Van Cleve at St. Clair’s defeat

A few weeks ago, my blog stats told me that someone had been searching for “van cleave st. clair’s defeat.”

Now, “St. Clair’s Defeat” refers to a battle in November 1791 in which the forces of Genl. Arthur St. Clair (also Governor of the Northwest Territory) were defeated handily by a force of Native Americans led by Little Turtle. It is considered the greatest defeat of the U.S. Army by Native Americans. (Read more about it at Ohio History Central and Wikipedia.)

In the course of arranging and describing the Van Cleve-Dover Papers (MS-006, Dayton Metro Library), I learned that Benjamin Van Cleve’s Memoranda (Memoirs) apparently includes the most accurate and detailed description of General Arthur St. Clair’s defeat.

I assume that Benjamin Van Cleve’s first-hand account of St. Clair’s defeat is what that person was searching for when they typed “van cleave st. clair’s defeat” into their search engine.

So, whoever you are, here is a transcription of that account. Although the original in is the Van Cleve-Dover Collection, due to its age and fragility, I opted not to retrieve it for a photo-op, so all you get is the text. But do know that the original is safe and sound in the Dayton Library’s Local History collections.

On the 23rd of September my uncle received his letters of instructions & we immediately left Fort Washington-” with three or four brigades of pack horses loaded with armourers & artificers tools — The Artificers with Capt Tharp their Superintendant marched with us armed & composed but a weak escort We encamped the first night on the bank opposite to Fort Hamilton which had been recently erected At daybreak I went some distance from the encampment to look for my horse & discovered a person armed I ran in & gave the alarm a party turned out with me & we met the person who had discovered me & ran in by a more circuitous route very much frightened, it immediately occurred to me that we had alarmed each other & on asking a few questions I ascertained it. — On the fifth day in the morning we overtook the army at the first wet prairie between thirty & forty miles in advance of Fort Hamilton. This day the army lay still & the next we marched about seven or eight miles The day following we moved about half a mile & remained about a week, during this time Fort Jefferson was commenced & about half finished on ground on the right of our encampment We then returned with six brigades of pack- horses to Fort Hamilton one of which to Fort Washington where I also returned Our escort consisted of about half of
Faulkners company of Levies commanded by Capt. Faulkner with his Lieutenant Mr Huston who afterwards in the regular service at Greenville fought with Capt. Bradshaw the fatal duel where both were mortally wounded. Col Duer the Con- tractor had failed It had almost defeated all the arrangements of the army he failed to transport provisions sufficient for the troops & they were reduced before this time to short allowance in consequence of it — The orders from the board of war to the Commander in Chief were said to be imperiously to proceed We were sent to bring provisions to assist the other line in the transportation. On the last day of October we over took the army twenty two miles in advance of Fort Jefferson & found the Commander in Chief so ill with the gout as to be carried in a litter We met on the same day a few miles before we came up with the army about sixty of the Kentucky militia deserting in one body This evening the first regiment was detached to endeavor to bring them back & to escort in provisions then on the way

On the first of November the army lay I think at Still water On the second & third we marched to a Creek supposed to be the St. Mary’s but which was a branch of the Wabash We had orders to return next morning with some pack horses to assist the other line in bringing more provision.

I had been entered as a pack horseman at fifteen dollars per month: At times I had considerable writing to do Every brigade drew their rations seperately; & when we were not on the march I had this service to perform, orders to communicate & often the care of my uncles horses as well as my own, when we were on the march we could sometimes make arrangements so that I could ride, at other times I had to carry a share of our stores or baggage lashed on my beast & was obliged to foot it through the mud in the roughest manner We had a Marquee or large horsemens tent & having room took several officers into our mess Having sometimes to be in company & employment with officers & at other times in the mud I was induced to take all my clothes with me; so that even when I was able to ride I always had luggage sufficient to make it necessary to use a lash rope On the fourth at day break^° I began to prepare for returning & had got about half my luggage on my horse when the firing commenced We were encamped just within the lines on the right The attack was made on the Kentucky militia, almost instantaneously the small remnant of them that escaped broke through the line near us & this line gave way followed with a tremendous fire from the enemy & passed me. I threw my bridle over a stump from which a tent pole had been cut & retreated a short distance & finding the troops halt, re- turned & brought my horse a little further; I was now
between the fires & the troops giving way again was obliged to leave him a second time — as I quit him he was shot down & I felt extremely glad as I concluded now that I should be at liberty to share in the engagement My inexperience prompted me to calculate on the strength of our forces being far superior to any the savages could assemble & that we should soon have the pleasure of pursuing them & I determined on being if possible among the foremost in the pursuit, not more than five minutes had yet elapsed when a soldier near me had his arm swinging with a wound I requested his arms & accoutrements as he was unable to use them promising to return them to him & commenced firing — the smoke was settled about three feet from the ground but I generally put one knee to the ground & with a rest from behind a tree waited the appearance of an Indians head from behind a tree or when one ran to change his position. Before I was convinced of my mistaken calculations I had become familiarized to the scene & the battle was half over. Hearing the fire at one time unusually brisk near the rear of our left wing I crossed the encampment — two Levy officers were just ordering a charge: I had fired away my ammunition & some of the bands of my musket fiew off, I picked up another & a cartouch box nearly filled & ran ahead to a large tree where I charged my piece, & fixed my bayonet, almost against the party reached me — I think there was about thirty of us — I was soon in front — the Indians run to the right where was a small valley filled with logs. I bent my course after them & found I was with only seven or eight men the others had kept straight forward & had halted about 30 yards off We halted also & being so near to where the savages lay concealed the second fire from them left me standing alone; my cover was a small sugar tree or Beech scarcely large enough to hide me, & most of the Indians in the hollow from 50 to 70 yards distant directed their fire at me: The balls some struck the tree & many ploughed along the ground at its root one moved my hat but did not cut it. I fired away all my ammunition I am uncertain whether with any effect or not — a little before I left this place I discovered an Indian throwing his blanket up & down at the side of a tree & sometimes his body appeared I took good & steady aim past the side of the tree & when his body appeared fired & did not see him or his blanket more. When my ammunition was expended I looked for the party near me, I saw them retreating and half way back to the lines. I then retreated running my best & was soon in; by this time cur artillery had been taken I know not whether the first or second time our troops had just retaken it and were charging the Indians over the Creek in front, & some person pointed me to an Indian running with one of my kegs of powder but I did not see him ; there were about 30 of our men & officers laying scalped around the pieces of Artillery; it appeared the Indians had not been in a hurry for their hair was all skinned off. Daniel Bonham a young man raised by my uncle & brought up with me & whom I regarded as a brother had by this time received a shot through his hips & was unable to walk I got a horse & got him on. My uncle had received a ball near his wrist that lodged near his elbow. The ground was literally covered with dead & dying men & the Commander gave orders to take them away, perhaps it had been given more explicitly — happening to see my uncle he told me that a retreat was ordered & that I must do the best I could & take care of myself. Bonham insisted that he had a better chance of escaping than me & urged me to look to my own safety alone I found the troops pressing like a drove of bullocks to the right & gained the front when I saw an officer (who I took to be Lieut Morgan an aid to Genl Butler) with six or eight men start on a run a little to the left of where I was. I immediately ran & fell in with them — in a short distance we were so suddenly among the Indians who were not apprised of our object that they opened to us & ran to the right & left without firing I think about 200 of our men passed through them before they fired except a chance shot When we had proceeded about two miles most of those mounted had passed me, a boy had been thrown or fell off a horse & begged my assistance & I ran pulling him along about two miles further until I had nearly become exhausted The last two horses in the rear had; one, two; & the other carried three men I made an exertion & threw him on behind the two men The Indians followed but about half a mile further The boy was thrown off sometime afterwards but escaped & got in safe My friend Bonham I did not see on the retreat but understood he was thrown off about this place & lay on the left of the trace where he was found in the winter & was buried I took the cramp violently in my thighs & could scarcely walk until I got within a hundred yards of the rear where the Indians were tomahawking the old & wounded men I further detained here to tie my pocket handkerchief around a mans wounded knee & saw the Indians close in pursuit at this time — for a moment my spirits sunk & I felt in despair for my safety I hesitated whether to leave the road or whether I was capable of further exertions If I left the road the Indians were in plain sight & could easily overtake me I threw the shoes off my feet & the coolness of the ground seemed to revive me. I again began a trot & recollect when a bend in the road offered & I got before half a dozen persons to have thought that it would occupy some time of the enemy to massacre these before my turn would come By the time I had got to Stillwater (about eleven miles) I had gained the centre of the flying troops & like them came to a walk I fell in with Lieutenant Shaumburgh (who if my recollection serves me was the only officer of artillery that got away unhurt) with Corporal Mott & a woman who was called red headed Nance — the latter two were both crying Mott was lamenting the loss of his wife & Nance of an infant child Shaumburgh was nearly exhausted & hung on Motts arm I carried his fusee & accoutrements & led Nance In this sociable way we came together & arrived at Jefferson a little after sunset. The commander in chief had ordered Col Dark to press forward to the convoys of provisions & hurry them on to the army Maj Truman Capt Sedam & my uncle were setting forward with him a number of soldiers packhorse masters & men & myself among them joined them on foot We came on a few miles when all overcome with fatigue agreed to halt Darius Curtus Orcutt a packhorse master had stolen at Jefferson one pocketfull of flour & the other of beef, one of the men had a kettle & Jacob Fowler & myself groped round in the dark until we found water where a tree had been torn out of root & we made a kettle of soup of which I got a small portion amongst the many It was then concluded as there was a bend in the road a few miles further on that the Indians might undertake to intercept us there & we decamped & travelled about four or five miles further I had got at Jefferson a rifle & ammunition from a wounded Militia man an old acquaintance to bring in A centinel was set & we lay down to rest & lay until the Governor came up a few hours after; I think I never slept so profoundly & I could hardly get awake when on my feet. On the third the ground was covered with snow, the flats were now filled with water frozen over as thick as a knife blade I was worn out with fatigue my feet knock’d to pieces against the roots in the night & in splashing barefooted among the ice In the morning we got to a camp of packhorsemen & amongst them I got a doughboy or water dumpling & proceeded We got this day within seven miles of Hamilton & lay around a burning tree so stiffened as to be unable to get out of the way if the tree had been falling on us On the sixth I arrived at Hamilton soon in the morning over the ground very rough & much frozen & remained there until next morning

Nov 7th Notwithstanding the Indians had killed several on the road recently between Hamilton & Cincinnati I came with Joseph Stephenson & with no arms but the rifle I had brought in, to Cincinnati.

On the 25th November we were discharged I received my pay, entered into the service of Elliot & Williams the new Contractors & set off the same day for the falls of Ohio to bring up a boat load of salt.

The above text is from Beverly Bond’s 1922 transcription of Benjamin Van Cleve’s Memoranda. The memoirs, in their entirety, can be found online at :

Additional information about Benjamin Van Cleve (1773-1821) can be found in one of my earlier blog posts [Bio Sketch: Benjamin Van Cleve, 29 May 2012], on Wikipedia [“Benjamin Van Cleve”], and of course at the Dayton Metro Library (not least of which being in the manuscripts of the Van Cleve-Dover Papers!).


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