On November 4, 1791, on the banks of the Wabash River in what is now western Ohio, the United States Army suffered its worst defeat of the entire U.S.-Indian Wars. The battle, alternatively known as St. Clair’s Defeat, the Battle of the Wabash, the Battle of the Wabash River or the Battle of the Thousand Slain, remains little known among most Americans and has been somewhat ignored by academia. Although three times more Americans lost their lives in this battle than at Little Bighorn, it is typically referred to as “St. Clair’s Defeat.”
Some academics attribute the lack of interest in the battle to the American commander, General Arthur St. Clair, who as governor of the Northwest Territory was more of a politician than a general. Others point to the apparent anonymity of the Indian leaders – modern scholars believe they know what chiefs led the warriors in battle, but are not sure about their roles. Whatever the reasons for the lack of interest in the battle, all scholars agree that it played a pivotal role in the Northwest Indian War (1785-1795), setting the stage for future American-Indian conflicts.
As significant as St. Clair’s Defeat may have been in the broader geopolitical situation between the Northwest Indian tribes, the infant United States, and Great Britain, the immediate question that many ask is: how was the United States Army beaten so soundly by an Indian army?