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President Washington’s Calculated Risk
To secure the old Northwest he waged our first cold war, which came to a climax in the Battle of Fallen Timbers
June 1958 | Volume 9, Issue 4
As an accompaniment to all this, from the camp of the enemy reverberated a clap of thunder more threatening than any of the distractions in our own ranks. Lord Dorchester, governor general of Canada, announced in a formal address to the Indians that England stood ready to help them maintain the Ohio boundary and, if it proved necessary, to help them eject the American settlers who had crossed it. To lend weight to his words, an English column from Detroit marched into the heart of the Indian country and built Fort Miami on the Maumee River, near presentday Toledo. This was an aggressive invasion of American territory. It was an act of war.
Midsummer found Wayne confronted by a perilous military situation. The Pennsylvania insurrection had cut off supplies and reinforcements from the East. He faced an Indian army that had in the wilderness terrain, where the campaign must be waged, repeatedly demonstrated its invincibility. And even were he to succeed in overcoming that Indian army there stood behind it an English army. War with England was no longer a risk involved in an Indian war. It was a near certainty made clear by England’s official spokesman in North America. However, Washington was never so resolute as when every prospect was darkest. He calmly considered all these dangers, together with the greater dangers of delay, and ordered Wayne to march.
Wayne had no personal doubts about his ability to beat the Indians. His formula for success was simple. He had trained his soldiers until it was second nature for them to wait for commands and to obey commands. Obeying commands, they could never be confused by surprise, always the most effective Indian tactic. And, obeying commands, they would charge and charge and keep on charging until the Indian battle line was broken.
This time Little Turtle, again in command of the Indian forces, did not come out to meet his adversary. For two years he had been observing the new American commander and had decided he was dealing with a foe of a different mettle than Harmar or St. Clair. Moreover, it was Indian policy to make sure that this time England would have to become involved. Little Turtle, therefore, selected a position in a belt of forest where a tornado had felled a tangle of trees two miles wide. The position had the advantage of providing ideal cover for Indian field tactics and the greater advantage of its proximity to Fort Miami. With the battle fought literally in the presence of English troops there seemed no possibility that they might not at some stage be obliged to take an active part in it.
Wayne marched slowly and inexorably northward. He was not dismayed by the defensive strength of the Indian position. He was content that everything should be in their favor so that their defeat would make the greater impression upon them. The battle proceeded exactly as he had so long planned. The Legion, without firing a preliminary shot, charged with the bayonet into the maze of fallen timbers in which the Indians were ensconced and pressed the charge so remorselessly that the Indians’ will to fight was broken along with their battle line.
But the greater test was still to come. With the Legion in hot pursuit the Indians fled to the protection of their English patrons in the fort. The gates of the fort swung closed against them. Everyone, white or red, who saw those closing gates realized the significance. The great English bluff had been called. It had become clear in that single instant, as illuminating as a flash of lightning, that England, too, had been waging a cold war but that England’s purpose had not been so firm as Washington’s and Wayne’s.
Wayne had no need to assault the English fort in order to make the American victory crushing and final. At his ease, he ravaged the Indian towns and cornfields under the eyes of the English garrison and right up to the walls of the fort. Then he withdrew, leaving the Indians permanently disillusioned with their erstwhile English allies and permanently convinced that henceforth their homeland was under the sovereignty of the United States.
Few American battles have been as decisive as Fallen Timbers. It released a deluge of blessings on the young nation. For the first time, the western settlers were stirred by a thrill of pride in their country, and their loyalty to it never wavered again. The Indians, north and south, submitted to the authority of the United States and never thereafter was there an Indian war of strategic significance. England evacuated the Lakes posts and our northwestern border became what it is today. Later Spain opened the Mississippi and with that paved the way for the Louisiana Purchase, for the explorations of Lewis and Clark, and for the sudden westward surge of our frontier.
All in all we have ample reason to remember our first cold war and the way it was won.