Adair’s defeat, Kentucky National Guard’s first battle casualties

By John Trowbridge, Kentucky National Guard

Flags adorn the grave sites of the six Kentucky Guardsmen killed in action at the Battle of Fort St. Clair, now Eaton, Ohio in November, 1792. The militiamen under the command of Maj. John Adair were ambushed by Indians and are considered the first battle causalities of the Kentucky National Guard. (Kentucky national Guard photo by John Trowbridge)

On June 1, 1792, Kentucky was admitted as the 15th State of the Union.  With the possibility of Indian attack still a reality on the frontier, Governor Isaac Shelby established the Kentucky Militia June 20.  These first Kentucky Militiamen were soon in action protecting the commonwealth from the perceived Indian threat.  Many of those serving in the newly organized Kentucky Militia, had seen much service in Indian warfare as Virginia Militiamen.

Soon after Kentucky statehood Maj. John Adair and his command were called into service to escort provisions sent from Fort Washington (now Cincinnati, Ohio) to re-supply Fort Jefferson (now Greenville, Ohio).  In the early morning hours of Tuesday, Nov. 6, 1792 in the Ohio Territory of the American Western frontier, Adair, in command of approximately 100 Kentucky Militiamen was attacked in camp near Fort St. Clair (now Eaton, Ohio) by a large body of Native American Warriors led by the celebrated Little Turtle, war chief of the Miami tribe.  The onset of the fighting was furious, and the fire of the native warriors, for some time, could scarcely be withstood. The Kentuckians were retreating before the intense firing and numbers of the warriors, when Adair charged in person, with his sword and tomahawk, upon the thickest of the enemy.  The officers and men instantly followed their commander, with desperate enthusiasm, and the Indians in turn gave way.

After driving the enemy before them for half a mile, they returned to the battle ground. Adair, seated on a log, was reflecting on the conduct of Captain Bradley, who commanded the fort within sight of the battle, without sending troops his relief; when a lieutenant from the fort arrived and congratulated Adair with compliments on the charge.  Adair replied, with reproaches on the commander of the garrison: the young officer, bursting into tears, said, “if you knew me major, you would not blame me: I went on my knees, and begged him to let me take fifty men to your assistance; but he refused, and said it would be sending them to be murdered.”

In this attack, Adair’s command sustained a loss of 6 men killed, 5 wounded, 4 missing, their camp equipment and 140 pack horses.

The following reports tell the story of the first battle casualties of the Kentucky Militia, the predecessor of the Kentucky National Guard.

Congress of the United States.

Wednesday, December 19 [1792].

A letter was read from the Secretary of War, communicating, pursuant to orders from the President of the United States, dispatches from Brig. General Wilkinson, containing an account of a recent attack from a party of Western Indians, on an encampment of American troops under the command of Major Adair, near Fort St. Clair, in which they were repulsed; . . .

Indian Intelligence.

Extract of a letter from General Wilkinson, dated Fort Hamilton, November 6, 1792.

Dear Sir,

I have the pleasure to inform you that Major Adair has this day had a smart and honorable brush with a body of savages, supposed to be double his number, near to Fort St. Clair, and that after several turns of fortune and a sharp contest for two hours he finally kept his ground, though the enemy carried off the great body of his horses during the action.

I lament that Captain Hale is among the slain, but for the consolation of his friends, and of the friends of all who have fallen, they fell gloriously, and sleep in the bed of honor.—Madison [George Madison] is again wounded—If he continues his career, he will be a distinguished warrior.  Be pleased to inform his brother that his wound is slight.  Enclosed are the names of the killed and wounded.  Major Adair has done no more than I expected, that is, he has combined courage to conduct, and done honor to the state of Kentucky.

The enemy left two dead on the field, and were observed to carry off many.

Killed—Captain Hale, Mathew English, Isaac Jett, Joseph Clinton, John Williams, Robert Boaling.

Wounded—Captain Madison, Thomas Hickman, Aaron Adams, Luke Vooris, Richard Taylor.

Copy of a letter from Major John Adair, to Brigadier General Wilkinson, dated Fort St. Clair, November 6, 1792.

Sir,

This morning about the first appearance of day, the enemy attacked my camp, within sight of this post, the attack was sudden, and the enemy came on with a degree of courage that bespoke them warriors indeed, some of my men were hand in hand with them before we retreated, which however we did about eighty yards to a kind of stockade intended for stables; we there made a stand, I then ordered Lieut. Madison to take a party and gain their right flank if possible, I called for Lieut. Hail to send to the left; but found he had been slain; I then led forward the men who stood near me, which together with the Ensigns Buchanan [James Buchanan, Mercer Co., Ky.] and Flinn [James Flinn, Ohio Militia], amounted to about twenty-five, and pressed the left of their center thinking it absolutely necessary to assist Madison.  We made a manly push, and the enemy retreated, taking all our horses except five or six.  We drove them about six hundred yards through our camp, where they again made a stand, and we fought them some time, two of my men were here shot dead.

At that moment I received information that the enemy was about to flank us on the right, and on turning that way, I saw about sixty of them running to that point.  I had yet heard nothing of Madison.  I then ordered my men to retreat, which they did with deliberation, heartily cursing the Indians who pursued us close to our camp, where we again fought them until they gave way; and when they retreated our ammunition was nearly expended altho’ we had been supplied from the garrison in the course of the action.  I did not think proper to follow them again, but ordered my men into the garrison to draw ammunition.  I returned however, in a few minutes to a hill, to which we had first driven them, where I found two of my men scalped, who were brought in.—Since I began to write this, a few of the enemy appeared in sight, and I pursued them with a party about a quarter of a mile, but could not overtake them, and did not think proper to go farther.  Madison who I sent to the right, was on his first attack wounded, and obliged to retreat to the garrison, leaving a man or two dead.

To this misfortune I think the enemy are indebted for the horses they have got; had he gained their right flank, I once had possession of their left, and I think we should have routed them at that stage of the action, as we had them on the retreat.  I have six killed and five wounded; four men are missing.  I think they went off early in the action on horseback, and are, I suppose by this, at Fort Hamilton.  My officers and a number of men distinguished themselves greatly.  Poor Hail died calling to his men to advance.  Madison’s bravery and conduct need no comment—they are well known.  Flinn and Buchanan acted with a coolness and courage which does them much honor.  Buchanan, after firing his gun, knocked down an Indian with the barrel.  They have killed and taken a great number of the pack horses, I intend following them this evening some distance to ascertain their route and strength, if possible.  I can with propriety say, that about fifty of my men fought with a bravery equal to any men in the world, and had not the garrison been so nigh as a place of safety for the bashful, I think many more would have fought well.

The enemy have no doubt as many killed as myself; they left two dead on the ground, and saw two carried off.  They only advantage they have gained is our horses, which is a capital one, as it disables me from bringing the interview to a more serious and satisfactory decision.  I am sorry I cannot send you better news.

Three weeks following the action of Nov. 6, Adair and his command were discharged from the service and returned home to Kentucky.

John Adair and George Madison would continue to serve in the Kentucky Militia. During the War of 1812, Madison would be taken prisoner following the Battle of Frenchtown, in the Michigan Territory in January of 1813.  Adair would attain the rank of brigadier general and command Kentucky troops at the Battle of New Orleans, Jan. 8, 1815.  Both men would serve as Governor of Kentucky, Madison as the sixth (Sept. 5 to Oct. 14, 1816); and Adair the eighth (Aug. 29, 1820 to Aug. 24, 1824). Madison would be the first Kentucky Governor to die in office, due to complications from tuberculosis. After leaving office in 1824, Adair retired briefly from politics. In 1831, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, a position he held until 1833. Adair died May 19, 1840, They are both buried in the Frankfort Cemetery in Frankfort, Kentucky.

In 1970, the site of the fort and surrounding area were listed on the National Register of Historic Places.  Today, the site where Fort St. Clair stood and the battlefield are beautifully preserved and maintained by the City of Eaton Parks Department, the graves of Capt. Job Hale, Sgt. Matthew English, Pvt. Robert Bowling, Pvt. Joseph Clinton, Pvt. Isaac Jett and Pvt. John Williams, the first six casualties of the Kentucky Militia killed in action, lay buried in Fort St. Clair Cemetery near the battlefield where they made their ultimate sacrifice.