There are “tipping points” in history; moments when something occurs which will have far-reaching consequences which become visible only long after the event. A somewhat-forgotten clash of arms which took place near Maumee, Ohio (south of present-day Toledo) on August 20th, 1794 is one of those occasions.
In order to properly set the stage for this story, it is important to dismiss two myths. The first is the supposition that the American Revolution and the loss of the colonies by England was finally settled with the victory at Yorktown and the signing of the 1783 Treaty of Paris. The second is the idea that the ignominious loss of 268 U.S. Cavalry soldiers under George Armstrong Custer at the Little Big Horn in 1876 was the largest single – and most embarrassing – defeat in skirmishes between the U.S. Military and Native American warriors in the long drama of western settlement. Neither is true.
By 1791, the English and their tribal allies in the recent war, (a confederation of Shawnees, Miamis and Delewares) still occupied and defended forts along the Ohio River and throughout what was known then as “The Northwest Territory” of America. With easy supply routes from Canada, the English had by no means abandoned their belief that a weak and tentative administration under George Washington would not last. Add to that the fact that the Indians had not been informed of any new arrangement between the former warring parties, and it becomes even easier to see how Chief Little Turtle of the Miamis and Blue Jacket, leader of the Shawnees could be influenced to take up arms against a force sent by Washington to take over the forts and protect settlers pouring into the land. What followed on November 4th, as General Arthur St. Clair led a force of over 1,000 poorly-trained and badly-outfitted U.S. soldiers against Fort Recovery has come to be known as “The Battle of the Wabash”, and the greatest defeat ever suffered by the United States Army in all of the 100 years of Indian wars. Only 48 of the 1000 walked away unharmed, and 700, including women and children were dead, at a cost to the Indian Confederacy of only 21.
Not only did this shock the young nation, but it sent political and diplomatic ripples across the watching world, threatening the very underpinnings of the new Constitution and the ability of the new government under Washington to defend what it had only so recently attained.
(Much could be written about the arrogant ineptitude of St. Clair, and the downright incompetence of a “War Department” lacking imagination, funding and leadership, but space is lacking at the moment.)
President George Washington, humiliated and chagrined, called Brigadier General Anthony Wayne out of a well-deserved retirement on his Georgia plantation, giving him command of a newly (and imaginatively) named “Legion of the United States”, with the challenge to clean up St. Clair’s mess, and secure the safety of the Northwest frontier. Wayne had emerged from the Revolution as one of Washington’s most talented and successful field commanders, famous for personally leading his men into battle in bayonet attacks which overcame, in sheer audacity, a vastly superior number of “red coats”, winning him the sobriquet “Mad Anthony” Wayne. (On one occasion, the ill General was carried in the arms of his men in such a head-on attack, his legs temporarily crippled by the severe gout which eventually ended his life at age 51.)
“Mad Anthony” began by introducing his men – war veterans and new recruits alike – to a demanding training regimen which may have been America’s first use of military “basic” training. After establishing a base of operations at Fort Discovery, he led his men against the assembled Indian Confederacy of three tribes in an all-out assault at a place strewn with trees toppled by a tornado and known in history as “Fallen Timbers”.
Thus, “Mad Anthony” Wayne put an end to the Indian rebellion, sent the British packing, and successfully fought what some historians believe was the “final Battle of the American Revolution”. On all counts, it changed history by signaling the world that the constitution would stand, and the United States was here to stay.
Hero of the Revolution, member of Congress from two states, constitutional delegate, author of Indian treaties and American patriot, General Wayne might well have become U.S. President had he not died young. Dozens of cities, counties, towns and schools in fifteen states carry his name today, while a 1929 U.S. postage stamp honoring “Mad Anthony” and the Battle of Fallen Timbers is sought after by collectors.