President Washington’s Indian War: The Struggle for the Old Northwest, 1790-1795 by Wiley Sword

Sword, Wiley. President Washington’s Indian War: The Struggle for the Old Northwest, 1790-1795.
     Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1985.

President Washington’s Indian War: The Struggle for the Old Northwest, 1790-1795 by Wiley Sword is considered a comprehensive history written about the United States Indian wars. Wiley prefaces his work by stating, “As the very first war under the United States Constitution, the contest was both a catalyst for national development and the Indian peoples’ ruin.” (p. xiv) Sword describes well the Indians of the Great Lakes region and the Ohio Valley and the Americans who clash with them. Though numerous histories cover the well-known defeat of Josiah Harmer and Arthur St. Clair, the author also gives the reader accounts of many smaller skirmishes vividly and with great enthusiasm. Sword chronicles the harshness of frontier life and the cruelty that both combatants engage in. There is no gory detail left untold in Sword’s rendering. The reader will appreciate how Sword gives the views felt by both the American Army and the Native Americans as well as the valiant portraits of the Miami chief Little Turtle and the victorious Anthony Wayne.

Wiley Sword lived in Bloomfield, Michigan and is the author of several Civil War histories. A few of his titles are Courage Under Fire: Profiles in Bravery from the Battlefields of the Civil War, The Historical Henry Rifle: Oliver Winchester’s Famous Civil War Repeater, Southern Invincibility: A History of the Confederate Heart, Mountains Touched With Fire: Chattanooga Besieged, 1863, Embrace an Angry Wind: The Confederacy’s Last Hurrah, Spring Field, Franklin, and Nashville, Sharpshooter: Hiram Berdan, His Famous Sharpshooters, and their Sharps Rifles, and Shiloh: Bloody April. Clearly, Wiley Sword was a prolific writer on the American Civil War and was nominated for the Pulitzer Prize among other prestigious awards. He appeared on several historical television shows featuring the Civil War. An avid collector of historical American military-related letters, Sword published several magazine articles featuring them. The American Indian Quarterly writes that Sword’s treatment of President Washington’s Indian War is “…a detailed, vivid historical narrative of one of the major turning points in Indian-white relations on the North American continent.”

It should be noted immediately that the first nine chapters of the book deal solely with the background of the northwest prior to the conflicts Sword’s monograph is meant to discuss. Part of this introduction explores the charted map drawn by John Mitchell in 1755 that depicted the Northwest Territory, which consisted of Ohio, Indiana, Illinois, Wisconsin, and Michigan, as considerably smaller than it actually was. This map was used during peace negotiations in 1782-83. The Treaty of Paris forced the British to give up a very large tract of land, but in reality, it wasn’t even theirs, it was Indian country. (p. 13) The Indians allowed this because they benefited with trade, however, this would all change when the Americans began showing more dominance. For now, this territory was almost a neutral zone that supported a busy fur trade that the British encouraged while the Americans were still dealing with what exactly their national policy would be. The British, in fact, encouraged the Indians in their discord and their resistance to settlers. The 1790s would see military action and diplomacy finally settle the issue.

The increased swell of land speculators and settlers created a push or wave into the Indian territory. Indians reacted badly to the new, white settlers, and the American frontiersmen answered their violence with violence. After struggling with Indian diplomacy, the American military was needed, though unprepared to get involved. (p. 87) Chapter 11, Forth into the Wilderness begins with the “unlikely choice” of Josiah Harmer to lead what would be “the most important military campaign since the Revolutionary War.” (p. 89)

Unfortunately, the amount of cultural minutia the author inflicts upon the unwary reader will tend to bog some down as they attempt to understand Harmer’s campaign whilst discussing how comely his new wife is. (p. 89) That aside, Harmer’s importance in the Indian conflict is crucial to understanding some of St. Clair’s later decisions and difficulties. Alas, weeding through the author’s excessive use of narrative style, which he uses in some regard well, giving what would normally be a dry bit of information some life, however, too often Sword swamps his text with excessive trivialities, eroding the author’s insight. It will be disappointing to some that Sword does not present a clearer picture of Josiah Harmer. Harmer’s campaign colored much of St. Clair’s attitude toward Indians and how he planned his campaign.

St. Clair’s Defeat, always a hot topic of debate, is covered well here, but be warned the historical fiction feel of Sword’s account will have the reader questioning portions of his monograph as conjecture. At one point, Sword describes how the Indians, so enraptured by the booty left behind in St. Clair’s camp, that few wanted to give the Americans chase. The author continues with the Indians, having found several kegs of liquor, begin drinking heavily and forgot that a remnant of St. Clair’s army was fleeing. It is doubtful the Indians forgot about St. Clair’s army, as if they suffered from an out-of-sight, out-of-mind attitude is ludicrous after the genius of their victory. His only source to back up this claim is from a Sargent’s diary, of which I assume he was one of the men fleeing since he survived to write of his travails. St. Clair’s Defeat taught the American military that Indians were extremely capable tacticians and more than savvy enough to hit the military hard. St Clair himself wrote that “The retreat [of our troops] was, you may be sure, a very precipitate one. In was, in fact, a flight.” (p. 189) St. Clair’s broken army, having been defeated and routed, had lost nearly two-thirds of its personnel and all of its equipment. At the abandoned campsite the author dramatically writes that among the exultant warriors “…St. Clair’s army lay cold and unmoving, occupying only in death the land that they had sought to conquer.” (p. 191)

The Native Americans prove that when banded together, they were well equipped to take on the America military. However, dissension among the tribes gave President Washington the time he needed to overhaul the American Army so that they might have a chance at putting down the Indian rebellion. Washington made a good choice of appointing Anthony Wayne as commanding general. Henry Knox had trouble juggling what the public wanted, which was to do everything possible to reach a peaceful resolution and to get the situation under control and ended as quickly as possible. On reflection, the fact that Wayne’s nickname was ‘Mad Anthony’ made harmonious intentions without more warring highly unlikely. Wayne had great leadership qualities and was a success during his campaign. Most of the Native Americans left the Northwest Territory as did the British. This opened the entire area up for frontiersmen, land speculators, and settlers.

Fallen Timbers on August 20, 1794, was the defeat that finally pushed the Indians to negotiate with the new government of the United States. The Indians faced a better army with men who had been trained and disciplined under Wayne. Along the Maumee River, Blue Jacket took a defensive position near a stand of ‘fallen timbers.’ Wayne’s men attacked with a bayonet charge and with his cavalry, the Indian forces were in retreat. A routed Indian leader is quoted by Sword as saying, “We could not stand against the sharp end of their guns and we ran to the river, swamps, thickets, and to the islands in the river, covered with corn. Our moccasins trickled blood in the sand, and the water was red in the river. Many of our braves were killed in the river by rifle.” (p. 305)

Sword excels at dividing his book into convenient chapters and as mentioned previously, he includes an amazing amount of material on some of the lesser-known Indian conflicts. His character sketches are well developed and many of his primary quotes are put to good use. The primary sources allow the reader a decent sense of the attitudes of the people he is writing about. The author is an expert on 18th-century weaponry. Sword is quite good at incorporating munitions throughout the book, their attributes, and their weaknesses.

Whether a history buff or scholar, Wiley Sword has created a unique narrative of the United States Indian war from 1790-1795. There is no question that President Washington’s Indian War is a comprehensive treatment of the Northwest Territory and the struggles both the Indians and the American military engaged in. Having read this book, it is suggested that someone interested in the Indian wars should not hesitate to increase their knowledge with a more concentrated article or monograph that focuses on a single battle, general, or Indian leader. This is, however, a nice addition to anyone’s library of Native American relations.

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