George Washington Papers

From George Washington to the United States Senate and House of Representatives, 12 December 1791

To the United States Senate and House of Representatives

[Philadelphia, 12 December 1791]

Gentlemen of the Senate, and of the House of Representatives.

It is with great concern that I communicate to you the information received from Major General St Clair of the misfortune which has befallen the troops under his command.1

Although the national loss is considerable according to the scale of the event, yet it may be repaired without great difficulty, excepting as to the brave men who have fallen on the occasion, and who are a subject of public as well as private regret.

A further communication will shortly be made of all such matters as shall be necessary to enable the Legislature to judge of the future measures which it may be proper to pursue.2

Go: Washington

LS, DNA: RG 46, Second Congress, 1791–1793, Records of Legislative Proceedings, President’s Messages; LB, DLC:GW; copy, DNA: RG 233, Second Congress, 1791–1793, Records of Legislative Proceedings, Journals. For the background to this message, see William Darke to GW, 9–10 Nov. 1791.

Unofficial reports of the defeat of Maj. Gen. Arthur St. Clair’s army on 4 Nov. reached Philadelphia on 8 December. “This afternoon,” Timothy Pickering wrote his wife on that date, “accounts [were] received, which are believed, that General St. Clair’s army has been defeated by the Indians . . . . The accounts received are not official; but, probably, are substantially true” (Pickering to Rebecca White Pickering, 8 Dec., in Pickering and Upham, Life of Pickering, description begins Octavius Pickering and Charles W. Upham. The Life of Timothy Pickering. 4 vols. Boston, 1867–73. description ends 3:22). Philadelphia newspapers the next day printed incomplete reports of the defeat that had been received from Kentucky and Richmond (see for instance Dunlap’s American Daily Advertiser [Philadelphia], 9 December).

St. Clair’s official report to Henry Knox of 9 Nov. concerning his defeat was to have been carried from Fort Washington to Philadelphia by Capt. Jacob Slough, “but, at the moment he should have set off, some account of the situation of Colonel [George] Gibson, who is his uncle, induced him to delay his journey, and the packet was put into the hands of another person then going to Lexington” (St. Clair to Knox, 22 Jan. 1792, in Smith, St. Clair Papers, description begins William Henry Smith, ed. The St. Clair Papers. The Life and Public Services of Arthur St. Clair: Soldier of the Revolutionary War; President of the Continental Congress; and Governor of the North-Western Territory with his Correspondence and other Papers. 2 vols. Cincinnati, 1882. description ends 2:277–78). The uncertainty of that conveyance prompted St. Clair subsequently to dispatch Lt. Ebenezer Denny to Philadelphia with a duplicate of his 9 Nov. report under the cover of his letter to Knox of 17 November. St. Clair sent Knox a third copy of his report under the cover of his letter to Knox of 24 Nov., in which he expressed his hope that his original report “got safe to hand in due time, for I should consider it unfortunate if [unofficial] report, which aggravates every thing, much overruns the authentic account of the disaster that befell us” (ibid., 269–70).

St. Clair’s original report, which went by way of Lexington, Ky., apparently reached the War Department before the two copies of it did. GW wrote in his letter to Henry Lee of 14 Dec. that the official account of the defeat had been received by that date, and Lieutenant Denny did not arrive in Philadelphia with the duplicate copy until 19 Dec., when he delivered his dispatches to Knox. The next morning, Denny stated in his journal, Knox “called at my quarters and took me to the President’s, where we breakfasted with the family, and afterwards had much talk on the subject of the campaign and defeat” (“Denny Journal,” description begins “Military Journal of Major Ebenezer Denny, An Officer in the Revolutionary and Indian Wars. With an Introductory Memoir. By William H. Denny.” Memoirs of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania 7 (1860): 204–498. description ends 379–80). The third copy of St. Clair’s report undoubtedly was the last one to arrive.

Richard Rush, aided by notes that he had made during a conversation with Tobias Lear in 1816, recollected many years later that Lear had told him that GW received the official news of St. Clair’s defeat while attending one of Martha Washington’s Friday receptions and that he restrained his anger over the debacle until the guests had left, when he exploded in wrath and disappointment, insisting that he had warned St. Clair to guard against surprise (see Washington in Domestic Life, description begins Richard Rush. Washington in Domestic Life. From Original Letters and Manuscripts. Philadelphia, 1857. description ends 65–69). George Washington Parke Custis relates a similar story in his memoirs, writing that the dispatches were delivered by an officer from the western army while GW was dining with guests and that GW checked his emotions until the guests departed (see Custis, Recollections, description begins George Washington Parke Custis. Recollections and Private Memoirs of Washington. New York, 1860. description ends 416–18).

Rush’s account contains some credible details. Knox probably received St. Clair’s original report about 9 Dec., which was a Friday, the day of the week on which Martha Washington held her receptions, and he certainly would have considered the report important enough to send it immediately to GW, even if the messenger had to interrupt Mrs. Washington’s reception. Douglas Southall Freeman points out, however, that by the time St. Clair’s report arrived, the news of the army’s defeat, as dismaying as it was, could not have come as a shock or surprise to GW, since unofficial reports of the defeat already were circulating in Philadelphia (see Freeman, Washington, description begins Douglas Southall Freeman. George Washington: A Biography. 7 vols. New York, 1948–57. description ends 6:336–37).

GW’s message to Congress announcing the defeat of St. Clair was laid before Congress on 12 December. Both the Senate and the House ordered the message and enclosures to be read and tabled. On 2 Feb. 1792, in the middle of a contentious debate over increasing the size of the army for a new campaign against the Indians, Congressman John Steele moved “That a committee be appointed to inquire into, and report to this House, their opinion of the number of Indians now in arms against the United States; the documents whereon that opinion may be founded; the causes of the delay of the Federal Army on the Ohio; the scarcity of provisions and forage; the quality of the powder; and such other causes as may have been, on the judgment of the committee, conducive to the late unfortunate defeat.” Steele’s motion was tabled and not taken up thereafter. The idea of a formal inquiry into the causes of St. Clair’s defeat was revived on 27 Mar. when William Branch Giles moved that the president be requested to institute an inquiry. This motion was defeated after sharp debate, and the House adopted a substitute resolution calling for the appointment of a committee of inquiry, the first congressional investigation of the executive branch ever authorized (see Annals of Congress description begins Joseph Gales, Sr., comp. The Debates and Proceedings in the Congress of the United States; with an Appendix, Containing Important State Papers and Public Documents, and All the Laws of a Public Nature. 42 vols. Washington, D.C., 1834–56. description ends , 2d Cong., 1st sess., 48, 242, 356, 490–94).

1GW’s message covered St. Clair’s dispatches of 6 Oct. and 1 and 9 Nov. 1791 to Knox and a casualty list (see William Darke to GW, 9–10 Nov., source note; Smith, St. Clair Papers, description begins William Henry Smith, ed. The St. Clair Papers. The Life and Public Services of Arthur St. Clair: Soldier of the Revolutionary War; President of the Continental Congress; and Governor of the North-Western Territory with his Correspondence and other Papers. 2 vols. Cincinnati, 1882. description ends 2:245–46, 249–51, 262–67). The report of 9 Nov. from Fort Washington reads: “Yesterday afternoon the remains of the army under my command got back to this place, and I have now the painful task to give you an account of as warm, and as unfortunate an action as almost any that has been fought, in which every corps was engaged and worsted, except the first regiment, that had been detached upon a service I had the honor to inform you of in my last despatch, and had not joined me. On the 3d instant the army had reached a creek about twelve yards wide, running to the southward of West, which I believe to have been the river St Mary, that empties into the Miami of the lake at the Miami village, about four o’clock in the afternoon, having marched near nine miles, and were immediately encamped upon a very commanding piece of ground in two lines having the abovementioned creek in front: the right wing composed of Butlers, Clarke’s, and Paterson’s battalions, commanded by major general Butler formed the first line, and the left wing consisting of Bedingers and Gaithers battalions and the second regiment commanded by lieutenant colonel Darke formed the second line with an interval between them of about seventy yards, which was all the ground would allow. The right flank was pretty well secured by the creek, a steep bank; and Faulkener’s corps, some of the cavalry and their picquets covered the left flank—The militia were thrown over the creek, and advanced about one quarter of a mile, and encamped in the same order—There were a few indians who appeared on the opposite side of the creek, but fled with the utmost precipitation, on the advance of the militia. At this place which I judged to be about fifteen miles from the Miami village, I had determined to throw a slight work, the plan of which was concerted that evening with major Ferguson wherein to have deposited the mens knapsacks, and every thing else that was not of absolute necessity, and to have moved on to attack the enemy as soon as the first regiment was to come up. But they did not permit me to execute either, for, on the fourth, about half an hour before sun-rise, and when the men had been just dismissed from the parade (for it was a constant practice to have them all under arms a considerable time before day-light) an attack was made upon the militia—those gave way in a very little time, and rushed into the camp through Major Butler’s battalion, which, together with part of Clarks they threw into considerable disorder, and which, notwithstanding the exertions of both those officers, was never altogether remedied, the indians following close at their heels—The fire however, of the front line checked them, but almost instantly a very heavy attack began upon that line, and in a few minutes it was extended to the second likewise—the great weight of it was directed against the center of each where the artillery was placed, and from which the men were repeatedly driven with great slaughter. Finding no great effect from our fire and confusion beginning to spread from the great number of men who were falling in all quarters, it became necessary to try what could be done by the bayonet. Lieut: Colonel Dark was accordingly ordered to make a charge with part of the second line, and to turn the left flank of the enemy—This was executed with great spirit—The Indians instantly gave way, and were driven back three or four hundred yards, but for want of a sufficient number of rifle-men to pursue this advantage, they soon returned, and the troops were obliged to give back in their turn. At this moment they had entered our camp by the left flank, having pushed back the troops that were posted there. Another charge was made here by the second regiment, Butler’s & Clarke’s battalions, with equal effect, and it was repeated several times, and always with success, but in all of them many men were lost, and particularly the officers, which with so raw troops was a loss altogether irremediable. In that I just spoke of made by the second regiment, and Butler’s battalion, Major Butler was dangerously wounded, and every officer of the second regiment fell, except three, one of which, Mr Greaton, was shot thro’ the body. Our artillery being now silenced, and all the officers killed except Captain Ford, who was very badly wounded, more than half of the army fallen, being cut off from the road, it became necessary to attempt the regaining it, and to make a retreat if possible—To this purpose the remains of the army was formed as well as circumstances would admit towards the right of the encampment, from which by the way of the second line, another charge was made upon the enemy as if with the design to turn their right flank, but in fact to gain the road—This was effected, and as soon as it was open the militia took along it, followed by the troops, Major Clarke with his battalion covering the rear—The retreat in those circumstances was, you may be sure, a very precipitate one—It was in fact a flight—The camp and the artillery were abandoned, but that was unavoidable, for not a horse was left alive to have drawn it off, had it otherwise been practicable—But the most disgraceful part of the business is that the greatest part of the men threw away their arms and accoutrements, even after the pursuit, which continued about four miles had ceased. I found the road strewed with them for many miles, but was not able to remedy it, for having had all my horses killed, and being mounted upon one that could not be pricked out of a walk, I could not get forward myself, and the orders were sent forward, either to halt the front, or to prevent the men from parting with their arms, were unattended to—the route continued to Fort Jefferson, twenty nine miles, which was reached a little after sun-setting. The action began about half an hour before sunrise, and the retreat was attempted about an half an hour after nine o’clock. I have not yet been able to get the returns of the killed and wounded, but major general Butler, lieut: colonel Oldham of the militia, Major Ferguson, Major Heart, and Major Clarke are among the former—Colonel Sargent my adjutant general, lieutenant colonel Darke, lieutenant colonel Gibson, Major Butler, and the Viscount Malartie who served me as an aid de camp are among the latter, and a great number of captains and subalterns in both. I have now Sir, finished my melancholy tale—A tale that will be felt sensibly by every one that has sympathy for private distress or for public misfortune. I have nothing Sir, to lay to the charge of the troops, but their want of discipline, which from the short time they had been in service, it was impossible they should have acquired, and which rendered it very difficult, when they were thrown into confusion, to reduce them again to order, which is one reason why the loss has fallen so heavy upon the officers, who did every thing in their power to effect it. Neither were my own exertions wanting, but worn down with illness and suffering under from a painful disease, unable either to mount or dismount a horse without assistance, they were not so great as they otherwise would, and perhaps ought to have been. We were overpowered by numbers; but it is no more than justice to observe that, tho’ composed of so many different species of troops, the utmost harmony prevailed thro’ the whole army during the campaign. At Fort Jefferson I found the first regiment which had returned from the service they had been sent upon without either overtaking the deserters, or meeting the convoy of provisions, I am not certain sir, whether I ought to consider the absence of this regiment from the field of action as fortunate or otherwise—I incline to think that it was fortunate, for I very much doubt whether, had it been in the action, the fortune of the day had been turned, and if it had not, the triumph of the Enemy would have been more complete, and the country would have been destitute of every means of defence. Taking a view of the situation of our broken troops at Fort Jefferson, and that there was no provisions in the fort, I called on the field officers, vizt—Lieutenant colonel Darke, Major Hamtramck, Major Zeigler, and Major Gaither, together with the adjutant general for their advice what would be proper further to be done, and it was their unanimous opinion that the addition of the first regiment unbroken as it was, did not put the army on so respectable a foot as it was in the morning, because a great part of it was now un-armed—that it had been then found unequal to the enemy, and should they come on, which was probable, would be found so again—that the troops could not be thrown into the Fort, both because it was too small, and that there were no provisions in it—That provisions were known to be upon the road, at the distance of one, or at most two marches—that therefore, it would be proper to move, without loss of time to meet the provisions when the men might have the sooner an opportunity of some refreshment, and that a proper detachment might be sent back with it, to have it safely deposited in the fort. This advice was accepted, and the army was put in motion again at ten o’clock, and marched all night, and the succeeding day met with a quantity of flour; part of it was distributed immediately—part taken back to supply the army on the march to fort Hamilton, and the remainder about fifty horse loads sent forward to Fort Jefferson—The next day a drove of cattle was met with for the same place, and I have information that both got in. The wounded that had been left at that place were ordered to be brought here by the return horses. I have said Sir, in a former part of this letter, that we were overpowered by numbers—of that however, I have no other evidence but the weight of the fire, which was always a most deadly one, and generally delivered from the ground, few of the enemy shewing themselves afoot except when they were charged, and that, in a few minutes, our whole camp which extended above three hundred and fifty yards in length, was entirely surrounded and attacked on all quarters. The loss Sir the public has sustained by the fall of so many officers particularly general Butler, and major Ferguson, cannot be too much regretted; but it is a circumstance that will alleviate the misfortune in some measure, that all of them fell most gallantly doing their duty. I have had very particular obligations to many of them as well as to the survivors, but none more than to colonel Sargent—he has discharged the various duties of his office with zeal, with exactness—and with intelligence, and on all occasions afforded me with every assistance in his power, which I have also experienced from my aid de camp lieutenant Denny, and Viscount Malartie who served with me in the station as a volunteer. . . . P.S. Some orders that had been given to colonel Oldham overnight, and which were of much consequence, were not executed; and some very material intelligence was communicated by Captain Slough to general Butler, in the course of the night, before the action, which was never imparted to me, nor did I hear of until after my arrival here.” (DNA: RG 46, Second Congress, 1791–1793, Records of Legislative Proceedings, President’s Messages; for the meaning of the postscript, see Knox to Lear, 31 Jan. 1792, n.1).

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