My Weekly Reader 14 July 2017.

As contemporary Americans ponder whether the federal government has grown too strong or is not yet strong enough, it is worth revisiting the first years of the Republic.  Then even the survival of the United States lay open to question.  Many Americans (Anti-Federalists) had opposed the Constitution.  Britain and Spain, which possessed important territories bordering on the new nation, were little inclined to believe that the United States would become a behemoth.  In military affairs, interested people debated whether the United States should even have a permanent and professional military (a “standing army” of the sort decried in the Declaration of Independence).  Opponents of an excessively strong central government argued for a reliance on the citizen-soldiers of a militia.  Men like George Washington and Alexander Hamilton argued for the utility of a professional army.  What professional historians call “contingency” (specific things happen to determine an outcome) played an important role in deciding how things worked out.[1]

Take the example of the struggle for the “Northwest Territory.”  In 1781 a Franco-American army defeated a British army at Yorktown.  In 1783, Britain and America made peace.  In what was then the “West,” Britain granted to the Americans sovereignty over the territory north of the Ohio and east of the Mississippi.  The problem for the Americans lay in making good that claim.  The Indians living there declined to surrender their lands to white settlers.  Local British officials encouraged this resistance.  So, Indian wars became one feature of the presidential administration of George Washington.

In October 1791, the Indians defeated a U.S. Army force led by Josiah Harmar.  A year later, the governor of the Northwest Territory, Arthur St. Clair, led a new army into the wilds of northwestern Ohio.  Near the Wabash River, a smaller Indian force destroyed St. Clair’s little army in less than three hours.  They inflicted well over 90 percent casualties (including two-thirds killed), while suffering only minor losses themselves.[2]

This “signal catastrophe,”[3] tipped the balance in favor of a stronger national army.  In 1792, Washington managed to ram through Congress an increased military budget, then appointed Anthony Wayne to replace St. Clair.  Wayne worked hard to revive the morale of the defeated troops, then marched deep into Indian territory.  This took a while: the decisive contest only came in August 1794.  Then, at a place called Fallen Timbers, Wayne inflicted a devastating defeat on the Indians.  Faced with a victorious, ill-disposed-toward-Britain American army, local British commanders abandoned their Indian pawns.[4]

Two years later, Wayne negotiated the Treaty of Greenville with the defeated Indians.  The treaty—as decisive a surrender as that of the Japanese in 1945—opened the Northwest to white settlement.  Later, writers would cite America’s “manifest destiny” to conquer the West.  In the 1790s, this destiny was far from manifest.  It began to become so with the work of Anthony Wayne and his army.

[1] William Hogeland, Autumn of the Black Snake: the Creation of the U.S. Army and the Invasion That Opened the West (2017).

[2] In comparison George Custer got 268 men killed at the Little Big Horn.  “St. Clair’s Defeat” defeat was commemorated in folk culture.  See: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nn2rEoRmh1M

[3] I stole the phrase from the title of Patrick MacCrory’s superb book on the retreat of a British army from Kabul, Afghanistan in 1842.  I read his book in my youth and it conditioned me to think that people should be cautious about vexing Pashtuns.

[4] The episode nicely illustrates the difficulties of coalition warfare.  The British and the Indians were often in disagreement and the Indians themselves were not a solid bloc.

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One thought on “My Weekly Reader 14 July 2017.

  1. Pingback: Lord Dunmore’s War. | waroftheworldblog

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