Official websites use .mil
Secure .mil websites use HTTPS
By John Trowbridge, Kentucky National Guard
August 20, 2019 marks the 225th Anniversary of the Battle of Fallen Timbers, the final military confrontation of America’s Early Indian Wars, an event which would have a significant impact on Kentucky, the Old Northwest Territory, and the Nation.
Today, the Battle of Fallen Timbers, near modern-day Toledo, Ohio, is a nearly forgotten event in our nation’s history, having been overshadowed by many other significant events which were occurring simultaneously, not only in Kentucky, but throughout the nation. Our young country was still going through the growing pains of the nation building process. Kentucky had just gained statehood in 1792, and was beginning to establish itself as a part of the Union
When most people think of this battle, they know about Maj. Gen. “Mad” Anthony Wayne and the Legion of the United States and their battle with the Ohio Indians, under the command of Indian leader, Blue Jacket in the Old Northwest. This battle is referred to as the first military victory of the U. S. Army. Most people don’t realize of Wayne’s 3,300 troops, approximately 1,500 were Kentucky Volunteer Horsemen.
Wayne’s 1794 Campaign
In late May of 1794, Wayne began final preparations to march his Legion of the United States into the heart of Indian power in the Maumee River Valley.
Word arrived that the British were impinging on American territory by refurbishing an old army post named Fort Miami, near Roche de Boeuf on the Maumee. There they had stationed 400 British regulars with a number of cannon to protect the Indians, 2000 in number, who had gathered at that place to halt the Legion’s advance. Immediately, Wayne wrote Kentucky Gov. Isaac Shelby asking that 1500 mounted volunteers be sent to him at Fort Greene Ville, Wayne had determined that he would begin his expedition against the enemy on or about the first of July. Although it was the end of that month before he finally set out, he nevertheless moved in force, he had received General Charles Scott’s entire contingent of Kentuckians to augment the Legion soldiers under his command.
Beginning July 28, and over the next three weeks, his army struggled forward through trying terrain, with the Kentuckians serving as scouts and out riders to protect the main force.
On August 8th the troops took control of Grand Glaize, an abandoned Indian town, which Wayne deemed, “the Grand Emporium of the hostile Indians of the West,” and where Wayne’s troops would build Fort Defiance.
During the fort’s construction, a scouting party was met with resistance at Roche de Boeuf, located to the east of Fort Defiance. Another scouting party reconnoitered and the information from the two parties combined revealed that a mass of Indian warriors was gathering at Roche de Boeuf with assistance from British troops under Major William Campbell. Wayne now realized there was not a moment to lose in recommencing his army’s march, so on August 15th he put his troops in motion eastward along the north bank of the Maumee River.
Kentucky at the Battle of Fallen Timbers
On August 20, 1794, the Americans awoke in a heavy downpour. The rain stopped at about 7:15 a.m., Wayne order his drummers to beat “Assembly,” however, the army’s drums had been left out in the rain and the soaked leatherheads made them unusable. Wayne would have to use runners throughout the upcoming battle to send this commands to his various elements.
By 7:30 a.m. the army was moving forward from Fort Deposit. Major William Price’s 150 Kentucky horsemen divided into seven units about 100 yards apart, then rode forward on a front more than 1,000 yards wide; 100 yards ahead of each of Price’s units, two men rode as the army’s advance scouts. About 400 yards behind the Kentuckians, Captain John Cooke led the Legion’s Advance Infantry Guard.
The rest of Maj. Gen. Charles Scott’s Kentucky horsemen guarded the army’s far left flank and rear. Four hundred yards to the left of Captain Gibson’s Legion riflemen, Brigadier General Robert Todd’s Northern Kentucky Brigade advanced in long columns. Four hundred yards behind Captain Reed’s Legion infantrymen, Brigadier General Thomas Barbee’s three-battalion Southern Kentucky Brigade rode forward in long lines.
At the head of the advancing Americans, Price’s Kentuckians walked their horses forward through terrain that they had explored the previous day. Those on the right rode through the 6-foot-high prairie grass of a 600-900 yards wide floodplain, through which the 300 yard-wide Maumee River flowed. To the left of the floodplain, above the tall grass and brilliant August prairie flowers, rose a 35-yard-high ridge, which steep ravines punctuated at intervals. For the first 200-300 yards to the left of the ridge’s edge the ground was relatively open, covered with large oaks. Further to the left, the woods became a dense thicket of trees, bushes, and brambles.
As Price’s horsemen went forward, they looked for two memorable features of the landscape. The first, about 3 miles beyond Roche de Beouf, was a mile-long area of high ground in the floodplain known as Presque Isle. The second, about a mile beyond Presque Isle, was the area of fallen trees where they had seen Indians the day before. When the downpour had awakened the waiting Indians, many had concluded that there again would be no battle. As hours passed, about a quarter of the warriors had left their positions and returned to the Indian camp to eat. Now, dispersed six deep in a line about 700 yards long, roughly 1,100 Indians and Canadians remained.
. . . After about two hours, Price’s Kentuckians stopped a half mile ahead of the area where they had seen Indians the day before. Some took last drinks of water, others took off their sweat-soaked shirts. Then the two men ahead of each unit went forward again. Walking their horses slowly around fallen trunks and branches, the rest of the Kentuckians followed 100 yards behind.
When Lt. William Sudduth, of the Kentucky horsemen, had asked for men to ride ahead of his unit, Thomas Moore and William Steele had volunteered for the dangerous duty. At about 9:45 a.m., they reached the Ottawa and Potawatomi in the Indian line. The first fire of the battle killed them both. Sudduth’s horsemen then went forward to within 20 yards of the Indians. Musket fire hit them, he recalled, “with a tremendous roar at a very short distance.” The Kentuckians fell back about 40 yards. Ottawa and Potawatomi rushed forward, but fire from Kentucky rifles halted them. Soon, however, Shawnees in overwhelming numbers appeared on the Kentuckians’ left. When a ball struck his horse, Sudduth recalled, “I gave him the spur and pushed him on, the blood gushing out of the wound. He ran about one hundred and fifty yards and stopped. I leaped off.” The Kentuckians fled 70 yards ahead of pursuing Indians. Those on the right rode down the floodplain. Those near the Indian trail raced back toward the next line of Americans, Cooke’s Advance Infantry Guard. Hearing the fire ahead, 37 infantrymen, led by Cooke, had formed a line to the right of the Indian trail. Another 37, led by Lt. John Steele, had formed a line to their left. Cooke remembered Wayne’s orders of the previous year, to fire on any soldiers retreating without orders. When the Kentuckians came within 80 yards of his men, a volley of musket balls awaited them from the muskets of Cooke’s men. The startled Kentucky horsemen then raced around the infantrymen toward the main body of the army.
Within a few minutes the commanders in the main body of the American army learned that a battle had begun. When Brig. Gen. James Wilkinson saw horsemen riding back through the tall grass in the floodplains, he ordered his infantry column to halt. When about 50 Kentuckians reach Wayne’s columns, they reported that hundreds of Indians were coming.
Wayne ordered his men, “Prepare to receive the enemy in front in two lines.” Which was hurriedly put into action by the commanders. In the rear, Barbee’s horsemen were ordered to ride to the American far left flank, to a position behind Todd’s Kentuckians. . .
. . . The Indians, Wayne knew, would continue to try to turn the American left. His aides sped with orders for units to advance to extend the American line. Todd’s 500 horsemen were to dismount, and advance with their rifles to a position beyond the 2nd Sublegion men. Barbee’s 800 Kentuckians were to ride in a semicircle far beyond Todd’s men, and attack behind the Indians’ right flank.
. . . When the Canadians and Indians reached the far left of the American army. Instead of a few defenders, however, they found there Todd’s advancing Kentuckians – the 550 men in Major Notley Conn’s and William Russell’s battalions. Musket balls flew at Private Garret Burns and his company of Conn’s battalion. “We returned the fire,” Burns recalled, “rushing on them as they tried to reload. I singled out one Indian and, leveling my rifle, fired. I was behind a tree, as he was, and struck him before he had the same chance as me.”
By this time the battlefield was utter chaos, units fleeing the battlefield and others becoming lost in the tall grass and thick woods. However, Wayne’s battle plan finally began to emerge. The Indians’ failed attempt to surround the American army from their right had left them in a fixed line. The American army at their front extended beyond their flanks and to their far right, Wayne’s army was moving to attack them from behind.
At this time Wayne had become so engaged in the fight that his aides feared he might charge into the fray on horseback. Lt. William Henry Harrison approached the general and articulated his concerns. “General Wayne, I am afraid you will go into the fight yourself and forget to give me the necessary field orders.” Wayne told young Harrison, “Perhaps I may, and if I do, recollect that the standing order for the day is ‘Charge the damned rascals with the bayonet.’”
Wayne’s next command was to send the horsemen and riflemen against the Indian flanks. Lt. William Sudduth, who had collected about 40 of Price’s scattered Kentuckians, rode through a 3rd Sublegion Company to join them. Near the edge of the ridge, Sudduth’s men found the Indian right flank. His Kentuckians, he recalled, “passed their left and wheeled around the extreme point of their left wing.”
Van Rensselaer’s Sorrell Horse Dragoons rode forward to join the Kentuckians. Covington’s Bay Horse Troop, and Gibson’s and Butler’s rifle companies followed. . .
As the fighting continued along the line the only path to safety for the Indians was the trail back to the Indian camp. Barbee’s Kentucky battalions, however, now were nearing the end of their long ride around the Indian right. The 800 horsemen were moving slowly through the trees, brush, and fallen logs. But when they reached the trail, the Indians would be trapped.
Outracing Barbee’s horsemen, the Indians and Canadians narrowly escaped a massacre. Just after 11:00 a.m., the Americans halted at the Indians’ camp. They then advanced another mile to the foot of the Maumee Rapids, where they established their 22nd camp.
Following the battle as the fleeing Indians reached Fort Miamis, the British commander, Major William Campbell refused them refuge inside the walls of the formidable stockade. The warriors were astonished that their British allies had refused them protection. The Indians cursed the British and continued down the Maumee to the mouth of Swam Creek where their women and children waited word of the battle. Private Garret Burns, years later recounted, “Had the Indians been admitted nothing would have prevented Wayne from storming the fort.”
On August 21st, the Kentuckians patrolled the surrounding area for miles, burning and destroying trading posts, native villages and cornfields. The following day Wayne and some of his senior officers rode to Fort Miamis, inspecting the fortification. This inspection of the British fort on American soil led to a series of correspondence between Campbell and Wayne, in which Wayne demanded the British to vacate the fort and the refusal by the British commander. Wayne nor Campbell wished to start a war between the two counties, then at peace.
On August 23rd, his army’s food supply rapidly being depleted, Wayne set his army in motion back towards Fort Defiance. As the army began its move Wayne ordered Price’s Kentuckians to circle back to ambush any following warriors, at the legion’s 20th camp, they killed one and wounded two Indians. The army reached Fort Defiance Aug. 27.
As with any conflict, this battle came at a price in suffering and sacrifice. The Indians had left nearly 40 bodies on the field. Although it was known their casualties in killed and wounded were substantially higher. Wayne reported to Secretary of War Henry Knox, that the battle had lasted little more than an hour, his casualties were 40 dead and 90 wounded in the Legion, that the Kentuckians had seven dead and 13 wounded.
In the final tally, approximately 1,500 Kentuckians participated in the 1794 Fallen Timbers Campaign, 7 were killed, another Kentucky soldier would later die of wounds sustained in the battle, and 13 wounded in the Aug. 20 battle. During the campaign 25 Kentuckians died from camp diseases and accidents. All of these men were buried near where they fell, in unmarked and forgotten graves, which, sadly have been lost to us over time.
Wayne’s victory at the Battle of Fallen Timbers would have a long-lasting impact on Kentucky, the Old Northwest Territory and our nation. In Kentucky’s case, this battle, would end forever, Native American raids into the state. However, it did not end the fighting between the Kentuckians and the Native Americans, which would be rekindled in 1811 at the battle of Tippecanoe, in the Indiana Territory and continue during the War of 1812, in the Old Northwest Territory.
As for the Old Northwest Territory, it began a period of expansion and settlement, with establishment of the Indiana Territory in 1800 and statehood for Ohio in 1803.
And for the nation, it help secure the 1796 Jay Treaty, which averted war with Great Britain and resolved issues between the two countries following the 1783 Treaty of Paris.
It also facilitated the 1795 Treaty of Greeneville, putting an end to a destructive war, settling all controversies, and to restore harmony and a friendly intercourse between the United States, and Indian tribes, and redefining the boundary between the two nations in the Northwest Territory.
Having endured the devastation of the Maumee Valley after Fallen Timbers, the tribes could no longer wage war, or even survive. After five years of bloody war, the Indian conflict in the Northwest was effectively over.