The Crawford Campaign, 1782: Birth of an Expedition

(part two of five)

Wiliam Crawford at 40 (Wikimedia Commons)
Colonel William Crawford (Wikimedia Commons)

In April, 1782 local leaders, in particular David Williamson, petitioned Irvine to lead a punitive raid to the Sandusky River aimed at the Wyandot and Hopocan’s Delaware.[i]  While he could provide no material support or leadership, Irvine approved the attack and laid down several conditions: that the expedition operate under laws governing the militia, that their purpose not extend beyond protecting the border, that the force assembled be large enough to accomplish the task, that the raiders equip and sustain themselves on horseback at their own expense, and that the expedition conduct the raid on behalf the United States with an eye toward bringing honor to the United States.  Perhaps he had the brutality of the Gnadenhutten raid in mind and sought to avoid a repeat.[ii]

This Sandusky raid did not reflect Irvine’s strategy of either reducing Detroit or bringing the tribes to battle; it was simply another American raid on Indian towns, which would likely be abandoned by the time the expedition arrived.  Irvine informed Washington that the expedition was going forward and did not seek permission.  Indeed, he may not have had the power to stop it given the restlessness of the local population on the frontier.  Rather that departing in early August, this raid would leave in late May, before the summer heat dried out the countryside.  Speed and surprise would be important, perhaps explaining Irvine’s requirement that every man be mounted, that the expedition dispense with artillery, and that it limit baggage and supplies to 30 days’ worth.[iii]  Irvine wrote Washington, “If their number exceeds three hundred, I am of opinion they may succeed, as their march will be so rapid they will probably in a great degree effect a surprise.”[iv]  But, it would be a risky enterprise. 

The Sandusky expedition might well be marching into a hornet’s nest of British, Canadian, and allied Indians between Detroit and the Wyandot towns along the Sandusky.  The Sandusky River emptied into Lake Erie across the lake from Detroit and the British controlled the lake.  In the winter, Irvine estimated the Detroit garrison at 300 Regulars, 700-1000 Canadian militia, with an additional 1,000 Indians upon ten days’ notice.  Irvine already believed that the British were assembling allied Indian tribes for raids into Pennsylvania and Virginia.  According to his intelligence, the British had partially mobilized some thirteen Indian nations, with parts of the Shawnee and Ottawa moving closer to the Sandusky than their normal homes.  This would put them closer to Sandusky, where some five additional Indian nations were assembled.[v]  Failure to surprise this group could lead to disaster, as any expedition would be severely outnumbered.

While members of the militia elected their own officers, Irvine sought to influence the vote and arrange the command for Colonel William Crawford.  Crawford departed Fort Pitt on May 20 after lengthy meetings with Brigadier General Irvine, in company with Major John Rose, Irvine’s aide-de-camp, and a Fort Pitt surgeon, John Knight, headed for Mingo Bottom, the designated rendezvous point on the Ohio River below Fort Pitt.[vi]  While we cannot know for sure what Crawford and Irvine discussed, it would be reasonable to suspect Irvine expressed his disgust at the Gnadenhutten massacre and the importance of not repeating it.  Subsequent events hint that he might have raised the value of bringing the Indians to battle, rather than simply conducting another raid against empty villages.

Born in 1722, Crawford was a veteran of the frontier and made his home southeast of Fort Pitt on the Youghiogheny River.  He had held local positions, shifting his allegiance from Pennsylvania to Virginia as they made their competing claims of authority over the area.  Nevertheless, he had held senior positions in local government under both governments.  He was long-known to George Washington, whom he served under during the French and Indian War and with whom he engaged in active land speculation.  Later, in 1774 he served in “Lord Dunmore’s War” against the Shawnee and Mingo, commanding forces in Lord Dunmore’s column, which descended the Ohio, and defeated warriors from the Mingo tribe.[vii]  When the Revolution broke out, he served as a Lieutenant Colonel in the Fifth Virginia, then commanded the Seventh Virginia, and eventually joined Washington’s army in 1777 near Philadelphia.  He returned to the Alleghenies in late 1777 to raise the Thirteenth Virginia locally.  In short order, he commanded militia forces in western Pennsylvania under Brigadier General Edward Hand and then his replacement Brigadier General Lachlan McIntosh.  Crawford participated in a brief expedition across the Ohio River ostensibly aimed at Detroit, but which resulted only in the building of Forts McIntosh and Laurens, the latter on the west bank of the Muskingum River, known today as the Tuscarawas.[viii]  By 1782, approaching 60, he had largely retired but continued to hold several local government posts, suggesting he was popular and respected within the community from which the expedition drew its volunteers.  Crawford’s eventual election as Colonel and commander of the Sandusky expedition confirms the point.[ix]

Irvine’s aide, Major John Rose, was in fact Gustavus de Rosenthal, a Russian Baron from Livonia on the Baltic Sea, then part of the Russian Empire.  Rosenthal had killed a nobleman in a duel and fled his homeland, eventually making his way to America, Valley Forge, the Whig cause, and General Irvine’s service.[x]  He returned to Russia after the war and proudly wore his Society of the Cincinnati Medal in a buttonhole.  The accompanying surgeon was John Knight, whom Crawford sought from General Irvine.   Both Rose and Knight would prove critical witnesses to the coming events.

At the militia rendezvous point, the last of the militia crossed the Ohio on May 24, where the assembled soldiers, numbering about 465, put Crawford in charge in command and elected Colonel David Williamson of the 3rd battalion of Washington county militia and Gnadenhutten infamy as his second.[xi]  They also selected three additional colonels as third, fourth, and fifth in the command hierarchy and chose company commanders.[xii]  Initially, Crawford planned to divide his force on the march.  A small advance guard would scout ahead while a rear guard would check the trail behind.  The body of troops was divided into four columns, segmented into an advanced body, a main body, and a rear body.  Williamson would command the advance, but as the group departed, a missing horse among his troops led him to command the rear body.[xiii]

The Crawford expedition eventually set out at 10 am on Saturday, May 25 following a series of ridges nearly due west and making a good ten miles.[xiv]  Rose described the territory as open forest with gentle rises.  The woods closed in on Sunday, the increasing thickets and underbrush forcing the expedition into two columns and slowing progress.  While Knight remembered the expedition traveling slightly north of a track due west, Rose thought they spent a fair amount of time traveling south of due west and then north of it in a kind of zig-zag.[xv]

In general, Irvine’s aide was dissatisfied with the expedition’s discipline and progress.  Pennsylvania’s frontier militiamen had a long history of self-organizing and resenting higher authority.  Simply, they tended to be independent and ornery, accustomed to taking matters into their own hands.  In appearance, they were not entirely different from the Indians they to planned to confront.  Men wore hunting shirts that reached roughly half-way down their thighs, belted behind at the waist with a pouch of sorts secured at chest-height.  The pouch sported hold bullets and extra flints.  The belt typically held a tomahawk and scalping knife, while a powder horn would be strapped across one shoulder.  Leather breeches to protect against scrapes cuts and burs and moccasins might complete the “uniform.”[xvi]  The horse typically supported a simple saddle, knapsack, and blanket and might have a loop in the hardtack that would support the frontiersman’s musket, often rifled.  Rations were nominally bacon and flour to bake bread, but Rose noted that militiamen also carried whiskey and a large number of unnecessary items, including luxury foods.[xvii]  In short, he thought them overburdened for speedy movement.

The horses themselves also left much to be desired, at least in the opinion of the Russian nobleman accustomed to interacting with officers in the east.  According to Rose, “he takes care to mount the very worst horse he has upon his farm” and then rarely dismounted to give the overburdened animal some respite on the march.[xviii]  He concluded, “the Owner expects to exchange him to advantage,” because “sordid Lucre” was the object of the expedition.[xix]

Rose was even less charitable when it came to the expedition’s progress across Ohio.  “Order on a march—regularity in point of Duty—and precaution, considering as a body, penetrating into an enemy’s country, did seem to be looked upon as mere Moonshine.”[xx]  The banks of some creeks were so steep that there might be only one place a horse and rider could ascend to the other side.  Rather than proceed in an orderly single-file fashion, Rose notes, “every Body pushed helter-skelter into the Creek, and as there was but one possible exist, every Body pressed forward into it.”[xxi]  Little attention was paid to security, proper picketing, or proper care of the horses upon which so much depended.  Of course, Rose’s low opinion of frontier militia were widely shared among Continental officers and elites from the east and one can often detect an air of superiority toward his fellow soldiers.  It must be remembered that these were the same sort of men who had gutted British power along the Mississippi under George Rogers Clark’s aggressive and demanding leadership and who had often had to rely on themselves for the security of their families, with little assistance from the so-called elites in the east.  So, to be sure, a mixed bunch comprised Crawford’s force.

By Monday the 27, the expedition had reached the Tuscarawas River, along which lay the towns abandoned by the Moravian Indians who had emigrated west months earlier.  (Indeed, they had been forcibly relocated by the pro-British, western tribes for their “safety.”)  Rose went forward with Colonel Williamson to investigate the towns and confirmed Gnadenhutten’s abandonment.  Continuing north the next day, the expedition reached a Moravian town called New Schoenbrunn, finding it abandoned as well.  James Paul, a member of the expedition, remembered, “At all these Moravian towns silence and desolation reigned.”[xxii]  After setting up camp at the site, Major Brenton and Captain Bean went forward to reconnoiter.  When they were about a quarter mile from camp, they discovered two Indians about a mile further on.  The Indians, whose tribal identities remained unknown, fired their guns and yelled out before leaving the area.[xxiii]  Presumably their gunfire and yells were meant to warn someone.  Although Crawford could not know whether the Indians who had spotted them would raise an alarm or how far it would travel, a critical element in the expedition’s plan—surprise—was lost. The expedition’s detection alarmed Crawford and his officers enough to order alarm posts and a standing to arms before dawn the next day.

The need for added security and attrition among the horses slowed the expedition’s progress.  Several men had already turned back on the 25 when they lost their horses and, on the 30, two more men were “left on the ground,” presumably afoot, when their horses were lost.[xxiv]  So, after less than a week’s advance, the Crawford expedition’s supply of two ingredients Irvine thought critical for success, surprise and speed, was shrinking.

In truth, the British at Detroit and the Indians along the Sandusky were already aware that the militia were bound for the Sandusky.  Rumors began circulating almost as soon as political leaders around Pittsburgh began raising the idea of an expedition in April.  In early May, the commanding general at Fort Niagara dispatched reinforcements to Detroit, anticipating a campaign aimed in that direction.[xxv]  On May 10, as those reinforcements departed, Major Arent Schuyler De Peyster, commanding at Detroit, addressed a conference of Indians from the western tribes, the Wyandot, Chippewa, and Pottawattamies, reminding them of the British-Indian alliance and their commitment to one another to continue the war.[xxvi]  (Word of Cornwallis’ surrender at Yorktown had arrived a month earlier and De Peyster had reason to worry about the continued commitment of the Indians to the British cause, so he did his best to keep word of the surrender a secret.)

On May 16, De Peyster dispatched Indian agent Matthew Elliott and some of the rangers under the command of Captain William Caldwell with two artillery pieces and a mortar and  toward the Sandusky by boat; their horses would travel more slowly over land.[xxvii]  These men were “Butler’s Rangers,” loyal Canadians and Americans raised by Tory Colonel John Butler in 1777.[xxviii]  Two companies were stationed at Detroit.[xxix]   (Elliott was to “command” the Indians, for which he was often referred to as a captain.  He likely acted more as an advisor.)  Thus, anticipating the militia offensive, the British had dispatched reinforcements to the Sandusky even before the Americans crossed the Ohio.  South of the Sandusky River in the Upper Miami valley, British Indian agent Alexander McKee was laboring to mobilize a Shawnee detachment to march to the Sandusky.[xxx]  The hornet’s nest Crawford was marching toward had mobilized faster than the militia.  (Elliott and McKee had served in the Indian department at Pittsburgh, until they fled the village in company with Simon Girty in 1778.  They knew Crawford, Williamson, and likely many of the militia joining the expedition personally.)

As the Crawford expedition left Moravian territory on May 30, it crossed the track of a large, east-bound Indian party that had passed two days earlier, probably headed for the frontier.  One member of the expedition, Michael Walters, wrote in his journal that a group of fellow raiders fired on four Indians they encountered.  But, again, they failed to hit anyone.[xxxi]  Rose reported that they kept seeing signs for three different horse tracks, two of which stayed ahead of the expedition on its Sandusky-bound mission, likely observing its progress and setting fires to mark its position.  One of the horse tracks headed in the direction of the Ohio.[xxxii]  This left Crawford in an awkward position.  Not only were his track and location detected and marked, but a large party of Native Americans was in his rear, able to get between his force and Fort Pitt as he advanced westward to the Sandusky.  Still, his force pressed on, making steady progress through the woods and across, or around, the bogs, streams, and low hills that dominated central Ohio.

A day later, the expedition connected with a well-used Indian trail, where it halted.  The officers conferred and then sent a reconnaissance party down the trail.  That group encountered two Native Americans who escaped pursuit.  The Crawford Expedition quickly drew up into a square capable of defending itself against assault from all directions of the compass.[xxxiii]  No attack came, but the expedition’s encounter heightened anxieties in camp and Crawford held another council.  He had decisions to make.

Crawford had already heard rumbling that some men were running low on supplies.  Although they had been required to carry 30 days supplies, provided by themselves, and had only been gone a week, Crawford’s examination of his militia found that some men carried less than ten days provisions.[xxxiv]  That meant his expedition’s time on the frontier was coming to an end, lest his force start to wither away as men sought to return home due to a lack of supplies.  Crawford acknowledged that their strategic situation had worsened.  He noted that the Native Americans had sufficient time to gather their forces at Sandusky, as the expedition had first been spotted on May 28.  The British regularly visited Roche Du Bout on the coast, about thirty miles from two major Sandusky villages and just twenty hours from the fort at Detroit by water.  Crawford was still confident he could reach the Sandusky, but the return trip promised to be difficult with wounded men and short supplies.  He even raised the possibility of defeat; the Crawford expedition was a long way from the security of Fort Pitt.  Pursuit by the native tribes could turn into a nightmare.  Council opinion strongly favored continuing, but, working with his guides, Crawford decided to maneuver and change his general course.[xxxv]

Sometime between the night of June 3/4, the Indians fired several guns, likely small cannon, in the distance.  Eyewitness accounts differ on the timing of the firing and number of guns fired.  Keeping with the dispersed nature of the Indian towns and the fact that the first-person narratives did not report incoming gunfire, these were likely signal guns, fired to assemble warriors from nearby towns and contest Crawford’s advance, even though Native Americans had been tracking Crawford’s march for days.[xxxvi]

[i]           Irvine to Washington, February 7, 1782, Washington-Irvine Correspondence 92; Irvine to Washington, May 21, 1782, Washington-Irvine Correspondence, p. 113.  For Williamson’s role, see Narratives of a Late Expedition against the Indians; With An Account of the Barbarous Execution of Col. Crawford; and The Wonderful Escape of Dr. Knight and John Slover from Captivity, in 1782, (Philadelphia: Francis Bailey, 1783), 4.  The bulk of the account are first-hand recollection of Dr. Knight or John Slover, hereafter referred to as Dr. Knight’s Narrative or Slover’s Narrative as appropriate.  The frontspiece incorrectly lists the date of printing as 1773.  Knight also attributes local agitation for a campaign against the Wyandot to “Marshall.”  Knight’s narrative has its own curious history.  The more lurid details were quickly rushed to print by an enterprising editor and then found popular purchase among a public eager for tales that dehumanized Native Americans.  For an excellent discussion, see Parker B. Brown, “The Historical Accuracy of the Captivity Narrative of Doctor John Knight,” The Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine, Vol. 70, No. 1, (January, 1987), 53-67.  Also, Crumrine, ed., History of Washington County, 111.

[ii]           Irvine’s orders to the expedition commander, who was as yet to be determined when he wrote them, are contained in Irvine’s Instructions, May 14, 1782, Washington-Irvine Correspondence, 118-119, note 1.

[iii]          Irvine to Washington, May 21, 1782, Washington-Irvine Correspondence, 113.

[iv]          Irvine to Washington, May 21, 1782, Washington-Irvine Correspondence, 118.

[v]           Irvine to Washington, February 7, 1782, Washington-Irvine Correspondence, 90-91.

[vi]          Irvine to Washington, May 21, 1782, Washington-Irvine Correspondence, 113-117; Butterfield, An Historical Account of the Expedition against Sandusky under Col. William Crawford in 1782, 81.

[vii]         John Murray, 4th Earl of Dunmore, was the last British Governor of Virginia.  While his attempts to enforce Royal edicts and promise of eventual freedom to slaves who took up arms in the British cause during the Revolution condemned him to generations of Virginia historians, he had been a popular governor among Virginians up until the time of Virginia’s break with the mother country.

[viii]         The Tuscarawas empties into the Muskingum (which parallels it farther west) at Coshocton, before both join the Ohio at Marietta, OH/Williamstown, WV.  On a 21st century map, the Moravian villages are all on the Tuscarawas River, but 18th century accounts use both river names to refer to the same river.

[ix]          Biographical Sketch of William Crawford in C.W. Butterfield, ed., The Washington-Crawford Letters, Being the Correspondence of George Washington and William Crawford, from 1767 to 1781, Concerning Western Lands, (Cincinnati: Robert Clarke & Co., 1877), vii-xi.  In this biography, Butterfield sets Crawford’s birth in 1722, but reported he had been born in 1732 in his history of the expedition.  Butterfield, An Historical Account of the Expedition against Sandusky under Col. William Crawford in 1782, 81.  See also, Robert N. Thompson, Disaster on the Sandusky: The Life of Colonel William Crawford, (Staunton, VA: American History Press, 2017), Kindle ed., Loc 169.

[x]           William L. Stone, “Journal of a Volunteer Expedition to Sandusky, from May 24 to June 13, 1782,” The Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography, Volume 18, January 1, 1894, p. 131.  Rosenthal/Rose first encountered Irvine at a hospital upon the latter’s exchange and return to the Pennsylvania Line.  Rosenthal apparently acquired some medical experience in the colonies and also served as a surgeon’s mate in the U.S. Navy!  Hereafter, I will refer to him simply as John Rose.

[xi]          Washington-Irvine Correspondence, 366, note 1.

[xii]         Stone, Journal of a Volunteer, p. 137; Dr. Knight’s Narrative, p. 5; The vote was close.  Crawford only defeated Williamson by five votes, but Williamson threw his support to Crawford to promote unity among the volunteers.  “Lieut. John Rose to Irvine, May 24, 1782,” in Washington-Irvine Correspondence, 364-365.

[xiii]         Rose, Journal of a Volunteer, 138-139.

[xiv]         Rose, Journal of a Volunteer, 139.

[xv]         Rose, Journal of a Volunteer, 139; Dr. Knight’s Narrative, 5.

[xvi]         Butterfield, An Historical Account of the Expedition against Sandusky under Col. William Crawford in 1782, 65-66.

[xvii]        Butterfield, An Historical Account of the Expedition against Sandusky under Col. William Crawford in 1782, 66; Rose, Journal of a Volunteer, 295.

[xviii]       Rose, Journal of a Volunteer, 295.  Butterfield held a different opinion, arguing “the best horses…were selected for the enterprise” to achieve speed and surprise, but this comment seems intended more to romanticize the militia after the fact.  Butterfield, An Historical Account of the Expedition against Sandusky under Col. William Crawford in 1782, 65.

[xix]         Rose, Journal of a Volunteer, 295-296.

[xx]         Rose, Journal of a Volunteer, 299.

[xxi]         Rose, Journal of a Volunteer, 300.

[xxii]        Robert H. Sherrard, A Narrative of the Wonderful Escape and Dreadful Sufferings of Colonel James Paul, after the Defeat of Colonel Crawford, (Cincinnati: Spiller & Gates, 1869), p. 8.  It is not clear from the text where Sherrard’s commentary ends and Paul’s narrative begins.  Paul goes to some lengths to absolve Williamson of responsibility for the Gnadenhutten massacre, blaming it instead on mutinous and riotous troops he led.

[xxiii]       Rose, Journal of a Volunteer, 141; Dr. Knight’s Narrative, p. 5.

[xxiv]       Rose, Journal of a Volunteer, p. 142.

[xxv]        Alan Fitzpatrick, Wilderness War on the Ohio, New Revised Second Edition, (Benwood, WV: Fort Henry Publications, 2005), 461.

[xxvi]       Fitzpatrick, Wilderness War on the Ohio, 461.

[xxvii]       Fitzpatrick, Wilderness War on the Ohio, 462-463.

[xxviii]      Mark Boatner, III, Encyclopedia of the American Revolution, 3rd. ed., (Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 1994), 153.

[xxix]       Butterfield, An Historical Account of the Expedition against Sandusky under Col. William Crawford in 1782, 173.

[xxx]        Larry Nelson, A Man of Distinction among Them: Alexander McKee and the Ohio Country Frontier, 1754-1799, (Kent, OH: The Kent State University Press, 2000), Kindle loc 2391.

[xxxi]       J.P. Maclean, ed., Journal of Michael Walters, a Member of the Expedition Against Sandusky in the Year 1782, Traot, No. 89. Vol. IV, (Cleveland: Western Reserve Historical Society, 1899), 182.  Hereafter Walters Journal.

[xxxii]       Rose, Journal of a Volunteer, 142-143.

[xxxiii]      Rose, Journal of a Volunteer, 145.

[xxxiv]      Rose, Journal of a Volunteer, 146; Dr. Knight’s Narrative

[xxxv]       Rose, Journal of a Volunteer, 146-147.

[xxxvi]      Walters Journal, 182; Rose, Journal of a Volunteer, 148.  The British commander at Detroit had dispatched some of his rangers to the Sandusky with light artillery upon learning that the American militia was on the way.  Butterfield, An Historical Account of the Expedition against Sandusky under Col. William Crawford in 1782, 173; C.W. Butterfield, A Short Biography of John Leith, (Cincinnati: Robert Clarke & Co., 1883, reprint), 46.  This is a reprint of a Leith’s autobiography as recited to Ewell Jeffries and printed in 1831.  Butterfield added extensive explanatory notes.  Parker Brown places the firing early on the morning of the 4th as the army arose from its overnight bivouac.  Parker B. Brown, “The Battle of Sandusky: June 4-6, 1782,” The Western Pennsylvania Historical Magazine, Vol. 65, No. 2, 1982, 135

4 thoughts on “The Crawford Campaign, 1782: Birth of an Expedition

  1. Pingback: The Crawford Campaign, 1782: Battle on the Sandusky’s | Emerging Revolutionary War Era

  2. Pingback: The Crawford Campaign, 1782: American Strategy in Ohio, 1781-1782 | Emerging Revolutionary War Era

  3. Pingback: The Crawford Campaign, 1782: Rout, Retreat, and Recovery | Emerging Revolutionary War Era

  4. Pingback: The Crawford Campaign, 1782: Captivity, Torture, and Execution | Emerging Revolutionary War Era

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s