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

The Curse. Tippecanoe Who?

Most of us have heard of the political slogan “Tippecanoe and Tyler too”, but where did it come from and what does it mean? The saying was used throughout the presidential campaign of William Henry Harrison and John Tyler during the election of 1840. Harrison won largely on his victory over the Shawnee at the Battle of Tippecanoe, but the battle spawned a curse lasting more than 120 years.

The Combatants

General William Henry Harrison (1773 – 1841)

William_H._Harrison“Old Tippecanoe.” Governor of the Indiana Territory, a principal contributor in the War of 1812, and the ninth President of the United States. Harrison (left) was the son of founding father Benjamin Harrison and in turn was the grandfather of Benjamin Harrison, the 23rd president. He was a survivor of the 1791 massacre by Little Turtle and his Miami braves at St. Clair’s Defeat.



Colonel Abram Owen (1769–1811)

7504193_1425745214Aide-de-Camp to General Harrison. A veteran Indian fighter, Colonel Owen (right) was wounded during St Clair’s Defeat and participated in many battles during a twenty-year military career. He was a Kentucky legislator and served in the state’s constitutional convention. His death at the Battle of Tippecanoe changed history.



Tecumseh (1768 – 1813)

Tecumseh02Shawnee warrior, chief and primary leader of a large Native American confederacy in the early years of the nineteenth century. Born in present-day Ohio. Growing up during the American Revolution and the Northwest Indian War, Tecumseh (shown left) envisioned the establishment of an independent Indian nation east of the Mississippi River under British protection.




Tenskwatawa, The Prophet (1775 – 1836)

Shawnee_Prophet,_TenskwatawaCommonly known as The Prophet and spiritual leader of the Shawnee. Brother of Tecumseh. In 1808 Tenskwatawa (right) and Tecumseh established a village Americans called Prophetstown north of present-day Lafayette, Indiana. There, the brothers’ pan-Indian resistance movement included thousands of followers, with The Prophet providing the spiritual foundation. Together, they mobilized local Native Americans to fight the invading Americans and remained resolute in their rejection of alien authority and acculturation.

The Battle

In November 1811, as tensions and violence increased in Indiana Territory, Governor (and General) Harrison marched an army of about 1,000 men to disperse Native Americans gathered at Prophetstown.

Tecumseh was away recruiting allies. When Harrison arrived with his army, he asked for a meeting. The Prophet, suspecting the general’s true intentions, attacked November 7 at 4:00 a.m. The outnumbered attackers penetrated Harrison’s lines, but his soldiers stood their ground for more than two hours until the braves retreated, low on ammunition.

After the battle, the Indians abandoned Prophetstown. Harrison burned it to the ground, destroying the food supplies stored for the winter. Having accomplished his goal, Harrison proclaimed a decisive victory.

Public opinion blamed the violence on British interference in local affairs. As a result, the battle helped sway the country toward war in 1812. For the natives, the battle was the end of their dreams of a confederacy against white encroachment, and forced them to join forces with the British as the only defense to their way of life.

IMG_0774Tippecanoe’s battlefield monument, as it stands today, is shown above.

The Owen Connection

Col. Abram Owen is my fourth great uncle on my mother’s side. The Owen family has produced U.S. military members (including this author) since before the American Revolution.

ScanColonel Owen, a veteran of frontier struggles, died in the first few moments of the Tippecanoe Battle in a tragic mix up. The Prophet had informed his sharpshooters that General Harrison rode a white horse and directed all their efforts toward killing him. However, in the heat of battle, Harrison grabbed a dark-colored horse and Colonel Owen mounted a white one. The illustration above depicts that fateful moment. In it, Colonel Owen lies dead on the ground (Source: Indiana Public Library).

Owen’s unintentional sacrifice saved the life of a future president. In praise of Owen, General Harrison said, “… let me not forget the gallant dead. Col. Abram Owen, Commandant of the Eighteenth Kentucky Regiment, who joined me a few days before the action…accepted the appointment of volunteer aide-de-camp to me. He fell early in the action.” Harrison added, “The representatives of his state will inform you that she possessed not a better citizen, nor a braver man.”

Where are they now?

General William Henry Harrison

Harrison lived to become the oldest president ever elected at the time. However, he died of pneumonia a month after taking office. Tyler then assumed the presidency, setting a major precedent and ultimately the adoption of the 25th Amendment to the Constitution. Harrison is buried in North Bend, Miami Township, Ohio.

Colonel Abram Owen

IMG_0779Colonel Owen is buried where he died. His tombstone is visible in the lower right corner of the photo above. His name is also engraved on a plaque visible on the white monument to the left of the tree. Park rangers believe some of the park’s trees were living at his death in 1811. Two counties, one in Indiana and one in Kentucky, are named after Owen.


As a result of the battle, Tecumseh’s confederacy never fully recovered. This led to a further deterioration of relations between America and Britain and was a catalyst of the War of 1812, which began six months later. Tecumseh was killed by Americans in 1813 during the Battle of the Thames near present-day Chatham, Ontario. It is believed the chief’s mutilated remains were left on the battlefield.

Today, the U.S. Naval Academy has a Tecumseh Court which features a bust of Tamanend, an Indian chief who was known as a lover of peace and friendship. However, midshipmen prefer the warrior Tecumseh and refer to the statue by that name.

Tenskwatawa, The Prophet

Legend says that Tecumseh was so incensed at his brother’s ill-fated rush to battle, he swung The Prophet by the hair. The Prophet became an outcast, and moved to Canada during the War of 1812. He remained in exile until returning to the United States in 1824 to assist with the Shawnee removal to Kansas. He faded into obscurity and died in what is now known as Kansas City in 1836. His influence lives on in the form of a deadly curse.

The Curse of Tippecanoe

In revenge, The Prophet reportedly cursed all U.S. presidents elected during years with the same end number, zero, as Harrison.

The curse, first widely noted in 1931 by Ripley’s Believe it or Not! says that ever since Harrison became president (1840), every person elected to the office in 20-year intervals has died while serving as president. Harrison succumbed to pneumonia after just one month in office. Abraham Lincoln (1860) was assassinated, as were James A. Garfield (1880) and William McKinley (1900). Both Warren G. Harding (1920) and Franklin D. Roosevelt (1940) died of natural causes in office, while John F. Kennedy (1960) was assassinated. Ronald Reagan (1980) was the target of an assassin’s bullet, but survived.

Does the Prophet’s curse still hold? To paraphrase Yogi Berra, tough times ain’t over ‘til they’re over.

An Era Without Social Justice

The genocide of Native Americans by Euro-Americans from 1492 to about 1890 remains an atrocious and shameful episode in American history. About the time this reviewer believes this era, one utterly devoid of social justice, had ended, I am proven wrong. Mistreatment of original Americans continued long after Wounded Knee.

Killers of the Flower Moon, The Osage Murders and the Birth of the FBI by David Grann details a series of murders of wealthy Osage tribal members in the 1920s. The discovery of oil beneath tribal lands brought the Osage not only enormous wealth, but targeted them for swindle and murder.

Grann details how Osage victims disappeared. Some were shot point-blank in the head. A man was thrown from a train. A couple was burned to death in their own beds. A whistle blower was murdered on his first night in Washington D. C. An unknown number were poisoned. Investigators hired by the Osage were murdered. Many Osage lost not only their lives but fortunes as well due to the schemes of white relatives.

During this carnage, law enforcement turned a blind eye. The Osage County Sheriff was fighting corruption charges and had little inclination to investigate the murder of Indians (incidentally, the sheriff was convicted, then re-elected). Initial investigations by the FBI proved incompetent.

Stung by the Teapot Dome scandal, an exasperated J. Edgar Hoover assigned Special Agent Tom White, a former Texas Ranger to the case. White proved to be a dogged investigator who brought two killers to justice. Both were convicted, sentenced to life, then paroled.

The known murders of Osage numbers thirty-six, but Grann, a meticulous researcher, uncovers more evidence of wrong doing. Osage family lore and long-overlooked records suggest there may have been more than one hundred people killed during this period they call the Reign of Terror.

Grann’s book is an excellent resource for readers who demand the cultural record be accurately informed.