Wednesday, August 31, 2011

The Ballad of St Clair

Today is the anniversary of the death of my favorite US frontier general, Arthur St. Clair (which is pronounced "Sinclair").
Art, once an important man, died alone and penniless August 31st, 1818 at his home in Greensburg Pennsylvania.
I like the old guy because he was so bad at being a frontier general and he also gave Cincinnati it's new name. If the US had more generals like him in the late 18th Century then maybe the Indians would have had a longer stay in Ohio. Maybe. And if it wasn't for him then we would have had WKRP in Losantiville. Maybe.

Arthur St Clair and Thomas Jefferson at a crossroad
You see, Artie was known for disliking the name Losantiville and re-naming it Cincinnati in 1790 after the name of the club he presided over while he was Governor of the NW Territory.

A short time later, November 4th, 1791 he suffered the worst military defeat in the history of US and American Indian warfare known as "St Clair's Defeat", sometimes referred to The Battle of the Wabash in 1791 near present-day Fort Recovery OH. This was three times worse than the more infamous Custer's Last Stand in 1876.
By this time Little Turtles' Pan-Indian Confederation had already defeated US forces led by General Harmar in 1790 and tensions were rising in the Ohio country. President Washington ordered Arthur St Clair to raise an army and finish what Harmar had failed. On November 4th, 1791, St Clair was camped and preparing for his assault when the combined forces of the Miami Chief Little Turtle, the Shawnee Chief Blue Jacket, and the Lenape Chief Buckongahelas struck first and caught the US forces by surprise. Major General Richard Butler was mortally wounded here. Supposedly, St. Clair who already had a horse shot out from under him, was in such poor health with gout during this battle that he had to be carried in a litter between two horses at one point yelling "where's my hasenpfeffer!"** while 3/4 of his army was being slaughtered and the rest were running for their lives rather after 2 hours of fighting. Even St Clair later referred to it as a "flight". Many fell back to nearby Fort Jefferson to the south with the Indians following for several miles. Forces evenly matched in the number of men at 1000 each, St Clair had a casualty rate of 952 vs. Little Turtle's 61.
Arthur was ultimately forced to resign from the military by President Washington but he remained as Governor. The resulting loss to the US boosted the morale and security of Little Turtle's Confederation for a few more years until Mad Anthony Wayne's successful win at the Battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794.

**he didn't really yell that but in my potential movie version he does

Why did such an important man die penniless and not so important? These are great questions! Washington was a good friend but his successor Thomas Jefferson was not and Tom fired him as Governor over a dispute on the boundaries of the future State of Ohio. He was very wealthy at one point but had made generous loans to various individuals and organizations including the US Government while he was Governor of the NW Territory. The US never bothered to pay him back because they didn't really have any money either. Some things don't change.

<< I've never been to the grave of Arthur St. Clair but I did stumble upon the grave of his grandson Arthur St. Clair III while looking for a geocache in Greendale Indiana.

A couple of folksingers named Bob Gibson and Bob Camp recorded a song in 1961 called "St. Clair's Defeat". You can listen to it and read the lyrics here.

Related Gehio links: 
Gehio: Great Scot, it's St. Clair's Birthday!
Gehio: WKRP in Losantiville
Gehio: a visit to Chalahgawtha
Gehio: The Battle of Fallen Timbers


  1. There actually is a ballad of St Clair's Defeat....I can't remember if that was the actual title or not but a song about that battle and it was very popular for quite a while.

  2. yes I have a link to it in the last sentence

  3. You do...what I get for skimming!! LOL

  4. Nicely done! Thanks for this little morsel of wise pragmatic history of the region I currently inhabit. I love the gout litter, I hope you get funding for the movie soon.

  5. Thanks Chris! I tried to get up to Fort Recovery last year when the author of a new book on St. Clair's Defeat was going to be there but it wasn't in the cards.