The U.S. Army’s Worst Indian Catastrophe?

Custer’s Last Stand. The Worst Disaster?

A swirling mass of feathered, painted men and horses. The whistle of bullets and arrows. The coppery smell of blood and acrid odor of burned gun powder. The co-mingled screams of men and horses. The shrill wail of trumpets drowned by the ululating trill of warriors tasting victory. A last stand of men in blue, then the silence of a terrible peace on a hillside in June, 1876.

Today, when Americans read or hear about the Indian Wars, they are routinely exposed to a Hollywood version with familiar names like Sitting Bull, Crazy Horse, and George Armstrong Custer. All three fought at The Battle of the Little Bighorn where Custer and five of his cavalry companies lost their lives.

The battle, mythologized in our national memory, is correctly described as a calamity, but is Custer’s Last Stand the worst Army disaster inflicted by Native Americans?

Eighty-five years prior, on a day so cold, men loaded musket balls with their lips instead of frozen fingers, the new U.S. Army was handed its most decisive (and little known) defeat by Indians. Near present-day Fort Recovery, Ohio, an Indian confederacy humiliated the young Army at the Battle of the Wabash, commonly referred to as St. Clair’s Defeat. Of nearly 1,100 soldiers, militia, and camp followers, only 24 were unharmed – a casualty rate three times that of the Little Bighorn.[1]

For comparison, let’s review the two conflicts in reverse order:

The Little Bighorn, June 1876

The Set-up

After gold was discovered in South Dakota’s Black Hills in 1875, the U.S. Army ignored existing treaties and invaded the region. As a consequence, many Sioux and Cheyenne left their reservations to join Lakota leaders Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse in Montana. By late spring of 1876, more than 10,000 Native Americans had gathered in a camp along the Little Bighorn River in defiance of a War Department order to return. In mid-June, three columns of U.S. soldiers marched to enforce the order. The Sioux turned back the first column on 17 June at the Battle of the Rosebud. Brigadier General Alfred Terry then ordered Custer’s 7th Cavalry to scout ahead for enemy troops.

The Battle

Edgar Samuel Paxson’s depiction of the Battle of Little Bighorn

On the evening of 24 June after an overnight march, Custer’s Crow and Arikara scouts arrived at an overlook above the Little Bighorn River. At sunrise, the scouts, reported a massive pony herd and signs of a big village 18 miles distant. Custer prepared for attack but did not order further reconnaissance, fearing he may have already been discovered.

Brigadier General (Lieutenant Colonel) George Armstrong Custer

Despite incomplete intelligence on enemy size (Lakota, Dakota, Cheyenne, and Arapahoe may have numbered as many as 2,500 warriors) Custer divided his 12 companies of cavalry in preparation for an attack on the morning of 25 June. Three companies each were placed under the command of Major Marcus Reno and Captain Frederick Benteen. Five remained under Custer (one other company had previously been assigned to escort the pack train).

At mid-day, Reno attacked the village intent on capturing the women and children as hostage. Word spread quickly. Sitting Bull rallied warriors to protect the helpless. Crazy Horse set off with a large force to meet the Americans head on (accounts from this point vary).

Custer’s men, inexperienced and exhausted from the overnight march, were overwhelmed and retreated to a nearby hilltop. Troopers of the 7th Cavalry put up a dogged defense. A group of braves attacked the cavalrymen from the north in a surprise charge causing panic while the attackers counted coup with lances, coup sticks, and quirts. Nevertheless, soldiers defending the northern portion of Custer’s field inflicted most of the Indian casualties in a tenacious defense. Although some soldiers ran, they ultimately fought as long as they could.

Custer’s troops were annihilated within an hour of engagement. Indian warriors termed this segment of the fight a buffalo run and called it a last stand.

Lakota and Cheyenne forces then regrouped to attack Reno and Benteen hunkered on hills nearby. The fight continued until dark and for much of the next day. On 27 June, reinforcements under General Terry arrived and Native forces withdrew.

The Aftermath

Of 647 men in the 7th Cavalry, 16 officers, 242 troopers,18 men who fought with Reno and Benteen, and 10 Indian scouts were lost. The Custer family made up nearly one-third of the total officers killed: Custer, two of his brothers, his brother-in-law, and a nephew.

As so often happens, the military scrambled to find a scapegoat. Custer was faulted for dividing his command prior to battle (an accepted mode for attacking villages) and of attacking too early (a curious accusation given Custer’s promotions for daring during the Civil War). Major Reno and Captain Benteen were criticized for disobeying Custer’s orders and failing to help. Indian agents were reproached for under-reporting the number of warriors off the reservations.[2]

Left nearly destitute in the aftermath of her husband’s death, Libbie, Custer’s wife, became an outspoken defender of his legacy. Largely as a result of her books and lectures, Custer’s image as the gallant fallen hero amid the glory of Custer’s Last Stand has persevered in American cultural memory.

Battle of the Wabash, November 1791

The Set-up

The treaty ending the Revolutionary War recognized United States sovereignty of all land east of the Mississippi River and south of the Great Lakes. Indian leaders such as Little Turtle and Blue Jacket refused to recognize American claims to the area northwest of the Ohio River. As a consequence, during the mid and late 1780’s, American settlers suffered approximately 1,500 deaths by hostile Natives. Whites often retaliated, adding to the cycle of violence.

President George Washington ordered Major General St. Clair, Governor of the Northwest Territory, to crush Little Turtle’s Miami tribe. Preparations at Fort Washington (present-day Cincinnati, Ohio) were slowed, however, by logistics and supply problems. Additionally, new recruits were poorly paid, trained, disciplined, food supplies were substandard, and horses were short in number and of poor quality.

Major General Arthur St. Clair (Library of Congress)

The expedition, consisting of regular and levy troops, set out in October 1791 with the objective of Kekionga, capital of the Miami tribe, near present-day Fort Wayne, Indiana. General St. Clair, sick with gout, had difficulty maintaining order. Indians shadowed his force. Snow and frigid temperatures slowed the march. This combination of morale-degrading conditions had devastating effect: desertion dwindled the force from two thousand to around 1,120 men and camp followers.

While St. Clair lost soldiers, Little Turtle’s Western Confederacy, consisting of Miami, Shawnee, Delaware, and Potawatomi, added numbers bringing the total to more than 1,500 warriors.[3] In a prelude to the War of 1812, most Indian nations sided with the British against the U.S. Accordingly, British military officers accompanied Little Turtle as advisors.


The Battle

On the evening of 3 November, St. Clair’s force established a camp on a wooded hill near present-day Fort Recovery, Ohio, 58 miles northwest of Dayton. Warriors waited until dawn, then struck after the soldiers had stacked their weapons and gone to breakfast.

Advised by his British officers, Little Turtle directed his first attack at the militia, who fled across a stream without their weapons. The regulars immediately grabbed their own muskets and fired a volley into the Indians, forcing them back. Little Turtle flanked the regulars and closed on them. St. Clair’s artillery wheeled into position, but Indian sharpshooters dropped the gun crews.

Colonel William Darke ordered his battalion to fix bayonets and charge the main Indian position. Little Turtle’s forces retreated to the woods, then encircled Darke’s battalion, destroying it. Numerous bayonet charges met with similar results until the U.S. forces collapsed in disorder. St. Clair had three horses shot out from under him as he tried unsuccessfully to rally his men.

After three hours of fighting and faced with total annihilation, St. Clair attempted one last bayonet charge. As before, Little Turtle allowed the bayonets to pass through, but this time the soldiers ran for nearby Fort Jefferson. The Indians pursued, but broke off and returned to loot the camp of supplies and torture to death the abandoned wounded.

The main battle lasted three hours. In it, 632 military were killed and 264 wounded. Nearly all two hundred camp followers were slaughtered. While Little Turtle and Blue Jacket were the immediate victors, they would pay a future cost.

A congressional investigation found mismanagement by contractors and the Quartermaster, as well as a lack of discipline and experience in the militia. Congress eventually authorized the formation of a new army, The Legion of the United States. It would be better trained, better supplied, with a proven leader, Major General (Mad) Anthony Wayne. His first assignment: finish what St. Clair had failed to do.[4]

The Worst?

Both battles would have long-lasting impact on America’s future, politically, militarily, and for the Native American way of life.

For its part, Custer’s Last Stand turned out to be the last, large-scale Native resistance to American encroachment. The Sioux victory at the Little Bighorn serves as a brilliant end piece to 380 years of warfare but is often referred to as the Indians’ last stand.

At St Clair’s Defeat, Indians of the Old Northwest would eventually lose their traditional life-style as well, but this shining moment in Native American history yielded repercussions as far as Europe. St. Clair’s Defeat showed the world America was weak and not in control of its territory. England, France, and Spain coveted this rich and strategically important area. In a little over 20 years, the War of 1812 would follow.

While the Little Big Horn may be considered the end of the Native American era, St. Clair’s Defeat marked the beginning of the American era. The annihilation of St. Clair’s forces threatened the existence of the four-year-old U. S. government itself and created a turning point in policy by underscoring the necessity of a strong defense, an issue relevant to this day. Consequently, a re-energized American military sealed the ultimate fate of Native Americans as the United States developed into the predominate force in North America.

The 7th cavalry suffered a 52% casualty rate with 286 killed and 49 wounded at the Little Bighorn, but the casualty rate at St. Clair’s Defeat was substantially higher with 88% officers lost and 97% enlisted dead or wounded (most non-ambulatory wounded died) for a total of over 900 military and civilian casualties, more than any battle of the Revolutionary War or conflict up to the Civil War.[5] Approximately one-quarter of the entire U.S. Army had been wiped out.

Libbie’s campaign, Hollywood lore, and popular opinion aside, when viewed strictly from a military standpoint, St Clair’s Defeat, the forgotten battle, stands as Native Americans’ most ruinous victory over the U.S. Army.

[1] Anton Truer, The Indian Wars, (Washington D. C.: National Geographic Society, 2016) 94

[2] Wikipedia contributors, “Battle of the Little Bighorn,” Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, December 11, 2017).

[3] Christine Keller et al, Archeology of The Battles of Fort Recovery, Mercer County, Ohio: Education And Protection (Muncie, Indiana: Ball State University, Dec 2011) 14

[4] Truer, 95

[5] John F. Winkler, Wabash 1791 St Clair’s Defeat, (Oxford, U.K.: Osprey Publishing, 2011) 5

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