Selected Papers From The 1983 And 1984 George Rogers Clark Trans-Appalachian Frontier History Conferences
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Problems of Frontier Logistics in St. Clair's 1791 Campaign
Patrick J. Furlong
Professor of History
Indiana University at South Bend

"An army marches on its stomach," so Napoleon is supposed to have remarked, and no commander would deny the accuracy of his observation. Commanding generals and their staff officers for centuries have expended more time and energy on supply problems — logistics in modern military terminology — than in worry about fighting the enemy. [1] Major General Arthur St. Clair had more than his share of supply troubles in his campaign against the Indians of the Northwest Territory during the summer and fall of 1791. There is no need to describe once again how St. Clair was delayed by shortages of food and equipment; rather it is time to consider what his troubles can reveal about the Ohio Valley frontier in the early 1790's and about the difficulties facing any commander who planned to march an army into the wilderness. [2]

The objective of St. Clair's expedition was simple enough in principle. He was to lead the largest military force the United States had ever assembled on the frontier, march northward from Cincinnati to the headwaters of the Maumee River (the modern city of Fort Wayne) and establish a strong fort there. With his army of 3,000 men, most of them newly recruited, he was to "persuade" the Indians of the region, about whom he was entirely without intelligence, to make peace and to surrender more of their lands. He was to accomplish this, if at all possible, without engaging in battle. Of course Brigadier General Josiah Harmar had failed with heavy losses to accomplish a similar mission in 1790, but St. Clair was to have more than double his force. [3]

After the Revolutionary War the tiny United States Army relied entirely upon civilians for all of its supply functions. There was a quartermaster general in 1791, but he was a civilian, receiving the pay and allowances of a lieutenant colonel, but not the rank itself. In theory the chief responsibility of the quartermaster was the movement of supplies. Procurement was the joint responsibility of the War Department and the Treasury Department in Philadelphia, although the distinctions between purchasing and transporting goods were not clear in practice. The provisions contract was entirely separate from the other supply arrangements, and the contractor was responsible for the delivery of rations all the way to the army in the field. [4]

Arrangements for the campaign of 1791 were made in considerable haste. Congress did not authorize enlargement of the army until March. The regular army would be doubled to two regiments of infantry, and an additional 2,000 troops called "levies" would be recruited for six months of service. On March 4th, President George Washington appointed Arthur St. Clair to his old Continental rank of major general and placed him in command. St. Clair, 55 years old and in poor health, accepted this new assignment with his customary sense of duty, while at the same time continuing to serve as governor of the Northwest Territory. [5]

Secretary of War Henry Knox issued the formal orders for the campaign on March 21st. St. Clair was directed to advance from Fort Washington at Cincinnati to the Miami Indian villages on the Maumee River and there erect a strong and permanent fort. After accomplishing that objective he was to strike at the Indians if they had not yet agreed to submit. "Conflicts... may be expected," Knox warned, but he also reminded St. Clair that "An Indian war, under any circumstances, is regarded by the great mass of the people of the United States as an event which ought, if possible, to be avoided." The enlarged army with all of its supplies was to be ready to leave Fort Washington by July 10th, although none of the new soldiers had yet been recruited. [6]

Samuel Hodgdon, late a colonel in the Continental Army, was appointed quartermaster general early in March. He was to act "entirely under (St. Clair's) orders, in all respects," but it does not appear that they worked together during the three weeks that they were both in Philadelphia. St. Clair left the capital on March 23rd, but delayed by illness in Pennsylvania and militia conferences in the Kentucky settlements he did not reach Fort Washington and assume command until May 15th. His "army" at the moment numbered just under one hundred men present and fit for duty. Quartermaster Hodgdon was to follow as soon as he completed the supply arrangements, but despite repeated orders to hurry he stayed on in Pennsylvania for six months. Until Hodgdon reached Fort Washington on September 7th, General St. Clair was in effect his own quartermaster. [7]

Everything about the expedition went wrong. Recruiting was slow and few of the new troops reached Cincinnati by the scheduled mid-July starting date. When they arrived in late August and early September they were poorly trained and badly disciplined, and the short-service levies in particular were inadequately equipped. Furthermore, there was great confusion as to when the six-month enlistment of the levies became effective, and by the time the expedition finally neared its objective they were beginning to demand their discharge. [8]

Throughout the summer St. Clair and his small force of regulars struggled to remedy some of their supply problems. There were only a handful of civilians living at Cincinnati, and workmen of every sort had to be found among the troops — carpenters to make gun carriages for the artillery, harnessmakers, wheelwrights, coopers to make kegs for ammunition, gunsmiths to repair the fort's collection of damaged muskets, and so on almost without end. The field artillery carriages sent from Philadelphia were all unfit for service, and there were grave doubts about the quality of the gunpowder. Many officers claimed afterwards that their powder was defective, but it appears that it was originally of good quality and had been damaged by moisture from improper packing and then storage under leaky tents. All of the powder was in loose form, and soldiers had to be detailed for the dangerous and tiring task of filling howitzer shells and making up cartridges for both cannon and muskets. Iron for the camp kettles had been sent downriver from Pittsburgh in sheet form to prevent damage, and the army blacksmiths had to shape it into kettles. Knapsacks sent from Philadelphia split and leaked, and some were re-covered at Cincinnati with pieces of bearskin to make them fit for service. [9]

Hodgdon's agents purchased over 400 horses for the army in western Pennsylvania, although Kentuckians claimed later that better and less expensive horses were available in the area around Lexington. Horse breeding was a significant enterprise in the Bluegrass region only a few years after the initial settlement. The army's horses were badly cared for on the tedious trip downriver, delayed by the low water so common on the Ohio in late summer. When they reached Cincinnati they had to be turned out to feed, and most of them strayed into the woods because the quartermaster had provided neither hobbles nor horsebells. The hobbles were soon made from scraps of harness, and the smiths turned to making bells until their supply of brass was exhausted. [10]

Leather splints for the wounded were made on the spot, "those that had been sent from Philadelphia being useless. " As General St. Clair remembered it, "Fort Washington had as much the appearance of a large manufactory on the inside, as it had of a military post on the outside." The well-populated Kentucky settlements were not far away, but St. Clair looked across the Ohio only for militia support and for cattle to feed his soldiers. The army's official supply line ran by way of the Ohio River to Pittsburgh, and on eastward to Philadelphia, not to Lexington or Louisville where civilian merchants would have been able to supply a considerable part of the army's requirements. [11]

The small frontier village of Cincinnati was unable to provide workmen or supplies in useful quantities, but it was able to furnish an ample supply of whiskey for the troops. A large proportion of the soldiers kept themselves drunk as long as their money or their credit would allow. On August 7th the troops not busy as workmen were ordered to march six miles north to Ludlow's Station, which St. Clair hoped would be far enough from Cincinnati to keep them reasonably sober. Equally pressing was the need to find fresh grazing for the cattle, for the only practical way to provide fresh meat was to move it along with the army. [12]

There was food enough for the soldiers while they were in camp, but when the army finally began its long-delayed advance at the end of September serious food shortages soon developed. By the terms of the provisions contract negotiated by Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton, it was the responsibility of the contractor to bring the rations forward as the army advanced. No arrangements had been made to use small boats on the Great Miami River, and so food was moved by land. This was easy enough for the beef which walked on its own power, but flour caused serious difficulties. Although the troops built a rough road through the forests as they advanced, it was unsuited for wagons and only a few pieces of artillery moved on wheels. There were not enough packhorses to carry the flour and in any event many of them were too weak to carry full loads. There had been particular troubles with packsaddles, most of which were too large for the army's horses. Regulations called for one pound of flour a day for each soldier, and by mid-October the army was on half-rations. The immediate problem was inadequate transportation and incompetent contractor's agents, but even at the army's base in Cincinnati the food supply was no more than adequate. A village of only a few hundred civilian residents did not have enough food in reserve to feed an army of nearly 3,000 men, and only a few farms had been cleared in the immediate vicinity. Plenty of food was available in the Kentucky settlements around Lexington, some 75 miles to the south, and more could be found around Marietta, about 250 miles upstream from Cincinnati, but the contractor had his business connections in Pennsylvania and there was no effort to procure food locally even when supplies were short.

Every available horse had to be used to bring the flour forward to the troops, army horses and contractor's horses alike, and there was neither time nor money to purchase additional horses from Kentucky. Extra beef was issued to make up for the shortage of bread, but the militia in particular complained bitterly that they were not receiving the prescribed rations and desertions increased. On October 27th, the army was forced to halt and wait for a column of packhorses to catch up with the troops — every pound of flour had been issued. The next day 74 horses reached camp, carrying some 12,000 pounds of flour, a four-day supply for the army at full rations. The weakened horses carried only 162 pounds each, and because early frosts had killed the grass both horses and cattle were underfed. The army carried no forage, and each evening as many as a thousand troops were sent outside the camp to cut grass and feed the livestock. All of the flour was issued to the troops immediately so that the horses could be used to carry the army's baggage. The horses usually assigned for baggage had been sent back to Fort Washington to bring up more flour. [13]

Late in the evening of October 31st, a large convoy of 212 horses arrived in camp, but they were so weakened that they carried an average load of only 150 pounds. That same day a party of 60 or 70 militia deserted in a body, threatening to seize the next supply column when they met it on the road, the only road linking the army to its base now some 80 miles away. Desperate in his worry about supplies, and determined also to discourage and punish desertion, St. Clair ordered his most trustworthy troops, the 300 regular infantry of the First Regiment, to pursue the deserters and to protect the supply convoy. The regulars never caught up with the fast-moving deserters, and because the contractor's agents were far behind schedule, they did not encounter the supply column where St. Clair had expected it. [14]

So it was that Arthur St. Clair faced the federation of northwestern tribes at dawn on Friday, November 4th, with his army for the moment properly fed, but with his best fighting men 30 miles down the road on a wild goose chase. The battle, known simply as St. Clair's defeat because he was as ignorant of the geography as of the Indian power, was the greatest loss ever suffered by the United States Army against Indians. Out of some 1,400 men actually engaged, St. Clair lost 647 killed and 280 wounded, and in addition some 30 of the women accompanying the army were killed and often mutilated as well. Three women and 470 surviving men covered the 29 miles to temporary safety at Fort Jefferson in less than ten hours, and the entire army returned to Cincinnati within four days. [15]

So shocking a defeat, with such heavy loss of life, obviously engendered widespread outrage and demands for punishment of those responsible. The official investigation was conducted by a committee of the House of Representatives, the first Congressional investigation under the new federal Constitution. General St. Clair was soundly condemned by the newspapers, but the committee found that he had fought with great courage, despite a painful case of the gout. The committee looked very closely into the supply arrangements, for as St. Clair testified "the contractors had no system, and I had no quartermaster." Some members of the committee were happy enough to make political attacks against Henry Knox and Alexander Hamilton. [16]

The provisions contract was impossible at best, and it was carried out in a manner both fraudulent and incompetent. Secretary of the Treasury Hamilton had years of service in both line and staff duties as a colonel during the Revolutionary War, and he must have realized the meaning of the contract he signed. But William Duer, the provisions contractor, was a political and business associate of both Hamilton and Knox, and he was in desperate need of government cash to satisfy the demands of his many creditors. Samuel Hodgdon, the quartermaster general, was also a close associate of Secretary Knox. Both Duer and Hodgdon were roundly condemned by the committee for their incompetence, but they escaped from the affair entirely unpunished.

The provisions contract had been signed on October 28th, 1790, by Theodosius Fowler, a New York merchant who claimed later that he had acted from the beginning as Duer's agent. Fowler supposedly transferred the contract to Duer on January 3rd, 1791, but his letter informing the War Department was dated April 7th and may well have been written even later than that. For reasons he could never explain to the committee, Knox dealt with Duer as a principal long before he was officially notified of the transfer. But what was a piece of paper between good friends? Not only had Duer worked as Hamilton's assistant at the treasury, he and Knox were partners in a land speculation in Maine, and in fact they were together for weeks in New England trying to sell their land when they should have been attending to government business in Philadelphia. But even at best the contract was impossible, drawn up as it was months before the campaign was planned, obligating the contractor to deliver unspecified numbers of rations at unspecified locations throughout the country. The food making up a ration was carefully specified — a pound of flour or bread, a pound of beef or 12 ounces of pork, salt, and whiskey or rum. The prices were also very specific — 5.28 cents for each daily ration at Pittsburgh, for example, 6.83 cents at Cincinnati, but 15.28 cents as soon as St. Clair advanced his troops the six miles to Ludlow's Station. How even the most conscientious contractor was to transport tons of food through an area of active military operations was not explained. There is every reason to believe that the contract was intended more to aid Duer than to feed the army, for he was in desperate straits and in fact entered debtor's prison in March 1792. [17]

Colonel Samuel Hodgdon had extensive quartermaster experience while serving during the Revolutionary War, and then enjoyed a successful career as a merchant in Philadelphia. He found no existing organization when he assumed the position of quartermaster general in 1791, and he lacked the talent for rapid improvisation. Secretary of War Knox handled most of the clothing purchases himself, awarding contracts to the lowest and worst bidders. Hodgdon handled most other purchases, and had full responsibility for quality inspections before the goods were sent west to the army. Many of St. Clair's officers came to curse Hodgdon for shabby clothes, leaky tents, shoes which wore through in less than a week, and even for sending a torn and undersized flag. Hodgdon's chief assistant was William Knox, the incompetent younger brother of the Secretary. Hodgdon was supposed to be three places at once — at Philadelphia dealing with contracts and inspection; at Pittsburgh buying boats and horses, arranging for the manufacture of howitzer shells, and sending everything down the Ohio River; and also at Cincinnati with the army headquarters. St. Clair complained for months and repeatedly ordered Hodgdon to hurry. Hodgdon's friend Henry Knox also prodded him to move westward: "I hope in God you have made other and more effectual arrangements or you will suffer excessively. . . ." Hodgdon remained at Philadelphia until June 4th, and then stayed on at Pittsburgh for nearly three months longer, reaching Cincinnati only on September 7th. [18]

When Representative Thomas Fitzsimons of Pennsylvania reported the findings of the investigating committee on May 8th, 1792, the blame was apportioned to the congressional delay in appropriating money for the campaign, to the lack of discipline and experience of the troops, to the lateness of the season, but particularly to "The delays consequent upon the gross and various mismanagements and neglects in the quarter master's and the contractor's departments." [19]

The report was widely published, and both Knox and Hodgdon petitioned for further hearings. They tried to shift the blame elsewhere, preferably to St. Clair. Duer published a letter from debtor's prison, but he was not released to present his defense. After Knox, Hodgdon, and St. Clair appeared to offer new evidence and to rebut previous testimony the committee considered the case once more. The final report was presented by William Branch Giles of Virginia on February 13th, 1793. The committee, with substantially the same membership as before, corrected its findings in some minor details, but refused to alter its conclusions. The contractor and the quartermaster were chiefly to blame, and by implication their political masters, while the unfortunate general ended his military career defeated, but not dishonored. [20]

In reality the logistical failures had not altered the outcome at all. The campaign was delayed, but not fatally. The troops ate less bread and more meat than they wished, but they were healthy enough to work at full strength. They wore out their shoes and some of their uniforms fell into rags, but they were always well enough dressed to keep marching. Their tents leaked, and they were indeed cold, wet, and miserable, but infantrymen are supposed to be able to endure cold, wet, and misery. On the fatal day the army had everything it needed to fight effectively except leadership, discipline and order, even the courage to fight a concealed enemy for two hours before retreat turned to panic. The frontier country lacked most of the necessities required to supply an army, but the army and the government made very little use of the food and livestock which the Kentucky settlements had in abundance. [21] The supplies, so expensively, so painfully, and so slowly brought to Fort Washington were lost on the field of battle or abandoned along the road of panic-stricken retreat. Armies may march on their stomachs, but something more is required to make an effective fighting force. It was a painful and expensive lesson, but the army learned it well by 1794, as General "Mad Anthony" Wayne and his disciplined troops proved at Fallen Timbers. [22]


1The best introduction to the problems of military supply is Martin L. Van Creveld, Supplying War: Logistics from Wallenstein to Patton (Cambridge, 1977). Eighteenth century European armies were expected to live off the countryside, usually at the expense of the peasants along the line of march. American supply problems and organization are well described by Erna Risch, Quartermaster Support of the Army: A History of the Corps, 1775-1939 (Washington, 1962).

2A good modern introduction to the Ohio Valley frontier is Malcolm J. Rohrbough, The Trans-Appalachian Frontier: People, Societies, and Institutions, 1775-1850 (New York, 1978), especially 64-87. There is no reliable full-length study of St. Clair's campaign, but there are good brief accounts in James R. Jacobs, The Beginning of the U S. Army, 1783-1812 (Princeton, 1947), 66-123; Richard H. Kohn, Eagle and Sword: The Federalists and the Creation of the Military Establishment in America, 1783-1802 (New York, 1975), 107-16; Francis Paul Prucha, The Sword of the Republic: The United States Army on the Frontier, 1783-1846 (New York, 1969) 20-29.

3Randolph C. Downes, Council Fires on the Upper Ohio: A Narrative of Indian Affairs in the Upper Ohio Valley until 1795 (Pittsburgh, 1940), 310-21; see also Jacobs, Beginning of the U S. Army, 66-73, and Prucha, Sword of the Republic, 22-24.

4The provisions contract, which was the subject of dispute after the campaign ended, does not appear in any of the expected archival collections or published reports. St. Clair's manuscript copy was lost with his other headquarters papers in the battle, found by the Indians and sent on to the British authorities in Canada. Claus Family Papers, Public Archives of Canada, Ottawa. See also Jacobs, Beginning of the U S. Army, 78-84 and Risch, Quartermaster Support, 88-100.

5Douglas Southall Freeman, George Washington, (New York, 1955). VI, 271-72; Arthur St. Clair, A Narrative of the Manner in Which the Campaign against the Indians...Was Conducted (Philadelphia, 1812), 1-26; William H. Smith, editor, The St. Clair Papers, (Cincinnati, 1882), II, 200-06.

6American State Papers: Indian Affairs, (Washington, 1832-1861), I, 171-74; St. Clair Papers, II, 203-05.

7Amer. State Papers: Indian, I, 188-95; St. Clair, Narrative, 89-91, 106-18, and passim; St. Clair Papers, II, 232-42.

8Ebenezer Denny, Military Journal of Major Ebenezer Denny (Philadelphia, 1859); Winthrop Sargent, "Winthrop Sargent's Diary While with General Arthur St. Clair's Expedition against the Indians," Ohio Archaeological and Historical Quarterly, XXXIII (1924), 237-73; John Stephenson, Orderly Book kept by Lieutenant John Stephenson while serving in the West, 1791 - 1794. Manuscript Division, Library of Congress.

9Amer. State Papers: Indian, I, 139-62; Charles Cist, Sketches and Statistics of Cincinnati in 1859 (N. p., n. d. probably Cincinnati, 1859 or 1860); "Winthrop Sargent Diary," 240-50; St. Clair Papers, II, 223-44. See also St. Clair, Narrative, 200-06.

10St. Clair, Narrative, 41-44, 136-39.

11St. Clair, Narrative, 10-13, 195-200; "Winthrop Sargent Diary," 240-42; St. Clair Papers, II, 231-33.

12St. Clair, Narrative, 10-14, 84-86; Stephenson, Orderly Book.

13Claus Family Papers; Denny, Military Journal; Risch, Quartermaster Support, 98-99; St. Clair, Narrative, 15-17, 31-32, 40-45, 270-271; Stephenson, Orderly Book.

14Amer. State Papers: Indian, I, 137; American State Papers: Military Affairs (Washington, 1832-61), I, 37; Denny, Military Journal; St. Clair, Narrative, 26-28, 215-18; "Winthrop Sargent's Diary," 251-52.

15St. Clair's official report of the battle is in Amer. State Papers: Indian, I, 137-38; Colonial Office Papers, Class C. O. 42, volumes 72-73, 82-83, 89, Public Record office, London, microfilm copy in Public Archives of Canada. Frequent dispatches from British officials in Canada, including intelligence reports about St. Clair's army and its Indian opponents, advised officials in London of conditions in the backwoods of North America. St. Clair's defeat is described in detail in his own Narrative, in Sargent's diary, as well as the sources cited in Note 2.

16Amer. State Papers: Military, I, 36-39; Patrick J. Furlong, "The Investigation of General Arthur St. Clair, 1792-1793," Capitol Studies, V (1977), 65-86; Philadelphia Gazette of the United States, March 28, May 5, 9, 12, 1792; St. Clair, Narrative, passim.

17Amer. State Papers: Military, I, 36-37; contract in Claus Family Papers; Furlong, "Investigation." For a somewhat hostile view of Henry Knox's and William Duer's tangled business affairs see the "Editorial Note" in Julian P. Boyd, editor, The Papers of Thomas Jefferson (Princeton, 1950-), XIX, 442-52.

18Amer. State Papers: Indian, I, 139-62; Risch, Quartermaster Support, 93-100; St. Clair, Narrative, 10-14, 40-45, 84-142, 174-76, 193-229.

19Amer. State Papers: Military, I, 38-39; Philadelphia Gazette of the United States, May 9, 12, 1792; St. Clair, Narrative, 59-79; St. Clair Papers, II, 269-99.

20Philadelphia Gazette of the United States, May 23, Nov. 17, 1792 and Feb. 16, 27, March 2, 1793; Amer. State Papers: Military, I, 36-44; Furlong, "Investigation."

21Jacobs, Beginning, 105-21; Kohn, Eagle and Sword, 114-24; Risch, Quartermaster Support, 99-100.

22Jacobs, Beginning, 124-88; Richard C. Knopf, editor, Anthony Wayne: A Name in Arms (Pittsburgh, 1960), 313-73; Prucha, Sword of the Republic, 29-40.

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