Western Operations

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Western Operations

WESTERN OPERATIONS. The Western Theater was comprised of the area lying north and west of the Ohio River, south of the Great Lakes, and east of the Mississippi River. Just as Niagara was the British base for raids against American border settlements in New York and eastern Pennsylvania, Detroit became headquarters for British operations against Patriot settlements in western Pennsylvania, Virginia, and Kentucky. American officials established their base of operations at Fort Pitt (Pittsburgh).

Military planners on both sides of the war realized that the contest would neither be won nor lost in the west. Separated from supplies and reinforcements by the Appalachian Mountains, British officials at Detroit and their counterparts in Pittsburgh watched as the war turned into an unending series of raids and counter raids. These marauds, any one of which could be brutal in the extreme, were never strong enough nor sustained for a sufficient period of time to inflict a fatal blow upon the enemy. Nonetheless, the theater remained an actively contested zone throughout the war.


Although British forces employed Indian allies against the Americans in the East as early as 1775, as the war began in the West, both sides attempted to secure Native American neutrality. Sir Guy Carleton, the commander of British forces in Canada, feared that an overt military alliance with the region's Indians would fuel widespread resentment against Crown interests, and emphatically opposed the use of Native American forces against Americans from 1775 throughout much of 1777.

British officials attempted to sway Native sentiment by reaffirming the Proclamation of 1763, signed at the conclusion of the French and Indian War. Under this treaty, the Crown recognized Native American territorial claims within the region and promised to enforce a ban on American settlement beyond the crest of the Appalachian Mountains. Likewise, American authorities held a series of councils with the Ohio Country Indian nations that concluded with the signing of the Treaty of Pittsburgh in October 1776. In exchange for Native American neutrality, American officials acknowledged Indian sovereignty and also recognized Native American territorial claims north and west of the Ohio River.

Despite American efforts, after the outbreak of hostilities, Native American sympathies gravitated generally toward the British. Native American resentment was real. The American invasion of Canada in 1775 and 1776 greatly diminished the flow of British trade goods to the west. Further, Americans had become increasingly insistent in violating the settlement boundary established in 1763 and had established permanent settlements in Kentucky, at Harrodsburg in 1774 and at Boonesborough and St. Asaph in 1775.

In June 1777, British colonial secretary Lord George Germain ordered Carleton and Henry Hamilton, the British colonial governor at Detroit, to establish a formal military alliance with the region's Indian nations and employ them against American settlements throughout the Ohio Valley. In July, fifteen parties from Detroit conducted extensive raids along the Pennsylvania and Virginia frontiers. Americans were outraged and claimed that Hamilton had deliberately ordered the murder of defenseless women and children. The charge was untrue, but among Americans, Hamilton became one of the most despised figures along the western border.

In January 1778, Patriot forces in Pittsburgh launched an ambitious raid against British holdings along the lower Mississippi. Commanded by James Willing, the American force, consisting of an armed flatboat and twenty-six soldiers, descended the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers for the purpose of apprehending British supplies and disrupting British operations wherever possible. A short distance below the Wabash, Willing captured a large bateau containing furs bound for Cahokia. The following day, he also commandeered a second craft carrying a cargo of brandy. Once on the Mississippi, Willing surprised a British detachment near Walnut Hills; captured Anthony Hutchins, a well-known Loyalist living along the river and then ransacked the Hutchins estate; plundered Natchez; looted Manchak; and seized two British vessels, the Rebecca and Neptune, before reaching port at New Orleans in late February. The Willing raid was a bold stroke that broadly diminished British influence in the region. Moreover, it also promised to destabilize Great Britain's political and commercial alliances with the region's Indians if Crown authorities did not respond aggressively.

Hamilton was alarmed both by the Willing raid and the Americans' continuing infringement into Kentucky and western Virginia. Convinced that the rebels' ability to penetrate the Ohio Country would eventually pose a direct threat to Detroit, he organized a strike against Pittsburgh. Hamilton sent the plan to Carleton for approval in late July, but on 8 August he learned that an American frontiersman, George Rogers Clark, and a small force of backwoods irregulars had crossed deep into the Illinois country and taken possession of Vincennes on the Wabash River in present-day southwestern Indiana. Clark's advance put an end to the planned action against Fort Pitt.


Born near Charlottesville, Virginia, in 1752, Clark became a surveyor while a young man. When the Revolution began, he was living in Kentucky, at the time still part of Virginia. Clark was appointed a lieutenant colonel in the Virginia militia in 1777. In the wake of escalating Indian violence that year, Clark devised a plan to take offensive action against the British and their Native American allies north of the Ohio River. Virginia officials, including Governor Patrick Henry, Thomas Jefferson, and George Mason, approved the proposal in early 1778. The scheme called for Clark to raise a small force, descend the Ohio River, and occupy Kaskaskia, a French village near the Mississippi River in southern Illinois. However, the Virginia Assembly's instructions gave Clark wide latitude in conducting his campaign and urged him to consider moving against other settlements within the region, including Vincennes and Detroit, if circumstances permitted.

Clark began his expedition in May 1778. After descending the Ohio from Pittsburgh, Clark established his base camp on Corn Island at the falls of the Ohio River (Louisville, Kentucky). He spent a brief time training his men, then began his thrust against the British on 24 June. The American force was small, consisting of about 180 men divided into four companies commanded by Captains John Montgomery, Joseph Bowman, Leonard Helm, and William Harrod.

Navigating the Ohio in flatboats, Clark reached the mouth of the Tennessee River on 28 June. That evening his guards apprehended a group of American hunters who had been in Kaskaskia only eight days before. They reported that the British commander at Kaskaskia, Philippe de Rastel, chevalier de Rocheblave, had placed the village's militia on alert and sent spies to the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers to watch for any approach by American forces. But they also claimed that the militia was weak and untrained, and that if Clark could approach the town undetected, he could seize the village before the residents could mount a resistance. As a result of this intelligence, the following day Clark decided to land his force at Fort Massiac, an abandoned British outpost a few miles below the Tennessee River opposite present-day Paducah, Kentucky, and use an old buffalo trace or hunters' road that ran from that location to Kaskaskia (a distance of about 120 miles) to attack the settlement from the southeast.

The Americans reached Kaskaskia after nightfall on 4 July. Clark divided his men into two columns to seize the town and safeguard the approaches leading into the village, and sent a third group of spies, led by Simon Kenton, directly to de Rocheblave's residence. De Rocheblave was quickly arrested and the village subdued without incident. The following day, Clark sent an emissary to open communication with Spanish officials across the Mississippi River and successfully deployed a thirty-man detachment accompanied by a small French delegation from the village to secure Prairie du Rocher, fifteen miles north of Kaskaskia. The detachment also secured Philippi, a smaller settlement nine miles further up the Mississippi River, and Cahokia, fifty miles north of Kaskaskia, opposite present-day St. Louis.

After consolidating his gains, Clark opened negotiations with the region's Indians, and sent two French envoys from Kaskaskia, Father Pierre Gibault and Dr. Jean Baptiste Laffont, to Vincennes. Skillful diplomacy convinced the various tribes to remain neutral, and Gibault and Laffont's efforts prompted Vincennes's residents to join the American cause. As a result, Clark placed Captain Leonard Helm in command of Fort Sackville at Vincennes. By early August, the peaceful conquest of the Illinois country was complete and had provided Clark with a strong forward base from which he could threaten Detroit.


British authorities reacted immediately once they learned of Clark's incursion. In Detroit, Hamilton prepared an expedition to the Wabash River to repatriate the occupied settlement. Hamilton's force, consisting of forty British regulars, 125 French militia, and approximately seventy Native American allies, set out from Detroit on 7 October 1778. Traveling the length of the Maumee River, the raiding party then portaged to the Wabash River and proceeded directly to Vincennes, gathering additional Indian support along the way. As Hamilton approached his objective, his force numbered more than 500 men.

Vincennes and the small American garrison at Fort Sackville surrendered at once when confronted by the over-whelming British force. But at this critical juncture, Hamilton made a series of errors that led ultimately to the mission's failure. Concerned about his ability to conduct a winter offensive, Hamilton declined to move immediately against Kaskaskia and Cahokia, electing instead to winter at Fort Sackville before resuming operations the following spring. Secondly, he allowed most of his Indian allies to depart and permitted most of his militia to return to Detroit. Lastly, he seriously underestimated Clark's resourcefulness and resolve.

Clark learned of Hamilton's arrival on 29 January 1779 and quickly determined to undertake a daring midwinter attack to reclaim Vincennes. On 4 February, Clark deployed a small vessel, the Willing, carrying forty-six soldiers and a small artillery piece, down the Mississippi and up the Ohio and Wabash Rivers. He ordered the company to halt at the White River below Vincennes, and waited while Clark personally led the main force overland. The following day, Clark and between 130 and 170 men, nearly half of whom were French volunteers, set out from Kaskaskia for Vincennes.

Clark's journey would be arduous. An unusually mild and wet winter had flooded much of southern Illinois. Although Clark easily traversed the first 100 miles, when he entered the Wabash watershed on 15 February, he discovered that much of his route was covered by two to four feet of water. The flooding reduced the supply of game in the area, and Clark's men soon found themselves without rations. Further, the weather turned frigid. Clark's men were wet, cold, exhausted, and on the verge of starvation. Nonetheless, Clark pushed on, arriving outside of Vincennes shortly after dark on 23 February.

Clark quickly obtained the allegiance of the town's French citizens and commenced the attack on Fort Sackville that evening. Through a series of deceptive displays, Clark convinced Hamilton that his force was much larger than it actually was, and in a personal negotiation with the British commander, Clark implied that if the Americans stormed the fort, the British could expect no quarter. Convinced that he was facing a superior force and with grave doubts concerning the continued loyalty both of his Indian allies and the French militia within his fort, Hamilton surrendered the following day.

Clark's activity in the Illinois country was the most successful American campaign in the west during the Revolution. Hamilton's capture diminished British influence, provided an important psychological boost to American forces throughout the Ohio Valley, and prompted a new wave of settlement into western Virginia and Kentucky. However, Clark was never able to capitalize on his victory and strike directly at Detroit. He planned expeditions in 1779, 1780, and 1781, but never was given the means for the operations and, instead, spent the remainder of the war countering a renewed wave of British-led assaults against American settlements.


Hamilton's capture was a serious, but not catastrophic blow to British efforts in the West. Clark's dramatic reemergence on the Wabash rekindled fears of an American offensive against Detroit, and British officials redoubled their efforts to reenergize their alliance with the western nations.

In early spring 1780, Hamilton's successor, Major Arent DePeyster, proposed an offensive against a string of stockaded civilian settlements, or stations, in Kentucky, hoping to divert American attention from Detroit, demoralize the western settlements, and encourage the Crown's Native American allies to renew their allegiance. DePeyster ordered Captain Henry Bird to lead the expedition, and placed Indian agent Alexander McKee in charge of the force's Native American contingent.

Bird left Detroit on 25 May 1780 with 150 soldiers, two small caliber cannon, and nearly 100 Indians. As the expedition moved southward, additional Indians joined the force and eventually numbered in excess of 850. Bird directed his command against Martin's and Ruddell's Stations on the Licking River in northern Kentucky. Both communities had been founded in 1775 and were each home to about twenty families.

Bird attacked and reduced Ruddell's Station on 24 June and Martin's Station the following day. Lacking the provisions and supplies to continue, Bird withdrew from Kentucky and returned safely to Detroit in early August with nearly 300 prisoners and a great deal of personal property. The expedition successfully demonstrated British resolve to the region's Indians and proved that British forces could attack settlements deep within Kentucky virtually unmolested.

In 1781 Clark attempted to form an expedition against Detroit and raised four hundred volunteers at Pittsburgh. Clark and his command departed Fort Pitt down the Ohio River for Fort Nelson, at the falls on the Ohio River, in early August and sent word to his second-in-command, Captain Archibald Lochry, to follow with additional troops. Lochry, however, was never able to overtake the senior officer. Spies and deserters had informed British officials of Clark's expedition, and a large party of Indians led by the Mohawk chief, Joseph Brant, was waiting in ambush for the Americans at the mouth of the Great Miami River. Brant's men were unable to attack Clark's force as he passed, but shortly afterwards they captured an American officer and seven of Lochry's men, an advance guard sent by Lochry to convince Clark to stop and consolidate his force. Using the prisoners as decoys, Brant lured the main body of Lochry's troops ashore on 24 August. The ambush destroyed the American detachment, killing Lochry and thirty-seven others, and capturing every other member of the 101-man expedition.

In late-summer 1782, McKee and Captain William Caldwell led a second raid into Kentucky. Thirty rangers and nearly 300 Indians attacked Bryant's Station, on the Elkhorn River near present-day Lexington, on 12 August. The Americans had been warned of the British approach and repulsed the attack. At the end of the siege's second day, Caldwell destroyed the settlement's crops and livestock and withdrew to the Blue Licks on the Licking River.

Soon, 182 Kentucky militia, led by John Todd and including Daniel Boone and his son Israel, were in pursuit. At the Blue Licks, Todd permitted his men to be drawn into an ambush. In the fierce battle that followed, nearly seventy of the Americans were killed, including Israel Boone and Thomas Boone, Daniel's nephew. Caldwell remained at Blue Licks one more day, hoping to lure a second American patrol into the same trap. When the Kentuckians did not advance, Caldwell withdrew back to Detroit.


In 1778 American officials at Fort Pitt began a second offensive against Detroit. The plan called for General Lachlan McIntosh to lead an expedition into Ohio, constructing a string of forts as he advanced westward. These posts would serve as forward bases from which to attack Detroit, discourage Native Americans loyal to the British from attacking frontier settlements in Pennsylvania and western Virginia, and reassure neutral Christian Delawares living in eastern Ohio.

McIntosh began the invasion in the fall of 1778. The Americans constructed Fort McIntosh at the mouth of Beaver Creek near Beaver, Pennsylvania, and advanced to the Tuscarawas River near present-day Bolivar, Ohio. In December, McIntosh halted for the winter and constructed Fort Laurens, naming the post for Henry Laurens, then President of the Continental Congress. After the post was finished, McIntosh and most of his command returned to Pittsburg, leaving 172 troops from Pennsylvania and Virginia under the command of Colonel John Gibson.

British officials were aware of the American advance, and in January 1779 a reconnaissance party led by Simon Girty attacked a small party from the fort, killing two and capturing another. On 22 February 1779, a larger British force commanded by Captain Henry Bird laid siege to the post. McIntosh attempted to reinforce the beleaguered garrison, but was unsuccessful. The British forced the Americans to undergo a season of deprivation, and the Americans became so desperate they were reduced to boiling their moccasins for stew. Nonetheless, the British could not force the garrison's surrender. On 22 March they lifted the siege and returned to Detroit. In the wake of the attack, American officials concluded that the post could not serve its purpose and abandoned the fort on 2 August 1779.

In May 1779 John Bowman led an expedition from Kentucky against Shawnee villages clustered along the Little Miami River in Ohio. The attack was poorly orchestrated and his command was more concerned with acquiring plunder than fighting. Bowman's men put the Shawnee villages to the torch and accumulated more than 180 horses and other property, but at the cost of nine dead and several wounded. A few defenders were killed, but most escaped and approximately forty Shawnee adults and boys were able to harass Bowman's nearly 300-man force along its entire retreat to the Ohio River. While revealing the Shawnees' vulnerability to attack, the raid was a tactical failure and had little lasting effect.

In 1780 Clark undertook a punitive expedition against the Ohio Indian nations in retaliation for Bird and McKee's raid against Martin's and Ruddell's Stations. Clark learned of the Bird invasion in early June. By July, he had determined to strike against Chillicothe and Pickaway, Shawnee settlements on the Miami River in Ohio. Assembling nearly 1,000 Kentucky troops near the mouth of the Licking River near present-day Covington, Kentucky, Clark began his advance on 2 August.

Clark reached Chillicothe on 6 August, but found that the Shawnees had burned and then evacuated the town in anticipation of Clark's arrival. The Americans destroyed anything left standing, cut down several hundred acres of corn, and moved against Pickaway the following day. The Shawnees were prepared and had constructed what Clark described as "strongholds," "works," and a "very strong" blockhouse enclosed by a triangular stockade with which to meet the attackers.

Clark commenced a general engagement in late afternoon. Strong Indian resistance stalled the Americans' advance, and the battle did not conclude until evening, when Clark deployed two small caliber cannon against the Shawnees. The Kentuckians took possession of the village, but most of the defenders slipped away. The following day, Clark's men destroyed approximately 800 acres of crops containing an estimated 36,000 bushels of corn. On 9 August, the army began its withdrawal. Clark reached the Ohio River on 14 August and, following an auction of Shawnee plunder, disbanded his force.

The attack heightened growing tension between Crown officials and their allies, who claimed that Detroit was slow to send troops and other support in the days leading up to the engagement. Further, the loss of such a prodigious supply of food placed a serious burden on British officials as they attempted to provision the Shawnees throughout the following winter and spring. Ultimately, however, the raid had inflicted few casualties and diminished neither the Shawnees' willingness nor ability to continue the war.

In March 1782 Pennsylvania irregulars led by Colonel David Williams undertook an expedition against Gnadenhutten on the Tuscarawas River in Ohio. The Indian village was home to a congregation of Moravian Delawares. Williamson believed, incorrectly, that the Delawares had participated in several raids against western Pennsylvania. By feigning friendship, the Pennsylvanians lured nearly 100 of the Delaware into two cabins, after which Williamson and his men bludgeoned ninety-six men, women, and infants to death. The massacre was the worst atrocity perpetrated during the war.

On 25 May 1782, 400 Pennsylvania troops commanded by Colonel William Crawford began an expedition against Wyandot and Delaware towns located on the Sandusky River near present-day Upper Sandusky, Ohio. Among the Americans were Williamson and several other Gnadenhutten murderers. Crawford encountered stiff resistance near the Sandusky River on 6 June, losing nearly 50 men in the engagement. The following day, the Indians renewed the attack, capturing Crawford and scattering his army. Crawford was tortured and killed in revenge for the Gnadenhutten massacre. Ironically, Williamson escaped and returned safely to Pennsylvania. The Crawford expedition marked the last campaign in the Western Theater.


The campaigns fought in the West had little impact on the outcome of the conflict. However, Clark's success in Illinois allowed American negotiators to claim control over the region during peace negotiations at war's end. The Treaty of Paris, which ended the conflict in 1783, awarded the territory to the United States. The region's Indians continued to resist expansion into the region until the battle of Fallen Timbers in 1794 and the subsequent Treaty of Greenville, signed in August 1795. The pact led to the eventual admittance of Ohio, Michigan, Indiana, Illinois, and Wisconsin into the federal union.

SEE ALSO Clark, George Rogers; Indians in the Colonial Wars and the American Revolution; Shawnee; Vincennes, Indiana.


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                              revised by Larry L. Nelson

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Western Operations

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Western Operations