in the War of Independence. Native Americans, who played no part in the Paris agreement, still considered the land their own.

London had been entertaining some vague ideas about establishing a sort of neutral zone south of the Great Lakes to protect native peoples and Canada from the ever-expanding United States – an Indian buffer state. Although their concern over Indian welfare is genuine, Lord Dorchester, Canada’s Governor General and the Crown’s point man, is only instructed to keep the Western Indian Tribes well fed and loyal enough to defend the remaining British posts in American territory. He is warned that his redcoats must take no provocative actions against the Americans and should fire only if fired upon.

Lord Simcoe hoped to use unrest between the American settlers and Indians tribes to safeguard Britain’s interests. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Dorchester is recalled to London 1791. His de facto replacement arrives just after St. Clair’s defeat. John Graves Simcoe is a distinguished Loyalist soldier, but his participation in the War of Independence has left him bitter. He still despises George Washington and his administration. Simcoe is also angered that the peace agreement ceded so much land in the Northwest to the new United States forcing Crown supporters, both white and Indian, onto virgin British territory north of lakes Erie and Ontario. He sees the situation along the American frontier as fluid and believes that the borders exist only on paper and might be easily rewritten through bold action. He listens carefully to the advice of Alexander McKee, his chief Indian agent who roams far and wide among the Western tribes and possesses expert knowledge of their moods and hopes.

The Indians are dependent upon the British for metal goods. Knives, hatchets and kettles, but also guns — supposedly just for hunting – are of vital importance. The outpost at Detroit keeps Britain’s native allies well-supplied. Simcoe now hopes to leverage this goodwill. He has McKee secretly exert his influence among tribal leaders to encourage attacks on American settlers. But by doing so, Simcoe is exceeding his authority. in 1791, His Majesty’s Government is drifting towards war with Revolutionary France and among the last things Britain wants is renewed conflict in North America.

McKee’s incitements, along with Neolin’s preaching, stir up the tribes in the Northwest. Raids on the isolated American settlements on the Ohio gradually increase. The entire region is descending into chaos. In late 1791, St. Clair is dispatched to bring order. His expedition is wiped out on the Wabash. Back east, it becomes known as the Battle of a Thousand Slain.

The United States quickly disbanded its army after achieving victory in the War of Independence. A decade later, it will need a permanent professional military once again. (image source: WikiCommons)


When word of St. Clair’s bloody debacle reaches George Washington in Philadelphia, the always stately president betrays no emotion. He acknowledges the receipt of the dispatch with his usual good manners and passes the evening playing whist with influential ladies and gentlemen as if he had not a care in the world. After midnight, alone in his quarters with only Martha and his private secretary Tobias Lear, he explodes.

“I warned St. Clair! I warned him, ‘beware of an ambush!’” he fumes. “He has the blood of widows and orphans on his hands. He is disgraced.”

Washington knows the long-term solution to the Indian problem lies in something the Founding Fathers feared: a standing national military. At the time of the signing of the U.S. Constitution in 1787, America’s army consisted of just 689 officers and men — little more than an under-equipped palace guard. But that suited the country’s political establishment just fine. After all, a large regular army could be coopted by some home grown Oliver Cromwell and used as an instrument of tyranny. Instead, the new nation put its faith in state militias – formations of part-time citizen soldiers that could be summoned to national service during emergencies.

Selling Congress on the raising of a standing army taxes every bit of Washington’s political savvy. In January 1792, the president submits a proposal to the House of Representatives calling for an increase of national troop levels to 5,168 officers and men. The cost is estimated to be $1 million, roughly two-thirds of the entire federal budget. Opposition is strong, but Washington mounts a public relations campaign to win over intransigent legislators. He issues a report from Secretary of War Henry Knox about the failure of the militia to defend against Indian raids, along with numerous heart-rending letters from terrified settlers along the frontier. Op-Ed pieces, ghost written by presidential supporters, appear in scores of newspapers. Soon, the issue consumes the public and pressure mounts on Congress to pass the bill.

The legislature is finally persuaded, but demands the president make serious diplomatic efforts to conclude a peace with the western tribes before any soldiers are to be deployed. Washington knows such an effort will likely fail, but a sincere peace initiative makes for good optics. Furthermore, failed peace overtures will offer legitimacy to any future military action. Envoys are soon sent west.

“Mad” Anthony Wayne leads Continental troops to victory at the 1779 Battle of Stony Point. (Image source: WikiCommons)

The Man Who Never Sleeps

With diplomatic efforts underway, Washington makes an unexpected choice for commander of the new army. He selects 48-year-old General Anthony Wayne over far more senior men. Nicknamed “Mad Anthony” for his famous bayonet assault on Stony Point in 1779, Wayne is a soldier’s solider. His volatile nature leaves him restless in peacetime. He is deeply in debt, estranged from his family, and involved with two married women.

Wayne pitches into his task with his customary energy. His approach is methodical and focused, devoid of his customary impulsivity. He intends to build a highly disciplined European-style army, the sort many Americans scorn. His creation will, however, be more flexible than those on the Continent and incorporate the light infantry lessons learned in the late War of Independence. His skirmishers will match the fluid, open order formations of the Indians and then move beyond them. Above all, he will bring the bayonet to the equation. A mainstay of set-piece European battlefields, it is a weapon for which Indians have no counter.

Anthony Wayne. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Wayne makes his headquarters at Fort Fayette near Pittsburgh and immediately begins an aggressive campaign of recruitment.

He soon forms four legions — each a miniature self-contained army of infantry, artillery, and cavalry capable of independent operation. He is harsh with recruits and free with the lash; no slackness is tolerated and maneuvers are expected to be crisp and precise. Sound training is accompanied by quality uniforms, equipment, and food.

Wayne is seen everywhere supervising even the smallest detail of life in camp. He is relentless and indefatigable. His men marvel at their general’s energy and apply to him the same sobriquet the western Indians soon will: “the man who never sleeps.” Esprit d’ corps to surges.

Washington’s peace envoys into the Northwest Territory are ambushed and slaughtered. The incident gives the United States justification to invade. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Last Chance for Peace

Two Indian peace commissioners, Alexander Truman and John Hardin, are dispatched at the end of the summer of 1792. Washington takes great pains to inform the Indians of their mission and of their plenipotentiary powers. Both are murdered by hotheaded young braves. Although immediately disavowed by tribal chieftains, the killings satisfy Congress that the Indian problem will have to be solved with guns rather than words.

While Wayne prepares his army to march, Blue Jacket also readies for war, appealling to Indians in the west and south for help. Thousands respond from the Mississippi to the Great Smoky Mountains. In the fall of 1792, a great powwow is held at the Glaize, near modern Toledo, Ohio. Representatives of the Six Nations, one of the few bands friendly to the American cause, are also there. They provide duplicates of the messages Washington had sent with the murdered peace commissioners. In them, the president promises heavy financial recompense to those who feel cheated in land transactions. He also offers to withdraw troops from the most forward forts in the Ohio country and assures the Indians there will be no further encroachments beyond the stipulations of the 1784 Treaty of Fort Stanwix will occur. The offer falls on deaf ears.

Upon learning of the rejection, Wayne moves his army forward. In December of 1792, he marches four hours down the Ohio River from Pittsburgh to a place he’ll dub Legionville. His base there becomes the first purpose-built U.S. Army training facility. It features stout blockhouses, strong palisades, deep ditches, and cleared fields of fire. Sentries are placed on alert and more than 100 men guard every approach day and night. Wayne will suffer no surprise like St. Clair. Behind the walls of the stockade, drill is constant and unrelenting.

Meanwhile, envoys from the U.S. meet with the British at Newark, Upper Canada in July of 1793. They urge Simcoe to calm tensions with the Indians. Talks are cordial, but unproductive. Five weeks later, Wayne receives word: “There is no peace.”

Wayne strengthens the existing forts in the Ohio Territory and constructs new ones.
They will be part of a logistical network that will enable a continued American military presence in the region. (Image source: Touring Ohio)

The Northwest Indian War

During the summer, Wayne marches his legions to Cincinnati. He’ll make no quick, fleeting thrust into Indian country, but will oversee a methodical advance north using existing forts as stepping stones and erecting new ones at key intervals along the way. Using Fort Washington near Cincinnati as his starting point, Wayne proceeds first to Fort Hamilton, and then to the remote outpost of Fort Jefferson. Each has its earthworks and stockades strengthened and their skeleton garrisons greatly bolstered.

Wayne understands the importance of logistics; he means to make sure each fort has a secure supply line leading back to Cincinnati. He builds wide new roads for the wagon trains. It’s slow, backbreaking work, but the efforts will soon pay off. His final advance toward the Indian concentration at the Glaize will be well-supplied and able to remain on frontier, thus thoroughly establishing U.S. dominance there. It’s a strategy he borrows from Caesar’s campaigns in Gaul.

By December of 1793, Wayne reaches the site of St. Clair’s defeat two years earlier. There, he begins the construction of a massive new work he christens Fort Recovery. His army will winter there and advance against the Indian heartland in the spring. During the interim, training continues for the coming campaign.

Simcoe is alarmed by Wayne’s progress. In a counter-move that’s clearly beyond the scope of instructions from Whitehall, he orders the construction of a British fort near the Glaize, naming it Fort Miamis. Supplied from Detroit, it has a garrison of 160 redcoats and eight cannons. It’s a provocative move, but Simcoe takes the risk to reassure the Indians. It works — the chiefs believe that when the Americans come, the British will have their backs.

Indian raiders find themselves unable to overwhelm Anthony’s new fortresses. (Image source: WikiCommons)

Emboldened by the British and wanting to test American resolve, Little Turtle ambushes a supply convoy intended for Fort Recovery on June 28, 1794. Days later he attacks the fort itself. It proves an embarrassing exercise in futility. The defenders are ready and methodically mow down the Indians from behind their sturdy wooden walls and blockhouses. Little Turtle’s forces fall back in confusion. The chief sends runners to other western tribes asking for their help. More than 2,000 answer the call.

One month later, Wayne launches his formal campaign. His force of 3,500 men move, advancing in slowly and in good order under a blistering sun. Their destination is the Glaize. Building a road as they go, they are well supplied with herds of cattle and are protected by screens of cavalry and scouts. Every night earthworks are dug around their encampments and ranging patrols are sent out. There is no possibility of surprise.

When Wayne’s men reach the Glaize on Aug. 7, they are amazed that the Indians have abandoned the area without a fight. They are further astounded to discover an abundance of corn and vegetables laying out in well-tilled fields. The crops feed Wayne’s army for an entire week. By the time they move on, every Indian cabin has been torched and the fields trampled beneath the Americans’ feet.

Wayne’s near-obsessive training of his new professional army pays off at Fallen Timbers. The Indians lay a trap for the American column, but are themselves in for a rude shock. (Image source: WikiCommons) (Image source: WikiCommons)

Fallen Timbers

On Aug. 20, the Indians prepare to fight back. They make their stand not far from present-day Toledo in a maze of fallen trees blown down by tornados. It’s called Fallen Timbers. Hidden among the undergrowth are 1,100 warriors.

The Indian lines are 700 yards wide and two ranks deep. Shawnee, Miami, and Delaware form the center. The left is made up of Potowatomie, Ottawa, and Ojibwa. Wyandot and Iroquois are posted on the right. Among their number are a few British regulars, and some Detroit militia.

As Wayne’s army approaches, the Indians open the battle. They surprise a force of mounted Kentuckians driving them back in confusion. Emboldened by their initial success, the warriors race forward and soon encounter American light infantry.

The American skirmish line falls back in good order, maintaining a galling, disciplined fire as they go. Pursuing their retiring enemy, the Indians soon crash headlong into the main force of Wayne’s army and come under fire from his artillery. The Indians are dangerously exposed. They have advanced too far from cover as fire pours in from three directions.

(Image source: WikiCommons)

Two years of professional training pays off as Wayne’s men meet the Indians with expert volleys, taking special care to aim low. The Indian attack falls apart. “Give the damned rascals the bayonet!” yells Wayne. The Americans advance steadily at 72 paces per minute, their voices silent and their leveled blades gleam with menace. “Go on, give it to em’ boys,” Wayne bellows in encouragement.

In European bayonet charges, the enemy almost always gives way well before any are even touched by the cold steel; the Indians prove no different. Their line collapses in minutes. The battle has lasted less than an hour. Under fire from American guns, the braves race for the imagined safety of the nearby British outpost of Fort Miamis where they hope to take shelter under its artillery.

It’s then that the Indians receive the greatest shock of all. Major William Campbell, commander of the British garrison, refuses to open the gates. He knows he cannot risk embroiling Britain in a war with the United States. The move sends an unmistakable message to the Indians: British support of the Western Tribes is a chimera; the chiefs are on their own.

The Treaty of Greenville, 1795.
(Image source: Ohio Historical Society)


In military terms, Fallen Timbers was a minor skirmish – fewer than 50 Indians lie dead. But it’s implications are enormous. The Indian confederation is shattered as British support of the western tribes proves hollow.

Wayne shows himself a surprisingly generous victor and treats the Indians with surprising respect and dignity during peace negotiations. The Treaty of Greenville is signed in 1795, with the Indians ceding huge swaths of land; they are compensated, however. The Northwest Territory is now opened for full settlement. The British withdraw from the Northwest and evacuate their holdout Great Lakes posts in 1796, despite the United States’ continued refusal to compensate the Loyalists.

Sadly, Native Americans will continue to be pushed farther and farther west as American land hunger proves insatiable.

Anthony Wayne, beset by gout, and dies in agony in 1796 near the fort that will become an Indiana city bearing his name. In the 20th century, two odd tributes are paid his memory. An actor named Marion Morrison appropriates the surname to become John Wayne. During the same period, two comic book artists, Bill Finger and Bob Cane, will create their iconic crime fighter: Batman. The character’s alter ego, Bruce Wayne, is named for Mad Anthony.

Fallen Timbers ensures the permanent existence of the United States Army. The new armed force was put to the test of fire and passes handsomely. America learns that there is no substitute for full-time, rigorously trained professionals. The Founding Fathers still fear a standing army, but the concept has shown itself indispensable to the survival of the Republic. It is a danger they will simply have to learn to live with; the United States Army is here to stay.

John Danielski is the author of the Pennywhistle Quartet, a series of novels set in the Napoleonic period. These include: Active’s MeasureThe King’s Scarlet, Blue Water, Scarlet Tide, and Capital’s Punishment. Danielski has worked as a living history interpreter at Fort Snelling, a journalist and has taught history at both the secondary and university levels. Visit his website here

1 comment for “Showdown at Fallen Timbers — The Northwest Indian War & the Birth of the U.S. Army

  1. Chen Fawn Meng
    31 January, 2018 at 12:51 am

    You should use the term “American native”,instead of “Indian”. Don’t take my word for it, ask an American native, which term is wrong or look at a political map dated during the war.

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