The Crawford Campaign, 1782: Rout, Retreat, and Recovery

(part four of five)

As the night of June 5 gave way to a dark retreat on June 6, the militia struggled eastward, attempting to reimpose some order on their main body.  According to Rose, Crawford set out after one wayward company that had decided on a more circuitous route of retreat that separated it from the main body.  While he was gone, the Indians began firing into the militia camp in the dark.  At “that instant, every Body was pushing as if it had been a signal agreed for that purpose.”[i]

Rose fell in with a group of about fifty men, who pushed south back toward the abandoned Wyandot town on the Sandusky they had passed through just a few days earlier, seeking to avoid the Shawnee, and then rejoined Williamson with the main body of men as it returned the way the expedition had come.[ii]  In the rush, they lost track of Colonel Crawford.  They moved directly to the route east without much order, placing speed over the coherence of a fighting unit.  Williamson did manage to separate his best horsemen into a smaller group to contest any light horsemen they encountered on the Sandusky plain, but expected to find relative safety when they reached more heavily timbered areas.  On June 6, Rose had a close call.  Riding ahead while trying to keep the group from breaking up into smaller parties, mounted Indians charged him and his companions from a wooded area on the left.  Rose managed to make it back to the main body, which promptly counter-charged with the light horse Williamson had created.[iii] In the process, he lost contact with his two companions, Colonel William Harrison (Colonel Crawford’s son-in-law) and Mr. William Crawford, (Colonel Crawford’s nephew).[iv]

IMG_2448

The monument to the “Battle of the Olentangy.”  The battle was more of a skirmish, but marked the end of British pursuit of Williamson’s retreating force.  Native Americans continued to chase and harass the Americans.  (Author Photo)

Later that day, about 24 miles into their march, the militia paused to rest along Olentangy creek.  Their mounted pursuers promptly fired into the main body from behind and the militiamen detected a light screen moving into place ahead of them, the beginning of an encirclement.[v]  The militia started skirmishing while Rose rode to the rear, nearly through the Native Americans behind them, retrieved the rear body, which contained a substantial portion of the light horse, and sent them to clear the woods of enemy skirmishers in front.  The maneuver succeeded and the militia were able to enter the woods, losing three dead and eight wounded in the hour-long fight.  Despite anticipating a degree of relative safety there, pursuers continued to harass the flanks and the rear.  Simultaneously, the poorly organized militia lost still more cohesion as a fighting unit as the woods broke up formations and isolated men in small groups. To make matters worse, the skies opened up and a heavy downpour soaked everyone to the bone.[vi]

After a brief stop for the night, Rose and the main body set out again at dawn on the June 7, only to hear Indian yells behind them and find that a boy and two others baking bread for the march had been scalped.[vii]  As they marched east for the next three days, approaching the abandoned Moravian towns, the militiamen encountered occasional campfires, signs that more of the militia had escaped.  Along the way, groups of men making their way back to the Ohio drifted in and out of the main body.  By the June 10, a headcount revealed some 380 men left in the formation.[viii]  In truth, it was not a bad return from the 465 who had set out, considering that some men had turned back before the battle, the rapid collapse of cohesion during the sudden retreat on the night of the 5th, the fact that some men simply got lost on the way back or left the main group to make their way home separately.  (Indeed, Rose learned upon riding ahead to Mingo Bottom that nearly 50 men had preceded his arrival on the Ohio).   The main body arrived at Mingo Bottom, from which they had set out, on June 13.  When all was said and done, Rose estimated their total number of wounded, killed and missing men at somewhere between 40 and 50.[ix]

The American retreat initially surprised the British.  While the gunfire that panicked the Americans and set them to flight clearly indicated nearby scouts were alert to the militia’s intended withdrawal, it was slow to generate a response from the British and main Indian camps.  Awakened in the middle of the night, Elliott dispatched runners to the front to determine what was happening and to Lieutenant Turney to alert him to the commotion.[x]  Then, he decided to wait until dawn to investigate further.  The Indian agent believed the militia were trapped and that the Indian warriors needed a rest after two days of fighting.  After midnight, runners from Hopocan’s camp and the Shawnee to the south of Battle Island arrived in the ranger camp and informed Turney that it appeared the Americans were, in fact, withdrawing.  Turney blamed the Indian pickets watching the Americans for the belated intelligence.[xi]

As the lightening horizon indicated the approaching dawn, Turney mounted his rangers and began to give chase.  Mounted Indian warriors joined him, but the Americans were mounted as well and had a head start.   Indians and the rangers pursued Williamson’s main body to the Olentangy, but after the skirmish there, Turney turned back late in the afternoon of June 6.  On the way, they passed small groups of Indians moving eastward separately to harass the retreating militia and chase down stragglers.  The lieutenant later explained, “The enemy was mostly on horseback, some of the Indians who had horses followed and overtook them, killed a number, and it was owing to nothing but the country’s being very clear, that any of them escaped.”[xii]  When he heard about events, Caldwell was furious.  On June 9, he dressed down Turney for the American escape.  For his part, the lieutenant tried to shift blame to the Indian pickets watching the Americans.[xiii]  Nevertheless, the British believed they had won a solid victory as indeed they, or, more appropriately, their Indian allies had.  Their own losses were light.  Besides Caldwell’s wounding, Lieutenant Turney counted one ranger dead and two wounded.  Their translator, a Frenchman named LeVillier and four Indians were also killed, with another eight wounded; light losses considering two days of battle.

Turney counted one hundred and fifty Americans killed and wounded, dramatically overestimating the enemy’s losses as commanders throughout history have been wont to do.  Within a few days, Caldwell had inflated militia losses to two hundred and fifty.[xiv]  Meanwhile, rumors had run rampant around the frontier that George Rogers Clark might lead a raid from Kentucky against the Shawnee.  While small groups chased the Americans back to the Ohio, tribal leaders sought to keep the bulk of their forces and the British closer to home.  The rangers themselves moved north to Lower Sandusky, from where they could keep an eye on any force Clark dispatched into the Shawnee country.[xv]

[i]           Rose, Journal of a Volunteer, 152.

[ii]           Rose, Journal of a Volunteer, 152-153.

[iii]          Rose, Journal of a Volunteer, 153.

[iv]          Rose, Journal of a Volunteer, 153.

[v]           Rose, Journal of a Volunteer, 153.

[vi]          Rose, Journal of a Volunteer, 154; This brief skirmish is sometimes referred to as the Battle of Olentangy.  Butterfield, An Historical Account of the Expedition against Sandusky under Col. William Crawford in 1782, 233.

[vii]         Rose, Journal of a Volunteer, 154.

[viii]         Rose, Journal of a Volunteer, 155.

[ix]          Rose, Journal of a Volunteer, 156.

[x]           Fitzpatrick, Wilderness War on the Ohio, 481.

[xi]          Fitzpatrick, Wilderness War on the Ohio, 482.

[xii]         Quoted in Fitzpatrick, Wilderness War on the Ohio, 483.

[xiii]         Fitzpatrick, Wilderness War on the Ohio, 486-487.

[xiv]         “Captain William Caldwell, of the Rangers, to De Peyster, June 11, 1782,” in Washington-Irvine Correspondence, 371.

[xv]         “John Turney to Major A. S. De Peyster, Commanding at Detroit, June 7, 1782,” in Washington-Irvine Correspondence, 368; “Alex. McKee of the British Indian Department to De Peyster, June 7, 1782,” in Washington-Irvine Correspondence, 370.

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